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The Tribes of Taiwan

- By Cliff Vost, Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung (from Travel in Taiwan Culture , Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.)
- Edited by Ho Ghang, 14, May, 2007

Island of Diversity

Before the Han Chinese immigration began in the mid-1600s, Taiwan was inha-bited by people belonging to the Austronesian race, the members of which lived in a vast area extending from Madagascar in the west to Hawaii and Easter Island in the east, and from New Zealand in the south to Taiwan in the north. Taiwan's aborigines are believed to have come from the Malay archipelago in different waves about 6,000 years ago at the earliest and less than 1,000 years ago at the latest. Since their languages are very different--more varied than those of the Philippines--some scholars suggest that Taiwan is the original homeland of all Austronesians. Archeological findings indicate that Taiwan had been inhabited by other people before the current aborigines came. However, little is known about them, particularly when and why they disappeared.

When the Han Chinese came to Taiwan, they divided, for convenience, the aborigines into Pingpu (plains) people and Kaoshan (mountain) people. They further subdivided the Pingpu people into 10 tribes and the Kaoshan people into nine. These labels are misnomers, for they don't reflect cultures and languages, or place of residence, properly. A tribe in one division often has more similarity with one in another division than with one in its own division, and three tribes of "mountain people" don't live in mountains at all.

The early Han Chinese immigrants were mostly bachelors, and many of them married Pingpu girls, which sped up the melding of the two ethnic groups. There is a Taiwanese saying that "We have mainland forefathers but no mainland foremothers." The Han Chinese totally overcame the Pingpu people and nearly killed their languages. However, many Pingpu phrases remain in Taiwanese. The word kanchiu (wife) is derived from the Siraya tongue of the Pingpu; and mangga , the old name of the Wanhua district of Taipei, is the language of Ketagalan, a Pingpu tribe that once lived there. None of Taiwan's aborigines had a written language. To study the Pingpu culture, one must rely on archeological finds, written records from Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Spanish explorers and rulers, and remaining oral tradition.

The Nine Tribes

The Nine Tribes The nine tribes of the "mountain people" live in less accessible mountains, remote eastern Taiwan, and the offshore Orchid Island, where their culture and languages are relatively well preserved. Following are some of the distinctive historical traits of these nine remaining aborigine groups in Taiwan. Noted traits that were common to these groups included tattooing (except among the Yami and Bunun), pantheism, shamanism, and head-hunting (except among the Yami).

The Atayal are distributed over a large area in northern Taiwan. Their language can be divided into the Atayal and Sediq branches and is not closely related to any other aborigine language. Atayal men are good hunters, and Atayal women good weavers. In the past, facial tattooing among men and women, for beauty and distinction and to ward off evil spirits, was a feature of this tribe. This practice has been outlawed since the Japanese occupation (1895-1945). Now only those Atayals over 80 years old still have tattoos on their faces.

The Atayal kinship system is patrilineal. Leaders of several religious groups of a community usually constitute the political authority. The prototypical Atayal house is either semi-subterranean or built at ground level, and is made of wood and thatch. There is a watch tower for each cluster of houses.

The Saisiyat are the smallest of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes in terms of population and area. They are surrounded and strongly influenced by Hakkas and the Atayal, and were the first among the tribes to be acculturated by the Han Chinese and adopt Chinese names. Like that of the Atayal, tattooing was also a feature of the Saisiyat.

The Saisiyat are noted for a unique festival of theirs: the Ceremony of the Pygmies--pas-ta'ai. The legend has it that a group of pygmies once taught the Saisiyat to farm, sing, and dance, but also harassed and raped the Saisiyat women. The Saisiyat entrapped and massacred all the pygmies but two. As the two survivors were escaping to the east, they cursed the Saisiyat. To appease the souls of the pygmies, the pas-ta'ai is held once every two years at the tenth full moon of the lunar calendar, and a grand pas-ta'ai takes place once every 10 years. Like the Greeks observing Olympia, the Saisiyat forsake fights and quarrels during the pas-ta'ai.

The Bunun live in the mountainous regions of central Taiwan. They are patrilineal, have strong family ties, and practice the extraction of certain front teeth as a sign of social identity as well as adulthood. The Bunun are good singers and often sing when working. Their harmonic skills are advanced and elegant, and they impressed the world with their "Millet Harvest Song" at an international ethnic music convention in 1953.

The Tsou live on the west side of the middle section of the central mountain range. The "Northern Tsou" and "Southern Tsou" are distinct in language and custom. In the past two centuries, the Tsou's population has decreased dramatically due to the expansion of surrounding ethnic groups and also to various epidemics.

The typical Tsou house has rounded corners and a dome-shaped thatched roof which extends almost to the mud floor. The men's meeting huts, or kuba, serve as religious, political, and masculinity training centers. Enemy heads and a box of implements for igniting fires are kept there; women are not allowed in a kuba. The past significance of hunting among the Tsou is evident in their extensive use of leather in clothing.

The Paiwan live in the mountains of the southern end of Taiwan and are divided into the Raval and Butaul branches. They live on farming as well as hunting, animal husbandry, and creek fishing. They have a social system founded on land ownership, and their kinship is ambilineal. The Paiwan are noted for their wood and stone sculpture. The Butaul branch holds a major sacrificial rite every five years, called maleveq, to invite the spirits of their dead ancestors to come and bless the living.



The Rukai live in the southern part of the central mountain range. Their economic activities, social strata, and kinship are similar to those of the Paiwan, with the distinction that the Rukai practice primogeniture. Rukai houses are built of wood, bamboo, and thatch as well as stone slab. Some houses, including the roof, are built entirely of stone slabs. Rukai women are good cloth and basket weavers, and Rukai men are good wood carvers. Master wood carvers are highly respected in the tribe. The lily flower is comparable to the laurel worn by the heroes of ancient Greece; only very brave warriors and very chaste women, after being recognized by the chief, have the right to wear it.

The Ami, with a population of 123,000--the largest of all of Taiwan's aborigine tribes--are mainly plains dwellers, living in the valleys and coastal plains of eastern Taiwan. The Ami are divided into five groups based on geography, custom, and language.

The Ami began to use oxen in cultivating paddies relatively early. Fishing is an important part of their economy, but hunting is now solely recreational. In Ami society, kinship is matrilineal, but men's clubs are well organized. Ami villages are relatively large, each with a population of between 200 and more than 1,000. The Ami are the only aboriginal tribe on the island of Taiwan to practice the art of pottery making.

The Ami harvest festivals have evolved from warrior training. Nowadays sports, symbolic fishing in the open seas, and singing and dancing are observed throughout the villages in a series of celebrations in July and August.

The Puyuma live in the small Taitung plain and surrounding hills in southeast Taiwan. They are an agricultural people, supplementing their harvest with fishing and hunting. The Puyuma kinship system is ambilineal; while family inheritance goes to the eldest daughter, men and women share in kinship equally. The village is an independent political unit in Puyuma society, and feuding is common among villages. Young men's houses are centers for education, warrior training, and religious ceremonies. Teenage Puyuma boys used to receive spartan education at the men's house five months a year. The men's house also serves as the house of spirits, or karumaan. Each clan has its own karumaan.

The Yami live on Orchid Island, or Lanyu, a small island lying in the Pacific Ocean 60 kilometers southeast of Taiwan. Evidence shows that the Yami reached Orchid Island less than a thousand years ago from the Batan islands in the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and Luzon.

Fishing is central to the Yami economy and is supplemented by farming. Men are responsible for building and fishing, women for farming. The Yami kinship system is basically patrilineal although they also observe matrilineal kinship rules in matters like marriage taboos and revenge. The prototypical Yami dwelling consists of a semi-subterranean house, a work house, and a rest pavilion. Pottery making is an outstanding feature of Yami culture. The first launching of a newly completed boat and the Flying Fish festival in the spring are the Yami's most important celebrations.

The spirited hair dance performed by Yami woman.


Aborigines have adapted their housing to centuries of life on sub-tropical Taiwan.


Replicas of human skulls adorn an aborigine wall.


Evil spirits stay clear of this tribal art.


Rukai woman in festive dress and action.


Master wood carvers earn the utmost respect in the Rukai community. 

Launching a freshly constructed boat is one of the most important occasions of Yami sea-going life.
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