The most important traditional indigenous production activities were farming and hunting. The farming systems they used were crop rotation and shifting cultivation. Crops included millet, dry rice, sweet potato, taro, and corn.
Of these crops, millet has been cultivated by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples the longest, and was eaten or used to make wine. Millet was seen as a traditional and sacred crop, and so each tribe had its own taboos and ceremonies associated with millet production, from preparing the soil and planting, to harvesting and storing the grain. The Amis, Tao, Tsou, Bunun, and Atayal peoples all had ceremonies associated with sowing and reaping.
Indigenous Taiwanese also planted rice, though the varieties and methods of planting and storage they used differed from the Chinese. Chinese customarily grew paddy rice: first, seedlings were grown, and then transplanted. After harvesting, the mature rice was threshed and the grain stored. Indigenous people on the other hand grew dry, or upland, rice. The rice was scattered directly on the field without fertilizer. When harvesting, the rice heads were cut, bound into sheaves, and then dried in the sun. Finally it was stored in a granary. When needed, the rice heads were retrieved from the granary and husked with a mortar and pestle. A Record of Missions to Taiwan and Adjacent Waters describes how plains indigenous peoples “plant enough rice each year to eat themselves. They won’t trade or sell it, even at many times the price.” In other words, agricultural production was mainly for self-sufficiency.
The occupying Japanese hoped that the indigenous peoples would abandon their original ways of life, such as shifting cultivation and hunting. They taught them to grow paddy rice instead, which benefited the Japanese in two ways. It allowed the Taiwan Governor-General’s Office to levy taxes on the rice, while adopting this form of settled agriculture also made it difficult for indigenous people to move around, and therefore easier for the Japanese to manage.
In this category there are 16 photographs broadly divided into three types. The first set of six are photographs of traditional farm work. The next set of seven photographs show indigenous people learning how to grow paddy rice, while the final three are photographs of indigenous agricultural products.
After harvesting the rice heads, indigenous farmers dried the rice in the sun and then stored it in their granaries. Every morning when they needed to cook, they retrieved as many rice heads as needed and husked the rice with a mortar and pestle. Indigenous people all over Taiwan all had a mortar and pestle for this purpose.
The tools used for husking rice were mostly made of wood, though differed in form from people to people. The Atayal used shallow, narrow-waisted, wooden mortars, which were fairly distinctive compared to those used by other indigenous peoples. The Tsou and the Thao, on the other hand, used mortars that were almost straight-sided. Pestles used for rice husking were for the most part made of wood, about 80cm in length, with a narrower midsection to make them easier to grip. Pestles similarly varied in shape.
This category of 23 photographs of rice husking are grouped according to tribe. Eleven of them show the Atayal. The remainder, in descending order, show the Thao, Tsou, Paiwan and Amis.
Indigenous people often chose to establish their settlements on mountain slopes facing streams, without being too close to the water to avoid the risk of flooding. The water needed each day had to be fetched and carried home from the stream. Earthenware jars, bamboo tubes, bottle gourds, and coconut shells were used for this purpose.
The women of plains indigenous peoples like the Amis carried water home on their heads in earthenware jars.
Remains of all kinds of earthenware vessels often found on Taiwan’s archeological sites, reveal that the Atayal and Saisiyat had no apparent pottery technology. The majority of the pottery techniques once used by the other peoples have not been passed down to the present. By the early twentieth century, only the Amis and Tao continued to manufacture earthenware vessels.
Amis women were responsible for making their community’s earthenware vessels. First the clay was collected, pounded, and the impurities picked out. It was then molded into shape. The pot was then placed on a pedestal, and wooden tools used to refine the shape. After shaping, the jar was left to dry indoors for four or five days.
Taiwan’s indigenous peoples did not make kilns. Instead pots were fired on wood fires built in outdoor open areas.
The Tao also manufactured earthenware, but it was the responsibility of the men. Earthenware vessels could be used not only to carry water, but also for storage and cooking. They were also traded with other communities.
Of the ten photographs in this category, six depict Amis women making earthenware vessels and carrying water in them.
Indigenous people living in mountain communities commonly used bamboo tubes to fetch water. They built up stone enclosures in the stream to retain water, and then filled gourds, coconut shells, or short bamboo tubes.
Thick sections of ma bamboo were used to make tubes about a meter in length for fetching water. All the joints inside the length of bamboo were broken through, leaving only the one at the base, and a cord attached to make it easier to carry. After arriving home with the bamboo tube, it was placed in a corner of the house. After any sediment had settled it could be used.
Besides manually carrying water, some tribes channeled water through bamboo pipes to a pool in the settlement.
Taiwan’s relatively narrow mountain streams being relatively small and its mountain paths rugged, using a bamboo tube to fetch and carry water had its advantages. It was not just indigenous Taiwanese who used this method: during the Japanese occupation, even troops garrisoned near tribal areas in the mountains adopted this method of fetching water. Needless to say, it was still indigenous people who carried the water for the Japanese troops.
There are four photographs in this set that show water being carried in bamboo tubes.
The staple foods of indigenous peoples were millet and rice, also taro and sweet potato.
They usually got up early, made a fire, and got ready to cook. The early seventeenth century travelogue, Small Sea Travel Journal, records a scene of indigenous people eating. “Of the five grains the land produces, savages only eat rice and millet; they never eat wheat. They do not prepare grain the previous night for their meals. Instead they rise at dawn to husk and cook it. When cooked, the family gather, form it into balls with their hands, and eat it.”
Indigenous people started fires by drilling wood or striking a stone with iron. They didn’t begin using matches until recent years, which they obtained by trading with Chinese. Indigenous cooking ranges were very simple in construction, built using a cooking rack made of three stone, wood, or earthenware supports. Earthenware pots or iron pots traded with the Chinese were used for cooking. They were placed on the rack and filled with husked millet and wild vegetables.
At mealtimes, the whole family surrounded the pot and helped themselves. A Record of Missions to Taiwan and Adjacent Waters records that when eating, southern plains communities didn’t use chopsticks, knives or forks, but squatted down by the pot, taking food out of the pot with their hands, or with a spoon.
Spoons were made out of three different materials. The Tao used coconut shells to make spoons, the Atayal bamboo, while wooden spoons were preferred by the southern peoples.
There are 18 photographs. The first, very precious photograph shows an indigenous person drilling wood to start a fire. The second depicts someone roasting taro in the wild. The remaining 16 images show people eating. They are arranged by tribe: Atayal, followed by Bunun and Paiwan.
The main musical instruments played by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples were the mouth harp, mouth bow, mouth flute, and nose flute.
The mouth harp is a long bamboo strip, pared back until it is thin. A bamboo or brass reed is mounted on the strip, fixed at one end and hanging free at the other. String is tied to both ends of the harp. When playing the harp, the string is pulled, which causes the reed to vibrate and make a “boing” sound.
The mouth bow was also a common instrument. A Record of Missions to Taiwan and Adjacent Waters contains a record of indigenous people living on the Pingtung plains: “When a girl reaches 15, she builds a house and lives there alone. If a man is interested, he will amuse her by playing the mouth zither. The mouth zither is a strip of bamboo about 30cm long pared into a bow shape, strung with silk strings . . . Holding the back of the bow in the mouth, plucking the zither string with a finger produces a sound known as turou. If the girl is inclined to accept, she will come outside and tell him to move in with her. This is known as “joining hands.”
The indigenous flute was usually made of bamboo. There were two types: nose flutes and mouth flutes. Some were single pipe, while others were twin pipe.
Mouth flutes can be further divided into upright and side-blown flutes. Upright mouth flutes were played by indigenous people all over Taiwan. The Amis, Puyuma, and Tsou also had side-blown mouth flutes. In Atayal tradition, the mouth flute could only be played a chief or powerful man during a headhunting-related ceremony.
To modern people, playing a flute with one’s nose is a novelty. In Paiwan communities, only the men of the chief’s family was allowed play the nose flute. When a chief passed away, nose flutes were played to express grief.
The Thao people of Sun-Moon Lake in central Taiwan played a special instrument, the pestle. Thao pestle music is played using wooden pestles and bamboo tubes. Each performance requires seven or eight pestles, and three bamboo tubes of different lengths. During the performance, pestles of various lengths and weights are struck on a rock in in response to others tapping bamboo tubes on the ground. In traditional Thao sacrificial ceremonies, only females could participate in a pestle performance.
The seventeen photographs in this category are divided into three parts, mouth bow, mouth harp, and Thao pestle performances.
According to an early twentieth century survey carried out by the Japanese, the indigenous people of the time were fond of drinking alcohol and smoking. Indigenous people made their alcohol and tobacco.
Taiwan’s indigenous peoples made alcohol from millet or rice. Millet that had been soaked in water was crushed in a mortar and pestle. The traditional method of making alcohol was to chew the millet paste in the mouth, and then spit it out into a bamboo tube or large earthenware jar. After the remaining millet paste was poured in, it was covered and sealed. By about a week later, it had fermented into millet wine.
Two passages in A Record of Missions to Taiwan and Adjacent Waters describe the drinking customs of indigenous people. The first describes them “when drinking but not yet drunk, when the mood takes them they get up and sing and dance. The dancers do not wear beautiful clothing, but short or revealing garments. They wheel around in circles, like children playing a game. They do not sing any particular song, but in long unhurried notes. One person sings, while the group clap along.” Drinking, therefore, was accompanied by singing and dancing.
The second passage describes another custom. “If the wine tastes sour, it is considered good wine. When Chinese people arrive, they are given wine. When merry, they call the aboriginal women out to drink with them. Sometimes there are six, seven, ten or more people. When their cups are all filled they urge each other to drink. When the guests have drunk every cup, the women can then happily withdraw. But supposing a guest, having drunk the cup filled by the last woman, then refuses to drink the cup filled by the next woman, he would be seen to honor one and insult the other. It is better to refuse all of them.” In other words, when indigenous people toasted someone, they could take offense if that person did not drink. The fact the Qing dynasty Chinese made note of this experience drinking with indigenous people suggests that these customs left a deep impression on them.
Indigenous Taiwanese have a certain habit when drinking together. When two people drink a cup of wine together, one person holds the cup with their left hand and the other their right hand. The indigenous peoples of southern Taiwan, particularly the Paiwan, have an intricately carved wooden twin-cup which can only by used by the nobles.
Indigenous people always drank and danced on occasions such as sacrificial ceremonies, successful headhunts, weddings, and the completion of new houses. On such occasions they dressed richly. Outsiders were most drawn to celebrations such as the Amis harvest festival.
There are 27 photographs in this section. Of these, nine depict drinking, most of which show two people drinking together. The remaining 18 pictures capture the dances of different peoples, such as the Atayal, Tsou, Paiwan, and Amis.