Sun, Jul 13, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Connecting Taiwan to its past

There has been a revolution in the way Taiwanese history is being looked at, with many scholars looking further than China for the country's roots

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

Twenty years ago it was commonplace to say Taiwan had 400 years of history. Nowadays, most people would say that these 400 years refer only to the history of the Han immigrants who came to the island from southern China in the Ming dynasty.

An increasing number of linguists and anthropologists now believe that thousands of years ago, as far back as 10,000 years ago, there were people dwelling in and developing their culture in Taiwan. The discoveries supporting such a belief is based on research on the so-called Austronesian language and the Austronesian people.

The trend of studying Austronesian culture is not only embraced by Taiwan independence fanatics, however, who are eager to prove the uniqueness of Taiwan, as distinct from China. It is no longer just an academic question, but a popular topic now that it seems Taiwan's past is tied up with the mysteries of Austronesian culture.

In the popular publishing arena there have been more than five books published about Austronesian culture, including a children's book. At the end of last year, there was even an Assembly of Austronesian Leaders (南島民族領袖會議) in Taipei, with President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) opening the event and about 100 delegates from 13 countries participating.

Last week, a new documentary series, Discovering Austronesia (發現南島) was broadcast on TV.

"In the past, we focused most of our efforts on the Aboriginal people in Taiwan. But we did not realize, until recently, that on the southern islands, there were so many similar, yet different, cultures and people from that of the Taiwan Aborigines," said Ho Chuan-kun (何傳坤), the professor and chairman at the Anthropology Department at Taiwan's National Museum of Natural Science, who was a consultant for the documentary series.

The so-called Austronesian people -- or more precisely Austronesian-language speakers -- comprise nearly 300 million people.

"Taiwan's Aboriginal people, 400,000 in total, are Taiwan's representatives of the Austronesian people," Ho said.

According to current research, Taiwan is at the northern end of the vast area in which Austronesian languages are spoken, which stretches to Easter Island in the east, Madagascar in the west and New Zealand to the south. Some researchers even believe that Taiwan may be the "original land" or "ancestral land" for all the different peoples speaking Austronesian on the islands in the South Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean.

"In preparing for the documentary series, we tried to be less academic and more picturesque. First we introduced the different cultures and then we gradually introduced the common cultural characteristics," said Lee Chun-jung (李淳容), producer of the documentary series."

The production team spent nearly two years, traveling to more than 10 areas in order to wrap up the documentary series. The result is a 10-hour series, divided into 10 episodes, which will be screened on Public Television Service (PTS) channel.

Apart from the four "poles" of the Austronesian-speaking areas (Taiwan, Madagascar, New Zealand and Easter Island), the zone includes Malaysia, Sumatra, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Palau. There are said to be strong links between these regions.

For example, Lee said, the Tao Aborigines of Taiwan share the same cultural characteristics with the Toraja people of Indonesia. That is why there is the same significance of boats in both cultures. The raised and highly decorated prows and sterns of their boat are not only symbols, but manifest themselves in common architectural styles and in religious ceremonies.

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