Geography and Demographics
- Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Date: 2014/3/17
Off the eastern and southeastern coasts of the Asian continent lies a chain of island groups stretching from Russia’s Sakhalin Island in the north to Indonesia’s myriad islands in the south. Situated near the chain’s midpoint, between Japan and the Philippines, is the island of Taiwan. (In this chapter, the name Taiwan refers to Taiwan proper.)
Measuring about 400 kilometers from north to south and around 145 kilometers from east to west at its widest, Taiwan composes about 99 percent of the territory now under the Republic of China government’s jurisdiction. It is blessed with a wide range of landforms and contrasting climatic zones.
Mountains and Hills
Mountains occupy about half of Taiwan. The longitudinal East Rift Valley 花東縱谷 separates the high-reaching Central Mountains 中央山脈 from the lower East Coast Mountains 東部海岸山脈 along the central eastern coast. In addition, at the northernmost extremity of Taiwan lie the Datun Mountains 大屯山脈. They form the northern wall of the Taipei Basin 臺北盆地, where Taipei City 臺北市, the nation’s capital, is located.
Mostly forested, the four major mountain ranges in the island’s central region include more than 200 peaks rising higher than 3,000 meters above sea level, making for some of Taiwan’s most dramatic scenery. The eastern flanks of these four ranges are relatively precipitous, with the easternmost among them—the Central Mountains 中央山脈—bordered by relatively small coastal lowlands. Inland from the Central Mountains are the Jade Mountains (Yushan Mountains) 玉山山脈, home to the highest peak in Taiwan—and in Northeast Asia east of the Himalayas—at 3,952 meters. Meanwhile, the westernmost mountain ranges—the Xue Mountains 雪山山脈 and Alishan Mountains 阿里山山脈—gradually level out into extensive hilly regions, tablelands and plains.
Seismic Activity and Geothermal Features
Seismic activity is common in Taiwan as the consequence of ongoing convergence of the Philippine Sea plate and Eurasian plate. The collision of these plates that eons ago gave birth to the island of Taiwan also produced a variety of distinctive features. In addition to the Datun volcano group, outcrops of basaltic and other types of solidified lava are found across the island, where lava welled up through fissures in the bedrock.And aside from conventional hot springs, geothermal phenomena associated with the island’s geological history include mini mud volcanoes and muddy hot springs.
Tablelands, Coastal Plains and Basins
At the foot of western Taiwan’s belt of hills are tablelands ranging in elevation between 100 and 500 meters above sea level. The most extensive of them is the Taoyuan Terrace 桃園臺地 in northwestern Taiwan. Others, in order from north to south, include the Houli 后里 and Dadu 大肚 terraces in Taichung City 臺中市, Bagua Terrace 八卦臺地 in Changhua County 彰化縣, and the Hengchun Terrace 恆春臺地 in Pingtung County 屏東縣.
At a lower altitude lie alluvial plains. They make up most of the 23 percent of Taiwan that is both level and arable. The Jianan Plain 嘉南平原 in southwestern Taiwan, extending from Yunlin County 雲林縣 in the north to Kaohsiung City 高雄市 in the south, accounts for 7 percent of Taiwan’s total land area. Next largest are the Pingtung Plain 屏東平原 in the south and the Yilan Plain 宜蘭平原 in the northeast. Also containing level, arable land are the Taipei Basin and the Taichung Basin 臺中盆地.
Thick afternoon fog rolls into the valleys of Hehuan Mountain before enshrouding the peaks. (Courtesy of the Tourism Bureau)
Rivers, Lakes and Reservoirs
Fed mostly by runoff from the island’s centrally located mountains and hills, virtually all of Taiwan’s 150 or so rivers and streams flow either eastward or westward. The westward-flowing Zhuoshui River 濁水溪 in central Taiwan is the longest, at 187 kilometers, while the Gaoping River 高屏溪 in the south has the largest watershed, with an area of 3,257 square kilometers.
Taiwan has relatively few natural lakes. The largest and deepest is Sun Moon Lake 日月潭 in Nantou County 南投縣, with a surface area of about 8 square kilometers and a depth of 27 meters. The island also has a few artificial lakes that are larger in area than Sun Moon Lake. The two largest are Zengwen Reservoir 曾文水庫 and Feitsui Reservoir 翡翠水庫, with surface areas of 17.80 and 10.20 square kilometers, respectively, at full storage level.
Taiwan has a relatively long summer and a short, mild winter. The island, which is crossed by the Tropic of Cancer at the latitude of Chiayi City 嘉義市, boasts a variety of contrasting climate zones. On the whole, its northern and central regions are subtropical, its south is tropical, and its mountainous regions are temperate.
Taiwan’s mean temperature in a typical year ranges from about 18 degrees Celsius in winter to 28 degrees Celsius in summer. Low temperatures can drop below 10 degrees Celsius in winter, and high temperatures can rise over 35 degrees Celsius in summer.
The island’s average annual rainfall is approximately 2,600 millimeters. Northern Taiwan generally receives 60 percent of its total annual precipitation between May and September. Southern Taiwan, meanwhile, receives over 90 percent of its precipitation over the same period, and its driest time stretches from November through February.
The winter and summer East Asian monsoon systems influence Taiwan’s seasons. The winter monsoon prevails from September through March, with predominantly northeasterly winds (blowing toward the southwest) bringing moderate and stable rainfall to the east and north of the island. The central and southern parts of western Taiwan, on the other hand, experience mostly sunny weather with limited rainfall in autumn and winter.
The onset of the East Asian summer monsoon is concurrent with Taiwan’s rainy season, popularly known as the plum rain 梅雨 season, in May and June. During this time, southwestern Taiwan is especially vulnerable to heavy rainfall, and afternoon thunderstorms and tropical disturbances are common.
Typhoons are most frequent in July, August and September. Taiwan experiences three to four typhoons per year on average. Some of them have caused severe damage; extreme cases of torrential and sustained rainfall may cause flooding, mudflows and landslides, and significant loss of life and property. Nevertheless, the precipitation that accompanies typhoons is vital to the island’s water resources.
Comprising 64 volcanic-origin islands and constituting Penghu County 澎湖縣, the 127-square-kilometer Penghu Islands 澎湖群島 lie in the Taiwan Strait about 45 kilometers from the southwest coast of Taiwan and 120 kilometers from the Chinese mainland.
The Penghu Islands have relatively flat terrain. The winding coastlines of the larger islands form numerous bays and inlets, while shallow waters in some areas are favorable to the growth of coral. Natural attractions found on several of its islands include cliffs formed of basalt columns, the naked cores of eroded volcanoes.
The 13 members of the Kinmen Archipelago 金門群島, which together constitute Kinmen County 金門縣, are situated off the coast of mainland China’s Fujian Province 福建省, less than 2 kilometers from Fujian’s capital city of Xiamenand nearly 280 kilometers from Taiwan. The island group has a total of 151.70 square kilometers in area.
The islands’ bedrock is primarily granitic. While the smaller ones are low-lying and flat, the largest one, Kinmen Island, is hilly, with peaks reaching as high as 250-plus meters.
Collectively forming Lienchiang County 連江縣, the Matsu Archipelago 馬祖列嶼 comprises 36 islands with rugged, hilly terrain, totaling 29.60 square kilometers in area (based on low-tide line). It is located adjacent to the mouth of mainland China’s Min River 閩江, less than 1 kilometer from the mainland coast and more than 210 kilometers from Keelung 基隆 in northern Taiwan.
With an area of 10.60 square kilometers, Nangan Island 南竿島 is the largest and most populous member of the group. The Matsu Archipelago consists primarily of granite, with locally quarried stone serving as the most important building material for the islands’ traditional old houses and buildings.
In the hills of Matsu, the houses at Qinbi Village are made from rough granite and marble containing subtle hues of yellow, brown and red. (Courtesy of Taiwan Review)
Located at about 30 kilometers and 60 kilometers off the southeast coast of Taiwan are Ludao (Green Island) 綠島and Lanyu (Orchid Island) 蘭嶼, covering 15 and 45 square kilometers, respectively. Both are hilly, volcanic in origin and surrounded by coral reefs supporting abundant sea life.
About 12 kilometers off the southwest coast of Taiwan, Xiaoliuqiu 小琉球 is one of the largest coral islands in the world, with an area of 6.80 square kilometers. Other islands and surrounding regions in the South China Sea claimed by the ROC include the Dongsha (Pratas) Islands 東沙群島, the Nansha (Spratly) Islands 南沙群島, the Xisha (Paracel) Islands 西沙群島 as well as the group of reefs and shoals called the Zhongsha Islands 中沙群島 (Macclesfield Bank).
Further, lying about 170 kilometers northeast of Taiwan is the Diaoyutai Archipelago 釣魚臺列嶼, a small island group that includes Diaoyutai Island 釣魚臺, Huangwei Island 黃尾嶼 and Chiwei Island 赤尾嶼.
Seeking refuge from upheavals during the transition between the Ming 明 and Qing 清 dynasties, the ancestors of Taiwan’s Han 漢 peoples began migrating from China’s southeastern provinces to the island in sizeable numbers in the 17th century. The majority of these early immigrants were Holo 河洛人, mostly from areas in southern Fujian Province 福建省, as well as Hakka 客家人 from eastern Guangdong Province 廣東省.
Holo immigrants settled in Taiwan’s coastal regions and inland plains, while Hakka immigrants inhabited hilly areas. Clashes between these groups over resources led to the relocation of some communities, and, as time passed, varying degrees of intermarriage and assimilation took place.
The Holo people are the largest ethnic group in Taiwan, accounting for approximately 70 percent of the population. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), a large number of Holo men from mainland China married women of indigenous Austronesian groups. Hence, many in Taiwan who consider themselves Han have indigenous ancestry as well. With Austronesian and Japanese influences—the latter as the result of the half-century of Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945—Holo culture in Taiwan is quite different from that in mainland China.
The Hakka, who make up about one-fifth of the Han population in Taiwan, have a long history of periodic migration—hence the name Hakka, which literally means “guest people.” They are said to be diligent and frugal. Known also for their communal spirit, large Hakka communities can be found today in the Taoyuan, Hsinchu 新竹, Miaoli 苗栗, Taichung, Kaohsiung and Pingtung areas.
Hand-made oil-paper umbrellas are iconic treasures of Hakka craft, often adorned with Chinese-style paintings of birds and flowers. (Courtesy of Taiwan Review)
Immigrants Arriving in 1949
The ROC government’s relocation to Taiwan in 1949 occasioned an influx of 1.2 million people from the Chinese mainland to the island. The majority were soldiers, civil servants and teachers. Unlike earlier immigrants, these people came from all over the mainland and included not only Han Chinese but also ethnic groups from Mongolia, Tibet and southwestern China.
Members of the Pingtung County Taiwu Elementary School choir proudly don traditional indigenous attire. The group is well-known for performances of ancient Paiwan ballads. (Courtesy of Taiwan Panorama)
Indigenous Malayo-Polynesian peoples have lived on the island for millennia, with archeological evidence confirming their presence dating back 12,000 to 15,000 years. Their languages belong to the Austronesian linguistic family, whose speakers are known for their migratory history and inhabit an area of the globe that stretches from Madagascar Island in the west to Easter Island in the east and from Taiwan in the north to New Zealand in the south.
Though distinct from each other in many ways, the various indigenous groups in Taiwan share certain customs with one another and with Austronesian peoples in other parts of the world. Over the centuries, while the more remote indigenous groups have tended to maintain distinctive communities, others have blended in with Han society.
Currently, the 14 officially recognized indigenous groups are the Amis 阿美, Atayal 泰雅, Bunun 布農, Kavalan 噶瑪蘭, Paiwan 排灣, Puyuma 卑南, Rukai 魯凱, Saisiyat 賽夏, Sakizaya 撒奇萊雅, Seediq (or Sediq) 賽德克, Thao 邵, Truku 太魯閣, Tsou 鄒 and Yami 雅美 (or Dawu 達悟). As of May 2013, the collective population of these groups stood at approximately 529,800 (including about 17,400 people who did not identify themselves as belonging to any one group), or 2.27 percent of the total population of Taiwan. The three largest groups—the Amis, the Paiwan and the Atayal—accounted for nearly 70 percent of the indigenous population.
The official population statistics of Taiwan indicated that there were 3.12 million people living on the island in 1905. Forty years later the population had nearly doubled to 6.09 million, and as of 2012 grew to 23.32 million. Although a baby boom after World War II greatly increased the population, subsequent policies and family planning slowed growth. The population growth rate in 1960 was 3.49 percent, which declined to 1.28 percent in 1985 and further dwindled to 0.39 percent in 2012.
The total fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman during her childbearing years) was five during the 1960s. It then fell to two in the 1980s, and by 2010 was less than one, which is among the lowest in the world. That same year, the number of babies born hit a record low of 166,886. In 2012, the number of babies born recovered to 229,481; the sex ratio fell slightly from the previous year to 107.43 boys to 100 girls, while the crude birth rate dropped from 2.30 percent in 1981 to 0.99 percent.
In addition, statistics show that the declining birth rate has been accompanied by a rising average age of marriage and a rising divorce rate. The crude divorce rate rose from 0.83 divorces per 1,000 people in 1981 to 2.41 per 1,000 in 2012.
Taiwan is now an aging society as the proportion of people aged 65 and older has been steadily increasing. In 1952, it was 2.50 percent of the population, and in 2012, 11.15 percent. The 15-64 age group, which comprised 55.14 percent of the total population in 1952, grew to 74.22 percent during the same period. Conversely, the proportion of those under 15 years of age has been decreasing.
According to projections made in 2012 by the Council for Economic Planning and Development 行政院經濟建設委員會, Taiwan’s population is expected to peak at 23.66 million in 2024, and then fall to 18.92 million in 2060. By 2060, the expectations are that the proportion of those aged 65 or older will increase to 39.44 percent, while the percentage of those in the 15-64 age group will decline to 50.74 percent and the percentage of people under 15 will fall to 9.82 percent. These trends create a tremendous pension burden for workers: by 2060, just 1.29 members of the working-age population will support each elderly person.
To address the aging of the population and its effects on national development, the government has been promoting a new population policy. This policy, mirroring those adopted by other nations facing a “graying” society, aims to establish a comprehensive social security net, further raise the quality of life through education, promote environmental protection and sustainable development, and formulate an appropriate immigration policy.
To ease the financial burden of childrearing, the government provides a raft of subsidies including tuition assistance for all 5-year-olds in the country. (Courtesy of Dongmen Elementary School kindergarten division)
Between 1992 and 2012, the number of foreign nationals living in Taiwan jumped from about 44,400 to 483,900 mainly due to the arrival of blue-collar guest workers beginning in the early 1990s as well as an increase in marriages between ROC citizens and foreign nationals. In April 2013, blue-collar guest workers accounted for 79.92 percent of the total foreign population in Taiwan.
Marriages of ROC citizens to foreigners peaked in 2003 at 54,634 couples, accounting for 31.86 percent of all marriages. In 2012, this figure dropped to 20,600, or one in every seven marriages, with 58.42 percent of non-ROC spouses from mainland China and 23.22 percent from Southeast Asian countries.
In 2011, about 12,400 ROC citizens emigrated to other countries. Statistics show the United States was the top destination, followed by Canada, New Zealand and Australia.