Jutting sharply out of the sea some 91km southeast of Taitung, LANYU (蘭嶼; lányŭ) is one of Taiwan’s most precious places. This volcanic island consists of a green-velvet mountain surrounded by a flat, narrow strip of alluvial plain, which stretches into some of the most unspoilt coral reef in all of Asia. In addition to its astounding natural allure, Lanyu is the sole domain of Taiwan’s purest aboriginal tribe: the seafaring Tao or “Dawu”, whose isolation has allowed them to preserve much of their traditional heritage. Despite all this – and the fact that it’s fairly easy to reach for most of the year – remarkably few travellers make it to Lanyu, but those who do find themselves enchanted by its many charms, and some consider it the most memorable part of their travels in Taiwan. Much of the appeal is its sheer simplicity: apart from a budding seasonal tourism business, there is no industry on the island and it remains blessedly free of development. There are few tourist sites per se, with the main attractions being the rich tropical scenery, the Tao villages with their signature semi-subterranean houses and some of the world’s most underrated snorkelling. Even in the height of summer, when nearby Ludao is choked with tourists, Lanyu is quiet and peaceful, a place to relax and absorb its timeless rhythms.
A brief history
Lanyu’s history has long been defined by its remoteness, with its native Tao inhabitants left mostly to themselves for the better part of eight hundred years. Traditionally a peaceful seagoing people with strong cultural and linguistic links to the Philippines’ Bantan Islands, the Tao’s relations with outsiders were mainly limited to small-scale trade with Taiwan’s Ami tribe until their initial contact with Dutch colonists in the early seventeenth century. The tribe has for centuries made its livelihood from fishing and taro farming, gradually adding millet and sweet potatoes to the crops they have cultivated along the thin belts of fertile land between the mountains and the sea. Though there were infrequent conflicts between villages, the tribe as a whole maintained its cohesion through social conventions, particularly its strict code of taboos: many of these related to respect for life and protection of nature, which helped ensure a sustainable supply of the resources necessary for their survival.
During the Japanese colonial period, the occupiers were intrigued with Tao culture and did little to influence it, although an error by a Japanese anthropologist led to the misnaming of the tribe as the “Yami” (which merely means “people”) – a name that stuck until recent years. Things began to change for the Tao after the Kuomintang (KMT) seized power, when boatloads of Han Chinese were sent to the island in an attempt to Sinicize the tribe. Although the Tao fiercely resisted the campaign, intermarriages did take place, blurring once-clear lines of ancestry. In 1966, the KMT banned the Tao’s traditional homes and had them demolished and replaced with concrete buildings. However, the shoddy construction and above-ground design of these structures made them vulnerable to the formidable typhoons that hit the island each year, and many were destroyed, forcing the government to lift the ban in 1980.
Despite the government’s assimilation efforts, the Tao have been more successful than any other Taiwanese aboriginal group in preserving their old ways of life, and time-honoured customs are still routinely observed. A few villages consist almost exclusively of the stone semi-underground dwellings (地下屋; dìxiàwū), and some elderly men still wear traditional loincloths, although the number is rapidly diminishing. The rite of handing down massive silver helmets from father to son is still observed, although the younger generation is losing interest in this custom and the art of silversmithing is in danger of dying out. One conventional practice that looks set to stay is the building of handmade wooden canoes, intricately carved and colourfully painted vessels. Still, modernization is taking its toll, with Lanyu’s estimated three-thousand-strong Tao population dwindling fast, as young men forsake silver helmets and loincloths in favour of baseball caps and blue jeans and leave the island in search of greater economic prospects. Another threat, and one that has catapulted Lanyu into the international news headlines over the years, is the presence of 98,000 barrels of low-level nuclear waste that the Taiwan Power Company has stored on the island’s southern tip since 1982.