There is a fair amount of ignorance about Taiwan in the United States in general, caused for various reasons. On a few occasions, I have had to point out that Taiwan and Thailand were quite seperate countries. I have had to explain many times that going to Taiwan to study Chinese was not a stupid idea, because Taiwan actually is part of China. And then, on just as many occasions, I have had to explain that Taiwan is in fact, not part of China at all. The ethnic composition and history of Taiwan is quite complicated, but there is four main ethnic groups on the island, although that depends greatly on who you are asking for a definition of "ethnic group".
Three of the ethnic groups on Taiwan are all varieties of Han, that is, ethnically Chinese people, although they do not speak mutually intelligible languages. The fourth is the aboriginal people.
The groups are:
- The Austronesian inhabitants, who have lived on the island for at least several thousand years. The Yuanminzhu, as they are known in Chinese, compromise a small amount of Taiwan's current population, and live mostly on the sparsely populated East Coast. Like many other aboriginal groups around the world, they are discriminated against and face many problems in the dominant society.
- The Hakka, or Kejia, are a somewhat mysterious group of Han people. Their name means "guest people", and for a long time it was supposed they were not actually Han. There origins are lost in antiquity, but over time they migrated out of China's northwest corner and settled in scattered communities in the southeastern part of China, and eventually, starting perhaps as far back as the Tang, migrated across the strait onto the island.
- The Fuzhou, whose language is sometimes called Min, are the people who speak "Taiwanese", and who will identify themselves as ethnically Taiwanese. While there was probably scattered settlement on Taiwan for quite a while, the majority of these people who settled on Taiwan did so in the 1600s, first, under the rule of the Dutch, and later under the Ming loyalist government of Zheng Cheng Gong. Although settlement on Taiwan was discouraged under the Qing Dynasty, a steady stream of refugees would come into the island for the next few hundred years. These people are also related to other migrant Chinese people who settled Southeast Asia, such as the Chinese community in the Phillipines.
- The Mainlanders are the Nationalist Chinese and their followers who fled to Taiwan after losing in the civil war. They mostly spoke Standard Chinese, and were traditionally much closer to the mainstream of Chinese culture and politics than the other people of Taiwan. They tended to monopolize the government, the army, and large corporations. This caused a great deal of tension between them and the native Taiwanese people, a tension that fuels most of todays political struggles.
- Not to be forgotten, there are a great many other foreigners who are staying in Taiwan for various amounts of time. These include a great deal of Southeast Asians brought in to do manual labor, and many North Americans teaching English or studying.
While the ethnic differences in Taiwan are not anywhere near as contentious as in other parts of the world, the ethnic clash between the Taiwanese and the Mainlanders is quite real, despite the fact that in so many aspects (written language, food, customs, family structure, mores, religion, and the like) they share a common culture. Hopefully this ethnic mix will continue to be productive and not turn to any form of violence or oppression.