The island has had many names over the centuries. What do they mean? Where do they come from?
Since the 16th century, Taiwan was known in the West as Formosa. It came from the Portuguese Ilha Formosa, which means the “Beautiful Isle.”
This name was first recorded during the European Age of Exploration—in the logs of a Portuguese ship that sailed past the island in 1542. Formosa remained the primary name for Taiwan in the West until 1945.
Today, Formosa is still frequently used as a poetic alternative to “Taiwan.” The names of animal and plant species native to the island also regularly feature this designation.
In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company founded the colony of Dutch Formosa. Ther headquarters, Fort Zeelandia, was located near a small sandbank in southwestern Taiwan.
The Dutch called this area Tayovan or Tayouan, based on the names of nearby native tribes. Today, the area is part of the Anping district of Tainan City.
At the employment of the Dutch were large numbers of Hokkien-speaking Chinese labourers, who assisted in the colonization of the island, from the Fujian region. The Dutch toponym entered the Hokkien-derived Taiwanese language as Tâi-oân. This eventually morphed into the modern “Taiwan.”
The name was initially only applied to the southwestern portion of the island. Over time, its scope was expanded and eventually covered the entire island.
Since 1945, “Taiwan” has gradually become the primary name of the island.
Other names historically associated with the island of Taiwan include Líuqíu. This name—and its variants—was historically applied loosely in Chinese sources to numerous islands and islets between China, Japan and the Philippines. These include Taiwan, the Okinawa Islands and Lamay Island.
Today, the designation, usually rendered from the Japanese Ryūkyū, refers not to Taiwan but to a kingdom that once existed on the Okinawan Islands until its annexation by Japan in 1879. “Ryukyu” is also a geographic and linguistic term for the chain of islands that encompasses Okinawa as well as the island chain’s indigenous languages.
Another historic name for Taiwan was the Japanese Takasago. This designation was attested in the 1500s and likely originated from indigenous Taiwanese tribal names.
Between 1895 and 1945, when Taiwan was colonized by Japan, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples were collectively referred to as the “Takasago tribes” by Japanese anthropologists and colonial authorities. Historical variants of “Takasago” include Takasagun and Kōzan.
Frequently, many islands to the east of the Asian continent, including Taiwan, were also compared in premodern Chinese sources to the mythical Mount Penglai Island. The mythical island was believed to be the abode of deathless spirits and immortal saints.
In many ancient works, Mount Penglai is similar to the fabled Isle of Avalon, found in Medieval French and British Arthurian legends, or Mount Olympus, home of the gods of Greek mythology.
Whether it’s Mount Penglai Island, the Isle of Avalon or Mount Olympus, all were mysterious lands that existed in literature but were believed to be vaguely connected to real locations.
Until the early modern period, this air of mystery shrouded Taiwan and neighbouring islands in the imagination of continental Asian civilizations.