Taiwanese aborigines

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The island of Taiwan is home to numerous indigenous (aboriginal) peoples. Though today representing only a very small percentage of the predominantly Han Chinese population, they number at least 16 groups (or "tributes") totalling some 520,000 people in total,[1] and are widely represented in Taiwanese governmental discourse and tourism promotional materials as representative of Taiwan's distinctive cultural identity (distinct from that of China). Taiwanese aborigines are also regularly represented in institutions such as the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Forum.


Though several daimyô made efforts in the late 16th to early 17th century to establish trade relations with Taiwan or to have "Taiwan" formally submit to Toyotomi or Tokugawa authority, no messengers ever found a centralized, unified, polity or power-holder with whom to negotiate; several such messengers were attacked or even killed by local groups.

As the Dutch, Portuguese, and Chinese successively set up bases or settlements on Taiwan, aboriginal groups were gradually pushed east, away from fertile plains and viable harbors, into the forested mountains.[2] Zheng Chenggong and others pushed the Dutch and Portuguese out of Taiwan in the mid-17th century In the early 18th century, the Yongzheng Emperor set aside regions of the island exclusively for the aborigine groups, and set up provisions for Qing subjects to rent land from the aborigines, while at the same time establishing further Qing administration and settlement of the island.[3]

As Taiwan gradually became more Sinified - that is, as it gradually became more settled, more controlled by Qing authorities, and more incorporated into Qing society - the island, and its people, came to be rhetorically divided into two categories. "Fresh" or "raw" "barbarians" (生蕃, shēngfān) were those peoples and lands relatively untouched by Qing influence or control, and still uncivilized from the Qing point of view; by contrast, those areas and people who had been "civilized" in the Qing view were known as "cooked" or "ripe" "barbarians" (熟蕃, shúfān).[4]

Fifty-four Miyako Islanders castaway near the southern tip of Taiwan in 1871 were killed by members of the Paiwan people. This led to a significant diplomatic incident between the Meiji government and the Qing Dynasty Chinese court over claims to Taiwan and to the Ryukyu Islands; after the Qing government declared they had no effective control over aboriginal lands (roughly, the eastern half of Taiwan) and therefore no responsibility for the attack, Japan asserted that the Qing was abdicating claims to the land, opening it up for Japan to claim that territory. The Japanese military then launched a punitive mission in 1874 in which Imperial Japanese Army forces invaded and attacked aboriginal communities in retaliation for the deaths of the Miyako Islanders.

Following Japan's acquisition of Taiwan as a colony in 1895, Japanese administration was extended into nearly every part of the island, bringing most if not all aboriginal people under colonial administration, at least to some extent.

Mingei (folk crafts) and anthropological scholars such as Yanagi Sôetsu and Torii Ryûzô traveled to Taiwan in the early 20th century, bringing modern/Western notions of social darwinism and race theory, and proposing prehistorical connections between Taiwanese and Japanese peoples, seeing aboriginal cultures as representative of prehistorical Japanese cultures.

At a Domestic Exposition in 1903, a number of Taiwanese aborigines were put on display in a "human zoo" alongside several Ainu.

In 1930, members of the Siddiq people launched an attack on Imperial Japanese officials and soldiers known as the Musha Uprising.


Primary based in areas on the eastern side of the island of Taiwan, some prominent aboriginal groups include:

  • Amis
  • Atawal
  • Paiwan


  1. Greg Dvorak and Miyume Tanji, "Introduction: Indigenous Asias," Amerasia Journal 41:1 (2015), xxi.
  2. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 57-58.
  3. Spence, 85.
  4. Ono Masako, Tomita Chinatsu, Kanna Keiko, Taguchi Megumi, "Shiryô shôkai Kishi Akimasa bunko Satsuyû kikô," Shiryôhenshûshitsu kiyô 31 (2006), 254.