In plain sight

Seeing Pingpu, an exhibition on view at Greater Tainan’s National Museum of Taiwan History, showcases the history, art and culture of Taiwan’s Pingpu peoples

By Jason Pan  /  Staff reporter

Mon, Apr 01, 2013 - Page 12

Within the debates and national soul-searching over Taiwanese identity, the history and culture of the Pingpu, or Plains Indigenous Peoples, have received much attention over the past decade.

To understand Taiwan’s ethno-linguistic composition and the origin of the country’s many cultural traditions, it is impossible to ignore this group of Aborigines. With this in mind, the National Museum of Taiwan History in Greater Tainan (臺灣歷史博物館) has put together a special exhibition, Seeing Pingpu: The History and Culture of the Plains Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan (台灣平埔族群 歷史與文化特展), which runs until Aug. 4.

Museum Director Lu Li-cheng (呂理政) said that it required considerable effort to borrow objects from the collections in Japan and from other overseas institutions.

“Through this exhibition we present the diverse cultures of the Pingpu peoples, raise and reflect on past viewpoints and interpretations about them and discuss methods to preserve their ethnic identity and culture,” Lu said.

The exhibition is the result of an international collaboration between the museum and Japan’s National Museum of Ethnology (NME日本國立民族學博物館) in Osaka, and the Tenri University Sankokan Museum (天理大學附屬天理參考館).

Of the over 300 items on display, 43 are from overseas, mainly from the two collaborating Japanese museums. A number of the priceless cultural artifacts are returning to Taiwan for the first time in over a century. Many of these objects have great historic and cultural significance to researchers — and especially to their original owners.

The exhibition is divided into four sections: Who Are the Pingpu Peoples? Where Are They?; Plains Indigenous Peoples in the Grand History; Seeing Pingpu; and We Have Always Been Here.

Two items serve as the exhibition’s centerpiece. The first is a wall-sized color photograph snapped in February 2009 in front of the Legislative Yuan. It depicts members from each of the Pingpu’s 10 groups demanding official recognition of their ethnic status, and is meant to remind visitors that although Taiwan has come a long way with Aboriginal rights, there is still much work to be done.

The other centerpiece is a five-meter long canoe. Hand-carved by members of the Kavalan community of Hualien County and fashioned with decorative carvings on its sides, it is a reminder of their ocean culture and sea-faring lifestyle.

But for this reviewer, the textiles are the star attraction of the exhibition. Crafted mostly by women, these exquisite fabrics include hand-weaved embroidered garments, ceremonial dresses and traditional headwear.

The fine craftsmanship and the detailed design are a testament to the creative aesthetics and weaving skills of the flourishing Pingpu communities which were the dominant culture in the plains and coastal regions of Taiwan in pre-modern times.

Also on display are woodcarvings and handicrafts, historic documents and black-and-white photographs dating back to the 19th century taken by anthropologists and Western explorers when they first came to Taiwan.

The final section examines the fight for equality and ethnic status by Pingpu peoples over the past two decades, providing solid historical background and the socio-political context to their current struggle to gain recognition by the government of Taiwan.

Seeing Pingpu has mostly achieved the goals it sets out for itself. It provides solid explanations for the objects on display, and goes beyond superficial explanations when discussing the struggles of the Pingpu peoples, past and present. In so doing, it raises the issue of the ethno-cultural origins of Taiwanese and issues of Taiwanese identity.

One drawback of the exhibition is its limited space. Consequently, the museum focuses on the larger, more populous groups while the smaller ones and their cultural heritage receive less attention.

Prior to the arrival of Han Chinese settlers (and European explorers) starting in the 16th century, the Pingpu groups were the main Aboriginal peoples inhabiting the plains, lowlands and coastal areas on the western half of Taiwan proper.

Taiwan’s 10 Pingpu groups include: Ketagalan, Taokas, Pazeh, Kahabu, Papora, Babuza, Hoanya, Siraya, Makatao and Tavorlong. Of these, the languages of Pazeh and Kahabu are still alive and spoken by village elders. The Siraya people have been reviving their mother tongue with language textbooks and education programs in recent years.