Head-Hunters and Cannibals

Like Native Americans and Australian aborigines, Taiwan's indigenous people have become an impoverished minority in their own land. The life expectancy of aborigines is around fifteen years lower than the island's average; a disproportionate number die of alcoholism or in accidents. Despite affirmative action in education and government employment, relatively few members of the indigenous tribes go to university or enter the professions, and their unemployment rate is three times the national average. They are currently well represented in the fields of sport and pop music, but much of their culture has already been lost.

I was told by some Han Taiwanese that aborigines are poor because they like to drink, and are lazy (from what I have seen, the former is undoubtedly true, the latter nothing but an outright slur). For the same reasons, they said, a large number of aboriginal women are sold into the sex industry. It seems there are villages where young girls are one of the main cash crops. But none of my informants were able explain to me why Taiwan society needs so many prostitutes -- around 100,000, the Taipei Times reported in April 2000 -- or why so many of them (50,000 according to the Garden of Hope Foundation) are children.

The pitiful state of the mountain aborigines (the lowland tribes have almost completely assimilated into Han society) is due in large part to the remoteness of their villages. The gulf between Taiwan's cities and the island's countryside in terms of wealth, facilities and opportunities is wide, and also impedes the progress of Han Taiwanese in rural areas.

Aboriginal leaders have rightly lambasted the government's policy of importing Southeast Asian laborers while so many indigenous people are out of work. But business interests are powerful, and the advent of democracy has done little to help the aborigines. Numbering fewer than 400,000 out of a population of 23 million, they lack electoral weight; they are a minority in every city and county.

Most aborigines are Christians. Some indigenous groups were Christianized as long ago as the mid-seventeenth century, but many were not exposed to the Gospel until after World War II. The churches do not have the resources to alleviate the aborigines' economic woes, but their cultural activities play a vital role in preserving indigenous languages and traditions.

Many aborigines migrate to the lowland cities to work. A significant number end up doing menial jobs and living in illegal or marginal settlements. An aboriginal friend who has visited such places told me: "If the city government tears down the homes of these squatters, the people usually just return to the same spot a few days later. They don't have anywhere else to go. The apartments the government offers them are usually too expensive. So they just live in tents until they've rebuilt their shacks."

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Chohlu in Hualien County lies close to the south-eastern corner of Yushan National Park, and is inhabited by members of the Bunun tribe. The adolescents who horse around the village's basketball court are brown-skinned and round-eyed; many could pass for Indians or Nepalese. They enjoy an enviable environ-ment -- fresh air, a clean river, and verdant hills to the west. But they and their parents live in dreary gray blocks; traditional aboriginal architecture has disappeared from all but a handful of settlements.

Nanan, the final stop before the national park, is a tiny hamlet. The road is surfaced for a few more kilometers. It becomes a dirt track, then a narrow walking trail. The area is exceptionally rich in wildlife, especially monkeys, birds, butterflies, and insects.

Hikers often rest on a strategic ledge high above the Lakulaku River. A Japanese police station once stood there, part the colonial government's efforts to subdue the indigenous tribes. The Chinese imperial administration was content with a de facto partition of the island into two zones: the plains, inhabited by Han Chinese and pacified aboriginal communities, and what nineteenth-century map-makers labeled "savage territory" -- a swath of mountains where armed head-hunters dwelt and which outsiders entered at great peril. Between 1739 and 1875, Han settlers were prohibited from entering aboriginal mountain districts; the ban was lifted to relieve population pressure on the lowlands. By contrast, the Japanese aggressively expanded the area under their control. Aborigines unwilling to submit to the new regime were pushed deeper and deeper into the mountains, and contained by a ring of electric fences and police outposts. Punitive expeditions were sent into areas of resistance, and schools set up to instill loyalty to the Japanese emperor.

Further along the same trail, a stone tablet erected by the Japanese commemorates the massacre of a police unit by aborigines in 1915. It is surprising that this monument has been allowed to stand: Many other vestiges of the Japanese colonial era -- the jinja shrine atop Jade Mountain, and even graves -- have been destroyed, desecrated or built over.

It took the Japanese most of their fifty years in Taiwan to grind the mountain people into submission. Several thousand policemen and soldiers were lost in the process, including 197 Japanese killed during the last major uprising, at Wushe (in what is now Nantou County) in 1930.

That rebellion ended with several hundred aboriginal warriors dead in their huts. According to the colonial government, the tribesmen hanged themselves when defeat became inevitable. Others say they were victims of poison-gas air raids. An English-language propaganda tome published in Tokyo a few years later (a copy of which I found in National Chengkung University's library) makes the bizarre claim that the Wushe revolt was "amicably suppressed."

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Head hunting continued until the 1920s. Bringing home a head was considered proof of one's maturity, and earned an aboriginal warrior respect in his tribe. The custom naturally intrigued nineteenth-century Western visitors, several of whom have written of encounters with bands of aborigines armed with spears, bows and matchlocks.

In A Trip Into The Interior Of Formosa, an account he wrote for the Royal Geographical Society, British consular official T.L. Bullock (later a professor of Chinese at Oxford University) reports: "The wild savages in Formosa seem to carry on the practice of man-hunting out of mere devilry and for the sake of obtaining skulls. They kill all alike, Chinese and aborigines ... [hunting parties] lurk about the forest, sometimes cutting off a man working alone in his field, sometimes falling upon a band of travelers ... When their provisions are exhausted, or they have obtained a head, they return home. In the latter case a feast is organized. The skull is roughly cleared out; wine is poured in, and it is handed round for the company to drink from."

During his 1873 expedition, Bullock came across a head-hunters' settlement high in the mountains. "Not long after we arrived, when strolling about the village and looking at what was to be seen, we discovered a row of skulls laid out on a raised board in front of one of the houses. There were no less than 25 of them, a few not yet bleached, others evidently many years old. We paid a good deal of attention to this display, and one of the party sat down and took a sketch of it. This, and our staring, put the savages into a bad and suspicious temper ... to produce a better impression, we brought out some packets of needles and made presents from them to the women. Some men who had wounds or sores now applied to us for medical aid. Having a bottle of iodine, we painted the wounds with it, to the great satisfaction of our patients."

In an account dated 1877, George Taylor, a lighthouse keeper employed by the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs Service, writes of finding a victim: "[As] we continued our journey, we found a little further on, on the banks of a small offshoot of the stream, the headless trunk of a Chinaman who could only have been killed two days previously. I insisted on the body being covered with sand, and, amid much grumbling at the fuss I made over what they considered a small matter, this was done."

Despite their passion for collecting heads, the aborigines seem not to have eaten their victims. Some Han settlers, however, showed no such qualms.

The Canadian Presbyterian missionary Mackay records coming across a crowd awaiting the execution of an aboriginal warrior, noting: "Scores were there on purpose to get parts of the body for food and medicine ... the heart is eaten, flesh taken off in strips, and bones boiled to a jelly and preserved as a specific for malarial fever."

In The Island Of Formosa; Past and Present; History, People, Resources and Commercial Prospects, James W. Davidson, the first US consul stationed in Taiwan, writes: "One horrible feature of the campaign against the savages was the sale by the Chinese in open market of savage flesh. Impossible as it may seem that a race with such high pretensions to civilization and religion should be guilty of such barbarity, yet such is the truth. After killing a savage, the head was commonly severed from the body and exhibited to those who were not on hand to witness the prior display of slaughter and mutilation. The body was then either divided among its captors and eaten, or sold ... The kidney, liver, heart, and soles of the feet were considered the most desirable portions, and were ordinarily cut up into very small pieces, boiled and eaten somewhat in the form of soup ... The Chinese profess to believe, in accordance with an old superstition, that the eating of savage flesh will give them strength and courage ... During the outbreak of 1891, savage flesh was brought in -- in baskets -- the same as pork, and sold like pork in the markets of Tokoham before the eyes of all, foreigners included."

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