Taiwanese aborigine

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A Rukai village Chief visiting the Department of Anthropology in Tokyo Imperial University during the Japanese rule.

Taiwanese aborigines or aboriginal peoples (原住民, Tongyong Pinyin: yuánjhùmín, Hanyu Pinyin: yuánzhùmín, Wade-Giles: yan2-chu4-min2, POJ: gan-chū-bn, literal meaning: "Original Inhabitants") are the indigenous peoples of Taiwan. They are a group of Austronesian people, who are descended from the inhabitants of Taiwan who lived on the islands before Han immigration in the 1600s.

Today, most tribes that the Republic of China (ROC) recognizes are concentrated in the highland mountains of Taiwan and speak a linguistic grouping of archaic Formosan languages, which like the related Malayo-Polynesian languages, belong to the Austronesian language family. The total population of these tribes is around 400,000 as of 2004.

The People's Republic of China refers to these peoples as Gaoshan (高山族) -- literally "High Mountain Ethnicity" -- and counts them as one of its official 56 ethnic groups.


List of tribes

Map of highland tribes according to traditional geographical distribution.
Map of highland tribes according to traditional geographical distribution.

Taiwanese aborigines recognized by the ROC government include the following tribes:

The Amis, Kavalan and Tsou are sometimes regarded as "lowland" tribes.

Non-recognized tribes include:

History of aboriginal tribes

Taiwan is recognized by many linguists and scholars as the original land of the Austronesian language. It is believed the Austronesian language and culture originated on Taiwan roughly 6000 years ago due to a lengthy split from its root in southern Asia. Linguistic evidence shows a greater diversity of language on Taiwan than other Austronesian speaking areas. Linguists note earlier linguistic separations mark the earliest settlements. According to the R.O.C. government, there are 11 tribes on Taiwan which are eligible to receive tribal status, but records indicate there may be as many as 26 linguistic groups and the Babuza, Popora, Hoanya, Siraya, Taokas and Pazeh tribes were included in Japanese field studies through 1945.

The Dutch supply the earliest record of aboriginal life on Taiwan. The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) included details of their encounters with the tribes on the western plain as well as tribes from the south and southeast.

Plains tribes

The aborigines of the plains mainly lived in stationary village sites surrounded by defensive walls of bamboo. The village sites in southern Taiwan were more populated than other locations. Some villages supported a population of 1500 people, surrounded by smaller satellite villages. Siraya villages were constructed of dwellings made of thatch and bamboo, raised 2 meters from the ground on stilts, with each household having a barn for livestock. A watchtower was located in the village to look out for headhunting parties from the highland tribes. The concept of property was communal, with a series of concentric rings around each village. The innermost ring was used as a garden and orchard site that followed a fallowing cycle around the ring. The second ring was used to cultivate plants and material for the exclusive use of the tribe. The third ring was for exclusive hunting and deer fields for tribal use. The concept of the plains village figured prominently in the later Qing administration of Taiwan. The plains people hunted herds of spotted deer and muntjak as well as conducted light farming of millet. Sugar and rice was grown as well, but mostly for use in preparing wine.

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Pepobohan, a Plains Tribe Aborigine Woman

Many of the plains tribes were matriarchal/matrilineal societies. Men married into a woman's family after a courtship period where the woman was free to reject as many men as she wished before marriage. Until the arrival of the Dutch Reform Church, couples entered into marriage in their mid 30s when they would be less able to do more dexterous labor. Almost all tribes in Taiwan have a sexual division of labor. Women do the sewing, cooking and farming, while the men hunt and prepare to take heads. Early European accounts often cite the men for being lazy without considering the essential benefit of the division of labor. Women were often found in the office of Priestess or medium to the gods.

The European period

There is an enormous and still relatively untapped body of sources from the European period (1623-1662), when the Dutch maintained a colony in southwestern Taiwan (1624-1662 -- headquartered near present-day Tainan) and the Spanish maintained a colony in northern Taiwan (1626-1642 -- headquartered in present-day Keelung). The best sources are those of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). These sources show that when the Dutch arrived in 1624 at Tayouan (Anping) Harbor, representatives from the nearest villages -- all of which were Siraya-speakers -- went to the Dutch fortress to ask for friendship, and the Dutch accepted all offers. The villages were, however, divided into warring factions. The village of Sinckan (Sinshih) was at war with Mattau (Madou) and its ally Baccluan, with the village of Soulang maintaining an uneasy neutrality. In 1629 a Dutch force was massacred in a river by people from Mattau, after which relations were especially strained. In 1635, with reinforcements having arrived from Batavia, a Dutch force subjugated Mattau. Since Mattau was the most powerful village in the area, the victory brought a spate of peace offerings from other nearby villages, many of which were outside the Siraya area. This was the birth of a pax hollandica, which gradually expanded as the Dutch extended their control over large parts of Taiwan, ending only in 1662, when the Ming loyalist forces of Zheng Chenggong established the Zheng family kingdom on Taiwan in the name of the defeated Ming ruling family.

One of the interesting institutions of the Dutch period was the "landdag," an annual gathering of village elders (ouders) before the Dutch governor. The Dutch gave each leader a black velvet cape, a silver tipped rattan staff and a flag representing the Prince of Orange to prove allegiance to the VOC. In turn the aborigines presented the Dutch with potted palms to show submission. The Dutch erected schools and churches. The reverends Georgius Candidius and Robertus Junius both learned the local languages to begin teaching the aborigines to read their own language in Romanized script. The Dutch Romanization survived through the 18th century, now only fragments survive in documents and stone stalae markers. (Sinckan writing)

The Dutch were also in search of gold and endeavored to cause the Puyuma people to lead them to the source of the island's gold. The Puyuma led the Dutch 80Km to the Kavalan Plain where trace amounts of the mineral could be panned from streambeds. This account is confirmed by both Dutch accounts and Puyuma oral tradition.

The Dutch employed the plains aborigines to procure deerskins for use in the triangular trade between the company, the Qing Dynasty and Japan. It was the deer trade that brought the first Han traders to aboriginal villages. The demand for deer greatly diminished the deer stocks and as early as 1642 there was a notable drop in deer herds. The drop had a heavy impact on aboriginal society as many aborigines had to take up farming to counter the economic impact of their vital food source.

The Dutch period ended with the arrival of Ming loyalist, Zheng Cheng-gong (Koxinga), but their impact was deeply ingrained in aboriginal society. 19th and 20th century European explorers write of being welcomed as kin by the aborigines who thought they were the Dutch who had promised to return.

Qing rule

The Qing government allowed limited Han settlement to Taiwan and recognized the plains tribes claims to deer fields and tribal land. The Qing hoped to turn the plains tribes into loyal subjects. The Qing authorities adopted the head and corvee taxes on the aborigines, which made the plains aborigines directly responsible for payment to the authorities. To validate their tax policy, Qing officials designated Taiwan's aborigines based on their ability to pay taxes to the Qing. Those tribes which submitted to pay taxes were classified as 'Sek Huan', which literally means 'cooked barbarian'. The tribes which had not submitted were classified as 'Se Huan', or 'raw barbarian'. Later, the two groups were simply distinguished as 'Ping Pu/ Pepo' (Plains) and 'Gao Shan/Ge Sen' (High Mountain) tribes. The distinction had very little to do with actual similarities or differences as some of the Gao shan tribes lived on the plains as is the case with the Amis tribe. Aborigines as an ethnic group were classically referred to as 'Huan a', simply meaning 'barbarian', the same as the classification bestowed on westerners.

Contrary to the popular misconception that the Ping pu tribes, under pressure from Han immigrants, fled to the mountains becoming Gao Shan tribes, the documented facts show that the majority of plains people remained on the plain, married immigrants from Fujian, and adopted a Han identity, where they remain today, and the process by which Taiwanese aborigines in the plains were assimilated is believed by many historians to be similar to the processes by which border peoples in southern Asia had been assimilated since the Han dynasty.

Large areas of the western plain were subject to large land rents 'Huan De Zu' (Barbarian Big Rent), which desisted following the Japanese occupation. The large tracts of deer field, guaranteed by the Qing, were owned by the tribes and their individual members. The tribes would commonly offer Han farmers a permanent rent of the top soil, which was called 'two lords to a field' (Yi tian liang zu). Wealthier Han, commonly military leaders, were allowed large rent status of 'government wasteland'. Large rent holders were required to pay taxes of 6-8 shi for every jia. Often the Han and aborigines found creative means to solve their land and tax troubles. Under the guidance of their official interpretor Zhang Da-jing, an ethnic Hakka who had taken seven aborigine brides, the An li tribe transferred ownership of six pieces of land to Han farmers in exchange for the Hans' expertise in building irrigation systems for farming. The plains tribes were often cheated out of land or pressured to sell, some moved, but most remained and changed their names to Han names.

It is important to point out that during the Qing dynasty, people were classified as either barbarian or civilized, and being civilized was synonymous with being Han. These classifications were based not on racial characteristics, but by behavior, and hence the prevailing idea is that anyone could become a civilized Han by adopting Confucian social norms. Some of the motivation for basing identity on behavior rather than race was due to the fact that the imperial family itself was not Han, and defining identities on the basis of race would have destroyed the dynasty's legitimacy.

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Plain aborigines of Kanatsui in Taipei area (1897)

One account of this 'identity shift' occurs in the area called Rujryck by the Dutch, now part of Taipei city. A document from the seventh year of the Qianlong Emperor, and signed by the village heads states, "We originally had no surnames, please bestow on us the Han surnames, Pan, Chen, Li, Wang, Tan"etc. Taking a Han name was a necessary step in instilling Confucian values in the aborigines. In the Confucian Qing state, Confucian values were necessary to be recognized as a human 'ren'. A surname would allow the Aborigines to worship their ancestors, pray to gods and conduct in the practices of filial piety that would allow them to operate within a Confucian state. Often, the large groups of immigrant men would unite under a common surname to form a brotherhood. Brotherhoods were used as a form of defense as each sworn brother was bound by an oath of blood to run to the aid of a brother in need. The brotherhood groups would connect their names to a family tree, in essence manufacturing a genealogy based on names rather than blood and taking the place of the kinship organizations commonly found in China. The practice was so wide spread, today's family books are largely unreliable. Many plains aborigines joined kinship groups to gain protection from the group as a type of insurance policy and through these groups they took on a Han identity with a Chinese lineage.

The undocumented 'displacement scenario', which claims Taiwan's aborigines immigrated to the mountains, becoming 'Gao shan zu', has been exacerbated by the migrations of plains tribes during the beginning of the 19th century. The Gao Shan people have been adapted for over one thousand years to high mountain living as projected through their material culture, hunting culture, oral tradition and physical build. The plains subgroups that had resisted becoming farmers like their Han tenants decided to move to areas away from Han interference. In 1804, a group of approximately 1000 plains aborigines moved over the central mountain range to southern Iilan, near present day Luo dong. These groups were mainly drawn from the more disadvantaged families in 30 villages of Changhua and Tanshui counties. A second migration to the Puli basin in 1823 suggests the participants were merely unsettled families and subgroups based on the fact that the migrations resulted in place names in both Iilan and Puli matching the names of their places of origin. By the early 20th century, large tracts were still owned and maintained by the members of the tribes resulting in the Japanese buying up the large pieces for use as airfields, garbage dumps and industrial zones. Before the 1600s, the aborigines lived throughout the island, but those in the western coastal plains have acculturated to mainstream Taiwanese culture and intermarriage with the Han Chinese immigrants has confused descriptions of tribes and the ethnic composition of Taiwan.

Highland tribes

Little was known about Taiwan's highland aborigines until European and American explorers and missionaries began seeking out the mountain tribes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The lack of data primarily is due to the Qing quarantine on the area east of the border that ran along the eastern edge of the western plain. Han contact with the mountain tribes was usually in the vocation of camphor extraction, a chemical derived from camphor trees used in herbal medicine and mothballs. The meetings often ended in the Han losing his head. Plains aborigines were often employed as interpreters to trade goods between Han merchants and highlands aborigines. The aborigines traded cloth, pelts and meat for iron and matchlock rifles. Iron was a necessary material for the fabrication of hunting knives, long, curved sabers used for decapitating enemies.

An  tribal lady with tattoo on her face as a symbol of maturity, which was a tradition for both males and females. The custom was prohibited by the authority during the Japanese rule.
An Atayal tribal lady with tattoo on her face as a symbol of maturity, which was a tradition for both males and females. The custom was prohibited by the authority during the Japanese rule.

The earliest fieldwork on the highland cultures began in 1897, led by Japanese anthropologist Ino Kanori, who later teamed up with his friend Torii Ryuzo. The work published by both men laid the cornerstones for modern anthropological studies on Taiwan. Ino argued in support of Aboriginal rights, supporting the idea that they were not intellectually inferior in any way, contrary to Chinese sources, though Ino also wrote that understanding the aborigines would make them easier to govern under colonial control. The early Japanese research resulted in the creation of eight tribes of Taiwanese aborigines, Atayal, Bunun, Saisiat, Tsou, Paiwan, Puyuma, Ami and Pepo (Plains). His original findings were accepted by Governor, Viscount Kodama. Later research has found major errors in his classifications as Atayal means 'I/me' and the Yami actually call themselves 'Tao', as 'yami' in the Tao language means 'we/us'. The Paiwan were originally called Ruval and Batsul, a term they also applied to the Rukai. The Puyuma are named after the town of Beinan rather than an actual tribal name. Although the Pepo were recognized, they were not preserved, while Pong So No Daoo (Orchid Island/Lanyu), home of the Tao, was entirely sealed from outsiders for the exclusive use, until the 1930s, as a regulated preserve for scientists and anthropologists.

Little changed for the highland groups until the Japanese occupation in 1895. When the Japanese arrived in Taiwan they had grand plans to turn Taiwan into their showcase colony, a model for further colonial ambitions. In order to exploit the wealth of natural resources the Japanese had to classify the aboriginal groups and contain the aborigines to reservations. Aborigines were barred from interaction with people on the plains and were forced to wear aboriginal clothing and practice aboriginal customs to preserve their identity of a tribe that could be contained and barred from land claims. The early campaigns to gain aboriginal submission was often very brutal, with the Taroko tribe sustaining continued bombardment from naval ships and airplanes dropping mustard gas. Beginning in 1910, the Japanese sought to incorporate the aborigines into the Japanese identity. They erected schools in high mountain villages maintained by a police officer/headmaster. The schools taught math, ethics, Japanese, and vocational studies. The administrative designation of aborigine became a hereditary designation under the Japanese, complicating matters of cultural affiliation.

By 1940, 71% of aborigine children were attending school and Japanese customs were replacing aboriginal tradition. The term 'Takasago zoku' (高沙族, Formosan race) replaced 'hoan-' (番仔, savage) as the popular term used for aborigines. The Japanese had invested much time and money to eliminate traditions they found unsavory. These traditions included tattooing, infanticide and headhunting.


The highland tribes were renowned for their skill in headhunting, which is often viewed as savage and barbaric. Proponents say this is without any consideration for the socio-contextual value headhunting played in many societies on Taiwan.

In Taiwan, headhunting was a symbol of bravery and valor. Almost every tribe except the Yami (Tao) practiced headhunting. Often the heads were invited to join the tribe as members to watch over the tribe and keep them safe. The inhabitants of Taiwan accepted the rules of headhunting as a calculated risk of tribal life. The heads were boiled and left to dry, often hanging from trees or head shelves. A party returning with a head was cause for celebration and rejoicing as it would bring good luck. The Bunun people would often take prisoners and enscribe prayers or messages to their dead on arrows, then, shoot their prisoner with the hope their prayers would be carried to the dead. Han settlers were often the victims of headhunting raids as they were considered by the aborigines to be liars and enemies. A headhunting raid would often strike in the field or by catching a house on fire and decapitating the inhabitants as they fled the house. It was also customary to raise the victim's children as full members of the tribe. The last groups to practice headhunting were the Paiwan, Bunun and Atayal groups. Japanese rule ended the practice by 1930, but some elder Taiwanese can recall the practice.

Tribal life under the Japanese changed rapidly as many of the traditional structures were replaced by a military power. Aborigines who wished to improve their status looked to education rather than headhunting as the new form of power. The aborigines who learned to work with the Japanese and follow their customs would be better suited to lead villages. By the end of WWII, aborigines whose fathers had been killed in pacification campaigns were volunteering to die for the Emperor of Japan. Many older aborigines feel a strong identification with the Japanese and speak Japanese as their second language instead of Mandarin.

Aborigines under the Nationalists

When the Nationalist Chinese government arrived on Taiwan, they feared the poverty stricken mountain regions might be a haven for future communist sympathizers. The KMT associated the aborigines with Japanese rule and thus had the aborigines recast as 'shan bao' or mountain compatriots. In 1946, the Japanese village schools were replaced by ideology centers of the KMT. Documents from the Education Office show a curriculum steeped in propaganda with an emphasis on Chinese language, history and citizenship. A government report on mountain areas from 1953 reports its aims starting in 1953 being chiefly, promoting Mandarin to strengthen a national outlook and create good customs. This was included in the 'Shandi Ping di hua' policy to "make the mountains like the plains". The lack of teachers during the first few years of KMT rule created huge gaps in aboriginal education as few Chinese teachers lived in Taiwan and even fewer wanted to teach in the mountains. Much of the burden of educating the aborigines was undertaken by unqualified teachers who could speak mandarin and teach basic ideology.

In 1951 a major campaign was launched to change the customs of the aborigines to act like Han Chinese. At the same time aborigines who had joined the Japanese military were conscripted to fight the bloody battles for possession of Kinmen and Matsu, the two islands under R.O.C. administration that lie closest to the coast of Mainland China. Retreating KMT soldiers from mainland China often married aboriginal women who were from poorer areas and could be easily bought as wives. The official policy on aboriginal identity had been a 1.1 ratio, leaving any intermarriage resulting in a Chinese child. Later the policy was adjusted to the ethnic status of the father determining the status of the child.

The field of aboriginal studies had been nearly eliminated from Taiwan's education curriculum, favoring the exemplification of all things Chinese to help validate the KMT on Taiwan. The result has been the loss of several languages and a perpetuation of shame for being an aborigine. Very few Taiwanese are willing to entertain the idea of having aboriginal genes although modern studies show a high degree of intermixing. In a 1994 study, 71% of families would object to their daughter marrying an aboriginal man.

Since the mid-1990s the R.O.C. government has taken steps to raise aboriginal awareness and expand aboriginal rights, as part of the Taiwanese localization movement. Aborigines play a significant role in schemes of local education and the environment with talk of autonomous regions and mandatory offerings of aboriginal language. Since 1998, the official curriculum in Taiwan schools has been changed to contain more frequent and favorable mention of aborigines. The government had also spent considerable funds on museums and culture centers focusing on plains tribes and Taiwan's aboriginal heritage. As more research is conducted, it has become clear that the ethnic makeup of Taiwanese do not fall simply within the simplistic classifications normally used to describe them. Lee Teng hui famously submitted to a blood test which revealed aboriginal genes among Hakka and Fujianese.

Supporters of Taiwanese independence see the interest in aboriginal affairs gradual move towards nation building and the creation of an alternative to a Chinese identity. For their part, supporters of Chinese reunification do not in generally object to the interest in aboriginal affairs and argue that this illustrates the broadness and diversity of the Chinese identity and point out that this interest in indigenous peoples parallels a similar interest in Mainland China as part of the Xungen movement.

Modern aborigines

Missing image
Bunun dancer just before her performance in Lona, Taiwan.

Aborigines, according to the government's current standard for recognition, make up less 2% of the total population of Taiwan, yet by 1994, 34% of the entire aboriginal population had relocated to the cities. The economic boom Taiwan experienced between during the last quarter of the 20th century resulted in drawing large numbers of aborigines out of their villages and into the urban workforce. Construction jobs were generally available for aborigines, who could not receive satisfactory educations on their reservations and lacked other marketable skills. The aborigines quickly formed bonds with other tribes as they all had similar political motives to protect their collective needs as part of the labor force. The aborigines became the most skilled iron workers and construction teams on the island often selected to work on the most difficult projects. The result was a mass exodus of tribal members from their traditional lands and the cultural alienation of young people in the villages, who could not learn their languages or customs while employed. Often, young aborigines in the cities fell into gangs aligned with the construction trade. The aboriginal cultures in Taiwan faced a massive crisis. Recent laws governing the employment of laborers from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines had eroded aboriginal opportunities in the labor force. Other groups of aborigines have turned to tourism to economically compete in the local economy. Due to the close proximity of aboriginal land to the mountains, many tribes have hoped to cash in on hot spring ventures and hotels, where they offer singing and dancing to add to the ambiance. Critics often call the ventures exploitative or pandering to the aboriginal stereotypes.

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Young residents in the Bunun village of Lona, Taiwan dress up for the traditional Christmas holiday. Christian missionaries have converted many residents to Catholic and Protestant faith and the town holds two large holiday parades.

The aborigines in Taiwan have also come to symbolize ecological awareness on the island as many of the environmental issues are spearheaded by aborigines who have classically been victims of government sanctioned pollution schemes. The highest profile case is the nuclear waste storage facility on Orchid Island. Orchid Island is a small, tropical island 60km off the southeast coast of Taiwan. The inhabitants are the 4000 members of the Tao tribe who have subsisted from fishing and taro farming on the island for over 1000 years. In the 1970s the island was designated as a possible site to store low and medium grade nuclear waste. The island, although populated, was selected on the grounds that it would be cheaper to build the necessary infrastructure for storage and that the population would not cause trouble. The Tao tribe claims KMT officials offered to build them a cannery for surplus fish and resent the 98,000 barrels of nuclear waste stored on their island, 100 meters from the Immorod fishing fields. The Tao have since stood at the forefront of the anti-nuclear movement and launched several exorcisms and protests to remove the waste they claim has resulted in deaths and sickness. The lease on the land has expired and an alternative site has yet to be selected. The county commissioner of Taitung County has offered to store the waste in Taimali (Timmuri), on the Puyuma reservation, but the idea has not been accepted by local residents.

Missing image
Bunun mother and child in sling in Lona Village, Taiwan.

There is currently a movement by the aborigines to return to their traditional sites and find ways to remain on their lands, continue their culture and speak their languages while earning a living. Eco-tourism, sewing and selling tribal carvings, jewelry and music has become the new aboriginal economy. The central government has taken steps to allow romanized spellings of aboriginal names on official documents, offsetting the long held policy of forcing a Chinese name on an aborigine. A relaxed policy on identification now allows a child to choose their official designation if they are born to mixed aboriginal/han parents.

Politically, Taiwanese aborigines tend to vote for the Kuomintang. Although this may seem surprising in light of the focus on the pan-green coalition on promoting aboriginal culture, this voting pattern can be explained on economic grounds. Aboriginal areas tend to be poor and are dependent on patronage networks established by the Kuomintang. One curious feature of Taiwanese electoral ballots is that candidates for the aboriginal seats running for the pan-blue coalition generally use sinified names while candidates for those seats running for the pan-green coalition tend to use original aboriginal names.


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See also

External links


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de:Indigene Vlker Taiwans

ja:台湾原住民 nl:Taiwanese aboriginals zh:台灣原住民 zh-min-nan:Tâi-oân goân-chū-bîn


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