Island Taiwan and the outlying small islands  
by Huei-Min Tsai

At a Glance…

     The current territory of Taiwan, Republic of China, is comprised of Taiwan Island and 121 outlying small islands.  The main Island Taiwan covers a 36,000 square-kilometer area which is ranked as the 38th largest island, in comparing with other major islands in the world; With about 22.5 millions people living on Taiwan, the island is also ranked as the sixth most populous islands of the world.(see -island information ).

       Lying on the Tropic of Cancer, Taiwan is located 150 km off the southeast coast of mainland China, between cool-temperate Japan to the north, sub-tropical South China to the west, and the tropical Philippines and Indo-Malayan islands to the south. The location, combined with a range of high mountains — with more than 200 peaks over 3,000 meters — supports a diverse flora of over 4,000 vascular plant species and a spectrum of six forest types. This range of environments in turn supports a rich fauna, flora, and biological diversity. In addition to this big island, there are about 121 outlying small islands fall into 11 groups, each group contains one or several inhabited main islands (or temporary fishing stations or army outposts) and other smaller isles; only 25 of these islands are inhabited. The diversity of these small-island groups emerges from their differences with respect to geological origin, size, remoteness, geographic types, and human culture. 

       Geologically main Island Taiwan lies between two plate boundaries and on the edge of continental shelf. While the outlying islands are mostly distributed in the Taiwan Strait, which is part of continental shelf, some islands off the east coast of Taiwan are in the Pacific Ocean and separated from the continental edge by a deep ocean trench. Island types could be classified by different geological origins. There are granite-origin continental islands which are close to China's coastline (e.g., Kinmen and Matzu island groups), volcanic oceanic islands (e.g., Green Island, Orchid Island, Turtle Island, Penghu Archipelago), and islands based on raised coral reef or atolls (e.g. Liuchiuyu, Pratas Atoll, and Spratly Atoll).


Island Groups

Islands comprising the 11 island groups of Taiwan could be characterized as five types.

Type A. Near-shore continental islands

1.   Kinmen Islands: continental islands, granite origin; less than eight km from China's coastline (southern Fujian province);  about 50,000 people live on two main islands and about 300 live on a more remote island Wu-chiu; the other 10 island/rocks are uninhabited; mass emigration to Southeast Asia between the late 19th century and early 20th century; remittances from abroad enrich the island economy and cultural landscape; successful reforestation and cultural heritage preservation due to 40-odd years of military frontline isolation; rich wild bird habitats; tourism re-opened since 1992, and cross-border trade re-opened in 2001. 

2.   Matzu Islands: continental islands of granite origin, comprised of 19 small islands; less than six km from China's coastline (northern Fujian province); about 7,000 people live on five main islands; other islands are uninhabited; local economy relies on fishery; unique cultural heritage owing to 40-odd years of military frontline isolation.  

Type B. Mid-oceanic archipelagos

3.   Penghu Archipelago (the Pescadores): Sixty-four small islands; volcanic origin composed of basalt rock and coral reef coast; 90,000 people distributed on 18 small isles; most isles are uninhabited; rich natural diversity among islands; over 300 km of coastline provides typical 3S environment — sea, sun, sand — that can be exploited for island tourism; abundant wildlife; geological lab.

Type C. Remote oceanic islands

4.   Green Island (Lutao): Volcanic, coral reef, human rights memorial at the island's historic prison.

5.   Orchid Island (Lanyu): volcanic, sub-tropical rain forest, Yami culture, traditional knowledge of natural resource use and sustainable livelihood.

Type D. Near-shore or connected islands

6.   Liuchiuyu: raised coral reef island, fishery villages, tourism for marine recreation activities.

7.   Turtle Island: volcanic, undersea thermal spring, uninhabited, aquaculture, opened for tourism in 2000.

8.   Keelung Islands: one of 4 small islands is connected to Keelung City; others are  uninhabited rocks.

Type E. Remote, uninhabited islands

9.    Diaoyutai Islands (Senkaku in Japanese): eight small volcanic islands lying on the continental shelf of the East China Sea, the name of the island group means "Fishing platform"; territorial dispute.

10.  Pratas Atoll (Tungsha): Unique atoll looks like a coral ring lying on the blue ocean; located in the Southeast China Sea, 440 km south of Taiwan Island's southern tip; land mass less than 2 sq km; increasingly impacted by tourism.

11.  Taiping Island, Spratly Atoll (Nansha): Atolls located in the South China Sea, 1,600 km from Taiwan; among hundreds islets, Taiping isle, or Itu Aba isle, belongs to Taiwan's navy garrison; international territorial dispute involving at least four surrounding countries.


People and Culture

The majority of people on Taiwan Island are Han Chinese who immigrated from Fujian Province and Hakka from Guangdong Province in the 17th and 18th centuries. About 13% are so-called "mainlanders" who fled from China after the communist revolution of 1949 (or are descended from these exiles). Two percent are indigenous people belonging to one of the ten major aboriginal tribes that have been identified in Taiwan. The people and culture in outlying small islands are diverse with respect to their location, culture, historical background, and natural environment. For instance, Kinmen and Matzu islands, lying near China’s Fujian coast, retain a legacy of traditional Chinese architecture and ruins of historical battlefields due to their strategic location. The Penghu Archipelago lies at the midway point of the Taiwan Strait and islands in the group have been considered to be stepping stones for people migrating from coastal China to Taiwan, though they also became homes for early fishermen and their descendants. Orchid Island on the Pacific is less connected to Taiwan both geologically and culturally. Islanders clearly share traits and a lifestyle with their Polynesian kin. People living on other islands are mainly fishermen and occasionally soldiers serving on military outposts.


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