Sunday, May 28, 2017

Tourists and Indigenes: What I Learned in Taiwan

And now some more pleasant travel memories.

Qianlong-era polychrome vase, ca. 1760-80
Last December, my partner Susan and I took a long-planned trip to Taiwan, partly to visit our friend Anne and partly because we’d heard the country had much to offer visitors. We heard correctly. During our week- and-a-half stay we admired northern Taiwan’s lush green hills and precipitate coastal cliffs, walked around the picturesque old coal-mining town of Jioufen, and toured the National Palace Museum, beloved of tourists from mainland China. (I assume they want to see all the treasures the Kuomintang took away in the 1940s.) I discovered an unexpected fondness for the beautiful, delicate polychrome porcelain of the Qianlong era (1735-95); perhaps I took to heart John Adams’ remark that he studied war and politics so that his descendants could study porcelain. Anne and her parents treated us to two outstanding meals, including such delicacies as chicken feet, black eggs, tree fungus (better than it sounds), soup dumplings, and kumquat tea.

On our own, Susi and I visited Longshan Temple, a three-century-old wooden compound packed with tourists and worshipers.* The devotees filled the central temple with incense and piled long tables with flowers, fruit, biscuits, and other offerings. And why not? Prayers are well and good, but seem more sincere when accompanied by cookies. In the realm of the secular, we visited Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings, and admired the city from 91 stories up. The view impressed us but was blurred by pollution, which Anne’s father told us had blown in from the mainland. If we had stayed in Taiwan a day longer we could have enjoyed watching the skyscraper lit up in rainbow colors, a gesture of support from its proprietors to the supporters of marriage equality. The Taiwanese parliament was then debating a same-sex marriage bill, a momentous issue given the country’s cultural conservatism. Between that debate and some saber-rattling by the People’s Republic, there was no room in the country’s newspapers, at least not in its English-language press, for Donald Trump. This pleased us.
Taipei 101, late December 2016

Like most cities, Taipei primarily exists for the sake of commerce, and I did my fair share. Anne and Susan and I went to the famous Shilin Night Market and several other open-air emporia, and to several old factories that investors had converted into art & craft markets. We stocked up on souvenirs and gifts, indulged a new-found obsession with miniature wooden toy sets, and overindulged (in Susan’s case) in crane games and vending-machine baubles. I didn’t spend much time on the latter, until I discovered that some Taipei vending machines dispense off-brand Lego-like figures of SS officers. Including a faithful Nazi dog. These I found in such bad taste I had to buy some.

Yes, this is a real thing.
They will make good fodder for my off-brand Lego-type Xenomorph figures.

My favorite find was Taipei’s Museum of Formosan Aborigines, whose exhibits and artifacts celebrated the lives of the indigenous Taiwanese. I knew that Taiwan had an indigenous population before the Han Chinese and Japanese colonized the island - the 2016 NAISA conference had a panel or two devoted to their culture - but I did not realize that the island’s sixteen nations belonged to the same ethnic family that colonized Indonesia, Hawaii, Easter Island, and Madagascar. Indeed, given the longevity of Formosa’s aboriginal peoples, their homeland was probably the “culture hearth” from which all of the far-flung Austronesian peoples originated. We admired the displays of stone and (early-modern) metal tools, fishing gear, and bright clothing, and the photos and early films of Taiwanese lifeways. I was surprised to learn that several of the island’s First Nations, such as the Saisiyat, have their own versions of the jingle-dress dance, something I thought confined to the Ojibwas of North America.

Friezes of some of Taiwan's First Peoples in
The Aboriginal Museum aimed to entertain, given that it expected an audience of casual visitors and tourists. Tourists, of course, rarely scratch the surface of a nation’s culture or history. As I subsequently learned, Taiwan’s indigenes possess a distinct but endangered culture, and a history fraught with exploitation and misery. The yuanchuminchu (First Peoples) first colonized Taiwan about 5,000 years ago, sustained themselves through a mixture of hunting (especially deer), fishing, and millet cultivation, and gradually grew their population to about 100,000. In the early-modern era they held their own against Dutch and Han colonists, with whom they traded and intermarried; some even worked as ethnic soldiers for the Qing Dynasty. In the late nineteenth century, however, the Qing and the Japanese began a long military campaign against the Taiyan, Taroko, and Bunun nations, whose homelands produced valuable supplies of camphor. Japanese offensives killed 15-20,000 Tarokos in 1914 and 1930, and the Imperial Army confined other First Peoples within a constricting ring of land mines and electric fences. During the Second World War, the Japanese regime began exploiting indigenous Taiwanese directly, conscripting men into the army and forcing women into sexual slavery.

Japan proved the most vicious of Taiwanese indigenes’ exploiters, but after 1945 Chinese settlers and Kuomintang emigres tried to efface the indigenous Taiwanese people’s culture. The national government relocated First Peoples to the lowlands, and pressured them to adopt the Chinese language and abandon their “superstitions.” Racial discrimination against aboriginal Taiwanese remained widespread. (As Mark Munsterhjelm notes, fewer than half of Chinese parents in a 2000 survey said they would allow their children to marry an aboriginal spouse.) Since the 1990s, the national government has tried to reverse its previous campaign of cultural imperialism, encouraging First-Peoples language instruction in schools and promoting musical performances, cultural festivals and museums like the one Susi and Anne (and Anne’s father) and I visited. The Taiwanese elite have tried to make indigenous identity “cool,” perhaps less out of a desire to redress past wrongs than because the First Peoples make good symbols of an independent Taiwanese identity. The cultural revival the government promotes tends to emphasize performances and displays that please non-indigenous audiences, rather than preserve and deepen older traditions. 

Bunun woman sifting millet
The mechanics of settler-colonialism - exploiting indigenous peoples’ labor, destroying their settlements, taking their land, and co-opting their identities - seem to follow a universal progression. The actual Saisiyat, Taroko, Bunun, and other First Peoples aren’t going away, however. Their current population of 400-500,000 represents a greater percentage of the national total than does the American Indian population of the United States, and as with other indigenous peoples in the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and North America, they appear determined to defend their land rights and make their own history.   

Sources: M. Munsterhjelm, “The First Nations of Taiwan: A Special Report on Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples,” Cultural Survival Quarterly, June 2002, online at See also Andrew Abalahin, “Sino-Pacifica: Conceptualizing Greater Southeast Asia as a Sub-Arena of World History,” Journal of World History 22 (Dec. 2011): 659-91, esp.675-77; Shu-Yuan Yang, “Cultural Performance and the Reconstruction of Tradition among the Bunun of Taiwan,” Oceania 81 (Nov. 2011): 316-330.

(Above image of Taipei 101 via Photo of Bunun woman from the Digital Museum of Taiwanese Indigenous Peoples. All other photos by the author.)

* We visited Longshan on Christmas Day, which in Taipei was attended by clear skies, bright sunshine, and 80-degree temperatures. One should plan to visit Taiwan in the late fall or winter.

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