Home again: How the aborigines of Taiwan are trying to rebuild their past

Home again: How the aborigines of Taiwan are trying to rebuild their past

By ABHISHEK G. BHAYA | | 17 September, 2016
Scenes from the Aboriginal Culture Village, located in central Nantou County, Taiwan.
A visit to the Formosa Aboriginal Culture Village in Taiwan offers a deep insight into the resurgence of ethnic pride among the indigenous tribes of that country as they try to reconsolidate their millennia-old cultural heritage, writes Abhishek G. Bhaya.

The term “aborigines” of late have come to mean indigenous people of Australia who became marginalised and endangered in their own homeland following the colonisation of the continent in the late 18th century. However, not many may be aware of the aboriginal people of Taiwan, who have had a near-identical fate as that of their counterparts Down Under. 

The far-eastern island nation was once known as Ilha Formosa, literally meaning the beautiful island. The name dates back to 1542 when Portuguese sailors first sighted the island, some 180km off the southeastern coast of mainland China, and named it so. 

Homeland of Austronesian languages

Ilha Formosa was populated by indigenous tribes for over 8,000 years before the Chinese immigration began in the 17th century. Recent studies show that these tribes, now known as the Taiwanese aborigines, spoke various Austronesian languages, which are closely related to Malay, Tagalog and Indonesian. 

Studies suggest that the Formosan aborigines were the ancestors of the great Polynesian navigators of the Pacific. They have been also linked to Austronesian ethnic groups, which includes those of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Oceania.

Taiwan’s aborigines have for centuries faced tough economic competition and military conflict with a series of colonising powers, beginning with Han Chinese, European Dutch and Portuguese colonisers and eventually the Japanese imperialists. The aborigines have struggled to maintain their tradition, culture and languages in the face of such a turbulent history.

For instance, of the approximately 26 known Formosan languages (a name that refers collectively to the languages of the Taiwanese aboriginal tribes), at least ten are now extinct, five are moribund, and several are to some degree endangered. Linguists consider these languages to be of unique historical significance, since Taiwan is regarded as the original homeland of the Austronesian language family.

Recent studies show that these tribes, now known as the Taiwanese aborigines, spoke various Austronesian languages, which are closely related to Malay, Tagalog and Indonesian. Studies suggest that the Formosan aborigines were the ancestors of the great Polynesian navigators of the Pacific

Resurgence in ethnic pride

At present Taiwanese aborigines, numbering about 533,600, make up only 2.3%  of the national population. They are divided into 16 recognized groups, namely: Ami, Atayal, Bunun, Hla’alua, Kanakanavu, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Tao, Thao, Tsou, Truku, Sakizaya and Sediq.

Since the 1980s, increased political and public attention has been paid to the rights and social issues of the indigenous tribes of Taiwan. With Taiwan experiencing political liberalisation following the end of martial law in 1987, the movement for indigenous cultural and political resurgence has received a huge impetus. Aborigines have realised gains in both the political and economic spheres. 

Resurgence in ethnic pride has accompanied the aboriginal cultural renaissance, which is exemplified by the increased popularity of aboriginal music and greater public interest in aboriginal culture. Efforts are under way in indigenous communities to revive traditional cultural practices and preserve their traditional languages.

Cultural village

In addition, several aboriginal tribes have become extensively involved in the tourism and eco-tourism industries with the goal of achieving increased economic self-reliance and preserving their culture. One of the strongest symbols of this resurgence in modern Taiwan is the Formosa Aboriginal Culture Village, located in central Nantou County. Established in 1986 in an area of 62 hectares, the village was set up with a primary goal of preserving and promoting aboriginal heritage. The village is a place where people can observe an abundance of aboriginal
traditions. 

The aboriginal theme park is divided into three major areas: the Aboriginal Village Park, the Amusement Isle, and the European Garden. The outdoor setting gives visitors a peek into the aboriginal heritage in the backdrop of the villages and lifestyles of Taiwan’s main tribes.

The village has also become a top tourist destination due to its unique cultural and historic significance. Dubbed as the largest outdoor museum in Taiwan, the Aboriginal Village Park is composed of nine villages on the hillside above the Amusement Isle, each representing a different aboriginal tribal community. It easily requires an entire day to experience all that it has to offer.

One of the primary attractions of the village is the traditional music and dance show by native aborigine performers. Visitors are also encouraged to interact with the friendly tribals, who would often greet the guests by saying naruwan (the aboriginal word means greetings, welcome and thank you all at once). 

If you are lucky, you may have the honour of being invited by a tribal chieftain to participate in one of the rituals and then be offered their prized staple food — a roasted potato. Do not forget to say, malalunga (thanks, I am honoured) to that gesture.

The village is connected to Taiwan’s foremost tourist destination, Sun Moon Lake, by a cable-car service which offers stunning views of the scenic location.

The writer is a Gulf-based Indian journalist. He recently visited Taiwan on a media familiarisation tour organised by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau’s Dubai office

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