The Beidawushan Series: The Paiwan People (Part 1)

According to legend, the Paiwan people learned essential skills, such as farming, from the goddesses which live at the top of Beidawushan. The goddesses asked the Paiwan people to occasionally invite them to their villages. Thus every five years the Paiwan celebrate Maleveq to greet the goddesses of Beidawushan and offer thanks for all of the good things the goddesses have done for the Paiwan people.

The peak of Beidawushan

The peak of Beidawushan

The Paiwan are an indigenous Austronesian people. The Austronesian languages are spoken from Madagascar, to New Zealand, to Hawaii, and linguists are almost certain that the proto-Austronesian language originated here, in southern Taiwan. Language preservation is an important issue for the Paiwan people.

Paiwan society is split into four classes: chieftain, nobility, distinguished, and commoner. Nearly all land belongs to the chieftain/noble class, and the commoners have to pay rent. The distinguished pay less rent/tax than the commoners and get to wear special tatoos. Traditionally, only the chieftain/noble class was allowed to wear intricately decorated clothes. Class is determined by birth, but it is possible to change one’s place in the hierarchy by great deeds or marriage.

Most of the indigenous societies in Taiwan are patriarchal, but the Paiwan are an exception. In Paiwan society, all possessions are inherited by the eldest child – regardless of the child’s gender. Chieftains are selected the same way, so the Paiwan have female and male chieftains (I do not know how traditional Paiwan culture reacts to gender-queerness). There is still a gendered division of labor (for example, hunting is an activity mainly for young men), but as far as power and privilege, the Paiwan are gender-egalitarian.

A Paiwan chieftain wearing traditional clothing (screenshot from the TV show 'Made in Taiwan')

A Paiwan chieftain wearing traditional clothing (screenshot from the TV show ‘Made in Taiwan’)

I once met a man in Taipei whose mother is Hoklo (i.e. of Chinese descent) and whose father is Paiwan. In traditional Han Chinese society he’s not considered Han because he doesn’t have a Han father. And, as he put it ‘mothers are very important in Paiwan culture’ (which brings this song to mind). Therefore, according to Paiwan tradition, he’s also not considered Paiwan because he does not have a Paiwan mother. Fortunately, most contemporary Taiwanese people, particularly in the younger generations, do not care much about such traditions. To them, someone with mixed Paiwan/Hoklo ancestry is clearly Taiwanese.

2016 Update: The newly elected president of Taiwan, Tsai Yingwen, has a Paiwan grandmother, and is the first president of Taiwan with (acknowledged) aboriginal ancestry. Is it a coincidence that the first female president of Taiwan has ancestry from the one culture in Taiwan which historically had female political leaders? I don’t know.

The Paiwan people had previously been controlled by the Puyuma (who had dominated southern Taiwan). In the Mudan Incident of 1871, the Paiwan people killed many Ryukyu shipwrecked sailors. When the Japanese asked the Qing court for compensation, the Qing claimed that the tribe was ‘wild’ and therefore the Qing were not responsible. The Japanese interpreted this as a renunciation of Qing sovereignty of Taiwan, which led to the 1874 Taiwan expedition where the Japanese directly punished the Paiwan people. After this, the Qing tried to exert military control over the ‘wild’ lands of Taiwan and … did not exactly succeed. In 1895 Japan took over Taiwan.

Continue to “The Paiwan People (Part 2)”


Some of the information in this entry came from the book Carefree Walks through Mountain Forests in Southern Taiwan (高屏山林縱情遊) and this website.


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2 thoughts on “The Beidawushan Series: The Paiwan People (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Beidawushan Series: The Japanese on Beidawushan | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. Pingback: The Beidawushan Series: Geography | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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