Indigenous Taiwanese Nations
Han Taiwanese Groups
Taiwanese society has a surprisingly high degree of diversity. According to Ethnologue, published by US-based SIL International, over 20 living languages are found on the island as of 2016 (click here to see family trees of Taiwan’s languages). These languages are spoken by the many Austronesian and Han ethnolinguistic groups that comprise the people of Taiwan.
Throughout the island’s history, fierce and often violent competitions characterized the relationship between these cultural, ethnic and linguistic groups. More recently, however, these distinct communities have learned to coexist and cooperate with one another in order to transform Taiwan into a stable, prosperous and democratic home for all Taiwanese people.
The Austronesian Highlands
The earliest settlers of Taiwan are the prehistoric ancestors of all Austronesian-speakers. “Austronesian” refers to an incredibly wide array of ethnolinguistic groups. These are highly successful seafaring cultures that emerged in Taiwan sometime around 4,000 to 3,000 BCE and subsequently spread throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The vast region of Austronesia encompasses not only Taiwan but also the highly diverse Philippine and Malay communities of maritime Southeast Asia. The Malagasy people of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, and the numerous Oceanic communities of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia—including the Hawaiians, the Rapa Nui of Easter Island and the Maori of New Zealand—are also members of the Austronesian family.
The Austronesians of Taiwan are known by many names. In linguistics and anthropology, they are the “Formosans.” More commonly, however, they are referred to as yuánzhùmín, which means “original inhabitants.” They have also historically been known as the “Mountain People,” a term derived from the fact that the majority of the remaining Formosan tribes today reside in Taiwan’s mountainous regions. This term, however, has come to be regarded as derogatory in recent years and its use is in decline.
Taiwan’s indigenous nations are largely organized into highly diverse tribal bands. Currently, 16 of these groups have official recognition from the Taiwanese government. Among them, the Amis people of eastern Taiwan are the most numerous of the indigenous ethnic groups with over 200,000 members. Smaller groups like the Saisiyat and the Kanakanavu number only a few thousand or less.
Today, though these Austronesian “original inhabitants” form only 2% of the island’s total population, they dominate the mountainous highlands of central and eastern Taiwan. While a number of their extraordinarily diverse and ancient Austronesian languages are critically endangered (some rapidly becoming moribund), many government and non-governmental efforts are endeavouring to preserve and revive this unique heritage of the island.
While the highland nations have a long history of resisting foreign cultures, those of the lowlands, in contrast, have a history of exchange and cooperation with newcomers. Today, Taiwan’s lowland Austronesians have largely embraced the Han cultures that began immigrating to the island in the 17th century. The resulting cultural and linguistic contrast between Taiwan’s mountains and plains regions (comparable to Scotland’s Gaelic Highlands and Anglophone Lowlands) contributes to an overall sense of duality and diversity in the identity of the Taiwanese people.
The Han Lowlands
Taiwan’s speakers of Sinitic (Chinese) languages—this includes the descendants of 17th-century Chinese immigrants and Sinicized lowland Austronesians—are known as Hànzú or Hànrén, i.e. “Han people.” To Taiwan’s highland tribes, Taiwan’s Han people are known as píngdìrén, which means “lowlanders” or “plains people.”
Han colonization of the island began in the 1600s, initially under the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC)—the Dutch East India Company. From 1624 to 1662, the Dutch claimed Taiwan as the colonial governorate of Formosa and founded the island’s first successful non-Austronesian regime. Early Han settlers in Taiwan, who largely originated in southeastern China, were recruited by the VOC to work in the new colony as labourers. The prospect of employment under the VOC attracted an influx of immigrants from the continent.
These 17th-century Han settlers consisted of two main groups: the Hoklo and Hakka peoples. The Hoklo (Hokkien-speakers) originated in southern Fujian. They emigrated not only to Taiwan but throughout Southeast Asia, including places like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The other main Han group, the Hakka people, who speak a Chinese variety distinctly different from Hokkien, originated in eastern Guangdong. The Hakkas, notably, have also historically formed communities in parts of India, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia.
Today, the Hoklo of Taiwan make up the majority (70%) of the island’s population and—along with their language—are commonly referred to simply as “Taiwanese.” These people mainly inhabit Taiwan’s agriculturally productive lowlands, with the largest population concentration in the island’s southwest. The Hakkas, on the other hand, are based mainly in the Hsinchu and Miaoli counties in hilly northwestern Taiwan. The Hakkas form the second largest ethnolinguistic group (15%) on the island.
Taiwanese Folklore and Taiwanese DNA
According to Taiwanese folk tradition, most islanders were born of “Chinese fathers and non-Chinese mothers.” Early Han settlers of Taiwan were virtually all male labourers working in the Dutch colony. They married local Austronesian women, creating hybrid colonist-native (Han-Austronesian) families—similar to the Métis and Mestizo peoples of Canada and Latin America. Over time, however, Han culture became the dominant element in these hybrid communities as they spread across the island.
The tradition is supported by a 2007 genetic study conducted by Taipei’s Mackay Memorial Hospital. The study found that the vast majority of Taiwan’s population (up to 85%) are descended from both Austronesian and continental ancestors.
Although Taiwan’s population is largely Chinese-speaking today, the Taiwanese are mostly descended from Sinicized Austronesians who intermarried with newcomers from China and adopted Han languages, names and customs. Today, these mixed-race descendants of Taiwan’s indigenous lowland Austronesians with continental Hoklo and Hakka immigrants make up the true majority of Taiwan’s population.
A final group of Chinese-speakers forms about 13% of the island’s population. In English, they are often called “Mainlanders” (those originating from mainland China as opposed to diasporic Han communities overseas). On the island, these people are better known as wàishěngrén or “outlanders.”
These people arrived in Taiwan as refugees in 1949, at the end of China’s civil war, and largely settled in the area around Taipei in northern Taiwan. This is a remarkably diverse group of people originating from all over China. They speak a wide variety of mutually unintelligible Chinese languages and dialects. Mandarin, a language introduced to Taiwan after WWII, serves as the primary lingua franca among the Mainlanders as well as between Mainlanders and other groups living in Taiwan.
The above are the main ethnolinguistic groups of the island.
While these cultural, ethnic and linguistic divisions still have very real socioeconomic and political implications in Taiwanese society, the lines have begun to blur as the groups interact and mingle with one another. Today’s inter-group exchanges, no longer the violent confrontations of old, are generally friendly in recent years and contribute to a sense of solidarity and unity among all Taiwanese people.