A tongue-in-cheek guide to the bizarre and multifaceted history of Taiwanese toponyms.
Across the United States and Canada, numerous place-names (toponyms) have their ultimate origins in the lexicon of North America’s indigenous peoples.
Major cities like Toronto, Canada’s largest city, and Seattle, a major hub in America’s Pacific Northwest, all derive their names from indigenous terms. Remarkably, the very name of the country of Canada is derived from the indigenous word “Kanata” meaning village or settlement.
In Taiwan, it’s easy to think that the place-names are of Chinese origin as, today, Taiwan’s three Han ethnic groups (Taiwanese, Hakka and Mainlander) form the island’s mainstream. Taiwan’s toponyms, however, are often non-Chinese in origin and tell a fascinating story that sheds light on its dynamic, multicultural and multilingual history.
These names highlight the island’s geography as a frontier on the borders of great empires and have seen influences from Chinese, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and—of course—indigenous languages.
Today, we explore the origins of five Taiwanese cities and the stories of their names.
1. Hsinchu: Not Bamboo
Today, the coastal city of Hsinchu (新竹) is known for being the capital of Taiwan’s highly lucrative tech industry.
Hsinchu is the base for the world’s largest microchip manufacturer—TSMC, which keeps the world’s devices running—and is home to major science-based industrial and biomedical parks.
In Mandarin, the name Hsinchu (rendered as Xīnzhú in pinyin) literally translates as “new bamboo” but this makes no sense because the name was not of Chinese origin.
The modern Mandarin name is derived from the Japanese Shinchiku, which, in turn, originated in the Taiwanese Shintek. All of these names have the same meaning—“new bamboo.”
The first syllable (hsin, xin or shin) means “new” and that’s fine. The problem is the second half of the name. In most East Asian languages, it means bamboo. But…why?
The reason for this quirk lies in the Taiwanese name of the city—Shintek—to which the Mandarin and Japanese names are traced. Shintek doesn’t actually mean “new bamboo,” it actually means “new tek”—WHICH MEANS “NEW TECH(NOLOGY)”—just kidding, it doesn’t.
“Tek” comes from an earlier name of the region—Tekkham, which was bestowed by 17th-century Spanish colonizers. It’s believed to have come from a regional indigenous word from the Taokas language meaning “seashore.”
In 1878, the Manchu Qing Empire that controlled Taiwan implemented a series of administrative reforms. The original Tekkham Sub-Prefecture was converted to the New Tekkham District or Shintek District—i.e. Hsinchu.
Today, Tekkham is often rendered in Mandarin as Zhúqiàn (竹塹) and is often used as a poetic and reminiscent alternative name for the city of Hsinchu.
So, to recap: Tekkham (Taiwanese/Spanish/Taokas) was re-founded as New Tekkham or Shintek (Taiwanese), which became Shinchiku (Japanese) and then Hsinchu (Mandarin).
2. Kaohsiung: No Animal Cruelty
Kaohsiung (高雄) is a massive port city and the beating heart of southern Taiwan. In Mandarin, its name can also be rendered in pinyin as Gāoxióng.
The name of this city has gone through a confusing series of bizarre but related twists that really highlight the back-and-forth control of regional empires on the island as well as its indigenous dynamics.
The original name for the region is the Taiwanese Takau which was derived from an indigenous word from the Siraya language meaning “bamboo forest” (totally would’ve been appropriate as an etymology for Hsinchu).
Now, quite unfortunately, the Chinese characters that were seemingly arbitrarily and—maybe—humorously chosen to denote Takau were 打狗, which literally means “beat the dog.”
When the Japanese Empire wrested control of Taiwan from the Manchus in 1895, they decided, unsurprisingly, that they didn’t like this name. They decided to keep the general pronunciation but change the characters to 高雄—which is how the modern city’s name is still written, but was, instead, pronounced in Japanese as Takao. Though, to be frank, the Japanese re-naming was hardly less silly as the new characters mean “tall guy”—I mean… dream big?
In 1945, when the Empire of Japan was dismantled at the end of WWII and Taiwan was ceded to the Republic of China, the new Chinese government didn’t bother changing the way the city name was written and just opted to pronounce the same characters in Mandarin, which was gaoxiong or kaohsiung.
And that’s how Takau (Taiwanese/Siraya) became Takao (Japanese) and, finally, Kaohsiung (Mandarin).
3. Hualien: We Like It Here
Hualien (花蓮) lies on Taiwan’s east coast, facing the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, and is the home of Taiwan’s largest indigenous nation—the Amis people.
The city’s name—which is also rendered as Huālián in pinyin—is graceful and beautiful, as the constituent Chinese characters are the reverse of the Chinese word meaning “lotuses.”
The city has the Japanese to thank for this beautiful name. The modern Mandarin name is simply the Mandarin pronunciation of the characters the Japanese chose for the city. Back during Taiwan’s Japanese era, the city was called Karen Harbour—with Karen and Hualien sharing the same characters.
But the city wasn’t always what the Japanese called it. It was originally called Kiray or Kirai in Taiwanese—after the indigenous Sakiraya (Sakizaya) people of the region.
Unfortunately, Kiray sounds like the Japanese word kirai, which means to “dislike.” But who would have a bone to pick with this beautiful Pacific haven? Unhappy with this offensive (though only to the Japanese) name, Taiwan’s colonial masters chose a more fitting one; hence the modern name of the city.
Originally known as Kiray (Sakiraya/Taiwanese), the city was renamed Karen Harbour or Karen-kō (Japanese) before becoming the modern city of Hualien (Mandarin).
4. Beitou: Land of Witches
Beitou (北投)—a beautiful satellite town of Taiwan’s capital, Taipei—is known for its famous natural hot springs that produce a misty sense of wonder and mystery. The district was recently featured in a Taiwanese hit webcomic, The Witches of Beitou (Beitou Nüwu), and its mystical natural beauty charms visitors seeking to get away from the bustle of the metropolis.
Beitou’s natural hot springs are the basis for its name. The hot springs were regarded, since ancient times by the indigenous Ketagalan people, as the home of witches and sorceresses. This is noteworthy not only because a webcomic was called The Witches of Beitou, but because the very name Beitou came from the Ketagalan word Kipatauw—with the “patauw” part morphing over time into the modern “Beitou”—which means “witches.”
This, of course, means that the webcomic’s title does, indeed, mean The Witches of Witches….
Like other Taiwanese place-names, many languages have contributed to the evolution of Beitou’s name. From the Ketagalan Kipatauw, the Taiwanese first borrowed it as Paktau. This was, in turn, borrowed into the Japanese as Hokuto and, finally, the Mandarin Beitou.
5. Lukang: Port of Deers
And finally, the Dutch East India Company gets an honourable mention in our Taiwanese etymological journey with the history of the name of Lukang (鹿港).
Remarkably, before the Chinese and the Japanese successfully colonized Taiwan in the late 17th through 19th centuries, the Dutch were the first to see any success in setting up shop on the island.
The Dutch East India Company fought with Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian inhabitants but also traded with them. One of the most prized commodities in the 1600s was deerskin—from Taiwan’s native Formosan sika deer.
Lukang—also rendered Lùgǎng in pinyin—literally means deer port. It is so named because this town in the middle of Taiwan’s west coast was once a major Dutch trading post on the island. Significant quantities of Taiwanese deerskin were exported throughout the Dutch Empire and to places like Japan and China from Lukang.
The original Taiwanese name was Lok-a-kang meaning deer port. Today it is known mainly by its Mandarin name, Lukang, of the same meaning.
In recent years, a slew of Taiwanese cinematic blockbusters focusing on the ordinary lives of the Taiwanese has highlighted the island’s multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual roots. Films like the 2007 Cape No. 7 and the 2011 Seediq Bale demonstrated on screen the complex—sometimes violent but also often convivial—interactions between the Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese and Indigenous peoples.
Such interactions are also memorialized in the stories of Taiwan’s toponyms. Though often overlooked, Taiwan’s place-names tell a fascinating story of how each and every culture, language and empire left traces of themselves on the beautiful island and its inhabitants.