Taiwanese Plains Aborigines

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Plains aboriginal mother and child

Plains aborigines (Chinese: 平埔族 píngpuzú) are Taiwanese aborigines originally residing in low land regions, as opposed to Highland aborigines. Plains aborigines consist of eight individual tribes, rather than being a single tribe. It is part of the Austronesian family. Plains aborigines have been labelled by Japanese and Han Chinese as ‘Pingpu Fan’ (平埔番) and ‘mature savages’ (熟番), which also known as Sek-hwan in English language (Campbell). Beginning from the 17th century, plains aborigines have been heavily influenced by external forces from Dutch, Spanish and Han immigration to Taiwan. This ethnic group has since been extensively assimilated with Han language and culture; it has lost its cultural identity and it is almost impossible without careful inspection to distinguish plains aborigines from Han Chinese.

Plains aborigines have not been officially recognised by the government of the Republic of China, apart from the Kavalan tribe. It was not until the mid-1980s that plains aborigines started gaining interest from historians and anthropologists, this has led to increased public attention to this group. Various anthropological studies have emerged in recent years arguing that circa 85% of Hoklo and Hakka Taiwanese are actually decedents of plains aborigines through intermarriages with Han immigrants. This is still an on-going debate and has been used as political leverage to promote Taiwanese independence and Taiwanese ethnic consciousness. An increasing number of Hoklo and Hakka Taiwanese are beginning to search for plains aboriginal bloodlines in their genealogy, and many are starting to claim themselves as plains aborigines. This ethnic group is currently continuing to fight for its identity, rights and recognition as Taiwanese aborigines.


The characters ‘ping pu’ literally translate into flat ground; signifying that plains aborigines resided in flat plains, rather than highland mountainous regions (Institute of Ethnology 2012). Plains aborigines mainly settled in the west and central mountain regions of Taiwan (Tai 2007). Prior to the arrival of immigrants to Taiwan, plains aborigines lived extremely primitive lives. The term “Pingpu” was originally used to distinguish plains from highland aborigines. The term “Shoufan” (mature savages) (熟番) was used to describe plains aborigines because they often lived closer to sea and had more interaction with Dutch and Han immigrants, hence were more assimilated and civilised than highland aborigines. Plains aborigines have appeared in Qing texts dating back as early as 1764 (Institute of Ethnology 2012).

In the 17th century, plains aborigines were involved in the flourishing deerskin export market. Plains aborigine hunters often supplied deerskin to the Chinese and Dutch regimes, in exchange for cash to trade for other goods and also to pay for taxes enforced under the new regimes (Bays 1996, p. 122). By the 18th century, the deerskin industry had largely diminished due to overhunting, and the inflow of Chinese immigrants began to take up much of the grazing land (Bays 1996, p. 123). Therefore, plains aborigines increasingly relied on plow agriculture and land rent from tribal land reclaimed by Han settlers.

1877 sketch of a plains aboriginal tribe member

Han settlers initially implemented policies that favoured plains aborigines. This was because Han officials feared a revolt against Chinese immigrants, and also due to the fact that plains aborigines were tax paying citizens and could be used as military sources (Rubinstein 2007, p. 120). Furthermore, the Chinese government initially viewed their expansion as a disruption to the aboriginal status quo, hence they introduced policies to favour plains aborigines. However, plains aborigines were increasingly not able to compete economically and ethnically with the growing Chinese population that flooded to Taiwan. Han policies in favour of plains aborigines began to disappear. Han settlers started to disintegrate many of the plains aborigines from their original villages. It is within these “political and economic frameworks” that the plains aborigines gradually became sinised (Bays 1996, p. 123).

Plains aborigines began to adopt aspects of Chinese culture, values, and language. Most importantly, intermarriages between Chinese and plains aborigines increased rapidly, leading to the acculturation of plains aborigines with Chinese. Many of the early Chinese settlers in Taiwan were not permitted to bring women with them; hence they married plains aboriginal women out of necessity (Tai 2007). This is the origin of the common Taiwanese saying “there are mainland grandfathers, but no mainland grandmothers” (有唐山公,無唐山媽) (Tai 2007, p. 52). This extensive intermarriage is the reason that many Taiwanese today are unaware that they could be decedents of plains aborigines. Several theories have been proposed during the 2000s, to suggest that a large majority of Hoklo and Hakka Taiwanese could have plains aboriginal lineage in their bloodline (Lin 2001). An increasing number of Taiwanese are starting to search for their plains aboriginal roots and claim their status as plains aborigines (Hsiau 2000).

After centuries of acculturation, plains aborigines are almost completely Hanised (Hsiau 2000, p. 168). It is nearly impossible to distinguish plains aborigines without careful inspection (Tai 2007, p. 53). Through the process of acculturation, much of the language, culture and identity of plains aborigines have become non-existent in modern Taiwanese society (Hsiau 2000, p. 168). The Republic of China government currently only officially recognises one (Kavalan) of the eight plains aboriginal tribes as Taiwanese aborigine (Lee 2003).

There was a lack of attention and interest in the history of plains aborigines until the mid-1980s. Henceforth, through the works of scholars, folklorists, anthropologists, historians and remaining descendents of plains aborigines, there have been a gradual restoration of plains aboriginal culture, history, identity and language (Hsiau 2000, p. 168). For example, a descendent of plains aborigines in Hualien, Chieh Wan-lai, still insists on teaching the traditional language and culture of plains aborigines (Tai 2007, p. 53). More educational pamphlets are emerging to educate Taiwanese about the existence of plains aborigines. Furthermore, a campaign was started in Yilan for descendents of the Kavalan tribe to find their roots (Tai 2007, p. 53). Many plains aboriginal festivals are emerging around Taiwan, and these have been opened up to the public and to people who have recently discovered their status as plains aborigines (Ministry of Culture 2011a).

Ethno-political activities and Nativist Cultural Movements flourished after the 1990s, and a “Plains Aborigine Name Correction Movement” emerged (Tai 2007, p. 53). Several protests occurred in 2001 and 2010, and a formal complaint was sent to the United Nations in 2010, demanding the ROC government to formally recognise plains aborigines (Taiwan Review News 2010). Descendents of plains aborigines today continue to fight for the official recognition of their status as Taiwanese aborigines.

Main Tribes[edit]

Tribes Early Settlement Locations
1. Ketagalan Taipei County, Keelung City and Taoyuan County
2. Kavalan Lanyan Plains
3. Taokas Hsinchu, Miaoli and the northern region of Tachia River in Taichung County
4. Pazeh Fengyan, Tantzu, Shenkang and Houli and later spread into Shihkang, Tungshih and Hsinshe
5. Papora Coastal plains to the south of Tachia River in Taichung County
6. Babuza Southern region of Tatu River and the northern region of Choshui River
7. Hoanya Southern region of Wufen in Taichung County and the northern region of Wufeng in Taichung County and the northern region of Hsinying in Tainan County
8. Siraya Tainan County and City, Kaohsiung County and City and Pingtung County

(Tai 2007, pp. 41–42)


Plains aboriginal tribe in Taipei in 1897

Plains aborigines have been classified under different systems throughout history. The Dutch separated plains aborigines by regions and differentiated them by communities (社名). Huang Shujing (黃叔璥) during Qing rule, categorised all Taiwanese aborigines into thirteen tribes, based on geographic location (Institute of Ethnology 2012).

It was not until the Japanese colonial period that proper anthropological and ethnographic classification systems of plains aborigines were formed. The Japanese studies revealed that plains aborigines were not one culture, but in fact consisted of various tribes, languages and cultures. The Japanese extensively studied Taiwanese aborigines in order to classify, locate and civilise them.

The ethnographer, Ino Kanori was the first to create the modern classification of plains aborigines (Institute of Ethnology 2012). Since then, other scholars such as Shigeru Tsuchida, Utsurikawa Nenozo, Mabuchi Toichi and Ogawa Naoyoshi have presented various classification systems for plains aborigines (Institute of Ethnology 2012). There is still no full consensus over whether there are eight, nine, ten or twelves tribes of plains aborigines.

The major disputes consist of:

  1. Whether Arikun and Lloa should be classified separately or as one tribe (scholars have later inclined to amalgamating the two tribes as one, referred to as Hoanya).
  2. Whether Ketagalan should be further divided into separate tribes.
  3. Whether Siraya and Makattao are separate tribes or part of one tribe.
  4. Whether Sao is a plains aboriginal or highland tribe. (Wikipedia 2012)


Hunting, fishing and agriculture[edit]

Before the arrival of immigrants, plains aborigines lived a simple lifestyle based on agriculture, fishing and hunting (Institute of Ethnology 2012). They produced just enough for their needs. Taros and yams were important in their diets. They used simple tools such as sticks and spades for growing food; to hunt they used traps, spears and arrows; to fish they used nets, baskets and arrows (Tai 2007, p. 45). Men were usually in charge of fishing and hunting, while women were responsible for farming roles (Institute of Ethnology 2012). Deer and wild boars were the main hunting targets for plains aborigines.

Matriarchal society[edit]

Plains aborigines were based around a matriarchal society; women were often the head of the family and in charge of important household affairs (Tai 2007, p. 47). Men usually lived with their wives after marriages, serving for their wives’ family. Females inherited property and passed on lineage. Women were usually in charge of religious issues and men were responsible for political issues.

Tribal systems[edit]

Despite the fact women had higher status in the clan system, in the tribal system men were superior (Tai 2007, p. 47). Tribes were treated as a singular, collective unit. Leaders of the tribes were chosen based on seniority; the oldest member of the tribe became the leader. The elders were responsible for attending tribal meetings, at which a tribal chief was chosen to lead the tribe. The elders were also responsible for solving internal and external disputes.

Ritual ceremonies[edit]

Plains aborigines held ritual ceremonies several times a year, to worship natural and ancestral spirits. Plains aborigines strongly believed in the worshiping of ancestors (Institute of Ethnology 2012). Whenever a ceremony was held, plains aborigines would gather in the political centre of the tribe called “kunghsieh”, and they would drink, sing, dance and celebrate (Tai 2007, p. 49).


Surnames were an integral part to plains aboriginal culture. Through the process of acculturation, plains aborigines gave up their naming systems and original surnames in favour of adopting Chinese surnames. In the process, several unique surnames were created in conjunction with tribal influences; these differed from Hoklo and Hakka surnames.

Some of the unique surnames included: 月、邦、宜、機、翼、力、卯、茆、同、念、東、岩、哀、曷、埕、買、猴、標、紅、雙、角、楓、詩、樟、墜、雛、乃、味、毒、陣、盂、解、棹、永、湖、振、偕、嘪、掌、奚、詠、倚、竭、北、六、水、麗、崗、崑、桌、牙、陀、秘、烏、新、糠、長、萇、霜 (Wikipedia 2012)

Recent Developments[edit]

Dispute with United Nations[edit]

In 2010, representatives of plains aborigines in Taiwan sent an official complaint to the United Nations in Geneva; the complaint outlined the unfairness caused by the fact that plains aborigines are not formally recognised under the current Republic of China administration (China Review News 2010). The representatives of plains aborigines demanded for the group to be recognised formally as Taiwanese aborigine and Austronesian. The complaint was later rejected by the United Nations (China Review News 2010). As a result, a dedicated committee under the name ‘Pingpu Affairs Task Force’ (平埔族群事務推動小組) has been created by the Executive Yuan to deal with plains aborigine issues (China Review News 2010).

Plains Aborigines Genes Theory[edit]

Genetic studies conducted by Doctor Lin Ma-Li of the Mackay Memorial Hospital in 2001, 2008 and 2010, concluded that despite only one point five percent of Taiwanese being registered as aborigine, there is strong possibility that over 85% of Taiwanese have plains aboriginal bloodline (Taiwan Tati Cultural and Educational Foundation 2010). Lin’s research was based on the study of human tissue antigens (HLA) of Hoklo, Hakka and plains aborigines. Through hundreds of years of assimilation and intermarriage between Han Chinese and plains aborigines, it is a commonly that there is a high possibility that genetically the Hoklo and Hakka bloodlines in Taiwan have been fused with plains aboriginal bloodlines.

Anthropologist Chen Shu-Juo of Stanford University has disputed the results of Lin’s genetic testing. Chen (2008) argued that there are several statistical inconsistencies in Lin’s research, which has led to an unreliable conclusion. For example Lin’s 2000-2001 research, showed only 13% of Taiwanese haplotypes were of aboriginal roots, however in 2007 the figure was recorded as 52%. Chen also pointed out the fact that Lin’s research overestimates the amount of plains aboriginal bloodline in Taiwan, because a test subject only needed to have one out of the three plains aboriginal genes identified by Lin, to be classified as plains aborigine. Chen (2008) continued to argue that the continuation of Lin’s trials would lead to the eventual conclusion that 99.99% of Han Chinese in Taiwan have plains aboriginal roots. Many Taiwanese plain Aborigines notice that Chen's argument is based on his political view instead of a field and/or medical study.

Lin has responded to Chen’s criticism by arguing that his motives for arguing against Lin’s Taiwanese study are derived from Chen’s relationship with Mainland China’s Fudan University, Lin suggests that Chen may have political motives for criticising her work. Chen responded by stating that Lin has chosen to avoid his criticisms for her work. Lin continues to stand by her research and has since published a text in 2010 titled “We have different bloodlines” (我們流著不同的血液). In this text, Lin (2010) continued to argue that Taiwanese are descendents of Han and plains aborigines. The text still contains variations on Lin’s conclusion. For example on page 79, Lin (2010) states that 13% of Taiwanese genes contain aboriginal lineage, on page 64, she states that 26% of Taiwanese have maternal aboriginal blood, and on page 112, she makes the final conclusion that 85% of Taiwanese have aboriginal bloodlines.

Lin’s research has been used in recent years to promote the Taiwanese Independence movement and to build an independent Taiwanese identity. Activists have used Lin’s findings to argue an extremist view that Taiwanese are not descendents of Han Chinese but rather descendents of plains aborigines; therefore Taiwan should remain fully independent from Mainland China (Shen 2012).


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