The Atayal people (also Tayal or Tayan), of the mountains of north-central Taiwan, are an ancient Formosan people who have called the island home for thousands of years.

The following is one of several related stories regarding the origin of the Atayal people.

Photo: Mountains of Taiwan above sea of clouds

A long, long time ago, in the rugged and densely forested central Taiwanese highlands, there was a large and formidable boulder.

One day, as if it had been an egg, the great rock cracked open. Out of its crevices emerged a pair of human children—a girl and a boy.

The two looked about their surroundings and became enchanted by the birds, beasts and beautiful scenes all around them. They were fascinated by nature and settled down in this new world. They became the world’s first human inhabitants.

When the two reached adulthood, the woman decided to propose marriage to the man so that they may produce offspring and populate this as yet sparse virgin world.

The man, seeing the woman more as a sister than a potential mate, refused.

The woman then took some charcoal and painted her face black in order to disguise herself.

When this was done, she returned to the man and, not recognizing the woman, accepted the proposal. The pair became husband and wife and their descendants became the Atayal people of Taiwan.

Photo: Two atayal elder women with traditional facial tattoos
A pair of elder Atayal women with traditional facial tattoos.
Hayun Liu [CC BY]

The face-painting in the above origin myth is said to be the reason why the Atayal, as well as the related Seediq and Truku peoples of northeastern Taiwan, have traditionally tattooed their faces with intricate designs and patterns.

It is a practice that was not only seen as beautiful but also as a necessary prerequisite if an Atayal, especially a woman, wished to be married.

Traditional Atayal society valued ancient Formosan warrior and artistic skills like headhunting and weaving.

Successful headhunters (men) and skilled weavers (women) earned the right to tattoo their faces. Facial tattoos also served as a rite of passage or coming-of-age ceremony, which indicated that the tattooed individual had become an adult and was eligible for marriage in Atayal society.

During the period of Japanese rule in Taiwan’s history (1895-1945), this ancient practice of tattooing one’s face was viewed as a barbaric one by the colonial authorities. The practice was banned and the tradition has since seen a very rapid decline among the Atayal.

Most members of the Atayal community now opt for facial paintings in times of celebrations and festivals, instead of permanent ink. These tattoos, however, can still be observed among elders, who continue to proudly wear these marks of their distinct cultural and ethnic identity.

Posted by:Island Folklore

An online repository of Taiwan’s folktales, history, legends, myths and traditions.