Indigenous languages of Taiwan

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How many are there?

Taiwan’s unrecognized indigenous tribes are reviving dead languages to achieve recognition

There are currently 16 officially recognized indigenous peoples in Taiwan. The Pingpu — which comprise 10 groups on the island’s lowlands — are lobbying to make that number 17, and they’re doing it by reviving lost languages and culture.

By Jordyn Haime, The China Project (6/5/23)

In contemporary Mandarin, many of the speakers of these languages are called shāndì tóngbāo 山地同胞 ("mountain countrymen / compatriots"), which meshes well with the opening paragraph of Haime's article:

Long before Chinese settlers came to the flat, sprawling lands of the Pingtung plain — the southern Taiwanese county now known for its pineapple and mango production — the area was inhabited by Pingpu (plains indigenous) tribes like the Makatao. Waves of colonization pushed indigenous tribes from their ancestral lands and closer to the mountains, or in some cases, to the other side of the island.

Long before Chinese settlers came to the flat, sprawling lands of the Pingtung plain — the southern Taiwanese county now known for its pineapple and mango production — the area was inhabited by Pingpu (plains indigenous) tribes like the Makatao. Waves of colonization pushed indigenous tribes from their ancestral lands and closer to the mountains, or in some cases, to the other side of the island.

It was originally with the goal of land rectification that Pan Enbo, a member of the Laopi Makatao tribe in today’s Pingtung and then-chairman of the Laopi Makatao Cultural Association, began digging through national and local archives in 2016. But something unexpected happened: he stumbled across pages and pages of records written in the native Makatao language, which had been dormant for decades.

I want to know what script the Makatao language was written in.

“After the association was established,” Pan said, “we started to notice that it was quite strange that outsiders couldn’t understand what we were saying. Why can Han people not understand us? Because we are different. We really have no relation to mainland China.”

Pan became obsessed: he traveled to the national archives in Taipei and began collecting all available documentation until he had a total of 24 compact disks full of information. Seven years later, he produced a 70-page dictionary of all the words and phrases he was able to find and translated them into Mandarin Chinese characters and romanization.

Something similar happened with other groups:

Across the island, Leyo Kana, a member of the Eastern Makatao in Hualien, spends his days traveling door-to-door to interview elder tribe members to identify Makatao vocabulary intermixed with their spoken Hokkien. He has also helped the community revive the long-dormant night festival, an annual Makatao ritual ringing in the new year.

“Taiwanese and the Makatao language have blended together,” Kana explains. “So many of the older residents, since they identified as Fujianese, always thought they were speaking Taiwanese.”

The Makatao language’s revitalization is more than just an effort to preserve an endangered language. It’s part of a long-term strategy to include the 10 Pingpu groups among the Taiwanese government’s officially recognized indigenous peoples. In addition to the Makatao, the Siraya, Taokas, and Papora peoples — all indigenous groups that fall under the Pingpu classification — have active preservation movements aimed at achieving recognition.

This is not just a matter of linguistics or ethnicity.  It also has direct implications for political representation:

Only 16 indigenous groups are currently recognized by the national government, while the Pingpu have largely been seen as fully assimilated into Han Chinese culture. The Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) — the government ministry tasked with managing indigenous affairs — has actively opposed Pingpu recognition for fear that it could water down government-allotted resources and political representation. The CIP has estimated that some 980,000 people could attempt to register as Pingpu if the group becomes recognized, raising the proportion of indigenous people in Taiwan from 2 percent to 6 percent.

In the latter part of her article, Haime describes the ongoing efforts of the indigenous groups to revive and maintain their languages.  It's interesting how foodways are a focus of their lessons:

They practice basic formalities and sentences, switching between Mandarin, Siraya, and English. Today’s lesson is all about food: “What do you like for breakfast?” (Kamang ta kamuyen oho ka idamen?) “I like to eat bread and drink milk.” (Mamuy ko ka kanen ta paul mit apa ki haley.)

Another facet of their learning process is reliance on early Christian materials.  The article focuses on a precious version of the Gospel of St. Matthew written in English, Dutch, and Siraya, now one of the most important primary sources preserving the Siraya language.

When Dutch colonizers arrived in Tainan in 1624, missionaries stationed there used Siraya to help carry out government affairs with indigenous peoples, believing all groups could speak and understand the same language. They translated the gospels of St. Matthew and John into Siraya and led church services in the Siraya’s native tongue. The preservation and use of the language declined in importance after the departure of the Dutch as Hakka and Fujianese settlers populated Southern Taiwan in increasing numbers. Researchers believe the language died out in the early 20th century.

The Dutch of the Dutch-Siraya-English Gospel of St. Matthew owned by Edgar Macapili, who originally is of Filipino nationality, is written in Gothic script.  There's a beautiful photograph of it in the article.

By 1987, when martial law had lifted, most with Pingpu ancestry began rediscovering their identities for the first time. Some, like Kana’s family, had grown up believing their ancestors were Han Chinese from Fujian before discovering the shu marker on household registration documents. None remained who could speak their indigenous language fluently; those who had some vocabulary mixed into their speech always thought they were speaking Taiwanese.

So when the Siraya-language gospel landed in the hands of Macapili and Tavalan [his wife], “it was completely unfamiliar to us,” Tavalan said. “Already for 100 or 200 years, we spoke Taiwanese. We can study Siraya, but no longer have the [language] environment. And there is no policy to support us.”

But Macapili, whose mother tongue is the native Philippine language Cebuano or Bisaya, could.

“When I opened it and read it,” Macapili remembers, “I thought, this is like my mother language!” Pronouns, numbers, grammar, verb conjugations, and syntax were — if not identical to Bisaya — very similar.

Since the discovery of the Siraya Gospel of Saint Matthew, Macapili, Tavalan, and their family members have worked to spark a revival of the Siraya language and have achieved the impossible. As of 2018, 19 public schools in Tainan teach Siraya; one of them teaches the language as a requirement for the first six years. Siraya Presbyterian churches in particular have embraced the language in church services and songs, many composed by Macapili.

Mirabile dictu, Siraya has come back to life!

Under Qing rule (1683-1895), indigenous peoples were classified into two categories: shēngfān 生蕃 (“wild/uncivilized” aborigines in the eastern and mountainous regions) and shúfān 熟蕃 (“tamed” or “cooked” aborigines in the central mountain or eastern plains regions like the Siraya), classifications that the Japanese maintained and further defined. By the end of Japanese rule, the shufan classification was changed to “plains indigenous” (平埔族 píng pǔ zú).

Better to be "plains indigenous" than "cooked"!


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Paul Frank said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 7:21 am

    I did not think that the revival of extinct languages was doable – until I read Ghil'ad Zuckermann's brilliant Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2020). If anyone doubts that Taiwan's "sleeping beauties," including Siraya, can be further strengthened and the number of their speakers substantially increased, they should read Zuckermann's book. Zuckermann uses the term "sleeping beauty" as "a positive, poetic way to champion and celebrate these dormant tongues, and to avoid the negative connotations of alternatives such as ‘dead’ or ‘extinct’, which are often rejected or rebuked by indigenous people" (Zuckermann 2020, XXII).

    New Zealand could be an example for Taiwan. Zuckermann writes: "In New Zealand as from 1982, the Māori language movement used the principles of language immersion to reintroduce the Māori en masse to toddlers in preschools. At that time, the language shift to English was well advanced as a result of past assimilation policies where parents had been discouraged from teaching their children Māori. Educationists argued that children would be disadvantaged in education and employment opportunities unless they abandoned Māori. The Kohanga Reo ‘Nests of Language’ engaged native Māori-speaking grandmothers to come into the preschool, interact with the children, and speak only Māori, thereby immersing the children in the Māori language. There are now over 460 Kohanga Reo throughout New Zealand, as well as several Kohanga Reo in Australia and the United Kingdom serving the expatriate Māori populations there." (Zuckermann 2020, p. 2020). Nicholas Ostler, author of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (Harper Perennial, 2005), is full of praise for Zuckermann's book: "Zuckermann gives a linguist's insider view of his native tongue, Hebrew as they now speak it in Israel, including its rollicking humor. He shows how a language could literally 'arise from the dead' but also how different is the task of reviving other languages today."

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 7:45 am

    @Paul Frank

    Thank you for your eloquent defense of "sleeping beauties". I think that you (and Ghil'ad Zuckermann) give hope for the revival of Manchu.

  3. Mark S. said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 7:54 am

    I doubt if many people use the phrase shandi tongbao anymore in Taiwan, with shandi being seen as patronizing and tongbao as old-fashioned.

    Among the factors working against the revival of such languages is that there are so many of them and not so many Indigenous people, so it's not quite like the situation in New Zealand, as I understand it. Even the Taiwanese language is in trouble in the long run, and it has millions of speakers here.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 8:14 am

    @Mark S.

    "I doubt if many people use the phrase shandi tongbao anymore in Taiwan, with shandi being seen as patronizing and tongbao as old-fashioned."

    Then collectively what are they called?

  5. AntC said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 9:05 am

    @Mark S, 山地同胞 "mountain countrymen” is familiar to the (randomly chosen) Taiwan citizen sitting next to me; as is the Makatao tribe.

    @Prof Mair, I guess the language was recorded by Dutch traders and missionaries originally. wikipedia also mentions some land transactions recorded in Chinese translation, whatever that means.

    Confusingly wp has pages on both ‘Siraya language’ and ‘Sirayaic languages’. They claim Makatao is now thought to be distinct from Siraya, but still treat of it under Siraya.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 9:13 am

    Mand. yuan2zhu4min2 原住民 + Tw. guân-tsū-bîn 原住民 seem to be the ah courant terms for 'indigenous people' as a whole.

    Píngpǔzú 平埔族 owes itself to Tw. Pênn-poo-huan 平埔番 'plains aborigines' (with huan 'aborigine' now regarded as derogatory.) So you can find "Pepohuan" in early European sources. Reference to "plains" is of course simply geographical i.e. not ethnographically specific, cf. the North American situation.

    The 'Nests of Language' approach in New Zealand is super inspiring with respect to circumstances in Taiwan (and the U.S. etc.), though the hour is getting late…

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 9:17 am

    ^ Just remembered that George Mackay writing in the late 19th century uses "Pepohoan" vs. "Savage" in a manner parallel to "sheng" vs. "shu" in work like From Far Formosa.

  8. Paul Frank said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 9:22 am

    @Mark S: The situation in Australia, where Zuckermann is doing excellent work, is comparable. Of an original number of approximately 400 Australian Indigenous languages, only 13 languages are alive and kicking in the sense of being spoken by all children. Past revival programs have failed because of insufficient funding, lack of technical expertise, lack of integration of school-based programs with community language programs, and also because many revival efforts have not supported by a sound theoretical understanding of how successful language revival works. But it can be done. Zuckermann also writes that "speakers of Taiwanese Indigenous languages, when it comes to expanding the lexicon, often turn to Japanese loanwords, as these are familiar in the minds of the elders […] Japanese borrowings provide the Indigenous Taiwanese with a distinctive identity, which the dominant Chinese languages—Mandarin, Holo, or Taiwanese Hokkien, and Hakka—do not." And: "Learning the language of their ancestors can be an emotional experience and can provide people with a strong sense of pride and identity. Small changes can impact people in big ways. I have noticed, qualitatively, that language revival has an empowering effect on the community wellbeing and mental health of people involved in such projects. Participants develop a better appreciation of and sense of connection with their cultural heritage." He also notes that language revival helps reduce suicide rates, which are very high among indigenous communities that have lost their languages.

  9. Mark S. said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 9:58 am

    @Victor Mair: I would agree with Jonathan Smith that yuanzhumin is standard. I suppose an official giving a speech might say yuanzhumin tongbao, but in general people will just say yuanzhumin.

    It's not that no one would recognize the term shandi or shandiren, it's that those are, to my understanding, definitely un-PC these days.

    @Paul Frank: Thanks for the encouraging news about the situation in Australia. I hope similar good things can happen here in Taiwan.

  10. AntC said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 9:58 am

    @Mark S it's not quite like the situation in New Zealand

    As a New Zealander currently travelling in Taiwan, I can attest the situations are a lot different.

    There is one indigenous language in NZ (with regional dialect variations), with Europeans appearing only early C19th. Māori is recognised by our constitution, is used in official ceremonies such as the opening of Parliament, there’s now bi-lingual signage everywhere, all school kids experience at least a taster and there are full Māori immersion schools. Warrior-derived culture is very evident in NZ’s national sport (Rugby Union, with the Haka).

    I see indigenous cultural centres in Taiwan, some uses of indigenous languages on signage (especially on East Coast), indigenous storyboards in tourist locations such as the Taroko Gorge, government financial support for festivals.

    But yes, the numbers of speakers of each language are tiny, and there are just so many languages compared to NZ’s one. The government support has to be spread very thin.

    And the government is trying to support wider linguistic/cultural diversity: Taiwanese, Hakka, varieties of Fujianese — to undo the active suppression up to the 1990’s.

    Taiwan is tackling so many social issues all at the same time, against the huge monocultural pressure coming from you-know-where. I wish the Makatao-revivers the best.

  11. Chas Belov said,

    June 17, 2023 @ 4:45 pm

    Always glad to hear about work preserving or reviving languages. There is apparently active creation of Taiwanese indigenous work, including recording popular music in indigenous languages. I have streamed did you missed Taiwanese music in various languages over my streaming service.

    A good place to start searching for them would be the Wikipedia entries for Music of Taiwan: Aboriginal music and the Best Aboriginal Album category of the Golden Music Awards (link to 2022's).

  12. Philip Anderson said,

    June 18, 2023 @ 4:15 am

    “And the government is trying to support wider linguistic/cultural diversity: Taiwanese, Hakka, varieties of Fujianese — to undo the active suppression up to the 1990’s.”
    This is a point worth remembering when discussing multilingual signs including minority languages, that deliberate suppression has been a significant factor in the fragility of many of these languages, and democracies were as bad as dictatorships, yet not one appreciated by those who complain about the money spent today.
    Gwyneth Lewis wrote a volume of Welsh poetry, entitled’Y Llofrudd Iaith’ (the language murderer, punning on ‘llofruddiaeth’ murder).

  13. KIRINPUTRA said,

    June 22, 2023 @ 3:04 am

    In practice, the Formosan masses use GOÂN-CHŪ-BÎN 原住民 (& its Mandarin cognate) to refer to the former (Mandarin) 山地人 (SHĀNDÌRÉN), which in turn coincided in scope with “raw savages”. PÊᴺ-PO͘-CHO̍K 平埔族 (& its Mandarin cognate) & PÊᴺ-PO͘ ·Ê are used to refer to the former “cooked savages”.

    I mean, there were times I was out in the country somewhere and used GOÂN-CHŪ-BÎN as an equivalent of “indigenous people” to refer to a local “PÊᴺ-PO͘” people, and I’d be instantly corrected: The people were PÊᴺ-PO͘, not GOÂN-CHŪ-BÎN. Then I kept my ears open and realized that GOÂN-CHŪ-BÎN in non-academic parlance refers to the Amis & the Paiwan but not the Kavalan or the Makatao. So the Cooked-Uncooked dichotomy lives on, thanks to thoughtless administrators.

    SIAN-CHŪ-BÎN 先住民 is another term of similar pedigree to GOÂN-CHŪ-BÎN. It has the benefit of being more accurate as well as never having been used as a modernism meaning “raw savages”. I’ve seen it (in photos) used in the MN̂G-LIÂN 門連 of a Siraya (or kindred) place of worship.

    BTW, I was at Nightfest in a Makatao foothill community last, last year, and I was struck by how much Hoklo (Taioanese) was being spoken vs how little Mandarin, esp. by the master of ceremony on the mike.

  14. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 22, 2023 @ 3:52 pm

    Thanks KIRINPUTRA for this wrinkle — makes sense, like everything does in hindsight :)

  15. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 22, 2023 @ 6:36 pm

    Incidentally whence Tw. POO 'flatland' I wonder… super Hokkien-seeming item… and how many separate morphemes are/were written "埔" across Sinitic etc…

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