Taiwan remained a quiet backwater until the 17th century when it became caught in both Chinese and colonial politics. The first note of Taiwan came in the form of a diary entry from a passage of Portuguese ship passing off the coast in 1517. Moved by the beauty of the island, the writer named it "Ilha Formosa" (or beautiful island). To this day, Formosa has remained a popular second name for Taiwan. In 1624, a Dutch contingent landed in southern Taiwan as part of their effort to bolster their presence in Asia and began the first colonial occupation of island by building a fort at the site of modern day Tainan. The island was then populated by a mixture of the early inhabitants and a small number of Chinese fishermen who had emigrated from the nearby province of Fujian.
Two years later, the Spanish (also known as the red beards) followed challenged the Dutch presence by claiming Dan Shui in northern Taiwan in 1626 and constructing Fort San Domingo. The Dutch, however, were not ready to share their conquest, and managed to evict the Spanish colonialist in 1641. The Dutch reign was not destined to last however, for in 1661, Koxinga (Cheng Cheng-kung) came upon the scene.
Koxinga was formerly the son of a powerful merchant in southern China loyal to the Ming Dynasty. Following the collapse of the Ming Empire, Koxinga refused to pledge loyalty to the Qing Dynasty and was forced to flee China. Taking his army of over 30,000 men, Koxinaga decided to make Taiwan his base of operations for continuing his war against the Qing. After evicting the Dutch, Koxinaga resumed his war against the Qing. However, in 1682 the Qing (Manchus) captured Taiwan and made it into a county of Fujian province. In 1885, following a brief (1884-1885) occupation of northern Taiwan by the French, the island became an independent province of China.
Taiwan was not destined to maintain its new status as a province for long, however. In 1895, as part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, Taiwan was handed over to Japan in perpetuity as an end to the Sino-Japanese War. After quashing a short-lived civilian revolt aimed at creating Asia's first republic (the Formosan Republic), the new Japanese rulers began a series of major construction projects to integrate Taiwan into the Japanese colonial economy. The remaining aboriginal tribes were gradually forced up into Taiwan's central mountains as the commercially important coastal plains became increasingly developed. The Japanese began systematically building up a network of roads, railroads, hospitals, and teacher's universities around Taiwan. Agricultural holdings were consolidated and massive sugar cane plantations established around the island. The Japanese ruled the island until the end of World War II when the 1945 Yalta Conference returned Taiwan once again into the hands of China.
Returning Taiwan to the Chinese government was not simple, however, since China was in the midst of a civil war. In 1912, the Qing Dynasty had been overthrown and the Republic of China established by the political leader Sun Yat-sen. From 1912 through the end of World War II, China was in political turmoil as the Nationalists (Kuomingtang, or KMT) under Chiang Kai-Shek waged war with the Communists under Mao Tse-dong. During the same period, the Japanese also invaded Northern China. In 1945, when Taiwan was returned, the civil war in China was still raging.
Chiang Kai-shek, busy in the mainland, sent Governor Chen-yi to Taiwan to maintain order. Famed for his greed and inability to rule, Chen-yi was disliked by local Taiwanese. On February 28, 1947, the culmination of this disapproval came with a Taiwanese protest now known as the 2-28 Massacre during which the KMT killed tens of thousands of civilians. In 1949, it became clear that the war on the mainland was lost and Chiang Kai-shek fled with over one million Mainland Chinese (more than half of which were military) to Taiwan. The KMT became the local government, and one year later, under Chiang's orders, Chen-yi was executed. The KMT established martial law in Taiwan that was to last for another 40 years.
The KMT retreat to Taiwan was much like Koxinga's retreat over three hundred years earlier. The idea was to use the island as a base until recapture of the mainland was possible. In the years that followed, despite regular skirmishes with mainland Chinese forces, the KMT never did mount the major offensive. In 1971, a major political defeat was handed to Taiwan when it lost its seat in the United Nation. Chiang Kai-shek passed away in 1975.
In 1978, Chiang's son, Chiang Ching-kuo was elected in an uncontested race to the position of president. Unlike his father, Chiang Ching-kuo believed that the future of the KMT lay in developing local roots, and under his administration a gradual relaxation of the political began. The thaw continued until 1986, when Chiang allowed the formation of the first opposition party - Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Following the establishment of the DPP, Taiwan's politics began to undergo a rapid transformation. Martial Law ended in 1987 and citizens were allowed to send and receive mainland Chinese mail as well as request mainland travel permits for the first time since the 1940's. In 1988, Chiang Ching-kuo died and vice president Lee Deng-hui began the island's first native-born president. Lee immediately undertook a massive reform of the KMT and was reelected President in 1996 with 54% of the votes. The end of the century also marked the end of the KMT's 40 year rule as DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian was elected President on March 18th, 2000.