The Indigenous Taiwanese Peoples 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 various ethnicities, all speaking different languages, with at least 26 groups being known to have existed. As a result of Dutch, Chinese, and later, Japanese occupation, the Indigenous Taiwanese suffered population and cultural loss, and in some instances, even genocide. Some, such as many of the lowland tribes, have been largely assimilated with the Chinese, while others, such as the Saisiyat, 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 occupy regions in 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.
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, Taivoan, 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 linguistic research have managed to revive a few.
Early on, the seafaring capabilities of Taiwan, while leaving few pieces of Archaeological evidence, were noted by historical observers. Records from the Song Dynasty about 1000 years ago recall raids on the Fujianese coast by the Taiwanese “barbarians” by bamboo raft(Needham). Multiple records throughout Chinese history also show that warlords and emperors had made an effort to visit, colonize, and trade with the Taiwanese to varying degrees of success. It is likely, from archaeological and historical evidence, that the Indigenous Taiwanese were used to frequent overseas contact and trade with the Chinese, Filipinos, and Europeans.
The tribes of Taiwan are warrior cultures in the purest sense, as every man in the community is expected to, 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 was 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, Bunun, and Paiwan, were perceived as more bellicose, and thus created friction with foreigners. By the end of the 20th century, the Indigenous Taiwanese had already clashed with the Dutch VOC, Ming and Qing Dynasty China, Japanese(with the Wushe uprising being the most famous and shown in the film Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow), and even the US navy, during the Rover incident, where a skirmish between Paiwan 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, near Fujian, was brought and spread throughout Taiwan around 4,000-5,000 years ago. Named the Dapengkeng culture, they were likely millet farmers with advanced stone tools and pottery. Stone adzes, Patu stone clubs, and pottery shards left behind are indicators of their presence, and bark beaters, for making barkcloth have also 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 the Philippines, where evidence of trade goods have been discovered. Iron implements started appearing around Taiwan about 1,000 years ago, also likely traded from the Philippines, where iron producing technology had been developed. This might explain why knives in Taiwan share similarities with the knives used by the Igorot. Evidence for local Iron foundries dating to 400 AD have been discovered in Taiwan. It is possible 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 Indigenous Taiwanese 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 machetes. 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 into a piece of wood serving as the handle. All tribes in Taiwan fashioned wooden scabbards with an open face on one side. This 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, or series of wires nailed in place, or metal plates to keep it secure. This was supposedly done as moisture would build up inside an enclosed scabbard, whereas an open scabbard would not need to worry about such a problem. 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 base of the blade is about 1.5 to 2 times the width of the tang. So while there is no guard, the blade extends past the fingers. This handle design is shared between knives used by the Amis, Saisiyat, Bunun, Seediq, Truku, and Atayal tribes.
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 burned or 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, however, this feature is only seen on knives made today. 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. Both types of handles were slightly oval in cross section to facilitate edge alignment.
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 likely an overgeneralization and challenged by the multiple examples of curved blades in the collection of the Wulai Atayal Museum, photographs dating to the period, 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 somewhat resemble the Filipino Talibong or even a khopesh in design. 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, two-three feet in length, whereas Seediq and Atayal curved blades feature a distal taper, are curved uniformly throughout the length of the blade, and can reach 3 feet or longer. However, the long “war sword” variety of blade was also used by the Truku.
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 Chinese peoples, who generally dug in for a fight, while shorter blades were more effective against tribal enemies, as shorter blades and lightning fast reactions could mean life or death in a skirmish. This, while 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 in mountainous and densely forested areas used longer blades, possibly due to contact with the Chinese, who ventured into tribal territories for timber.
Bunun 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 Amis peoples in contact with the Truku and Seediq often adopted similar blades.
The Atayal had many subcategories for knives. One such knife is the Lalaw Topuw, which resembles a Barong in it’s semicircular 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, and also seen in archaeological examples used by the South Western lowland tribes. However, while Atayal lalaw topuw are only around a foot in length at most, Thao and Tsou knives are around two to three 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, and Slmadac in Seediq. 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 different designs. Many have tried to make the case that these variations in scabbard design could be used to differentiate the knives used by different peoples; however, given that we often see the same variations in the scabbards used by each tribe, it is likely not a reliable indicator. 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.
The Tsou Pojava
The Tsou Pojava(pronounced Po-Yava), represents a class of knives that are used by peoples living along the Central Mountain range of Taiwan. The profile of the knife resembles an elongated semicircle and distinct from other Formosan knives.
The Tsou, living in the region surrounding Alishan national park, use these knives called poyave no sungcu, meaning straight knife, accompanied by with a Kacace, an ornate belt beaded with cowrie shells and other decorative materials. The sheaths of these knives are often painted red as red was believed to be the favored color of their war god, and a wooden strip was also often attached to the back of the sheath. Unlike many sheaths of other peoples in Taiwan, in addition to wire, Tsou sheaths would also have long, flat places of metal varying in width. In the past, villages had forges which, according to Japanese records, were set up in part, by Han smiths from the lowlands. The suspension system for the knives were different in the north and south, as in the north the Poyave would’ve been tied to the waist by sword belt and shoulder strap whereas in the south, the swordbelt would be the only means of suspension.
The Thao people living nearby the Sun Moon lake also have knives with a similar profile to the Poyave. In Thao society, the Skapamumu clan was in control of all metal work, which were traded for by other clans for other goods. Fittings were similar to the Tsou, where a belt and a shoulder strap were used. The Kanakanavu people further south also used similar knives.
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.
Another variation of Pingpu lowland knife a semicircular bellied blade attributed to Sirayan peoples, as archaeological examples have been found. The similarity with Tsouic knives might be coincidental, as there’s limited evidence of transmission between cultures.
Another grouping that can be considered are the blades of the Puyuma, Paiwan, and Rukai, referred to as the Tjakit in the Paiwan language, the TaDaw in Puyuma/Pinuyumayan, and Lrabu/Rinadrug in 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 feature no distal taper, and thus the edges are parallel until the tip, where the knife has an angled transition to the tip, similar to the kissaki on Japanese blades or the tip on Chinese blades. There is an interesting change in these Southern blades in that in earlier blades, the tip resembled Chinese blades, where the grind line meets the tip, providing a reinforced point, whereas more modern blades feature a tip much like the Japanese kissaki. It is possible that this change began with Japanese contact and later occupation of Taiwan, which the Paiwan were severely impacted by.
Scholars Philip Tom and Sherrod V. Anderson have also been able to determine that these knives were constructed using qianggang/Sanmai construction, where softer, carbon poor steel is sandwiched around a carbon rich steel which also forms the edge, and heat treated with “considerable skill”. This has led them to posit a relationship with Chinese Blades from the Song Dynasty and earlier.
The Tjakit-type knife family is dominant in much of Southern Taiwan. While the dominant knife for Paiwan, Rukai, and Puyuma cultures, this type of blade was adopted by many neighboring peoples, including the Southern Amis, Bunun, Hla’alua/Saaroa, and the later arriving Taivoan and Makatao, though aspects such as scabbard and handle decoration was less widespread.
Fit and Finish of Southern Knives
Among the Paiwan and Rukai, ornamentation is of utmost importance. 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. Considered one of the 3 treasures of Paiwan culture, along side glass bead making and pottery, the Paiwan Tjakit were crafted by the Pulima, an aristocratic caste serving as craftsmen for objects of prestige. The Tjakit, along side the other 2 treasures, were often given as a high status gift during special occasions like weddings, either as a dowry or bride price, or alliance forging. 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.
The scabbards are rectangular to conform with the shape of the knife, but the end is curved up like the bow of a ship. The protrusions at the end are often small and decorative, though some, in particular, those of the Puyuma, extend for a few inches. 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, with wires running nearly the entire length of the scabbard a common feature. 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. Wooden handle construction varies, as some knives feature a through tang with the tip hammered over the end(common in Chinese cutlery often used by Chinese settlers throughout Taiwan) or a tang that is hammered into a piece of wood and sealed with adhesive. The more prestigious wooden handles are often fitted with a ferrule, and were cylindrical or octagonal in cross section, sometimes a combination of the two. Each surface was carved, painted, and inlaid with precious metals, stones, mother of pearl, and other decorative elements. The same goes for the scabbard. It is not uncommon to find Chinese or Japanese coins glued or embedded onto the scabbard. 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.
Knives of the Amis/Pangcah
An Introduction to the Amis/Pangcah
The Amis/Pangcah are the indigenous people who occupy much of the Eastern plains. Various colonial powers have tried to categorize much of the people on the Eastern Plain as Amis, and in the past, separate peoples like the Kavalan and Sakizaya have been lumped in as well, however this has since been changed.
Although they are often considered one group, there are various distinct regional organizations. The Pangcah are often separated into several groups:
- Nataroan/Nanshi南勢(Orange on map): the Northern division near Hualien city, including settlements such as Cikasuan village
- Siwkolan/Xiugulan秀姑巒(Red on map): occupying much of the Southern half of the Hualien plain
- Tavalong-Vataan/Coastal(Blue on Map): occupying the southern half of Hualien coast, including villages like C’epo
- Farangaw-Maran/Taitung台東(Green on map): occupying most of the Taitung coast, including settlements such as Fa’rangao & Atolan
- Palidaw/Hengchun恆春(Beige on map): communities of Pangcah spread throughout the inner Taitung plain(Luye and Cishang townships) and Hengchun region in Pingtung county
- The Metropolitan Amis: various communities of Amis based in major metropolitan areas around Taiwan
It’s believed that the Amis near the Northern Hualien plain possibly moved in after the Sakizaya and Kavalan suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Qing dynasty military, driving many Sakizaya and Kavalan peoples to hide and assimilate in the nearby Pangcah villages. As a coastal people, the Pangcah are well known for their fishing and maritime traditions. However, not all communities are based around water as settlements such as Kiwit, Ceroh, and Cikasuan are based inland. However, a feature uniting the disparate groups of Pangcah is the age based social hierarchy, in which various age groups perform certain roles in society. It is believed by many scholars that individuals from the modern day Fa’rangao settlement near Taitung City were the first Austronesians to make the perilous journey to populate Island South East Asia, Micronesia, Polynesia, and beyond, likely via bamboo raft.
In terms of material culture, the Pangcah absorbed much from their neighboring cultures, such as the Truku, Sakizaya, Kavalan, Pinuyumayan(Puyuma), and Paiwan. As such, knives of the Pangcah, called Funos, varied greatly depending on region, and like many other things in Taiwan, there is a North South continuum, with Northern knives resembling Atayalic Laraw and Southern knives resembling the Tjakit.
The Nataroan Amis, and perhaps the Siwkolan Amis, as a result of contact with the Truku and Seediq, used knives which were similar to the lalaw. In the south, the Farangaw-Maran and Palidaw Amis used knives similar to the neighboring Puyuma.
An interesting feature of many Amis knives is the handle, which is asymmetrical, and unlike most knife handles in Taiwan. This takes many forms, either as a outwards protrusion near the bottom of the handle, or a handle that is entirely curved. While this feature is common among normal utility knives of the Amis, it is most commonly present in a type of knife known as a “gift knife”. These knives usually have long, curved, narrow blades with fittings entirely made of ox horn, inlaid with mother of pearl. More often then not, these ox horn scabbards are fully enclosed, unlike the one sided scabbards used throughout Taiwan.
The combination of these features: asymmetrical handles, ox horn fittings, and a fully enclosed sheath, while unique in Taiwan, are widespread through Island Southeast Asia. Given the Amis/Pangcah’s seafaring capabilities, along with other factors such as some degree of intelligibility between Amis and some Filipino languages make it entirely possible that these features might have been the result of foreign influence, perhaps from the Philippines and beyond.
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.
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: