Plains indigenous peoples

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Plains indigenous peoples (Chinese: 平埔族群; pinyin: píngpuzúqún; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Pêⁿ-po͘-cho̍k), previously called plain aborigines, are Taiwanese indigenous peoples originally residing in lowland regions, as opposed to Highland indigenous peoples. Plains indigenous peoples consist of anywhere from eight to twelve individual peoples, rather than being a single ethnic group. They are part of the Austronesian family. Beginning in the 17th century, plains indigenous peoples have been heavily influenced by external forces from Dutch, Spanish, and Han Chinese immigration to Taiwan. This ethnic group has since been extensively assimilated with Han Chinese language and culture; they have lost their cultural identity and it is almost impossible without careful inspection to distinguish plains indigenous peoples from Taiwanese Han people.

1877 sketch of a plains indigenous people.

Plains indigenous peoples have not been officially recognised by the Taiwan government, apart from the Kavalan. It was not until the mid-1980s that plains indigenous peoples started gaining interest from historians and anthropologists, leading 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 descendants of plains indigenous peoples through intermarriages with Han immigrants. This is still an ongoing debate and has been used as political leverage to promote Taiwan independence and ethnic consciousness. An increasing number of Hoklo and Hakka are beginning to search for plains indigenous bloodlines in their genealogy, and many are starting to claim themselves as plains indigenous peoples. These indigenous groups are currently continuing to fight for their identity, rights, and recognition as Taiwanese indigenous peoples. In 2016, the Tsai Ing-wen administration promised to grant official recognition to the plains indigenous peoples,[1] and a draft bill is being reviewed by the Legislative Yuan as of June 2018.[2][3]


Taiwanese plains indigenous mother and child

In The Island of Formosa (1903), former US Consul to Formosa James W. Davidson presented the first English-language account of the indigenous peoples of the whole island, which was almost entirely based on the comprehensive work collected over several years of study by Ino Kanori, the foremost authority on the topic at the time.[4] In Ino's eight-group classification, the Pepo, Puyuma, and Amis groups were known as "domesticated savages" (Japanese: 熟番, Hepburn: jukuban), primarily due to their abandonment of ancient customs. Of these three groups, only the Pepo lived in the western plains where they remained to compete with the Chinese settlers (the Puyuma and Amis inhabited the eastern plains).

The term Pepo (Chinese: 平埔; pinyin: píngpǔ; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: pêⁿ-po͘; lit.: 'flat plain'), referred to indigenous peoples that resided in the Formosan plains, rather than the highland mountainous regions. Plains indigenous peoples mainly settled in the west and central mountain regions of Taiwan.[5] The term Sek-hoan (熟番; shúfān; se̍k-hoan; 'well-cooked/familiar savages') was also used to describe plains indigenous peoples because they often lived closer to the coast and had more interaction with Dutch and Han Chinese immigrants, hence were more assimilated and civilised than highland indigenous peoples. Mention of plains indigenous peoples have appeared in Qing texts dating back as early as 1764.[6] In summary, the Pepo were those plains indigenous peoples who could still be easily distinguished from the Chinese, whereas the Sek-hoan had already thoroughly adopted Chinese customs, thus exhibiting no trace of their "ancient life".[7]

In the 17th century, plains indigenous peoples were involved in the flourishing deerskin export market. Plains indigenous hunters often supplied deerskin to the Qing and Dutch regimes, in exchange for cash to trade for other goods and also to pay for taxes enforced under the new regimes.[8] 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.[9] Therefore, plains indigenous peoples increasingly relied on plow agriculture and land rent from indigenous land reclaimed by Han settlers.

Taiwanese plains indigenous woman and infant, by John Thomson, 1871.

Han settlers initially implemented policies that favoured plains indigenous peoples. This was because Han officials feared a revolt against Chinese immigrants, and also because plains indigenous peoples were tax-paying citizens and could be used as military sources.[10] Furthermore, the Chinese government initially viewed their expansion as a disruption to the indigenous people status quo, hence they introduced policies to favour plains indigenous peoples. However, plains indigenous peoples were increasingly not able to compete economically and ethnically with the growing Chinese population that flooded to Taiwan. Han policies in favour of plains indigenous peoples began to disappear. Han settlers started to disintegrate many of the plains indigenous peoples from their original villages. It is within these “political and economic frameworks” that the plains indigenous peoples gradually became sinicized.[9]

Plains indigenous peoples began to adopt aspects of Chinese culture, values, and language. Most importantly, intermarriage between Chinese and plains indigenous peoples increased rapidly, leading to the acculturation of plains indigenous peoples with Chinese. Many of the early Chinese settlers in Taiwan were not permitted to bring women with them; hence they married plains indigenous women out of necessity.[5] This is the origin of the common saying “there are mainland grandfathers, but no mainland grandmothers” (Chinese: 有唐山公,無唐山媽; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Ū Tn̂g-soaⁿ kong, bô Tn̂g-soaⁿ má).[11][12] This extensive intermarriage is the reason that many Taiwanese people today are unaware that they could be descendants of plains indigenous peoples. Several theories have been proposed during the 2000s, to suggest that a large majority of Hoklo and Hakka Taiwanese could have plains indigenous lineage in their bloodline.[13] An increasing number of Taiwanese are starting to search for their plains indigenous roots and claim their status as plains indigenous peoples.[14]

Plain Indigenous Peoples Recognition Movement[edit]

Taivoan women in traditional clothes on the day of the Night Ceremony in Xiaolin community.

After centuries of acculturation, plains indigenous peoples are almost completely sinicized.[15] It was already noted in the early 20th century that careful observation was required to detect their deeper eyes as compared to the Chinese; also, the women did not practice foot binding.[7] It is now nearly impossible to distinguish plains indigenous peoples without careful inspection.[16] Through the process of acculturation, much of the language, culture, and identity of plains indigenous peoples have become non-existent in modern Taiwanese society.[15] The Republic of China government currently only officially recognises one (Kavalan) of all the plains indigenous peoples.[17]

Even though there was a lack of attention and interest in the history of plains indigenous peoples until the mid-1980s, through the works of scholars, folklorists, anthropologists, historians, and remaining descendants of these groups, there has been a gradual restoration of plains indigenous culture, history, identity, and language.[15] For example, a descendant of plains indigenous peoples in Hualien, Chieh Wan-lai, still insists on teaching the traditional language and culture of his ethnic group.[16] More educational pamphlets are emerging to teach Taiwanese people about the existence of plains indigenous peoples. Furthermore, a campaign was started in Yilan County for descendants of the Kavalan to find their roots.[16] Many plains indigenous ceremonies have been revitalized around Taiwan, and these have been opened up to the public and to people who have recently discovered their status as plains indigenous peoples.[18]

Ethno-political activities and Nativist Cultural Movements flourished after the 1990s, and a “Plains Aborigine Name Correction Movement” (Plains Indigenous Peoples Recognition Movement) emerged.[16] Several protests occurred in 2001 and 2010, and a formal complaint was sent to the United Nations in 2010, demanding that the ROC government formally recognize plains indigenous peoples.[19] Descendants of these groups today continue to fight for the official recognition of their status as Taiwanese indigenous peoples.

Through the efforts of indigenous people, Tainan County became the first local government to recognize Siraya people as county-level indigenous people in 2005, followed by the recognition of local Taivoan, Makatao, and Siraya people by the Fuli Township government in 2013. In 2016, the Pingtung County government announced the recognition of local Makatao. The plains indigenous peoples have been allowed to register in Kaohsiung City since 2013 but have not yet been recognized as city-level indigenous peoples. The number of people who have successfully registered, as well as ones to whom the Kaohsiung City government has opened registration but who haven't yet been recognized as of 2017, are as follows:[20][21][22][23]

Siraya Taivoan Makatao Not Specific Total
Tainan 11,830 - - - 11,830
Kaohsiung 107 129 - 237 473
Pingtung - - 1,803 205 2,008
Fuli, Hualien - - - 100 100
Total 11,937 129 1,803 542 14,411


Plains indigenous people in Taipei in 1897

Plains indigenous peoples have been classified under different systems throughout history. The Dutch separated plains indigenous peoples by regions and differentiated them by communities (社名). Huang Shujing, during Qing rule, categorised all Taiwanese indigenous peoples into thirteen groups, based on geographic location.[6]

It was not until Japanese rule that proper anthropological and ethnographic classification systems of plains indigenous peoples were formed. The Japanese studies revealed that plains indigenous peoples were not one culture, but in fact consisted of various ethnicities, languages, and cultures. The Japanese extensively studied Taiwanese indigenous peoples in order to classify, locate, and "civilize" them.

Ethnographer Ino Kanori was the first to create the modern ethnological classification of plains indigenous peoples, consisting of the following groups: Makattao, Siraya, Loa, Poavasa, Arikun, Vupuran, Pazehhe, and Kuvarawan.[24] Since then, other scholars such as Shigeru Tsuchida, Utsurikawa Nenozo, Mabuchi Toichi, and Ogawa Naoyoshi have presented various classification systems for plains indigenous peoples.[6] There is still no full consensus over whether there are eight, nine, ten, or twelves groups of plains indigenous peoples. The major disputes consist of:

  1. Whether Arikun and Lloa should be classified separately or as one ethnic group.
  2. Whether Ketagalan should be further divided into separate groups.
  3. Whether Siraya, Taivoan, and Makattao are separate groups or part of one group. However, based on the latest discovery in linguistics,[25][26] the three ethnic groups should be separate indigenous peoples.
  4. Whether Sao are plains indigenous or highland people.
Historical classification of plains indigenous peoples[25][27][28][29]
Year Researcher Name
1904 Ino, Kanori Kavarawan Ketagalan Taokas Vupuran Poavosa Arikun Lloa Pazzehe Makattao Sirajya
1930 Utsurikawa, Nenozo Kavarawan Ketagalan Taokas Vupuran Babuza Hoanya Pazeh Sao Tao Sirajya
1935 Ogawa, Naoyoshi Kavarawan Ketagalan Taokas Vupuran Babuza Hoanya Pazzehe Sao Sirajya
1944 Ogawa, Naoyoshi Kavarawan Luilang Ketagalan Taokas Papora Babuza Hoanya Pazeh Sao Sirajya
1951 張耀錡 Kavalan Ketagalan Taokas Papora Babuza Hoanya Pazeh Siraya Taivoan
1955 李亦園 Kavalan Luilang Ketagalan Taokas Papora Babuza Hoanya Pazeh Thao Siraya
1970 台灣省通志 Kavalan Ketagalan Taokas Papora Babuza Hoanya Pazeh Siraya
Arikun Lloa Makatao Siraya Taivoan


Tsuchida, Shigeru Kavalan Ketagalan Basay Kulon Taokas Papora Babuza Hoanya Pazzahe Makatao Siraya Taivoan
1991 Li, Paul Jen-kuei Kavalan Ketagalan Babuza Hoanya Pazeh Thao Siraya
Luilang Trobian Basay Taokas Papora Babuza Favorlang Makatao Siraya Taivoan
1996 Li, Paul Jen-kuei Kavalan Qauqaut Ketagalan Kulon Baburan Hoanya Pazeh Thao Siraya
Luilang Trobian Basay Taokas Papora Babuza Favorlang Makatao Siraya Taivoan
2006 Li, Paul Jen-kuei Kavalan Basay (Ketagalan) Kulon Taokas Papora Babuza Hoanya Pazih Thao Makatao Siraya Taivoan

Main peoples[edit]

Peoples Early settlement locations
1. Ketagalan New Taipei, Keelung, and Taoyuan
2. Kavalan Lanyang Plain
3. Kulon Taoyuan and partial New Taipei City
4. Taokas Hsinchu, Miaoli, and the northern region of Tachia River in Taichung
5. Pazeh Fengyan, Tantzu, Shenkang, and Houli and later spread into Shihkang, Tungshih, and Hsinshe
6. Papora Coastal plains to the south of Tachia River in Taichung
7. Babuza Southern region of Tatu River and the northern region of Choshui River
8. Hoanya Southern region of Wufeng in Taichung and the northern region of Wufeng in Taichung as well as the northern region of Hsinying in Tainan
9. Siraya Tainan and Kaohsiung
10. Taivoan Tainan and Kaohsiung
11. Makatao Kaohsiung and Pingtung


Hunting, fishing, and agriculture[edit]

Before the arrival of immigrants, plains indigenous peoples lived a simple lifestyle based on agriculture, fishing, and hunting.[6] 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.[30] Men were usually in charge of fishing and hunting, while women were responsible for farming roles.[6] Deer and wild boars were the main hunting targets for plains indigenous peoples.

Matriarchal society[edit]

Plains indigenous peoples were based around a matriarchal society: women were often the head of the family and in charge of important household affairs.[31] Men usually lived with their wives after marriage, serving the wife's 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]

Although women had higher status in the clan system, in the tribal system men were superior.[31] 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 community meetings, at which a community chief was chosen to lead the community. The elders were also responsible for solving internal and external disputes.

Ritual ceremonies[edit]

Plains indigenous peoples held ritual ceremonies several times a year, to worship natural and ancestral spirits. They strongly believed in the worshiping of ancestors.[6] Whenever a ceremony was held, the people would gather in the political centre of the tribe called kunghsieh, and they would drink, sing, dance, and celebrate.[32]


Surnames were an integral part of plains indigenous culture. Through the process of acculturation, plains indigenous peoples 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 indigenous influences; these differed from Hoklo and Hakka surnames.

Some of the unique surnames include: 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

Recent developments[edit]

Complaint to United Nations[edit]

In 2010, representatives of plains indigenous peoples in Taiwan sent an official complaint to the United Nations in Geneva; the complaint outlined the unfairness caused by plains indigenous peoples not being formally recognised under the current Republic of China administration.[19] The representatives of the complainants demanded for the groups to be recognised formally as Taiwanese Indigenous People and Austronesian. The complaint was rejected by the United Nations.[19] 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 indigenous issues.[19]

Plains indigenous genetic studies[edit]

Genetic studies conducted by Dr. Marie Lin (林媽利) of Mackay Memorial Hospital in 2001, 2008, and 2010 concluded that despite only 1.5 percent of Taiwanese people being registered as indigenous, there is a strong possibility that over 85% of Taiwanese have plains indigenous bloodlines.[33] Lin's research was based on the study of human tissue antigens (HLA) of Hoklo, Hakka, and plains indigenous peoples. Through hundreds of years of assimilation and intermarriage between Han Chinese and plains indigenous peoples, there is a high possibility that genetically, the Hoklo and Hakka bloodlines in Taiwan have been fused with plains indigenous bloodlines.

A doctoral candidate named Chen disputes the results of Lin's genetic testing, arguing that there are several statistical inconsistencies in her research, which has led to an unreliable conclusion.[34] For example, Lin's 2000–2001 research showed only 13% of Taiwanese haplotypes were of indigenous roots; however, in 2007 the figure was recorded as 52%. Chen also pointed out that Lin’s research overestimates the amount of plains bloodline in Taiwan, because a test subject only needed to have one out of the three plains genes identified by Lin to be classified as plains indigenous. Chen went on 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 roots.

Lin has responded to Chen's criticism by first pointing out that the disparity between the 13% figure and the 52% figure is derived from the two being conducted using two different methodological approaches: the former using the older methodology (serology), and the latter using the more advanced and precise DNA methodology that became available as science progressed. In addition, the disparity is enlarged by the former only examining the genetic similarities or differences between pure indigenous peoples and Hakka/Hoklo, and the latter adding other ethnic groups, such as Southeast Asians (Polynesians) and other Asians. Thus, the 52% figure was never intended in Lin's account to be a representation of the amount of Taiwanese plains genes within the Taiwanese population, rather, the figure encompasses everything from Taiwanese plains genes to other non-Han Chinese ethnic groups.[35]

Moreover, Lin maintains that test subjects indeed only need one out of three genes to be identified by descent, since the question at hand is about whether the majority of Taiwanese have ancestry other than Han-Chinese, similar to how the majority of Native Americans in the States have been infused with white blood, or to a certain extent culture, and acquired Anglo features. They nonetheless maintain their ancestral roots and identify themselves as the nation's first people.[36]

However, despite the fact that Lin's response directly addresses the criticisms posed by Chen, the press has only been concerned with how Lin briefly speculated about Chen's motives for arguing against her study: that they are derived from Chen’s relationship with Mainland China's Fudan University. As a result, Chen was able to portray Lin as having chosen to avoid his criticisms of her work. In Lin's response, she pointed out the fact that Chen, as a former student of hers, has been guilty of academic dishonesty in the past, having presented Lin's discoveries as his own.[36]

Despite a popular media backlash, Lin continues to stand by her research and has since published an academic text in 2010 titled "We have different bloodlines".[37] In this text, Lin continues to argue that Taiwanese people are descendants of both Han Chinese and plains indigenous peoples.

Lin's research has been used in recent years to promote the Taiwan independence movement and to build an independent Taiwanese identity. Activists have used Lin's findings to argue the view that Taiwanese people are not descendants of Han Chinese but rather descendants of plains indigenous peoples; therefore, Taiwan should remain fully independent from mainland China.[38]

Taiwanese "blood nationalists" have tried to claim Plains ancestry in order to promote Taiwanese independence and to try and claim an identity different from that of mainland Chinese. However, this position has faced political strain. Taiwanese people who have been relatively untouched by Chinese colonialism (Gaoshan) have felt the responsibility to preserve their cultural uniqueness and ancestry, and often despise their counterpart (Pingpu/Plains peoples) who have suffered racial and cultural assimilation by claiming indigenous status.[39]

Moreover, within the Taiwanese Han Hoklo community itself, differences in culture indicate the degree to which mixture with indigenous peoples took place, with most pure Hoklo Han in Northern Taiwan having almost no admixture, which is limited to Hoklo Han in Southern Taiwan.[40]


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