The “hidden history” of Taiwan’s multiethnic cultural past, with its violent conflicts and uprooting of whole communities, has been woven into the central theme of a new novel.
Entitled Dadu Town, Come Back (大肚城, 歸來), the book was written by author Chao Hui-lin (趙慧琳) after more than 15 years of research, field work and interviews with residents of central Taiwan, especially in regions of Greater Taichung, Nantou County and Changhua County.
“It is the stories and the historical experiences of the original people of central Taiwan. Their plight during conquests by colonial regimes, their forced migration from the coastal plains to the hinterland mountainous areas and of their interaction with settlers from across the Taiwan Strait. This aspect of Taiwan’s history has been long neglected in our society,” Chao said at the book’s launch on Dec. 17.
Hailed as a major new Taiwanese historical drama, Chao has already won accolades from the media and members of ethnic community groups.
Focused on the plight of the Papora, a group of Pingpu Aborigines (平埔族), the narrative is set within the rich tapestry of Taiwan’s cultural landscape, with the Aborigines caught up in the dramatic ebbs and flows of the nation’s turbulent colonial history.
The novel documents the torment and sorrow of conquered people being driven off their land, with episodes of violence and the massacres of whole communities.
The title, Dadu Town, Come Back, refers to the Papora’s original community close to Dadu Mountain (大肚山) in present-day Greater Taichung and the name of their later settlement in Puli Township, Nantou County.
Literary critics have praised the book as an epic saga about the Pingpu Aborigines written from their perspective for the first time. It recounts the past four centuries of the community’s experiences through the eyes of two generations of Papora women and their families.
Chao said her focus was not just on the plight of the Papora, but also the interactions and conflicts among ethnic groups in the surrounding region.
Her book also includes the stories and experiences of Minnan Hoklo and Hakka migrant settlers from China, other central Taiwan Aborigines the Thao, Bunun, Atayal and Sediq, as well as other Pingpu Aborigines — the Kaxabu, Pazeh, Taokas and Hoanya.
“The existence of Taiwan’s vibrant multicultural and multiethnic society through the past centuries is seldom officially acknowledged. This history had never been fully expressed in Taiwanese literature, drama or the arts,” Chao said.
“There used to be many lowland Aboriginal groups and communities in the coastal plains and mountainous areas, all with their own unique cultures and languages,” she said.
“These people lived through the colonial eras of the Dutch, Koxinga, Qing Dynasty and Japanese, but we only have historical data as recorded by the rulers and their officials, while most Taiwanese chronicles are based on the perspective of Han Chinese settlers. I wanted to give voices to the lowland Aborigines, so they can tell their stories,” she said.
To do so, Chao undertook a series of extensive interviews, especially with the elders of Aboriginal communities.
“I asked them about their life experiences and the stories they remember being told by their elders. It was important to record their voices during our conversations, because we were racing against time. These elders were advanced in age and sadly many of them have passed away since. They gave me a window on the past, a new vital understanding of Taiwan’s neglected history,” she said.
Through the memories, stories and eyewitness accounts of the elders of the Pingpu communities, Chao said she was able to write what she calls a “history of the common people” as the basis for her book.
Writing a book focused on central Taiwan was prompted in part when Chao discovered that one of her ancestors came from the Papora community of Dadu Township.
“Yes, my family has a Papora bloodline, but also Hoklo, Hakka and from other ethnic groups. It is good that I have a multiethnic makeup, that I am a multicultural person, just like Taiwan’s history,” she said.
Chao compared the historical fiction, based on the stories of the elders of Aboriginal communities, to a “dramatization of history stories for a TV soap opera” and said there are plans to turn it into a movie or a theater production.
She received grants from the Ministry of Culture and the National Culture and Arts Foundation during her research for the novel.