As the most widespread ethnic group in Taiwan, the Atayal are distributed in the mountainous areas in central and northern Taiwan, including the mountain townships and towns in the following seven counties and cities: New Taipei City, Taoyuan City, Hsinchu County, Miaoli County, Taichung City, Nantou County, and Yilan County. According to the Atayal language, “Atayal” means people, real people, or kinspeople, including the Seqoleq and Tseole subgroups. The former mainly settle in Wulai (Ulay) District of New Taipei City, Fuxing (Pyasan) District of Taoyuan City, Jianshi Township of Hsinchu County, and Heping District of Taichung City. The latter mostly settle in Wufeng and Jianshi Townships in Hsinchu County, Tai’an Township of Miaoli County, Heping District in Taichung City, Ren’ai Township of Nantou County, and Datong and Nan’ao Townships of Yilan County.
According to the Atayal legend, the Atayal originated from a rock cracking where their ancestors (a male and a female) were born. Then, they migrated to the places where different tribes settle. In fact, the two Atayal subgroups have different views about this rock cracking legend. The Seqoleq believe that Ruiyan (Piasebukan) in Faxiang Village, Ren’ai Township, Nantou County, was the origin, while the Tseole reckon that the Dabajian Mountain (Papakwaqa) in Wufeng Township, Hsinchu County was the origin of the ethnicity.
In the 18th century, as the Han people developed toward the shallow mountain area in the western plain, and migrated to Puli in Nantou of the plains indigenous peoples (Taukat, Pazeh, Papora, and Babuza) in western Taiwan, the Atayal moved from the upstream Beigang River in Ren’ai Township of Nantou County toward the Dajia River to the mountain areas in Miaoli, Hsinchu, Taoyuan, Yilan, and New Taipei City to search for hunting grounds and farmlands. The Atayal cultivation and migration in the 18th century continued until the late 19th century, and they settled in different areas forming different types of communities at the middle and upper courses of rivers in mountain areas in central and northern Taiwan.
During Japanese colonization in the early 20th century, the colonial government implemented the “Indigenous Peoples Management 5-Year Plan” to colonize indigenous communities aggressively. The colonial government even induced indigenous peoples living in deep mountains to migrate to shallow mountain areas with the “mass migration” policy. As the Japanese government forced the Atayal to accept Japanese rule, confrontations and clashes between them never ended. Resistance against Japanese colonial rule included the “Ncaq Incident”, “Takoham Incident”, and “Sijakaro Incident”. Suppressed by the colonial government’s superior military and police power and policies, the Atayal were forced to leave their hometowns and centralize in designated locations or areas easy for management. At the beginning of ROC rule in the mid-20th century, Atayal intellectuals including Lin, Jui-Chang (Losin Watan, a medical doctor and a provincial councilor) and Kao, Tse-Chao proposed the idea of ethnic autonomy. As this idea conflicted with the government policy, they were arrested in 1952 for “communist espionage”. Historically, this incident is called the “Mountain Indigenous Peoples Communist Espionage Incident”.
In addition, Lin, Zhao-Ming, nephew of Losin Watan and a student of the normal school, was arrested in 1949 for involvement in the “Formosan Peoples Self-Salvation Youth Alliance”. The Atayal faced drastic adjustments and turns with the external ruling power in the first half of the 20th century. In the second half of the 20th century, the government implemented the “settled agriculture”, “cultivation and reforestation”, and “life improvement” movements of the Atayal people for them to adjust to and adapt to the living habits, economic activities, industrial activities, and cultural activities of other ethnic groups. This was how the Atayal people started and increased contact with the outside world.