Founded near the end of the 17th century, the village was known as Takau in the Hoklo language spoken by most of the early immigrants. The name originates from the Makatao language of the local aboriginal tribe and translates as "bamboo forest". The Dutch established Fort Zeelandia in 1624 and defeated the local tribes in 1635.
They called the place Tancoia. The Dutch were later expelled by the Kingdom of Tungning government founded by Ming Dynasty loyalists of Koxinga in 1662. Zheng Jing, the son of Koxinga, renamed the village Wannian Zhouin 1664. The name was restored to Takau in the late 1670s, when the town expanded dramatically with immigrants from mainland China. In 1684 the Qing Dynasty annexed Taiwan and renamed the town Fengshan County , considering it a part of Taiwan Prefecture. It was first opened as a port during the 1680s.
In 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan as part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. It was during this period that the city's name was changed. While the sound remained more or less the same when pronounced in Japanese, the literal meaning of the name changed from "Beating Dog" to "High Hero". The Japanese developed Takao, especially the harbour. An important military base and industry center, the city was heavily bombed by Task Force 38 and FEAF during 1944–1945.
After control of Taiwan was handed to the Republic of China in 1945, the official romanization of the city name came to be "Kao-hsiung", based on the Wade–Giles romanization of the Mandarin reading of the kanji name. Kaohsiung was upgraded to a special municipality on July 1, 1979, by the Executive Yuan, which approved this proposal on November 19, 1978. The Kaohsiung Incident took place in Kaohsiung on December 10, 1979.