Taiwanese aborigines

Taiwanese aborigines

Taiwanese aborigines () complete with a lineage to Fujian province. In other cases, plains Aborigine families adopted common Han surnames, but traced their earliest ancestor to their locality in Taiwan.

In many cases, large groups of immigrant Han 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 assist a brother in need. The brotherhood groups would link 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 widespread that today’s family books are largely unreliable (Harvcolnb|Hsu|1980|pp=31-34;90–105; Harvcolnb|Ebrey|1996|pp=19–34). Many plains aborigines joined the brotherhoods to gain protection of the collective as a type of insurance policy against regional strife, and through these groups they took on a Han identity with a Han lineage.

The degree to which any one of these forces held sway over others is unclear. Preference for one explanation over another is sometimes predicated upon a given political viewpoint. The cumulative effect of these dynamics is that by the beginning of the twentieth century the plains tribes were almost completely acculturated into the larger ethnic Han group, and had experienced nearly total language shift from their respective Formosan languages to Chinese. In addition, legal barriers to the use of traditional surnames persisted until recently, and cultural barriers remain. Aborigines were not permitted to use their traditional names on official identification cards until 1995 when a ban on using Aboriginal names dating from 1946 was finally lifted.Harvcoltxt|Low|2005 states: “According to a documentary released by the Democratic Progressive Party’s ethnic affairs department, although aborigines are now allowed to use their traditional names following a 1995 amendment to the Personal Names Act, only 890 out of the total of 460,000 aborigines in Taiwan have done so because of the past stigma attached to the names and the complicated formalities involved”] One obstacle is that household registration forms allow a maximum of 15 characters for personal names. However, aboriginal names are still phonetically translated into Chinese characters, and many names require more than the allotted space Harvcol|Loa|2007.

History of the Aboriginal Peoples

Chipped-pebble tools dating from perhaps as early as 15,000 years ago suggest that the initial human inhabitants of Taiwan were Paleolithic cultures of the Pleistocene era. These people survived by eating marine life. Archaeological evidence points to an abrupt change to the Neolithic era around 6000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture, domestic animals, polished stone adzes and pottery. The stone adzes were mass-produced on Penghu and nearby islands, from the volcanic rock found there. This suggests heavy sea traffic took place between these islands and Taiwan at this time Harvcol|Rolett|Jiao|Lin|2002|pp=307–08; 313.

Recorded history of the Aborigines on Taiwan began around the seventeenth century, and has often been dominated by the views and policies of foreign powers and non-Aborigines. Beginning with the arrival of Dutch merchants in 1624, the traditional lands of the aborigines have been successively colonized by Dutch, Spanish, Han (from both the Ming and Qing dynasties), Japanese, and Chinese (the Chinese Nationalist government, or Kuomintang) rulers. Each of these successive “civilizing” cultural centers participated in violent conflict and peaceful economic interaction with both the Plains and Mountain tribal groups. To varying degrees, they influenced or transformed the culture and language of the indigenous peoples.

Four centuries of non-indigenous rule can be viewed through several changing periods of governing power and shifting official policy toward aborigines. From the seventeenth century until the early twentieth, the impact of the foreign settlers — the Dutch, Spanish and Han — was more extensive on the Plains tribes. The latter were far more geographically accessible, and thus had more dealings with the foreign powers. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Plains tribes had largely been assimilated into contemporary Taiwanese culture as a result of European and Han colonial rule. Until the latter half of the Japanese colonial era the Mountain tribes were not entirely governed by any non-tribal polity. However, the mid-1930’s marked a shift in the intercultural dynamic, as the Japanese began to play a far more dominant role in the culture of the highland groups. This increased degree of control over the Mountain tribes continued during Kuomintang rule.

Within these two broad eras, there were many differences in the individual and regional impact of the colonizers and their “civilizing projects”. At times the foreign powers were accepted readily, as some tribes adopted foreign clothing styles and cultural practices Harvcol|Harrison|2003, and engaged in cooperative trade in goods such as camphor, deer hides, sugar, tea and rice Harvcol|Gold|1986|p=24–28. At numerous other times changes from the outside world were forcibly imposed.

Much of the historical information regarding Taiwan’s Aborigines was collected by these regimes in the form of administrative reports and gazettes as part of greater “civilizing” projects. The collection of information aided in the consolidation of administrative control.

Plains Aboriginals

The Plains Aborigines 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 more than 1500 people, surrounded by smaller satellite villages Harvcol|Kang|2003|pp=111–117. Siraya villages were constructed of dwellings made of thatch and bamboo, raised 2 m 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 often communal, with a series of conceptualized concentric rings around each village. The innermost ring was used for gardens and orchards that followed a fallowing cycle around the ring. The second ring was used to cultivate plants and natural fibers for the exclusive use of the tribe. The third ring was for exclusive hunting and deer fields for tribal use. The plains people hunted herds of spotted deer and muntjak as well as conducting light millet farming. Sugar and rice were grown as well, but mostly for use in preparing wine Harvcol|Shepherd|1993|pp=29–34.

Many of the plains peoples were matrilineal/matrifocal 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. In the age-grade communities, couples entered into marriage in their mid-30s when a man would no longer be required to perform military service or hunt heads on the battle-field. In the matriarchal system of the Siraya, it was also necessary for couples to abstain from marriage until their mid-thirties, when the bride’s father would be in his declining years and would not pose a challenge to the new male member of the household. It was not until the arrival of the Dutch Reformed Church in the 17th Century, that the marriage and child-birth taboos were abolished. There is some indication that many of the younger members of Sirayan society embraced the Dutch marriage customs as a means to circumvent the age-grade system in a push for greater village power Harvcol|Shepherd|1995|pp=61–65. Almost all indigenous peoples in Taiwan have traditionally had a custom of sexual division of labor. Women did the sewing, cooking and farming, while the men hunted and prepared for military activity and securing enemy heads in headhunting raids, which was a common practice in early Taiwan. Women were also often found in the office of priestess or medium to the gods.

The European period

During the European period (1623–1662) soldiers and traders representing the Dutch East India Company maintained a colony in southwestern Taiwan (1624–1662) near present-day Tainan City. This established an Asian base for triangular trade between the company, the Qing Dynasty and Japan, with the hope of interrupting Portuguese and Spanish trading alliances. The Spanish also maintained a colony in northern Taiwan (1626–1642) in present-day Keelung. However, Spanish influence wavered almost from the beginning, so that by the late 1630s they had already withdrawn most of their troops Harvcol|Andrade|2005|p=296 "2n". After they were driven out of Taiwan by a combined Dutch and Aboriginal force in 1642, the Spanish “had little effect on Taiwan’s history” Harvcol|Gold|1986|pp=10–11. Dutch influence was far more significant: expanding to the southwest and north of the island, they set up a tax system and established schools and churches in many villages.

When the Dutch arrived in 1624 at Tayouan (Anping) Harbor, Siraya-speaking representatives from nearby Saccam village soon appeared at the Dutch stockade to barter and trade; an overture which was readily welcomed by the Dutch. The Sirayan villages were, however, divided into warring factions: the village of Sinckan (Sinshih) was at war with Mattau (Madou) and its ally Baccluan, while the village of Soulang maintained uneasy neutrality. In 1629 a Dutch expeditionary force searching for Han pirates, was massacred by warriors from Mattau, and the victory inspired other villages to rebel Harvcol|Shepherd| 1995|pp=52–53. In 1635, with reinforcements having arrived from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), the Dutch subjugated and burned 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 beginning of Dutch consolidation over large parts of Taiwan, which brought an end to centuries of inter-village warfare Harvcol|Blusse|Everts|2000|pp=11–20. The new period of peace allowed the Dutch to construct schools and churches aimed to acculturate and convert the indigenous population (Harvcolnb|Campbell|1915|p=240; Harvcolnb|Shepherd|1995|p=66). Dutch schools taught a romanized script (Sinckan writing), which transcribed the Siraya language. This script maintained occasional use through the 18th century Harvcol|Shepherd| 1995|pp=66–68. Today only fragments survive, in documents and stone stele markers. The schools also served to maintain alliances and open aboriginal areas for Dutch enterprise and commerce.

The Dutch soon found trade in deerskins and venison in the East Asian market to be a lucrative endeavor Harvcol|Shepherd|1993|p=451 "19n", and recruited plains Aborigines to procure the hides. The deer trade attracted the first Han traders to Aboriginal villages, but as early as 1642 the demand for deer greatly diminished the deer stocks. This drop significantly reduced the prosperity of Aboriginal tribes Harvcol|Andrade|2005|p=303, forcing many Aborigines to take up farming to counter the economic impact of losing their most vital food source.

As the Dutch began subjugating Aboriginal villages in the south and west of Taiwan, increasing numbers of Han immigrants looked to exploit areas that were fertile and rich in game. The Dutch initially encouraged this, since the Han were skilled in agriculture and large-scale hunting. Several Han took up residence in Siraya villages. The Dutch used Han agents to collect taxes, hunting license fees and other income. This set up a society in which “... many of the colonists were Han Chinese but the military and the administrative structures were Dutch” Harvcol|Andrade|2005|p=298. Despite this, local alliances transcended ethnicity during the Dutch period. For example, the Guo Huaiyi Rebellion in 1652, a Han farmers’ uprising, was defeated by an alliance of 120 Dutch musketeers with the aid of Han loyalists and 600 Aboriginal braves Harvcol|Shepherd|1993|p=90.

The Dutch period ended in 1662 when Ming loyalist forces of Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) drove out the Dutch and established the short-lived Zheng family kingdom on Taiwan. The Zhengs brought 70,000 soldiers to Taiwan and immediately began clearing large tracts of land to support its forces. Despite the preoccupation with fighting the Qing, the Zheng family was concerned with Aboriginal welfare on Taiwan. The Zhengs built alliances, collected taxes and erected Aboriginal schools, where Taiwan’s Aborigines were first introduced to the Confucian Classics and Chinese writing Harvcol|Shepherd|1993|pp=92–103. However, the impact of the Dutch was deeply ingrained in Aboriginal society. In the 19th and 20th century, European explorers wrote of being welcomed as kin by the aborigines who thought they were the Dutch, who had promised to return Harvcol|Pickering|1898|p=116–118.

Qing rule

After the Qing government defeated the Ming loyalist forces maintained by the Zheng family in 1683, parts of Taiwan became increasingly integrated into the Qing Empire Harvcol|Teng|2004|pp=35–60. Qing forces ruled areas of Taiwan’s highly populated western plain for nearly two centuries, until 1895. This era was characterized by a marked increase in the number of Han Chinese on Taiwan, continued social unrest, the piecemeal transfer (by various means) of large amounts of land from the aborigines to the Han, and the nearly complete acculturation of the western plains Aborigines to Taiwanese Han customs.

During the Qing Dynasty’s two-century rule over Taiwan, the population of Han on the island increased dramatically. However, it is not clear to what extent this was due to an influx of Han settlers, who were predominantly displaced young men from Zhangzhou and Quanzhou in Fujian province Harvcol|Tsao|1999|p=331 or from a variety of other factors, including: frequent intermarriage between Han and Aborigines, the replacement of aboriginal marriage and abortion taboos, and the widespread adoption of the Han agricultural lifestyle due to the depletion of traditional game stocks, which may have led to increased birth rates and population growth. Moreover, the acculturation of Aborigines in increased numbers may have intensified the perception of a swell in the number of Han.

The Qing government officially sanctioned controlled Han settlement, but sought to manage tensions between the various regional and ethnic groups. Therefore it often recognized the plains tribes’ claims to deer fields and traditional territory (Harvcolnb|Knapp|1980|pp=55–68; Harvcolnb|Shepherd|1993|pp=14–20). The Qing authorities hoped to turn the plains tribes into loyal subjects, and adopted the head and corveé taxes on the Aborigines, which made the plains aborigines directly responsible for payment to the government yamen. The attention paid by the Qing authorities to aboriginal land rights was part of a larger administrative goal to maintain a level of peace on the turbulent Taiwan frontier, which was often marred by ethnic and regional conflict.“From 1684 to 1895, 159 major incidents of civil disturbances rocked Taiwan, including 74 armed clashes and 65 uprisings led by wanderers. During the 120 years from 1768 to 1887, approximately 57 armed clashes occurred, 47 of which broke out from 1768 to 1860” Harvcol|Chen|1999|p=136.] The frequency of rebellions, riots, and civil strife in Qing Dynasty Taiwan is often encapsulated in the saying “every three years an uprising; every five years a rebellion” Harvcol|Kerr|1965|p=4. Aboriginal participation in a number of major revolts during the Qing era, including the Taokas-led Ta-Chia-hsi revolt of 1731–1732, ensured the plains tribes would remain an important factor in crafting Qing frontier policy until the end of Qing rule in 1895 Harvcol|Shepherd|1993|pp=128–129.

The struggle over land resources was one source of conflict. Large areas of the western plain were subject to large land rents called "Huan Da Zu" (番大租—literally, “Barbarian Big Rent”), a category which remained until the period of Japanese colonization. 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 patent for use, while maintaining ownership (skeleton) of the subsoil (田骨), which was called “two lords to a field” (一田兩主). The plains tribes were often cheated out of land or pressured to sell at unfavorable rates. Some disaffected subgroups moved to central or eastern Taiwan, but most remained in their ancestral locations and acculturated or assimilated into Han society Harvcol|Chen|1997.

Migration to Highlands

One popular narrative holds that all of the Gaoshan tribes were originally plains tribes, which fled to the mountains under pressure from Han encroachment. This strong version of the “migration” theory has been largely discounted by contemporary research as the Gaoshan people demonstrate a physiology, material cultures and customs that have been adapted for life at higher elevations. Linguistic, archaeological, and recorded anecdotal evidence also suggests there has been island-wide migration of indigenous peoples for over 3000 years. For a detailed overview of the many migrations of Taiwanese aboriginal tribes, see Harvcol|Li|2001. For detailed map see [http://gis210.sinica.edu.tw/ysnp/ecai/moving.pdf Distribution of Austronesian in Taiwan depicting migration] .]

Small sub-groups of plains Aborigines may have occasionally fled to the mountains, foothills or eastern plain to escape hostile groups of Han or other Aborigines (see Harvcolnb|Tsuchida|Yamada|1991|pp=1–10; Harvcolnb |Li|2001).The “displacement scenario” is more likely rooted in the older customs of many plains groups to withdraw into the foothills during headhunting season or when threatened by a neighboring village as observed by the Dutch during their punitive campaign of Mattou in 1636 when the bulk of the village retreated to Tevoraan (Harvcolnb|Blusse|Everts|2000|pp=11–12; Harvcolnb|Shepherd|1993|pp=1–6; Harvcolnb|Shepherd|1995|pp=66–72).The “displacement scenario” may also stem from the inland migrations of plains aborigine subgroups, who were displaced by either Han or other plains aborigines and chose to move to the Iilan plain in 1804, the Puli basin in 1823 and another Puli migration in 1875. Each migration consisted of a number of families and totaled hundreds of people, not entire tribes (Harvcolnb|Shepherd|1993|pp=391–395; Harvcolnb|Pan|2002|pp=36–37). There are also recorded oral histories that recall some Plains aborigines were sometimes captured and killed by highlands tribes while relocating through the mountains (Yeh 2003). However, as Harvcoltxt|Shepherd|1993 explained in detail, documented evidence shows that the majority of plains people remained on the plains, intermarried immigrants from Fujian, and adopted a Han identity, where they remain today.

Highland tribes

Imperial Chinese and European societies had little contact with the Highland Aborigines until expeditions to the region by European and American explorers and missionaries commenced in the 19th and early 20th centuries (Harvcolnb|Campbell|1915; Harvcolnb|Mackay|1896|). The lack of data before this was primarily the result of a Qing quarantine on the region to the east of the “earth oxen” (土牛) border, which ran along the eastern edge of the western plain. Han contact with the mountain tribes was usually associated with the enterprise of gathering and extracting camphor from Camphor Laurel trees ("Cinnamomum camphora"), native to the island and in particular the mountainous areas. The production and shipment of camphor (used in herbal medicines and mothballs) was then a significant industry on the island, lasting up to and including the period of Japanese rule Harvcol|Pickering|1898|pp=220–224.. These early encounters often involved headhunting parties from the highland tribes, who sought out and raided unprotected Han forest workers. Together with traditional Han concepts of Taiwanese behavior, these raiding incidents helped to promote the Qing-era popular image of the “violent” aborigine Harvcol|Teng|2004|pp=230–236.

Plains aborigines were often employed and dispatched as interpreters to assist in the trade of 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 that were generally used as a forest tool. These blades became notorious among Han settlers, given their alternative use to decapitate highland tribal enemies in customary headhunting expeditions.


The highland tribes were renowned for their skill in headhunting, which was a symbol of bravery and valor Harvcol|Hsu|1991|pp=29–36. Almost every tribe except the Yami (Tao) practiced headhunting. Once the victims had been dispatched the heads were taken then boiled and left to dry, often hanging from trees or shelves constructed for the purpose. A party returning with a head was cause for celebration, as it would bring good luck. The Bunun people would often take prisoners and inscribe 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 at workers in the fields, or employ the ruse of setting a dwelling alight and then decapitating the inhabitants as they fled the burning structure. It was also customary to later raise the victim’s surviving children as full members of the tribe. Often the heads themselves were ceremonially ‘invited’ to join the tribe as members, where they were supposed to watch over the tribe and keep them safe. The indigenous inhabitants of Taiwan accepted the convention and practice of headhunting as one of the calculated risks of tribal life. The last groups to practice headhunting were the Paiwan, Bunun, and Atayal groups Harvcol|Montgomery-McGovern|1922. Japanese rule ended the practice by 1930, but some elder Taiwanese can recall the practice (Yeh 2003).

Japanese rule

When the Treaty of Shimonoseki was finalized on April 17, 1895, Taiwan was ceded by the Qing Empire to Japan, which sought to transform Taiwan into the supply-end of an extremely unequal flow of assets Harvcol|Gold|1986|p=36. Taiwan’s incorporation into the Japanese political orbit brought Taiwanese Aborigines into contact with a new colonial structure, determined to define and locate indigenous people within the framework of a new, multi-ethnic empire Harvcol|Kleeman|2003|p=19. The means of accomplishing this goal took three main forms: anthropological study of the natives of Taiwan, attempts to reshape the Aborigines in the mould of the Japanese, and military suppression.

Japan’s sentiment regarding indigenous peoples was crafted around the memory of the Mudan Incident, when, in 1871, a group of shipwrecked Okinawan fishermen was massacred by a Paiwan group from the village of Mudan in southern Taiwan. The resulting Japanese policy, published twenty years before the onset of their rule on Taiwan, cast Taiwanese Aborigines as “vicious, violent and cruel” and concluded “this is a pitfall of the world; we must get rid of them all” Harvcol|Kleeman|2003|pp=20–21. Japanese campaigns to gain aboriginal submission were often brutal, as evidenced in the desire of Japan’s first Governor General, Kabayama Sukenori, to “...conquer the barbarians” Harvcol|Kleeman|2003|p=20. In the Wushe Incident, for example, a Seediq group was decimated by artillery and supplanted by the Taroko (Truku) tribe, which had sustained periods of bombardment from naval ships and airplanes dropping mustard gas. A quarantine was placed around the mountain areas enforced by armed guard stations and electrified fence until the most remote high mountain villages could be relocated closer to administrative control Harvcol|Takekoshi|1907|pp=210–219.

Beginning in the first year of Japanese rule, the colonial government embarked on a mission to study the Aborigines so they could be classified, located and “civilized”. The Japanese “civilizing project”, partially fueled by public demand in Japan to know more about the empire, would be used to benefit the Imperial government by consolidating administrative control over the entire island, opening up vast tracts of land for exploitation Harvcol|Suenari|2006|pp=1–8. To satisfy these needs, “the Japanese portrayed and catalogued Taiwan’s indigenous peoples in a welter of statistical tables, magazine and newspaper articles, photograph albums for popular consumption” Harvcol|Matsuda|2003|p=181. The Japanese based much of their information and terminology on prior Qing era narratives concerning degrees of “civilization” Harvcol|Ka|1995|pp=27–30.

Japanese ethnographer Ino Kanari was charged with the task of surveying the entire population of Taiwanese Aborigines, applying the first systematic study of Aborigines on Taiwan. Ino’s research is best known for his formalization of eight tribes of Taiwanese Aborigines: Atayal, Bunun, Saisiat, Tsou, Paiwan, Puyuma, Ami and Pepo (Plains tribes) (Harvcolnb|Suenari|2006|pp=6–8; Harvcolnb|Blundell|2000|pp=15–16). This is the direct antecedent of the taxonomy used today to distinguish tribes that are officially recognized by the government.

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. Those who learned to work with the Japanese and follow their customs would be better suited to lead villages. The Japanese encouraged Aborigines to maintain traditional costumes and selected customs that were not considered detrimental to society, but invested much time and money in efforts to eliminate traditions deemed unsavory by Japanese culture, including tattooing Harvcol|Simon|2006. By the mid-1930s as Japan’s empire was reaching its zenith, the colonial government began a political socialization program designed to enforce Japanese customs, rituals and a loyal Japanese identity upon the aborigines. By the end of World War II, Aborigines whose fathers had been killed in pacification campaigns were volunteering to die for the Emperor of Japan Harvcol|Ching|2001|pp=153–173. The Japanese colonial experience left an indelible mark on many older aborigines who maintained an admiration for the Japanese long after their departure in 1945 Harvcol|Mendel|1970|pp=54–55.

Aborigines under the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party)

Japanese rule of Taiwan ended in 1945, following the armistice with the allies on September 2 and the subsequent appropriation of the island by Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) on October 25. In 1949, on losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communist Party of China, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek led the Kuomintang in a retreat from Mainland China, withdrawing its government and 1.3 million refugees to Taiwan. The KMT installed an authoritarian form of government, and shortly thereafter inaugurated a number of political socialization programs aimed at nationalizing Taiwanese people as citizens of a Chinese nation and eradicating Japanese influence Harvcol|Wilson|1970|. The KMT pursued highly centralized political and cultural policies rooted in the party’s decades-long history of fighting warlordism in China and opposing competing concepts of a loose federation following the demise of the imperial Qing Harvcol|Duara|1995. The project was designed to create a strong national Chinese cultural identity (as defined by the state) at the expense of local cultures Harvcol|Phillips|2003|pp=47-48;140–141.

Taiwanese Aborigines first encountered the Nationalist government in 1946, when the Japanese village schools were replaced by schools of the KMT. Documents from the Education Office show an emphasis on Chinese language, history and citizenship — with a curriculum steeped in pro-KMT ideology. Some elements of the curriculum, such as the Wu Feng Legend, are currently considered offensive to Aborigines Harvcol|Gao|2001. Much of the burden of educating the Aborigines was undertaken by unqualified teachers, who could, at best, speak Mandarin and teach basic ideology Harvcol|Harrison|2001|p=68–70. In 1951 a major political socialization campaign was launched to change the lifestyle of many aborigines, to adopt Han Chinese customs. A 1953 government report on mountain areas stated that its aims were chiefly to promote Mandarin in order to strengthen a national outlook and create good customs. This was included in the Shandi Pingdi Hua (山地平地化) policy to “make the mountains like the plains” Harvcol|Harrison|2003|p=351. Critics of the KMT’s program for a centralized national culture regard it as institutionalized ethnic discrimination, and point to the loss of several indigenous languages and a perpetuation of shame for being an AborigineHarvcol|Hsiau|1997|pp=302 noted that Taiwan’s first democratically elected President, Li Teng-Hui, said in a famous interview: “... In the period of Japanese colonialism, a Taiwanese would be punished by being forced to kneel out in the sun for speaking Tai-yü [a dialect of Min Nan, which is not a Formosan language] . The situation was the same [during KMT rule] ... my son... and my daughter-in-law... often wore a dunce board around their necks in the school as punishment for speaking Tai-yü...” ("Chung-yang jih-pao" “Central Daily News”, International Edition. April 16, 1994). [http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Lee_Teng-hui Read the full quote on Wikiquote.] ] as the direct result of what has been referred to as Han chauvinism.

The pattern of intermarriage continued, as many KMT soldiers married Aboriginal women who were from poorer areas and could be easily bought as wives Harvcol|Harrison|2003|p=351. Modern studies show a high degree of genetic intermixing. Despite this, many contemporary Taiwanese are unwilling to entertain the idea of having an Aboriginal heritage. In a 1994 study, it was found that 71% of the families surveyed would object to their daughter marrying an Aboriginal man. For much of the KMT era, the official government definition of Aboriginal identity had been 100% Aboriginal parentage, leaving any intermarriage resulting in a non-Aboriginal child. Later the policy was adjusted to the ethnic status of the father determining the status of the child Harvcol|Shih|1999.

Transition to democracy

Authoritarian rule under the Kuomintang ended gradually through a transition to democracy, which was marked by the lifting of martial law in 1987. Soon after, the KMT transitioned to being merely one party within a democratic system, though maintaining a high degree of power in aboriginal districts through an established system of patronage networks Harvcol|Stainton|2006|p=400–410. The KMT continued to hold the reins of power for another decade under President Lee Teng-hui. However, they did so as an elected government rather than a dictatorial power. The elected KMT government supported many of the bills that had been promoted by Aboriginal groups. The tenth amendment to the Constitution of the Republic of China also stipulates that the government would protect and preserve aborigine culture and languages and also encourage them to participate in politics.

During the period of political liberalization, which preceded the end of martial law, academic interest in the plains aborigines surged as amateur and professional historians sought to rediscover Taiwan’s past. The opposition tang wai activists seized upon the new image of the plains aborigines as a means to directly challenge the KMT’s official narrative of Taiwan as a historical part of China, and the government’s assertion that Taiwanese were “pure” Han Chinese (Harvcolnb|Hsiau|2000|p=170; Harvcolnb|Brown|2004|pp=23–29). Many "tang wai" activists framed the plains aboriginal experience in the existing anti-colonialism/victimization Taiwanese nationalist narrative, which positioned the Hoklo speaking Taiwanese in the role of indigenous people and the victims of successive foreign rulers (Harvcolnb|Hsiau|2000|pp=171–173; Harvcolnb|Edmondson|2002|pp=32–42; Harvcolnb|Su|1986). By the late 1980s many Hoklo and Hakka speaking people began identifying themselves as plains Aborigines, though any initial shift in ethnic consciousness from Hakka or Hoklo people was minor.Despite the politicized dramatization of the plains aborigines, their “rediscovery” as a matter of public discourse has had a lasting effect on the increased socio-political reconceptualization of Taiwan — emerging from the a Han Chinese dominant perspective into a wider acceptance of Taiwan as a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community.

In many districts Taiwanese Aborigines tend to vote for the Kuomintang, to the point that the legislative seats allocated to the aborigines are popularly described as "iron votes" for the pan-blue coalition. This may seem surprising in light of the focus of the pan-green coalition on promoting aboriginal culture as part of the Taiwanese nationalist discourse against the KMT. However, this voting pattern can be explained on economic grounds, and as part of an inter-ethnic power struggle waged in the electorate. Some Aborigines see the rhetoric of Taiwan nationalism as favoring the majority Hoklo speakers rather than themselves. Aboriginal areas also tend to be poor and their economic vitality tied to the entrenched patronage networks established by the Kuomintang over the course of its fifty-five year reign. (Harvcolnb|Stainton|2006|pp=4001-410; Harvcolnb|Gao|2007; Harvcolnb|Eyton|2004)

Contemporary Aborigines

The democratic era is a time of great change, both constructive and destructive, for the Aborigines of Taiwan. Since the 1980s, increased political and public attention has been paid to the rights and social issues of the indigenous tribes of Taiwan. Aborigines have realized gains in both the political and economic spheres. Though progress is ongoing, there remains a number of still unrealized goals within the framework of the ROC: “although certainly more ‘equal’ than they were 20, or even 10, years ago, the indigenous inhabitants in Taiwan still remain on the lowest rungs of the legal and socioeconomic ladders” Harvcol|Ericsson|2004. On the other hand, bright spots are not hard to find. A resurgence in ethnic pride has accompanied the Aboriginal cultural renaissance, which is exemplified by the increased popularity of Aboriginal music and greater public interest in aboriginal culture Harvcol|Gluck|2005.

Aboriginal political movement

The movement for indigenous cultural and political resurgence in Taiwan traces its roots to the ideals outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) Harvcol|Liu|2006. Although the Republic of China on Taiwan was a UN member and signatory to the original UN Charter, four decades of martial law controlled the discourse of culture and politics on Taiwan. The political liberalization Taiwan experienced leading up to the official end of martial law on July 15, 1987, opened a new public arena for dissenting voices and political movements against the centralized policy of the KMT.

In December 1984, the Taiwan Aboriginal People’s Movement was launched when a group of Aboriginal political activists, aided by the progressive Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT), Harvcol|Stainton|2002 established the Alliance of Taiwan Aborigines (ATA, or "yuan chuan hui") to highlight the problems experienced by indigenous communities all over Taiwan, including: prostitution, economic disparity, land rights and official discrimination in the form of naming rights (Harvcolnb|Faure|2001|pp=98–100; Harvcolnb|Stainton|1999; Harvcolnb|Hsieh|2006).

In 1988, amid the ATA’s Return Our Land Movement, in which Aborigines demanded the return of lands to the original inhabitants, the ATA sent its first representative to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations Harvcol|Hsieh|2006|pp=47–49. Following the success in addressing the UN, the “Return Our Land” movement evolved into the Aboriginal Constitution Movement, in which the Aboriginal representatives demanded appropriate wording in the ROC Constitution to ensure indigenous Taiwanese, “dignity and justice” in the form of enhanced legal protection, government assistance to improve living standards in indigenous communities, and the right to identify themselves as “"yuan chu min"” Harvcol|Stainton|1999|pp=39. The KMT government initially opposed the term, due to its implication that other people on Taiwan, including the KMT government, were newcomers and not entitled to the island. The KMT preferred "hsien chu min" 先住民 First people, or "tsao chu min" 早住民, Early People to evoke a sense of general historical immigration to Taiwan Harvcol|Stainton|1999|pp=38–39.

To some degree the movement has been successful. Beginning in 1998, the official curriculum in Taiwan schools has been changed to contain more frequent and favorable mention of Aborigines. In 1996 the Council of Indigenous Peoples was promoted to a ministry-level rank within the Executive Yuan. The central government has taken steps to allow romanized spellings of aboriginal names on official documents, offsetting the long held policy of forcing a Han 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.

The present political leaders in the Aboriginal community, led mostly by Aboriginal elites born after 1949, have been effective in leveraging their ethnic identity and socio-linguistic acculturation into contemporary Taiwanese society against the political backdrop of a changing Taiwan(Harvcolnb|Rudolph|2003|p=123). This has allowed indigenous people a means to push for greater political space, including the still unrealized prospect of Indigenous People’s Autonomous Areas within Taiwan (Harvcolnb|Liu|2006|pp=427–429; Harvcolnb|Ericsson|2004; Harvcolnb|Cheng|2007). Though in recent years the drive by the "ethnic elites" to promote Aboriginal particularity has run in contrast to ordinary Aborigines who wish to assimilate into contemporary social norms.

Aboriginal political representation

Aborigines are currently represented by eight members out of 225 seats in the Legislative Yuan. In 2008, the number of legislative seats was cut in half to 113, of which Taiwanese Aborigines are represented by six members.("“Development”" 2006) The tendency of Taiwanese Aborigines to vote for members of the pan-blue coalition, has been cited as having the potential to change the balance of the legislature. Citing these six seats in addition with five seats from smaller counties that also tend to vote pan-blue, has been seen as giving the pan-blue coalition 11 seats before the first vote is counted http://taiwanreview.nat.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=24034&CtNode=128

Economic issues

Many indigenous communities did not evenly share in the benefits of the economic boom Taiwan experienced during the last quarter of the 20th century. They often lacked satisfactory educational resources on their reservations, undermining their pursuit of marketable skills. The economic disparity between the village and urban schools resulted in imposing many social barriers on Aborigines, which prevent many from moving beyond vocational training. Students transplanted into urban schools face adversity, including isolation, culture shock, and discrimination from their peers Harvcol|Chou|2005|pp=8–13. The cultural impact of poverty and economic marginalization has led to an increase in alcoholism and prostitution among Aborigines (Harvcolnb|Meyer|2001|pp=27; Harvcolnb|Hsu|1991|pp=95–99).

The economic boom resulted in drawing large numbers of Aborigines out of their villages and into the unskilled or low-skilled sector of the urban workforce (DGBAS 2000;CIP 2004). Manufacturing and construction jobs were generally available for low wages. 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. Recent laws governing the employment of laborers from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines has led to an increased atmosphere among urban Aborigines of xenophobia and encouraged the formulation of a pan-indigenous consciousness in the pursuit of political representation and protection Harvcol|Chu|2001|pp=167–169.

Parks, tourism and commercialization

Aboriginal groups are seeking to preserve their folkways and languages as well as to return to, or remain on, their traditional lands. Eco-tourism, sewing and selling tribal carvings, jewelry and music has become a viable area of economic opportunity. However, tourism-based commercial development, such as the creation of Taiwan Aboriginal Culture Park, is not a panacea. Although these create new jobs, Aborigines are seldom given management positions. Moreover, some national parks have been built on Aboriginal lands against the wishes of the local tribes, prompting one Taroko activist to label the Taroko National Park as a form of “environmental colonialism” Harvcol|Simon|2006. At times in the past, the creation of national parks has resulted in forced resettlement of the Aborigines Harvcol|Lin|2006.

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. The Wulai Atayal in particular have been active in this area. Considerable government funding has been allocated to museums and culture centers focusing on Taiwan’s Aboriginal heritage. Critics often call the ventures exploitative and “superficial portrayals” of Aboriginal culture, which distract attention from the real problems of substandard education Harvcol|Mo|2005. Proponents of ethno-tourism suggest that such projects can positively impact the public image and economic prospects of the indigenous community.


Of the current population of Taiwanese Aborigines, roughly 70% identify themselves as Christian. Moreover, many of the Pingpu groups have mobilized their members around predominantly Christian organizations; most notably the Taiwan Presbyterian Church and various denominations of Catholicism Harvcol|Stainton|2006|pp=393–398.

Before contact with Christian missionaries during both the Dutch and Qing periods, Taiwanese Aborigines held a variety of beliefs in spirits, gods, sacred symbols and myths that helped their societies find meaning and order. Although there is no evidence of a unified belief system shared among the various indigenous groups, there is evidence that several groups held supernatural beliefs in certain birds and bird behavior. The Siraya were reported by Dutch sources, to incorporate bird imagery into their material culture. Other reports describe animal skulls and the use of human heads in societal beliefs. The Paiwan and other southern groups worship the Formosan Hundred Pacer snake and use the diamond patterns on its back in many tribal designs Harvcol|Montgomery-McGovern|1922|pp=145–146. In many plains societies, the power to communicate with the supernatural world was exclusively held by women called "Inibs". During the period of Dutch colonization, the "Inibs" were removed from the villages to eliminate their influence and pave the way for Dutch missionary work Harvcol|Blusse|2006|pp=71–82.

During the Zheng and Qing eras, Han immigrants brought Confucianized beliefs of Taoism and Buddhism to Taiwan’s indigenous people. Many plains Aborigines adopted Han religious practices, though there is evidence that many Aboriginal customs were transformed into local Taiwanese Han beliefs. In some parts of Taiwan the Siraya spirit of fertility, Ali-zu (A-li-tsu) has become assimilated into the Han pantheon Harvcol|Shepherd|1986|pp=1–81. The use of female spirit mediums (Dang-gi) can also be traced to the earlier matrilineal "Inibs".

Although many Aborigines assumed Han religious practices, several sub-groups sought protection from the European missionaries, who had started arriving in the 1860’s. Many of the early Christian converts were displaced Pingpu groups that sought protection from the oppressive Han. The missionaries, under the articles of extraterritoriality, offered a form of power against the Qing establishment and could thus make demands on the government to provide redress for Pingpu complaints Harvcol|Shepherd|1993|p=382. Many of these early congregations have served to maintain Aboriginal identity, language and cultures.

The influence of 19th and 20th Century missionaries has both transformed and maintained Aboriginal integration. Many of the churches have replaced earlier tribal functions, but continue to retain a sense of continuity and community that unites members of Aboriginal societies against the pressures of modernity. Several church leaders have emerged from within the tribes to take on leadership positions in petitioning the government in the interest of indigenous peoples Harvcol|Stainton|2006|pp=420–422 and seeking a balance between the interests of the communities and economic vitality.


A full-time Aboriginal radio station, “Ho-hi-yan”, was launched in 2005 (Ho Hi Yan 2005) with the help of the Executive Yuan, to focus on issues of interest to the indigenous community. [Listen to " [http://w2.radio.taipei.gov.tw/eng/radio.htm Ho-hi-yan] "; requires Windows Media Player 9] . This came on the heels of a “New wave of Indigenous Pop”, Harvcol|Liu|2000, as Aboriginal artists, such as A-mei (Puyuma tribe), Difang (Ami tribe), Pur-dur and Samingad (Puyuma tribe), and Landy Wen (Atayal tribe) became international pop-stars. The rock musician Chang Chen-yue is a member of the Ami tribe. Music has given Aborigines both a sense of pride and a sense of cultural ownership. The issue of ownership was exemplified when the musical project Enigma used an Ami chant in their song “Return to Innocence”, which was selected as the official theme of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The main chorus was sung by Difang and his wife, Igay. The Amis couple successfully sued Enigma’s record label, which had paid royalties to the French museum that held the master recordings of the traditional songs, but the original artists, who had been unaware of the Enigma project, remained uncompensated. The Enigma suit raised serious issues regarding indigenous people’s participation and compensation in the commoditizing of their cultures and traditions Harvcol|Anderson|2000|pp=283–290.

Ecological issues

The indigenous tribes of Taiwan are closely linked with ecological awareness and conservation issues on the island, as many of the environmental issues are spearheaded by aborigines. Political activism and sizable public protests regarding the logging of the Chilan Formosan Cypress, as well as efforts by an Atayal member of the Legislative Yuan, “...focused debate on natural resource management and specifically on the involvement of Aboriginal people therein” Harvcol|Chen|Hay|2004|p=1124. Another high-profile case is the nuclear waste storage facility on Orchid Island, a small tropical island 60 km (30 nautical miles) off the southeast coast of Taiwan. The inhabitants are the 4000 members of the Tao (or Yami) tribe. In the 1970s the island was designated as a possible site to store low and medium grade nuclear waste. The island was selected on the grounds that it would be cheaper to build the necessary infrastructure for storage and it was thought that the population would not cause trouble Harvcol|Cohen|1988| pp=355–357. Large-scale construction began in 1978 on a site 100 m from the Immorod fishing fields. The Tao tribe alleges that government sources at the time described the site as a ‘factory’ or a ‘fish cannery’, intended to bring “jobs [to the] home of the Tao/Yami, one of the least economically integrated areas in Taiwan” Harvcol|Ericsson|2004. When the facility was completed in 1982, however, it was in fact a storage facility for “97,000 barrels of low-radiation nuclear waste from Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants”. ("“Premier apologizes”" 2002). 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 ("“Tao demand”" 2003). The lease on the land has expired, and an alternative site has yet to be selected.



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ee also

* List of ethnic groups in Taiwan
* Taiwanese (linguistics)
* History of Taiwan
* Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines
* Batan Islands
* A New Partnership Between the Indigenous Peoples and the Government of Taiwan

External links

* [http://www.tacp.gov.tw/ENGLISH/HOME.htm "Taiwan Aboriginal Culture Park,"] Bureau of Cultural Parks, Council of Indigenous Peoples, Executive Yuan.
** [http://www.tacp.gov.tw/ENGLISH/INFO/download/download.htm Desktop images] . Free download.
* [http://www.apc.gov.tw/english/ Council of Indigenous Peoples (Taiwan)]
** [http://www2.apc.gov.tw/en/statistic/number02_detail.aspx?no=9404 "Statistics of Indigenous Population in Taiwan and Fukien Areas"]
** [http://www.apc.gov.tw/english/docDetail/detail_ethnic.jsp?cateID=A000427&linkRoot=101 Introduction to the 10 tribes of Taiwanese indigenous peoples]
* [http://www.president.gov.tw/1_art/artgallery/aboriginal/intro.html Taiwan Aboriginal Handicraft Art]
* [http://formosan.sinica.edu.tw/formosan/en/archive_contents.htm Academia Sinica: Formosan Language Archive]
* [http://weber.ucsd.edu/~dkjordan/chin/hbtaiwantribes.html an overview of the tribes]
* [http://jmanet.com/ws-formosan.html Taiwan Aborigines Studies]
* [http://www.taiwanfirstnations.org Taiwan First Nations]
* [http://academic.reed.edu/formosa/formosa_index_page/formosa_index.html Reed Institute’s Formosa Digital Library]
* [http://www.sinica.edu.tw/tit/museums/1294_shung-ye.html Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines]
* [http://www.nmp.gov.tw/eng2004/index.html National Museum of Prehistory]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4649257.stm BBC News: Taiwan’s aborigines find new voice] (2005-07-04)
* [http://www.titv.org.tw Taiwan Indigenous Television]
* [http://www.atayal.tpc.gov.tw/index_en.aspx Wulai Atayal Museum]

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