At Island Folklore, we organize Taiwanese folklore into nine broad and overlapping categories. Here’s a look at just what “folklore” means and the different kinds of folkloric traditions of Taiwan.
What is Folklore?
Folklore is the traditional customs, beliefs, stories and sayings that exist in a given community. These traditions are generally passed down through the generations by word of mouth. The term folklore is traced back to the German Volklehre, meaning “people’s customs.” A related word is the Old English folclār, meaning shared learning.
Our Nine Categories
Island Folklore roughly groups Taiwan’s folklore into nine categories. These nine categories fall into two camps: Ethnolinguistic origin and folkloric genre.
In the ethnolinguistic grouping, we highlight Austronesian, Indo-European, Japonic and Sinitic folklore. The other grouping—the genres of folklore—includes folktales, history, legends, myths and traditions. To find out more about each of these categories, please see below!
Four Categories Based on Ethnolinguistic Origins
Taiwan is the original homeland of the Austronesian peoples, whose territories stretch from Taiwan and Maritime Southeast Asia across the Pacific islands of Polynesia and even across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar. Tales in this category are comprised of 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 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 rather, 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 Austronesian cultures since the end of the Second World War, continues to be an integral part of understanding the Taiwanese experience and Taiwan’s folk heritage.
Han Chinese settlers began arriving in Taiwan in the 1600s. Their stories—passed down in the many distinct Sinitic, Han or Chinese languages of Taiwan—are undeniably central to Taiwanese folklore and culture in general. They include stories born on the island from the experiences of settlers since the 17th century and tales that originated on the continent that were subsequently brought to the island.
Five Folkloric Genres
Folktales are stories passed down through generations, usually through word of mouth, within a community or culture. These stories originate in popular culture and contain a society’s memories, ideals and philosophies.
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, but also the island’s unique and fascinating history.
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 figures of the past and the legendary times in which they lived.
The primary function of mythology is to provide explanations for certain natural or social phenomena. These traditional stories typically feature supernatural beings or occurrences and can concern a people’s early history or origin.
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.
Editorial note: A version of this article was originally published in October 2016. It has been revised and republished on the date specified at the top of this post.