Mountain Peoples of Taiwan

Alternative names: various tribal names: Amis, Tayal, Taroko, Saisiat, Tsao (Tsou), Bunun, Paiwan, Rukai, Punuma, Yami
Location: mountains and plains on eastern side of Taiwan
Population: 350,000 (est.)
% of population: 2%
Religion: 75% Christian
Language: Indigenous languages, Japanese, Chinese

The “Mountain Peoples” are the indigenous tribal inhabitants of the island of Taiwan. They once occupied the entire island, but today are a small minority of about 350,000 people, or less than 2% of the majority Chinese population. They are divided into 10 tribal groups, each with its own language, living mainly in scattered communities in the mountains in the east of Taiwan. There are some exceptions to this; for example the Amis (the largest single group comprising about one third of the Tribal population) live on the eastern plains, and the Yami on the island of Lanya (Orchid Island).

Although the aboriginal languages of Taiwan are Austronesian, the origins of the tribes are diverse, and they probably migrated to Taiwan from the Philippines over hundreds of years. There was little contact with the Chinese until the seventeenth century when Dutch attempts to establish a plantation economy led to the importation of thousands of Chinese labourers from Fukkien. The Dutch were driven out by Chinese pirates and settlers and in 1683 western Taiwan became part of the Chinese Empire. Immigration of Chinese continued for the next 200 years and by the end of the nineteenth century had reached three million. The administration followed two distinct policies towards the tribal people; one towards the “Pingyu” (flat land) tribes of the plains who were integrated into Chinese society and the other towards the “Sheng Fan” (Raw Savages) of the mountains. The mountain areas were not regarded as part of the Chinese Empire until 1874, and Chinese were forbidden to enter them. But even before this Chinese had penetrated the mountains in search of campourwood. There were conflicts between the two groups, both on the plains and in the mountains, especially after the policy had changed, expressed in the slogan “Open up the Mountains and Pacify the Savages”.

In 1894 the Sino-Japanese War resulted in the ceding of Taiwan to Japan leading to 50 years of Japanese rule. Taiwan was economically developed as a plantation economy; roads and railways were built and Chinese immigrated to the eastern plains. Tribal groups of the eastern plains, such as the agricultural Amis, were able to compete economically with the Chinese and were able to some extent to retain a separate identity. In the mountain areas Japanese police handled administration. In the south a policy of village consolidation and road building was successful in tribal areas, but in the north, abuses involving the recruitment of forced labour led to conflicts. Most notable of these was the Wushe incident of 1930 when Tayal and Bunun tribes united to massacre Japanese residents, and over 900 Tribal peoples were killed by the Japanese in retaliation (300 Japanese also died in the two months it took to suppress the uprising). After this, Japanese policy in the mountain areas was reformed somewhat; schools and medical establishments were created in tribal areas and education in Japanese was promoted, with the result that even today Japanese is the lingua franca among the different tribes, while many Mountain People maintain links with Japan.

At the end of the war, the Chinese under the Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist regime regained Taiwan. After its defeat by Chinese communist forces in 1949, the KMT leadership and one-and-a-half million mainland refugees fled to the island which became the only substantial area of China not under communist rule. There had been almost immediate tensions between the KMT and Chinese Taiwanese; a protest in 1947 against corruption and misrule had been severely repressed and martial law remained in force from 1949 to 1987. The KMT followed the previous policy of restricting access to the mountain peoples but allowed missionaries to enter the area. Although the Japanese had forbidden missionary activity in the mountains there were indigenous Christian movements and after the war the missionaries laid the basis for rapid religious conversion. Today, about 75% of the Mountain People are Christians, mainly Catholics (27% of Tribal population) and Presbyterians (21%). The KMT government followed a largely protective and paternalist policy towards the Tribal groups, seeing in them potential allies against the Taiwan Chinese. The term “savage” was replaced by that of “mountain brethren”; mountain reserves of state land were established, along with indigenous “mountain townships”, where administration was in the hands of mainland Chinese officials. All education was to be in Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese and indigenous languages were forbidden despite the difficulties this caused. Economic development resulted in rapid social changes and, despite the restrictions on land sale, mountain land was sold to Taiwanese and many young Mountain People moved to the cities to work. As a result by 1977 over one quarter of the tribal population was resident in cities.

As a group the Mountain Peoples are poorer than Taiwanese and face many social problems such as unemployment and prostitution. New restrictions on movement came in 1985 when Mountain Peoples were required to have entry permits from the police if they wish to travel to areas outside their own township. Indigenous land rights are not recognized as the government maintains that all land belongs to the state, not to the Tribal communities. But there have also been positive developments, one of which is the growth of indigenous participation in the Christian churches, especially of the Mountain Tribe Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church. Both major churches have supported community development initiatives, such as credit unions and co-operatives, in the mountain areas, while Church missions have developed alphabetical scripts for aboriginal languages. But the government has restricted the use of such scripts to Bibles and hymnbooks and allows their use only if Chinese characters appear together with the aboriginal script. Only Mandarin Chinese is taught in schools. Mountain Peoples still face a great deal of discrimination from the Taiwanese and are seen as a quaint tourist attraction rather than as a living culture.