Preliminary Classification of Indigenous Taiwanese Knives


The Taiwanese Aborigines are the first inhabitants of Taiwan in recorded history. Inextricably tied to Austronesian peoples, their surviving culture is of great importance to the world. Due to geographical barriers in Taiwan and thousands of years, the indigenous Taiwanese are composed of a variety of ethnic groups, all speaking different languages, up to 26 that are known to have existed. As a result of Chinese and later, Japanese occupation, the Taiwanese aborigines suffered population and cultural loss, and in some instances, even genocide. Some, such as many of the lowland tribes, have been assimilated with the Chinese, while others, such as the Saisiyat and Kavalan, fled to the mountains or less populated regions. As of today, there are 16 tribes recognized by the Taiwanese, and many others that aren’t. With the help of academic study, ethno tourism, and programs aimed at preserving indigenous culture, there has been a cultural revival among the highland and lowland tribes.

Overview of Traditional Territories and History of Taiwanese Indigenous Peoples

The Taiwanese aborigines can be divided by geographic regions, and many tribes are, in some way or another related. The three main northern mountainous tribes in Taiwan, the Atayal, Seediq, and Truku, share a linguistic and cultural heritage, with the Seediq having split off from the Atayal hundreds of years ago, and the Truku having split from the Seediq. Combined, the three tribes stretch across Taipei, Taoyuan, Miaoli, Hsinchu, Yilan, Hualien, Nantou, and Taichung. The Saisiyat, having been pushed into the northern mountains, reside in close proximity to the Atayal in Miaoli, therefore, cultural exchange has taken place over the years. In the central and lower part of the Central mountains in Taiwan reside the Tsou, Thao, and Bunun. The Tsou inhabit a region across Nantou, Chiayi, and Kaohsiung, and share cultural and linguistic ties with the Kanakanavu and Saaroa tribes further south. The Thao reside near the Sun Moon lake, in close proximity to both the Seediq and Bunun. The Bunun are spread across the mountains of Nantou, Kaohsiung, Hualien, and Taitung. 

Near the Southern coast are the Amis, Kavalan, Sakizaya,  Puyuma, and Paiwan. Amis territory stretches across the plains and coasts of Hualien and Taitung. They share the northern part of the coastline with the Kavalan, who were originally from Yilan, and the Sakizaya, the original inhabitants of Northern Hualien. The Puyuma, once dominating the area that is now Taitung city, are now sandwiched between the Amis and the Rukai and Paiwan. The Rukai and Paiwan reside in the Pingtung peninsula, with the Rukai in the mountainous interior, and the Paiwan near the coast. These groupings, while important cultural indicators, had a less pronounced social effect, as individual tribal units would have thought of themselves as independent entities or part of larger clans, and only very rarely did some larger coalitions form to combat other coalitions or invaders.

Linguistic Map of Taiwan

The Western Plains of Taiwan were once inhabited by various lowland tribes, with the Pazeh, Papora, Babuza, and Taokas in the Central plains, and the Siraya and Makatao in the Southern plains. All of these tribes were severely impacted by Dutch VOC and later Chinese colonists. The Kingdom of Middag, a powerful confederation in the mid-Western plains, resisted the Dutch and Chinese into the early 1800. While many people assimilated into the Chinese population, a few remaining tribes migrated to Puli, Nantou, where their descendants are today. Most of these Tribes have yet to be recognized by the Taiwanese government, and many of their languages are either extinct or moribund, but linguistics have managed to revive a few.

From Early on, the seafaring capabilities of Taiwan, while leaving few pieces of Archaeological evidence, were noted by historical observers. Records from the Han Dynasty 2000 years ago recall raids on the Fujianese coast by the Taiwanese “barbarians” by bamboo raft, roughly the same time people were likely to have spread throughout the Pacific (Needham). Multiple records throughout Chinese history also show that warlords and emperors had made an effort to visit, colonize, and trade with the Taiwanese. Thus, it is likely that the aborigines were used to frequent overseas contact and trade with the Chinese, Filipinos, and Europeans.

Warrior Cultures

Each of the tribes in Taiwan are warrior cultures in the purest sense, as every man in the community is required, at some point, to be a warrior and a hunter. The Taiwanese aborigines are well known for being headhunters, and before being subjugated by the Japanese, endemic tribal warfare and warfare on a larger scale were carried out regularly. Weapons used by the tribes included spears, bows, stone clubs and knives/ war swords, and later, muskets and rifles, which were introduced by the Dutch, and later Japanese.

Some tribes, such as the Atayal, Seediq, and Bunun, were perceived as more bellicose, and thus created friction with foreigners. By the end of the 20th century, the Taiwanese aborigines had already fought with the Dutch VOC, Ming Dynasty China, Qing Dynasty China, and the Japanese(with the Wushe uprising being the most famous and shown in the film). There also happens to be an interesting event, the Rover Incident, where a skirmish between indigenous tribesmen in southern Taiwan and American Marines took place.

Metallurgy in Taiwan

There has been human habitation in Taiwan throughout prehistory for at least 20,000 years; however, the archaeology suggests that an Austronesian speaking culture possibly from what is now Southern China was brought and spread throughout Taiwan around 4,000 to 3,000 years ago. Named the Dapengkeng culture, they were likely millet farmers with advanced stone tools and pottery. Stone adzes, Patu, and pottery shards left behind are indicators of their presence, and bark beaters, for making barkcloth have been found, a possible origin for bark cloth and tapa manufacturing techniques found in Taiwan and throughout Austronesia. The peoples of Taiwan remained a neolithic culture at least until 2,000 years ago, for the peoples who left for the Philippines and the Lapita culture that likely derived from them remained neolithic cultures. 

The earliest signs of Metallurgy were found in Northern Taiwan, where evidence for bronze foundries and castings have been discovered in Taipei and Yilan, likely brought over from China, Vietnam, or the Philippines. Iron implements started appearing around Taiwan about 1,000 years ago, likely traded from the Philippines, where iron producing technology had been developed, and evidence for local Iron foundries dating to 400 AD, has been discovered in Taiwan. This might explain why knives in Taiwan share similarities with the Filipino Talibong/Larawan and knives used by the Ifugao/Igorot. It is likely that iron and other metals were processed in the lowlands by the lowland tribes or Han Chinese settlers before being traded into the highlands, where smiths were able to forge their signature blades. 


By the time the Taiwanese aborigines entered history, each tribe had their signature style of knife. However, all knife styles shared a set of commonalities. Most blades are un-fullered and all were single beveled chisel ground to facilitate their use as a machete. In all cultures, there are 2 handle variations: either a socketed handle construction, which allows them to be hafted, or a tapered tang which is hammered through a piece of wood for the handle. All tribes in Taiwan fashioned wooden scabbards with an open face on one side. They usually consists of a recess carved into the general profile of the knife on one side, with the knife held by either with wood, rattan wraps, a series of wires nailed in place, or metal plates to keep it secure. Scabbards of the south are generally more ornate and carved with culturally significant motifs and patterns.

While no typology exists for the knives of Taiwan, traditional knives can be roughly divided into 2 or 3 groups based on tribal affiliations, geography and profile. While examples of knives and swords of the Lowland tribes still exist, they are not numerous enough to determine tribal and geographic affiliation, especially since most have been removed from their historical and cultural context. However few traditional bladesmiths throughout Taiwan still forge blades for tribesmen, keeping with traditional designs.

Northern Knife Designs

A preliminary grouping that can be considered is the Northern design. These would include knives of the Truku, Seediq, and Atayal(Lalaw/Laraw), and the knives of the Amis, Bunun, Saisiyat, and various plains tribes, sharing general features and methods of construction. 

Among the knives of the Atayal, Seediq, and Truku exists a range of variation depending on geographic, functional, and cultural influences. Atayalic blades are generally chisel ground with a flat or convex grind on one side. A universal feature of these knives is the dramatic transition from blade to tang/handle. For most knives the width of the blade from the tang to the edge is 1.5 to 2 times the width of the tang to the back of the blade. So while there is no guard, the blade extends past the fingers. This handle design is shared between knives of the Amis, Saisiyat, Bunun, Seediq, Truku, and Atayal tribes.

Knife handle with exposed cross section

Two styles of handle construction seem to be prominent among these knives, with neither dominating in any one region. One style is the simple socketed handle, present on knives of all lengths and designs. Generally, the top end of the socket is left open. One explanation was to prevent moisture buildup within the socket. Smaller blades of socketed construction were often hafted for use as spears, javelins, and polearms, and were also used in the unique practice as a “bayonets” of sorts on longbows. The other method of construction didn’t allow for such versatile use, but was nonetheless widespread. The tang of the knife was shaped into a spike, then rammed into a conical piece of wood, and held by friction. While the tang wasn’t usually long enough to fully pass through the handle, when it did, it wasn’t penned, but often just bent over, much like a Chinese meat cleaver. The wooden handle, to prevent splitting, was reinforced with wire or organic material wrapped/ woven around as a grip. Sometimes, a metal ferrule is fitted at the junction between blade and handle. The blade was rarely pinned to the handle or glued, although there is a method attested by some, where the tang was deliberately rusted in the handle for a better friction fit.

These Northern knives have a variety of blade profiles. According to the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, Atayal knife profiles are straight in the North and become more curved further south. However, this statement is an overgeneralization and challenged by the multiple examples of curved blades in the collection of the Wulai Atayal Museum, living, and archaeological evidence. Oral sources have also suggested that straight backed knives came into popularity after the arrival of Japanese as they were influenced by bayonet designs.

Curved Atayal knives are indistinguishable from Seediq knives(aside from small variations in sheath design), and very similar to Truku knives. These curved knives resemble the Filipino Talibong in profile. At the transition between the handle and the blade, the blade itself is angled forward, thus making the knife a good chopping and cutting tool, much like a kukri or falcata. The curve in the blade returns the point closer inline with the handle, which makes the knife useful for thrusting as well. The main difference between the Atayal/Seediq curved knives and that of the Truku is that some Truku knives are angled forward like other curved knives, but the blade remains mostly straight and parallel before curving and tapering at about ½ to ⅔ of the length and are generally shorter, a foot to two feet in length, while Seediq and Atayal curved blades feature a distal taper, are uniformly curved, and can reach 3 feet or longer. 

The Atayal, Truku, and Seediq have many explanations for the variations. While one might imagine blade lengths of knives used in deeper, wooded areas might be shorter and thus less prone to be caught in the bush, this is not the case. An explanation, while often framed as a joke, states that longer blades were more effective against the sessile Han peoples, while shorter blades were more effective against tribal enemies, where shorter blades and lightning fast reactions could mean life or death. This, while often thrown around by tribesmen as a joke, might explain the geographic distribution of blade lengths, as the Truku, despite living near the open plains of Hualien, often in contact with neighboring Seediq, Amis, and Bunun, had short blades, while the Atayal and Seediq of in mountainous and densely forested areas used longer blades, possibly due to contact with the Chinese, who ventured into tribal territories for timber.

Amis and Saisiyat blades more or less resemble straight Atayal blades, with the Saisiyat likely having shared the design after coming into contact with the Atayal, and Bunun knives are more or less similar to Truku and some Seediq knives.

Typical Lalaw Topuw

The Atayal had many subcategories for knives. One such knife is the Lalaw Topuw, which resembles a Barong in blade profile, except for the fact that the back of the blade is completely straight, and features no false edge. The Atayal lalaw topuw was used more as a cleaver, and most were socketed(I have yet to find one that isn’t). When hafted(a common practice), it could be referred to as a Qopo. This Barong-like design is also shared by the Thao and Tsou. However, while Atayal lalaw topuw are only around a foot in length at most, Thao and Tsou knives are around one and a half to two feet in length. Smaller lalaw used as utility knives, have also been referred to as Muli, and hafted for use as a spear or polearm. The general term, Lalaw or Lalaw behuw(Pucing is another term), were often used for hunting knives with blades of about 1-2 feet in length. The large meter long war swords were sometimes referred to as the Mgaga. They held more ceremonial and cultural significance, and were intended for use in ritual warfare and headhunting. They were less common than the other examples, and more often than not, belonged to the more accomplished and respected individuals of a village.

Northern Scabbards and Fittings

In most Northern knives, the scabbard consists of a plank of wood with a recess carved into one side, with wires stapled across the opening to keep the knife in place, but usually, the friction fit alone is enough to keep the knife in place. An explanation often given is that these open sided scabbards prevented the trapping of moisture around the knife. Traditionally, these scabbards are either trapezoidal in shape for straight backed knives, or for curved knives, follow the shape of the blade and feature a “stock”at the end of the handle, often held when unsheathing the knife. This stock is often the main varying feature between the designs of different tribes. Back in the old days, long tassels of human hair from victims of head hunting would have been used to decorate the stock. The “throat” of the scabbard is carved into the shape of the “finger guard”, although over hanging a bit. This serves as a sort of platform for the thumb to push off of as the knife is unsheathed. According to some tribesmen, the wood of scabbard can be used as kindling for fire, and may have been made of easily flammable wood for this purpose.

These swords are usually just tied around the “true waist”, and could thus be removed whenever necessary. The knot was usually some sort of bowline knot that was easy to unfasten. A woven portion was often incorporated into the entire belt. This practice is slightly different with Southern Tribes.

Lowland “Pingpu” Knife Designs

It is difficult to classify and appreciate the variety knives used by the various lowland Pingpu knives, given their own disparate origins and long histories. Many, like the knives of the Pazeh and other North-central Tribes of the western plain resemble Atayal, Seediq, and Saisaiyat knives. This might be a result of possible shared heritage between the groups or frequent trade. South Western tribes often had interactions with the Rukai and Paiwan, and possibly shared in their knife design, however, this has been difficult to establish due to the small number of examples positively identified with the Southwestern lowland tribes.

A common form found in knives positively identified with lowland knives is a short, straight-backed variety similar to some smaller northern knives. The design also happens to resemble utility knives used by the Han Chinese that emigrated and eventually assimilated the Lowland tribes. Many artistic motifs often resemble Chinese art, possibly indicating that these knives were commissioned by tribesmen, but made by Chinese craftsmen.

Southern Knives

A richly decorated antique Paiwan Knife

Another grouping that can be considered are the blades of the Puyuma, Paiwan, and Rukai. These blades, like their cousins in the north, have an asymmetrical cross section, but are unique for featuring a chisel grind with a very well defined secondary bevel on one side of the blade. These straight-single edged blades are unique among the blades of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, as they feature no distal taper, and thus the edges are parallel until the tip, where the knife has an angled transition to the tip, much like the kissaki on Japanese blades. These features have led scholars Philip Tom and Sherrod V. Anderson to posit that the knives borrowed features from Song Chinese blades. Other similarities they noted included qianggang construction, where softer, carbon poor steel is sandwiched around by a carbon rich steel which also forms the edge. However, handle construction remains uniquely Taiwanese, where the tang is hammered into a piece of wood and sealed with adhesive. Unlike Atayalic blades, in southern blades, the point where the blade meets the handle is steep, as the transition from blade to tang is a sharp 90 degrees, somewhat like a kissaki, and since these blades are on average less wide, there is less of a difference of width between the tang and the blade.

Handles and Scabbards of Southern Knives

A Rukai Noble

Among the Paiwan and Rukai, ornamentation is of utmost importance. The handles and scabbards of Paiwan, Rukai, and Puyuma knives are ornately carved and painted, something generally absent from many other tribal knives in Taiwan. These decorations became more ornate depending on the social status of the owner. Unlike the rest of the tribes of Taiwan, the Southern Tribes had a strictly stratified social structure resembling a caste system, with distinct noble families.

The scabbards are rectangular to conform with the shape of the knife, but the end is curved up like the bow of a ship. Like the scabbards of the north, the scabbards of the south often have wires stapled to the side to keep the blade secure, but unlike those of the north, these wires also serve a decorative role, twisted, coiled, and bent into patterns. Sometimes, wood or metal plate is glued or stapled on, the surface of which also serves as a canvas for decoration.

Handle construction is similar to Northern knives, although with more emphasis on decoration. Socketed handles are usually decorated with a woven rattan or grass grip. The more prestigious wooden handles are often fitted with a ferrule, and hexagonal or octagonal in cross section, with each surface uniformly carved and/or painted. Sometimes, precious metals, stones, mother of pearl, and other decorative elements are inlaid into the scabbard or handle. The emphasis on decoration is likely linked to the affinity of Rukai and Paiwan tribesmen for wood carving, with the handle and scabbard serving as a surface for displaying craftsmanship. Several historical examples also feature a disc guard, although these are not common.

A tentative classification scheme for Indigenous Taiwanese Knives

Knife Makers

Today, there are only a few traditional knife makers around. Today, many knives are made by ethnically Chinese smiths across Taiwan who are commissioned by tribesmen. Blades are often commissioned by tribesmen, who then make the fittings themselves. There is evidence to suggest that such a relationship existed in the past, as many antique blades possess Chinese maker’s marks, along with elements of Chinese decoration like Chinese coins, and Chinese styled artistry and inlaying. 

Indigenous smiths also exist, but are harder to find. A Truku village in Tongmen(Bronze gate in Chinese, the name is arbitrary), have long been known to supply blades of all kinds across Taiwan. There are currently 6 families of bladesmiths in the village, with the oldest family going back 6 generations. According to the families, most of them were taught blade smithing by the Japanese during the Japanese occupation, and many were made to supply blades for the Japanese war effort throughout the 19th and 20th century. Today, many of these knives are forged from leaf springs and edge quenched in water so as to maintain a hard edge, but a resilient core. 

While these smiths had a direct influence from Japan, there is evidence to suggest that native smiths did indeed practice earlier in history. After all, the variation of blade design across Taiwan makes it unlikely that these blades were supplied purely from trade. As stated earlier, iron smithing seems to have been introduced to Taiwan about 1000 years ago from the Philippines, a good 600 years before any major Chinese settlement occurred. Various foundries have been found at archaeological sites across Taiwan. While villages in prehistoric Taiwan ranged between 200-300 individuals, they often formed larger political entities, and in some cases, supra-tribal political groups. Under these circumstances and the ubiquity of knives in indigenous life and culture before colonization, it’s likely that there was a healthy industry of indigenous metallurgy across Taiwan.

A Souvenir knife often found on auction sites

I believe between the end of WWII and the ROC leaving the UN, many factory made souvenir knives were sold to American personnel stationed in Taiwan. These often contain a mix of motifs from cultures across Taiwan, and were likely made specifically for the Tourist market. Many of these knives have since surfaced on eBay and other auction sites: 

However, true antiques can be quite spectacular: 

2 thoughts on “Preliminary Classification of Indigenous Taiwanese Knives

  1. Pretty interesting overview of a segment of weapons and hunting craft I would have never read about otherwise; the speculations about contact and travel are sensible and the attention to details about the knives is fascinating. Real anthropology.

    Liked by 1 person

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