Long before Republic of China, Japanese colonization, Qing Dynasty and even the Europeans shouting “Ilha Formosa,” there were indigenous people living in Taiwan. Taiwan’s indigenous people are considered Austronesian, or Austronesian-speaking people. They belong to the the same language family as those in Southeast Asia, Oceania and Madagascar.
*Note: the term “aboriginals” is longer used, as “ab-” is the Latin prefix for “away from” or “not.” The term “indigenous peoples” is preferred to denote people from the land itself.
Officially, there are only 16 tribes that are recognized by the Taiwan government.
When the Republic of China government (current ruling government in Taiwan) came to Taiwan in 1945, the Japanese empire (having governed Taiwan for 50 years) had already classified 9 different indigenous nations:
From the 2000s, the government started to recognize more tribes and has now expanded the list to 16 tribes total (see full list here.)
Just as many indigenous people around the world face issues from foreign power, Taiwan’s indigenous people are no exception. Here are some of the major issues they face:
As mentioned above, there are only 16 nationally recognized tribes; however, there are about 29 tribes identified by the people themselves. All of the tribes that are not recognized are referred to as the plains indigenous people. One reason for not being recognized is that the government has deemed many of the tribes to be too diluted with Han people and are unable to be identified. In the 17th century, Koxinga has brought many people from Southeast China to Taiwan and worked with the indigenous tribes to drive out the Dutch and Spanish. Through the many generations, it is now believed that 80-85% of the Hokkien and Hakka populations are actually all descendants of Taiwanese indigenous people.
Taiwanese indigenous peoples have a concept of traditional territory where, apart from the land they reside in, they also have sacred grounds, hunting grounds, ritual grounds, and farming grounds.
This has led to land becoming extremely scarce due to issues such as tribe members being denied access to their traditional land because it is now being barred off as a national park.
When the Chinese Nationalist Party set up the Republic of China, they aimed to “civilize” the indigenous people. This meant trying to remove their language and culture. In line with this attempt are many stories that were told to depict the savageness of the indigenous people. One such story is the story of Wu Fong. He was a Han Chinese man who was sent to the village to help teach and help the tribe. After “civilizing” and teaching them, the tribe decapitated him as a tribute for their festival. This story was taught in Chinese textbooks until 1989. This same story made Han Chinese kids view their indigenous classmates as inferior savages, causing indigenous children to feel embarrassed by their identities.
While stories like this are getting removed from textbooks, and most job opportunities in Taiwan are in major cities, there becomes a loss of talent in the tribes as well as a loss of culture.
Movies to Learn about Taiwanese Indigenous People
Wawa No Cidal
Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale
Fun Fact: One prevailing theory is that all Austronesians started out from Taiwan.
All Taiwan Indigneous Nations
- Hla’alua (Saaroa)
- Pinuyumayan (corrected from Puyama)
- Tao (Yami)
- Truku (Taroko)