Thursday, June 26, 2008

The real story of the settlement of Taiwan's peoples

Many people have been taught the often repeated myth that goes like this: The Austronesian aboriginal tribes used to live in the plains of Taiwan. But then the Hakka came across the Taiwan Strait from China and pushed them back to the foothills. Then the Fujianese (Hoklo) came and pushed the Hakka to the foothills and the Austronesians to the mountains where they began to be called the "mountain tribes." This simplistic myth was probably pushed by the KMT dictatorship era to safeguard the prestige and claimed ethnic superiority of Han Chinese, to somehow say that the Chinese-derived language speakers of Taiwan have always been "Chinese," "blood is thicker than water," and all those claims to somehow say that Taiwan belongs to China.

This whole caricature of Taiwanese history is simply not true. Recent genetic studies have shown that 80 percent of Taiwan's population also have Austronesian ancestry (basically all of those who did not come over with the Chinese refugees in 1949).

Here is a more accurate account of Taiwan's history. Before Chinese immigrants came to Taiwan, Taiwan's mountains, foothills and plains were already populated by a multitude of Austronesian tribes and languages. Population density was varied, but there were settlements in every type of area of Taiwan.

First the Dutch came in the early 1600's and began to exert control over some parts of western Taiwan. They wanted a steady tax base, so they imported mostly Fujianese (Hoklo) laborers along with water buffalo to create an intensive rice agricultural economy in the flatlands. Before this time, there was no significant Chinese presence. Chinese pirates maintained a few bases in estuaries on the west coast.

At the end of the Dutch era, along with Koxinga, Hoklo immigrants came in greater numbers. By the 1700's Taiwan's west coast had come under the control of the Manchu empire. The Manchu regime did not want Chinese immigrants to settle in Taiwan so they only allowed men without their families to cross the Taiwan Strait to work. So naturally these men took Austronesian wives. Also, as the Chinese population grew in Taiwan, it became the dominant culture and the plains tribes gradually were assimilated and took on Chinese surnames. Various Hakka groups also crossed the Taiwan Strait and as they were already used to an upland economy based on mining and indigo and the farming of other upland crops, they came and settled the cheap wastelands of the hills, but were able to make them productive. There was some dislocation of Austronesian tribes, but on the whole the Austronesian plains tribes did not move to the mountains; they assimilated and became what is now the Hoklo and Hakka speaking populations of the majority of the people of Taiwan, now called "Taiwanese". Examples include the Siraya, Pazeh, Ketagalan, Kavalan, etc. to name a few.

Here is an article about how the Pazeh Austronesian tribe that assimilated in the early 1900's is seeking now to take back their language and culture.

A similar thing is happening in Tainan with descendents of the assimilated Siraya tribes who took on very unique Chinese surnames when they lost their own cultures. On July 4-7, 2008, they gathered to plan on reviving the now dead Sinkang Siraya language that their ancestor's spoke. They have begun publishing material in Siraya. You can see here how they realize that a language in these present times must be written, not just spoken, to have a hope of being revived. [Contact information: Uma Talavan (06)580.0992 , musuhapa at]

Here is a link to the map of Taiwan showing the distribution of Austronesian languages, even the ones that were culturally obliterated by Sinification.


Unknown said...

Cool! Can you tell us more about the Siraya meeting in July 2008? Is there a website?

Aì Tâi-oân said...

There are flyers in the Taiwan Shop (Tâi-oân ê Tiàm 臺灣e店) located across from National Taiwan University in an alley right off of Hsin-Sheng South Road (one block north of Truth Lutheran Church).

You can also get a lot of language books including a Pazeh dictionary published by SMC Publishing on the alley behind Grace Baptist Church in the same area.

Unknown said...

Thanks! I'll check next time I'm in the area.

Anonymous said...

i appreciate you telling the real story of the settlement of Taiwan's people. i really hope that the tribes can continue to grow in our native culture. the younger generations should know that they should be proud of who they are. ~ grand daughter of one the Paiwan Chief

Anonymous said...

What is the link or the primary research article reporting on the ancestry of the 80% of Taiwanese? How reliable is the research?

Even if genetically the "Han" Taiwanese are half-Austronesians, do bloodlines matter now that almost all of them are completely assimilated Hoklo or Hakka? Is identity about bloodlines or cultures? Or both?

Anonymous said...

To a culture that worships ancestors, bloodlines do matter. To a culture that was propagandized by 50 years of dictatorship to tell everyone that their ancestors "came from mainland China," that they were from Fujian and not Taiwan, and that they were "greater Chinese" people, ancestry matters. Once people turn away from propaganda and embrace reality, then it leaves them free to choose what culture and identity they wish to associate with. Many may look at the negative aspects of Chinese culture such as corruption, authoritarianism, and disrespect of other cultures and decide they prefer to explore and identify with their Austronesian ancestry. That is their free choice.

Aì Tâi-oân said...

In answer to the Nov. 29th Anonymous writer's question -- you can investigate the genetic studies further by doing a web search on the following words -- particularly hematology specialist Dr. Mari Lin

"Eighty-five percent of Hoklo and Hakka people have Aboriginal ancestry, according to a study on the DNA of non-Aboriginal ethnic Taiwanese conducted by Mackay Memorial Hospital's transfusion medical research director Mari Lin (林媽利)" - Taipei Times, 11/21/2007

You can further do your own exploration: just go look around and ask questions in different parts of Taiwan. Just this week I met some retired school teachers from SanHsing, Ilan County, and they all matter-of-fact told me that they all had Kavalan ancestry in addition to their Hakka and Holo ancestry.

Anonymous said...

I would think any genetic study would tend to under-estimate the percentage of Austronesian ancestry, because of two things: 1. resistance of some culturally intact Taiwan Austronesian peoples to providing blood samples and 2. the fact that many plains-tribes were already fully assimilated by the mid 1900's so that any of their distinct genetic markers cannot be ascertained and so will not be noted as such in genetic tests of their Hakka and Hoklo descendants living today. We are just going on assumption that their genetic markers are similar to the remaining Austronesian peoples in Taiwan. But what is actually being measured is the genetic relationship only with the current existing Austronesian peoples of Taiwan who provided blood samples.

Aì Tâi-oân said...

Also, it matters because the one broad reason other nations of the world are content to say Taiwan is part of China is that they think of Taiwan's people as Chinese -- something Chiang Kai-shek's KMT was keen to get into foreigners' mindsets.

If people in the world began thinking of Taiwan as the original Austronesian homeland, Hawaiiki, with pure Austronesian as well as mixed Austronesian and Chinese ethnic groups, then there would be more of an attitude in the international community that China should not (has no right to) annex Taiwan and that Taiwan is a distinct region of the world with a distinct history. This would be a good result -- to get beyond the "Chinese Taipei" kind of propaganda. Taiwan's rich cultural and historical origins do indeed extend back long before any Chinese immigrated to Taiwan in the 1600's; they go back long before China existed as a unified people under "The First Emperor" and the following Han Dynasty.

Anonymous said...

I would think any genetic study would tend to under-estimate the percentage of Austronesian ancestry, because of two things: ... the fact that many plains-tribes were already fully assimilated by the mid 1900's so that any of their distinct genetic markers cannot be ascertained and so will not be noted as such in genetic tests of their Hakka and Hoklo descendants living today.

I think you're right about the under-estimate, for the reasons that you've mentioned. One way, though to correct for the skew, is to go to actual Hoklo and Hakka areas in China to obtain samples, and use that as a control. The previous undetected samples might then be detected.