The Atayal are a Taiwanese ethnic group that has traditionally lived in the central mountains in a wide area stretching from Taipei to the Tapachien Mountains and today are found mostly in mountains 600 to 2000 meters above sea level from Jen-ai Rural Township in the mountainous area of Nantou to Hualien and Yilan counties in the east. There are about 91,000 of them, making them Taiwan’s second largest minority. They speak two languages: Atayal proper and Sediq. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]

In the old days the Atayal were the most notorious headhunters on Taiwan. Tribal wars were fought over territory and honor. Heads were used in ancestor worship rituals and the skull, teeth, and hair were used for protection against malevolent spirits. Society was organized along patrilineal lines in hamlet groups. Social control was exerted through laws and taboos. If a taboo was broken t could be corrected trough a pig sacrifice and an offer of meat to people violated by the taboo.

The Atayal have traditionally lived in small villages above 1,500 meters in the mountains and made their homes in isolated huts and subterranean houses that were entered by climbing down a ladder from the front door. Inside were shelves for the heads of enemies and bones of wild pigs killed by hunters. Pigs lived in side fences around the house. Atayal villagers farmed; hunted boar, deer, goats, monkeys, squirrels, bats and bears; and fished with poison, The Japanese forced them to move to the lowlands and give up many of their traditions. They now mostly live in Chinese-style houses.

The Atayal marriage process was often involved and lengthy, including negations made by relatives of the groom, haggling over a bride-price in shell money, pigs and embroidered clothing, which could take as long as four years. Marriages between cousins were discouraged. Sister exchanges have often been practiced.


Atayal Facial Tattoos

The Atayal have traditionally worn distinctive facial tattoos. Only a few old people have them. Joseph Yeh wrote in Taiwan Culture Portal, “On November 21, 2008, centenarian Wu Lan-mei, Taiwan’s oldest Atayal woman with a face tattoo, passed away at the age of 110 in her own bed in the Hsiangpi Village of Taian Township in Miaoli County. According to Taian township office statistics, with the death of Wu the number of the township’s Atayals with facial tattoos shrank to four, all aged between 85 and 91. Only two years ago there were nine, but the number was going down fast, according to a township official. Just two months before Wu’s death, another face-tattooed Atayal centenarian, Lin Yin-mei, also passed away at the age of 105 in her village in the mountainous Wufeng Township of Hsinchu County. Before their deaths Wu and Lin, both of whom had their faces tattooed when they were 13 years old, were designated as living national treasures because of the traditional Atayal adornment on their faces. Their passing is an indication that this long-observed tradition of the Atayal tribe is rapidly disappearing and may very soon be a thing of the past. [Source: Joseph Yeh, Taiwan Culture Portal, September 10, 2009 ~|~]

“Facial tattooing is a traditional custom among the Atayals. The custom of tattooing faces is believed to date back about 1,400 years and was once practiced by several local tribes including the Atayal, Saisiyat, Seediq and Truku. According to cultural writer Ma Teng-yueh, the Saisiyats started tattooing their faces largely as "the inevitable result of protecting themselves against a stronger enemy,” as the tribe live quite close to the stronger Atayals. Unlike the practice in traditional Han Chinese culture, where facial tattooing has negative associations and is done only on criminals’ faces to serve as a warning telling others not to commit crimes, to the Atayal the practice functions to differentiate ethnicity and it also conveys serious social meanings. It is one of their most important customs and social practices in traditional tribal village life. ~|~

“According to anthropological studies, facial tattooing is both an important ceremony in an Atayal’s life and a social requirement that both men and women have to undergo. Traditionally, every Atayal man and woman is supposed to go through this custom between the ages of 5 to 15. Before they can earn a tattoo on their faces, however, each man has to show that he can be successful in hunting, including headhunting. For the Atayal women, they must master the all-important skill of weaving. Those without facial tattoos are not allowed to get married, an indication of the importance of the practice. It is hard to imagine, however, how painful the experience of facial tattooing must have been, especially in ancient times without sufficient medical attention. In the words of many old persons talking about the experience, the joint impression is nothing other than "pain, so painful that you'd rather die." At the same time, the painful process serves as a rite of passage, since if you can survive such a severe test you are qualified to enter into manhood and womanhood and begin a new stage of life. ~|~

Atayal Facial Tattoos and Atayal Culture

Atayal tattoos researchers Tien Kuei-shih said in order to be tattooed and acquire the right to marry, men had to prove their skills in hunting and battle, while women were expected to show excellence in weaving. In addition, men, if successful in headhunting, were able to wear special tattoos on their chests, feet and foreheads. Tattoos thus represented honor and glory to tribal people. For women, the whorled design symbolized chastity and duty. Girls got their first tattoo at five years of age, the second at 15 as a symbol of adulthood. In addition to appreciating one's weaving skills, tattooing was a means to test purity. It is said that promiscuous girls would die during the process. Upon reaching adulthood, women were tattooed in winter or fall. Tattoo masters used jute threads to draw patterns, piercing faces with iron needles and applying ashes on wounds. "Even though only natural materials were used, the process often caused infection. We thought our ancestors would cure chaste young girls," explained Tien. [Source:]

When looking closer at the tattoos, it is easy to see that women's tattoos were more complex. They have a straight line on their foreheads and chins, with two U-shaped lines on their cheeks. Men, on the other hand, have just one straight line each on their foreheads and chins. The more complex the patterns, the more responsibilities one had in society, said Tien. "The tattoo pattern for men is simpler, taking only about four hours to complete, while that for women takes 10 or more hours." Although the Atayal live in a patriarchal society, women's status was due to contributions to families, in particular, those decorated with dark whorled patterns on their faces were said to bring luck.

Tattooing could also be administered to the foreheads of unmarried Atayal boys and girls in their teens. Apart from the tattooed foreheads of women, only those who were skillful in weaving could tattoo their cheeks and other parts of their bodies. Besides the beautiful cloths they wove on the loom, Atayal women also manufactured net bags that headhunting husbands used to carry severed human heads. Next to his beheading knife, these bags were his most treasured possession. It is not surprising, then, that the Atayal believed that only those women who were proficient in weaving (hence tattooed), and those men who were successful headhunters (also tattooed) could pass safely into the afterlife.

Atayal Creation Myth and Atayal Facial Tattoos

There are numerous legends purporting to explain the origin of tattooing. The most widely believed is that permanently ingrained pigments provided Atayal ancestors with a way to identify and protect later generations. The Atayal believed that after death, spirits have to cross a rainbow bridge. Only those with face tattoos can be received in heaven through the guidance of their ancestors. "For my people, tattoos also have the power to ward off evil," said Tien.

Joseph Yeh wrote in Taiwan Culture Portal, “Where does this facial-tattooing practice come from? Anthropologists tend to believe that the questions can be answered in the myths and legends of the Atayals. The first legend regarding the origin of facial tattooing is the tribe’s equivalent of the Adam and Eve story. The Atayal believe that heaven and earth first took form in a giant rock which girdled the “Papakwaka,” known today as Dabajian Mountain. Two people, a sister and a brother, were born from the rock. The two lived together for a long time, but as time went by, the sister began to worry about how to reproduce the human race. So she suggested to her brother that they marry. As the move was a clear act of incest, the brother rejected her proposal. The sister was forced to make up a plan to deceive her brother. One day she told him that the next day a woman would be waiting for him at the foot of the mountain. She was to be his wife. The brother believed her. On the following day the sister took some black ashes and wiped her face with them, then waited at the foot of the mountain until her brother finally showed up. He failed to recognize her as his sister and the two had sexual relations, and the human race was able to multiply. [Source: Joseph Yeh, Taiwan Culture Portal, September 10, 2009 ~|~]

Another story concerning the origin of tattoos is that once upon a time, many young Atayal girls died mysteriously one after another. The Atayal were frightened, as they could not find a way to stop the serial deaths. One night a girl in the village had a dream in which a deity appeared before her, telling her that if she wanted to avoid dying in the epidemic, she had to tattoo her face. The next day, she told everyone in the village about the heavenly instructions. But no one knew how to tattoo. Finally, one clever man used burnt pine wood to draw a pattern on a piece of women's clothing, and taught it to all the women in the village. Then he used a thin needle to tattoo the pattern onto their faces, covering their faces with black soot afterward so that the colors would not fade. As the girl had been told in her dream, once the Atayal women began tattooing their faces, the continuous inexplicable deaths ceased. Thus the custom of tattooing faces spread throughout the Atayal, and has been passed down to the present day. ~|~

Atayal Facial Tattoo Artists and Subjects

Lars Krutak wrote in his blog “Atayal tattoo artists, called patasan, were women. They had to be of high virtue and most of them inherited their profession from their mothers, though some learned it by apprenticeship. Usually there were not many tattoo artists in any one particular region, so if one did not reside in an Atayal village, one was invited from the outside. Tattooists commonly charged a piece of cloth or two strings of beads for an individual's first tattoo; but, for one who had married or committed adultery, she would charge more — sometimes one or two beaded skirts! [Source: Lars Krutak, ^^]

Joseph Yeh wrote in Taiwan Culture Portal, “When an Atayal reaches the age for having their faces tattooed, their parents determine the exact date for the procedure through dream interpretations by a shaman. They then invite a tattooist to accomplish the task. Before the actual tattooing take place, the tattooist would first ask the one about to get tattoo if he or she was a virgin. If the subject lied about it, he or she would be cursed and the tattoo would become festered and infected. The method used in facial tattooing was to press linen threads into the charcoal ashes of burned pine trees, then draw a pattern on the cheeks. [Source: Joseph Yeh, Taiwan Culture Portal, September 10, 2009 ~|~]

“Tattooing operations were almost always performed in a small hut located away from the living quarters and most tattooing took place in winter, since the cold weather was believed to facilitate the healing of the tattoos and prevent scabbing. Interestingly, the Atayal linked scabbing to the lack of virtue of the client! The client prepared herself for the rite by observing various taboos before the operation including: no sexual relations, no drinking of any animal blood, and especially no wearing of red-colored clothing, since this was believed to cause her blood to flow unabated. The parents of the client chose a favorable day for the tattooing by dream divination, and on that particular day they observed various bird-omens and offered blood sacrifices to the spirits of their ancestors for a safe and successful operation. Bird omens were also consulted prior to most ceremonial occasions and especially before a hunting or war/headhunting campaign, because particular birds were in communication with the spirits of ancestors who, in turn, could guarantee glory in war, health in life, and fertility in agriculture. ^^

Atayal Facial Tattooing Process

Joseph Yeh wrote in Taiwan Culture Portal, “When an Atayal reaches the age for having their faces tattooed, their parents determine the exact date for the procedure through dream interpretations by a shaman. They then invite a tattooist to accomplish the task. In the Atayal tribe, the tattooists were all women. The profession was passed from mother to daughter and was considered a sacred job. Only a virtuous woman could be a tattooist. Before the actual tattooing take place, the tattooist would first ask the one about to get tattoo if he or she was a virgin. If the subject lied about it, he or she would be cursed and the tattoo would become festered and infected. The method used in facial tattooing was to press linen threads into the charcoal ashes of burned pine trees, then draw a pattern on the cheeks. [Source: Joseph Yeh, Taiwan Culture Portal, September 10, 2009 ~|~]

“They then laid a bundle of iron needles on the pattern and pounded them with a wooden hammer called an "adut" in the Atayal language. The needle tips pierced the skin, a process which was repeated two or three times at every spot. Then the wounds were sprinkled with charcoal ashes to make the black color settle in. This painful process usually took more than ten hours, from dawn to dusk, to finish the complicated lattice patterns of a woman’s tattoo. The patterns for males were simpler, covering only the forehead and under the lips, and therefore took less time. After the tattoo was done, the artist was rewarded with precious gifts. ~|~

Lars Krutak wrote in his blog “Tattoo artists first stenciled their designs upon the skin with a linen thread soaked in black soot. The tattoo instrument resembled a toothbrush with four to sixteen needles (atok) arranged in rows and fastened to a wooden handle about 1.5 cm in diameter and 15 cm in length. Before iron was introduced to the indigenous Atayal, thorns of orange or tangerine trees were used. The hammer, which pounded the tattoo instrument into the skin, was called totsin and was constructed of a single piece of wood about 2.5 cm in diameter and approximately 17 cm in length. Excess blood was removed with a scraper (quwar) made from a rattan splint that was bent and bound at either end with linen thread. Lampblack (ihoh) was used as pigment but occasionally soot from charred pinewood resin was collected, to be stored in a gourd or small iron case. [Source: Lars Krutak, ^^]

The tattoo client lay down with a folded cloth under her head. The tattoo artist usually sat on a low stool behind her or stood hunched over the patient with her tool. She took the needle instrument and knocked it home with several forceful blows of her hammer and scraped the blood-stained face with the quwar. Oftentimes a block of wood was held in the tattoo artist's hand, and with this the tattooing implement was struck after it had been laid upon the area of application, because this action ensured a stronger blow and one more accurately placed upon the forehead. Afterwards the tattooist washed the hammered area and rubbed it with black soot. ^^

“For the first 10 to 20 days after tattooing the woman's face would remain swollen and she would have difficulty swallowing food. She could only drink water or porridge through a wooden straw. Until the wounds were healed, those who had been freshly tattooed were forbidden to go out to prevent the wounds from infection, and no one except family members could visit them. If everything went well, in about half a month, when the wounds had healed and scabbed over, deep blue or black patterns appeared on the initiate’s face, a mark that would accompany him or her to the graveyard. ~|~

Decline of Atayal Facial Tattooing

Tattoos belong to the whole network of codes woven together in the fabric of tribal cultures. Yet, preservation of body decoration has been the most difficult. "As people age, wrinkles gradually cover their faces. Numbers — who can be viewed as the best source of oral narrative about Taiwanese history — have shrunk greatly," said Tien with a sigh. "Even though tattoos have supernatural meanings for wearers, they can not help the older generation defend itself against time. I hope the government will put more effort into saving this dying culture," he said. [Source:]

Kimi Sibal, the founder of the Sediq Cultural Studio in Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast, told the Taiwan Review that only Atayal people and their cousins, the Truku and Sediq peoples, who were officially recognized as distinct from the Atayal in 2004 and 2008 respectively, had facial tattoos. “But Han Chinese immigrants mistook the tattoos as the same kind of punishment criminals received in ancient China. Then the Japanese called us ‘barbarians of the forests’ because of the designs on our faces,” says Sibal, a member of the Sediq tribe. The Japanese, who ruled the island from 1895 to 1945, banned the tradition in 1913 in their efforts to assimilate the colonized local population. [Source: Oscar Chung, Taiwan Review, March 2012 |+|]

Joseph Yeh wrote in Taiwan Culture Portal, “Not only did the Japanese forbid the Atayal from having their faces tattooed, they often forced those who already had tattoos to undergo a painful tattoo removal process. Though the Kuomintang government did not ban facial tattooing after the departure of the Japanese, the ancient practice had already gradually begun to fade away following the introduction of Christianity, which began during the Japanese occupation and continued to spread widely among the tribes during the 1950s. The entrance of monotheism into the villages completely broke down the Atayal's polytheistic faith and the system of ancestor worship. [Source: Joseph Yeh, Taiwan Culture Portal, September 10, 2009 ~|~]

This led to the total abandonment of facial tattooing for a long period of time. And in recent years, as shown in the example of the two centenarians Wu and Lin, the passing of many elderly Atayals with face tattoos could literally be the death knell for the thousand-year-old practice. It seems now to be only a matter of time before the ancient tradition just dies away.

Preserving Atayal Facial Tattooing

Joseph Yeh wrote in Taiwan Culture Portal, “There is a new generation of Atayals who are striving to preserve the long-kept tradition of their tribe. In January 2008, a young Atayal couple, Shayun Foudu and her husband, underwent the full facial tattooing tradition, making them the first two to observe the almost-extinct Atayal custom in nearly a century. The 33-year-old woman, Shayun Foudu, had the shape of a large "V" tattooed on her face in a ceremony at a tourist resort in Taroko National Park in Hualien County. "Facial tattooing is an old cultural tradition of the Atayal tribe. I feel very proud to have a tattoo on my face," she told reporters. [Source: Joseph Yeh, Taiwan Culture Portal, September 10, 2009 ~|~]

“Foudu said that traditionally, when a young Atayal man married his young bride, the man would also have his face tattooed as a propitious sign of the couple's wish for a long-lasting marriage. Foudu, a native of Fuhsing Township, Taoyuan County, said that she and her Atayal husband both have facial tattoos and are proud to "finally have done something" to help preserve an Atayal tradition. The tattoo artist used modern tattooing techniques to put the pigments on Foudu's face, a procedure which took two hours. In the old days, tattooing was done with needles, with ashes applied to the wounds in a long and painful process. Foudu said she hopes that their action will help society to adopt a more open mind about facial tattoos. ~|~

Oscar Chung wrote in the Taiwan Review, “For Kimi Sibal, the founder of the Sediq Cultural Studio in Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast, it was his son’s clash with a Han Chinese classmate that prompted Sibal to begin giving lectures about the traditions of facial tattooing practiced by his forebears. “My son was called ‘barbarian’ in Taiwanese. A fight ensued. His classmate said to his face it was natural for him to become violent because both mafia bosses and his ancestors had tattoos on their bodies,” Sibal says of insults hurled at his son about 15 years ago. “Facial tattoos are a symbol of pride and honor for my people, but for a long time the practice was vilified by outsiders. I need to change its negative image,” the 60-year-old man explains. [Source: Oscar Chung, Taiwan Review, March 2012 |+|]

“Sibal’s first step was to conduct field research to learn the stories behind the tattoos. He visited elderly Atayal, Sediq and Truku people, whose dwellings are scattered throughout the mountains in the northern half of the island. It also was difficult talking them into having their photos taken because some worried that the pictures could “steal their souls.” From the early 1990s until about two years ago, Sibal took photos of and spoke with more than 300 Atayal, Sediq and Truku elders with facial tattoos. It is thanks to his efforts that a large amount of information about the practice has been compiled at a time when the tradition is fast fading from Taiwan’s collective memory. As far as Sibal knows, there are only seven people with traditional tattoos still living, and the youngest of them is already 92 years old. |+|

Preserving Atayal Clothes and Weaving

Oscar Chung wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Traditional Atayal clothing passed down through the generations is also hard to come by today. According to Baunay Watan, a Lihang Studio researcher, weaving by indigenous peoples was banned by the Japanese, although some individuals continued the handicraft covertly. Meanwhile, it is difficult to preserve many of the clothes and fabric, which were made from natural materials, from those early days. [Source: Oscar Chung, Taiwan Review, March 2012 |+|]

As a result, Watan’s husband “Taru often needs to visit museums in Taiwan and abroad that have collections of such items, including a number of Japanese institutions that house Atayal clothing from the Japanese colonial era. She has also made a trip to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada to view a collection of indigenous clothing from Taiwan collected by George Leslie Mackay (1844–1901), a Canadian missionary based in northern Taiwan for the second half of his life, who spent much time among local aborigines. “We were delighted when we found the clothes have been so well preserved in those museums, which are equipped with humidity and temperature control systems,” Watan says. “It’s so important to see and feel [with gloves] the actual things. Photos alone give you little idea about their structure and texture,” he adds. |+|

“Taru continues to conduct field studies in Taiwan on traditional Atayal weaving techniques and pattern designs by talking to elderly tribeswomen. “For an Atayal woman, competence in weaving boosted one’s social status. Consequently, weaving skills were passed down only from mothers to daughters,” Watan says. “But we let these elderly weavers know that the weaving traditions would soon die out if they refused to share their knowledge with outsiders.” |+|

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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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