Tracing the Weaving Patterns of Taiwan’s Indigenous Tribes

It started with a string of woven bracelets purchased at a night market. It started with with the exhibition at the National Palace Museum entitled, “Wrapping Cultures: Asian Textiles from the National Palace Museum Collection,” which showcases some of the finest historical examples of textiles and patterns from around China and other parts of Asia. It started with learning that during their period of Colonial Rule the Japanese banned indigenous weaving along with the practice of head hunting, facial tattoos, and the speaking of any language other than Japanese in public. The interplay of these threads has had us tracing ideas for blog post centered around indigenous weaving in Taiwan. What we have accomplished here is NOT that. Rather, what we have managed is to parse a few snippets of the many of narratives that entwine to form the far larger historical, cultural, linguistic, cosmological, and visual tapestry that has taken multiple generations of anthropologists and artists to begin to trace.

Markers of Identity

The weaving traditions in Taiwan extend as far back as the indigenous tribes themselves. From clothing to rush weaving Taiwan has a long history of incredible artistry and craftsmanship that has been recognized many times by the multiple cultures that have come into contact with the Island. Certain patterns, colors, and styles are emblematic of different tribes and regions while others are designs passes down through families. Traditionally, indigenous weaving was done exclusively by women who most often worked on backstrap looms. Backstrap looms are looms used in a sitting position through the help of one’s back and legs as a means of creating the tension needed to hold the strings in place and create the fabric. Indigenous women were expected to become accomplished weavers before they were given facial tattoos and permitted to marry. The male initiation into adulthood often involved bringing back a human head in keeping with indigenous head hunting traditions of Taiwan. Only those with facial tattoos were able to pass securely across the rainbow bridge into the afterlife. It should be understood that there is deep symbolism contained in the patterns and motifs of the weaving and the tattoos of the tribes. With both weaving and head hunting there was a cosmological understanding tied to power, luck, protection, wholeness, and a connection to the tribe, land, and ancestors. In many cases it was taboo for men to touch a woman’s loom or weaving instruments or for women to learn how to hunt. The woven designs themselves would oftentimes be emblematic of tribal or personal stories or have other symbolic significance.

The Japanese would go on to discourage and then ban facial tattoos, head hunting, and indigenous weaving during their rule in Taiwan. This, in addition to the extreme acts of violence and other policies designed to strip people of their native languages, lands, and means of livelihood, had devastating effects on the indigenous tribes of Taiwan. The goal in these practices was to “civilize” the savage tribes of Taiwan. The rise of the textile production industry in the post-War years and the martial law implemented by the KMT (who kept many of the Japanese policies regarding native language and hunting lands) would result in an entire generation of indigenous people not able to speak their native language or carry on cultural practices that had defined their tribe’s identity.

One sad irony of this legacy nowadays, is that many of the best historical examples of traditional Taiwanese weaving are held in the storage rooms of Japanese museums.

Cultural Resurgence

In recent decades, however, indigenous weaving has become a means of revitalization and central point for the identity for many of the indigenous tribes of Taiwan. Local and governmental efforts have resulted in a wide resurgence and interest in learning traditional patterns and techniques, oftentimes from elders who kept the traditions alive in secret or who still have memories of such knowledge. As greater cultural awareness and celebration of indigenous designs has spread throughout Taiwan others, even those who are male or without indigenous heritage have been learning these patterns as a means of helping to protect and celebrate them. Efforts to make these designs part of a cultural heritage that speaks to modern day tribal and even a larger Taiwanese identity is also underway. Although these designs generate profits, there is a goal to make them more than simply a tourist attraction.

Avenues to Learn More

As we mentioned in the beginning, the topic of this blog post is geared more towards the research required for multiple post-doctoral theses or a lifetime of study than a quick read. It took our best efforts to even begin to follow the cursory threads of this topic without becoming too entangled. As with many cultures, weaving and identity lie at the center of indigenous tribes of Taiwan. It is worth spending time to discover on your own (as we will undoubtably be doing) and as such, we can offer a few places to start.

Great Reads:

Places to Visit:


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