Aboriginal Culture in Taiwan

This is a topic I find fascinating, so I thought I would share what I know and what I’ve discovered. I’ve done some research online and but I also have been to museums and asked people. However, I’m not an expert, so I urge you to do your own research 🙂

Years before any other civilisation went to Taiwan, there were Austronesian tribes already living there. They had their own linguistic and genetic from Polynesian groups and people from the Philippines.

Throughout Taiwan’s complicated history, the many different aboriginal tribes and groups have been slowly homogenised. To different degrees, they have been assimilated with Chinese culture and other colonial countries (most notably Holland, Portugal, France and Spain).

Right now, 14 tribes are recognised and they still live in the mountains in small groups. Taiwan’s ethnic minorities speak languages that belong to the Indonesian group of the Malay-Polynesian language family. The differences between the languages from the different groups and subgroups is quite big. This means that the groups generally can’t communicate with each other using their own languages.

From friends, I have learned that tribes generally speak their own language, no English or even Chinese. They will learn Taiwanese if they have a stand in a night market or have a job within Taiwan’s contemporary society. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult for them to integrate. All Formosan languages are slowly being replaced by the culturally dominant Mandarin. In recent decades the government started an aboriginal re-appreciation program that included the reintroduction of Formosan mother tongue education in Taiwanese schools. However, the results of this initiative have been disappointing.

The Amis language is the most widely spoken aboriginal language. The government estimates put the number of Amis people at a little over 200.000. However, the number of people who speak Amis as their first language is lower than 10.000. Amis has appeared in some mainstream popular music. Other significant indigenous languages includes Atayal, Paiwan, and Bunun. In addition to the recognised languages, there are around 10 to 12 groups of Taiwanese Plains Indigenous Peoples with their respective languages. 

Aboriginal people face many economic and social barriers in comparison to the ethnic group Han Chinese people. For many years, the government have either ignore or force aborigines to change their way of living. These past 50 years, however, the government is increasingly taking them into account and integrating them into Taiwan’s society. They still have a lower education quality and there is a language and cultural barrier. 

These past few years, there has been an increase in the touristic attraction that have aboriginal culture as a centre. For instance. Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, Orchid Island, Museum of Prehistory in Taitung or Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in Taipei. However, there are also people who think of aboriginal people as “poster children” for doing politics. Right now, it’s “mainstream” and it’s cool to be aboriginal. Nevertheless, there are double standards in Taiwan’s society for someone who was born in a tribe versus someone who was not.

In recent years, since the democratisation of Taiwan, aboriginal groups have been reviving their traditional cultures and sharing their distinct musical style and talent with the world. Aboriginals have also found success in athletics, with many participating in both Summer and Winter Olympics, as well as local sports franchises. In an effort to achieve higher political self-determination and increase economic development in local communities, tourism and ecotourism have become major industries in aboriginal communities. 

The religious beliefs of Taiwan’s ethnic minorities are complicated and include elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity. Several kinds of religions have developed among the different Taiwan’s ethnic minorities groups. Deities worshipped by Taiwan’s ethnic minorities vary from place to place and group to group, but include a heaven deity, universe-creating deity, nature deity, Sili deity and some other spirits and ghosts.

Sacrifices include agriculture sacrifices (cultivation sacrifice, sowing sacrifice, weeding sacrifice, harvest sacrifice), hunting sacrifices, fishing sacrifices, and sacrifices and offerings to ancestors. Shamanism and folk religion are still strong in some places. Methods of fortunetelling, soothsaying and divining include bird-fortunetelling, dream-fortunetelling, water-fortunetelling, and rice-fortunetelling.

The aboriginal people also create literature and legends which are up to Tolkien’s sleeves. I found a list and there are more online, but they are all heart warming and beautiful, and I don’t want to have to choose, so in your own time, feel free to give them a read here.

Special thanks to all my Taiwanese friends and all the people I have had conversations about this topic. Thank you for sharing your point of view with me and educating me in your culture.