In December last year, seven wooden pillars in the collection of the Institute of Ethnography (民族學研究所), Academia Sinica (中央研究院), were designated as “national treasures” by the Council of Cultural Affairs (文建會) under the Culture Resources Preservation Act (文化資產保存法). In 2003, a group of young Amis had sought to retrieve the pillars from the research institute and return them to their rightful place within the Amis community. The Amis’ initial aim was never realised, but through the almost decade-long process of negotiations, something much more important — national recognition — may have been achieved.
The negotiation process was captured on film by Academia Sinica researcher and filmmaker Hu Tai-li (胡台麗), who has recently released Returning Souls (讓靈魂回家), a documentary detailing the long and complex process of preserving and revitalizing these important items of Taiwan’s cultural heritage. Issues of government policy, religious belief, community identity, economic interest and clan rivalries all play a part in this story.
Hu said that, initially at least, this tale was recorded more by accident than design.
Photo Courtesy of Hu Tai-li
In a telephone interview with the Taipei Times, Hu said she had taken video notes of the events surrounding the unusual occurrence of a group of young Aboriginal people writing to and subsequently visiting Academia Sinica in an effort to retrieve the pillars. She had recorded interviews simply as a matter of habit. Hu has been a documentary filmmaker for nearly three decades and some form of camera is never far from her reach. Her films have often reached out to a wider, non-academic audience, an aspect of her mission that is underlined by her continuing role as founder and director of the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (台灣國際民族誌影展), which aims to bring ethnographic films to a non-specialists.
Once she decided that the story of these pillars, which provide a pictorial narrative of a number of important Amis myths, also had a contemporary story to tell, she pulled her various notes together and began pursuing developments in earnest. This was the beginning of a film that follows the twists and turns of nearly a decade of discussions between the Aborigines and Academia Sinica, as well as elements within the Amis community itself; discussions that highlight the many often conflicting strands that make up Aboriginal society in Taiwan.
The story begins with an e-mail from a young Amis called Fuday, who works as a teacher at Tafalong Primary School (太巴塱國小). In his e-mail, penned in 2003, he wrote to Academia Sinica to express his belief that the removal of these pillars dispossessed his community not only of its ancestral spirits, but even its sense of identity, and that he and others felt it was their mission to bring these items back home. The pillars had been part of an ancestral house belonging to the Kakita’an clan, which had an important leadership and spiritual role within the Tafalong community (located in Guangfu Township, Hualien County). They are also one of the only examples of a pictorial narrative relating to Amis mythology that has been preserved. During the Japanese occupation, the colonial government had already noted the importance of the pillars, designating the Kakita’an house a preservation site in 1935. After damage caused by Super Typhoon Winnie in 1958, researchers from Academia Sinica removed the pillars to the museum for safekeeping.
The determination of Fuday and his associates to retrieve the pillars ran into a number of obstacles. Although the Institute of Ethnography and Hu herself were very sympathetic to their desires in principle, there were conflicting demands regarding the long-term preservation of important artifacts of Aboriginal history and their return to a location where they would no longer fall under the watchful eye of experienced museum curators. The issue was further complicated by conflicts of interest within the Tafalong community, and some members of the Kakita’an family who had converted to Christianity and were either indifferent or hostile to efforts to tinker with symbols of earlier religious creeds and customs.
Hu’s close tracking of the discussions reveals a great deal about the changing and far from homogeneous views held by members of Taiwan’s Aboriginal community about their culture and identity. While the mythology and historical significance of the artifacts themselves from an academic point of view are not in doubt, the detailed study of their relationship to contemporary circumstances of Aboriginal life in Taiwan is what makes Returning Souls a particularly valuable sociological study. The film manages to challenge the easy assumptions that heritage is something that all minority peoples wish to embrace, and sketches out the complex issues related to the managing of a cultural preservation project.
Returning Souls premiered last month and Hu says that in addition to taking the film on the road to provide screenings for all the various communities involved in the debate over the fate of the pillars, other Aboriginal communities, museums and colleges have shown interest in viewing the film.
Hu said her interest in making a full documentary about the fate of the pillars grew after Fuday and others decided that it would be sufficient if shamans could bring the pillars’ ancestral spirits back to the community, leaving the pillars themselves in the care of the Institute of Ethnography. In the film, Fuday expressed a great sense of attainment in becoming intimately involved in the shamanistic legacy of his people, and the ritual invocation of the spirits to depart the original pillars and their “repatriation” to the Tafalong community solved the issue of the artifacts themselves.
“I have studied shamanistic culture for many years, and I was very surprised to discover that it was still such a potent force in Tafalong,” Hu told the Taipei Times. “We’ve had no record of their activities. I thought the shamanistic rites might have disappeared over time, but because of this debate over the pillars, the shamans came out into the open. As many of the community have converted to Christianity, they [the shamans] often don’t participate in larger [community] activities.”
Hu added that it was the shamans who provided the inspiration for the title of the film. “The shamans could see and hear the spirits, and so this gave rise to the idea of bringing the spirits home.”
Hu said that exposure to the elements had rendered the original pillars unsuitable as a building material for the renovation of the Kakita’an house, and that these important records of tribal mythology should not be needlessly endangered.
As to the pillars being listed by the government as a “national treasure,” Hu said that this had not caused much of a stir among the community in Tafalong. Members of the Institute of Ethnography went to the community to make a presentation about the listing early last month, but Hu said that reports from her colleagues suggested a mix of surprise and indifference on the part of many local residents. On the other hand, Fuday and the others have strongly supported the screening of the film in the community. “They believe that it might make people there think more deeply about a number of issues,” Hu said. “The whole process of bringing the pillars home brought about some very unexpected consequences.”
There will be a screening of Returning Souls on Feb. 24 at 7pm at the Activity Center of the Tafalong Primary School (太巴塱國小), 23, Zhongshan Rd Sec 2, Guangfu Township, Hualien County (花蓮縣光復鄉中正路二段23號).
Detailed information about the film can be found at the official blog of Returning Souls at returningsouls.pixnet.net/blog. Organizations interested in screening the film can contact Hu Tai-li through the blog or by calling the Institute of Ethnology at (02) 2652-3300.
The original pillars can be viewed at the Museum of the Institute of Ethnology (民族學研究所博物館), 128, Academia Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市研究院路二段128號). The museum is open on Wednesday and Saturday between 9:30am to 4:30pm (except public holidays). The Kakita’an house, which has now undergone extensive renovations, can be found in Futien Village (復田村), Guangfu Township (光復鄉), Hualien County.
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