When we think of Taiwan, we often think only of its main island. But the island called Taiwan has got many a company! Nearly 200 islands make up the country, including, in the Taiwan Strait, the Pescadores, Kinman and Matsu. On the Pacific side, it also encompasses Green Island and Orchid Island, among others, in the Philippine Sea.
Orchid Island in particular is home to a unique indigenous culture. Like all of Taiwan’s First Nations, Orchid Island’s Tao people—also called the Yami—are Austronesian-speakers. That’s a heritage that indigenous Taiwanese share with the Malay and Philippine nations of Southeast Asia and the Polynesians of the Pacific. Uniquely, however, the Tao is more closely related to non-Taiwanese Austronesians than to their fellow peers in Taiwan.
There and Back Again
Archaeologists and linguists believe that all Austronesian peoples originated in prehistoric Taiwan. Thousands of years ago, these expert seafarers began a dramatic expansion across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Those who remained—the direct descendants of those ancient Austronesians—are the indigenous peoples of Taiwan.
The Tao people of Orchid Island have a rather unique origin story compared to other Taiwanese tribes. They sailed north from the Philippines’ Batanes archipelago around the 13th century. Eventually, this northward journey brought the Tao to Orchid Island, where they settled. Generations after their ancestors first set off from Taiwanese waters, this lone group returned.
Speakers of Taiwanese and Mandarin call Orchid Island Lân-sū and Lányǔ, respectively. Both names mean islet of orchids, after a local variant of the flower. The Japanese, when they ruled Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, called the isle Kōtōsho, meaning Red Cape Islet. Native Tao tribesmen, however, simply call their home Ponso no Tao—the People’s Island. And so, their unique culture flourished there.
Orchid Island: Island of the Tao
In their native tongue, Tao simply means “the people.” Ponso no Tao thus means both “the Tao’s island” and “the people’s island.”
The Tao people are famous for their ornately decorated red-and-white chinurikuran or tatara canoes. In addition to these unique vessels, they are the sole among Taiwan’s indigenous peoples to develop metalworking technologies—evident in their distinctive silver helmets. They built sturdy semi-subterranean dwellings, worked extensively with clay and were highly accomplished fishermen. Ritual dancing during traditional festivals made up an integral part of Tao tradition.
Japanese anthropologists, who called the Tao people the Yami tribe, were the first outsiders to systematically study the Tao people. So, they designated Orchid Island an ethnological reserve as Japan’s ethnographers began building a narrative of their empire as a multicultural “co-prosperity sphere.”
When that empire collapsed in 1945, they ceded Taiwan and its surrounding islets to the young Chinese republic. The ruling Chinese Nationalists subsequently erased a half-century’s Japanization in Taiwan and gave Orchid Island its current name. On the larger island of Taiwan, bloodshed and terror marked the Taiwanese experience under Chinese Nationalism. Meanwhile on Orchid Island, the friction came from extreme marginalization and nuclear waste disposal.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the government began constructing a major radioactive waste storage facility on Orchid Island. The goal was to securely store toxic nuclear byproducts from power stations. However, the government never consulted the Tao people over the project and use of their territory. Naturally, they were furious.
Reclaiming Tao Identity
The 1990s marked a transition toward direct Taiwanese democracy. The 2020 EIU Democracy Index ranks Taiwan number 11 globally—ahead of Western democracies like the United States and Germany—and first in Asia. Alongside democratization and economic growth, the Taiwanization movement gained momentum. Taiwan’s many ethnic groups—both Sinitic (Taiwanese and Hakka) and Austronesian (indigenous peoples)—began to rediscover and embrace their heritage, which was long-oppressed under both Japanese imperialism and Chinese nationalism.
Meanwhile on Orchid Island, the Tao people began reclaiming their name. Known as Yami since the Japanese era, they are now more commonly known by their own name of Tao. The Taiwanese government, now democratically-elected, began reconciliation initiatives to mend ties with the Orchid Islanders. This culminated in the 2016 visit of Taiwan’s first female president Tsai Ing-wen, herself of quarter indigenous heritage.
The president’s visit was well received. Tao elders gave Tsai the name Dugan—meaning “wise leader”—during her visit. The president, in turn, has pledged more reconciliation efforts along with compensation for the nuclear waste problem and search for a permanent solution.