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Taiwan's Indigenous Peoples, Briefly Explained
As briefly as you can condense 400 years of written history anyway
If you want to watch the video first you can start here.
Overall, what is in this video still stands up. And this is a video that provides good background for a forthcoming video about the Out of Taiwan theory - which theorizes on the basis of linguistic theory that the Taiwanese aboriginals stopped at Taiwan first before traveling on to the rest of Austronesia.
I got a Patreon now. Nowadays I prepare videos for release way ahead of schedule. Patreons subscribers can see all those videos right when I upload them. Your pledges also help pay for all the coffee I buy at cafes around Taipei. Check it out.
Taiwan's population is today over 90% Han Chinese. But their arrival to the island comes relatively late in history. I have written a bit about this in a prior article, but Taiwan's Han Chinese first began settling on the island some 400 years ago.
Taiwan island however at the time was not unoccupied. Taiwan's early Han Chinese settlers soon found themselves in conflict with Taiwan's aborigines, the island's first inhabitants.
This video briefly goes over the history of these unique and special peoples as a whole. I hope in the future to put out more videos focusing on specific tribes so to help tell their own individual story.
The Taiwanese indigenous people fall into two large categorizations: The Mountains and the Plains peoples. The Taiwanese government recognizes 16 mountains peoples. Nine of those mountains peoples have been recognized since the Japanese colonization period. The others received official status in the 2000s. There are a few other ethnic groups and tribes that have yet to receive official government recognition but maintain a distinct ethnic and societal identity.
The Plains peoples are a bit harder to distinguish due to heavy intermixing with the Han population. Just two have received government recognition - the Kavalan of Yilan and the Sakizaya people of Hualien - though the Siraya's status are impending.
The PRC rejects these categorizations and groups all of the Taiwanese aboriginal tribes into one category called Gaoshan (高山). They make up one of the state's 56 recognized ethnicities alongside the Manchu, Zhuang, and others.
We do not have much written history of the Taiwan indigenous people before the Dutch arrival in the 17th century. Much of what we know about that history is based on linguistic studies and archaeology.
Archaeological studies in Tainan date human habitation to at least 3,000 BC - maybe earlier. A sophisticated society occupied Taiwan at the time, with domesticated pigs and dogs, pottery and more. It is theorized that they first emerged from the southern Chinese Daic populations - considered the original habitants of the southeast Chinese coast and today still its largest minority population after the Han peoples.
There are two very brief testimonials from Han adventurers during the Song and Yuan Dynasties (of the 11th to 14th centuries) about "island barbarians" which historians generally believe refer to the Taiwanese aborigines. Another more reliable source goes back to 1603, when a Chinese traveler named Chen Di arrived at what is now Anping in Tainan and reported meeting "very diverse peoples" living in villages.
These villagers knew basic agriculture, made alcohol from fermented rice and hunted deer. They practiced head hunting and did not wear clothes. If you have visited Tainan before (Author’s note: Especially in the summer, my Lord), you probably can guess why. They had established laws and traditions against theft and other deviant behavior. So they weren’t bumpkins.
The Dutch would arrive twenty years later to colonize Taiwan - the first in a long line of foreigner intruders. They established a fort in Anping and founded what is now the city of Tainan. Establishing contacts with the natives for trade, they described meeting the same tribes Chen saw twenty years earlier. A census taken in 1650 showed some 68,000 aborigines across 315 villages, though to note that this census only covers only a very small swath of Taiwan.
Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, a variety of governments attempted to take over Taiwan - the Dutch, the Spanish, a Ming era pirate called Koxinga. Little records exist about how the aborigines acted or were administered then. It appears that the prevailing government policy at the time was to stay the hell away.
The Han arrive
I would not say that things were entirely peaceful between the various Taiwanese tribes as it was but the arrival of Han settlers in the 17th century definitely did not help things. The huge influx of Han people to Taiwan disrupted populations and tribes across the island. Vicious conflicts pushed tribes from their original locations to new ones, triggering chain effects. Some went into the mountains. Others resettled in eastern Taiwan.
For example, let us take the Siraya people living in southern Taiwan. At the beginning of our recorded history, this tribe of peoples occupied the agriculturally rich south-central flat plains of west Taiwan. This area now spans Chiayi and Tainan and is the single largest plain on the island. But during the Qing Dynasty, Han settlers arriving from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces began pushing the Siraya tribes eastward to the foot of Taiwan's mountains. However this area was already occupied by the native Taivoan tribes. The fierce Siraya peoples pushed the Taivoan tribes further and further inland to as far as the Central Mountain Range. They remain there today. ￼
None of this went peacefully. Qing-era documents record administrators' constant attempts to mediate peace between the Han and the aborigines. Such attempts very often failed, resulting in the famous Qing-era saying: "every three years an uprising; every five years a rebellion".
The Japanese Colonization
In 1871, 66 Japanese sailors found themselves shipwrecked on southern Taiwan island. Warned against traveling deeper inland by the local Chinese (who also robbed them), they nevertheless went westward and met the Paiwan tribespeople. What happened next remains murky but the result is that 54 of the sailors were slaughtered by the tribe outside a Hakka trading post.
This incident turned into an international crisis. The Japanese used it as an excuse to send a ship to Taiwan so to punish the "savages" - a move universally condemned by the international community as a move against Qing sovereignty. The Japanese did attempt to colonize the island and put settlers, but the Qing eventually paid them off. The Qing administration at this time did not realize that the Japanese were trying to claim sovereignty over a part of Taiwan island, but then again, they really did not have much control over the aborigines anyway (see above).
In 1895, the Qing ceded Taiwan island to the Japanese and now they had to take control of this wooly frontier land. Twice in 1907 and 1915, the Han and the aborigines stopped fighting each other and united against the intruders. But the Japanese would eventually succeeded in a "divide-and-conquer" strategy, subduing the Han population and leaving the aborigines on their own.
The Japanese waged a series of vicious campaigns against the aborigines, seeing them as uncultured savages. Mountain tribes would continue to wage guerrilla warfare for decades, with the Japanese resorting to electric fences and aerial bombardment of certain villages. Japanese-allied aborigines were employed to retaliate against and suppress "uncultured" peoples, with the reward of getting their land when they were successful. Hard times for everyone back then.
Over time though, the Japanese colonial system shifted from hard suppressive tactics towards cultivating a feeling of "togetherness" as Japanese subjects of the emperor. Taiwanese people, Han and aborigines alike, would be recruited to fight alongside other Japanese during their wars of conquest.
The modern eras
Then the Japanese lost World War II and were forced to cede Taiwan to the Republic of China. The KMT takeover resulted in a new policy of inculcating a feeling of Chinese nationalism into the Taiwanese people. This would in turn change as Taiwan moved from feelings of Chinese nationalism to Taiwanese nationalism, encouraged by the DPP.
Regardless, being separated from and largely ignored by the majority of Taiwan society have cost the aborigines in their economic development. Many live in areas far away from Taiwan's economic centers - cities or villages on the east coast (i.e. Hualien, Taitung) or up in the mountains (Nantou). Studies have found that up to 50% of aborigines work in blue-collar, semi-skilled and unskilled jobs - though I'll always say that fishing and farming requires more skill than any soft-bellied office worker like me.
This became more of an acute issue as Taiwan's economy moved away from heavy industry and construction to advanced technology. Then in the mid-1980s, large numbers of illegal foreign labor from southeast Asia began affecting the blue collar market. The amount of days urban aborigines have been able to work were cut by more than half as they found themselves unable to compete with illegals working at 2/3rds the salary.
One also should mention allegations of prejudice and discrimination. Many local employers are Han, a different race, and interviews with those Han have found them holding stereotypes of aborigines being lazy, ungrateful, and prone to drinking. The aborigines on their part would prefer not to be overworked with unending amounts of overtime for pay so little such to be at the point of slavery - basically how illegal foreigners are treated. You can see how bad things can happen. Add to this intergenerational wealth issues - poverty is hard to escape from and gets transmitted from one generation to the next - and racial resentments on both sides - the Han seeing the aborigines having done nothing on their part to help with Taiwanese democratization.
These are all ongoing social problems and I feel many Americans watching this can sympathize.
Being only some 1 or so percent of Taiwan’s population, it might be easy to forget the aborigines. But they are a fascinating part of Taiwanese history and a proud peoples with great history. They are also plagued with social ills that continue to hurt them in comparison with the Han majority.
Taiwan, like the mainland, sees itself as a democratic nation spanning many different races. Its government needs to live up to those ideals.