Since the 16th century, the West has known Taiwan by a very different name. That name was “Formosa.” It came from the Portuguese Ilha Formosa, which means “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. It was 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, when the Dutch East India Company founded their colony of Formosa, they built their headquarters, Fort Zeelandia, near a small sandbank or islet. They 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” came to replace “Formosa” as the primary name of the island in western publications.
Other names historically associated with the island of Taiwan include Líuqíu. This name—and its variants—was historically applied loosely in Chinese sources to many 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 existed on the Okinawa 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 aboriginal tribal names. Between 1895 and 1945, when Taiwan was colonized by Japan, the Taiwanese aborigines were collectively referred to as “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 Mt. Penglai Island. The mythical island was believed to be the abode of deathless spirits and immortal saints.
In many ancient works, Mt. Penglai is similar to the fabled isle of Avalon, found in Medieval French and English Arthurian legends, or Mt. Olympus, home of the gods of Greek mythology. All were mysterious lands that existed in literature but were thought 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 civilizations.