Taiwan Indigenous people and Animals

Taiwan Indigenous people and Animals:
From Mythical Stories to Contemporary Attitudes Nick Wright(臺灣文化學系碩士)


This essay will attempt to cover aspects of the relationship between the Taiwan Indigenous people and non-humans found within the space of the Indigenous tribes and with which they share their sense of Place. It will be in two sections, the first will look at the tradition, myths and beliefs that the Indigenous held concerning their non-human fellow travelers and the second a look at the contemporary attitudes with particular emphasis on the Truku and Tuda subsections of the Seejiq peoples whose mythical ancestor was a canine. Due to constraints of time and locations this study will not examine the contemporary situations in other Indigenous areas but this writer feels that similar situations may exist due to the common identity that contemporary Indigenous people share within the dominant Taiwanese Han culture on Taiwan. It will examine the reflection of Indigenous admiration for the power in the natural world which constituted their myths and then show how acculturational changes has now fashioned a shift in these traditional views which is both unfortunate and tragic.

Animals in traditions: Indigenous people, myths and animals

Much has been published already on the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan. Anthropological studies were conducted in the Japanese era and continued in the Chinese Nationalists era. These studies would usually customarily include adequate descriptions of the natural landscape and material conditions of everyday life and contained analyses in support of other theoretical social and anthropological arguments. For the Taiwan indigenous their sense of belonging and attachment to the mountain areas are seen as part of their tribal inherit rootedness. They developed a sense of belonging and identity, with facial tattoos, together with simple music and song and most importantly language, which gave them the emblems for the identity of their group. Another unifying concept for Indigenous communities was in their collections of mythical stories and mythological beings, found in other historical Place communities including the early European civilizations of Greece and Rome, the Celts and Scandinavians, the pre-Islamic traditions, African traditions, sub- Asian Hindustan and the Chinese central Kingdom of China.

There can be seen in the Taiwan Indigenous mythological stories, a reflection of Indigenous admiration for power in nature, as is examined in the ideas of Y.F. Tuan in the concepts of “Power and Affection” and “Power and Dominance”. Originally the hostile environment was seen as the habitation of dangerous and volatile forces that became envisioned in animal deities and spirits, some benign and some evil, “wild and awesome nature assumed both vividness and specificity in the shape of wild animals and monsters” (Tuan, 1984: 69). This fear of unknown forces thus created a capacity for the human to see power and grandeur in the non-humans that shared their common space. The Indigenous tribes reflected very much this concept of power and dominance in their mythological stories, “The practice of giving non-human animals human characteristics is an ancient one, myths, folktales, symbolism and art works of peoples around the world” (Demello,2012: 32).

The first example of this concept taken from Taiwanese Indigenous myths is that of the Snake. This creature has become an object of worship, treated as if it was itself sacred. The Indigenous Rukai people relate how their ancestors came from a hundred pace snake Agkistrodon acutus (百步蛇) (Covell, 1998: 38). This snake is a prominent object in wood carving on doors, clothing and even tattoos (Figure 1). Some Indigenous Paiwan groups describe human origins coming from two eggs laid by the sun and hatched by a snake. A male and female deities emerge and are ancestors of a chief’s family. The rest of the tribe was created also from similar beginnings, “Ordinary people emerged from the eggs of a green snake” (Covell, 1998: 39). The Yimushu branch of the Siraya would not kill a special white snake because it had helped to rear a young child who later became a famous warrior (Covell, 1998). Not only were these animal deities consider the origin of several of the Taiwanese Indigenous peoples but sometimes went on to give explanation to the natural physical forces that the island of Taiwan was subjected to. The Indigenous Yami of Lanyu Island’s cosmos creation myth consists of eight superimposed elliptic planes. Plane eight, the lowest plane, rests on five tree trunks and a serpent named Kamurai. “Whenever he touches one of these trunks or wraps himself around them, the universe is shaken violently. His action cause heavy winds, earthquakes and other violent natural phenomena” (Covell, 1998: 37).

The Deer and Stag also appear in the traditional legends in Taiwan perhaps because of their previous abundance in the land that they shared with the Indigenous. In the Bunun legend the Stag appears to their people and is responsible for leading them to the Sun, Moon Lake found in Nantou. Indigenous Tayal trace the origin of the wind from a deer moving around in a deep pool of water, “As the deer moved around to wash his body, particularly thrusting his ears out of the water, it created a violent wind” (Norbeck, 1950 as quoted in Covell, 1998: 42). Another abundant species that inhabited and continues to inhabit Taiwan is the Sus Scrofa (山豬) more commonly known as the pig. Domesticated pigs were not only reared for necessary food but played a part in rituals of Indigenous religion and medicine. “Inibs sacrifice the heads of pigs and deer” (Campbell, 1913 as quoted in Covell, 1998: 23) in the religious ritual of the Plains Indigenous and Indigenous Seejiqmhoni (shaman) used the pig to divine the reason for and cure of a sick person (Covell, 1998: 15), a male pig being prepared for an oblation given on behalf of the sick person in a ritual called paekan utux or feeding the spirit. A small part of the pig’s anatomy, such as the nose, ear, tongue or eye was wrapped in a container and put under the eaves of the house and left there (Covell, 1998: 16).

There are many other Indigenous myths that illustrate this power-dominance concept which would not be practical to bring into this short essay but to include a few for cultural awareness I will introduce the following of the minor non- human species. Most of the creation myths are associated with non-humans, in what we may call minor species. The Amis male god Abokurayan and goddess Taribrayan descended to Orchid Island and observed two birds to know how to mate. Eventually having produced too many children, they had to move to the East coast of Taiwan as the ancestors of Amis (Covell, 1998: 38). Tayal ancestors after emerging from a huge stone did not know how to reproduce. When a fly landed between the woman’s thighs, they took this as a divine omen and the resulting child became the ancestor of the Tayal (Covell, 1998: 40). Seejiq hunting is controlled by chirping or appearance of the Sisal bird. In other instances, taboos and restrictions were enacted due to animal agency. Lamb and field mouse figure jointly in a Seejiq myth. If a Seejiq had eaten lamb or a field mouse he was not allowed to go into a home where there was sickness and he must sleep outside in the courtyard (Covell, 1998: 16). The eel and crab also feature jointly in a Pepohoan story of a flood in Taiwan caused by an eel stuck between rocks in the river causing the river water levels to rise. The flood waters changed Taiwan from flat land to a mountainous area. Fortunately, an encounter occurred that stabilized the island topography, “The flood waters went down when a large crab freed the eel from the rocks” (Covell, 1998: 35).

One of the endemic creatures of Taiwan is the Clouded leopard whose contribution to Indigenous life was an example of how humans used the power and dominance of a non-human species to enhance the human’s own power and dominance. Clouded leopard skins are highly prized as ceremonial garments among Indigenous chieftains, clouded leopard skin being a requirement in Indigenous costumes for the Paiwan and Rukai tribes.

To conclude this first section of the essay I would like to now include the presence of the dog which seems to have a special relationship with the high mountain tribes of Northern Taiwan in the Seejiq groups and the Atayal. In this Seejiq legend of the origins of the Seejiq, a chief is found to be ashamed of his malformed daughter and sends her away with a dog on a small boat, which eventually drifts to a beach near Hualien. The dog serves the poor girl for several years and then, after she tattoos her face in disguise, the girl is able to finally marry the dog. Their offspring are the origin of the Truku (Ho, 1971 as quoted in Covell, 1998: 39). In contemporary narratives, an abundance of representations is found of this assumed interspecific partnership with canine non-humans. They can be found in illustrations taken from children’s books to statues that are found all over Taiwan near Indigenous areas. It is this writer’s personal experience of recording instances of these statues from the memorial to the Seejiq chief Mona Rudao (of the Wushe Incident)(莫那魯道) (Figure 2) in Puli mountains to the Atayal hunters in the North East of Taiwan (Figure 3) to the Paiwan of Southern Taiwan (Figure 4). Their elevated relationship seems to come from the use of the dog in Indigenous hunting and food gathering practices often seen amongst Indigenous peoples, “Dogs that helped the hunter were an instrument of survival” (Tuan, 1984: 103). It would be inevitable that a human-nonhuman bond would emerge with dogs that were brought up and kept around the home, “genuine affection towards them would develop if only temporarily and sporadically “(Tuan, 1984: 111). We have therefore a situation where the non-human animal has an agency within the Indigenous landscape, the presence in many origins of the Indigenous peoples and the partnership that is seen with Indigenous hunters that exemplifies their presence in the fabric of social life. If we accommodate the view of Anderson in a rejection of an anthropocentric view of “the earth with all its living inhabitants is tacitly regarded as if it were a lifeless, passive medium, clay in the hands of man… molding it to his own ends as seems best to him” (Anderson, 1951: 1 as quoted in Philo, 1995: 658), then we can approach the concept of a re-imagination of social agency to recognize the creative presence of non-humans and that nature and society are not separate.

Modern views of human-nonhuman relationships in Indigenous Societies

The second part of this essay examines some field research on Indigenous Taiwanese contemporary attitudes. First it is necessary to examine the changing circumstances that the Indigenous people endured through the era of assimilation and localization and the present era of Taiwanisation because of the large impact this has had in the lives of the Indigenous. These are usually given political labels as the eras of the Qing, the Japanese era and the era of the Chinese Nationalists and finally the democratization of Taiwan respectively. Among the many changes to Indigenous culture and society that has taken place is that the Indigenous do not need to hunt in as much quantity as before in the pre-assimilation era. There is still some hunting but the need and legality is different from that in previous times. This had widened the disruption of the interspecific partnership between the human and the non-human species that used provide, cooperate and inhabit the same landscape and space. It could be said that the non-humans have lost their agency among the Indigenous as they no longer have a voice in this social interaction, moving from creatures saturated with being to quasi objects that have lost their identity within the Indigenous sense of place.

The second major shift in Indigenous culture is that the Indigenous tribes changed from their animistic religion to Christianity in the predominate Elder’s Church Presbyterian and Catholic beliefs. The myths are no longer part of their daily discourse and have limited relevance in the Indigenous life and have therefore, by this lack of animal subjects in the discourse, again contributed to this estrangement in the Indigenous relationships with animals. Further to these changes there has been a very significant acculturalization due to political inconsiderations by successive governments and Confucian hegemony that many Indigenous have been exposed to in the Han society that is modern Taiwan. Daily habits and perspectives have been greatly influenced by Han culture, from observances of Han festivals, speaking of Han language and being subject to Han legal system and governance. This forced cultural assimilation through state education and language restriction enforcement was brought out through the discourses of my field research interviews where I Interviewed several Indigenous people: A (older female Seejiq Truku), B (older male Seejiq Tuda), C (older male Seejiq Tuda), D (older female Seejiq Truku), and E (younger female Seejiq Truku). These individuals were interviewed quite informally which allowed a less formal conversation about their Seejiq people’s tradition to not eat dogs, being that the dog has a presence in the Seejiq creation myth. The conversations were carried out in a mixture of Mandarin, English, Truku and Seejiq Tuda with parallel translations being passed around the group freely. The motive was to investigate if their cultural tradition would be similar in ways to the Han tradition of a farming community not eating the beef from the oxen they used for agricultural work.

Remarkably these conversations revealed that, because of outside influences of Han culture, all five of the interviewed subjects affirmed that they do indeed eat dog meat. There have been occasions when a Han Taiwanese has butchered the dog and cooked the meat with orange peels so the smell was, to use interviewee B’s words “fragrantly overwhelming”. All five of the interviewees held a slight discomfort, though this would probably be interpreted as the fact that the question of illegality was present rather than an embarrassment to the fact that they are in fact consuming what, in their own Indigenous traditional history, is a direct descendance to one of their ancestors. All of the interviewees appeared to acknowledge the discrepancies in their contemporary attitudes to those of their ancestors but did not declare any need to revert back to the traditional notions of a taboo on eating dog meat. In fact, the collective attitude was that nothing was done that was inappropriate.
This study had the limit of time affecting the preparation of data and availability for interviews and so this limited research was confined to mostly elderly people of the Seejiq Indigenous family. It can then be deduced that this research will only reflect the older generation views (with the exception of the interviewee E) which this writer believes will be different from the views of the younger generation. The older generation were closer to the age of the enforced acculturation by the newly arrived Chinese Nationalists, whereas the younger generation have become a part of the singular identity that is found in contemporary Taiwan and would be more conscious of an exclusionary view on the eating of dog meat. It can also be noted that there was no attempt of the interviewees to raise dogs as pets and indeed within the Indigenous areas of Northern Taiwan, the dog is kept mainly by a household as a security asset, used to guard the environment from other unwelcome intrusions. Dogs maybe seen on the streets outside houses within the villages but are very rarely seen controlled by humans and being exercised. This lack of society-animal relations will contribute to the canine lacking in agency within the Indigenous family group and thus easily forfeited for economic gain or sustenance.


From this study of animals that have long served a central role in shaping, sensing and controlling Indigenous society, it has been shown that once the creative presence of non-humans had a formidable place in the societal construction of socio-spatial relations. Although shaped by encounters with animals, the influence and impact on society by non-humans has been largely excluded from the conventional view of environmental determinism. Additionally, from this small amount of research data we see how a dominate culture has replaced the agency of the presence of non-humans, gradually excluding them from the contemporary place of the Indigenous society. One would hope that the acceptance of animal agency on the same basis as humans, along with protection of environmental spaces will increase under conditions of post modernity in Taiwan and that there will be a return to the acknowledgement of animals as non-human actors in the fabric of social life and thus a desire to put “humans and nonhumans on an equal footing in philosophical debate and practical action “(Philo, 1995: 659).

Additional Note

After the conclusion of this essay further commentary was provided by a Truku elder Kowsang Yuyaw. It seems the observation that it was the Taiwanese Han that had introduced consuming dog meat to the Truku was only partly correct. It was specifically the waisheng ren that came in 1949 with the movement of the Chinese Nationalists to Taiwan that were responsible for this reverse in the partnership between hunters and dog. It was because of the waisheng ren dog meat consumption habit and not so much the Han Taiwanese that were living here before the arrival of these people. Also, through deceit they enticed the Indigenous people with the “香肉 (fragrant meat)” label and encouraged them to give dogs to initially be guard dogs but in fact were for consuming. It seems to be quite relevant to the argument that Hualien was a place that many waisheng ren immigrants were sent to live and how the subjects of this research are all Hualien inhabitants.


Covell, R. (1998). Pentecost of the Hills in Taiwan. Carol Stream: Hope Publishing House
Demello, M. (2012). The Pet Animal, in Animal and Society: An introduction to animal studies. 146-166, New York: Columbia University Press.
Istanda, Ebu (2017). Bunun Legends: Traditional Stories from the Mountains of Taiwan. Taipei: Indigenous People’s Cultural Foundation.
Norbeck, E. (1950). Folklore of the Atayal of Formosa and the Mountain Tribes of Luzon. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Philo, C. (1995). Animal, geography and the city: notes on inclusions and exclusions. Environment and Planning D: society and Space, 655-681.
Sulung, Icyeh (2015). hala saku la- pinsgayan na Tayal (泰雅族的遷徙故事). Taipei: Indigenous People’s Cultural Foundation.

Figure 1 “This snake is a prominent object in wood carving on doors, clothing and even tattoos”.
Photo: N. Wright. Location:Taromak bridge Taidong.
Figure 2 “the memorial to the Seejiq chief Mona Rudao”
Photo: N. Wright. Location: Wushe Taichung
Figure 3 “the Atayal hunters in the North East of Taiwan”
Photo: N. Wright. Location: Nan Ao Yilan
Figure 4 “Paiwan of Southern Taiwan”
Photo: N. Wright. Location: near Mudan Pingdong



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