Taiwan and its Origins Annotated Examination

Taiwan & its Origins

The Republic of china more commonly known as Taiwan and formerly known as Formosa is an island off the South-East coast of China spread over an area of 36,000 square kilometers. Taiwan is one of the densely populated countries of the world. This land has its own culture and languages which can be traced back in history. Taiwan was governed by China from the 17th century and was ceded to Japan following the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. At the end of the World War II it reverted to China. When the communist under Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Kuomintang forces under Chiang Kai-shek fled from mainland China to Taiwan. Just like its rulers people in Taiwan also have a history and they belonged to different groups and tribes.

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Population in Taiwan

Total population of Taiwan is estimated to be around 21.3 millions now and there are more than three hundred and fifty thousand people who are indigenous & tribal. Linguistically, they are recognized as sub-groups of Austronesian-speaking family. Therefore, they are also called the Austronesians. There are different theories proposed for the Austronesians’ origins. “Some scholars have even proposed a chronology for the arrival of the aboriginal tribes in Taiwan; for example, the Saisiat and Taiya tribes are thought to have arrived in Taiwan during the early ceramic period around. 3,000 B.C., whereas the Paiwan and Beinan tribes probably arrived during the heyday of the Megalithic culture of Southeast Asia” (Taiwan Aboriginals)

Indigenous People of Taiwan

There are 12 major indigenous groups of people in Taiwan; the Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Kavalan, Paiwan, Pinuyumayan, Rukai, Saisiyat, Thao, Truku, Tsou, and Yami. This division has been classified according to the ethnic origins. These tribes have their own customs and culture.

Amis: Amis is the largest indigenous tribe in Taiwan. People belong to this tribe usually reside mainly in eastern valleys and coastal areas. Common professions that these people adopt are farming, hunting and coastal fishing. Amis tribes are subdivided geographically into the Nanshih, Siouguluan, Coastal, Taitung, and Hengchun.

Atayal: Dwellers of Northern part of central Taiwan’s mountainous region are known as Atayal. People belonging to this tribe are known to have lives in united communities. They are famous for face tattooing. Other than this ancestor worship, cloth weaving, inheritances of Father’s first name as a son’s last name are the important characteristics of Atayal culture.

Bunun: The Bunun live in the mountainous region of central Taiwan. As they live in highest mountains they are also known as “Real Mountain People.” Most noticeable and distinct characteristic of this tribe is celebrating “Ear Shooting Ceremony” in which arrows are shot at animal’s ears in the hope that it will bring good harvesting. The Bunun are also particularly noted for their poly harmonic choral singing of prayers for a bumper crop.

Kavalan: The Kavalan live in Taiwan’s Eastern counties. Originally living on the Yilan, they moved south to the Hualien and Taitung areas after Han Chinese immigration. Cultural features resemble a lot with the cultural characteristics of Amis tribe.

Pinuyumayan: Pinuyumayan are the people who live in Taitung county of Taiwan. Important Pinuyumayan rituals include the men’s monkey ceremony (to develop courage), the sea ceremony, as well as the women’s hoeing ceremony. Pinuyumayan may be further subdivided into Jhihben and Nanwang on the basis of language and cultural discrepancy.

Rukai: Distinguished aspect of this tribe from other tribes is that they believe in sun and hundred pace snake totems. In this tribe, utmost importance is given to arts. Their creativity in different fields of arts and their respect for arts separate them from rest of the tribes of indigenous Taiwanese.

Paiwan: Cultural system and characteristics of Paiwan tribe is a lot more similar to the Rukai tribe. Similar to Rukai tribe they also pay too much importance to arts. Significant aspect of this tribe is their belief that their ancestral spirits, dwelling on Dawu Mountain, descend every five years to pay a visit to their descendants throughout Southern Taiwan. They consider the celebration of five-year ceremony as their reunion to their ancestors.

Saisiyat: This tribe has small number of people and they are located between the Atayal and Hakka groups. Saisiyat tribe is famous for the cultivation of the high economic value crops. The Sasiyat culture has special characteristics that include a patriarchal organization and the Pasta’ai ceremony honoring dwarf spirits.

Thao: Thao people used to live on an island in the middle of Sun Moon Lake but latter on they moved to the lake’s edge. Thao tribe is the neighbor of Atayal and Bunun tribe and so, their culture and language is so much influenced by the culture and language of Atayal and Bunun tribes. Professions that are mostly adopted by the Thao people include fishing, agriculture and hunting.

Truku: Truku live on the eastern coast around Hualien and in the central, mountainous region of Nantou. In past Truku tribe considered as a subgroup of Atayal tribe but with the passage of time they developed their own identification. The notable features of their customs are facial tattooing and their traditional white costumes.

Tsou: Tsou generally originated from Jade Mountain area, however, during the period of Japanese rule influx of great number of Bunun turned Tsou into minority. The Tsou have a very strong tribal organization. Special feature of their culture is when they defeat their enemies in any war then they celebrate Mavasvi ceremony. The Tsou tribe is further divided into several sub-groups according to the language, custom and geographical distribution.

Yami: The Yami people live on Orchid Island off Taiwan’s east coast. This tribe embraces certain characteristics in their culture which is quite different from indigenous people. They have a genetic and cultural relationship with the inhabitants of the Batan Island of Philippines. Distinctive features of traditional Yami culture include ancestor worship, ceremonies to summon the flying fish, richly carved fishing boats, belief in evil spirits, and a hair-swinging dance.

Miscellaneous: Apart from typical indigenous peoples of Taiwan, there are some other groups of people who dwell in Taiwan like Han people. During the transition from the Ming dynasty to the Ching dynasty, the ancestors of Taiwan’s Han people started to migrate from China’s southeastern provinces to Taiwan in the 17th century. These early immigrants chose to settle in locations they found to be similar to their hometowns in China. As they chose these locations for their settlement it became easy for them to adjust in the new culture and community.

The Holo and the Hakka together now constitute about 85% of Taiwan’s population. Today, large concentrations of Hakka are found in Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli in northern Taiwan, and Kaohsiung and Pingtung in southern Taiwan.

Immigrants arriving after 1949

When National Government did relocation of Taiwan in 1949 it brought about 1.2 people from China. As these immigrants came from the different parts of China they brought with them their own culture and tradition hence, they lend a hand in enriching the original culture of Taiwan and spreading the Chinese culture in the land of indigenous people.

Culture of Indigenous Taiwanese

Life style, food, festivals, dresses, religious events, and languages when all of these things unite together, they form a culture. Indigenous Taiwanese possessed their own strong and enticing culture.

Food: Every nation or tribe on planet earth has its unique culture and traditions. The people living in different eras had different lifestyles and so their food and eating behavior differed and set them apart from others. Eating habits of indigenous Taiwanese has been the same among the different groups and tribes of Taiwan. The most popular staple food among all the tribes was Millet. As in recent years the culture of Taiwan has influenced by Chinese, most of the Taiwanese divert towards rice-based diets. Green vegetables such as cabbage, beans, mustard and leeks were the important part of their regular diet followed by other vegetables in which Bok Choy was the most widely eaten vegetable. When the supply of vegetable became insufficient then they relied on edible wild plants. Parts of the wild plants that they consumed included roots, stems, flower and fruits. Especially the Ami tribe is well-known to have wild plants in their diet. Apart from Millet and Rice some other foods were common among different tribes such as Yam, Taro, Cassava, Sweet Potatoes, and Maize etc. The food of Taiwanese also differed according to the land or area where they lived. For example, Fish was the major food for the dwellers of Islands while, Game was an important part of the diet of the mountain dwelling people. Taiwanese had very simple taste for beverages and they most commonly drank water. They sometimes had tea and vegetable soups.

Festivals: Indigenous people of Taiwan celebrate different occasions according to their own culture and custom. They had different religious festivals. They celebrated marriages and funerals according to their own customs. Apart from marriage and funeral they had different forms of occasions that they celebrated for instance; they celebrated harvesting festival, held different ceremonies of adulthood, ceremonies of river. Hence, all of these festivals, occasions and other rituals that indigenous Taiwanese celebrated prove that the Indigenous Taiwanese were full of life and were true cultural people who celebrated all their occasions with enthusiasm and ebullience.

Languages: Official language of Taiwan is Mandarin though other local languages were also spoken in originally indifferent tribes. Mandarin is the language that is used for everyday communication in Taiwan but the origin of Mandarin started from Ching dynasty. Mandarin and other languages that were spoken in Taiwan were basically derived from Chinese language families. Indigenous people had their own languages which have survived to date. “From Taiwan to New Zealand and Madagascar to Easter Island, the Austronesian language family is made up of more than a thousand languages and dialects. (Estimates vary from 900-1200 according to how dialects are distinguished from languages)” (Austronesian Expansion).

Other languages that were spoken in Taiwan included Halo Taiwanese which is now the second most spoken language in Taiwan around 70% Taiwanese speaks Halo. The Hakka language in Taiwan developed six divisions although the Hakka language was still used within Hakka communities. Initially Taiwan was a mixture of diverse cultures and languages in different tribes and currently awareness of the importance of preserving the variety of languages spoken in Taiwan is growing and government is taking steps to preserve these languages. “To help preserve indigenous culture, the government has included the study of indigenous languages in Taiwan’s compulsory education system. In 2005, more than 40,000 elementary and junior high school students took indigenous language courses, and 40 languages and dialects were taught. Since the Dutch colonial period, people have tried to Romanize indigenous languages. For example, Christian missionaries introduced a Romanization system for the language of the Siraya, a pingpu group” (Taiwan Year Book).

Arts and Handicrafts: People of different tribes played their important part in enhancing the value of arts and crafts. Due to their creativity and innovation they made their artistic values incomparable. Indigenous Taiwanese were famous for their stone work as well as different things made from woods. Other things that are well-known regarding the art and handicrafts include weaving of clothes, plaiting of bamboo and rattan. Indigenous Taiwanese also showed their creativity by creating different things from ceramics.

Dwellings: Dwelling of Taiwanese can be classified on the basis of many different aspects such as according to the lifestyle of Indigenous Taiwanese, according to the layout, roof structure, and material used in the preparation of houses. As the language, festivals differed from one tribe to another similarly; their dwellings were also different from each other. Atayal usually lived in two types of houses i.e. semi-under-grounded wooden houses and the above grounded bamboo houses. Saisiat usually built their houses on the slope of mountains and the materials that they used in constructing their houses included wood, rattan and bamboo. The Bunun made their dwellings from slate, wood, thatch and the bark of vines. Bunun usually built several rooms in their houses. Traditional Tsou dwellings consisted of thatched houses while, Amis dwellings were usually built in clusters. Puyuma traditional dwellings had thatch roofs, bamboo walls, and a rectangular floor pan. Paiwan and Rukai were famous to live in stone-slab houses. Yami people were island dwellers so their dwellings were built underground. The style of dwelling of Thao consisted of wicker binding bamboos. The Kuvalan people inhabited with timber, cogon grass, and earth as the construction material. Lastly, the building material that Taroko tribe used for building their houses were hardens woods, snake woods.


Austronesian Expansion – Taiwan 4,000 BC’ Retrieved from Website: http://www.ualberta.ca/~vmitchel/rev3.html

Taiwan Aboriginals’ Retrieved from Website: http://www.tacp.gov.tw/ENGLISH/INTRO/nine/nine.htm

Taiwan Year Book’ Retrieved from Website: http://www.gio.gov.tw/taiwan-website/5-gp/yearbook/02PeopleandLanguage.htm

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