A Background on Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples

Photo Credit: Taiwan Panorama

In one of our previous posts “Language in Taiwan,” we touched briefly on the Formosan tribes who are the first inhabitants of the Island. We wanted to circle back to the topic in another post here to provide our readers with a better understanding of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and the human history and culture that stretches back well over six thousand years. Before starting, however, we want to note that while this post will be informative, it is by no means complete or comprehensive. Treat it as a starting point, a means of asking further questions, and embarking on deeper inquiries. Enjoy.

A Background on Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples 1
Photo Credit: Wikipedia


Although people of Indigenous descent make up only less than 2.5% of Taiwan’s population today, their impact, presence, and history on the Island cannot be understated. They are part of a larger linguistic group known as Austronesian which stretches from parts of Southeast Asia to Micronesia and even as far as Madagascar. There have been numerous studies done which have concluded that the tribes of Taiwan traded with both mainland China and other parts of Southeast Asia long before the first large waves of Chinese colonists arrived on the Island in the Ming Dynasty.

Today there are 16 officially recognized Indigenous tribes in Taiwan as well as a number other tribes who are still seeking recognition. Of Taiwan’s population of 23 million only 560,000 – 800,000 are of indigenous descent. It is believed that 26 Formosan languages were originally spoken in Taiwan, however, nowadays 10 of them are extinct, and 5 are moribund, or on their way to extinction, and others are at risk. It is important to note that each tribe in Taiwan has its own language and cultural traditions developed over a millennium. Many tribes have moved to different locations on the Island in large part because of the displacement and upheaval which occurred over the last four centuries.

A Background on Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples 2
Photo Credit: Lafayette University

In the last four hundred years, Taiwan’s indigenous groups faced the same challenges as many other native peoples around the world. Colonization, conflict, displacement, loss of language, identity, and cultural knowledge. This occurred first with immigrants migrating from China, as well as with Europeans, followed by the Japanese, and later the KMT.

In the early 1900’s as Japan sought to consolidate their control over the Island, many of Taiwan’s indigenous groups fought back in remarkable instances of armed resistance. The Japanese military would eventually succeed and in many cases forced tribes to relocate as a means of destroying their connection with their ancestral lands. Greed and violence were promoted and eventually, even forcing the tribes to take on Japanese names.

The arrival of the KMT following WWII did little to help Taiwan’s indigenous groups. Mandarin became the official and for a long time only spoken language, Chinese names were mandated, lands were taken for public use, and the cultural traditions of the tribes were often restricted in the form of hunting rights or ability to gather food. These efforts were seen as a way to begin to “civilize the tribes,” a view point that lasted for the better part of the last century.

A Background on Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples 3
Photo Credit: Taiwan Today

The past four decades, beginning largely in the 1980’s, has seen a large shift in public awareness within Taiwan that has moved Indigenous groups and the protection of their cultural heritage towards the forefront of Taiwan’s political consciousness. Numerous groups have sprung up to help advocate for indigenous rights, and efforts are being taken both on a national level and within local communities to preserve languages and traditions, cultural centers. Nowadays one can find numerous museums around the Island celebrating indigenous heritage and numerous tribe members, scholars, artists, and advocates are working to find ways of bringing traditional practices or forms of knowledge to light to help Taiwan and the rest of the world deal with the challenges our world faces today.

A Background on Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples 4
Photo Credit: Taiwan Panorama

Places to Visit to Learn More

Today there are some incredible organizations and museums dedicated to Taiwan’s indigenous Heritage. If you are in Taipei, you should make sure to check out:

1. Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines

2. Ketagalan Culture Center

Similarly, if you are on the East Coast of Taiwan, the Atayal Life Museum in Yilan and the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung are fantastic places to visit.

If you are in other parts of Taiwan, a quick search will likely show a local museum or community center dedicated to indigenous heritage near you.

Additional Resources


Read about each of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized tribes here: https://www.cip.gov.tw/en/tribe/grid-list/index.html?cumid=5DD9C4959C302B9FD0636733C6861689

From an Indigenous Taiwanese Rights Activist: https://english.cw.com.tw/article/article.action?id=2495

More background information: https://oftaiwan.org/taiwan-101/taiwan-indigenous-people/

Films to Watch:

  • Voices in the Clouds, by Tony Coolidge
  • Sounds of Love and Sorrow, by Hu Tai-Li
  • Returning Souls, by Hu Tai-Li
  • Cou 175586 Little Warrior, by MOTUS Dome


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