Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, like many Southeast Asian tribal communities, were once notorious headhunters who struck awe, fear and terror into the hearts of others. For many Taiwanese tribes, a successful headhunt earned an indigenous boy the right to call himself a man.
Through headhunts, indigenous Taiwanese nations offer sacrifices to and communicate with their gods—ensuring bountiful harvests and divine favour and protection.
Deep in the densely forested Taiwanese mountains, these gruesome practices survived well into the 20th century and records of these widespread practices are found in Dutch, Chinese and Japanese histories. The most infamous case told of a major 1930 revolt led by central Taiwan’s Seediq people against the Japanese who colonized the island from 1895 to 1945.
In that bloody uprising, disenfranchised Seediq hunters expressed their displeasure with the regime by collecting over 130 severed Japanese heads. Chinese settlers, Dutch colonists, Ryukyuan sailors and American merchants have all been victims of indigenous Taiwanese headhunts.
The following story is a hugely controversial legend that was once popular in Taiwan. It told of one man’s quest to bring an end to what he viewed to be a barbaric practice.
“But this is wrong!” Wú Fèng (Taiwanese: Ngô͘ Hōng), a Chinese merchant, pleaded his case to the grand chief of the indigenous Mount Ali tribes.
“The hunting of heads is a sacred rite,” the chief insisted, “undertaken by our youths so that they may become real men. Our gods demand it and not even you, a dear friend to our people, will persuade us of otherwise.”
Wú Fèng had spent much of his 70 years amongst the indigenous peoples of the Ali Mountains in southwestern Taiwan. As an experienced merchant and frontiersman, he has had to deal with both the Chinese communities of the lowland plains and the indigenes of the mountains. This expert frontier tradesman has lived his life navigating, learning and respecting the ways of both worlds.
This headhunting business, however, was beyond what he could stomach. Wú Fèng had seen his less prudent lowland comrades lose their heads to aboriginal blades and the practice has caused serious rifts between lowland and highland communities. Wú Fèng was determined to convince his mountain-dwelling friends to change their ways and has been back-and-forth with their grand chief for some time now.
“Do you not see that it is a savage, inhuman act?” Wú Fèng did not relent. “The Heavens do not smile on such deeds, old friend, it is barbaric and it causes the people of the plains to be afraid to trade with you.”
Solemnly, the grand chief replied: “It is indeed regrettable that you lowlanders are so averse to our customs, but it changes nothing. Our boys prove their worth and become men by hunting the heads of other highland warriors or those of careless lowlanders who stray uninvited into our kingdom. My friend, we have been over this too many times, you will accept it as the way of our world and let it be.”
Wú Fèng sensed the impatience evident in the grand chief’s voice and knew better than to carry on the subject. He hung his head low and retired back to his little cottage on the outskirts of the indigenous settlement.
“There must be a way to get these folks to stop hunting heads.” Wú Fèng thought to himself as he entered his dwelling.
Though he had already been turned away many times whilst on the topic, Wú Fèng was not about to give in. He had spent decades with the people of the Ali Mountains. He knew they were no simple barbarians. They could be reasoned with.
“There must be a way.” Wú Fèng was convinced.
The merchant spent the night tossing and turning tirelessly in his makeshift bed. Gradually, an idea crept into his mind and, slowly, it took form. He opened his eyes, sat up and realized that, yes, this would be it.
The following morning, Wú Fèng once again requested an audience with the grand chief.
“Sir,” Wú Fèng explained, “last night, I was visited in my sleep by a vision. I saw a mysterious figure of unknown origin wander into your lands uninvited. This figure donned a blood-red cloak as it travelled and I saw heavenly signs indicating that your people were to slay this character and cut off its head.”
“A figure wearing a red cloak?” The grand chief was alarmed. “This must surely be a sign from the gods. If what you say is true, we must indeed destroy this unwanted visitor in red cloak before some great calamity befell my people.”
The grand chief ordered his warriors to search the surrounding woodlands for this mysterious figure and exterminate it.
Indeed, just days later, word came back that a mysterious person in a red cloak was observed wandering into indigenous territory. The grand chief hesitated not. He gave the order to intercept, kill and behead the intruder.
The chieftain’s men obeyed with deadly efficiency.
When his warriors returned to his court with their trophy, however, the chief was devastated. For, on the ground before him, lay the bloodied, severed head of his dear friend Wú Fèng. That was when this grand mountain chief understood it all.
A new order was issued by the heartbroken leader. It commanded his people to thenceforth and forever cease all headhunting activities.
And that, according to this legend, was how the tribes of the Ali Mountains of Taiwan came to abandon their brutal hunt.
Folklore, as a community’s collective memories, ideals and heritage, can be wonderfully entertaining cultural inheritances that help to unite a people. It can also, however, be grossly manipulated and abused.
The above tale, which dates to the late 1800s, may seem innocent enough at first, but it was once a prominent piece of Sinocentric propaganda used in pre-democratic Taiwan. It was exploited to oppress and belittle the island’s First Nations and highlight the superiority and civilizing influence of classic East Asian culture. It was once widely featured in schoolchildren’s textbooks and depicted Taiwan’s indigenous nations as foolish, savage and helplessly naive peoples.
As Taiwan transitioned, in the 1970s, into a democracy, de-Sinicization and Taiwanization began steadily gaining momentum. Today, the Taiwanese government actively seeks reconciliation with the island’s indigenous peoples and roots. Thanks to these 20th-century liberal-democratic developments, the once-officially-backed legend, marked by its racist and Sinocentric undertones, has fallen out of favour with the Taiwanese mainstream.
This is, perhaps, a small indication of Taiwan’s increasingly open, friendly and progressive attitude on indigenous issues and relations.
In 2016, not only did the Taiwanese people elected their first female president, she is also, as it happens, Taiwan’s first president of partial indigenous descent. For, she is the granddaughter of an indigenous Paiwan grandmother and, remarkably, her other three grandparents are all members of the also historically marginalized Hakka minority group in Taiwan.