Taiwanese Plains Aborigines

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Taiwanese Plains aboriginal mother and child
Taiwanese Plains aborigine woman and infant, by John Thomson, 1871

Plains aborigines (Chinese: 平埔族; pinyin: píngpuzú; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Pêⁿ-po͘-cho̍k) 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 "plains savages" or the term Pepohoan[1] (平埔番; Píngpǔfān; Pêⁿ-po͘-hoan)[2] from Hokkien and "cooked savages" (熟番; shúfān; se̍k-hoan).[3] Beginning from the 17th century, plains aborigines 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; it has lost its cultural identity and it is almost impossible without careful inspection to distinguish plains aborigines from Taiwanese Han people.

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, 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 aborigines through intermarriages with Han immigrants. This is still an ongoing 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. In 2016, the Tsai Ing-wen administration granted official recognition to the plains aborigines.[4]


In The Island of Formosa (1903), former US Consul to Formosa James W. Davidson presented the first English-language account of the aborigines 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.[5] 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; literally: "flat plain"), referred to aborigines that resided in the Formosan plains, rather than the highland mountainous regions. Plains aborigines mainly settled in the west and central mountain regions of Taiwan.[6] The term Sek-hoan (熟番; shúfān; se̍k-hoan; "well-cooked/familiar savages") was also used to describe plains aborigines because they often lived closer to the coast and had more interaction with Dutch and Han immigrants, hence were more assimilated and civilised than highland aborigines. Mention of plains aborigines have appeared in Qing texts dating back as early as 1764.[7] In summary, the Pepo were those plains aborigines 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".[8]

In the 17th century, plains aborigines were involved in the flourishing deerskin export market. Plains aborigine 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[10]

Plains aborigines began to adopt aspects of Chinese culture, values, and language. Most importantly, intermarriage 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.[6] 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).[12][13] This extensive intermarriage is the reason that many Taiwanese people today are unaware that they could be descendants 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.[14] An increasing number of Taiwanese are starting to search for their plains aboriginal roots and claim their status as plains aborigines.[15]

After centuries of acculturation, plains aborigines are almost completely Hanised.[16] It was already noted in the early 20th century that careful observation was required to note their deeper eyes as compared to the Chinese; also, the women did not practice foot binding.[8] It is now nearly impossible to distinguish plains aborigines without careful inspection.[17] Through the process of acculturation, much of the language, culture and identity of plains aborigines have become non-existent in modern Taiwanese society.[16] The Republic of China government currently only officially recognises one (Kavalan) of the eight plains aboriginal tribes.[18]

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 descendants of plains aborigines, there have been a gradual restoration of plains aboriginal culture, history, identity and language.[16] For example, a descendant of plains aborigines in Hualien, Chieh Wan-lai, still insists on teaching the traditional language and culture of plains aborigines.[17] More educational pamphlets are emerging to educate Taiwanese about the existence of plains aborigines. Furthermore, a campaign was started in Yilan for descendants of the Kavalan tribe to find their roots.[17] 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.[19]

Ethno-political activities and Nativist Cultural Movements flourished after the 1990s, and a “Plains Aborigine Name Correction Movement” emerged.[17] 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.[20] Descendants 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 New Taipei, Keelung and Taoyuan City
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, during Qing rule, categorised all Taiwanese aborigines into thirteen tribes, based on geographic location.[7]

It was not until the Japanese rule 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.

Ethnographer Ino Kanori first to create the modern ethnological classification of plains aborigines, consisting of the following tribes: Makattao, Siraya, Loa, Poavasa, Arikun, Vupuran, Pazehhe, and Kuvarawan.[21] Since then, other scholars such as Shigeru Tsuchida, Utsurikawa Nenozo, Mabuchi Toichi and Ogawa Naoyoshi have presented various classification systems for plains aborigines.[7] 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.[22][better source needed]


Hunting, fishing and agriculture[edit]

Before the arrival of immigrants, plains aborigines lived a simple lifestyle based on agriculture, fishing and hunting.[7] 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.[23] Men were usually in charge of fishing and hunting, while women were responsible for farming roles.[7] 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.[24] 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.[24] 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.[7] 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.[25]


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:[22] 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]

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.[20] 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.[20] 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.[20]

Plains Aborigines Genes Theory[edit]

Genetic studies conducted by Dr. Marie Lin (林媽利) of 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.[26] 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.

A doctoral candidate named Chen disputes the results of Lin’s genetic testing, arguing that there are several statistical inconsistencies in Lin’s research, which has led to an unreliable conclusion.[27] 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 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.

Lin has responded to Chen’s criticism by arguing that his motives for arguing against Lin’s study are derived from Chen’s relationship with Mainland China’s Fudan University, and 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”.[28] In this text, Lin continued to argue that Taiwanese are descendants 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 descendants of Han Chinese but rather descendants of plains aborigines; therefore Taiwan should remain fully independent from mainland China.[29]

When Taiwanese Han "blood nationalists" tried to claim Plains Aboriginal ancestry in order to promote Taiwan independence and try to claim an identity different from that of mainland Chinese in spite of the fact that their own ancestry is overwhelmingly that of recent migrants from China and genetic tests show differences between them and plains aborigines, their claims were decidedly rejected by the actual descendants of Taiwanese Plains Aborigines, who seek to preserve their own traditional culture since the abuse of claiming their ancestry by Taiwanese "blood nationalists" to create a unique Taiwanese identity based on blood negates the actual significance of having Plains Aboriginal ancestors.[30]

Within the Taiwanese Han Hoklo community itself, differences in culture indicate the degree to which mixture with aboriginals took place, with most pure Hoklo Han in Northern Taiwan having almost no Aboriginal admixture, which is limited to Hoklo Han in Southern Taiwan.[31] Plains aboriginals who were mixed and assimilated into the Hoklo Han population at different stages were differentiated by the historian Melissa J. Brown between "short-route" and "long-route".[32] The ethnic identity of assimilated Plains Aboriginals in the immediate vicinity of Tainan was still known since a pure Hoklo Taiwanese girl was warned by her mother to stay away from them.[33] The insulting name "fan" was used against Plains Aborigines by the Taiwanese, and the Hoklo Taiwanese speech was forced upon Aborigines like the Pazeh.[34] Hoklo Taiwanese has repalced Pazeh and driven it to near extinction.[35] Aboriginal status has been requested by Plains Aboriginals.[36]

The deep-rooted hostility between Taiwanese aborigines and (Taiwanese) Hoklo, and the Aboriginal communities' effective KMT networks contribute to Aboriginal skepticism against the DPP and the Aboriginals tendency to vote for the KMT.[37]


  1. ^ Thomson, John (1873). Illustrations of China and its People. London. OCLC 875137139. OL 22669786M. 
  2. ^ "Entry #1753 (平埔番)". 臺灣閩南語常用詞辭典 [Dictionary of Frequently-Used Taiwan Minnan] (in Chinese and Hokkien). Ministry of Education, R.O.C. 2011. 
  3. ^ In the early 20th century, the terms "Pepo"/"Pepohoan" and "Sek-hwan"/"Sakhoan"/"Jukuban" were used in English works, respectively. See, for example: Davidson (1903), pp. 563, 581; Campbell (1915), pp. 42, 88
  4. ^ Pan, Jason (8 October 2016). "Pingpu recognized under Act for Indigenous Peoples". Taipei Times. Retrieved 8 October 2016. 
  5. ^ Davidson (1903), p. 561. Note: Credited as "Y. Ino".
  6. ^ a b Tai (2007).
  7. ^ a b c d e f 認識平埔族 (in Chinese). Taipei: Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica. 2012. Retrieved 15 September 2012. 
  8. ^ a b Davidson (1903), p. 581.
  9. ^ Shepherd (1996), p. 122.
  10. ^ a b Shepherd (1996), p. 123.
  11. ^ Rubinstein (2007), p. 120.
  12. ^ Tai (2007), p. 52.
  13. ^ "Entry #60161". 臺灣閩南語常用詞辭典 [Dictionary of Frequently-Used Taiwan Minnan] (in Chinese and Hokkien). Ministry of Education, R.O.C. 2011. 
  14. ^ Lin, M.; Chu, C.-C.; Chang, S.-L.; Lee, H.-L.; Loo, J.-H.; Akaza, T.; Juji, T.; Ohashi, J.; Tokunaga, K. (March 2001). "The origin of Minnan and Hakka, the so-called "Taiwanese", inferred by HLA study". Tissue Antigens. 57 (3): 192–199. doi:10.1034/j.1399-0039.2001.057003192.x. PMID 11285126. 
  15. ^ Hsiau (2000).
  16. ^ a b c Hsiau (2000), p. 168.
  17. ^ a b c d Tai (2007), p. 53.
  18. ^ Lee, A (2003). "Kavalan recover their aboriginal status". Taiwan Info. MOFA. Retrieved 28 November 2014. 
  19. ^ Matheson, Rich (31 October 2011). "Xiaolin Plains Aboriginal Night Ceremony". Taiwan Culture Portal. Ministry of Culture, Republic of China (Taiwan). Retrieved 28 November 2014. 
  20. ^ a b c d 台平埔族人告向聯合國提申訴遭到否決. China Review News (in Chinese). 中國評論通訊社. 2010-07-06. Retrieved 19 September 2012. 
  21. ^ Davidson (1903), p. 580-1.
  22. ^ a b [:zh-tw:平埔族 平埔族] Check |url= value (help) (in Chinese). zh.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 12 September 2012. 
  23. ^ Tai (2007), p. 45.
  24. ^ a b Tai (2007), p. 47.
  25. ^ Tai (2007), p. 49.
  26. ^ 楊緒東 (2010-12-07). 我們流著不同血液. Taiwan Tati Cultural and Educational Foundation (in Chinese). Retrieved 15 September 2012. 
  27. ^ Chen, Shu-Juo; Duan, Hong-Kuan (2009). 台灣原住民祖源基因檢驗的理論與統計謬誤回應林媽利的〈再談85%帶原住民的基因〉 [The Theoretical and Statistical Falsehoods of Taiwan Indigenous Genetic Ancestry Testing: In Response to Lin’s Critique Entitled "Genetic Profile of Non-aboriginal Taiwanese Revisited"]. 臺灣社會研究 (in Chinese). 76: 347–356. ISSN 1021-9528. OCLC 4938362513. 
  28. ^ Lin (2010).
  29. ^ Shen, J (2012). 血統獨立. Taiwan Nation (in Chinese). 6. Retrieved 14 September 2012. 
  30. ^ Chen, Shu-Juo (2009). How Han are Taiwanese Han? Genetic inference of Plains Indigenous ancestry among Taiwanese Han and its implications for Taiwan identity (Ph.D.). STANFORD UNIVERSITY. Retrieved 11 October 2013. 
  31. ^ Brown 2004. pp. 156-7.
  32. ^ Brown 2004. p. 162.
  33. ^ Brown 2004. p. 157.
  34. ^ http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2014/06/15/2003592824
  35. ^ http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2008/06/26/2003415773
  36. ^ http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2014/07/15/2003595134
  37. ^ Damm, Jens (2012). "Multiculturalism in Taiwan and the Influence of Europe". In Damm, Jens; Lim, Paul. European perspectives on Taiwan. Wiesbaden: Springer VS. p. 95. ISBN 9783531943039.