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The Atayal, based in north Taiwan, showcase their traditional way of life

By Vivek Rajkhowa

Children from the Atayal indigenous community of Taiwan took over a lecture theatre in SOAS, University of London, to demonstrate their way of life, from their traditional dress to their weaving techniques.

There are 16 ethnic communities in Taiwan, each with their own special culture and way of life. However, P’uma, the school that the Atayal children attend, is the only school on the island that specifically caters to the indigenous community.

Founded in 2016, the school is dedicated to preserving the culture and traditions of the Atayal people, who are traditionally based in north and north-west Taiwan. There are around 86,000 Atayal in Taiwan, which makes up around 16 per cent of the total population.

Native Atayal woman in traditional attire

What distinguishes the Atayal people from other communities is their unique facial tattoos, or ptasan. The ptasan is traditionally inked during a coming-of-age ceremony. In the past, both men and women had to show that they had performed a major task associated with becoming an adult before their faces could be tattooed.

The Japanese banned the practice in 1930, and the introduction of Christianity saw the practice gradually decline, but a growing number of young people are trying to bring the practice back.

Men had to take the head of an enemy, showing their ability to protect and provide for their people, whilst women had to be able to weave cloth. Only those with tattoos could marry and, after death, only those with tattoos could cross the hongu utux, or spirit bridge (the rainbow) to the hereafter.

Yabu Nokih, the co-ordinator of the children’s visit, explained their reason for visiting. “We want to give the children the chance to broaden their horizons and develop their English speaking skills and learn about western culture.”

“We also want to change the misconceptions around Taiwan. Removing this image that all there is to us is food, that there are many cultures and histories in the country.” Yabu hopes the event, and others taking place today and on 6 June at SOAS and Goldsmiths discussing how education can best be used to preserve Taiwan’s indigenous communities, will help to raise awareness.