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Diversity in the Stacks: Sources on Taiwanese Indigenous Populations

Collecting materials related to the history of Taiwan's indigenous people presents unique challenges and exciting opportunities.

Black and white photo of ocean waves crashing over rocks, with a small rowboat in the background.

In the autumn of 2019, I visited Orchid Island 蘭嶼, a small island to the southwest of Taiwan inhabited by the Tao people (sometimes referred to as the Yami). While Penn’s effort to build distinctive collections related to the indigenous peoples of Taiwan go back many years, they surged following my trip. Discussions with indigenous thinkers and activists there—along with the book collections that they opened to me—deepened my sense of the sources available for studying indigenous groups and spurred an intensification of our collection development.

Taiwan and nearby small islands were first settled by Austronesian peoples, possibly as early as 15,000 years ago. The descendants of these migrations now live in all parts of Taiwan, though their largest concentrations are in the mountains of Taiwan, along the east coast, and on Orchid Island. The government ruling these territories recognizes 16 major groups of indigenous peoples, though the diversity of peoples on the ground is much greater. Their ancestral languages span nine linguistic subfamilies, and around 16 main languages are currently spoken.  

Colonial encounters generated almost all of our sources for Taiwanese indigenous history, and the Center for Global Collections has been systematically collecting all the colonial sources currently available. The history of Taiwan’s indigenous people makes it particularly difficult to recover indigenous voices in our sources, but scholars work carefully to critically employ colonial materials, recognizing that we must work with the fragments that violence has left us.

Our acquisitions have paid particular attention to Orchid Island. Orchid Island occupies a fascinating space between the main body of Taiwan and the northern Philippine Islands, with whom its people share some cultural background and pressing contemporary concerns, like the ecological impacts of climate change and marginalization by the political centers that govern them. Works like the collected papers of Inez de Beauclair span both Orchid Island and the Batanes islands. Visual sources from the island hold particular immediacy and power—for example the photographic reportage of Orchid Island by Pan Hsiao Hsia, 1980-2022 — while ethnographic accounts continue to expand study of this distinctive society.  

Europeans were the first to colonize the island of Taiwan, and their testimony constitutes the earliest layer of textual sources on the island’s inhabitants. The Penn Libraries has collected the growing number of Dutch sources published on indigenous society, including the documentary collection The Formosan Encounter: Notes on Formosa's Aboriginal Society and compilations from Dutch diaries and travel accounts.

Rule by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) over Taiwan brought a new set of colonizers to Taiwan and a new ethnographic gaze to our sources. The Penn Libraries collections include materials from the Qing imperial archives that preserve ethnographic and political information on Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Seen through the eyes of officials dispatched from China and in the administrative reports and requests sent back to the imperial center, the lives of Taiwan's indigenous peoples appear in the fragments available to us. Qing authors and artists have also left us a rich body of colonial pictorial evidence, including ethnographic painting and mapping of the colonial frontier. Though framed and filtered by the interests and limitations of imperial authorities, this material is the principal textual documentation of indigenous peoples during this period.

With the annexation of Taiwan by the expanding Japanese empire in 1895, Japan first violently subdued the resistance of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and then set out to document and classify them. Japanese colonial sources are particularly rich, as the Japanese authorities dispatched anthropologists to survey indigenous society. The taxonomies and boundaries developed by the colonial administration still inform much of the politics surrounding daily life and political engagement for indigenous Taiwanese, and these materials have provided some of the richest sources for scholars today. A prime example of this work of classification, practiced by colonial academic institutions is the large 1935 survey 台灣原住民族系統所屬之研究 (Formosan Native Tribes: A Genealogical and Classificatory Study). Archives generated by the Japanese colonial government are now open and accessible, and Penn has actively collected the reports generated during the Japanese occupation, from 1895 to 1945. Among these is an extraordinarily rich series of ethnographic reports produced by the colonial authorities that provide powerful levels of detail on indigenous society and linguistics in particular. These have been translated into Chinese and comprehensively collected by the Penn Libraries. Collections of photography provide another important dimension to the resources that the Penn Libraries makes available—for example the 2020 collection Imaginer l'indigène: la photographie coloniale à Taiwan (1895-1945).  

Archaeology of indigenous Taiwan began under the Japanese colonial authorities and continues robustly into the present. The recent acquisition of electronic journals in the Sinica Sinoweb and Taiwan Journals database provides Penn scholars with access to the latest archaeological findings and analysis. The Penn Libraries attempts to collect monographs on these topics comprehensively.

Wherever possible, the Penn Libraries also acquires contemporary publications on indigenous Taiwanese society and, in particular, works by indigenous authors. With the series, Yuanzhu minzu yanjiu congshu 原住民族研究叢書 (Research series on indigenous peoples), Penn has been acquiring oral history and research on indigenous history and arts by indigenous authors. At the same time, we have systematically built up holdings of Taiwanese governmental publications documenting indigenous society through the Committee on Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan’s Executive Yuan 行政院原住民族委員會.

The efforts are initial steps in a long-term effort to preserve documentation of Taiwanese indigenous peoples and the ongoing cultural and literary production of these vital and evolving communities. They also form an important part of the Penn Libraries’ larger strategy to develop collections on the themes of “Border and Belonging,” expanding the representation of indigenous voices from around the world. We will be building collections that continue our emphasis on the indigenous peoples of Taiwan while also transcending political boundaries. As indigenous peoples of Asia face some of the most significant consequences of climate change and political changes, our collections will provide resources for crucial research.



September 20, 2023