In 1949, Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army drove Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists (Kuomintang or KMT) out of mainland China after nearly five years of civil war. The Kuomintang members fled the mainland and transferred the seat of government in the island of Taiwan. Although repressive at first, Chiang Kai-shek’s government turned Taiwan’s devastation around and transformed it into an economic powerhouse in Asia. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time period.
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Taiwan’s Early Inhabitants and the Island as a Dutch Colony
Austronesian aborigines were the first known inhabitants of the island of Taiwan. They remained isolated from mainland China for thousands of years, but this isolation was occasionally breached by a few Chinese merchants who braved the dangerous waters of the strait, evaded pirates, and defied the Ming sea ban to trade with aborigines. Portuguese sailors en route to Japan were the first to sight the island of Taiwan in 1542, naming it “Ilha Formosa” (“Beautiful Island”). Despite its beauty, the Portuguese did not find the island attractive and did not make attempts to colonize it.
The Ming and Qing Dynasties
It was the Dutch who colonized the Pescadores and Formosa during the early 1600s. They were driven out by the Ming rebel leader Koxinga who then ruled Formosa until it was completely folded into the Manchu domain as part of Fujian. For many years, the Qing rulers ignored this island as it was considered an insignificant outpost. Han Chinese, however, started to cross the Taiwan Strait and settle in the island. As Han migrants slowly trickled in, the aborigines were forced to retreat to the mountainous areas of the southwest.
The Japanese Occupation
The perception that Taiwan is a distant and unimportant territory would change during the late 19th century when the island (along with Penghu) was ceded to Japan during the aftermath of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Japan occupied Taiwan in 1895 and ruthlessly tamped down on any resistance by the Han Chinese.
Under Japan, Taiwan was spared from the upheavals that engulfed mainland China. It soon became industrialized, prosperous, and self-sufficient during Japan’s 50-year occupation. Ordinary Taiwanese benefited from the development of the territory, but there was no doubt as to who ruled the island. Taiwanese were often treated as second-class citizens, while Japanese migrants received most of the benefits. Universities were non-existent, and workers were limited to agriculture and industries. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Taiwan was largely spared from the devastation that the mainland suffered. Japanese troops and officials evacuated the island in 1945 and were soon replaced by Nationalist forces.
The Republic of China
Nationalist leaders, however, treated the Taiwanese as Japanese collaborators and soon became repressive. Taiwan’s economy collapsed, and the crisis was soon followed by widespread protests. The Nationalists responded with violence, killing thousands of Taiwanese in 1947. This repression only fueled anti-mainland Chinese sentiment in Taiwan.
Post-World War II China was racked with a civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists (KMT) and Mao Zedong’s Communists (CCP). Although the KMT had the better army and possessed modern arsenal, the Communists were able to capitalize on the people’s alienation from and resentment of the KMT to defeat them. By 1948, key cities north of the Yangtze were in the hands of the Communists. After realizing that he and his party had lost popular support, Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters left the mainland and fled to Taiwan in 1949. He transferred the Republic of China’s seat of government from Nanjing to Taipei and imposed a military dictatorship over the island.
This, however, was only the start of the 20th-century success story that is Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek was able to do in Taiwan what he could only dream of in mainland China. He invited liberal Chinese supporters from the mainland to work in the KMT government in the island. With American support, the Kuomintang revitalized industries and slowly resurrected the economy during the 1950s and 1960s. Chiang also supported the improvement of higher education, and it was not long before Taiwanese students were flocking to the United States to seek postgraduate degrees. Many of them came back to Taiwan to work and contribute to the economy.
As the world slid into the Cold War and China became increasingly hostile to the United States, the American government decided to transfer military aid and development assistance to Taiwan. American missionaries also pulled out of the mainland and established missions, hospitals, and schools in Taiwan. The United Nations also recognized the government in Taiwan as the legitimate representative of China, rather than the one led by Mao in the mainland.
By the 1960s, Taiwan had established a reputation as an economic powerhouse. The country became the home of American and Japanese electronic manufacturing facilities. Steelmaking and petrochemical facilities appeared in the 1970s. These industries were quickly followed by automobile production and computer hardware facilities in the 1980s.
Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975 and was succeeded by his son Chiang Ching-kuo as president of Taiwan and head of the KMT. Under Chiang Ching-kuo, Taiwan inched toward political liberalization. He also abolished the martial law his father imposed on the island when the Nationalists first arrived. During his presidency, Taiwanese were allowed to travel to the mainland for the first time since the Japanese occupation and the Chinese Civil War.
Picture by: Unknown – Fu Runhua, Zhongguo Dangdai Mingren Zhuan, Shijie Wenhua Fuwu She, 1948, p.1., Public Domain, Link
Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. Cambridge (Mass.): The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994.
Roberts, J.A.G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Wright, David C. The History of China. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
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