When President Tsai Ing-wen made a historic apology to indigenous peoples on August 1, she addressed her remarks not only to the country’s 16 officially recognized aborigine (yuanzhumin 原住民) tribes but also to the “Pingpu ethnic group,” or Pingpuzu (平埔族) — descendants of Taiwan’s culturally assimilated indigenous peoples who are not officially recognized by the government as aborigines. In the flood of commentary that has followed Tsai’s apology, the presence of Pingpuzu representatives in the ceremony has attracted little attention.

Yet the inclusion of the Pingpuzu was a radical act—arguably the boldest aspect of the whole event. Every preceding government of Taiwan had refused to acknowledge Pingpuzu activists’ claims to indigeneity. By explicitly mentioning them in her apology, President Tsai gave legitimacy to the idea that Taiwan’s “true” indigenous population — officially only about 530,000, or 2.3% of the total — is significantly larger than recognized.

In principle, this was an admirable gesture. The ancestors of assimilated aborigines also suffered dispossession of land, cultural destruction, and mass atrocities by agents of the state, just as those of recognized groups did. Why should the state’s current definition of yuanzhumin — itself an arbitrary, colonial-era distinction — be used to limit discussion of the historical injustices suffered by Taiwan’s native peoples?

But in practice, the legitimization of Pingpuzu claims opens up a Pandora’s Box of challenges that, no matter how they are resolved, will undoubtedly leave many indigenous activists very unhappy. An expansion of yuanzhumin status to include Pingpuzu descendants would dilute the influence of already recognized tribal groups, and it has the potential to further weaken the limited protection afforded to surviving indigenous languages and cultural practices.

Who “Counts” as Indigenous?

To understand why the Pingpuzu do not currently “count” as part of the yuanzhumin population, and why extending formal recognition to them is controversial, we need to step back into Taiwanese history. (For readers interested in sources and an extended discussion of what follows, I invite you to check out my working paper here.)

Taiwan’s official aborigine recognition is based on a Japanese-era household registration category, the “mountain tribals” (takasagozoku 高砂族). The Japanese authorities gave this name to unassimilated aborigines who lived in the high mountain regions known as the“barbarian areas” (banchi 蕃地) in Japanese – and the adjoining “plains areas” (hirachi 平地) which abutted these territories on the sparsely populated east coast of Taiwan. As part of the process of subjugating these fiercely independent peoples, Japanese authorities also began to identify and name individual groups of communities with shared characteristics, introducing for the first time the concept of distinct “tribes” (buzoku 部族) in Taiwan.

When the Nationalist regime assumed control of Taiwan at the end of World War II, the new government renamed those with tribal membership “mountain compatriots” (shanbao 山胞), but otherwise retained the Japanese-era system, including the standards for tribal recognition and the bi-partite classification into “mountain” (shandi shanbao 山地山胞) and “plains” (pingdi shanbao 平地山胞) based on township of official residence.

This, by and large, is the system that remains in place today. Official state policy toward indigenous names, languages, and cultural practices has changed significantly since the 1990s — most notably, the term yuanzhumin (原住民) replaced shanbao in the Republic of China constitution in 1994 and became the official name for the indigenous population with the passage in 2001 of the Aborigine Identity Law.

But the definition of who is aborigine has not changed — it still follows the Japanese-era categories. The ROC state also continued the Japanese practice of recording separate membership in tribes, and their number has expanded from nine at the end of the Japanese era, to 16 today. Each time a new tribe was recognized, however, it was by carving out a new subgroup from an existing official tribe, not by extension of recognition to people without yuanzhumin status.

Thus, to “count” as indigenous today, one must be descended from a family recognized as members of one of the “mountain tribes” from the Japanese era.

Competing Claims to Indigeneity: Ancestry versus Cultural Practice

That brings us to the Pingpuzu. At present, they do not “count” as indigenous. The term itself is, in fact, not an aborigine name at all but a direct translation of the Japanese for “plains tribe” (heihozoku 平埔族). It originated as an amorphous catch-all name for not-yet-fully assimilated aborigines living outside the official tribal areas. It was not an official category during the Japanese era, nor was it recognized by the Republic of China after 1945. (In a confusing twist, the officially recognized yuanzhuminzu who are descended from the pingdi shanbao are now also called “Plains Aborigines” in English—despite sharing a similar name, the Pingpuzu are distinct.)

Activists who assert their indigeneity under the Pingpuzu name today, then, are pushing back against 80 years of official policy classifying them as Han, not aborigine. And they are asking for an unprecedented extension of state recognition to people who are today fully assimilated, with little or no familiarity with the language and culture of the indigenous groups with whom they claim kinship.

Yet if ancestry determines who is considered to be indigenous, as in the “blood quantum” practices of tribes in North America, then Pingpuzu activists have a strong case. There is ample documentation of gradual assimilation of aborigine communities into Han Taiwanese society over a long period in the 19th and early 20th centuries, through intermarriage, cultural exchange, and language acquisition.

Late Qing dynasty records, for instance, distinguish between the dominant Han population and two kinds of indigenous “barbarians” (fan 番): those who had adopted at least some Han customs and could speak the local Hoklo (or occasionally Hakka) dialect — termed “cooked barbarians” (shufan 熟番) – and those who remained unassimilated—termed “raw” (shengfan 生番). Under the Japanese, the shufan-Han distinction gradually faded away, and the former group effectively “disappeared” into the broader Taiwanese population during this time.

In a fascinating study, the anthropologist Melissa Brown has documented how this process of cultural assimilation occurred in several villages in the traditional homelands of the unrecognized Siraya people, in what is today rural Tainan City. By the early 1900s, many of these aborigine communities had already become acculturated—younger generations could speak the local dialect and had adopted other Han practices, making it difficult for colonial authorities to tell who was aborigine and who was not.

The final aspect of this identity change, it turns out, was a Japanese ban on female foot-binding, which the aborigines did not practice but most Han Taiwanese households did. Once that marker was removed, it became all but impossible without careful genealogical documentation to distinguish between those with aborigine ancestry and those without, and by about 1915 Japanese records dropped the distinction altogether. Everyone living in those areas became, simply, Taiwanese.

It is not clear just how widespread this process of wholesale assimilation of entire aborigine communities was across the island during the Japanese era, but other instances have been documented in the case of the Ketagalan people of the Taipei basin (for whom this media outlet is named), and the Hoanya people of the Chiayi area. At the least, the number of Taiwanese who could credibly claim significant indigenous ancestry today is an order of magnitude greater or more than the 2.3 percent who are officially recognized as aborigine — possibly more than 20-30 percent of the population. Even this estimate is very conservative, since it does not account for earlier periods of intermarriage and cultural exchange between the indigenous population of the island and Han immigrants, dating back all the way to the early 1600s.

The Pingpuzu Challenge

Since the definition of who is yuanzhumin in Taiwan today rests on an arbitrary distinction first made 80 years ago, it is patently unjust. But in practice, it reflects a culturalist logic that might be defensible: aborigines who maintained traditional cultural practices, language, and family and social relations should be recognized as distinct peoples, with special rights and privileges acknowledged by the state. Those who had lost these attributes should not.

By contrast, extending recognition to Pingpuzu today would prioritize documented ancestry, not cultural practice, in the definition of indigenity. That change would be deeply subversive. As we have seen, it has the potential to expand dramatically the share of Taiwanese able to claim official recognition as yuanzhumin. That, in turn, could swamp the influence of already recognized tribal groups, and might weaken further the limited protection afforded to already threatened indigenous languages and cultural practices.

Consider, for instance, land use rights. The Aborigine Basic Law promises tribes access to traditional hunting and foraging grounds — rights that have frequently been ignored in practice, and are a continuing source of grievances. But if the Pingpuzu are recognized as a separate “tribe,” or “people,” would they claim, and should they also receive, access to traditional lands, including the right to hunt? Where are those lands, and how are they to be determined, given that the Pingpuzu could include people from a wide range of places and indigenous communities? And will those who live there now be required to yield some control over their land to placate Pingpu ancestral claims?

Or consider democratic representation. The Republic of China constitution sets aside seats to be chosen exclusively by yuanzhumin electorates, from the Legislative Yuan all the way down to the township level. Would Pingpuzu voters get their own representatives in the legislature? Or would they be added to an existing aborigine electorate, potentially swamping the votes of whichever constituency they join?

It is not a coincidence that most of the current aborigine legislators have not been enthusiastic about President Tsai’s apology: Pingpuzu recognition threatens to dilute the voting power of their constituents, and yuanzhumin leaders, already divided by tribal and regional differences, are not likely to welcome a new, Sinicized competitor for state resources, recognition, and influence.

Finally, consider the question of recognition itself. If Pingpuzu activists are successful in claiming special recognition based on ancestry for a whole swath of people who are Hoklo by culture and language, then why not others? When most Taiwanese can plausibly claim an indigenous ancestor somewhere along their family tree, where does one draw the line between indigenous and not?

These are difficult questions with no clear answers. It may have been the courageous thing to do, but by legitimating the claims of Pingpuzu activists in her speech, President Tsai has made the job of her new commission on aborigine justice much harder. And it is not clear that the solution worked out in the end, if any, will ultimately serve the cause of protecting Taiwan’s indigenous peoples from further marginalization.

(Feature photo of Siraya traditional festivities, or an reenactment depending on your perspective, from Taiwan’s Siraya National Scenic Area Administration.)



About Kharis Templeman

Kharis Templeman is the program manager of Stanford University's Taiwan Democracy Program. He has traveled extensively in Taiwan and the PRC, and was a dissertation research fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. He has been looking at party system development and political institutions throughout the world, especially in Taiwan and Asia. He received a Ph.D. in political science (2012) from the University of Michigan.