Whenever I am out, either on the bike or just out, I like to watch, listen, and talk to people. I like to get oral histories and think about how history, people, cultures, ethnicities and constructs all converge on a particular spot. Sometimes something happens that triggers a moment of deep reflection or simply a moment of “wow!”
The bicycle makes a wonderful and disarming way to meet people in Taiwan. An ice breaker if you will. In Taiwan people love to ask where you are going and if you are going “around the island”. This ice breaker leads to some often surprising discoveries that would otherwise have remained concealed.
One major purpose of this blog, aside from simply posting routes and pictures, is to use the bicycle as a starting point to explore different topics that are related to learning Taiwan. The bicycle in this blog serves as the ice breaker to a greater discussion of Taiwan related themes.
An interesting encounter:
As we climbed up through the hills of Lugu with dusk closing fast, we stopped at a hostel that was reasonably priced and had vacancy for 5 people. The owner and his family, as well as some of the other guests, were very excited to have a group of foreign cyclists staying at the hostel. A few people near the door lingered to look at out bikes and components and cock an ear to listen to the oddness of five Chinese speaking foreigners.
Later that evening the owner treated us to a fungus dish at dinner and came out to chat for a while. The owner is a short man with a tan complexion, slight build and round nose. He looked like many other people from the area and as most people who have really lived in Taiwan know, Taiwanese are a people of great diversity. (I can’t stand hearing foreigners talk about “homogeneity” of Taiwanese. )
We were in mid conversation with the hostel owner when, for no apparent reason and completely out of the blue, he made an abrupt declaration that resonated above the din of the conversation.
“I am not an Aborigine!” He announced.
“Aborigines dress in costumes and sing and shout Oy ay ay!! No, I am not an Aborigine”, he continued in a half-pantomime.
I was a bit stunned. Nobody had even suggested he was an Aborigine and it had absolutely nothing to do with our conversation. So of course I had to wonder why he felt he needed to make this an issue and so deliberately attempt to establish his distance from the Aboriginal identity.
Now, I know a lot of people who would like to say this gentleman, like most Taiwanese, must be an Aborigine as over 80% of all Taiwanese are thought to carry markers in their DNA linking them to any of the Austronesian speaking peoples of Taiwan and beyond and he is simply ashamed and hiding his "true" identity. Many foreigners remark that many Taiwanese don't look "Chinese", but I am about as confident in describing the appearance of a person in China and I am a European or American.
I am not trying to dispute the DNA study, but I think this belief is a dead end that seeks construct a Taiwanese ethnic-national identity rooted in a primordialist authenticity, similar to China’s construction of the “5000 years of Chinese culture”. I think this line of thought misses the point of what it may mean to be an Aborigine or any broadly defined ethnic group in Taiwan, and the gentleman on the mountain helps to clarify this point.
The R.O.C. which supplied much of the state structure that governs Taiwan today, is very much rooted in the early Chinese nationalist ideology that centered around modernism and social-Darwinism.
“Considering the law of survival of ancient and modern races, if we want to save China and to preserve the Chinese race, we must certainly promote Nationalism. To make this principle luminous for China's salvation, we must first understand it clearly. The Chinese race totals four hundred million people; of mingled races there are only a few hundred million Mongols, a million or so Manchus, a few million Tibetans, and over a million Mohammedan Turks. These alien races do not number more than 10 million, so that, for the most part, the Chinese people are of the Han or Chinese race with common blood, common religion, and common customs-a single, pure race.”
Sun Yat-sen in San Min Zhu Yi (1927)
It is quite evident from the passage above that Sun embraced racialism and also viewed human beings and cultures on a trajectory of forwardness and backwardness through teleological time.
The R.O.C. government enacted a policy of strong centralization to bring the people of the new nation closer to the cultural center and create a sense of unity, which had never existed before in Chinese history. The nationalization process focused on strongly centralized notions of government, language, education, economy and culture. The KMT regularly used force to wrest control of localities from warlords and the powerful elite who had hoped for a loose federation of localities and independent states. Later, Chiang Kai-sheck’s New Life movement of the 1930’s effectively canonized a national culture for the R.O.C., which married Republican modernism and social darwinism with a state-defined Han traditionalism. The official nationalist culture placed a burden on all peoples, particularly peripheral peoples, to demonstrate their alignment with the state by adopting official culture. It also legitimized, in the eyes of the government, the states own superiority over those peoples.
When the R.O.C. arrived on Taiwan following the armistice with Japan in 1945, the KMT maintained its framework of strong centralization. The experience of fighting warlordism for two decades in China influenced how the KMT engaged in its relationship with Taiwan’s different cultures. By framing national and local cultures in terms of their forwardness or backwardness, the KMT party-state implemented itself as the civilized center and burdened the majority of Taiwan peoples to identify with the state or risk losing access to state power. Many of the disparate refugees who followed the KMT to Taiwan readily replaced their home languages and cultures with those defined by the KMT to align themselves with the government and with other fellow refugees. This policy also established ethnicity as either a conduit or a roadblock to power. The New Life vision of a Han-centric state, was reaffirmed by the Chinese Cultural Renaissance Movement of the 1970’s, which promoted “Traditional Chinese” culture to check cosmopolitanism and compete with the PRC for authenticity.
The establishment of a strong Chinese Nationalist culture as the state’s own symbol of modernity, and the state’s denial of modernity to local/indigenous cultures, is evident in the R.O.C.’s terms for recognizing indigenous peoples. Taiwan’s indigenous peoples must satisfy the R.O.C.’s standards for being traditional in order to be recognized as authentic; denying their coevalness and trapping indigenous peoples in Han stereotypes as they are imagined to have been at first contact. In essence, to be viewed as indigenous, one must also be viewed as traditional. This creates a cleave between indigenous peoples and the state that can never be bridged on equal terms. This structure has continually frustrated groups of Plains Aborigines, who are confronted with not being “traditional” enough to be viewed as authentic in the eyes of the state.
This brings us back to the gentleman in Lugu.
The current groups of recognized Aborigines are groups of indigenes who were largely defined, not as much by their preexisting beliefs of ethnic cohesion, but rather by the way they come into contact with the state. They are asked to resemble how they are imagined by non-indigenies to have been at first contact. Under the definitions promoted by the state, those who fall within those state definitions are impelled to negotiate with state power differently than those who do not (not unlike Foreigners). This nexus is a major location of Aboriginal ethnic identity as well as a tool for constructing ethnic boundaries.
The formulation of cultural tradition is based on the manipulation and interpretation by particular people themselves…especially when the tradition is utilized as a powerful element to maintain ethnic boundaries… Tradition is imagined, shaped and defined by holders or sharers of the tradition in a meaningfully current situation… Even when an ethnic group’s original cultural traits have disappeared, it can still mold an exotic expressive culture to attract tourists.” (Hsieh 1994:201)
Our host in Lugu was simply not participating in the indigenous identity. Although he may have very recently leapt the boundary line between Aborigine and non-Aborigine, he was rejecting the traditional image that has come to form new meanings of what indigenality or Aboriginal identity means in Taiwan and he had joined the majority, possibly as a means to seek social and economic mobility or simply because he did not view himself as reflecting the image of an "Aborigine".
It is not surprising why he or his recent ancestors may have made the leap from indigenous to non-indigenous. When living within a state structure like Taiwan’s that has linked ethnicity so closely with mobility, and centers so closely around state-Han cultural chauvinism… the gap between “modern” and “backward” can only be bridged by shedding the traditional. He clearly did not share or wish to share the symbols and meanings of traditionalism with Aborigines and thus successfully shed that identity. The burden of the indigenous identity may have been too great or too much of a liability under the current structure.
Of course he is not an Aborigine! He is not living life experiencing it as an Aborigine. He views the symbols of the Aboriginal identity as an outsider. The symbolism as a group marker does not apply to him as he has likely, successfully renegotiated into a new identity with no boundaries to impede his movement from being indigenous and, unlike the PRC model, state structure is not prepared nor willing to send him "back". A Chinese nationalist might view him as having been successfully transformed into something "better". A harsher critic might suggest he had been self-colonized as a part of a civilizing project that is still very active and very colonial in nature. This project acts under the name of the ROC. Still, this gentleman clearly represents how easily these borders can be crossed and that people may have plenty of agency over their ethnic identities and how they choose to deploy them.
The phenomenon above demonstrates how the ROC structure drives ethnic and cultural change and creates a problematic post-coloniality for Taiwan. The only way to truly begin a post colonial existence and create equality in Taiwan is to start over from a culturally neutral center where everyone is within equal distance from the center as opposed to the state defined Han-centricism where some are closer than others. Until then the ROC will continue to operate as a civilizing center and a colonial entity.
On a final note on ethnic change in Taiwan: I chuckled aloud when the gentleman went around the horn to ask where we were from. When it was clear most of us had been in Taiwan a very long time, he declared “Oh! Well by now you’re all just Taiwanese.”
Notes: I choose to use Aborigine with a capital "A" to reflect its construction on par with other constructed ethnic identities: Hoklo, Hakka, Mainlander, Foreigner.
References: Hsieh, Shi-chung. (1994). Tourism, Formulation of Cultural Tradition, and Ethnicity: A Study of the Daiyan Identity of the Wulai Atayal. In Stevan Harrell, Huang Chun-chieh eds., Cultural Change in Postwar Taiwan. Westview Press. (Pp 201)