Sun, Sep 09, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Aboriginal cultural roots run deep

By Kwan Hwa-san 關華山

A thorough appreciation of the features and value of one’s cultural assets is a core factor in the task of preserving it.

Taiwan’s tangible and intangible cultural assets can be divided into a number of constitutent parts: Han Chinese culture; the Austronesian culture of Taiwan’s Aborigines; the colonial cultural legacy arising from colonization by the Dutch, Spanish and Japanese; and the cultural influences brought by modernization. To these can be added the cultural strata discovered by archeologists both underground and underwater.

Although government officials and the general public have made considerable progress in recent years in their appreciation of the features and value of these aspects of Taiwanese culture, in some respects it is still not enough. Even though concerned people have been trying for decades to get a cultural assets law enacted, their efforts have not met with success.

Problems can arise when archeological remains get in the way of land development. Legislators often think these remains are just “trash” left behind by our forebears, and when human remains and stone coffins are dug up, people think it will bring bad luck.

However, the most important aspect is that people in general still do not understand enough about the culture of Taiwan’s Aboriginal tribes.

It is true that in recent years the public has gradually become more familiar with the names of various Aboriginal tribes, such as the Atayal, Paiwan, Bunun and so on. However, although a lot of people have seen the film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, they probably still do not fully understand the Atayal’s gaga (or gaya) belief system, their belief in ancestral spirits or their traditional moral values, so it is hard for outsiders to enter into the Atayal’s worldview and deeply empathize with them. The fundamental reason is that the traditions of Taiwan’s Austronesian tribes are relatively “primitive,” making it hard for modern people to understand them unless they have some knowledge of anthropology.

What does “primitive” mean in this context? The progress of human civilization started out from bands of hunters and gatherers formed according to blood relations. This was the form that human communities took in the Paleolithic period, or Old Stone Age. Only with the rise of farming in the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age, did people start to settle down and gradually form tribal societies. From then on, societies evolved to the stage of having chiefs and lords and eventually states began to emerge. Taiwan’s Aborigines, for their part, have always lived in small populations that never established even small states.

Taiwan’s Austronesian people are not homogenous — they have always been divided into a large number of tribes with small populations.

From the point of view of the modern notion of culture and creativity, the Aborigines are definitely to be admired for having created such a diverse system of cultures on an island as small as Taiwan, despite being small in number and having lived contentedly in their limited territories without any thought of unification through conquest.

The Aborigines’ animistic beliefs and their belief in ancestral spirits gave rise to the custom of headhunting, since they regarded heads taken from their enemies as an important object of worship that could increase their tribe’s spiritual powers. This belief system linked the life and death of individuals with the survival of a greater self — the tribe — and cannot at all be compared with the cold-blooded, cruel and vicious mutual slaughter that has occurred historically between feudal kingdoms and empires, or the bloody wars that are still waged between modern states.

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