Most Taiwanese are of Chinese descent, but the cultural identity of this island is subtly distinct from that of the mainland. In the south of the country, many people speak Taiwanese, a linguistic offshoot of Hokkien. Taiwan is also home to more than a dozen recognized groups of aboriginal people, each with its own language. Taiwan’s indigenous heritage is rich and varied, especially in rural areas. Taiwanese culture also retains a strong Japanese influence: Japan ruled the island for many decades, and the Japanese developed much of the local infrastructure and housing. Quite a few older Taiwanese are fluent in Japanese, and many cultural remnants—such as hot spring practices—remain to this day.
The spirituality of most Taiwanese is a blend of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism mixed with a strong dose of local folklore and a healthy belief in ghosts. This colorful milieu has forged a slew of unique ideas and festivals. The best-known commemorations include the Dragon Boat Festival (late spring), Chinese New Year (usually in January or February), and the Lantern Festival (at the end of Chinese New Year). Two fascinating lesser-known gems are the Yenshuei Fireworks Festival (also around Chinese New Year)—in which thousands of fireworks are shot directly into the surrounding crowds—and the Boat Burning Festival (every three years in mid-autumn), when a 15-ton ship is burned so that it can ferry ghosts to the afterlife. Traditional festivals are scheduled according to the Chinese calendar, so dates vary from year to year. There are also various rock festivals throughout the year. The largest, Spring Scream, takes place each April in the beach town of Kenting. Finally, Taiwan is home to the world’s largest group swim, held every September in Sun Moon Lake.
Matt Gibson is a professional writer and photographer based in Salt Lake City. He’s the editor of the FlightNetwork.com blog, Let’s Roll, and writes the About.com Snowboarding Guide. He enjoys running, surfing, stumbling through confusing conversations in Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, and getting into and out of trouble in exotic destinations and writing about it on his personal website Matt-Gibson.org.