Written by Agathe Lemaitre.

In this article I will explain briefly the difficulties encountered in the implementation of development project for aboriginal people organized by the Taiwanese government and the deficiencies of this kind of top-down development process. The article presents the results of the research I carried out in 2015 with a Taiwanese association working for the development of aboriginal people around the country.

The complexity of Taiwan’s history and successive waves of colonization (China, Japan, China) play a role in constituting the modern Taiwanese identity. This new identity began to arise in the late 1980s to early 1990s, and evolved from a progressive will to unite the different ethnicities living on the island and build a new national identity, thereby initiating a detachment from continental China. To reach this goal to build a new independent country with his own identity and history, Taiwan needed to unify all the cultural and ethnic groups, including the Hokklo and Hakka, but also and mainly the aboriginal people.

Today in Taiwan aboriginals are considered an important resource. They are seen as a crucial part of the Taiwanese identity, culturally and historically, and also represent an economic asset as a tourist attraction.

During their occupation of Taiwan, the Japanese army needed decades of hard battle and delocalization of villages to tame these aboriginal tribes. With the army, the Japanese government also sent anthropologists to collect information and artifacts about the tribes. Japanese anthropologists first made a classification of the tribes, counting seven of them and distinguishing between so-called “raw” and “cooked” groups according to the degree of their supposed civilization. Later the Chinese army of Chang Kaï-chek used this information and continued Japanese work to “civilize” the aboriginals. Nowadays, 16 tribes are recognized by the Taiwanese government and integrated into the national identity as the older component of the island’s history.

Today in Taiwan aboriginals are considered an important resource. They are seen as a crucial part of the Taiwanese identity, culturally and historically, and also represent an economic asset as a tourist attraction. Taiwan’s government is doing important work to improve the welfare and daily life of aboriginal communities and making efforts to enhance aboriginal laws. After decades of discrimination, however, aboriginal people mostly live under the poverty line, are often unemployed or work unstable and dangerous jobs, die younger than most other Taiwanese, and are more subject to alcoholism. To increase development in aboriginal communities, Taiwan’s government makes annual monetary grants to aboriginal communities, and some organizations are working with aboriginal communities to consider ways to use this money. This money isn’t guaranteed to every tribe but rather is based on the government’s evaluation of tribal proposals for its use.

The governmental help tends to focus on specific interests, such as tourist attractions and agricultural projects, and imperatives underlying the grants often do not meet the aboriginal peoples’ needs and expectations. One of the main problems is that the tribes are not considered in their individual complexity but as a common target: aboriginal people. This is a difficult way to answer the needs of various tribes, which all have unique histories and cultures, and also live in different areas.

The Bunun tribes living in the mountains around Yushan in the eastern interior of the island, for example, were formerly hunters and gatherers. They organized in mobile bands and maintained a strong connection to the forest world through taboos and beliefs, but today, legislation restraining hunting rights for aboriginal people doesn’t allow them to practice their traditional activities sufficiently. The attraction of foreign tourists to such activities has also altered them. During the annual Mala-ta-ngia, or shooting-through-the-ear festival, young Bunun are supposed to shoot an arrow through a game animal’s ear, a rite of transition from the child to the adult world. Nowadays, this festival attracts a mass of tourists, but the real animal ears are substitute by counterfoil targets representing animals such as boar or deer.

Tourism has affected traditional festivals and ceremonies in other ways as well. Many different tribes used to have a harvest festival in summer or fall that acted as a way to unite all members of the community together with ancestors and divinities, and to offer thanks for the welfare of the society. It was an important annual period of expressing gratefulness and demonstrating unity between members of the community (dead and alive), the natural world and supernatural world. Nowadays, these festivals have become very popular among tourists (from Taiwan, China, and abroad) and very productive for Taiwan’s economy. Government subsidies help to finance these festivals, but as a condition, the festivals have to meet certain criteria defined by the government. For example, while harvest festivals traditionally followed the lunar calendar, today the government decides the dates when events will be held such that all festivals will not be held at the same moment in different villages. Dances, songs, and tribal costumes have also been improved to satisfy spectators. Some tribes such as the Bunun, in fact, had no traditional dances, but have become good dancers by imitating Ami dances.

Agricultural projects can also generate troubles. If we keep looking at the example of the Bunun, this tribe had never been farmers — it’s not part of their culture. Nowadays some Bunun follow take up the proposition of associations working with the government and try to begin organic farming, but they often don’t understand the purpose of organic practices. Furthermore, these farmers often fail to reach a stable, sustainable farming practice; they keep changing crops to find easier or more productive ones, even after years of production, and also constantly plant more or fewer crops without any stability. An examination of the population’s needs makes it clear why. Bunun are an egalitarian society living in community structures, and reject the principle of accumulation of property. Agricultural projects promote a kind of development that is far removed from their ideal of self-reliance, because it relies on expanded trade, a logic of sale in large quantities, and an accumulation of financial profit. So this kind of project does not answer the population’s needs, and as is often the case in these development projects, what is proposed doesn’t correspond to the local reality. Simply because for-profit agriculture can be easier to develop with aboriginals such as the Ami, who have been farmers before, it cannot extend to every tribe.

What is most important to consider is how the Taiwanese government has constructed the monetary grants in a way that meets its own expectation about the place and status of aboriginal people. They are seen as an object to develop, and furthermore to develop in a certain way. From this position, they are not considered equal to other Taiwanese citizens. Perhaps because of their poverty or their only partial integration into the labor system, they remain a resource to handle, and development is a process that can permit their incorporation into the Taiwanese economy.

The actual “top-down” developing process from the government through associations to the tribes is also counterbalanced in Taiwan by some increasingly active “bottom-up” movements, where aboriginals organize by their own means to implement local and microlocal development, often with the help or supervision of local church or chief.

Agathe Lemaitre is a French student in anthropology. She graduated in July 2016 with master’s degrees in contemporary history and applied anthropology from Aix-Marseille University, France. Her research in anthropology focuses on Taiwanese aboriginal people and the process of development as implemented by the government. Image credit: CC by billy1125/Flickr.


  1. The title of this article provokes a few questions.

    (1) Who is judging that development projects are failing Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples? The members of these peoples? Or outside anthropologists?

    Just look at the photo at the beginning of the article. Don’t the persons there appear quite content, even happy, presenting their artfully styled, highly diverse costumes? Doesn’t the pictured scene appear to be an occasion of community maintaining? Certainly it is naive to expect definitive answers to these questions by looking at that single photo. Nevertheless, it makes me wonder.

    (2) What are the expectations and needs the development projects fail to meet? Are those the expectations and needs of the people or are those the expectations and needs projected by anthropologists onto the people? Can those be met by conserving cultural practices that were suitable and feasible in the aboriginal peoples’ very different world 200 years ago?

    Just consider the case of the Bunun tribe given in the article. Is it feasible that former hunter and gatherers practice their traditional activities on today’s crowded island with its starkly diminished natural forests that need strong protection to preserve their diversity? Isn’t it quite common in history that concrete cultural activities evolve into mere symbolic activities when changes in the environment or other changes make this adaptation compelling? So, when the supply of ‘game animal’s ears’ is diminished, why shouldn’t ‘counterfoil targets representing animals’ do instead? It might be naive to see such developments as the best possible way to adapt to a changed, new world. However, evolution, be it biological or cultural, is a messy process governed by chance.

    (3) What are the aims of development? Who is setting those aims? Government agents, tribal councils or tribal members?

    Compare ‘top-down’ to ‘bottom-up’ development processes. Is there really a substantial difference as long as outsides actors like government agencies and Christian churches or local elites, mostly co-opted by outside interests, like local churches and tribal chiefs constrain and supervise development projects? Are there no options to empower tribal members to find their own way to adapt their culture to the requirements of today’s world?

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