The best books on Taiwan’s history

John Grant Ross Author Of Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan, Past and Present
By John Grant Ross

Who am I?

I’m a Kiwi who has spent most of the past three decades in Asia. My books include Formosan Odyssey, You Don't Know China, and Taiwan in 100 Books. I live in a small town in southern Taiwan with my Taiwanese wife. When not writing, reading, or lusting over maps, I can be found on the abandoned family farm slashing jungle undergrowth (and having a sly drink).

I wrote...

Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan, Past and Present

By John Grant Ross,

Book cover of Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan, Past and Present

What is my book about?

This mix of travelogue, history, and vignettes of small-town life is the kind of book I like to read myself: history and culture woven into travel narratives, and with a healthy sprinkling of eccentric characters. I think readers will be surprised to learn that Taiwan was – until the early twentieth century – one of the wildest places in Asia, as shown in the tales recounted of fatal shipwrecks, headhunting tribes, banditry, and revolts. From those early frontier days, Formosan Odyssey takes us through the period of Japanese colonial rule, and the post-war transition from impoverished police state to a prosperous democracy.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory Over the West

Why did I love this book?

Few stood against many as the fate of Taiwan hung in the balance. This is a gripping account of the 1660s clash between Ming loyalist Koxinga and besieged Dutch colonists at Fort Zeelandia. Written by a historian with a flair for narrative, Taiwan’s most exciting historical episode is recounted in fascinating detail, with twists and turns, and wide zooms out for comparisons of European and Chinese technological prowess. It’s an accessible book yet so richly informative and dramatic that it rewards multiple readings. 

By Tonio Andrade,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lost Colony as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the seventeenth century, Holland created the world's most dynamic colonial empire, outcompeting the British and capturing Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Yet, in the Sino-Dutch War - Europe's first war with China - the Dutch met their match in a colorful Chinese warlord named Koxinga. Part samurai, part pirate, he led his generals to victory over the Dutch and captured one of their largest and richest colonies - Taiwan. How did he do it? Examining the strengths and weaknesses of European and Chinese military techniques during the period, Lost Colony provides a balanced new perspective on long-held assumptions about Western…

Book cover of Accidental State: Chiang Kai-Shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan

Why did I love this book?

How did Taiwan become the country it is today, how did it become the Republic of China? Hsiao-ting Lin, a leading Taiwanese historian and an archivist at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, convincingly argues that the Nationalist state in Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek came about in large part from happenstance. The book draws on both English- and Chinese-language archival materials, including newly released official files and personal papers to explain what happened to Taiwan in the crucial years following World War II; it also examines what didn’t happen but might have, such as the island being placed under temporary American trusteeship. Accidental State is unbiased and nuanced history, and packed with fun but intelligent counterfactual nuggets.

By Hsiao-ting Lin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Accidental State as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The existence of two Chinese states-one controlling mainland China, the other controlling the island of Taiwan-is often understood as a seemingly inevitable outcome of the Chinese civil war. Defeated by Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to Taiwan to establish a rival state, thereby creating the "Two Chinas" dilemma that vexes international diplomacy to this day. Accidental State challenges this conventional narrative to offer a new perspective on the founding of modern Taiwan.

Hsiao-ting Lin marshals extensive research in recently declassified archives to show that the creation of a Taiwanese state in the early 1950s owed more to serendipity than…

Book cover of A Taste of Freedom: Memoirs of a Taiwanese Independence Leader

Why did I love this book?

For a readable work about a political figure, it’s hard to beat this moving autobiography of a reluctant hero and his journey from bookish youth to renowned scholar to political dissident. Alongside the personal story, it gives a broad sweep of Taiwanese history; the increasingly militaristic Japanese rule of the 1930s, the disastrous early years of KMT rule, and the decades of White Terror political suffocation. The book was originally published in 1972 in English, two years after the author’s daring escape from house arrest in Taipei to freedom in the West. 

By Ming-Min Peng,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Taste of Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Peng Ming-min was imprisoned by the Kuomintang regime in Taiwan during the White Terror era for subversion. He was released from prison but still under house arrest when he evaded his minders and fled the country, first to Sweden and then to the US, where he led the fight for democracy in his homeland. He returned to stand as a candidate in the first democratic presidential elections in 1996. A Taste of Freedom is his incredible story.

A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai

By Steven Crook, Katy Hui-Wen Hung,

Book cover of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai

Why did I love this book?

Despite the title, this is a history of the food of Taiwan, not just Taipei. The “ponlai” in the subtitle refers to a strain of rice developed in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period, stickier and quicker maturing than the indica rice cultivated previously; and this specificity gives a good indication of the admirable depth the book goes into. There’s great breadth too, the authors covering almost everything you might be curious about, whether aboriginal crops or traditional banquet culture, religious food offerings, food folklore and prohibitions, the evolution of basic ingredients, and the origin stories of iconic dishes.

By Steven Crook, Katy Hui-Wen Hung,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Culinary History of Taipei as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There is a compelling story behind Taiwan's recent emergence as a food destination of international significance. A Culinary History of Taipei is the first comprehensive English-language examination of what Taiwan's people eat and why they eat those foods, as well as the role and perception of particular foods.

Distinctive culinary traditions have not merely survived the travails of recent centuries, but grown more complex and enticing. Taipei is a city where people still buy fresh produce almost every morning of the year; where weddings are celebrated with streetside bando banquets; and where baristas craft cups of world-class coffee. Wherever there…

Book cover of Playing in Isolation: A History of Baseball in Taiwan

Why did I love this book?

Taiwan’s national sport helped forge a national identity and provided succor when the country was becoming increasingly isolated on the international stage. Between the years that saw the PRC take the China seat at the United Nations and Washington switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, Taiwan’s Little Leaguers enjoyed one of the greatest sporting runs of all time; from 1971 to 1981 they went unbeaten at the annual LLB championship in Williamsport. A whole generation of Taiwanese grew up rooting for these schoolboy teams, and among them was author Junwei Yu. He describes the history of baseball in Taiwan with passion and expertise, yet is not afraid to douse nostalgia with a cold bucket of scandal. An enjoyable read, even for non-baseball fans such as myself.

By Junwei Yu,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Playing in Isolation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite the political instability characterizing twentieth-century Taiwan, the value of baseball in the lives of Taiwanese has been a constant since the game was introduced in 1895. The game first gained popularity on the island under the Japanese occupation, and that popularity continued after World War II despite the withdrawal of the Japanese and an official lack of support from the new state power, the Chinese Nationalist Party. The remarkable success of Taiwanese Little League teams in the 1970s and 1980s cemented Taiwan's relationship with the game. Taiwanese native Junwei Yu's Playing in Isolation presents a comprehensive account of that…

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Interested in Taiwan, China, and Taipei?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Taiwan, China, and Taipei.

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