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.
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.
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)
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.