On top of the Chinese groups found in Taiwan, the Taiwanese government recognizes 14 aboriginal ethnic groups. Their numbers range from several thousand members in the smaller groups, to the Amis group at nearly 190,000. Their total population is about half a million and growing overall. The 14 different tribes, namely Amis, Atayal, Paiwan, Bunun, Puyuma, Rukai, Tsou, Saisiyat, Yami, Thao, Kavalan, Truku, Sakizaya, and Sediq. Native-born Taiwanese, including Hakka (originally from upland areas of Guangdong and Fujian), make up 84 percent of the population. Mainland Chinese constitute 14 percent of the population.

Aboriginals living in Taiwan make up about two percent of the total population. They are of Malay-Polynesian descent and live primarily in 300 or so villages and small towns in the high central mountains and the eastern parts of the island. Taiwanese aboriginal groups have largely assimilated. Many have lost their native languages and no longer wear traditional clothes. They are virtually indistinguishable from the Han Chinese that dominate Taiwan except their skin is sometimes darker and their facial features may be a little different.

Ralph Jennings wrote in the Voice of America, “Aborigines were dominant in Taiwan for some 8,000 years. Then four centuries ago migrants began to arrive by sea from nearby China, and Chinese now make up 98 percent of the population. In the 1960s, former Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek ordered an assimilation of the aboriginals, requiring that they use Mandarin Chinese. [Source: Ralph Jennings, Voice of America, August 20, 2012]

Taiwan has a Ministry of Indigenous. Since 1994, the aborigines, once referred to by the government as “mountain compatriots,” “mountain people,” or “Taiwanese aborigines,” officially have been called Yuan-chu-min or “Taiwan aboriginal peoples.” The Ministry of Interior reports that Taiwan has 12 major indigenous peoples: the Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Kavalan, Paiwan, Pinuyumayan or Punuyumayan, Rukai, Saisiyat, Thao, Truku, Tsou, and Yami. In 2002 indigenous peoples in Taiwan totaled 433,689, with the Amis representing 32.3 percent of the total, followed by the Atayal (14 percent) and the Paiwan (13.8 percent). Many of these indigenous people live in the eastern half of Taiwan on mountainous reservations that cannot be sold to non-aborigines. [Source: Library of Congress, March 2005]

In mainland China, Taiwan’s ethnic minorities are known as the Gaoshan. Only a small number live in mainland China. During their history, they have been successively called "Shanyi," "Daoyi," "Dongfan," "Dongfan," "Fanren," "Gaolizu,"and "Fanzu". Taiwan authorities call them "compatriot of the mountain region" — -"mountain compatriot" for short, or "aboriginal group," Gaoshan is a general name used by mainland people for all the minorities living in Taiwan. Several thousand Gaoshans live on the mainland. They are scattered in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces on the mainland and in major cities as Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

Book: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]


History of Taiwan’s Aboriginal Groups

Before the Chinese arrived Taiwan was occupied nine aboriginal tribes—including the Pingpu, the original inhabitants of Taipei— each with their own language and some reputed to be head hunters. Some anthropologist believe that the people who settled the Pacific Ocean, the Polynesians, originally came from Taiwan. Assimilation wiped out entire tribes. There used to be around 20 tribes in Taiwan. The 10 that lived in the plains became extinct through displacement and intermarriage with the Chinese. The nine that lived in the mountains and small islands were able to survive because they lived in remote places where the Chinese rarely went.

Jim Hwang wrote in the Taiwan Review, Their history is largely unwritten and their own oral traditions about the past vary from tribe to tribe, but archeological evidence indicates that Taiwan's indigenous peoples arrived on the island around 5,000 years ago. The earliest tribes settled in the wide and fertile western plains, until large numbers of Han Chinese began to migrate across the Taiwan Strait in the 17th century. [Source: Jim Hwang, Taiwan Review, August 2007 |]

“Lacking the numerical strength to successfully defend themselves against the land and resource grabbing of the new immigrants, aboriginals were either gradually assimilated or retreated into the mountains where they survived by means of slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and fishing. "It was an isolated self-sufficient society," says Lu Cheng-chun, an associate professor at Soochow University's Department of Sociology. "The ups and downs of the tribal 'economy' were decided by whether there was enough rain from the gods and the blessings of the spirits of ancestors." |

“With the arrival of more immigrants, things became more complicated. Both Japanese and the Kuomintang (KMT) government exploited Taiwan's mountainous areas for logging, mining and the growing of cash crops such as tea and fruit. Along with the machines and pesticides came the concept of a market economy and a monetary system. "With hunting grounds shrinking and resources drying up, many aboriginals had to leave their tribes to work," Lu says. "They needed to make the money to buy things they used to be able to hunt for or grow by themselves." |

First Inhabitants of Taiwan

It is believed that people have been residing on the island of Taiwan for around 15,000 to10,000 years (the oldest archeological evidence dates back to around 6,000 years ago) . The first residents are believed to have been aboriginal people from the Layan group who arrived in outrigger canoes from Pacific Islands to the east. The Layans are related to the early inhabitants of Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Australia.

According to Lonely Planet: “There is evidence of human settlement in Taiwan dating as far back as 30, 000–40, 000 years ago; current prevalent thinking dates the arrival of the Austronesian peoples, ancestors of many of the tribal people who still inhabit Taiwan, between 4000–5000 years ago.” Evidence of human habitation has been found on Minatogawa, an island between Taiwan and Japan, dated to 18,000 years ago.

Evidence of Neolithic agrarian settlements, similar to those of coastal China, dating from 4000 to 2500 B.C., have also been found. Because there was no land bridge to mainland Asia, the supposition is that these Neolithic peoples were seafarers as well as agriculturalists. There are several theories as to the origins of the aboriginal, Austronesian-speaking peoples living in Taiwan today. Some scholars believe that the first people to populate Taiwan were Malayo-Polynesians, specifically from Indonesia—peoples of a southern origin. Others argue for a northern origin—tribal peoples from southeastern mainland China—in support of the argument that Taiwan has always been a part of China. Some have posited Taiwan as the origin of the Austronesian languages, a position supporting an early Neolithic migration from southeastern China followed by independent development in Taiwan. [Source: Library of Congress, March 2005]

Originally, Taiwan was settled by people of Malay-Polynesian descent, who initially inhabited the low-lying coastal plains. They called their island Pakan. Before the Chinese arrived Taiwan was occupied nine aboriginal tribes of Malaysian stock, each with their own language. Some were reputed to be head hunters. During the subsequent settlement by the Dutch and the waves of settlers from China, the aborigines retreated to the hills and mountains, and became the "mountain people."

The ancestors of Taiwan’s ethnic minorities were created by a merging immigrants from mainland China and Southeast Asia. In Three Kingdoms period (A.D. 220–280), Sun Quan, emperor of the Wu Kingdom, dispatched some troops to Taiwan. In a record of the expedition entitled "A Survey of Water and Soil by the Coast," are earliest record of Gaoshan. In the book, Taiwan is named as "Yizhou," and Taiwan’s ethnic minorities ancestors as "Shanyi". Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (581–618 ) sent troops twice to Taiwan, when Taiwan’s ethnic minorities people were named "Liuqiu people". [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

According to the Chinese government: “There are several versions of the origin of the ethnic minority. The main theories are: they are indigenous, they came from the west, or the south, or several different sources. The theory that they came from the west is based on their custom of cropping their hair and tattooing their bodies, worshipping snakes as ancestors and their language, all of which indicate that they might have been descendants of the ancient Baiyue people on the mainland. Another theory says that their language and culture bear resemblance to the Malays from the Philippines and Borneo, and so Taiwan’s ethnic minorities must have come from the south. The third and more reliable theory is that Taiwan’s ethnic minorities ethnic group originated from one branch of the ancient Yue ethnic group living along the coast of the mainland during the Stone Age. They were later joined by immigrants from the Philippines, Borneo and Micronesia. Cementing close economic and cultural ties through living and working together over a long period of time, these peoples had by the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) welded themselves into a new ethnic group known as Fan or Eastern Fan, which is today called Taiwan’s ethnic minorities ethnic group.” [Source: China.org China.org ]

Chinese Culture Spreads to Taiwan, Asia and the Pacific

Pottery and stone tools of southern Chinese origin dating back to 4000 B.C. have been found in Taiwan. The same artifacts have been found in archeological sites in the Philippines dating back to 3000 B.C. Because there were no land bridges linking China or Taiwan with the Philippines, one must conclude that ocean-going vessels were in regular use. Genetic studies indicate that closest genetic relatives of the Maori of New Zealand are found in Taiwan. [Source: Jared Diamond]

Southern Chinese culture, agriculture and domesticated animals (pigs, chickens and dogs) are believed to have spread from southern China and Taiwan to the Philippines and through the islands of Indonesia to the islands north of New Guinea. By 1000 B.C., obsidian was being traded between present-day Sabah in Malaysian Borneo and present-day New Britain in Papua New Guinea, 2,400 miles away. Later southern Chinese culture spread eastward across the uninhabited islands of the Pacific, reaching Easter Island (10,000 miles from China) around 500 A.D. [Ibid]

The ancestors of modern Laotians, Thais and possibly Burmese, Cambodians, Filipinos and Indonesians originated from southern China. The Austronesian family of languages of which are spoken as far west as Madagascar, as far south of New Zealand, as far east as Easter island and all Philippine and Polynesian languages most likely originated in China. A great diversity of these languages is found in Taiwan, which has led some to conclude they originated there or on the nearby mainland. Others believe they may have originated in Borneo or Sulawesi or some other place.

The ancestors of modern Southeast Asian people arrived from Tibet and China about 2,500 years ago, displacing the aboriginal groups that occupied the land first. They subsisted on rice and yams which they may have introduced to Africa. Rice was introduced to Korea and Japan from China in the second millennium B.C.; bronze metallurgy in the first millennium B.C. and writing in the first or early second millennium A.D. Chinese characters are still used in written Korean and Japanese today.

Early History of Taiwanese Aboriginal Groups and the Chinese

The first Chinese to arrive in Taiwan perhaps migrated to the island in the A.D. 6th century. Mainland Chinese began to trade with the aborigines around the fourteenth century. Substantial numbers of Chinese migrants did not arrive until after the arrival in Taiwan in of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Large scale migration from the mainland did not begin until the 17th century, when political and economic chaos at the end of the end of Ming dynasty and the Manchu invasion drove many people out of southern China. Most of the migrants came from the nearby coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.

According to Lonely Planet: Contact between China and Taiwan was erratic until the early 1400s, when boatloads of immigrants from China’s Fujian province, disillusioned with the political instability in their homeland, began arriving on Taiwan’s shores. When the new immigrants arrived, they encountered two groups of aboriginals: one who made their homes on the fertile plains of central and southwestern Taiwan and the other, seminomadic, lived along the Central Mountain Range. [Source: Lonely Planet ++]

Over the next century, immigration from Fujian increased, these settlers being joined by the Hakka, another ethnic group leaving the mainland in great numbers. By the early 1500s there were three categories of people on the island: Hakka, Fujianese and the aboriginal tribes. Today, Taiwan’s population is mainly descended from these early Chinese immigrants, though centuries of intermarriage makes it likely a fair number of Taiwanese have some aboriginal blood as well. ++

During the Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties there were some exchanges between Taiwan and mainland. At this time influenced from Southeast Asia were arguably as significant as those from the mainland. By the Ming Dynasty, when Taiwan’s ethnic minorities people were called "Dongfan," "Fanyi," "Tufan," or "Tumin," the cultural characteristics of Taiwan’s ethnic minorities had already basically taken shape and the different groups had divided and distinguished themselves. ~

During the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) government, Taiwan’s ethnic minorities people are referred to as "Fan nationality". They are further divided into many sub-groups including: 1) "Eastern Fan", "Western Fan", "Southern Fan", and "Northern Fan" by their where they lived; 2) "High Mountain Fan", and "Pingpu Fan" by the different terrain they are inhabited; or 3) "Ye Fan", "Sheng Fan" and "Shu Fan" by their level of social development or their relations with the Hans. ~

Beijing’s Take on Taiwan’s Ethnic Minorities and Taiwan History

According to the Chinese government: “Archaeological evidence suggests that the Gaoshan ethnic group has all along maintained close connections with the mainland. Until the end of the Pleistocene Epoch 30,000 years ago, Taiwan had been physically part of the mainland. Fossils of human skulls belonging to this period and Old Stone Age artifacts found in Taiwan show that humans probably moved there from the mainland during the Pleistocene Epoch. Neolithic adzes, axes and pottery shards unearthed on the island suggest that New Stone Age culture on the mainland was introduced into Taiwan 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. [Source: China.org China.org |]

“In A.D. 230, two generals of the Kingdom of Wu led a 10,000-strong army across the Taiwan Straits, and brought back several thousand natives from the island. At that time, the ancestors of the Gaoshans belonged to several primitive, matriarchal tribes. Public affairs were run collectively by all members. Their tools included axes, adzes and rings made of stone and arrowheads and spearheads made of deer antlers. Animal husbandry was still in an embryonic stage. |

“By the early 7th century, the Gaoshans had started farming and livestock breeding on top of hunting and gathering. They planted cereal crops with stone farm tools. Each tribe was governed by a headman who summoned the membership for meetings by beating a big drum. There was neither criminal code nor taxation. Criminal cases were tried by the entire tribe membership. The offender was tied with ropes, flailed for minor offences or put to death for serious crimes. These early Gaoshans had no written language, nor calendar; and they kept records by tying knots. People worshipped the Gods of Mountain and Sea, and liked carving, painting, singing and dancing.

“In the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368), central government control was extended to the Penghu Islands and Taiwan, which were placed under the jurisdiction of Jinjiang and Tongan counties in Fujian Province. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), farming, hunting and animal husbandry further developed in Taiwan. In the early 17th century, an increasing number of Hans from the mainland moved to Taiwan, lending a great impetus to economic development along the island's west coast. |

“The Gaoshan and Han people in Taiwan worked closely together in developing the island and fighting against foreign invaders and local feudal rulers. Japanese pirates invaded Chilung, the major seaport in Northern Taiwan, in 1563. In 1593 the Japanese rulers tried to coerce the Gaoshan people into paying tribute to them but this demand was firmly rejected. The invasions of Japanese pirates from 1602 to 1628 were repeatedly beaten back. Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Dutch and the Spanish time and again made forays into Taiwan, but were repulsed by the islanders. Finally, in 1642, the Dutch defeated the Spanish, seized the island and imposed tyrannical rule on the local people. This touched off immediate resistance. The anti-Dutch armed uprising led by Guo Huaiyi in the mid-17th century was the largest in scale. In April 1661, China's national hero Zheng Chenggong led an army of 25,000 men to Taiwan and freed it from under the Dutch with the assistance of the local Gaoshan and Han people, ending the Dutch invaders' 38-year-old colonial rule over Taiwan. |

“After recovering Taiwan from the Dutch, Zheng Chenggong instituted a series of measures to advance economic growth and cultural development there. He forbade his troops engaged in reclamation to encroach on the Gaoshan people's land, helped the local people improve their farm tools and learn more advanced farming methods from the Han people, encouraged children to attend school, and expanded trading. With the growth of production, the feudal system of land ownership came into being, and the gap between the rich and the poor was getting wider and wider. The feudal landlord economy developed in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when the Gaoshans began using ox-driven carts, ploughs and rakes developed by the Hans. Zheng died five months after recovering the island, and his son succeeded him. The Zhengs governed Taiwan for 23 years. In 1683, the Qing court brought the island under central government control and this rule lasted for 212 years till Taiwan fell under Japanese rule following the signing of the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. |

“After the Opium War of 1840, British, American, Japanese and French colonialists invaded and plundered Taiwan one after another. The foreign invasion and plundering were met with fierce resistance. To fight the British invaders, the local people formed a volunteer army of 47,000 troops who beat back all the five British invasions. Taiwan fell into the hands of the Japanese in 1895 after China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War. Fighting shoulder to shoulder for five months, Gaoshan and Han people inflicted 32,315 casualties on the Japanese invaders. |

“During the 20 years from 1895 to 1915, the people of Taiwan staged some 100 armed uprisings against Japanese occupation. One of them was the Wushe Uprising mounted by the Gaoshan people in Taichung County in 1930. Enraged by the murder of a Gaoshan worker by Japanese police, over 300 Gaoshan villagers wiped out the 130 Japanese soldiers stationed there and held Wushe for three days. In the following months, the insurgents killed and wounded more than 4,000 Japanese occupationists. In retaliation, the Japanese moved in most of their garrison forces in Taiwan along with planes and guns and crushed the uprising. They slaughtered over 1,200 Gaoshans including all the insurgents. After victory over Japan in 1945, Taiwan was returned to China and placed under Kuomintang rule.” |

Taiwanese Aboriginal Headhunting

Headhunting was a common practice among Taiwanese aborigines. All tribes practised headhunting except the Yami people. 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. Taiwanese Plains Aborigines, Taiwanese people (Han) and Japanese settlers were choice victims of headhunting raids by Taiwanese Mountain Aborigines, particularly the latter two groups, who were considered invaders, 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. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The indigenous inhabitants of Taiwan accepted the convention and practice of headhunting as one of the calculated risks of tribal life. The practice continued during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan but ended in the 1930s due to the strict attention of the colonial Japanese government. The last groups to practice headhunting were the Paiwan, Bunun, and Atayal groups. (Montgomery-McGovern 1922). Japanese rule ended the practice by 1930, but some elder Taiwanese can recall the practice (Yeh 2003). +

Harry Franck, an American writer who traveled to Taiwan in the 1920s, wrote: “Between 1903 and 1908 there were seventy advancements made to the guard lines by the Japanese, but indigenous men in search of heads often came over or under the barrier at nightfall to lay waiting in ambush for unsuspecting victims. Headhunting, the primary ritual component of the Atayal, Paiwan, Saiset, and other groups, not only served to maintain the prosperity of society by ensuring agricultural and community fertility through the propitiation of the deities and ancestors, it also ensured that a man would meet with success in finding a wife while at the same time guaranteeing his safe passage to the afterlife. Thus, the custom was considered indispensable to life and existence itself. [Source: Lars Krutak, vanishingtattoo.com ^^]

Lars Krutak wrote in his blog vanishingtattoo.com: “Among the Atayal, success met on the headhunt was deliberately marked upon the chins of warriors with tattoos. And those headhunters who acquired more than five heads using old weapons, like a curved machete-like knife, might also have their chests tattooed or the backs of their hands. Among the Paiwan, it was believed that the spirits of ancestors dwelled in these beheading knives, which were held in the possession of the tribe for several generations. However, the Paiwan were not necessarily tattooed after having taken a head; instead, the successful warrior was also denoted by the wearing of a certain kind of cap which was made by women of the tribe. [Source: Lars Krutak, vanishingtattoo.com ^^]

The Chinese also took heads. At the Battle of Tamsui in 1884 in the Keelung Campaign during the Sino-French War, Chinese took prisoner and beheaded 11 French marines who were injured and used bamboo poles to display the heads in public. To incite anti-French feelings in China pictures of the beheaded were published in the Tien-shih-tsai Pictorial Journal in Shanghai. James Wheeler Davidson wrote in the "The Island of Formosa: Historical View from 1430 to 1900" (1903): "A most unmistakable scene in the market place occurred. Some six heads of Frenchmen, heads of the true French type were exhibited, much to the disgust of foreigners. A few visited the place where they were stuck up, and were glad to leave it—not only on account of the disgusting and barbarous character of the scene, but because the surrounding crowd showed signs of turbulence. At the camp also were eight other Frenchmen's heads, a sight which might have satisfied a savage or a Hill-man, but hardly consistent with the comparatively enlightened tastes, one would think, of Chinese soldiers even of to-day. It is not known how many of the French were killed and wounded; fourteen left their bodies on shore, and no doubt several wounded were taken back to the ships. (Chinese accounts state that twenty were killed and large numbers wounded.) [Source: James Wheeler Davidson, "The island of Formosa, past and present: History, people, resources, and commercial prospects. Tea, camphor, sugar, gold, coal, sulphur, economical plants, and other productions, 1903 ,also published as "The Island of Formosa: Historical View from 1430 to 1900"]

See Separate Article on the Atayal

Record of Taiwanese Aboriginal Headhunting from 1922

In “Among the Head-Hunters of Formosa”, published in 1922, Janet B. Montgomery McGovern wrote: “The tribes among whom head-hunting still exists are the Taiyal, the Bunun, and the Paiwan, though among the Bunun and the Paiwan to a lesser extent at the present time than among the Taiyal. Among all the other Chin-huan tribes it existed within the memory of the older generation still living. Among the Taiyal tribe — the great tribe of the northern part of the island — one can tell at a glance who has " a head to his credit," by the presence, or absence, of the tattoo-mark on the chin. Occasionally one sees the insignia of the successful head-hunter tattooed on the chin of young boys. This indicates that these boys are the sons of famous head-hunters and that their hands have been laid upon heads decapitated by their fathers ; or that they have carried these heads in net-bags upon their backs. This, by tribal code, entitles them to the successful head- hunter's tattoo-mark. Incidentally, it must be understood that while the Taiyal are — largely because of their peculiar form of tattooing — usually regarded as a single tribe, they do not so regard themselves, but are composed of a number of sub-groups (it is said twenty-six), who regard themselves as separate units ; and who con- sequently go on head-hunting expeditions against each other. [Source: “Among the Head-Hunters of Formosa” by Janet B. Montgomery McGovern, 1922 +++]

“When a boy attains maturity he is supposed to celebrate this by going on his first head-hunting expedition.' Usually several boys of about the same age go together on their first expedition, accompanied by older and more experienced warriors of the same group, or sub- tribe. Before going on such an expedition an omen is always consulted — usually a bird-omen, of which I shall speak more fully under the head of Religion — and it depends upon the favourable or unfavourable indication of the omen as to whether the expedition is undertaken forthwith or is postponed. The Taiyal consider it more auspicious to set forth on such an expedition with an odd number of men. They seem to think the chances will be greater of securing a head, which will count as a man, and thus make up the " lucky even number " with which they hope to return to the village. +++

“During the absence of the warriors on one of these expeditions, the women of the group will abstain from weaving, or even from handling the material — a sort of coarse native hemp — which customarily they weave into clothing. Except for the studious tending of the fires in their respective huts — for if these were allowed to go out, it would be considered a most evil omen — they do little until they hear in the distance the cries which herald the return of the warriors. Then, depending upon whether the cries denote victory or defeat, the women prepare either for a festival or for a time of lamentation. +++

“If the warriors have been successful — that is, if they have returned with one or more heads of slain enemies — a great feast is prepared, and partaken of by the men and women together. In this respect Formosan feasts differ from the victorious warrior-feasts of many other primitive com- munities, at which only the men are the revellers. This difference also distinguishes the dance that follows the feast, in which both men and women participate, the Formosan aborigines forming an exception to the rule laid down by Deniker that Malay men do not dance. As in feasting and dancing, so do the women also take part in the drinking of wine — made by themselves from millet — and in the smoking of tobacco.” +++

Righteous Man Wu Feng and the Headhunters

The national museum of Central University for Nationalities possesses an extremely important historical relic of Gaoshan ethnic group: the 42-centimeter-tall wooden "sculpture of righteous man Wu Feng". In many ways it is an unexceptional wood carving work. What makes it so precious is the heart-breaking story behind it. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Wu Feng (1699-1769) lived in Zhuluo (present-day Jiayi) in Taiwan. His ancestral home was Pinghe County in Fujian Province. Though he was Han Chinese, he spent a lot of time among the Gaoshan and understood their languages and worked hard to improve their lives. In 1722, Wu was sent to live among the Cao people, a tribe of headhunters, in the Alishan region. He served as an interpreter and set up an office in a Gaoshan stockaded village.

Each autumn the Cao people hunted the heads of people from other tribes to hold a memorial ceremony for god. After Wu took up his official post, the Cao planned to hunt heads as usual. After Wu learned that, he did his utmost to talk them out of it as rid themselves of ths terrible custom. He told them, "It is heartless to kill innocent people." He advising them to stop killing and also suggested them to use 40 human skulls hunted before to offer as sacrifice, one for each year. After hearing his words, people felt his suggestions were reasonable and followed them. Wu had cattle, sheep, and clothes sent to Gaoshan people and ordered soldiers under him to help with the harvest and participate in their memorial ceremony to the gods. For more than 40 years, the Cao didn’t hunt human heads. After the 40 years were up, when all the stored human skulls were used up, Wu managed to delay two years.

During the third year, the Cao were unable to restrain themselves any longer and insisted on resuming human head hunting. Realizing the great challenge before him, Wu was determined to sacrifice his own life to persuade and educate Gaoshan people. He said, "Your killing custom should not be tolerated by the law! But you and I have already made it clear at the beginning that I will help you tackle this problem. Tomorrow morning, one wearing red clothes and cap will pass by the village; you can kill him and get his skull. But you must not kill others, or the gods will get angry and punish you. " The next day, August 10, 1769, a man as described by Wu appeared at the appointed time and was shot by Cao arrows. Shouting and jumping for joy, the hunters went up to cut off his head, only to find that the person they shot was Wu. It is said that Wu closed his eyes as the blood spurted out of his body. The head hunters were overcome with sadness and guilt and sobbed uncontrollably. Even trees all over the mountains, the story goes, and the morning wind let out a deep wail for him.

To commemorate Wu's heroic behavior, the local Gaoshan people cut trees and cogongrasses to set up temples, pavilions and platforms to hold memorial ceremonies regularly for him. They also vowed to follow Wu's words and never hunted human head any more. Later, Gaoshan people set up a square stone tablet, on which it was carved "Righteous man Wu sacrifices his life here". By the tablet a gigantic bronze statue of Wu riding a horse was erected and two banyan trees were planted. In 1820, the interpreter in Alishan took charge of building Wufeng Temple, also named as Alishan Zhongwang Temple" or Chengren Temple, to honor Wu. Every August 10 on the lunar calendar, the temple attracts many visitors who burn incense and worship him.

Taiwanese Aboriginals and the Japanese Occupation

When the Japanese occupied Taiwan, they called Taiwan’s ethnic minorities people "Gaoli Nationality," or "Fan Nationality". After World War II, Taiwan authorities first used the name of "Gaoshan", but later replaced it with the terms "Mountain Region Compatriot," "Mountain Compatriot," and "Aboriginal People". On the mainland publication called the ethnic minorities that inhabited Taiwan for generations the "Taiwan’s ethnic minorities Nationality". In 1953, this name was affirmed by the Chinese government, and has been used up till today. ~

During the Japanese occupation some native Taiwanese aboriginal tribes were placed in reservations. Others sought refuge in the mountains. Many had their tribal life decimated by the Japanese. Oscar Chung wrote in the Taiwan Review, “The Japanese often split up a tribe and then moved members to other places to live with people from other tribes. The purpose of the demographic reshuffling was to weaken the cohesiveness of indigenous groupings and make it easier for the Japanese to rule over them. [Source: Oscar Chung, Taiwan Review, March 2012 |+|]

Between 1920 and 1935, the Japanese initiated an island-wide program of forced relocation to control the Taiwanese aborigines and remove them from their ancestral lands: lands which were the basis of many inherited traditions that shaped social and life experience. For the Atayal, this trend was particularly disastrous, because their social structure was based upon the principle of gaya: where all of the descendants of a particular ancestor worked in common ritual and labor as a social and economic unit. As family members became dispersed across the country, the collective structure of the gaya — marked by the sharing of good luck, disaster, labor, hunting, and prayer — soon collapsed. The disappearance of many other Atayal traditions soon followed, such as weaving, headhunting, tattooing, and the communal ownership of land.

Taiwanese Aboriginals, the Japanese and Camphor Trade

Lars Krutak wrote in his blog vanishingtattoo.com: “By the beginning of the 20th century, the indigenous strongholds of the Atayal, Paiwan, Saiset, Bunun, Rukai and other 'tattooed tribes' were threatened by the expanding camphor industry that increased the flow of outsiders and contributed to widespread rebellion and bloodshed. [Source: Lars Krutak, vanishingtattoo.com ^^]

“Growing in immense stands in the Central Mountains of Taiwan, slow-growing camphor trees were utilized in ship building and in the manufacture of mothballs, perfumes, and more importantly celluloid: a material that could be used to make medicines, combs, tobacco pouches, and billiard balls. Since the method of collecting camphor necessitated the clear-cutting of the forest, encounters with indigenous Taiwanese increased forcing the Japanese to take-up defensive measures to protect their economic interests. Expanding on the Chinese defensive system of aiyu-sen, or guard-line, the Japanese basically encircled the indigenous territories with military outposts connected by battle fences that were constantly being advanced as the Japanese conquered new camphor groves. ^^

Harry Franck, an American writer who traveled to Taiwan in the 1920s, described the aiyu-sen as follows: “The aiyu-sen, or guard-line, is a cleared space, from fifty to a hundred feet wide, climbing over hill and dale completely around the uncontrolled territory. It is started by cutting a road along the crest of a mountain, then destroying the vegetation on either side of this far enough back so that the guards can see attacking savages in time to defend themselves. This system dates back to the reign of Ch'ien-Lung, toward the middle of the eighteenth century, when the Chinese paid tamed savages to protect them against the others…The Japanese have constructed bulletproof, loopholed forts, barbed-wire entanglements, mines, and wire fences, the latter in some places locally electrified by harnessing mountain streams; handgrenades, sometimes mountain-and fieldguns, are used; on the east coast warships have occasionally been called upon to subdue belligerent villages… Today the guard-line is about three hundred miles long.”

Wushe Incident

Perhaps the most famous of all of the anti-Japanese uprisings, the Wushe Incident, occurred in the mostly aboriginal region of Musha in Taichu- Prefecture (located in modern day Nantou County). On October 27, 1930, following escalation of an incident in which a Japanese police officer insulted a tribesman, over 300 Seediq aborigines under Chief Mono Rudao attacked Japanese residents in the area. In the ensuing violence, 134 Japanese nationals and two ethnic Han Taiwanese were killed, and 215 Japanese nationals injured. Many of the victims were attending an athletic festival at Musyaji Elementary School. In response, the colonial government ordered a military crackdown. In the two months that followed, most of the insurgents were either killed or committed suicide, along with their family members or fellow tribesmen. Several members of the government resigned over the incident, which proved to be the most violent of the uprisings during Japanese rule. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Shelly Kraicer wrote in Chinese Cinema Digest: “During the fifty-year long Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the remnants of the aboriginal tribes who first settled the island lived in the central Taiwanese mountains. The Japanese colonial government restricted these tribes from practicing their traditional head hunting and facial tattooing, and deprived t hem of their lands and weapons. An uneasy peace came to a head in 1930, when tribal leader Mouna Rudo, a "hero of the tribe", or "Seediq Bale" organized six villages of the Seediq tribe to attack the Japanese occupation police on October 27 in Wushe village. Their carefully planned and executed rebellion resulted in the killing of 136. The rebellion lasted for fifty days, as Japan sent police and army reinforcements to crush the aboriginal fighters. Eventually, the Japanese resorted to dropping poison gas on the rebels from aircraft. The rebellion took on an epic — and desperate — aspect of a 20th century Trojan siege. Seediq heroes fought to the death, while their family members were instructed to commit suicide in order to escape capture and humiliation. [Source: Shelly Kraicer, Chinese Cinema Digest]

Seediq Bale: The Film About the Wushe Incident

The Taiwanese filmmaker’s Wei Te-sheng's blockbuster “Seediq Bale,” re-titled “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale,” is a films about the Wushe Incident. It was originally 4½ hours long but has been cut to shorter international versions. Wei Te-sheng based his Taiwanese aboriginal epic on a Taiwanese graphic novel that described an extraordinary event in great detail. Another movie about the 228 incident, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s"City of Sadness", was first shown in 1988, the year after martial law was lifted in Taiwan, but otherwise Taiwan's movie industry has mostly kept quiet about the incident and Taiwanese modern history.

Shelly Kraicer wrote in Chinese Cinema Digest: “Wei Te-sheng's original version of the film is split into two parts: the first sets the scene, outlining complicated internecine tribal rivalries, the arrival of the Japanese, social conditions of the occupation, the organization of the rebellion, and the Wushe incident itself. This section takes time to delineate a complex set of characters and the full range of their responses to Japanese occupation: from indifference to commercial cooperation (here we see the film's few glimpses of Han Chinese) to strained collaboration and cultural co-optation. The two most fascinating "middle" characters in the film are Seediqs who have become Japanese government policemen: they have assimilated into Japanese culture and still retain their own sense of aboriginal identity. The Seediq themselves retreat up the mountains, sink into alcoholism, and bridle under harsh Japanese rule. The Japanese themselves in the film have a range of colonial identities, from harsh racists through ambivalent educators to respectful observers of Seediq culture. Some of the Seediq become resigned to defeated subservience and survival, others, like the film's hero Mouna Rudo, quietly organize rebellion, while hot headed younger warriors want immediate action. Wei Te-sheng has ample resources at his disposal to assemble and mobilize all these different elements; and his even larger ambition is to depict the complexity, the moral ambiguity, and the impossibly difficult life or death choices that these communities have to make when facing threats of violence and annihilation. [Source: Shelly Kraicer, Chinese Cinema Digest *]

“Wei's great set piece, the Wushe attack itself, comes at the end of the first section. The second section is another film entirely: it absolutely unflinchingly, with real courage, delves into the darkest realms of war crimes, terrorism, mass suicide, cultural annihilation, and genocide. And gives its audience no quarter: we are forced to confront actions of the "heroes" — with whom we have learned passionately to identify with — that, in other, more "normal" contexts, might seem horrifyingly cultlike, sadistic, brutal. If Seediq Bale's second section had been shaped with the clear logic and focus of the first, it would have even more power. It is episodic, though, and amounts to a relentless accumulation of details of horribly violent acts (the structure is something like a theme and variations, though without any sense of forward movement). This piling up of horror after horror can be more wearying than morally and emotionally engaging for an audience.” *\

Aboriginal Groups Under Chiang Kai-shek

Under Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwanese were taught to revere their Chinese-ness. Tribal people were considered backward. Local languages were banned. Aboriginals were forced to take Chinese names. Their land was seized during the nationalization campaign. A member of the Tarako tribe, whose land became the site of a cement factory, told the Los Angeles Times, “the government took the land for their own use and treated us like we were guests. We were born and bred on this land. It ought to be mine again.”

People who promoted the rights of native born Taiwanese often ended up in prison. The dissident Hsieh Tsung-min was tortured and sent to prison for drafting a “Declaration of the Taiwanese People” in 1964 and then was exiled to the United States.

In the 1960s, aboriginal families lived in one room houses with slate flooring and sleeping areas separated by sacks of rice and onions. Children were sometimes placed on sleeping platforms decorated with carvings of skulls and snakes. Their staple was a bean-and-rice gruel. [Source: Noel Grove, National Geographic, January 1992]

Aboriginal Groups After Chiang Kai-shek

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, demonstrations were held by aboriginal groups demanding their land back. The leaders were inspired in part by the activism of other minorities around the world but were motivated by the injustice of their own situation. Non-aboriginals sympathetic to their plight joined their demonstrations. In 1996, a Council of Aboriginal Affairs was set up to address their grievances.

Under Lee Teng-hui, Taiwanese were encouraged to look upon their tribal origins with pride. School children were taught they were “New Taiwanese” of mixed blood. Eight seats in the legislature was reserved for aboriginal groups. Aboriginals were given a boost when a traditional song by the Amis was used to promote the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. Being an aboriginal became cool when the pop singer A-Mei, a member of the Bunu tribe, topped the charts in the late 1990s. Taiwanese aboriginal troops went on a world tour. A CD of song form each tribe was a top seller.

In 2000, Chen Shu-bian, who is part Puyuma, became president. He promised to recognize the sovereignty of aboriginals, restore traditional homelands and reinstate indigenous names for mountains, rivers and other natural landmark. During his term, Taiwan’s aboriginal groups were given more say in their own affairs and provided with budget money to set up schools that taught in the tribal languages. In 2000, a court ruled that land seized from the Taroko to build a cement factory by government should be given back to the Taroko, a subgroup of the Atayal.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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