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How in Taiwan “barbarians” became “indigenous people”

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On August 1st, 2005 then President Chen Shui-bian attended the modest ceremony in the Taipei suburb of Xinzhuang to commemorate Taiwan’s first Indigenous People’s Day, established according to the regulations on memorial days and holidays that had been passed on June 15th.

Before 1895, when after the First Sino-Japanese war Formosa became Japan’s first colony, the various indigenous tribes were rudely called “barbarians” or “savages” (番) by the Chinese government in Peking, which declared the island a province as late as 1887.

Scholars soon sent from Japan divided the non-Chinese habitants into ten already heavily assimilated heihozoku (平埔族) tribes living in the plains and about the same number of takasagozoku (高砂族,, using an obsolete Japanese name for Taiwan), which made a living in higher elevations. Whether that classification is outdated, remains disputed.

After Nippon’s defeat in 1945 and Taiwan’s return to Chinese rule, the new Nationalist masters started to call them “mountain compatriots” or simply “mountain people” (山胞. or 山地人) to enforce an alleged concept of national unity in anticommunist “Free China”.

As both terms were deemed pejorative and/or offensive by those they referred to, on August 1st, 1994 all references in the Constitution of the Republic of China (up to this day Taiwan’s official designation) changed to原主民 . This new denomination could also be translated as “original inhabitants”’, but officially became “indigenous people” and in 1997 原主民族 or “indigenous peoples” in plural.

Taiwanese Aborigines belong to the Austronesian language family, which covers the Pacific and the Indian Ocean from Easter Island to Madagascar and New Zealand. Austronesian peoples can be found in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia as well.

According to official statistics available in 2019, the number of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized tribes, Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Hla’alua, Kavalan, Kanakanavu, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Sediq, Thao, Truku, Tsou and Yami, stands at around 567,000, or 2.4% of the total population of 23.58 million.

In addition, due to a long process of acculturation after the first Chinese settlers arrived in the 17th century, often to escape Manchu rule on the mainland, the Babuza, Basay, Hoanya, Ketagalan, Makatan, Papora, Pazeh, Quaquat, Siraya, Taivoan, Taokas and Trobiavan are still fighting for their recognition.

P.D.: In Communist China, Taiwan’s indigenous tribes are referred to as 高山人, meaning “High mountain people”.

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