Understanding Taiwan’s Ethnic Groups

Have you ever heard anyone talk about the ethnic groups of Taiwan and wondered what they meant? Do you know your Yuanzhumin from your Waishengren? This is a brief guide to understanding the terms Taiwanese people use to describe themselves and others.

Traditionally Taiwan has been divided into four ethno-linguistic groups. Why “ethno-linguistic” and not “ethnic”? Because some people maintain there is little ethnic difference between some of these groups, in terms of different racial features, but they are divided on the basis of language (and culture).

The longest-established of these four groups is, as the name would imply, the Aboriginal Taiwanese. Also known as Yuanzhumin 原住民 (original inhabitants), nobody is quite sure when they arrived on the island, but it was thousands of years ago at minimum. There is a lot of variation within the Aboriginal group, with more than a dozen tribes which vary in physiognomy, language, and culture. While Aboriginal peoples previously settled throughout the whole island, the lowland groups were either assimilated into later immigrant Chinese groups or driven into the hills by these same settlers, so the major Aboriginal populations are concentrated in the harder-to-reach parts of Taiwan. Many Aborigines are Christian, the legacy of long years of missionary contact.

In common with Aboriginal populations in other parts of the world, such as the Americas and Australasia, the Taiwanese native population is one of the most marginalised groups in the country. With only around 400,000 Aborigines out of a total population of 23 million, their political voice is weak, and they have been variously attacked, ignored, or patronized by successive governments. Discrimination against them is rife and they remain the group with the highest unemployment, lowest education, and lowest life expectancy in the country. Social problems include alcoholism and the flight of young people from the villages who move to the big cities for work. The standard amount of contact that the average non-Aboriginal Taiwanese person has with Aboriginal people is a brief visit to one of the tasteless “cultural villages” in the hills, where a Disney-fied version of the singing, dancing savage is paraded for the amusement of the gawping masses.

Against this bleak picture there are reasons for hope. Some decision-making power has been devolved to local communities, though not nearly enough. There is an Aboriginal channel on cable television, and Aboriginal affairs are starting to be taken more seriously by central government. With greater political organization and respect from other groups, the possibilities for a better future are growing.

The other three groups are collectively considered to be “Han”, or ethnically Chinese. They are, in order of arrival in Taiwan, the Hoklo, the Hakka, and the Mainlanders.

The second oldest of Taiwan’s four main groups are the Hoklo Taiwanese. Usually called Minnanren 閩南人 in Taiwan, this name stems from the origins of this group across the Taiwan Strait. “Min” is an alternative name for Fujian province, so the name Minnan just means “south Fujian”. First brought over in large numbers by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, successive waves of settlers from Fujian arrived in Taiwan over the two centuries following, escaping poverty and famine or seeking their fortune in the frontier life of Taiwan. Because few women made the trip in the early days, most Hoklo in Taiwan will also have some percentage of Aboriginal DNA.

The Hoklo are now the largest group in Taiwan, making up roughly two thirds of the population. They have their own language, usually known as Taiwanese, though not all Taiwanese speakers are Hoklo, and not all Hoklo speak Taiwanese. The culture of this group evolved, like the language, from that of their homeland across the Strait. Predominantly Buddhist and Taoist, they dominate the business world and cultural life of the island. With the democratisation of Taiwan in the 1990s, the Hoklo became the most important group in electoral politics, and while the DPP is predominantly seen as the Hoklo party, a large minority of Hoklo people vote for the KMT.

The Hakka are the third group, numbering about three million. Concentrated in two areas in Taiwan, the northern Hakka can be found in Hsinchu, Taoyuan and Miaoli, while the southern Hakka are mainly based in the Meinong, Kaohsiung. They are considered to be clannish and rather closed, and in centuries past were involved in near-constant low-level conflict with the other groups in Taiwan. The Hakka themselves maintain that their origins are in northern China, and recent DNA evidence seems to support that. They have however lived in southern China for many centuries, and it is from there (predominantly Guangdong) that they immigrated to Taiwan. Most arrived here in the eighteenth century, and the communities have remained strong since then. The Hakka language is quite distinct from Taiwanese and Mandarin, but it is under threat as younger people learn it imperfectly.

Together the Hoklo and the Hakka are sometimes called benshengren 本省人, or “in-province people”. This is bound up with the whole “Republic of China” concept, where Taiwan is just one province in a larger China. The waishengren 外省人 “out-province people” were the last group to arrive here, during the period 1945–1950. Around three million Chinese from all over the country were evacuated to Taiwan as the Chinese civil war started to go badly for the Nationalists. These “Mainlanders” were made up of a disparate group of people, from government officials and administrators to soldiers in the Nationalist army. Though various languages were spoken by these new immigrants, Mandarin Chinese was the most prominent, and was promoted (and later enforced) by the KMT government of the time. The first generation of waishengren is now almost all gone, and the sharp distinctions between them and the benshengren are fading with them. Though their children are often considered waishengren, despite being born in Taiwan, the conflict between groups has diminished as Taiwan has matured.

Aside from the four groups above, there are also more recent immigrants, like the overseas (mostly Vietnamese and Chinese) spouses, and the South East Asian labourers who now number in the hundreds of thousands. There is also the small community of ex-patriots from Western countries, and other places like Korea and Japan. This mix of different peoples and cultures is one of the things that make Taiwan such a fascinating, vibrant place.