Posts by Alice Dawkins


Taiwan archaeology and the Zou people

Will Zou

Society and culture | East Asia


Taiwan is an island-bound by many narratives. I would like to share with you one academic narrative and one personal anecdote from my three weeks spent in Taiwan. I was in Taiwan under the auspices of the ANU in-country learning course, aptly titled ‘Archaeology in China’. We toured by bus around almost every major city, and certainly every archaeological museum in Taiwan. The archaeology of Taiwan retraces the stories of the Austronesians, peoples who settled in Taiwan over 7000 years ago.

Austronesians are everywhere today, according to academics. They are the progenitors of a constellation of people spread from Madagascar to the Pacific Islands, and as far as Hawaii (see Figure 1). How they sojourned across the oceans remains a mystery.

[caption id="attachment_926" align="alignnone" width="300"] Figure 1: Austronesian dispersal from Taiwan (in bracket is the approximate year of dispersal)[/caption]

Evidence from the fields of archaeology, linguistics and genetics tell the same story — the Austronesians migrated far and wide across the span of five thousand years. Pottery and earrings dug up by Archaeologists on many of these disparate countries share distinct features (see Figure 2). For example, the double animal-headed earrings excavated in Vietnam and the Philippines were formed out of a particular type of jade. The jade is produced naturally only in Taiwan. Similarly, linguists believe that the people across these island countries form a part of the larger Austronesian language group. That is, the languages across the Pacific, Oceania and other regions once shared morphological, phonological and lexical innovations. Aside from the excavated evidence and linguist reconstructions, preliminary genetic research suggests the indigenous population on these disparate islands were once very similar to Taiwanese Austronesians. The Austronesian migration theory suggests that Taiwan has its own unique and enduring history. As the evidence suggests, this is a compelling narrative.

[caption id="attachment_927" align="alignnone" width="300"] Figure 2: The largest excavation site in Taiwan — Beinan[/caption]

Politics pervade Taiwan’s many narratives. That Taiwan has a history unique to mainland China is a narrative propagated in contemporary Taiwanese history, too. The National Museum of Taiwan History is one such locale where this story is apparent. Beneath the veneer of ‘scientific’ history, the museum promotes Taiwan as a unique island with a distinct and heterogeneous history and identity. Taiwan’s various ‘colonisers’ of the past four hundred years (from the Dutch, albeit for trading purposes, the Ming dynasty, the Qing dynasty, Japan and the Republic of China) are equally represented despite the fact that some of them only stayed in Taiwan for a relatively short period of time. For example, the Dutch were in Taiwan for less than thirty years, yet their representation in the museum is equal to that of the Qing, who administered Taiwan as a part its own province for over one and fifty years. The Museum attempts to enjoin its visitors (many of whom are Taiwanese students) to believe that Taiwan is uniquely different to People’s Republic of China. As a result, Taiwan’s indigenous voices and its own people’s agency are drowned out. Visitors leave the museum with the sense that Taiwan is helpless in the face of its various ‘conquerors’. The primacy and agency of Taiwan’s indigenous people, and its own agency are obscured through such a lens. Instead, what I found far more interesting was the Japanese Emperor’s speech of surrender pronounced to his people at the end of World War II. Now that was a historical moment of freedom, albeit brief, in Taiwan’s history! (See Figure 3)

[caption id="attachment_928" align="alignnone" width="300"] Figure 3: National Museum of Taiwan History — Japanese Emperor's WII surrender speech, translated into classical Chinese on the bottom half of the picture[/caption]

Culture does not live in museums. I arrived in Taiwan a weekend before the course began. A fortuitous meeting on the bus to Mt. Ali, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Taiwan, led to a weekend spent living with an indigenous community on the mountain. The Zou are one of nine officially recognized indigenous groups in Taiwan. Over the next two days, I lived with, dined with, explored with, learned from, listened to and prayed with the Zou community. They treated me with great hospitality, and they showed me how they adapted to modernity as they wished. When pesticides sprayed in tea plantations ravaged them with insidious health problems, they planted organic farms. They debunked the stereotype that tea was traditionally grown on the Mountain, tea plantations in the region began only in the past three decades. Instead, they drink coffee. In 2007, one of their brightest young entrepreneurs won the national coffee growing and brewing contest. Ever since, coffee is their source of pride.

I witnessed the power of the Christian Priestess, who spoke English, Japanese, Mandarin, Hakka and the Zou language. She was a natural leader. The church is the epicenter of the community, and a space for adults to teach their children the Zou language. With the help of others, the Priestess spent sixteen years translating the Bible into the Zou language. For her, the government’s minority language education policy could hardly be relied upon to ensure the continuity of the Zou language. After all, successive governments change education policy at a whim. For the priestess, the Church, made up of her and her own people, will last longer than any incumbent government’s policy directive.

Museums used to educate the public of living cultures. Jeff, an archaeologist research student, told me that in the 17th and 18th century, museums displayed things from living cultures, brought back from abroad, to educate the public about other parts of the world, educating them of a culture that was still thriving.

As for me, I would rather speak to, listen to, and feel the power and presence of a people who are alive and who are adapting according to their needs. A people whose concern arise from the solemn sadness in their eyes, and whose joys pulsate above the chorus of their hymns.

We are restless spirits. Our inclinations are the same as Austronesians on Taiwan, both in the past and in the present. The memories I keep are those found on the road. Below are some mementoes.

[gallery type="slideshow" size="medium" ids="929,930,931"]

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State, society, and the language of jade in Southeast Asia

Alice Dawkins

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


Peruse the internet for Myanmar-China news and the space is awash with insights about the two states’ participation in the trade of jade. The best contribution is probably the New York Times’ handsomely shot video feature from earlier this year. It’s no surprise that there’s an interest in the topic; the nature of it is compelling and evocative, much like the stone itself. What other narrative of a tradeable commodity brings together the shared history of two of the most transformed states in Asia, illicit drugs, wealthy investors, ethnic militia, and guerilla fighting? It’s a sexy storyline that would be at home in a Hong Kong action movie.

However in the haste to tell the story of the stone, and the jaded trail it leaves between these two countries, many commentators are skipping the meta-picture. Devotees of James Scott will nod their heads in agreement that a discrete-states approach to understanding spaces like Southeast Asia is fraught with folly. The jade industry is not just a state and non-state actor narrative between wealthy Chinese buyers, impoverished Kachin miners, and oscillating Burmese decision makers. It is the core of an extensive overland network between Myanmar, China, Thailand, and Laos, an organised community where disparate ethnicities share the common language and culture of jade. It is perhaps the most illustrative example of the way economic incentive and the porous borders of upland Southeast Asia interact with one another.

Firstly – the stone itself warrants a focus. There are two geological varieties of jade primarily traded throughout Asia. Both have slightly different aesthetic qualities. The first, nephrite, is the most common, found in areas such as Xinjiang in China. It was nephrite that the Chinese buyers originally sought, arguably beginning with the Qing Court developing a taste for jade, perhaps as a way of differentiating themselves from the preceding Ming Court’s attachment to rubies and sapphires. As the interest in jade developed, the Xinjiang nephrite jade was eventually eschewed in favour of the second variety. Jadeite has a brighter appearance, and is typically perceived as being more valuable. The best quality and largest quantity of jadeite in the world is found in the Kachin State, and it was there that the Chinese overland caravan route chose to divert to, after some decades of sourcing their jade from Xinjiang.

[related_article align="right" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Gambling for jade on the China-Myanmar border"]

It is from this point, the jade trading route began to take on a truly transnational flavour. From here, we see the origins of my first observation; that the jade narrative is not a story of two states, but rather the coming together of many more communities.

With the closure of mainland China’s borders to outside trade in 1949, the route diverted south to Rangoon along the railway line, and then by ship to Hong Kong. In 1962, on the advent of Ne Win’s Way to Socialism, the route changed again. The caravan route, distinctly Yunnanese in its character, added some extra turns and detours around known military areas, and the entire route became peppered with bribes and shifting personal alliances, to allow the passage of some of the goods to eager markets in Thailand. It is worth noting that during the period of Burma’s ‘closure’ to outside trading between 1962-1988, black market trading thrived, and some argue even sustained the Burmese economy.

These historical quirks, where the tide of national politics caused kinks and curves in the route, sought to entrench the route into its current form, spanning Myanmar, Thailand, China, and Laos. The current route has been identified as originating from the mines surrounding Hpakant, Kachin State, transported to the nearest train station (Mogaunt, Sarhmaw, or Hopin), and then on to Mandalay. From Mandalay, it crosses over to Taunggyi, in the Shan State. From Taunggyi, the jade is conveyed through the rebel zones to either Kengtung or Tachilek. At these points the caravans will either turn north towards markets in southern China, or south, to Thailand and Laos.

The jade trade has played a fundamental role in defining the various ethnographic identities along its primary route. It is well established that ethnic groups typically converge around points of shared financial interest, and indeed jade has served as a meeting point for expressions of a diverse web of ethno-nationalisms. Wen-Chin Chang’s work has shown how ethnic groups have been defined by their particular roles in the jade route as it developed from the socialist era in Burma (1962-88) when jade was primarily traded on the black market. For instance, the Kachin became characterised as the stone suppliers, an expression which came to stand for an industrious attitude, an extensive knowledge of terrain, and resilience for handling the dangers of mining jade. The Yunnanese, the caravan traders, became eponymous for the accompanying risk-taking behavior, economic acumen, and aptitude to navigate a complex web of language and culture.

Flowing on from my first point is a second observation, that of the interplay between regional armies, and the operation of the jade trade that they seek to protect. Because the zone of jade trading has been marketed by a connection of otherwise discretely administered ethno-cultural centres; Kachins in Hpakant, Burmans in Mandalay, Shans in Taunggyi, Kengtung, and Tachilek, Sino-Thais and Thais in Chiang Mai, and Yunnanese in Kunming, the role of an army has been a practical means to demarcate landscapes of power as the jade shifts along different stages of the regional production line. These cause considerable problems for the tatmadaw, a so-called umbrella force of authority, existing in a zone were micro-community and personal relationships influence how the society functions.

Owing to the overlapping nature of interests and claims in the area, local armies have been instrumental to the flow of jade from the early days of the Kachin mines. The mines themselves have been traditionally guarded by Kachin armies since the colonial era. When the jade trade went underground in the socialist era, the four main jade companies each had their own private army. Notably, the Lijia Company, established in 1973 in Chiang Mai, was founded by the leader of the KMT Third Army, General Li, and pursued connections with local militias in the border trade. The Zhangjia Company, established in 1974 by the Shan warlord Khun Sa, served as a lucrative source of funds for the Shan independence army at the time and a strategic institutional support for Khun Sa’s involvement in the heroin trade. These examples support the theoretical work of Kerkvliet and Scott, who argue that economic opportunity drives the persistence of individuals to engage in commerce despite technical illegality. Further, it illustrates Tagliacozzo’s thesis that enhanced forces of state regulation tends to merely encourage expressions of active trade in contraband.

So what does all this tell us? The jade story is older, and richer than it appears at first glance. Is it merely a tale of Beijing and Naypyitaw? Certainly not. Will the illegal shades of activity continue to thrive? Unquestionably yes. Does the state have any control over this long-established community of individuals? We will have to wait and see.

These ideas pay homage to a far more elegantly constructed work which I heartily recommend a thorough read of.

8 minute read

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India’s internal security crisis of sexual violence

Suchara Fernando

Society and culture | South Asia


According to John Baylis, security can be defined as freedom from threats to core values for both groups and individuals. Thereby, internal security can be defined as protecting civilians within sovereign borders from threats. A culture of rape and sexual violence is thus an internal security issue because it threatens the freedom and safety of India’s female population. Since the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape and the sensationalist response of the media, the world’s attention has turned to India’s issues of sexual violence. The existing laws have been amended with stricter effect, and recently, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a number of issues that affected women, in his first Independence Day speech. One of these issues was rape.

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Ten for two: The struggles of being an ethical tourist

Alexia Fuller

Society and culture | Asia


It’s been a long hot day temple-hopping around Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, one of the nation’s many treasures.

I pause for just a moment to take a brief breather and seek solace from the blazing sun.

I feel a little tug on the side of my rather sweaty caftan and turn around to see a little girl smiling at me. She couldn’t be more than eight or nine. She stares at me intently, preparing herself for the interaction ahead.

“Ten for Two!” pops out of her mouth in perfect Chinese, French and then finally English as she waives a set of ten postcards in my face.

I turn around to my new little friend and politely decline her offer. She continues to stare at me. She has big, beautiful brown eyes.

I ask, “How old are you?”

“Nine”, she quickly replies in English. I am sure she knows how to say this in Chinese, French and Khmer.

We exchange pleasantries, she asks me how old I am and so the conversation continues. I find out she loves to read Khmer, Chinese and English books.

Our exchange lasts barely two minutes.

To her credit, she gives it one more go; “Ten for Two!” is her parting remark as she smiles at me and skips away.

This scene is regrettably common across the South East Asian region.

On the surface, a cute as a button child would melt any person’s heart and encourage them to provide any assistance they could, even buying “Ten for Two.”

However, in reality if I choose to buy “Ten for Two” I do this little girl who beams with potential the greatest disservice. She clearly has an aptitude for language and the confidence to approach a stranger. Just imagine how an education can put these talents to good work.

By buying “Ten for Two”, I become part of the problem. I become part of a system, which continues to provide the incentive for parents to send their children to the streets and temples of Angkor Wat instead of to the local primary school. I continue to encourage structural inequality and dependency when what I should be encouraging is sustainable development.

Being an ethical tourist in a region stricken by gross inequity and poverty is something I have and will continue to struggle with as I travel this marvellous region.

Eat, drink, sightsee and travel with local companies, and support the work of NGOs. This has become my mantra.

However, I have come to realise that most tourists are oblivious to this goal. Otherwise benevolent people with good intentions continue to encourage unequal structures, which have adverse outcomes for the local people.

For instance, visiting an orphanage in Phnom Penh and making a donation appears on the surface to be a positive contribution to improving orphan’s lives. But taking photos with cute and vulnerable Cambodian children strips them of their agency and reduces them to animals in a pen.

I have found that travelling in Asia is at times challenging but mostly exhilarating. However, I implore all those considering travelling here to educate themselves about the impacts of their role as tourists.

And always think before you buy “Ten for Two”.

If you would like more information about how to travel ethically in Asia please visit ChildSafe at

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