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ALTERNATE NAMES: Milin; Sanmei; Liuqiu; Amei; Taiyar; Paiwan; Bunong; Lukai; Beinan; Zou; Saixia; Yamei and Pingpu
LOCATION: China; Taiwan
LANGUAGE: Taiyer, Saide, Zou, Sha, Ka, Paiwan, Ameisi, Bunong, Lukai, Saixiate, Beinan, Shao, Chinese
RELIGION: Traditional beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities


The ancestors of the Gaoshan belonged to the Min-Yue people (inhabiting part of present-day Fujian and Guangdong provinces) and, more remotely, to the Baiyue of ancient China. The history of the Gaoshan is closely related to that of Taiwan, because the Gaoshan are the aboriginals of that island. According to historical documents of the Three Kingdoms (220–265), their ancestors were divided into tribes, the members of which were called "Milin." Public affairs were administered by the tribe members themselves. Agriculture and livestock husbandry appeared in the 7th century, complementing hunting and fishing.

The historical records of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) describe their trade with the coastal inhabitants of mainland China. Between 1563 and 1603, the Japanese army invaded Taiwan several times, but it finally was defeated by the military forces of the imperial Ming. In 1624, the Netherlands' army intruded into southwest Taiwan, where it established fortresses and occupied the land. The Spanish army made incursions into the northern part of the island in 1626; however, the Dutch vanquished the Spaniards in 1642 and replaced them in northern Taiwan. An uprising led by Guo Huaiyi against Dutch domination in 1652 failed. In 1661, a former general of the imperial Ming, Zheng Chenggong, better known as Koxinga (1624–1662), setting out from Xiamen and Jinmen on the mainland, succeeded in landing his army on Taiwan. After nine months of fierce fighting, the Dutch invaders were compelled to lay down their arms.

In 1683, the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) unified Taiwan. At that time, there were approximately 300 villages of Gaoshan people who had preserved important aspects of their primitive family type, clan organization, and religious beliefs. From the 17th century onward, there was a continuous flow of Chinese migrants to Taiwan, mainly Minnan from southern Fujian Province and Hakka (or Kejia) from Guangdong Province. In 1786, an armed conflict between the Gaoshan and the Chinese erupted and continued for more than one year but ended in a stalemate. Japan occupied Taiwan after the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. The Gaoshan and the Chinese united in opposing Japanese domination, uprisings flaring up every other year. An uprising in 1930 wiped out more than 4,000 Japanese soldiers. Following the end of the Second World War (1939–45), Taiwan returned to China in 1945.


The Gaoshan people number about 500,000, living mainly in mountainous areas, in the eastern coast plains of Taiwan, and on Lanyu Island; they are also found in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Fujian. They form a small portion of Taiwan's overall population of 24 million. The Taiwan Mountain chain extends from north to south, exerting a strong influence on the weather. Large areas of Taiwan, especially in the center and in the south, boast spring-like weather year-round. The abundant rainfall and rich soil make it possible to reap two rice crops a year and even three in the central and southern parts of the island. Taiwan is famous for its abundant production of sugarcane, tea, and fruits. There are vast forested areas; the production of camphor accounts for 70% of the world's output. The fishing industry, especially on the Pacific coast, is thriving. Mining is also an important economic activity. Since the 1970s Taiwan has become a leader in the productivity of its manufacturing sector, including both light and heavy industries. It is obvious that the Gaoshan have not benefited as much as could have been desired from this economic boom.


Gaoshan languages are classified as belonging to the Austronesian family, Indonesia group. They have no writing system. The Gaoshan who have different names speak different languages. More than 20 languages have been identified, of which 13 are still in use. These languages can be divided into three groups: the Taiyar group, including Taiyer and Saide languages; the Zou group, including Zou, Sha, and Ka languages; and the Paiwan group, including Paiwan, Ameisi, Bunong, Lukai, Saixiate, Beinan, and Shao languages. In addition, there is a Yamei language on Lanyu Island. Most of these language groups are mutually unintelligible. The Pingpu branch of the Gaoshan now speaks Chinese.

Chinese historical documents recorded some of the ancient names of the early inhabitants of Taiwan: Sanmei during the Three Kingdoms, Liuqiu in the Sui Dynasty (581–618), etc. After the Tang Dynasty (618–907), Malays and other nationalities migrated to Taiwan successively and assimilated with the aboriginals. They were called Dongfan and Yi in the Ming Dynasty and Fanzhu and Tufan in the Qing Dynasty. During the Japanese occupation, they were called Fanzhu and Gaobushaozhu. The inhabitants of Taiwan other than Gaoshan usually call them Shandiren or Shanbao, which means "mountain people." Because of their different languages and locations, they were divided into the Amei, Taiyar, Paiwan, Bunong, Lukai, Beinan, Zou, Saixia, Yamei, and Pingpu.


The Gaoshan have a rich mythology. On Lanyu Island, it is said that the Yami are the offspring of two male gods, one of whom appeared from the splitting of a rock, the other from a bamboo rent in two by a seismic sea wave. When the gods' knees bumped against each other, there emerged a man and a woman, the remote ancestors of the Yami. According to the legend of the Saixia, a long time ago the almighty God created a number of men and women who led peaceful lives in the mountains. One day, a violent typhoon attacked them. Torrential rains poured down for days. Suddenly, an avalanche of water and mudflow rushed down the mountain. People, engulfed, disappeared in an instant. Only one man was lucky enough to escape. Viewing the bodies of the people, the almighty God was very sad. When he saw the only man alive, an aspiration to recreate mankind welled up in his heart. He put the man's skin and flesh into the sea, and these became a multitude of people swimming to the land, setting up villages and settling down. God called them "Sasite," the ancestors of the Saixia. He then put the intestine of that man into the sea. Another group of people appeared. They were the ancestors of the Chinese who dwell in Taiwan. They lived a long (chang) life because they came from the intestine (chang) of that man.

There is also in the legends of the Gaoshan a hero called Ali. He was a brave and good-natured hunter. One day, he saw two girls attacked by a tiger. He saved them from its jaws. Then came an old man, who seized the girls. When Ali drove him away, the sky turned dark all around, with lightning accompanied by peals of thunder. The girls told him that they were fairy maidens. Since they had stayed too long in the world, they would suffer a cruel punishment; his rescue had only made matters worse. Subsequently, the Jade Emperor ordered the Thunder God to kill all the people as well as the plants and animals in the area where Ali had saved the girls. The girls sought to draw the thunder against themselves at a barren mountain not far away, where the fire could not spread. Thinking that it was he who stirred up all the trouble, Ali ran to the barren mountain. He cried loudly to the Thunder God: "It is all my fault, so punish me if you want!" A deafening thunderclap smashed the body of Ali to pieces. Since there were no trees or bushes on the barren mountain, the fire died out quickly. After his death, the barren mountain was covered by a thick forest. Deeply moved by his heroic behavior, the two fairy maidens turned themselves into grass and flowers. In memory of this nice young man, the mountain has been called "Alishan" since then. It is now a very famous tourist resort.


The Gaoshan have preserved many primitive beliefs and rituals. They believe the spirits are in all things around them and revere a great many gods, such as the gods of the universe, of Heaven, of nature, as well as a variety of spirits and goblins. However, the gods they worship are not the same from one district to the next. Witchcraft is widespread. There are various talismanic scriptures. Methods of divination include birds, dreams, water, bamboo, rice, and the wooden dipper.


Gaoshan holidays, based on the lunar calendar, are closely related to their work and to their religion. On lunar New Year's Eve (Western calendar, between January 20 and February 19), members of each household are reunited for a dinner party held around a large table, on which a chafing dish is the central dish. People are entertained with drama in the temple. It is humorously called "creditor avoiding drama," because some people hide themselves among the spectators to dodge the creditors at the end of the year—the time for settling accounts. On the Spring Festival (Western calendar, between January 21 and February 20), they call on each other's family, saying a few auspicious words, and participate in recreational activities. The Good Year Festival coincides with traditional holidays in August, lasting for about 10 days. They offer sacrifice to ancestors. Many centuries ago, the sacrifice included a human head. Later on, it was replaced by a half-year pig. Actually, a series of sacrificial rituals are held, including the family ritual, the village ritual, the road ritual, the rally ritual, the moon watching ritual, the god touring ritual, the god greeting ritual, the singing and dancing ritual, etc. The ceremonies are presided over, in turn, by the headmen of the clans. On the first day of the festival, matches should not be used for lighting the stove; they are replaced by drilling wood to make a fire. Grand performances of dancing and singing are held for entertainment. The Bumper Harvest Festival is held in October, lasting for three or four days. More than 100 wine jars are placed in an open space. The ceremony is presided over by the headman of the tribe, who dips his fingers in the wine and sprinkles it to his left and right, in the air and on the earth. This is the libation for the gods and ancestors. Then all of the participants dance hand in hand while singing and drinking. The Fifth Year Festival is so named because it is held only once every five years on a selected date after the autumn harvest. For the occasion, a sacrificial rite for the ancestors is held. Participants celebrate the bumper harvest and enjoy the entertainment.


A tradition handed down from the ancient Yue on the mainland requires that youngsters reaching adulthood should have one or two canine teeth extracted. This rite of passage, which also includes tattooing, is still practiced in some districts today. In other areas, lovers will each extract two incisors and exchange them as a token of their lasting affection.

The Gaoshan generally practice ground burial. In some areas, however, the body is buried inside the house beneath the bed of the deceased. They put the body inside a box made of wooden planks, which also contains half of the deceased's clothes, a dark blue cloth three meters (about one yard) in length or a deer skin. In other districts, the box is made of stone slabs, cubic in shape, and the body is put in a sitting posture with the knees flexed. In certain districts, they practice naked burial. The clothes are completely taken off and the body is wrapped with deer skin. Four relatives carry it to the mountain. They open the deer skin, put the body inside a cavern, wrap it with a few pieces of the dead person's clothes, and finally cover it with earth. They consider that the dead body does not need clothes any more, which should be offered to the soul.


The Gaoshan are very hospitable. Guests are received by the host and offered not only a cup of tea, but also some bread or biscuits.

Every youngster is free to express his or her affections. For instance, the Taiyar young man conveys his feeling through whistles. Some Amei girls go to a young man's family to present a gift and to express their love-sickness. In some districts, a girl's parents build up a room for their daughter when she reaches adulthood, where she may live by herself. The young men will come to play musical instruments to express their passions. One of them will be invited to her room to talk about love. Before long, they will go hand in hand to her parents, announcing that they have decided to be life-long companions. A wedding ceremony will be held.


Most Gaoshan houses have wooden structures, thatched roofs, and small square windows. The beds encircle the room. Some houses are built of stone, roofed with flags and floored with slab stones. Coastal Gaoshan double the wall thickness of their house with planks inside and cobbles on the exterior. The floor is two-to-three meters (about two-to-three yards) below the ground. This is an ingenious means devised by the Gaoshan to withstand the typhoons, which yearly hit the east coast with formidable strength.

Communications and transport are very difficult for Gaoshan inhabiting the high mountains. They throw sliding ropes, suspension bridges made of rattan and bamboo, and arch bridges, across the canyons. They live in compact communities, each consisting of 60–70 families. A large village community may accommodate 600–700 households. There is public land, a part of which may be used freely by the community members. There are also collective activities, such as sacrificial rites, hunting, fishing, and farming. Therefore, one notices hardly any difference in the living standards of the villagers of a given community.


One finds patrilineal, matrilineal, and bilateral families among the Gaoshan. The Bunong and the Zou belong to a patrilineal family structure, with a man as the patriarch and only men have the right of inheritance. The Amei and the Beinan are matrilineal, with a woman as the head of the family. The pedigree follows the matrilineal line, the eldest daughter inheriting the family property and married men live with their wife's family. Families of the Paiwan are bilateral: the family property is inherited by the eldest son or eldest daughter. Therefore, the size of the family varies, 6–7 members on average, 30–40 in some cases.

The Gaoshan are monogamous. The youngsters select their spouses, but marriage of close relatives is prohibited. Young men of the Amei and a part of the Paiwan live in a public meeting place for a period of time before their marriage—until they reach adulthood.


Gaoshan clothes are mostly made of linen and cloth. They vary in style in different areas. The men usually wear capes, vests, short garments, shorts, head wrappings, and puttees (leggings). Some of their vests are made of rind of rattan or willow. The women usually wear a short garment (with or without sleeves), trousers or skirts, an apron, and a cloth (or linen) wrapping the body and tied over the shoulder. The cloth or linen is woven and dyed by women. They like to do embroidery on their scarf, apron, sleeves, and garments. The Taiyar sew strings of shells in transverse rows on their clothes. Some of them sew strings of pearls or shells on a cloth and sell it as "pearl cloth" or "shell cloth." Women like to wear ornaments made of shell or animal bone. Men carry a bag containing a smoking set and areca for chewing. Some of them like to decorate their hair with eagle feathers. Tattooing is practiced in some districts. As for the Gaoshan living in cities, their lifestyle is hardly different from that of the Chinese.


The staple foods of the Gaoshan include rice, millet, and taro. They take three meals a day, some only two. Rice is taken at breakfast and dinner. They like glutinous millet cakes. Some of them add peanuts and animal meat in glutinous millet, rolled up in leaves and steamed. The diet proteins come from pork, beef, and chicken, sometimes from wild game, which is taboo for pregnant women. The Gaoshan take roasted meat and rice in bamboo tubes and chafing dishes on festivals. They produce their own utensils, mostly potteries. Drinking and smoking are prevalent.


Urban Gaoshan have a high level of education, while peasants in the mountainous regions have a rather low one. The Pingpu receive the same formal education as the Chinese do.


The Gaoshan gather to sing and dance on festivals. Their folk songs include ancestors' songs, hunting songs, cultivating songs, and elegies. The "Pestling Song" of Gaoshan women is unique. They gather around a stone mortar while pestling the rice. The regular rhythm of their pestling sound creates a tempo of percussion, which accompanies their melodious songs.

Besides the "Drinking Dance" performed by a few dancers, the "Sacrificial Rite Dance" of both sexes and the "Hair Swinging Dance" of the girls are group dances. The "Hair Swinging Dance" is popular on Lanyu Island. Girls in rows sing a traditional song while dancing. They swing their long hair slowly in the beginning. Following the acceleration of tempo, they bend their body to touch the ground with their hair, then swiftly stretch their body to swing their hair behind their head. They dance in this way until they are exhausted.

Myths, legends, and folk songs form the main body of their literature, which was handed down orally.


Generally speaking, the Gaoshan mainly engage in agriculture. Those dwelling in the mountainous areas hunt as a sideline. The Amei and the Beinan hold large-scale hunting expeditions once or twice a year. Guns, arrows and crossbows, nets, and pitfalls are used. The Yamei of Lanyu Island fish and raise chickens and pigs. The main economic activity of the Paiwan is ox-raising. The Zou and Bunong, living in mountainous areas, are good at tanning hides. The Amei and the Beinan build canoes out of tree trunks, while the Yamei of Lanyu Island make a unique fishing boat with both ends rising high above the water. The Taiyar are adept at fishnet and string bag weaving, as well as at wood carving of mortar and pestle.


Spectator sports are usually held on festivals. The sports include wrestling, tug-of-war, arrow shooting, and a series of competitions related to their daily life, such as rice pestling, thatched cottage building, and weight lifting. In the rice pestling competition, a young man and girl representing the village pestle an equal amount of paddy. Those who attain the best quality in the shortest time win the match. Thatched cottages as shelter are necessary in hunting; therefore, cottage-building competitions are meaningful for young men. It begins with bamboo-strip paring and concludes when a thatched cottage is built. Time, quality, and external appearance are the main standards of evaluation. The weight lifting competition, held right after harvest, is quite exhausting. The ears of rice are tied up into two bundles (altogether 450–550 lbs) and put on the two ends of a bamboo pole. Several young men lift the pole to one shoulder of a contestant, who marches on at once. The distance the contestant can carry the load is the main criteria for determining the winner.


Movies and television are already popular and easily accessible for the Gaoshan in Taiwan. But most Gaoshan still prefer their rich fount of traditional songs and dances, in which they excel and which plays an important social function, especially on festive occasions. There are quite a few "social" games that retain their appeal for the community at large. For instance, a girl carries a basket on her back and runs ahead in twists and turns while a young man, chasing her, tries to throw areca or oranges into her basket. He who has placed the largest number of areca or oranges inside the basket within the prescribed time is declared the winner. Flower crown weaving is a game for girls. They must weave the most beautiful flower crowns during a given time. The crowns are offered as gifts to the spectators.


The Gaoshan, especially the Paiwan, excel at painting and carving. The columns, thresholds, wall planks, and lintels of their house, daily-used artifacts and ornaments, implements and canoes, are frequently adorned with painting or carving of personages, animals, flowers, figurines, and geometric designs. They like to engrave the image of snakes with human heads. Articles made of bamboo and rattan, such as baskets, hats, vests, or suits of armor, are solid and artistically made.


The different Gaoshan groups have profited in a very unequal manner from the tremendous economic development of Taiwan: Those residing in the plains near the cities (Suao, Hua-Lien, Pingtung, Kaohsiung, Taichung, etc.) have experienced unprecedented economic development, while those inhabiting high mountainous areas or barren coastal areas have become relatively poor (in terms of purchasing power). Although attempts have been made to improve the education of the Gaoshan, no effective school system has been set up, especially for the poorer and more disadvantaged Gaoshan groups.


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. However, there are continued reports of discrimination, sexual harassment, wage discrepancies, and other gender related problems. While the nationwide gap in educational level between women and men is narrowing (with women making up 47.1% of college students in 2005, but only 32.6% of doctoral students), the Gaoshan have not participated significantly in higher education.

China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests and enforce laws that often leave women with no real options other than abortion or sterilization. While minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. As of 2008 minority couples living in urban areas may have two children, while minority couples living in rural areas are permitted three or four children.


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—by C. Le Blanc