To the vast majority of the islanders, the far side of Taiwan—the island’s hidden eastern coastline—represents a world unto itself. Isolated, the east coast is protected by some of Asia-Pacific’s most formidable mountains to its north, south and west and the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean to the east.
When the first non-Austronesian settlers from the continent arrived in Taiwan in the 17th century, eastern Taiwan’s remoteness meant that it was among the last regions to be explored and settled by newcomers. The region’s isolation made it the home of the island’s largest indigenous Austronesian community—that of the Amis people.
The Amis people developed some of the most unique cultural characteristics among Taiwan’s Austronesian tribes. Unlike most other indigenous communities of Taiwan, the Amis were one of only two tribes who traditionally had matriarchal societies. These were societies dominated by women, rather than men. In that ancient homeland of the Amis people, women once ruled.
Since the 17th century, Taiwan’s Han immigrants built communities that adhered to Confucian traditions. These ancient Chinese values, reinforced by a half-century of colonial rule by the equally Confucian Japanese (from 1895 to 1945), produced a rigid and conservative patriarchal society on the island that only began to break down with democratization and the rise of women’s rights movements during the 1970s.
Social dominance by men, however, was not limited to Taiwan’s Han and Japanese colonial communities. Most indigenous Austronesian societies were also patriarchies. Only the Amis of the east and their Puyuma neighbours just to the south were unique exceptions. In Amis and Puyuma societies, inheritance was passed down through the female line and their vast networks of clans and kinships were headed not by male chiefs but by powerful matriarchs.
While Amis and Puyuma men trained as warriors and looked after military and diplomatic affairs, the internal workings of the clans were the domain of the matriarchs. Properties were owned by women and inherited primarily by daughters. When a marriage took place, the groom moved into and joined the household of the bride. He adopted her family name. He served her house. Their children were her heirs. His spear defended her domain. He was her loyal knight and she, his queen.
Some scholars have challenged and debated the nature of Amis and Puyuma matriarchy. Some say that these societies are imperfect examples of social dominance by women. These challenges are not entirely unfounded, as most affairs in the public sphere, such as war and diplomacy, were indeed largely conducted by men. It is, however, a mistake to underestimate the internal influence exerted by kinship-based networks in traditional tribal societies. And within these tribal networks, the matriarch’s authority was absolute.
Successions among Amis and Puyuma clans were matrilineal. The post of matriarch passed, upon her death, to the next most senior female member of the clan, usually a sister or the eldest daughter. All properties in these households, such as land, houses and other assets, were inherited by sisters or daughters. Only when no living female successors were present did the men of the house inherit anything at all. In many ways, very little was different from the practice of primogeniture found throughout Europe and Asia. The crucial difference was that, instead of having the boys carry the proverbial torch for their families, girls shouldered the responsibility in traditional Amis and Puyuma societies.
Unique as these east Formosan practices were, centuries of influences from the outside have chipped away at the power of the matriarch. As Han settlements grew in influence in Taiwan and eventually became the dominant force on the island, their cultures, languages and names penetrated the highlands and forests—reaching aboriginal homes and changing the unique ways of life they encountered.
Additionally, Taiwan from 1895 to 1945 was a key Japanese colonial possession. The colonial government introduced so-called kōminka policies aimed at Japanizing the Taiwanese Han and “civilizing” the native Austronesians. Under tremendous external pressure, aboriginal societies were forever transformed.
Today, like in other Taiwanese communities, most Amis and Puyuma brides join their husbands’ households and their children inherit paternal family names. The heyday of the tribal matriarch’s authority has largely passed into Taiwan’s history. Their spirits have, however, lived on in a way. Since Taiwan’s democratization in the latter half of the 20th century, a relentless push toward gender equality has steadily gained support in the Taiwanese mainstream.
In 2016, the Taiwanese people succeeded in shattering the glass ceiling and elected their first female president. Without delving too deeply into the realm of politics, it is, nevertheless, worth noting that this event was in itself a very remarkable achievement and milestone in Taiwan’s gender relations. Just like the matriarchs of old, in 21st-century Taiwan, a woman was put in charge by her people—this time, she leads not merely a clan or a tribe, but the whole of this progressive island democracy.