PEOPLE OF TAIWAN: CHARACTER, CUSTOMS AND NATIVE TAIWANESE VERSUS MAINLANDERS

PEOPLE OF TAIWAN

People from Taiwan are called Taiwanese. About 75 percent of all Taiwanese live in urban areas (compared to 76 percent in the United States) and most of these urban areas are in the northern and western parts of the country. The population density of Taiwan is very high and what makes this especially remarkable is that most of Taiwan is covered by mountains.

Around 85 percent of all Taiwanese are descendants of Chinese who came to the island from the Fujian province—160 kilometers across the Taiwan Straits—and to a lesser extent Guangdong Province in southeast China, between 1600 and 1949. Only about 14 percent are descendants of Kuomintang soldiers, nationalists and other Chinese who fled from mainland China after the Communist Revolution ended in 1949. There are about 500,000 indigenous people. They live mostly in the mountainous regions of the country.

In Taiwan, the term Taiwanese is usually reserved for people who lived on the island before 1949. Those who arrived after the communist occupation of Taiwan are referred to as mainlanders or nationalists. Two million mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan after Mao came to power in 1949. These people originated from all parts of China.

Because the different ethnic groups have fairly well integrated, differences that originally existed between people from different provinces have gradually disappeared. Nearly 500,000 indigenous people, the original inhabitants of Taiwan, still live here. Making up about 2.2 percent of the population, they are divided into 14 different tribes, namely Amis, Atayal, Paiwan, Bunun, Puyuma, Rukai, Tsou, Saisiyat, Yami, Thao, Kavalan, Truku, Sakizaya, and Sediq. [Source: Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan) ~]

See Separate Article on Minorities in Taiwan

Taiwanese Character and Personality

A study on Taiwanese character by Liao, Li Wei (2008) concluded that Taiwanese people are utilitarian, superstitious, and like fighting, struggling and conflicts. It also found Taiwanese are down-to-earth (practical, pragmatic, realistic) and seek instant benefits and success but are willing to strive for a better future.

According to safaritheglobe.com: “Behaviorally, the Taiwanese people are very proud people and insulting them or putting a person down in anyway can be very offensive as the person will feel "shamed." In much the same way, the Taiwanese will rarely give you critical advice or insult you in fear of "shaming" you. This is especially true in business. Turning down a business offer in the wrong way may, unknowingly be an insult and could force your contact to feel so shamed that he will actually quit his job; if all hope is lost on a deal, allow your Taiwanese counterpart to gracefully exit the situation so he can save "face." However, some locals will stand up in defense of an insult, even if unintentional. In these cases the person feeling insulted may stand up for his honor and shout back at the other. Fortunately, this is only common among locals arguing with each other. [Source: safaritheglobe.com =/=]

“Each Taiwanese identifies differently; in some cases it is based on politics. Ethnic minorities identify by their ethnicity, but the majority of the people in Taiwan are ethnic Han Chinese. These people primarily identify as "Chinese," "Taiwanese," or both. Those who only identify as only Chinese or Taiwanese are essentially making a political statement in their personal beliefs of rejoining mainland China politically or strongly identifying as a separate political identity. Most people in Taiwan identify as both; recognizing their ethnicity, while also pledging themselves to the Taiwanese island and government; these people generally understand the relationship between themselves, their culture, their food, their history, and the politics between Taiwan and mainland China. =/=

Some headlines and quotes reflecting Taiwanese character and morality issues: “Taiwanese laugh at the poor, instead of prostitutes ... that's Taiwan's social value” (China Times, October 30, 2010); “The social value gives kids wrong concept, ... education should let kids know .... Money is not everything” (Liberty Times, October 30, 2010); “Scholars' view : Taiwan's society -- Too irrational and too emotional!" (United Daily News, September 3, 2009); Taiwanese personality includes "Short of backbones", and "can not know rightness from wrong" (Liberty Times, the best most selling newspaper in Taiwan).

Taiwanese Character Versus Mainland Chinese Character

Taiwanese are regarded as more direct and less xenophobic than mainland Chinese. One Taiwanese businessman told Reuters, "When Taiwan people talk, maybe they get their point across in one sitting. But [in China], it takes two or three meetings.

When asked about the difference between Taiwanese and Hong Kong society, the influential Hong Kong newspaper editor Jimmy Lai told Newsweek, “I think Taiwanese society is more personal. People really value relationships a lot more than [in] Hong Kong....Even in the work place, even in business. If you have somebody in Taiwan that you’d like to hire, it doesn’t matter what kind of deal you offer him. [he will decided on the basis of your relationship.] But in Hong Kong, people don’t see it this way. It all depends on what terms you offer.”

Taiwanese Culture

According to safaritheglobe.com: “Taiwan's culture today is heavily based on Chinese culture as many of the people are ethnic Chinese. However, in more recent times, as the communists took power in mainland China, the Taiwanese were taken over by the Chinese Nationalists, creating a culture that is similar to today's China, but the vast political differences have given Taiwan today a very different culture. [Source: safaritheglobe.com =/=]

“Taiwanese culture began with the local people who have lived on the island for thousands of years. These people lived off the land and the seas, but their culture has been nearly destroyed by the later arriving Chinese. In the mid-1600s the collapsing Ming Dynasty leadership arrived to Taiwan and clung to their past as they brought with them their great, but slowly dying culture. This brought architecture, art, pottery, and a blossoming of the sciences. Since the dynasty was on verge of collapse though the cultural significance and sustainability of these introductions were limited. What it did do though was encourage larger immigration to the island from China, again altering the culture to match historic Chinese culture. =/=

“Numerous aspects of Chinese culture were brought to Taiwan as education and the sciences grew, Chinese foods, languages, philosophies, and dress were introduced as was the Chinese mentality. The people and culture became a well-disciplined society who honored respect and humility. Another important aspect of Chinese culture that was brought to Taiwan was their need to "save face," something that again came from honor and respect for others. =/=

“After the communists came to power in mainland China, the fleeing Nationalist government made their way to Taiwan. The people accepted this government, but again the greatest effect was that many people immigrated with the government, leading to another wave of Chinese immigration and a further solidification of Chinese culture in Taiwan. As mainland China became a communist country, Taiwan became a democracy on paper, although in reality their government was quite authoritarian. Like the people in mainland China, the Taiwanese accepted their government without question as their mental state of respect prevented the questioning of the government. =/=

“Life in Taiwan took on a different path than that in China; religion was still allowed and men meeting in temples to play games and gamble continued to be a common occurrence. Family continues to be the center of personal lives and couples are allowed to have more than one child as food is still the center of family and other social events as eating always seems to be on the mind of locals. Despite delays in receiving many of the world's modern technological achievements, Taiwan today not only has most modern technology, but is also a huge center for foreign investment, meaning they make much of this technology. This has changed the culture as cars and public transportation are common and easily available as the people are more urbanized and living in houses or high rise apartment buildings. Cell phones and the internet, along with games are becoming a more substantial part of the culture annually as socialization is shifting from family-centric to friend-centric, but not ever abandoning the family itself. =/=

Politics and Taiwanese Character

Taiwanese have a distrust of authority and an irreverent streak that may date back to the martial law era under Chiang Kai-shek. One Taiwanese diplomat told the New York Times, “In Taiwan, a guy who’s caught drunk driving will refuse the breath test and curse the policeman to the third generation. Everyone in Taiwan thinks he’s special and smart—why should he observe the rules? He knows the police won’t strike him or arrest him.”

Jimmy Lai told Newsweek, “A lot of people told me Taiwanese...are very politically-oriented. They like to read political commentary. Anything about politics and politicians. This is absolutely not true. In our focus groups, the readers tell us that they only like to read about politics or politicians when there’s a scandal or a love affair or some funny gaffe.”

According to the Liberty Times: Taiwanese personality has been seriously been distorted after experiencing 50 years' of coercion and enslavement education at the hand of the Kuomintang (the KMT, Taiwan’s largest political party). The article also said: 1) Taiwanese have no back-bones and no longer prefer death to humiliation; 2) Taiwanese would rather accept being raped or being brainwashed for small benefits; 3) Taiwanese don't make clear distinction between right and wrong; 4) Taiwanese lack self-confidence; 5) they are weak and have a sense of inferiority; and 6) a good part of Taiwanese character includes simple , moderate, compliant behavior. [Source: Liberty Times, December 10, 2005]

In his book "100 Big Events in Taiwan's History", S.F. Lee wrote the "228" massacre of hundreds of people in 1947 event resulted in: 1) the Taiwanese personality being seriously distorted; 2) made Taiwanese, after decades of colonial governance, feel even more inferior than before as they made every efforts to obey their rulers out of self-preservation; and 3) and made Taiwanese fearful of and disappointed of politics. In his paper "The Exploration and Analysis of Taiwanese Personality", C.J. Hsu of the National Normal University in ChangHwa concluded the “Taiwanese personality most likely is utilitarian and traditional,” believing in “utility value, useful function.”

Ugly Side of Taiwanese

According to the “Ugly Side of Taiwanese” by G. Lee: Taiwanese have the consciousness of an orphan, meaning the Taiwanese were conscious of being an orphan since China abandoned this island after losing a battle to Japan at 1894. The Taiwanese prefer to be an orphan, and prefer to be under control (being indifferent to justice), and have no conscience to distinguish rightness from wrong. [Source:“Ugly Side of Taiwanese,” G. Lee, published in 1988 & 1993]

The book also says: 1) Taiwanese feel inferior, lowly, humble .... with guilty conscience (they are used to swallowing insults and admit their 'guilt'); 2) The Taiwanese resign themselves to their fate, and are willing to be in inferior ranking status (secondary or subordinate to superior & dominant ones ) under transparent ceiling; 3) Too many Taiwanese traitors betrayed and sold their own country people/folks - or even frame and bring a false charge against innocent Taiwanese for their own benefits and better tomorrow.

4) Taiwanese believe "money talks", and treat religion as trading or bribery, nothing to do with soul, spirits; 5) Taiwanese are indoor people not outdoor people; 5) Taiwanese are very cautious and bend to the will of controlling people but are very haughty (or even bullyish) to other people so as to balance the controller's insults/humiliation to him; 6) they struggle for personal benefit, without broad vision; 7) Indifferent to public issues; 8) Lousy business morals.

Taiwanese Performance in Personality and Happiness Surveys

In the Bradley University survey " Who's No. 1 in Self-Esteem?"—an international self-esteem survey reported in September 2005—Japan finished last, the U.S. (score 32.21 ) was in sixth place and Taiwan (score 28.77 ) was almost last. The results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and the scores were based on anonymous surveys given to nearly 17,000 people in 53 nations. The 10 lowest-ranked nations were: South Korea, Switzerland, Morocco, Slovakia, Fiji, Taiwan, Czech Republic, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Japan.

A Gallup survey found that a third of Taiwanese want to immigrate abroad while only 13 percent of Japanese want to do so. In the University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, "national honor" survey Taiwan ranked 29th out of world's 34 countries [Source: Apple Daily News, November 11, 2010]

Taiwanese people are the ninth most honest hotel guests in the world, according to an industry survey (Among 28 countries and the region of Hong Kong ) by Hotels.com released in 2013. Denmark topped the list, followed by the Netherlands and Norway, China and USA are the 6th from the last in the survey. [Source: Apple Daily, mid April, 2013]

According to a Reader's Digest "honesty test" in 2006—in which 30 mid-priced mobile phones were left in cities in 35 countries to see if the person who picked up the phone tried to call the owner—Chinese society were not too honest. Taipei and Singapore, both ranked 25th. Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur ranked the last - 35th. [Source: Reader's Digest , July 25, 200

7According to the World Values Survey of the world's most and least racially tolerant countries, the percentage of Taiwanese that do not want a neighbor of a different race is between 5 percent and 9.9 percent. Taiwan obtains quite high score. ( an astonishingly high 71.8 percent of Hong Kongers ) [Source: Washington Post, May 15, 2013]

Fujians and Cantonese

Around 85 percent of all Taiwanese are descendants of Chinese who came to the island from the Fujian province—160 kilometers across the Taiwan Straits—and to a lesser extent Guangdong Province in southeast China, between 1600 and 1949. Most Taiwanese speak a variation of the Amoy (Hokkien) dialect for southern Fujian province on the mainland.

The people from Fujian are regarded as hard working and are famous for their entrepreneurial and counterfeiting skills. Many of the Chinese in Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the United States are decedents of people that emigrated from Fujian Province. Fujians have traditionally been among the most ambitious go-getters form China.

Many of the rich Chinese that made their fortune in the Hong Kong, United States and Southeast Asia have been Fujians. Many of the illegal Chinese immigrants to the United States and abroad today are Fujians that pay tens of thousands of dollars to snakehead to reach their new homes. Enterprising Fujians are still breaking new ground, in Africa and other places. One Fujian native, Yang Jie, arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi in the mid 1990s. By the mid 2000s he owned and operated the largest ice cream company in Malawi.

People from Fujian Province speak the Fuzhou dialect and are called Fujians, Fujianese or Fukinese. In the 1990s only about 10 percent of the province's 35 million people had completed high school. Fujian is one of China's richest provinces and the region has been a center of development in China.. It is rich in minerals and full farms and fisheries. Taiwanese have invested $10 billion in the Fujian province. Fujian is also one of China’s smaller provinces. It covers 123,100 square kilometers. The lush mountains of coastal Fujian are famous for oolong tea.

Today, Cantonese—people from Guangzhou (Canton), the largest city in Guangdong Province— are regarded as very materialistic One Chinese man told The New Yorker, “All people think is, “I just what to get rich.” The richer you get, the more respect you’ll get. And the first people to get rich in the 1990s, were the Cantonese. Then people in other provinces started to copy the Cantonese life style, part of which is to eat a lot of seafood to show how much money you have.”

Guangdong is a manufacturing powerhouse that produces roughly one third of China’s exports and is home to several Special Economic Zone manufacturing hubs like Shenzhen. When the Deng Xiaoping reforms began opening up the Chinese economy in 1980, investors flocked to Guangdong because of its proximity to Hong Kong, perks offered by Beijing and the presence of provincial government proud of its independence from Beijing. Guangdong is home to around 90 million permanent residents plus between 50 million and 100 million migrants from other provinces who have come to Guangdong to work. The province is also densely populated. In some places hundreds of houses are squeezed into a few acres of land where there are no streets, no yards, no trees; nothing except for houses. Guangdong covers 180,000 square kilometers and embraces 3,368 miles of coastline on the South China Sea. It has been a major trading center and gateway to the outside world since the 16th century.

First Chinese in Taiwan

The first Chinese to arrive in Taiwan perhaps migrated to the island in the A.D. 6th century. Mainland Chinese began to trade with the aborigines around the fourteenth century. Substantial numbers of Chinese migrants did not arrive until after the arrival in Taiwan in of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Large scale migration from the mainland did not begin until the 17th century, when political and economic chaos at the end of the end of Ming dynasty and the Manchu invasion drove many people out of southern China. Most of the migrants came from the nearby coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.

According to Lonely Planet: Contact between China and Taiwan was erratic until the early 1400s, when boatloads of immigrants from China’s Fujian province, disillusioned with the political instability in their homeland, began arriving on Taiwan’s shores. When the new immigrants arrived, they encountered two groups of aboriginals: one who made their homes on the fertile plains of central and southwestern Taiwan and the other, seminomadic, lived along the Central Mountain Range. [Source: Lonely Planet ++]

Over the next century, immigration from Fujian increased, these settlers being joined by the Hakka, another ethnic group leaving the mainland in great numbers. By the early 1500s there were three categories of people on the island: Hakka, Fujianese and the aboriginal tribes. Today, Taiwan’s population is mainly descended from these early Chinese immigrants, though centuries of intermarriage makes it likely a fair number of Taiwanese have some aboriginal blood as well. ++

Fujians Arrive in Large Numbers in Taiwan Under Qing Control

In 1683, the Manchus captured Taiwan, which was incorporated into the mainland and administered as a frontier prefecture of the Fujian province until 1886 when it was declared a separate Chinese province. According to Lonely Planet: Having ‘retaken’ Taiwan, the Qing court’s attitude towards Taiwan was about as lax as the Ming’s before them, and Taiwan was again mostly ignored by China, save the boatloads of Chinese immigrants yearning for space to spread out. [Source: Lonely Planet ++]

During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a steady migration of people from the southern coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong to Taiwan. Eventually they outnumbered aboriginal natives. The descendants of the Chinese immigrants—not the true aboriginal natives—are known as "native Taiwanese" today.

As Taiwan opened to foreign trade, European and American treaty port officials, merchants, and missionaries arrived in significant numbers. Economic and social transformation was accompanied by population growth and urbanization and, in 1885, Taiwan was raised to provincial status. According to Lonely Planet: “Europeans were not blind to Taiwan’s advantageous position, and the ‘beautiful island’ was quite well known among traders both for its strategic location and hazardous coastline. (The latter factor would eventually play a part in the Qing court’s surrender of Taiwan to Japan.) After the second Opium War ended, Taiwan was opened to trade with the West in Keelung and Suao. The southern ports of Kaohsiung and Tainan were also opened. Foreign trade increased rapidly, with Taiwan’s main exports being camphor, rice, tea and opium. [Source: Library of Congress, +++]

Native Taiwanese Versus Mainlanders

Beginning in 1683, there was a steady migration of people from southern coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong to Taiwan. The greatest numbers came in the 18 and 19th century. These people are now called "native Taiwanese" even though are culturally and linguistically have much more in common with recent Chinese immigrants than they do with the true aboriginal natives that lived on Taiwan when the Chinese arrived.

Many mainlanders initially didn't buy houses in Taiwan because they thought they would soon return to the mainland. Discrimination in government and academic circles has caused many mainlanders to emigrate from Taiwan.

The 2-28 incident—the brutal slaughter in 1947 of between 10,000 and 28,000 mostly native Taiwanese by nationalist troops—still causes resentment of "native Taiwanese" toward "mainlanders." The native Taiwanese also feel they are innocent victims of the hostility between China and the Kuomintang, something which they had nothing to do with. Native Taiwanese tend to be more pro-independence and less interested in political issues that involve reunification than mainlanders.

Under Chiang Kai-shek, who died in 1975, mainlanders were generally favored over native Taiwanese for government positions. Taiwanese were taught revere their Chinese-ness. Tribal people were considered backward. The local Min-nan dialect was virtually banned. After native Taiwanese Lee Teng-hui became president in 1988, the situation was reversed: native Taiwanese were given preferential treatment.

Friction between native Taiwanese and mainlanders largely subsided in the years after martial law was ended in 1987 as both groups realized they were in the same boat. In a poll in 2000, 45 percent of Taiwanese said they consider themselves Taiwanese and only 14 percent consider themselves Chinese.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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