Taiwanese aborigines are the original people of Taiwan. They settled the island over 6,000 of years ago. Today, most Taiwanese are of Han Chinese ancestry – the 569,000 aborigines are 2% of the population. They belong to around 20 different tribes.
The Austronesian language family began in Taiwan. In ancient times, settlers from Taiwan took to the sea. Their descendants became the modern inhabitants of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Polynesia. Of the 9 subdivisions in the Austronesian language family, 8 are exclusive to Taiwan. The descendants of those who remained are the modern Taiwanese aborigines.
Taiwanese aborigines did not consider themselves a single people but as members of one tribe or another, such as the Truku or Atayal. Some lived in the island’s western plains, where most Taiwanese cities stand today, others in the wilder, mountainous west.
The plains tribes lived in bamboo villages. They grew millet, fished and hunted deer. When the Dutch colonised Taiwan (Formosa) in the 1600s, mass-scale Han Chinese immigration assimilated the plain tribes. The modern Taiwanese census does not recognise the 200,000 or so plains aborigines as a separate people.
The mountain tribes had little contact with settlers until the 19th century. Headhunting was a common rite of passage. In some tribes, if a man did not take an enemy’s head in his life, he would not pass into the next. Mountain tribes hunted wild game and had facial tattoos. They traded pelts and camphor to Han settlers in exchange for guns and iron.
In response to raids, the Japanese invaded Taiwan’s interior in the 1890s. They considered the aboriginals barbarians to be vanquished, and over the next forty years, cowed the indigenous tribes one by one.
When the Sediq rebelled in 1930, Japanese authorities bombarded them with artillery and killed 600.
Taiwanese aborigines fought as specialist jungle troops for Japan in WW2. One of them, Terumo Nakamura, did not surrender until 1974.
The Kuomintang dictatorship that ruled Taiwan from 1945 – 1987, pushed a vigorous assimilation campaign through interrmarriage and education.
The Yami people live on Orchid Island off the coast of Taiwan. In 1982 their government dumped nuclear waste on the island, which the Yami have protested since.
Aborigines have been a minority since the 1700s. In modern, democratic Taiwan, they face higher mortality, poverty and unemployment than Chinese-Taiwanese. Of their twenty known languages, ten are now extinct, the rest endangered. Those who move to the cities risk losing their culture, those who stay face poverty.
In the 1860s, European missionaries exploited aboriginal animosity for the Han colonial system to win converts. Today, most aborigines are Christian.
In the 21st century, Taiwan has begun to embrace its aboriginal heritage as a means to distinguish it from mainland China. Aboriginal groups have made been slowly reviving their culture through tourism and education.
In 2016, Taiwanese president Tsai-Ing-Wen, herself of aboriginal descent, officially apologised on behalf of the government for historic oppression of the aboriginal community. She declared August 1st Indigenous People’s Day.
Sources: Cultural Survival, Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), New York Times, Taipei Times.