Here on Island Folklore, we organize Taiwanese folklore into nine broad and overlapping categories. Many of the terms below are interchangeable in popular usage.
What is Folklore?
Folklore—the traditional customs, beliefs, stories and sayings of a community, passed down through generations largely by word of mouth.
The term originated in the German Volklehre, which means “people’s customs.” It is akin to the Old English folclār meaning “shared learning” and is contrasted with bōclār—”book-learning.”
Folklore is concerned with the shared memories and heritage of everyone within a community and every community has its unique set of “people’s customs.”
Our Nine Categories
These are stories from Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian—also called Formosan—communities. They represent the mind-bogglingly diverse cultures and languages of Taiwan’s “First Nations” who have called the island home for tens of thousands of years.
The influence of Indic and European culture and folklore have been profound in Taiwanese life. Buddhism—a religion, philosophy and way of life that originated in the Indian subcontinent—dominates the Taiwanese spiritual scene. One may also be surprised to find that the first successful non-Austronesian culture to colonize Taiwan did not come from nearby China or Japan, but from the Netherlands in the far west of Eurasia. European folklore has, as a result, been mixing with indigenous Taiwanese traditions since the 1600s.
Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was a key colonial possession of the Japanese empire. Decades of Japanization policy greatly shaped Taiwanese life in this period. Japan’s influence, though largely overshadowed by the impact of Sinitic and Formosan cultures since WWII, continues to be an integral part of understanding the Taiwanese experience and Taiwan’s folk heritage.
These are stories passed down in the many distinct Sinitic, Han or Chinese languages and dialects spoken throughout Taiwan—Taiwanese, Hakka and Mandarin. They include stories born on the island from the experiences of Han settlers since the 17th century as well as tales that were brought to the island directly from the continent.
Folktales are stories passed down through generations, usually through word of mouth, within a community or culture. Most of these stories originate in popular culture and contain the cultural memories, ideals and philosophies of their communities.
Folklore is an important component of a people’s history—both resulting from and creating it. Island Folklore documents not just the traditions and narratives of Taiwan’s folk culture, but also the unique history of the island’s diverse peoples.
Legends are a community’s traditional stories that are popularly regarded as history or are based on historical events. These tales often elaborate on the lives of famous or influential figures in the past.
The primary function of mythology is to provide explanations for certain natural or social events. These traditional stories typically feature supernatural beings or occurrences and often concern the early history or origin of a people.
Traditions are beliefs, ideas, customs and practices passed down from generation to generation within a community. These include religious or ritualistic practices and often trace their origin to certain folktales, legends or myths.