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The First Nations of Taiwan: A Special Report on Taiwan's indigenous peoples

Taiwanese history has been shaped by its geography. In the shape of a tobacco leaf, the island is about 85 miles across at its widest point and 260 miles long, with an area of just under 22,500 square miles. The terrain varies widely between the relatively flat west and the mountainous and heavily forested east. The island’s position just more than 100 miles off the southeast coast of China and astride major sea lanes has long given it key strategic importance. First named Ihla Formosa by Portuguese mariners, Taiwan has been colonized by the Spanish (1626-1642), the Dutch (1624-1662), Ming Dynasty loyalist Koxinga (1662-1683), the Ching Dynasty (1663-1895), the Japanese (1895-1945), and the Republic of China (1945 to the present). Today it is claimed by the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China, and Taiwanese Minnan-speaking nationalists who want independence.

The island’s 400,000 Aboriginal people are frequently overlooked in geopolitical assessments of Taiwan. Yet at nearly two percent of Taiwan’s 22 million people, they compose a similar percentage of the national population as do First Nations in Canada (3 percent) and Australia (1.8 percent). The number of officially recognized peoples in Taiwan stands at 10. Today’s official classification schemes were originally developed by Japanese government anthropologists a century ago as part of colonization efforts. These classifications are rejected by some Taroko (or Sediq) people who question their official designation as "subtribes" of the Tayal (or Atayal), as well as the Tao, who reject their official name of "Yamei."

Names and official designations are just one of many contested Aboriginal issues in Taiwan. Household incomes of Taiwanese Aboriginal peoples are less than 40 percent of the national average and Aboriginal unemployment is significantly higher than the national average. Some attribute higher Aboriginal unemployment to the importation of nearly 300,000 "guest workers" from the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia who compete directly for jobs with Aborigines. In rural areas, Aboriginal farmers are typically small-scale and are adversely affected by the agricultural sector’s increasing openness to foreign agribusiness imports. Taiwan is also undergoing rapid economic restructuring processes in which labor-intensive industries relocate to lower cost areas like the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam. Additional environmental and economic devastation caused by the September 21, 1999 earthquake and numerous typhoons have created a situation in which Taiwanese Aboriginal peoples are being squeezed from all sides.

The government has encouraged tourism development in rural areas in response to these problems. Tourism often involves transforming Aboriginal cultures into a-historical caricatures of themselves for curious tourists--and Taiwanese Aboriginal peoples are once again forced to bear the brunt of Taiwan’s economic changes.

Historical Precedents

Taiwan first entered world markets when the Dutch invaded southwest Taiwan in 1624. They subdued the area through a combination of military force and treaties with local Aboriginal peoples. Much as the beaver trade did in Canada, the burgeoning deerskin trade led to the decimation of the deer population and disruption of local Aboriginal economies. The Dutch recruited Chinese settlers on a large scale to enable the production of sugar, rice, and other agricultural commodities and to further develop their colony.

Ming Dynasty loyalist Koxinga defeated the Dutch in 1663. His reign marked the first Chinese government on Taiwan and led to periodic mass Chinese immigration and settlement. The Ching Dynasty displaced the Koxinga regime in 1684. At this time, Taiwan’s Chinese population of about 100,000 nearly equaled the size of the indigenous population and extensive intermarriage occurred among the First Nations of the western plains and Chinese settlers.1

Plains Aboriginal groups were able to maintain limited land rights through the early 1700s when their military force was useful to the Ching dynasty in the suppression of uprisings. But much of their lands passed gradually into Chinese control through coercion, debt, and fraud. Some groups continued to hold their land until the Japanese terminated indigenous land rights in 1895. Despite two centuries of Chinese colonization, well over 50 percent of Taiwan’s landmass remained under the effective control of independent Aboriginal peoples on the eve of the Japanese occupation. This fact alone undermines Chinese nationalist claims of all stripes that Taiwan is an "inalienable" part of China.

Taiwan once more came to the attention of the West in the late 1850s when the 1858 Treaty of Tianjian forced open many Chinese ports to Western trade. Camphor was needed for the production of newly invented celluloid and smokeless gunpowder as well as for many medicines, and though its production had long been a source of friction between Chinese settlers and Aboriginal peoples, it became one of Taiwan’s main exports. As Western military pressure mounted in late 1800s (the French attempted an invasion at Keelung in 1884-85, for example), the Ching administration expanded the camphor trade as a means of financing weapons acquisitions, coastal defenses, and modernization projects. Camphor-related incursions were met with strong Aboriginal resistance, particularly from the Tayal, whose guerrilla tactics were able to paralyze camphor trade in 1886, when only 399 pounds were exported from Tamsui. Their success, however, was short-lived. Camphor production peaked at almost seven million pounds annually after sustained Ching military campaigns.

The 1894 Treaty of Shimonoseki that concluded the Sino-Japanese War gave Taiwan to Japan--without Aboriginal participation. The Japanese occupation (1895-1945) began with the suppression of both Taiwanese-Chinese and First Nations military resistance. The southern First Nations were controlled through a system of police outposts. In the north, a noose-like "guardline" strategy was adopted against the groups Japanese anthropologists called the Atayal (Tayal), Bunun, and Taroko. The defense perimeter was a 200-meter wide barren zone of electrified fences, mines, and guard positions every 220 meters, and was moved forward at every opportunity. The perimeter was intended to block the flow of arms and ammunition to the still-independent First Nations. (Barclay, 1999) The Japanese also launched regular military attacks to conquer more ground for camphor exploitation; camphor taken in this manner provided 15 to 30 percent of annual state revenues during the early Japanese colonial period.

The 1914 campaign against the Taroko by Japanese security forces resulted in the deaths of some 10,000 Taroko people. Japanese soldiers (in conjunction with Aboriginal auxiliaries) retaliated by annihilating six Sediq (Taroko) villages after the Wushe Rebellion of 1930, the last major military resistance by Aboriginal peoples. Ironically, several thousand Aboriginal people were later drafted or volunteered to fight in the Japanese armies during WWII. In some Aboriginal families, sons went to fight for the Emperor while daughters were forced to serve as "comfort women."2

Forced relocations also affected more than half of Taiwanese Aboriginal peoples during the Japanese period and strongly undermined traditional governance and social structures. Following the Kuomingtang takeover of Taiwan, colonization measures were intensified (see discussions by Scott Simon and Linda Arrigo in this issue).

Present-Day Taiwan

Taiwanese Aboriginal peoples still face widespread societal discrimination. A survey conducted by one Academia Sinica sociologist indicated that only 45 percent of Chinese would allow their children to marry Aboriginal people whereas 70 or 80 percent would let them marry members of other Chinese groups. An anti-Aboriginal landowners group has used political connections to weaken the founding mandate of the Council of Aboriginal Affairs. And Aboriginal legislators charge that some Democratic Progressive Party legislators have referred to them as hoan-a, which translates roughly as "nigger" in the Minnan Chinese dialect.

Yet, in contrast with the state of affairs just a decade ago, it is now difficult to pass a day in Taiwan without encountering elements of Aboriginal cultures. There are Aboriginal theme parks, Aboriginal cultural festivals advertised on the side of Taipei buses, TV ads and radio songs featuring Aboriginal pop stars like A-Mei and Samingad, and TV news reports about Aboriginal cultural activities. Aboriginal programs now appear on the Public Television Service, and the street in front of the presidential building was renamed in honor of the Ketagalan people of the Taipei area--an acknowledgement of Aboriginal peoples unthinkable a decade ago. As an August 2, 1999 Newsweek article said, "Right now, the cool thing to be is an aborigine."

A few years ago Linda Arrigo commented that Aboriginal peoples were "poster children" for the independence movement. She hit on an important understanding of modern Taiwanese appropriation of Aboriginal peoples’ images for commercial and/or political purposes.

In what appears to be part of its "backdoor diplomacy," for example, the Taiwanese government has signed memorandums of understanding with Canada and Australia for Aboriginal cultural exchanges. An exhibit was mounted in 2001 of Aboriginal artifacts collected in the late 1800s by Canadian Presbyterian missionary George Leslie Mackay. Taiwanese and Canadian government officials, including former President Lee Tung-hui, heaped praise on Mackay in spite of his destruction of numerous indigenous artifacts. (Mackay once bragged: ". . . More than once I dried my clothes before fires made of idolatrous paper, idols, and ancestral tablets. Three men were employed to carry other paraphernalia of idol-worship to the museum in Tamsui.") Ignoring Mackay’s intention to save the artefacts as curiosities, the exhibit was entitled "Treasures Preserved Abroad." As part of this corporate-funded and government-orchestrated public relations spectacle, a Canadian government pamphlet called the collection "one of the most significant extant pre-Japanese Aboriginal collections."

More important, perhaps, than this cultural resurgence, is the recent reclamation of indigenous language rights. The cumulative effects of previous forced assimilation policies, combined with migration to cities and "market forces" such as employment pressures, favored Mandarin and foreign language skills over native language use. A recent survey found only 10 percent of Aboriginal children are fluent in their respective Native languages, a particularly worrying fact given the large number of Aboriginal languages, especially those of the plains groups, that are either extinct or severely endangered. To help stop this erosion, Aboriginal language teaching has now been implemented in schools; the first national tests for Aboriginal language teaching credentials were completed in December 2001.

Yet paternalistic representations persist of indigenous peoples in Taiwan needing help or "development" from outside their own communities. And such representations are complemented by the repetition of historical stereotypes in events such as staged Aboriginal dances at National Day celebrations. The cumulative effect is a set of images in which Aboriginal peoples are represented as helpless and backward--their cultures quaint curiosities suitable only for tourists and museums. Commenting on mass media coverage of Aboriginal peoples, Aboriginal writer Kapi Kalidoay said: "The content and sources of reports by Taiwan’s publicly and privately operated media outlets mostly stress the social problems, ‘exotic’ customs and traditional culture of Aboriginal people. Particularly when dealing with the social problems of the ‘mountain brethren,’ such reports frequently tend toward a rigid ignorance." Paternalistic attitudes like those prevalent in Taiwan can lead to continued discriminatory behavior.

President Chen Shui-bian’s 2000 presidential election campaign rhetoric of "new partnerships," for example, was quickly qualified following his March 31 election win. In an act of corporate appeasement, Chen met with Douglas Hsu of the Far Eastern Group--which owns Asia Cement--on April 5, 2000. The meeting was a clear violation of Chen’s pledges to clean up corruption and to Aborigines. As Scott Simon’s article in this issue describes, Asia Cement has illegally occupied Taroko lands for over 27 years. The Chen administration’s failure to enforce the Taroko court victory against Asia Cement is a clear forecast of the substantial resistance reassertion of traditional land rights will face on densely populated Taiwan.


Common cultural appropriations, though often superficial, attest nonetheless to a resurgence of Taiwanese Aboriginal peoples. Taiwanese Aboriginal peoples have met with some success in their struggles since the lifting of martial law in 1987. Advances in education, for example, represent a 180-degree turn from past forced assimilation curriculums. Aboriginal delegations, though often encountering diplomatic interference from the PRC, are frequent participants in various international indigenous rights forums. Negotiations over local autonomy for Aboriginal peoples are also progressing, albeit slowly. Such gains, however, have been limited to less politically "painful" elements. Now the more substantial matters of land rights and self-government are finally beginning to be addressed. Domination by corporate and governmental institutions is being openly challenged and such movements offer hope for the future.

1. This historical fact has been used by independence advocates in recent years to emphasize Taiwan’s distinctiveness from China.

2. Today Aborigines, mostly women and children, still comprise some 20 percent of workers in the sex industry.


Mark Munsterhjelm lived in Taiwan between 1992 and 2001. He is now a graduate student in the indigenous governance program at the University of Victoria in Canada. For more information on Taiwan Aboriginal rights, see:

Author’s note: I use the expression "First Nations" as a translation of yuan-chu-min chu, which may literally be translated as "original peoples." "Peoples" carries connotations of political independence--something denied under colonization.

References & further reading

Barclay, P.D. (1999). Japanese and American Colonial Projects: Anthropological Typification in Taiwan and the Philippines. University of Minnesota, PhD dissertation.

Shih, C.F. (1999). Legal Status of the Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan. Paper presented at the June, 1999 International Aboriginal Rights Conference in Taipei.

Davidson, J.W. (1903). The Island of Formosa: Past and Present. London, Shanghai, Yokohama, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore: Macmillan and Company and Kelly and Walsh Ltd.

Huang, F.S., Lin, M.H. & Ang, K., compilers (1997). Maritimes Customs Annual Returns and Reports of Taiwan Vol. 1: 1867 to 1881 and Vol. II: 1882 to 1895. Taipei: Institute of Taiwan History, Preparatory Office, Academia Sinica.

Ka, C.M. (1996). Japanese Colonialism in Taiwan: Land Tenure, Development, and Dependency 1895-1945. Boulder: Westview Press.

Kalidoay, K. (1999). Building an Aboriginal society with the media at its centre: The current state of play and outlook for the Aboriginal print media. Translated by Martin Williams. Paper presented at the June, 1999 International Aboriginal Rights Conference in Taipei, Taiwan.

Shepherd, J.R. (1995). Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier 1600-1800. Taipei: SMC Publishing.

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