Visit stunning Formosa, an island nation at the crossroads of Northeast and Southeast Asia. Here are 7 experiences that allow visitors to delve deeper into the uniqueness and complexities of Taiwanese culture.
About the author: Nick Kembel is the writer behind Spiritual Travels. A long-time Taiwan expat, here’s here today to share his Taiwan expertise.
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Understanding Taiwanese culture
Taiwan’s complicated colonial history and current political situation make it an anomaly among nations. Before travelling in Taiwan, gaining a general understanding of the country’s past helps to make sense of its present-day culture.
Taiwanese aboriginals, who today make up less than 3% of the population of 24 million, arrived as early as 15,000 years ago. They are Austronesians, a group of cultures stretching from Madagascar to Hawaii. It is even believed that Taiwan was the original base of the Austronesians, from where they travelled in canoes to populate the islands of Polynesia and Southeast Asia.
In the 16th century, increasing numbers of fishermen from China began settling in Taiwan. The island was subsequently ruled by the Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese.
Following the Japanese surrender of Taiwan, the KMT army lost a civil war in China. They fled to and occupied Taiwan, bringing millions of Chinese with them, called it the ‘Republic of China’.
The KMT never made it back to reclaim China, as they had originally intended. This left Taiwan in a bizarre state, unrecognised as a country by the international community. This was under pressure from China and its insistence that Taiwan is and always has been province of China, despite being and acting independently in virtually every sense of the word.
This history helps to explain the hodgepodge of cultures that make up Taiwan today. Taiwanese culture is a kaleidoscope of indigenous roots, beliefs and customs that originated in ancient China, colonial influences, and the modern emerging of a national identity that is distinctly Taiwanese and not just a combination of all the above.
How to experience Taiwan culture: Six meaningful travel experiences
It is possible to experience various aspects of Taiwanese history and culture discussed above in Taiwan today. Below are half a dozen examples of intimate experiences providing windows into Taiwanese culture.
1. Stay in a Buddhist Temple
Religion in Taiwan is as complex as the country’s culture is. Like in many Chinese-derived communities around the world, many Taiwanese practice or have beliefs that combine aspects of Buddhist, Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion.
Most temples in Taiwan reflect this syncretism, but the country also has some very large specifically Buddhist organisations. One such organisation is Foguangshan, whose headquarters in Kaohsiung, Southern Taiwan, is the country’s largest monastery. It also features the tallest Buddha statue in Taiwan.
Visitor’s are welcome to spend the night at Foguangshan. Staying at the Foguanshan Pilgrim’s Lodge allows one to explore the grounds in the evening after all the tourists have gone home and catch glimpses into the everyday lives of the resident monks and nuns.
In the morning, there’s a choice to participate in an early-morning ceremony. Buddhist vegetarian meals are also served.
2. Take a dip in a Japanese-Era Bathhouse
When the Japanese colonised Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, they developed much of the country’s present-day infrastructure, from railways and roads to hospitals and universities. The Japanese also made use of Taiwan’s abundant hot springs, developing many of them into bathhouse resorts.
The most famous of such resorts is Beitou in Taipei City. At its height, Beitou was a thriving bathhouse and entertainment zone. Today, it is one of Taipei’s most intriguing tourist attractions.
Visitors to Beitou can enter the original main bathhouse at Beitou Hot Spring Museum or bathe in one of numerous hot spring resorts and hotels. For the most authentic experience, take a nude bath at Longnice (瀧乃湯), the oldest continuously running bathhouse in town.
On the grounds of Longnice, there’s a stela commemorating a 1923 visit by Japanese Crown Prince Hirohito.
3. Participate in an Aboriginal Festival
When colonial forces occupied Taiwan, they pushed the island’s aboriginal inhabitants up into the mountains and remoter corners of the islands, where many of them still live today.
Taiwanese aboriginal communities are incredibly welcoming and even allow interested visitors to participate respectfully in some of their most important ceremonies.
One such ceremony is the Pas-ta’ai, or ‘Ritual of the Short People,’ conducted once every two years by members of the Saisiyat tribe in Hsinchu, Northern Taiwan. The all-night song and dance ceremony honours a mysterious ancient tribe that the Saisiyat believe they learned from before accidentally exterminating.
Visitors can participate in the dance so long as they first cleanse themselves with silvergrass.
4. Watch Peking & Taiwanese Opera
Opera is one of richest forms of art and cultural expression in China. Although there are many different styles across China, they mainly originated in Beijing (Peking), where they were performed at the Qing Dynasty court.
These performances involve complex costumes, face painting, dances, storylines, and accompanying music. Chinese migrants to Taiwan brought over opera, but Taiwanese opera has developed its own unique characteristics over time.
Visitors can experience opera at Taipei Eye in the capital city. A typical night includes aboriginal dances, Taiwanese opera, and Peking-style opera, giving fair representation to Taiwan’s various cultures.
It’s a great introduction to Chinese & Taiwanese opera, and staff explain various aspects in English throughout the performances.
5. Take an Aboriginal cooking class
Cuisine is truly one of the best ways to experience a culture. The staples of Taiwanese aboriginal cuisine include root vegetables such as taro, mountain greens, and wild mountain boar. They also drink millet wine, a cloudy, slightly sweet drink whose alcohol content is usually between that of beer and wine.
To learn about and try your hand at cooking aboriginal Taiwanese cuisine, you can take a cooking course conducted by members of the Amis tribe. The Amis are the largest of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognised tribes and mostly live on the east coast of Taiwan in Hualien and Taitung.
In such courses, which are mainly offered in Hualien City, you can expect to be introduced to common ingredients in aboriginal cuisine, cooking techniques for wild plants, and you’ll get to taste some millet wine, too!
Use the code EMILYLUSH to get 10% off your Taiwan cooking class.
6. Make and drink Hakka Lei Cha
The Hakka are a once nomadic people from China that today make up 15-20% of the Taiwanese population. Physically you won’t be able to differentiate them, but culturally they are known for their hardworking attitude and hearty, filling cuisine.
Lei cha is a thick drink made by pounding tealeaves with a variety of roasted nuts, seeds, and grains, then mixing the powder into hot (or cold) water or milk. It is often served with mochi (sticky rice balls), another Hakka treat.
One of the best places for visitors to taste lei cha is in Neiwan, a village in Hsinchu county with an old street that is popular among domestic tourists and accessed via the Neiwan small train line. In some traditional cafés there, you can even pound the ingredients to make your own lei cha.
7. Learn how to make bubble tea
Did you know that bubble tea (aka pearl milk tea or boba) was invented in Taiwan? In fact, the average Taiwanese person drinks several large cups of bubble tea per week, and there are bubble tea shops at almost every corner.
There are a few different stories about where exactly in Taiwan bubble tea originated, but the most common one is that it was invented by Chun Shui Tang teashop in Taichung, Central Taiwan.
The original Chun Shui Tang in Taichung today offers DIY bubble tea classes in which you can learn how to make bubble tea yourself. The classes are held a few times a day – you can sign up here (Mandarin website, but those who run the class can speak a little English).
While these experiences are just a broad sample covering a few segments of Taiwanese culture, they should provide a well-rounded glimpse into this unique and multifaceted culture.
Taiwan culture guide: Save it for later
Taiwan travel resources
- Photo guide to Taipei, Taiwan
- Things to do in Kaohsiung, Taiwan
- How to take a day trip to Keelung from Taipei
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