The Cultural Geography of Taiwan

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Taiwan used to be part of Austronesian culture. However, at the beginning of the 17th century, the Dutch settlers occupied the island for 38 years (1624-1662), thus bringing in their European culture. Later a great number of Han Chinese moved in, developing an agricultural and fishing culture akin to that of southern China. And after fifty years of Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945), the elements of Japanese culture became part of Taiwan's everyday life. 

Obviously, today's Taiwanese society is a result of various cultural influences over a long period.

A. Prehistoric Culture

Since Taipei-based Chihshanyan and Yuanshan relics were first found by Japanese scholars in 1896, more than 1,000 prehistoric sites have been so far discovered all over Taiwan. These sites have a wide distribution, ranging from 1 meter (e.g. Shetzu relics near the ancient Taipei Lake) to 5-7 meters (e.g. Shihsanhang remains) to 2,000 meters in altitude, and from locations as far north as Chinshan in Taipei county to ones as far south as Oluanpi on the Hengchun Peninsula.

Taiwan entered the Paleolithic age about 50,000 years ago with the Changpin culture as its representative. Later the island entered the Neolithic age, a very important period typical cultures of which were Dabankeng, Yuanshan, and Peinan. Neolithic humans used ground stoneware, bone objects and earthenware as their tools and utensils. They were fond of jade articles for decoration. They not only developed their culture locally but also interacted with other cultures in the south of China and southeastern Asia. It is believed that in prehistoric times, Taiwan already had many tribes whose cultures' social formations were complex and various.

B. Austronesian Culture

If the current hypothesis proves right, Taiwan was one of the original homes of Austronesian culture, a place from which it evolved and migrated. For it appears that, unlike the mountain tribes which had little involvement with overseas peoples, Taiwan's plain residents, the Pinpu tribes, played a crucial role in the development of Asia-Pacific Austronesian culture. From studies in archeology, cultural anthropology and linguistics, it is inferred that at least 6,000 years ago the indigenous peoples were already active in Taiwan and migrated far and wide. They must have had frequent contact with their Philippines counterparts since borrowing of words (as we know from comparative language study) was commonplace. Today the 250-million Austronesian population is spread from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east; only around400,000 Austronesians (indigenous people) reside in Taiwan.

The Pinpu tribes have been so involved with the Han Chinese in the past few centuries that their culture has become almost assimilated. But native cultures are preserved in mountain tribes like the Ami, Puyuma, Atayal, Saisiat, Bunun, Tsou, Paiwan, Rukai, Tao and Thao, which manifest a rich diversity of languages, rituals, social organizations and material cultures. Some of the Taiwanese aboriginal customs are similar to those of ancient Indonesian culture. For instance, native Taiwanese have maintained the tradition of tattooing, pulling out canine teeth, headhunting, worshiping spirits, burying the dead at home, fortune-telling with birds, naming sons after fathers and rule by the elderly, to name a few. 

These mountain tribes generally believe that one's spirit is independent of his or her body and can exist by itself after death. That's why they rely on their tribal shaman or sorcerer to communicate with their ancestors, making the ancestors' words their guidelines. The Atayal tribe usually goes headhunting and turns the victim's spirit into a protective force. These tribes worship trees, snakes, mountain cats, goats, mountains, rocks, craters and the like as totems or loci of spirit-power, also employed as signs to distinguish tribes, clans or families.

C. Han Chinese Culture

a. Fukien culture

Most of the Han Chinese immigrants came from Fukien and Kuangtung provinces. And up to 80% of them were from Changchou and Chuanchou in Fukien, so the Fukienese culture was prevalent in Taiwan and its dialect became the most widely-spoken form of "Taiwanese."

People from the same village usually stayed in their own community, which inherited the old place name and religion. Immigrants stayed together in times of religious celebration; therefore, the temples became centers for all forms of communal social activity. Different communities enshrined different deities; for instance, people from Changchou honored their founding father while those from Chuanchou worshiped Bodhisattva and Matsu, Goddess of the Sea.

b. Hakka culture

Hakka people originally inhabited the north of China (Shansi, Honan and Hupeh provinces) before five nomadic tribes invaded from the far north and forced them to move south. Given their migratory past, southern residents referred to them as "Hakka" (meaning "guests"). Coming from Chaochou and Meihsien in Kuangtung province, Taiwan's Hakka people now mostly dwell in Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Miaoli in the north, and Kaohsiung, Pingtung and Meinung in the south.

Highly adaptable, the Hakkas make every place home. They are a hardworking, thrifty, determined people, known for their social solidarity based on cooperation and a refusal to forget their roots. Hakkas emphasize Chinese tradition, as seen in their love of books and education. Well-established scholars are their role models.

Hakka folk songs are unique for their artistic style and local flavor. There are four forms: lyric, narrative, traditional and contemporary, all of which are composed of four or seven words per sentence. There are three types of melody: historical, improvised and monotonous. Usually enshrined in ancestral halls, Lord Yimin and King Sanshan are typical Hakka deities. The latter is especially revered wherever the Hakka people have ventured.

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