Taiwanese Aborigines – the Natives of Taiwan

Taiwanese aborigines have inhabited the island for thousands of years before the arrival of Chinese settlers.They are the First Nations of Taiwan.

My first contact with Taiwanese aborigines happened around the year 1995.

At that time a song, called “Return to Innocence”, was on the Top 10 in several countries. It also became the unofficial anthem of Atlanta Olympic Games

That song mixed an “ethnic” chant with electronic music.

As most of people, I thought this was a native American song.

I was wrong. As I discovered later in Taiwan, where everybody knows this story, the “ethnic” singers were a couple of Taiwanese aborigines. They were Difang and Igay Duana, husband and wife, from the Amis tribe.

Without their acknowledgment, the traditional “Elders Drinking Song”, performed during a culture exchange tour in France, was recorded and later sampled by the band Enigma for their hit.

Difang and Igay had to fight a long battle before receiving their deserved recognition from EMI Records. But this is another story

Who are the Taiwanese Aborigines

When the Dutch colonized Taiwan in 1624, almost 400 years ago, the only inhabitants they found were Taiwanese aborigines. Before that event, aborigine people have been living in Taiwan, almost undisturbed, for thousand of years.

Taiwan aboriginals have not much in common with the Australian ones, except the name. “Aborigine” or “aboriginal” is a word derived from Latin that simply means “original inhabitant, native, indigenous”.

The origin of indigenous peoples of Taiwan is still debated. It is certain that they belong to the family of Austronesian peoples.

Therefore Taiwanese Aborigines are different from Han Chinese and, instead, rather similar to Polynesians, Malays and Filipinos. Nowadays, a quite popular theory argues that Taiwan is the original “home” of all the Austronesian people.

Hence the Austronesian would have migrated from Taiwan westward to Madagascar and eastward to Polynesia and New Zealand.

The Austronesian migrations - Map by Christophe Cagé on Wikipedia
The Austronesian migrations – Map by Christophe Cagé on Wikipedia

Fourteen Aboriginal Tribes

Nowadays there are about 530,000 aboriginals in Taiwan. They account for  2.3% of the population.

Taiwanese Aborigines Tribes Map - By base map: NordNordWest distribution map: Jappalang [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Taiwanese Aborigines Tribes – By NordNordWest and Jappalang, via Wikimedia Commons
Taiwan government officially recognizes 16 tribes, each of them different for culture and language. Here is a list of them:

  • Amis.
  • Atayal.
  • Bunun.
  • Hla’alua.
  • Kanakanavu.
  • Kavalan.
  • Paiwan.
  • Puyuma.
  • Rukai.
  • Saisiat.
  • Sakizaya.
  • Seediq.
  • Thao.
  • Truku.
  • Tsou.
  • Yami.

Most aborigine people live on the mountains. Many have migrated to the cities, where often earn a living as construction workers.

Taiwanese Aborigines lived also in the western plains. They were called Pingpu by the Han settlers. They have been assimilated by them. Actually 85% of all Taiwanese people might have some degree of aboriginal bloodline.

Culture of Taiwanese Aborigines

Not long time ago being an aboriginal in Taiwan was often considered somewhat as a handicap. Something not to be very proud of, something that had to be kept hidden.

Because of the political and cultural freedom of the last 20 years that mindset is changing very fast.

The aboriginals themselves have rediscovered with pride their roots, their heritage.

Also, more and more ethnic Chinese have a more positive view of aborigine people. Especially some of the younger Taiwanese see, somewhat romantically, the aboriginals as pursuing a more “authentic” lifestyle.

To put it simple, more and more Taiwanese see the different people of Taiwan, including aborigine people, as fellows in that small boat called “Taiwan”.

A new aboriginal slate house in Maolin, Southern Taiwan
A new aboriginal slate house in Maolin, Southern Taiwan

Obviously sometimes there is also marketing in this new attitude. Amusement parks, soulless “traditional dances” and especially fake “made in China” aboriginal handcrafts have spread.

Anyway CDs of real aboriginal music, often extremely good and inspiring, are available and appreciated everywhere in Taiwan. And authentic aboriginal handcrafts are available also, especially if you go to the right places.

Aborigine people songs and dances are rightfully famous. Music has always been part of everyday life. As the “Elders Drink Song” from Difang e Igay: a traditional song used to welcome friends and to express the joy of meeting and toasting them.

All the aboriginals of Taiwan had dances and songs to celebrate the community events: harvesting millet, hunting, love and, yes, also war and head-hunting.

Gorgeous traditional dresses, still used for ceremonies, are another important aspect of Taiwan aboriginal culture.

Aborigine people are more and more part of “mainstream culture” in Taiwan. One example, the movie by Wei Te-Sheng, a director very popular in Taiwan after “Cape No. 7“. His epic drama, Seediq Bale, is about the “Wushe Incident“, the last unfortunate aboriginal rebellion against Japanese rule in 1930. Have a look to the trailer:

Where you can meet Taiwan aborigine people?

Aboriginals can be found almost everywhere in the mountains or along the East Coast. Each time you enter a village adorned with colorful geometric patterns or with a church – aboriginals are mostly Christians – you can be sure you are on aboriginal land.

Some of the most interesting places to meet aborigine people and their culture are maybe these:

  • Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines (Taipei).
  • Wulai – near Taipei (Atayal).
  • Bulau Bulau – Yilan (Atayal).
  • Smangus – quite remote (Atayal).
  • Sandimen and Maolin in Southern Taiwan (Rukai).
  • Buluowan (Truku) at Taroko Gorge.
  • Lanyu/Orchid Island (Yami).

Closer to Taichung, a few interesting places are:

  • Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village in Sun Moon Lake.
  • The area around Sun Moon Lake (for example the Bunun village of Dili).
  • The area around and above Puli (for example Qingliu, where the Sediq that survived the repression after Wushe, were forcibly relocated).

In Taichung, there are at least two good restaurants that serve Aboriginal Cuisine:

A book you should read

A very good resource about Taiwan aboriginals is the book “The Real Taiwan and the Dutch – Traveling Notes from the Netherland Representative“. The book is from the former Dutch “ambassador” in Taiwan, Menno Goedhart, and from Cheryl Robbins.

Menno Goedhart have been traveling extensively in the most remote corners of Taiwan.

The book is different from any other English travel guide I have ever read about Taiwan. It lists a lot of unknown inns and aboriginal food and restaurants. It is a real work of love and a book I wholeheartedly recommend if you want to explore Taiwan off the beaten track.

You can find this book in Tribe Asia website.

1 Comment on Taiwanese Aborigines – the Natives of Taiwan

  1. There is a theory that the Maori people of New Zealand orginate from Taiwan native tribes,one of many theories. Cheers cuz.

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