Gaoshan Ethnic Minority

Written by Matteo Updated Jun. 18, 2021

Gaoshan Ethnic Minority is an ethnic group inhabiting Taiwan. The Gaoshan are the aborigines of Taiwan, mainly living in mountainous areas, flat valleys on the east coast of Taiwan Island and the Isle of Lanyu in Taiwan. Some inhabit coastal areas, such as Fujian Province and Zhejiang Province in coastal areas of the mainland of china. Due to the difference in regions and languages, Gaoshan ethnic Minority is also divided into 13 subgroups, including Amei, Taiya, Paiwan, Lukai, Beinan, Caoren, Saixia and Dawu. In addtion, there are more than 100,000 Pingpu people who have been deeply influenced by the Han nationality. In history, there are 10 subgroups among Pingpu people, living in western, northern, southwestern plateaus and coastal areas of Taiwan. Pingpu people lived together and get married to the Han nationality for a long time and absorbed the culture of the Han nationality from early on. After the 19th century, they have basically been considered the same as the Han nationality. The living areas of Gaoshan ethnic group enjoy tropical and subtropical climates, with a large coverage of forests, so they are often called “forest treasury”.

Gaoshan people have their own language, belonging to Indonesian branch of Austronesian language family. Their language can be roughly divided into three subgroups, including Qinhuai, Cao and Paiwan. Gaoshan people don’t have their own scripts. Gaoshan people living in the mainland of china mainly use Chinese letters. Gaoshan people living in Taiwan have their very own unique arts and culture, with abundant oral literature such as myths, legend, folk songs, etc. Gaoshan people mainly live on farming and supplement on fishing and hunting. Their handicraft skills include weaving, bamboo weaving, carving, vine weaving, bamboo cutting, porcelain, etc.


Gaoshan people used to live in the primitive society stage of development for a long time. According to history, during the Period of Three Kingdoms, more than 1700 years ago, the ancestors of Gaoshan people were divided into several tribes. They used stone hatchet, stone rings, stone adze, antlers and bluestones as tools. They mainly lived on hunting, and animal husbandry is not developed. It was until the 7th century that they started to have farming and animal husbandry, and their productive tools are still stone implements, but also with some ironware. There is a chief in every tribe. There were no taxes, and public affairs were managed by members of the tribe. If someone commits crime, the members of the tribe will discuss and agree on a way of punishment, according to customs and habits. If the crime is grave, the offender might be put to death. There were no scripts or calendars. They worship mountain deities and sea deities. At gatherings, they were always singing and dancing. They had carvings and paintings back then. According to historic records, there were some developments in agriculture, animal husbandry and hunting, and they traded with people on the coastal areas of the mainland of china.

After the 17th century, some of the Gaoshan people living in the southwestern plateau have stepped into feudal society. Since the beginning of the 16th century, Gaoshan people in Taiwan had suffered foreign aggression for many times. They fought back tenaciously and bravely. For a long time, Gaoshan people and Han nationality fought together against foreign aggression and exploited and developed Taiwan.

Arts and Culture

The folk literature of Gaoshan ethnic group includes folk songs, myths, legends, stories, etc, which is rich, simple and colorful. The folk songs not only depict the productive life of farming, fishing and hunting, but also the wars and brave fights. The folk songs sound refreshing and melodic. Their myths are rich in connotation, and during the developing process they have formed a system centered on ancestors, marriage, conquering the sun, etc. They speak highly of the faith, hope, values and artistic accomplishment of Gaoshan people.

Gaoshan ethnic minority is full of artistic talent. Their folk arts such as singing, music, dancing and carving are world famous. In addition, their wood carving arts are full of unique features of the primitive art of the Pacific region, and the wood carvings of Paiwan people are the most outstanding. Houses, weapons or household utensils are all carved with decorations, with primitive simplicity and rough carving skills. The images are mostly centered on the topic of human portraits, and also the combination of human head, snake, deer and geometrical images of totem features.


Exposure is considered to be beautiful by Gaoshan people. In the past, they were only dressed in a piece of cloth over the private parts and a belt of fur over the waist. After coming into contact with Han nationality, the habit of men wearing long robes and women wearing shirts was gradually formed. Clothes are made with home-weave linen with color stripes, and other materials include hide and bark. In the northern part, people usually wear sleeveless jackets, top and belts. In the central part, people usually wear deerskin waistcoats, waist band and top and black-cloth skirts. In the southern part, people usually wear long-sleeved coats with buttons down the front, skirts, leggings and black head cloth. Women wear long coats with short skirts or short coats with long skirts. Yamei people’s clothes are very simple. Men wear sleeveless sweaters and a piece of cloth to cover their private parts. Women wear sleeveless sweaters and tight skirts. In winter, they cover the body with quadrate cloth.


Gaoshan people like holding banquets and singing and dancing parties during festivals or jubilant occasions. In celebration of festivals, they will slaughter pigs and cattle, and prepare wine for the banquet. At the end of the year, Bunong people use the leaves of a plant called “Xinuo” to wrap with glutinous rice, then steam it and share them with family members in celebration. The most representative foods that Gaoshan people entertain at festive banquets are cakes and Ciba (cooked glutinous rice pounded into paste) made of various kinds of glutinous rice. They serve not only as desserts during festivals, but also the offerings for sacrificial ceremonies. Glutinous rice is also prepared as meals to entertain guests. Gaoshan people have numerous sacrificial activities, such as ancestor sacrifice, grain deity sacrifice, mountain deity sacrifice, hunting deity sacrifice, marriage sacrifice and harvest sacrifice, among which, the Wunianji (Five Year Sacrifice) of Paiwan peole is the grandest. Besides holding banquets and serving sacrificial offerings, there are many sports and recreational activities. At the banquets of the wedding ceremonies, lots of wine is prepared. People who come to the banquets will all drink a lot of wine, and they won’t leave for home until they are drunk.


Gaoshan people mainly live on grain and root vegetables, including Chestnut, rice, potato and taro, accompanied by coarse cereals, edible wild herbs and preys. In mountainous areas, the staple foods include chestnuts and upland rice. In plain areas, the staple food is paddy rice. Except for Yamei people and Bunong people, the other subgroups eat rice as daily food, accompanied by potatoes and coarse cereals. Yamei people living in Lanyu Islet mainly eat taro, millet and fish. Bunong people mainly eat millet, corn and potatoes. Gaoshan people are fond of smoking, drinking and chewing betelnut.


Gaoshan people adopt monogamy and prohibit marriages between blood relatives. They get married according to their own will. For instance, Taiya people whistle to show their love, while Amei women go to the men’s home and send gifts to show their love. Burial ceremonies vary. Taiya people, Bunong people and Cao people usually bury the dead under his or her bed inside the room. However, Paiwan people and Dawu people bury the dead in the wild. Amei people bury the dead in the open ground in front or behind the house; while for people who died a violent death, his or her body will be buried at the place where the person died.


In terms of visual sense, it is considered inauspicious to see someone who died a violent death and their burying place, or animals mating. In terms of touch reception, it is inauspicious to touch fetish or stuff of the dead. There are also some special taboos. For instance, women cannot touch the hunting equipments and weapons that men have used, such as bow, arrow, gun and spear. Women cannot enter men’s place or sacrificial venues at random. Men cannot touch the loom or raw hemp that women have used.

When people are out fishing, hunting or attending sacrificial ceremonies, the fire set up at their home should not be extinguished. During sacrificial ceremonies, it is not allowed to eat fish or sneeze. Gaoshan people in the southern region of Taiwan believe that the spirit goes out of the human body while sneezing, which will attract evil spirits, indicating the impendent disasters. Giving birth to twins is also forbidden. It is believed that the twins are wild beasts which predict the coming of disasters. Thus, they will kill one of the twins to ward off the disaster. Illegitimate children are strictly forbidden and usually abandoned to the wild. The father should not touch his baby, because Gaoshan people believe that the babies are fragile and will infect his or her fragility to his father who will lack strength to run and will hunt for nothing. This very unusual taboo is a “policy” to ensure that the custody of children belongs to mothers in matrilineal society.

Religious Belief

Gaoshan ethnic minority still keeps the ancient religious belief and ceremonies. They worship spirits, and their deities vary from place to place, such as heaven deity, universe-creating deity, nature deity, Sili deity and some other spirits and ghosts. Sacrifices include agriculture sacrifice (cultivation sacrifice, sowing sacrifice, weeding sacrifice, harvest sacrifice, etc), hunting sacrifice, fishing sacrifice, ancestor-worshipping sacrifice, etc. Witchcraft is very popular there, and the methods of soothsaying include bird-soothsaying, dream-soothsaying, water-soothsaying, rice-soothsaying, etc. There are also many witchcraft books of various forms. The religious belief of Gaoshan people is very complicated. Han nationality introduced Buddhism, while western aggressors introduced Christianity and Catholicism. Several kinds of religions have developed among Gaoshan people; therefore nowadays in the religious life of Gaoshan people, many religions coexist.

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