Though Taiwan has a majority population of Han Chinese now, its original residents were indigenous Austronesian tribes. In fact, Taiwan is believed to be where the languages and cultures of the Austronesians began, which includes people in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, the Maoris in New Zealand and Polynesians in Hawaii.
Taiwan’s 14 aboriginal tribes
occupied the island for as long as 15,000 years before Han settlers from China
arrived in the 17th Century. They lived as hunters and gatherers in
the mountains or by fishing in the sea. Although they currently number only
about 500,000 (2$% of the population), it is still possible to experience their
Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines
Just across the street from Taipei’s
famous National Palace Museum is
the Shung Ye Museum of
Formosan Aborigines, one of the largest museums devoted to indigenous
cultures. Its collection of some 2,000 artefacts includes tools for startling
birds so they do not eat crops, a horizontal back-strap loom for making cloth
from tree stalks and fibers before machine-made thread was available, and tools
for face tattooing. Tattoos served as an indication of adulthood, beauty and
personal achievement for the Atayal tribe. There are also re-creations of
traditional homes, including slate houses used by the Paiwan and Rukai tribes,
which are cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The museum touches on significant
historical events, including conflicts between aborigines and Han Chinese
settlers, and the Wushe Incident — the biggest rebellion against Japanese
colonial forces in Taiwan, which resulted in a massacre of hundreds of Seediq
tribal people in 1930.
Situated off the southeastern coast
of Taiwan, the small island is home to the most remotely located indigenous
tribe: the Tao. The Japanese colonial government restricted public access to
the island to study the Tao. When the Republic of China took over in 1945, it
kept the ban in place, lifting it only in 1967. Those restrictions, and Orchid
Island’s geographic remoteness, have preserved traditions among these indigenous
people. The Tao’s dependence on and respect for the sea are reflected in
ancient practices that survive today. When a son is born, the parents plant a
tree. It is from this tree that the family builds a canoe for him when he is
old enough to fish for a living. To preserve the fish stocks, the Tao only
catch certain types of fish, such as the flying fish, at certain times of the
year. The canoe launching and Flying Fish festivals are open to the public.
Tourists can also visit traditional semi-subterranean homes intelligently built
to protect the Tao from typhoons.
On Taiwan’s east coast, Taitung has
one of the largest concentrations of indigenous tribes. Each summer, the
Festival of Austronesian and Formosa Indigenous Cultures is held here, bringing
together native people from Austronesian countries to share their customs, song
and dance. The National
Museum of Prehistory, built to save a Puyuma tribe archaeological site, is
also located here and is a good place to learn about Taiwan’s indigenous
To hear traditional and contemporary
indigenous music live, make a stop at the Dulan Sugar Factory Cafe, a former sugar factory that has been
converted into a performance space for indigenous singers who hold impromptu
jam sessions and welcome visitors to join in. Indigenous singing and music once
echoed through the mountains and was used as a form of communication long
before telephones arrived. Music and dance was also used for important
worshipping ceremonies or to seek protection from the ancestors and spirits
before a hunt or battle. At Eslite bookstores in Taiwan, or at indigenous
restaurants and shops, you can pick up CDs of indigenous sounds you will
probably never find anywhere else.
Villages in Taitung allow tourists
to see how urban indigenous people live, including A’tolan (Dulan) Village,
which has preserved the Amis tribe’s traditional ways of life, and the Bunun
Leisure Farm, a tribe-operated resort farm, where performances are given of the
Bunun tribe’s moving Pasibutbut (eight-part polyphonic singing). This prayer
for a bountiful millet harvest is sung without musical instruments and considered
one of the most harmonious and amazing works of music in the world.
Alishan is a popular scenic
attraction in Taiwan, but it is also home to the Tsou tribe, which has largely
been left out of the development of this major scenic area. Stop off at
villages along the main road, and over a cup of home brewed coffee you will
hear how they want to preserve the beauty of the mountain cherished by their
ancestors, not overdevelop it.
A Jiang in Leye Village is one of an
increasing number of Tsou people who have returned from the cities to open bed
and breakfasts or grow organic tea in their homeland. Each October, the Tsou
celebrate the Life Bean or Fona Festival. In Tsou language, fona refers to the hyacinth bean, which
comes from a perennial plant that grows well on barren soil and adverse
conditions. For the Tsou, the bean symbolizes life and the continuation of the
tribe. The Fona Festival consists of a modified Tsou marriage, representing
efforts to continue the tribe, a rather important task as the populations of
many tribes number only a few thousand people.
In many areas where indigenous
culture can be seen, there is usually a pavilion-like structure built from wood
or bamboo where the community elders gather for discussions. Some areas, like Taitung,
have street-side displays of traditional indigenous homes, free for tourists to
visit. And restaurants in these areas serve indigenous meals, including rice in
bamboo stalks, roasted wild boar and millet wine.
To help Taiwan’s indigenous people
make a living in their ancestral land and preserve their language and culture, travellers
can stay and eat at tribal-owned bed and breakfasts and restaurants. These tend
to be well-adorned with indigenous decorations and the owners warmly greet guests.