Info about Taiwan before Europeans arrived

A slightly niche request perhaps, but am trying to find information about what Taiwan was like before European settlers arrived here. My level of Mandarin means finding something in English would be fantastic, but I know that’s probably a big ask, so anything at all would be great - books, websites, museums, academics to contact, anything at all.


One stop is the Taiwan History Museum at 2 Xiangyang Road, in Peace Park not far from the Taipei train station. There’s also the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines at 282 Zhishan Rd Sec. 2 near the National Palace Museum. I don’t exactly remember the level of English explanation at either place but I’m pretty sure there’s some at least. By the way, by “before European settlers” do you mean pre-Dutch?

Yes, I’m looking to find out about Taiwan before the first Dutch settlers arrived. The people, where they lived, the landscape, and so on. Thanks for those two tips. Am based in Kaohsiung, so not very familiar with all the Taipei Museums. Any other suggestions very welcome!

My impression is that not much of a historical record survives from that period. Han settlement was still minimal; it’s mostly the history of the aboriginal peoples at that point.

I’m currently reading A New Illustrated History of Taiwan, which touches on the “pre history” (before written records) of Taiwan in the first couple of chapters. But, as Tempo said, there doesn’t seem to be a wealth of information. One of the problems, as the book brings out, is that historical archeological sites in Taiwan haven’t been well preserved, at least not until pretty recently.

In addition to the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines mentioned above, I would recommend the following two museums, closer to Kaohsiung:

  1. The National Museum of Taiwanese History, Tainan: there are some exhibits on Taiwanese aboriginal culture, both prior to the 16th century and thereafter.

  2. The National Museum of Taiwanese Prehistory, Taitung: I think this might be just what you’re looking for - there are extensive exhibits on the origins of the various Taiwanese aboriginal cultures, in addition to exhibits on the geological formation of Taiwan and the megafauna that used to inhabit the island. In addition, you may find the Beinan cultural park in Taitung interesting (the site of an archaeological excavation).

Both museums are excellent, and I highly recommend making the trips.

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David, before the Europeans arrived, there is no identifiable accounts of Taiwan in historical documents. There are passages that sounds like Taiwan in Japanese and Chinese sources, however, those description would fit any Austronesian culture (Taiwan, Penghu and much of South East Asia, including coastal Vietnam and Thailand) and early Ryukyuans as well. There is no concrete evidence that those accounts pointed to Taiwan.

Judging by Zheng He’s method of traversing the seas around China by pretty much hugging the coast, there’s no sign of the Chinese’ ability of finding Taiwan during the Ming dynasty, never mind much earlier periods such as the Three Kingdoms era. Trade destinations, trade winds, ocean currents, and the location of major Chinese ports also mean it’s more likely for Chinese vessels to slip right into the South China sea, instead of accidentally running into Taiwan.

First European sighting of Taiwan was back in 1544, when someone on a Portuguese ship sailing from Malacca to Japan passed East coast Taiwan and wrote down Ilha Formosa in their log.

The first map of Taiwan was made by Portuguese Lopo Homem back in 1554.

On July 16th of 1582, a famous Spanish Jesuit Alonso Sanchez took a boat from Macau to Japan, when his ship unfortunately sank around Eastern Taiwan as well. The Captain Andre Feio and 300 other crewmen were stranded on the island for 10 weeks, where they were subjected to malaria and intermittent Aboriginal attacks and signs of friendship. In the end they managed to build themselves a junk back to Macau. All 10 padres wrote about their ordeal in Taiwan after getting back to Taiwan. You can find those in the book “Spaniards in Taiwan”.

Another Spanish captain Francisco Gualle passed by Taiwan in July of 1587.

It was not until 1585, when Captain Linschoten took his Portuguese ship Santa Cruz from Macau to Japan did Europeans first documented West coast Taiwan. After that the Europeans had no trouble identifying Formosa the island.

Back to the pre-European accounts, most of them involved raiding and pillaging the islanders, and grabbing a bunch of people as slaves and then never to return again. First such record came from the Book of Wu (吳書), of the Records of Three Kingdoms (三國志). Emperor Sun Quan (孫權) of Wu ordered general Wei Wen (衞溫) and general Zhuge Zhi (諸葛直) into the sea to find the mythical Yizhou (夷洲) and Danzhou (亶洲) in 230 C.E (黃龍二年).

Emperor Sun Quan believed Danzhou to be the same island where Qin Shihuangdi sent Xu Fu (徐福) with a thousand boys and girls to find the pill of youth, and upon failing to find the magical mountain Penglai (蓬萊), Xu never returned. The descendents of Xu’s expedition are rumoured to have grown into tens of thousands of families. Some of them even travels to the Wu city of Kuaiji (會稽) to trade for fabric. Occasionally people of Kuaiji when sailing in the ocean gets blown to Danzhou by storms as well. However, his two generals came back reporting that Danzhou was too far away, but their soldiers did get to Yizhou, and captured a 1,000 slaves.

That’s all there is to that passage. There so little info about Yizhou from the Book of Wu, there is no way to make any kind of claim about where Yizhou actually is.

However, a third hand source from Song dynasty’s Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era (a.k.a. Taiping Yulan 太平御覽) supposedly quoted from Linhai Shuituzhi (臨海水土志, Records of Coastal Geography) by Shen Ying (沈瑩, Danyang mayor of the Kingdom of Wu), that describes Yuzhou in more detail. However, Linhai Shuituzhi has long been lost, and there is no way to verify the validity of the quotation. Shen Ying wrote his book around 268 to 280. He died in 280 when he failed to stop the Jin (晉) invasion. That’s a good 40 to 50 years after Sun Quan sent his generals into the ocean. It means at the time of Sun Quan’s expedition, Shen was either in his adolescence or hadn’t yet been born. So his records about Yizhou in Linhai Shuituzhi is at best second hand. It is also worth noting this account used the words 夷州 instead of 夷洲 as seen in Book of Wu.

So in Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era’s Four Barbarian’s chapter (四夷部一), Eastern Barbarian Section One (東夷一), the quote goes:

According to Linhai Shuituzhi, Yizhou is 2,000 Li (about 800KM) south east of Linhai county (臨海郡, near present day Taizhou City (台州市) of Zhejiang province). It is never covered by snow and frost, and its trees and grass are evergreen. It’s surrounded by mountains where the barbarians inhabit. A top of the mountain there’s a white rock that used to be archery training target for the king of Yue.

The barbarians are divided, each with their own king, living on separated territories, and each group of people are different as well. Men shave their heads and pierce their ears. The women do not pierce their ears. They live in houses, and plant thorny shrubs as barriers. Their land is fertile. It is capable of harvesting grain and is filled with fish and game.

Their families all live together. Regardless of gender, be it uncles, aunts, children, all sleep in the same bed. When a couple have sex, the rest don’t even bother to get out of their way. They can make fine fabric and textile, often ingraining patterns and writings in their weaving, and are found of such decorations. The land also bears copper, iron, however, they mostly use deer antlers spears as their primary weapon. They also make arrow heads, axes, and bead necklaces with polished green stones. Their food is unsanitary. They take raw fish or meat, mix them in big jar of storage and let it ferment, and then eat it for days and months. They think of it as their finest cuisine.

They refer to themselves as Milin (彌麟, bie-lin is probably closer to pronunciation at the time of writing). When they need to summon others, they take a huge empty log about 3 meters long, placing it in the courtyard and hit it with a giant pestle from the side. It sounds like a drum and can be heard 4~5 Li (2 to 2.5KM) away. When people hear the sound, they all hurry to the summoner.

When they eat, they sit on the ground face to face. They make containers out of wood, shaped like pig troughs, and places disgusting fish and meat inside, then 5 to 10 people all eat out of it. They make wine out of millet, stores it in wooden containers, and drinks using big bamboo cups. Their songs are like dogs howling, and they entertain each other with it.

After getting a human head, they would take out the brain, and strip off the meat on the face, keeping just the skull, and dyes the hair to dress the skull, keeping the teeth to show the shape of the mouth, then wears it as a battle mask. Only barbarian kings can wear it. During battle, all they want is the enemy’s head. After the battle, they would erect a pole 30 meters tall, and hang the heads they get from each battle as their trophy and never remove it.

When two families have boy and girl ready for marriage, the parents would build them a house and lock them inside until they become husband and wife. When a girl marries, they must remove a upper tooth.

Linhai Shuituzhi also mentions, those who live in deep in the mountains of Anjie (安家, unknown location) build their houses on frames, like a raised building. Their dwellings, food, clothes, ornaments all are similar to those who live in Yizhou. When a parent dies, they would kill a dog as sacrifice, and make a square coffin. After singing and dancing, they would place it atop a rock on a cliff, and not bury it in the dirty in the familial burial ground. Neither men nor women wear shoes. Those who live in Anyang (安陽, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang) and Loujiang (羅江, somewhere in Zhejiang) are said to be their descendents. They love monkey skull soup, and put vegetables in the soup to relieve the effects of alcohol. It’s mixed in with all kinds of meat and smells discussing. The saying goes “One would rather owe someone 31 thousand KG of millet, and not owe a single meal of money skull soup.”



From the second part of the quote, it’s obvious the customs described isn’t unique to Yizhou, and is also common to Yue people on the Mainland at the time. The head hunting ritual isn’t the same as what’s observed here in Taiwan. Ritualistic tooth extraction is common to Yue people at the time as well. Aside from Austronesian, early Jomon period Japanese also practise ritualistic tooth extraction. There is also no Yue presence in Taiwan.

What’s more, Taiwan isn’t to the South East of the kingdom of Wu like Yizhou.

It is in fact directly to the south of Wu if we go with the “2,000 Li (about 800KM) south east of Linhai county” description. Assuming that Shen didn’t really have the first hand information, and King of Wu’s expedition sailed from the mouth of Yangtze river, where their navy is actually based, then south east to that location would take them to Ryukyu (present say Okinawa).

What’s more likely is that the two generals Wei Wen and Zhuge Zhi never sailed that far into the ocean and decided to turn back. To avoid coming back empty handed, the two generals simply raided a near by island and Yue people living there. During the Three Kingdom’s period, there are many pockets of Yue people living through out Southern China, and the Wu Kingdom spent a lot of efforts putting down Yue resistance.

In short, it is highly probably that it isn’t Taiwan.

By the way, the two poor generals were killed one year after they got back from Yizhou due to dereliction of duty. The history books never said what duty though.

Ryukyu Kingdom (流求國) in the Book of Sui (隋書) it’s pretty much the same deal. I won’t bother to translate the whole thing, just the part in bold text.

In 605 C.E., during spring and autumn, when the weather was nice, navy officer He Man (何蠻) reported that there seemed to be smoke raising from a least a couple thousand Li away when they looked eastward into the sea. Emperor Yangdi ordered general Zhu Kuan (硃寬) to sail into the ocean to find out what’s out there in 608. Since He Man was the one reported it, he tagged along. They eventually reached Ryukyu, but since they didn’t speak the language, they abducted one man and returned.

In 609, Emperor Yangdi sent an envoy to demand submission and tribute. The Ryukyuans refused. Zhu Kuan only brought back their clothes and armour. At the time, Kingdom of Wuo (倭國, present day Japan) sent their ambassador to pay tribute, and saw the Ryukyuan clothes and armour, to which the Japanese ambassador said “this belongs to those living in the kingdom of Yiyejiu (夷邪久國, li-jia-kiu is probably closer to the pronunciation at the time of writing, which seems like another rendering of Ryukyu).”

The emperor then sent general Chen Leng (陳棱), and advisor Zhang Zhenzhou (張鎮州) to take an army and set sail from Yian (義安). They first arrived at Gaohua island (高華嶼), after another 2 days eastwards they got to Xi-bi island (郤鼊嶼, kiok-bi su should be closer to the pronunciation at the time of writing), and it took them one more day to Ryukyu. At first, since Chen Leng enlisted people from the southern kingdoms, there was some black people who could understand Ryukyuans. After the interpreters delivered the demands of submission and tribute, Ryukyuans still refused. They turned on Chen Leng and his men, and Chen Leng fought back, sacking their capital, decimated their army, burnt down their palaces, and captured a thousand man and woman. After they returned to Sui, there had been no more contacts between Sui and Ryukyu.







It is unlikely that Ryukyu in the book of Sui refers to Taiwan, it’s much more likely that it actually refers to Ryukyu (Okinawa). However, if it does refer to Taiwan, judging by the response of the Japanese Ambassador, it would mean the Japanese were the first to discover Taiwan (aside from the Negritos and Austronesians).

As far as I know people where living in huts, wearing skirts made out of leaves doing the hunter gathering thing. There is also mention of a small group of chinese traders already on the island.

They were like that, but at the same time they were also skilled sailors and navigators starting as early late as 5,000 years ago. The sailors from Taiwan went to Penghu and brought back basalt rocks from Penghu for building materials. They also traded gold and jade ware made in Taiwan to the Philippines, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Besides trading, they’ve also migrated outwards, bring with them the areca nut culture, along with betel leaves. A recent study revealed that paper mulberry trees in Oceania originated from Taiwan.

Taiwanese aboriginals used the bark of paper mulberries to make clothing by beating its bark into paper-like fabric with a specific stone tool. The tool also surfaced around the pacific around 4,000 years ago. Many Austronesian societies still practise bark clothes making.

Making clothes out of paper mulberry trees in Tonga.

Paper mulberries are native to Taiwan, and they blossom and have seeds. In Oceania, only one gender of the trees survived, and people have to populate the trees manually by root cutting and planting the roots. When Taiwanese researches showed them pictures of paper mulberry blossoms and fruits, people there were shocked, as they have never seen it before.

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More studies on the distribution of the gender of paper mulberry trees. The plant for some reason isn’t found in the Philippines and Borneo. A subsequent study of chloroplast haplotypes linked paper mulberry of Remote Oceania directly to a population in southern Taiwan, distinct from known populations in mainland Southeast-Asia.

These remote paper mulberry trees are coppiced and harvested for production of bark-cloth, so flowering is generally unknown.

The male paper mulberry trees found in Hawaii today are modern introductions from East Asia, probably by Japanese immigrants.