Taiwan: China, But Not China

If you’ve lived in China, going to Taiwan is a like going to an alternate universe. China, but not China.

It’s a place that invites comparison and analogy, and I found myself struggling to get a grip on the enormous familiarity of the place while enumerating its many differences from the Mainland.

It’s like China but without all the people!

It’s like China but without all the authoritarianism!

It’s like China but everyone in Taiwan stands in line and says please and thank you!

It’s like China but with freedom of the press and tropical beaches and absurdly delicious Southeast Asian-influenced food!

And when I put it like that, it kind of sounds like China…but paradise.

There were plenty of things about Taiwan that flummoxed me – for example, the fact that I could speak to people, but had a really hard time reading anything at all. Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters, whereas the Mainland uses a system of simplified Chinese characters; a brief example of how complicated this can be is the name of Taiwan itself. In simplified characters it looks like this: 台湾. In traditional characters, it’s this: 臺灣 – i.e. so complicated that you can’t even see all the individual strokes on your computer screen.

It seems to me that the difference between Mainland Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin is about as big as the difference between British and American English. As an American, you probably wouldn’t have too much trouble understanding British English – but that’s because you’re a native English speaker. (Unless a Brit told you to do something like “Kindly put your counterpane on the car bonnet,” in which case you’d probably be mystified.) As a non-native Mandarin speaker, I was often left wondering what on earth people were talking about when they told me I could ride my 机车 to the 捷運 (ride my motorcycle to the subway), because I would have said that I was going to ride my 电动车 to the 地铁.

I know this is all a little abstract if you don’t speak Chinese, so let me get right to the point: political realities aside, for those of you who are wondering if Taiwan feels like it’s a part of China when you visit – no. It does not. It feels like a different country.


In the end, our trip to Taiwan was slightly star-crossed. First, we missed our flight, which caused much anxiety and laying out of additional dollar bills. After spending our first few days exploring Taipei, it began to bucket down rain the night before heading to Hualien.

By the time we hit Hualien, we were in the throes of Tropical Storm Nalgae, meaning that we could barely leave our hotel room for two full days. Then I woke up with the worst head cold I’ve had in years, complete with giant, swollen glands and a croaky voice that I was hoping sounded seductive but I’m pretty sure just sounded tubercular.

After the rain finally cleared we were able to see Taroko Gorge and Taiwan’s dazzling East Coast, and had a blissful couple days on Green Island – and then RP’s grandfather passed away. We ditched plans for visiting the city of Tainan and headed straight back to Taipei so that RP could get the next flight out to New York via Tokyo.

I figure that if I loved Taiwan, even considering all that went wrong, it must be a highly lovable place. My affection for the place, however, was tinged with the familiar feeling that there was some pretty serious misdirection going on when I was educated about “Chinese culture” as an undergrad in East Asian Studies.

I’ve written before about the importance that was given to Mainland China when I was an undergraduate – Taiwan was never spoken of except in little staged debates to test your vocabulary (“cross-strait relations”, “political autonomy”, “difference of opinion”…). When, as a first year student, I expressed interest in East Asian Studies, I was immediately counseled to go study in China – meaning Beijing. This was where “real China” was, I was told – the only China. But I’ve discovered that that is a little like a Chinese student wanting to study English in “the West” simply being told to go to America – as if there were no Canada, England, or Australia.

Having spent so much time studying Mandarin and being focused on the Mainland, going to Taiwan made me do a double take. Wait- I could have studied here instead? In this place where they speak and write a beautiful Mandarin? Where they have an entirely alternate history, dominant culture, religious practices, minority languages, and view of the world?

Why didn’t anyone tell me?!

Again, it’s not that the Mainland isn’t fascinating – it’s that there are other fascinating places to experience Chinese culture, and these places are usually ignored in institutional settings like universities. I have to admit that it’s a little late – or, better, just bad timing – for me to start over in my engagement with “Chinese culture”. You all know that I’m a little weary of the whole business. I’m hoping that, when I return to the States and take a bit of a break from all things Chinese, I’ll be ready to re-engage and that Taiwan (and diaspora Chinese cultures) will be a part of that process. Taiwan inspired me to reassess my education about China and my level of Mandarin ability (ugh), and in return I ought to give it some serious attention.

For now, here are the places we went on our little trip to an alternate universe:

As everyone does, we began with several days in Taipei.

Longshan Temple

Danshui Night Market. (Apologies to squid rights activitists; there has been lots of squid violence on this blog.)

Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world (Dubai is such a spoiler)

We then hopped on a train for the several hour ride to Hualien, generally viewed as a good base city for exploring the East Coast. When the tropical storm finally cleared, we managed to get out for a beautiful walk in classic RP fashion (RP walk = normal person walk duration [hours] x 4 + mud + bushwhacking).


We finally decided to make a break for Taroko Gorge, our entire purpose for coming to Hualien. We rented a car in Hualien, drove to the parking lot of Taroko National Park, caught a public bus into the Gorge, and then walked the many kilometers back to the car. (Taroko National Park has a very good website here if you’re planning a trip.)

Even if you’ve just hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge, Taroko is totally worth it. Unfortunately, damage done by the storm meant that the normal crystal blue river flowing through the Gorge was mostly grey, and many of the small hiking trails were closed. It was glorious nonetheless.

After hiking out to the car, we drove down Taiwan’s East Coast Highway 11 as the sun set. We weren’t sure where we would be sleeping but, as if by magic, the world’s most perfect B&B appeared right on the coast. We were the only guests. We stepped out briefly for the freshest seafood dinner imaginable, being served up just down the road, and then sat on a deck overlooking the Philippine Sea, wondering how we might manage to convince the B&B owner to let us stay forever.

We awoke at 5:30am for the sunrise.

We ended our coastal drive at Taitung, where we returned the car and spent a night before getting on the ferry to Green Island, less than an hour’s ride away. (Note: Much is made of the fact that this is a very bumpy ride and people often get seasick. That’s all true, but if you just take a little sea sickness medicine in advance and have a few saltines, you’ll be totally fine. Seriously not worth paying double the price to take a puddle jumper flight…)

Green Island is a little gem off Taiwan’s southern east coast where you can snorkel, swim, and get yourself all wrinkly in the hot springs. Your motorcycling skills had better be up to snuff, since that’s how you get around the island. (I managed to motorcycle us all around and, unlike on Cat Bat in Vietnam, didn’t crash! Very pleased.)

Green Island is also a former penal colony for political prisoners during Taiwan’s martial law period; there is now a “Human Rights Memorial” to those prisoners. I was under the misapprehension that the island was only a former place of imprisonment, but in fact, you can walk right by the building that still incarcerates some of Taiwan’s (supposedly non-political) prisoners. Just in case you start to feel too good about your vacation.

Sleeping Beauty Rock

Human Rights Memorial

Perfect water for swimming

After finding out that we needed to get back to Taipei immediately, we took the ferry back to Taitung, took a train to Kaosiung, and managed to get the highspeed rail back to the capital. It’s amazing; you can get from Taiwan’s southern-most tip back to Taipei in just a few hours.

And the rest you know: after a couple days on my own in Taipei, I flew back to the Mainland for some solo adventuring.

More photos from our trip to Taiwan can be viewed here and here.

30 thoughts on “Taiwan: China, But Not China

  1. I always thing Taiwan has to be part of China, but now I am leaning toward thinking maybe it is another way around, China should be part of Taiwan!! People in Hong Kong and Taiwan were very fortunate not to have gone though the cultural revolution. It was the cultural revolution that destroyed all the traditional Chinese culture and virtue in mainland China. It is amazing how the communism managed to destroyed our tradition for thousands of years in just couple decades. It is during that period that all the traditional values were gone, the communist even destroyed some of our national treasure. That’s why I always say people in Taiwan is somewhat more Chinese than people in mainland because they retain a lot of national treasure (if you go to the national museum in Taipei, you can see traditional Chinese artifact dating to as far as Han Dynasty), they still use the traditional Chinese characters that has been used in China for thousands of years, they have not gone though something like culture revolution therefore people retain the traditional Chinese virtue (people would get in line and you won’t find 18 peoples that would turn a blind eyes to a dying two years old girl) and kids in school in Taiwan learn about history of China. But I do see hope in China though, the culture revolution took place during 60s and 70s, all of my friend that are from Mainland China that were born in 80s are just as polite, as nice, and as friendly as everyone else since they have not gone though the cultural revolution. Maybe we just have to wait until all the older peoples who have gone though such a brainwash to die and the real Chinese culture and virtue that we always had for thousands of years will be back, just like in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, leepokman. Personally, I actually fear for the time when no one who remembers the Cultural Revolution is still alive. My personal experience is that many people I have met belonging to the post 80’s generation cannot imagine the brutality of that period; they cannot fathom that such a thing took place in their own country, if they are even aware of what actually occurred. Since they cannot fathom that brutality, they cannot see the connection between the terrible upheaval of the 1960s and 70s, and the social and political oppression that is happening all around them today.

    I was being flip when I mentioned “standing in line” and “saying please and thank you” – I find that that kind of etiquette makes life nicer, but I would trade that in an instant for a society in which an open exchange of ideas is possible, a society with political freedom, a society where cultural pluralism is valued. Taiwan is not actually the world’s freest country, of course, but part of the value of traveling to a place like Taiwan is that you see that it is absolutely possible to have a Chinese society in which all of these freedoms are possible. It is a slap in the face to those who claim that Mainland China’s current social and political structure is somehow inevitable, as if written in Chinese DNA. Nonsense!

    I personally believe that one of the saddest and most dangerous aspects of any repressive society is willful amnesia regarding social and political history – and this amnesia is being reinforced among China’s young people every day. Those who lived through the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, even the founding of the PRC itself, have much to teach China’s younger generations, if only they were allowed. I wouldn’t be so quick to get rid of them.

  3. BirdAbroad thanks for your perspective and insightful comments. I just wanted to say… if you’re going to write 捷運, you should also write 機車 (not 机车) to be consistent. 🙂

  4. Hi BirdAbraod, thanks for the enjoyable read about my home country (and the lovely pictures of course), this post was specially heart warming for me because it has been four years since I last set foot on my home soil. I came to live in the UK when I was little and many places you mentioned brought back childhood memories.

    It was interesting to hear about the culture differences between China and Taiwan, and I feel it is very unfortunate that the Chinese culture in China, where thousands of years of Chinese history took place, was lost during Culture Revolution and through the inevitable modernisation of the country.

    I wish one day I will have the time to travel around both China and Taiwan to explore a bit more about my Chinese roots.

    Great blog btw, love the contents of it! Can I re-blog this post on my tumblog?

    • Hi Hank,

      Glad this brought back good memories! (Yes, you may re-blog this post – please just be sure to credit everything to this blog clearly. )

      One of the interesting cultural differences between Taiwan and the Mainland (that I totally forgot to include in my original post) is the strong influence of Japanese culture in Taiwan. This is totally unlike the Mainland, of course, where the Japanese are demonized at every opportunity and are the objects of very real and present loathing among many Mainlanders. I had assumed that there would be residual cultural influence from the many years of Japanese control over Taiwan, but I hadn’t anticipated how much contemporary Japanese culture would be represented in terms of food, music, fashion, advertising, and the many tourists! People seem to feel a genuine affection for Japan (even bordering on nostalgia for Japanese rule), which I found fascinating.

      • Yes, many of Taiwan’s culture is heavily influenced by Japan. Although I am not sure why that is but Taiwanese people certainly do not have as many issues about the Japanese people as the Mainlanders. Taiwan is also influenced by Korean culture, but tend to be more pop or contemporary related.

        I hope you have got back to China safely. May I ask what is it you do in China? You are studying Chinese is it or?

        (Post re-blogged and your site was fully acknowledged)

      • Maybe I can shed some light. Japan ruled taiwan for 50 years (1895 – 1945). My grandparents speak japanese and not mandarin. When Japan first took over taiwan there was outrage in the beginning that the japanese stomped out. Afterwards though they wanted Taiwan to be a model territory of japanese occupation so they put a lot into the region to boost it’s economy, infrastructure, and public works. The japanese also boosted Taiwan’s agriculture and public health system. When the Japanese left and the ROC claimed Taiwan as their own, the native born taiwanese saw the ROC and it’s operation as a lot worst and a step backwards compared to the Japanese system. Obviously the chinese nationalists who escaped to taiwan would say the chinese rule was best (because they don’t know what it was like under japanese rule) but the taiwanese that lived under both regimes say that the japanese rule was better way of life for them.

        One point of view which is from my grandparents and parents was that after WWII, the Taiwanese people were excited to see the Chinese Nationalist Party come to Taiwan but when they came to Taiwan they treated the Taiwanese a lot worst than the Japanese ever had.

      • It was my experience (countless times over), that many Taiwanese have a great distaste for their history with Japan. They may admire the culture – but there’s no love lost (nor tragedy forgotten) between the two countries.

  5. Hi BirdAborad,

    You have very interesting insights into the Chinese culture and have articulated the cultural nuances very well. I was wondering if you have looked into other so-called “Chinese” diaspora around the region and would love to hear some of your thoughts/observations about them. For example, there are huge Chinese communities in the Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia – just to name a few that have migrated from China in the past. You may know of the term 華僑, and I am particularly interested in getting your understanding on the cultural infusions between what was once traditional Chinese culture, say from Fujian for example and the local-foreign culture itself.

    My reasons behind this question stem from my personal background. Not to bore you with too much detail, my mother’s family migrated to the Philippines some time ago; she grew up under the totalitarian rule of Marcus, and considers herself a “Chinese-Filipino” which is a really interesting but confusing blend to watch. As you can imagine, there is a subtle but noticeable “identity-crisis” she experiences when you pay close attention to her mannerisms that are often paradoxical and contradictory to her consistent belief in almost anything. For example her nutty beliefs in Chinese superstitions, beliefs in different gods/goddesses which I think derives from maybe Buddhism (?) – also very prevalent in Taiwanese culture; couple those with her belief in Roman Catholicism is entirely paradoxical to me. We have an alter at home with picture frames of my grand-parents who have passed away, with idols of certain god-like figures I fail to identify, and a pot of incense that burns away through the day yet on top of it all, she religiously performs the hand-gestures associated with the holy trinity prior to resting. It’s weird and I can’t seem to get to the bottom of the dynamics of the cultural infusions.

    Anyways, to avoid digressing further, I would love to hear your thoughts on the different Chinese diaspora across East-Asia if you have any, and maybe a few things that stand-out to you i.e. huge Japanese influence on Taiwanese culture. You mentioned that “there are other interesting places to experience culture” in you post above, maybe you’ve come across a few that are more subtle? I have never lived in East-Asia, nor have I been given the opportunity to be around people with similar backgrounds to understand this phenomenon. Would love to hear more from you.

    Keep the blogs coming – they’re awesome.


    • Thanks for reading, and for these links.

      Hypothetically, Friedman has a point about a state recognizing what its true resources are (i.e. if you don’t have any natural resources to make money from, you better figure out how to make money from human capital). And it’s always good to see Taiwan get some air time. The problem as I see it is that he doesn’t address what has happened in the US in the past 50 years: we have always had lots of natural resources, but we also used to have a great public education system, for example, and now we don’t. The fact that we’re not doing a good job educating our young people isn’t because we’re busily making money off of domestic oil fields instead; it’s because we have systematically gutted our public education system.

      Sometimes Friedman writes as though things have always been as dismal in the US as they are right now – not so, of course.

    • I’ll grant that I failed to learn a lot of things in the years I spent getting a degree in East Asian Studies, followed by the years I spent living in Asia, in addition to the decade I spent studying Mandarin…but I’m pretty sure that Taiwan being it’s own country is one of the things I picked up on. 😉

      • Hi Jess
        It’s great you got to experience Taiwan. I would say the difference between 捷運 and 地鐵 is the same as one saying subway vs metro vs tube. Often simply the official name the city has named it’s subway system. In Taiwan, we would refer to the Japanese subway system as the 地鐵 since that is the same kanji they use for their local rail system. We just conveniently pronounce the kanji to its Mandarin version. Like an American would’ve heard various names to call a rail system, the native speaker can understand both terms used.

        And fwiw, if you were interested in learning about the bigger package of Chinese/Taiwanese culture, your choice for the blog post title can be considered politically insensitive, potentially misleading, and offensive to the Taiwanese people. Perhaps its akin to how some countries have a hard time understanding American’s sarcasm; in their native country, it would be frowned upon to use sarcasm. Likely, for Taiwan, a professional journalist (and I understand this is just a personal blog) should undertand that such a title can be very offensive to its people. Just FYI if you were interested in learning more of the Taiwanese/Chinese/Mandarin bigger culture package.

        And to an above commenter, the Japanese culture was embraced in Taiwan since Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, although not perfect, was overall a very positive experience for the Taiwanese. They helped built up Taiwan’s infrastructure, railway system, … to the degree of modernism Japan itself was at the time (1985-1945ish). Japan wanted to adopt Taiwan as part of its country of archipelagos.
        It is very different from how the other Japanese take overs were in other parts of Asia.
        Hence the strong influence of Japanese culture even to this day.

        I applaud you on your rigorous training in nursing and Mandarin! Anyone in the healthcare industry are heroes in my opinion :-).

  6. I’m glad that you like Taiwan and I like the points you made of our country.
    I had a Mandarin teaching class when I was in University in Taipei, and our professor said if you want to teach a foreigner Chinese character, you should teach them in traditional way because thats the real Chinese word 🙂
    And Welcome to Taiwan, I hope you enjoyed all the delicious snacks there.

  7. Hi, BirdAbroad, I really like your witty words and the way your descript Taiwan. I was born and raised in Taiwan, and currently studying in NYU.

    I am fascinated by your observation toward Taiwan (and surprisingly you only stayed in Taiwan for few days!). Next time don’t miss out ‘Dulan (都蘭)’ and spend few days with Taiwanese aborigines when you travel to the east coast of Taiwan. Their songs, their culture, and lifestyle will blow your mind away!

    I agree with Taiwanese culture is deeply influenced by Japanese culture. In fact, people in Taiwan still lives the way more close to Japanese people.

    Thanks so much for the sharing! 🙂

  8. The fondness for Japanese culture in Taiwan is due to an observed contrast between the Japanese inclusive style of rule and the later oppressive Chinese rule. Where the Japanese recognized locally respected Taiwanese people and included them somewhat in decisions, the Chinese executed and massacred local leadership, in addition to seizing land, in order to take over.

    Look up Martial Law in Taiwan, White Terror, and the 228 Massacre. The fondness for Japanese culture is not at all surprising given the history of the island.

    • By the way, this is also why you will encounter Taiwanese who are particularly sensitive to being labeled as Chinese (or likening Taiwan to China) — they have no desire to be associated with the origin/birthplace/identity of their oppressors.

  9. Really glad to see your love of this beautiful island. :))

    Yes indeed it is China, a paradise version.

    (Allow me to share your article so that more people will have better understanding of Taiwan)

  10. I’d like to thank you for writing all these things about Taiwan, and glad you like our country. However, being Taiwanese, I do feel a bit disturbed by the title you put here as “China, but not China”.
    Being putting together with China when it comes to introducing Taiwan is probably some dilemma we have to bear with for another few decades at least, that is, if we can get out of this situation 🙂 Nevertheless I guess one of the reasons why some Taiwanese feel so strong about it is because we are FORCED to be known as part of China in many occasions, and lots of people DO get confused.
    Again, thank you for haring your experience in Taiwan. I hope I don’t upset by what I raise here. I am sure you’d like to hear voices from different sides 🙂

  11. Perhaps the reason you felt that Taiwan is different from China is because of the fact that Taiwan is an independent country with its own currency, freedom, government, passport. Taiwanese are free from Communist China’s rule so please Do NOT associate Taiwan as part of China. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tw.html

    ​The other less popular name for ​Taiwan​ is Republic of China, which is not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China (Mainland China).​ ​Please support democracy and don’t make mistakes like this. Please make the correction ASAP. Thank you. Taiwan is NOT part of China!

    • Apologies for being direct, but I think I need to attach some kind of disclaimer to this post so that perfect strangers stop leaving comments like this on my blog. I think it is completely clear from this post, as well as from the political sentiments expressed on the rest of this *personal* blog (which you have probably not taken any time to explore) that: A) I am not poorly educated on the topic of East Asian political science, a subject in which I hold a degree, and B) I do not consider Taiwan to be a part of the People’s Republic of China in any way. Think a little more deeply before leaving comments like this, so clearly intended to condescend (CIA World Factbook? Seriously?).

  12. Hi BirdAbroad,

    I just wanted to say thanks for the comparison between Taiwan and the Mainland. I’m an undergrad student in Chinese studies who is graduating this summer, so I’m starting to think about next year. One of the options for me would be to go to taiwan.

    I studied in Beijing for my year abroad but I honestly found it a difficult place to live sometimes. I’ve heard taiwan is really a great place to be, sounds like you recommend it too, right?

    • I do, definitely, recommend it. Especially sine you’ve studied in Beijing and had that experience. I should say that this was just a blithe little blog post that I wrote pretty quickly, so you should probably speak with someone who’s actually studied or worked in Taiwan! But I had a wonderful time traveling there.

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