Taiwan Fun Magazine, December 2002   

Discovering Taiwan's indigenous culture in the heart of Taipei

By Cheryl Robbins / Translated by Sam Chien

       About 6,000 years ago, Taiwan's first inhabitants arrived, most likely from the southeast of China. These aboriginal tribes, now distributed mainly among Taiwan's mountainous areas and along the East Coast, have for many years struggled to prevent the disappearance of their languages and traditions.

       Today, due to government intervention and education, there is increasing interest in Taiwan's aboriginal culture. For those wanting to learn about the island's Aborigines, a good place to start is the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in Taipei.

       Shung Ye was founded in 1994, and is the first museum in Taiwan devoted to the island's Aborigines. In the museum's entrance area, interactive computer programs provide basic information about the native people in Chinese, Japanese and English. There are also life-size photographs of Aborigines taken more than 50 years, which are contrasted with what Aborigines look like today.

       The second floor features miniature and life-sized models of aboriginal dwellings and a village meeting hall. Also on display are pottery, baskets, hunting weapons and musical instruments. The third floor includes aboriginal costumes and ornaments, while the basement area describes aboriginal belief systems. A theater shows films that introduce various aspects of aboriginal culture such as weaving, pottery, songs and dances. Most of the exhibitions and films are in English and Chinese.

       The basement also contains a special exhibition area. Every year, the museum works with an aboriginal village to organize a special exhibition. The current special exhibition, called "Tau Under the Camera," runs until January 19, 2003, and focuses on the Tau tribe that inhabits Lanyu (Orchid Island).

       Orchid Island is only 36 kilometers long, and the Tau have a close relationship with the sea. They are the only Taiwanese aboriginal tribe to build seafaring canoes. Tau canoes are made of several pieces of wood cut so as to fit together as tightly as puzzle pieces.

       The public is welcome to learn the secrets of Tau canoe building while constructing their own miniature canoe in a hands-on class held in the museum's basement classroom (NT$250 for adults, NT$200 for children - this includes admission to the museum's exhibition areas).

       During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945), many Japanese scholars became interested in the Aborigines, and this special exhibition includes photographs taken by Japanese anthropologists who conducted scientific field studies of Taiwan's Aborigines. There are also more recent photographs taken by contemporary Taiwanese anthropologists and ethnologists. These more recent images show that many traditional customs have been passed on and are still practiced today.

       In addition to images of the Tau tribe there are displays of handicrafts, jewelry, clothing, household tools and woodcarvings. These show that the Tau are skilled metalworkers, woodcarvers and weavers.

       The Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines proves that in addition to Taiwan's rich Chinese history, there is an indigenous culture well worth preserving. Make sure to visit the museum's future special exhibitions to explore the unique cultures and lifestyles of each of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes.

Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines
282, ZhiShan (ChihShan) Rd., Section 2, Taipei City
(across from the National Palace Museum)
Tel: (02) 2841-2611
Hours: 10 am-5 pm Tuesday-Sunday (closed Mondays)
General admission: NT$150
Guided tours in English can be arranged. Call the museum for information and reservations