Taiwan is known as an excellent place to study the Mandarin language and is also home to the world-class National Palace Museum with its breathtaking collection of Chinese treasures. But Taiwan is not a purely Han Chinese society.
Prior to the 17th century, the island was dominated by indigenous people of Austronesian origin. Before the Dutch East India Company established its trading base in the southwestern part of the island and encouraged Fujianese farmers to migrate across the Taiwan Strait, Han Chinese influence was minimal. Merchants from the mainland occasionally visited to buy deerskins and sulfur, but many pre-Dutch arrivals were unwilling migrants: fugitives, shipwrecked sailors, and pirates fleeing Ming Dynasty naval patrols.
Despite generations of intermarriage (a result of male migrants far outnumbering females in the 17th and 18th centuries) and pressure to conform to Han-Fujianese social conventions, Taiwan’s Austronesian peoples retain their distinctive identities. Currently, 2.4% of Taiwan’s 23.3 million residents are classed by the government as indigenous people. Since 2014, the aboriginal population has been divided into 16 officially recognized tribes.
DNA analysis suggests that millions of Taiwanese have some aboriginal ancestry. Since Taiwan became a democracy in the late 1980s, public and official attitudes toward minority cultures have changed dramatically. What was once seen as backward, or at best quaint, is now treasured as part of the human diversity that makes Taiwan unique.
Taiwan’s Austronesian connection has long intrigued scholars. Because the 26 indigenous languages known to have been spoken in Taiwan (10 have died out) display such fabulous diversity, many linguists believe Taiwan is the root of the entire Austronesian language family, a grouping that includes the national languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, plus hundreds more languages spoken as far away as Madagascar and Hawaii.
What is more, if many anthropologists are right, millions of people around the Pacific have some Taiwanese ancestry. The theory that Austronesian populations can trace their origins to Taiwan, and that they migrated over several centuries across the Pacific and southward toward New Zealand, has gained credence following a series of archaeological, bacterial, and genetic discoveries.
Not surprisingly, many well-read travelers heading to Taiwan are eager to meet indigenous people and see how they have adapted to the 21st century while living in some of the remotest corners of the island. Aboriginal culture thrives best in strongholds like Wutai in Pingtung County (a Rukai tribal village where most tombstones bear no Chinese characters but rather indigenous names in Roman script) and Xibao, a community near Taroko Gorge that is prospering thanks to organic agriculture.
But unless one rents a car and is willing to endure long journeys on twisting mountain roads, reaching such places is not easy. Both Wutai and Xibao are served by buses, but the service is infrequent. Confirming schedules and routes usually requires an ability to speak or read Chinese.
Recognizing these and other challenges facing tourists, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau several years ago set up the Taiwan Tour Bus system. This network enhances the tourist experience by providing transportation to scenic and cultural spots, along with guides who introduce the various stops in English, Japanese, and Chinese.
Taiwan Tour Bus excursions must be booked in advance, so it is worth perusing the full list of options at before you fly into Taiwan. For visitors curious about the island’s indigenous population, a quartet of tours deserves special attention.
For people short on time, the Wulai Aboriginal Culture half-day tour (NT$1,500 per person; NT$1,200 for children aged 12 or younger) is perfect. Wulai District in New Taipei City is conveniently close to downtown Taipei, yet strikingly different in terms of scenery and ambiance. Of the 6,200 people who inhabit Wulai’s 321 square kilometers, a third are Atayal aborigines.
Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan’s best-known tourist destinations. Whether the waters are shimmering beneath a blue sky or enveloped by mist, this body of water holds a strong appeal. But there is much more here than a beguiling landscape, as you will discover if you sign up for the Sun Moon Lake Indigenous Homeland one-day tour. This nine-hour excursion sets out from various points in Taichung City, including the high-speed railway station, and is priced at NT$1,700 per person. This includes lunch, participation in a DIY craft activity, guides (gratuities are entirely optional) and – as with all Taiwan Tour Bus journeys – full insurance.
The tour begins at Shuanglong Village, a stronghold of the Bunun people. Visitors can learn aspects of Bunun culture and have a chance to pick up traditional handicraft skills before enjoying an aboriginal meal. The tour then takes a scenic back road to Sun Moon Lake, stopping en route at Tannan (“south of the lake”) Village, another Bunun community. The third and final stop is Ita Thao on the eastern shore of the lake. Ita Thao is the “capital” of the Thao people, renowned since the Japanese colonial era for their unique pestle music. Whereas the 57,000-strong Bunun is one of Taiwan’s larger tribes, the Thao number fewer than 800. Nevertheless, Ita Thao is a bustling little town and an excellent place to enjoy some tasty snacks and shop for souvenirs.
For the same price, and also setting out from Taichung, is the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village and Sun Moon Lake one-day tour. Excursionists get to spend at least three hours in the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, a sprawling park filled with both roller-coaster type thrills and sincere performances of indigenous dance and music. Then it is down to the lakeshore by the rightfully famous cable car, and on to Wenwu Temple. Compared to other places of worship in Taiwan, this shrine is neither especially old nor ornate. Few religious buildings, however, offer such superb views.
In Taiwan’s far south, several foothill districts are inhabited by the Rukai and Paiwan people. The Aboriginal Culture & Glass Suspension Bridge one-day tour (NT$1,600 per person), which picks up participants at various locations in Kaohsiung, begins at the Shanchuan Glass Suspension Bridge. This 262-meter-long footbridge offers unbeatable views over the Ailiao River near Sandimen in Pingtung County. After lunch, the tour bus travels a short distance to Rinari Village. Built to rehouse indigenous people whose homes were destroyed by Typhoon Morakot in 2009, it has emerged as a bastion of aboriginal art and architecture.
For comprehensive Taiwan travel information, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765, toll free within Taiwan).