A village chief of the Rukai, one of Taiwan’s smaller indigenous tribes, visiting the Department of Anthropology at Tokyo Imperial University during the Japanese rule of the island, 1896.

The indigenous peoples of Taiwan are the island’s original Austronesian inhabitants. They are a diverse collection of ethnic groups who have preserved and transformed their cultures over 400 years of invasion and rule by Chinese and Japanese rulers. Today they are important symbols of a multicultural Taiwan whose distinct political identities are institutionalized in law and state policies.

Taiwan’s 480,000 indigenous people—the island’s non-Chinese original inhabitants—make up 2 percent of Taiwan’s population. Archaeological evidence indicates that their ancestors migrated from the Asian mainland at least six thousand years ago and became the source of migrations south into insular Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Later migration northward from the Philippines brought some groups back to southern Taiwan. The twenty-two indigenous cultures and languages in Taiwan—fourteen of which still exist—are a major resource for research into Austronesian ??? origins. Their languages include the oldest languages of the Austronesian family.

Original Inhabitants

The indigenous peoples of Taiwan were the island’s only inhabitants until 1625, when the Dutch founded a colony, and Chinese migration began. Almost all the plains aborigines (Pingpuzu ???) had been sinicized and had intermarried into Chinese settler society by the early twentieth century. Although a Pingpu ethnic revival is under way today, the real descendants of these people are the Hokkien-speaking Taiwanese, most of whom have Pingpu as well as Chinese ancestors. The fourteen state-recognized groups who inhabit the eastern coast and mountains survived because of their location’s geography and in part because other people feared them as headhunters and “savages.” Indigenous people were known as “Mountain People” (Shandiren ???, Shanbao ??) until the Return Our Name movement resulted in official adoption of the phrase Taiwan Aboriginal Peoples (Yuanzhuminzu ????) in 1994. Since then the term indigenous has generally replaced the term aboriginal as the preferred translation of the Chinese term.

Relationships between the mountain aborigines and settler society were determined by trade and a Chinese defensive line along the mountain fringe until the 1860s, when export demand for camphor and tea led settlers to expand into the mountains, especially in northern Taiwan. Resistance by indigenous people and reprisals by settlers characterized a generation of sporadic warfare in the north. Such warfare ended only after 1895 with imposition of a strong defense line by Taiwan’s new Japanese rulers, who separated mountain indigenous areas from the rest of Taiwan and prohibited Chinese settlement and any non-Japanese cultural influence. This strategy of colonial control ultimately helped preserve indigenous territory and culture. The Tayal tribe most strongly resisted the imposition of harsh Japanese police administration. A military campaign of five years (1910–1914) cost thousands of lives before the Tayal were conquered. In 1930 a final uprising, the Wushe Incident, occurred in central Taiwan. The Japanese rulers relocated villages from the deep mountains, introduced a cash economy and rice agriculture, and educated a generation of indigenous elite while eradicating much of the traditional indigenous social structure. Today indigenous culture is deeply marked by Japanese language and custom.

Importance of Churches

The Republic of China (Taiwan, 1949–) under the Chinese Nationalists continued most Japanese policies after 1945 but opened up the mountains to Christian evangelism and Chinese settlement. Policies of agricultural development, suppression of indigenous languages, enforcement of Mandarin Chinese education, and politicized sinicization in the 1950s were intended to assimilate the indigenous people. Attempts to oppose these policies by some members of the indigenous elite were quickly crushed, notably in 1954 with the execution of several leaders of the Formosan National Salvation Alliance. Most local leaders joined the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang ??? [GMD], Kuomintang) in order to win elections in the thirty Mountain Townships ???, which were low-level units of self-government that serve as conduits for patronage. Much of the indigenous reserve land, which had been held in trust by the state since days of Japanese rule for indigenous users, fell into Chinese hands. Indigenous society became plagued by alcoholism, poverty, suicide, and family breakdown. Indigenous people became sources of cheap labor in construction, factories, mines, and fishing. Today these problems continue in spite of significant improvements in the situation of indigenous people.

Churches became the basis of indigenous ethnic revival and cultural persistence. Through Catholic and Presbyterian evangelism about 70 percent of indigenous people had become Christian by 1960. Today in Taiwan Christianity is often considered to be a mark of indigenous identity. Use of indigenous language in worship, leadership by indigenous clergy, and inclusion of traditional forms of social cooperation in church organization affirmed and perpetuated indigenous identity, especially among Presbyterians. Churches were the only autonomous indigenous people’s organizations that were beyond state control.

A charismatic movement revitalized the indigenous Presbyterian churches from the mid-1970s on, and human rights concepts combined with biblical images of the Promised Land and the Chosen People, bringing elements of indigenous nationalism to everyday religious practice. Politically, most indigenous politicians continued to be loyal members of the Guomindang. However, widespread opposition to authoritarian GMD rule began to increase in the early 1980s. A few educated young people began to challenge GMD control of the indigenous people. In 1984, with support from the Presbyterian church, they founded the Alliance of Taiwan Aborigines ???????? (ATA). Indigenous churches were already conducting a campaign to gain land rights from the state and, with the ATA, began to be openly critical of state policies. In 1987 several highly publicized local demonstrations were staged over land issues, with Presbyterian clergy played leading roles. The next year these demonstrations coalesced into the Return Our Land movement ?????? and an indigenous mass demonstration in the capital, Taipei, on 25 August 1988.

Indigenous Rights Movements

The Return Our Land movement gained the return of only about 13,000 hectares of land. However, it raised the profile of indigenous issues in Taiwan. Indigenous politicians sought to win elections by fighting for long-denied rights. Self-government ?? and native language ?? became popular social causes in the 1990s. The following resolutions were enshrined in constitutional revisions adopted in July 1997:

The State affirms cultural pluralism and shall actively preserve and foster the development of indigenous languages and cultures.

The State shall, in accordance with the will of the ethnic groups, safeguard the status and political participation of the aborigines. The State shall also guarantee and provide assistance and encouragement for indigenous education, culture, medical care, economic activity, land and social welfare. Measures for this shall be established by law. (Additional Articles 1997, Article 10)

In 1996 the cab
inet-level Council of Indigenous Affairs was established, although it has no administrative authority. Nevertheless, the large roles in funding and policy consultation it has been given have contributed to an indigenous renaissance and to the development of many local and national nongovernmental initiatives. By 2000 indigenous peoples had become the symbol of the new multicultural Taiwan, present at every major public event and in overseas cultural exchanges. The then new president Chen Shuibian in 2000 appointed a leader of the indigenous rights movement, a Presbyterian minister, to head the Council of Indigenous Affairs ???????? and made classes in native languages part of the school curriculum. Ambitious proposals to create indigenous autonomous areas were made but, because of GMD control of the legislature and aboriginal townships, were never executed. The Indigenous Peoples Basic Law ??????, passed in 2007, mandates this indigenous control of resources and culture. If the new GMD regime (2008) implements this law, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan could become a political model for the world in their transition from the ethnic margins to the political center.

Further Reading

Additional Articles to the Constitution of the Republic of China (Fourth Revision, 1997). Retrieved January 15, 2009, from http://www.taiwandocuments.org/constitution02.htm

Bellwood, P. (1991, July). The Austronesian dispersal and the origin of languages. Scientific American, 191, 88–93.

Chen Chi-lu. (1968). Material culture of the Formosan aborigines. Taipei, Taiwan: Taiwan Provincial Museum.

Li Kuang-chou, Chang Kwang-chih, Wolf, A. P., & Alexander Chien-chun Yin. (Eds.). (1989). Anthropological studies of the Taiwan area: Accomplishments and prospects. Taipei, Taiwan: National Taiwan University.

Republic of China Government Information Office. (2008). Indigenous Peoples. In Republic of China yearbook 2008 (pp. 29–36). Taipei, Taiwan: Government Information Office.

Rubinstein, M. (Ed.). (1999). Taiwan: A new history. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Shepherd, J. R. (1993). Statecraft and political economy on the Taiwan frontier 16001800. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Stainton, M. (1995). Return our land: Counterhegemonic Presbyterian Indigeneity in Taiwan. Master’s thesis. Toronto: York University.

Stainton, M. (1995, Fall). Taiwan aborigines in the UN: International and domestic implications. East Asia Forum, 4, 63–79.

Yeh Chuen-rong. (Ed.). (2006). History, culture and ethnicity: Selected papers from the International Conference on the Formosan Indigenous Peoples. Taipei, Taiwan: Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines.

Source: Stainton, Michael. (2009). Indigenous Peoples—Taiwan. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1151–1153. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Indigenous Peoples—Taiwan (Táiw?n yuánzhùmínzú ??????)|Táiw?n yuánzhùmínzú ?????? (Indigenous Peoples—Taiwan)

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