Environment in Taiwan: Formosa’s Majestic Mountains
Taiwan’s environment plays a key role in shaping Taiwan’s culture—from the foods people eat, to the specific cultures of Taiwanese aboriginal groups, to the history of the island itself, all aspects of living in Taiwan is affected by its natural landscape. Mountains, especially, play a major role in the development of Taiwan’s customs and culture.
The environment in Taiwan affects everything from people’s hobbies to the way they feed themselves and their families. Taiwan is an island nation surrounded by water on all sides. It has a tropical climate and its landscape includes everything from flat rainy plains to high, dry, cold mountainous areas. People have made use of the environment around them to create their traditions and cultivate their culture. Mountains, especially, play a major role in the climate and ecology of Taiwan, affecting weather, rain patterns, and the development of certain customs in Taiwanese society.
How are people connected to the environment?
People are connected to the environment in a variety of ways. In the flat plains of Yilan, where I live, it rains almost 200 days out of the year. People make use of the flat, wet lands to grow a lot of rice. In the higher mountain areas, people make use of the mountain air and the soil to grow tea. Because of the environment here—one that is hospitable for rice and tea growing—rice and tea have become staples of the Taiwanese diet.
In addition to affecting what types of food are grown in certain areas, the mountains are also a source of many legends in Taiwanese culture. One local legend deals with the large amount of rainfall that falls in Yilan because of the interaction of the mountains with local weather. Legend has it that the constant rainfall in Yilan is actually the tears of a princess who is forever parted from her husband. They fell in love in Yilan and were separated by her father, who was jealous of anyone sharing his daughter’s love.
In addition to local legends and folklore, mountains play important roles in the religious lives of Taiwanese people. Often, Buddhist and Daoist temples are located on the tops of mountains. Mountains are thought to be holy places where people can go to get higher to heaven. It makes sense that many temples are located on the mountains, so that when people pray, they feel closer to their gods and goddesses to whom they pray. So the mountains in Taiwan not only affect how people eat and the weather around them—they also play important roles in the culture and religious customs of the area.
What makes this environment special or different?
Taiwan’s mountains are special because they play a big role in the development of Taiwan’s unique culture. From legends about rain to the ancient practice of tea cultivation, to the Taiwanese custom of going mountain climbing in the spring and summer to mark the beginning of new seasons, mountains are not just land features in Taiwan. They are symbols of Taiwanese culture and a source of pride and identity among Taiwan’s peoples.
What parts of this environment help people to live here?
Most of Taiwan’s mountains are very young—only a few million years old. This means that they are very tall, sharp and jagged. They haven’t had time yet to become weathered by wind and rain like some of the older mountain ranges in the world (such as the Himalayas). The tall mountains seal some areas of the island off and concentrate rainfall to certain areas.
For example, the Yilan plain, where I am located, rests on the other side of the Hualien East Rift Valley. The mountainous peaks of Hualien’s valley trap rainclouds in Yilan and cause them to dump their load of rain on Yilan people’s heads 200 days out of the year. Because the mountains trap the rains here, it is always wet in Yilan. This makes Yilan a great place for growing rice.
Since the island was first being settled, people depended on rice as a staple dish in order to survive a bad harvest. Because the environment of Yilan is so hospitable to rice growing, rice is cheap and plentiful in Taiwan (and in a lot of other Asian countries with similar climates, too). The manner by which mountains trapped rainfall in certain areas—making it easy to grow a lot of rice, and to grow it cheaply—was one of the main ways in which the environment helped people to live here.
Nowadays, Taiwan’s mountains are a source of entertainment and cultural meaning, as people often go mountain climbing in the spring and summer months as a marker for the beginnings of new seasons.
What challenges do people face living in this environment?
While rainfall 200 days out of the year may be helpful for growing rice, it is not very helpful when it comes to certain comforts people like to have in their daily lives. In modern times, riding a scooter in the rain is never a very fun process. While rain clothes and gear is plentiful and cheap, riding a scooter in the rain is still a great way to get very damp very quickly.
In addition to riding a scooter, the constant moisture leads to a lot of mold and mildew. People often have to buy special types of fabrics and avoid fabrics like wool, which tend to mildew easily. Two of my male friends have had to throw away business suits because they got mold on them, and I have lost a couple of pairs of precious shoes to mold during the rainy season here.
In addition to these inconveniences, in earlier times, Taiwan’s warm, moist climate made it easier for diseases to thrive and spread among communities. Before Taiwan developed in the 1980s, there were many health problems made worse by the constant humidity. While disease is largely under control thanks to Taiwan’s rapid development in healthcare and medicine, the small inconveniences—like moldy shoes—remain and pose challenges to people living in this environment.
How have people been adapting to this environment?
People adapt to the environment in a variety of ways. From a booming rain clothes industry for people who ride scooters in Taiwan’s rainy streets, to the development of very affordable and effective dehumidifying machines, people have adapted to the wet and rainy environment of Taiwan. Early on, people discovered the usefulness of Taiwan’s environment for growing crops like rice and tea, and were able to grow them so successfully that they are now staples of the Taiwanese diet.
Also, not only have people been “adapting” to mountains and the different challenges they bring, they have also been finding ways to make cultural meaning out of the unique aspects Taiwan’s mountains bring to the island itself. From local legends to seasonal customs, the mountains of Taiwan are not only sources of sustenance and weather patterns, they are also major features of the culture of the island nation.