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The Atayal (Chinese: 泰雅; pinyin: Tàiyǎ), also known as the Tayal and the Tayan, are one tribe of Taiwanese aborigines. In the year 2000 the Atayal tribe numbered 91,883. This was approximately 23.1% of Taiwan's total indigenous population, making them the second-largest tribal group.
The meaning of Atayal is "genuine person" or "brave man".
According to stories told by their elders, the first Atayal ancestors appeared when a stone, Pinspkan, cracked apart. There were three people, but one decided to go back into the stone. One man and one woman who lived together for a very long time and loved each other very much. But the boy was shy and wouldn't dare approach her. Whereupon, the girl came up with an idea. She left her home and found some coal with which to blacken her face so she could pose as a different girl.
After several days, she crept back into their home and the boy mistook her for another girl and they lived happily ever after. Not long after, the couple bore children, fulfilling their mission of procreating the next generation. The Atayal custom of face tattooing may have come from the girl blackening her face in the story.
The Atayal custom of facial tattooing (ptasan) requires that girls first learn to be accomplished weavers and cultivators before they may have their faces 'adorned'. Male tattooing is relatively simple, with just two bands down the forehead and chin. Once a male has reached the coming of age he will have his forehead tattooed. As soon as he fathers a child, his bottom chin is tattooed.
The first record of Atayal inhabitance is found near the upper reaches of the Zhuoshui River. However, during the late 17th century they crossed the Central Mountain Ranges into the wilderness of the east. They then settled in the Liwu River valley. Seventy-nine Atayal villages can be found here.
The Atayal Tribe is a fairly advanced culture. They originally lived by fishing, hunting, gathering, and growing crops on burned-off mountain fields. The tribe also practices crafts such as weaving, net knotting, and woodworking. They also have traditional musical instruments and dances.
The Atayal are known as great warriors. To earn his facial tattoo, a man had to bring back at least one human head; these heads, or skulls, were highly honored, given food and drink, and expected to bring good harvests to the fields. (See Headhunting) They were known to be fierce fighters as observed in the case of the Wushe Incident in which the Atayal fought the Japanese.
A girl would learn to weave when she was about ten or twelve. She had to master the skill to earn her tattoo. Only those with tattoos could marry, and after death, only those with tattoos could cross the hongu utux, or spirit bridge (the rainbow) to the hereafter.The facial tattoo, in Squliq Tayal, is 'ptasan.'
The Atayal are good weavers as well and symbolic patterns and design can be found on Atayal traditional dress. The features are mainly of geometric style, and the colors are bright and dazzling. Most of the designs are argyles and horizontal lines. In Atayal culture, horizontal lines represent the rainbow bridge which leads the dead to where the ancestors' spirit live. Argyles, on the other hand, represent ancestors' eyes protecting the Atayal. The favorite color of this culture is red, because it represents “blood” and “power.”
The Atayal tribe is also known for using facial tattooing and teeth filing as rituals of initiation. The practice of tattooing their faces attracted much attention; in the past a man had to take the head of an enemy, showing his valor as a hunter to protect and provide for his people and the women had to be able to weave cloth to show their coming-of-age and maturity before they could tattoo their faces.
Atayal in modern times
The Atayal tribe in Taiwan resides in central and northern Taiwan. The northernmost village is Ulay (Wulai in Chinese), about 25 kilometers south of central Taipei. The name Ulay is derived from /qilux/, hot, because of the hot springs on the riverbank .  The Wulai Atayal Museum in the town is a place to learn about the history and culture of the Atayal.
Many Atayal are bilingual, but the Atayal language still remains in active use.
Notable Atayal people
- Tom Chang, singer
- May Chin, actress, singer and politician
- Vic Chou, actor and member of pop group F4
- Vivian Hsu, model, actress, and singer
- Albee Huang, actress and singer
- Yuming Lai, singer of rock duo Y2J
- Irene Luo, singer
- Jolin Tsai, singer
- Joanne Tseng, actress and member of pop duo Sweety
- Landy Wen, singer
- Jane Huang, singer of rock duo Y2J
- Atayal, Digital Museum of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples.
- Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, Executive Yuan, R.O.C. (DGBAS). National Statistics, Republic of China (Taiwan). Preliminary statistical analysis report of 2000 Population and Housing Census. Excerpted from Table 28:Indigenous population distribution in Taiwan-Fukien Area. Accessed PM 8/30/06
- "Returning to the land of the ancestors." Taipei Times, Aug 10 2003. Accessed 10/21/06.