December 19th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The first Christmas: a birth that set fire to men's hearts

CANBERRA OBSERVED A Nationals welcome no sure thing for Macfarlane

CLIMATE CHANGE $100bn a year climate fund the rub in Paris deadlock

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Free speech petition: appeal all 'right not to be offended' clauses

WATER POLICY Review tells of destruction of farms in Goulburn Valley

CULTURE AND POLITICS Liberalism's disappearing act on human freedom

TAX REVIEW Rise in GST a no go when the need is for jobs

HISTORY Taiwan's first people have survived waves of settlers

FREEDOM OF RELIGION Law not broad enough to contain freedom's flow

SPEECH IN PARLIAMENT Credit where credit is long overdue: B.A. Santamaria

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Swedish daycare part II: problems of weak parenting

CINEMA No life is lived as an island: It's a Wonderful Life

BOOK REVIEW A contribution to Pope Francis' call for a conversation on conservation


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Taiwan's first people have survived waves of settlers

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, December 19, 2015

The Chinese came late to Taiwan. The 17th-century Chinese emperors called Taiwan’s native people “Eastern Savages”. The Portuguese navigators, who sighted Taiwan in their peregrinations during Europe’s “Age of Discovery” called Taiwan Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island), a name that stuck.

The fossilised skull fragment

of Tsochen Man.

Formosa became a highly political term, however, when it was expropriated by the Taiwan independence movement after the arrival of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (Nationalist) government in 1947.

For most of China’s imperial history, Chinese settlers on Taiwan were not encouraged. Those who crossed the “Black Water” of the Taiwan Strait were mainly men. The treacherous waters of the “Black Ditch” were a psychological as well as a physical barrier to settlement. Matsu, goddess of the sea, was these sailors’ refuge.

The Chinese emperors found the idea of a province that had no contiguous territory with the Chinese mainland distasteful and somewhat peculiar. The fact that the Formosa aborigines were headhunters was also inconvenient. Shipwreck survivors mostly had their heads removed, which provoked diplomatic problems. The Han Chinese settlers, who mainly originated in Fujian Province, opposite Taiwan, were a prickly bunch who did not welcome interference in their affairs. Most Taiwanese today still trace their origins back to Fujian Province.

The Taiwan aborigines are known these days as Taiwan yuan zhu ming (literally “Taiwanese original inhabitants”). In the recent past they were called shan di re (“mountain people”). Presumably because there had been plains aborigines who had been almost completely physically and culturally absorbed by the majority Han Chinese, the term “mountain people” was regarded as unacceptable. Today, Formosan aborigines, a term that is both accurate and understandable, number some 530,000 people, or 2.3 per cent of Taiwan’s population.

Ancient precursors

The first people to inhabit Taiwan arrived some 30,000 years ago, during the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic Period). Many relics have been found in archeological digs. These people, represented by the Changpin Culture, persisted until around 5,000 years ago. The most famous archaeological find from the era is the skull fragment known as Tsochen Man. It is believed that these people were iron workers who lived in rock shelters near the ocean and lived by fishing. Although they worked iron, mainly by hammering, they did not produce pottery.

Anthropologists and linguists believe that Taiwan is one of the most significant wellsprings of language and culture on earth. From Taiwan, the Austronesian peoples set out to settle the globe, ranging as far west as Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, and as far east as Easter Island, off the west coast of South America. The spread of the sweet potato throughout the Pacific is likely due to the fact that the Polynesians traded with the Native Americans. The notion that the Malayo-Polynesians originated in South America, promoted by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who made the famous Kon Tiki expedition, has little evidence in its favour.

The Austronesians include the Formosan aborigines, the Malayo-Polynesians, the Indonesians, the Papuans, the Madagascans, the Micronesians and the Filipinos. Micronesian languages are spoken by 380 million people, mainly in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean regions. When Ming Dynasty traveler Chen Di sighted Taiwan in 1603, 26 native languages were spoken in Taiwan. Ten languages are now extinct, five are moribund and several are endangered. Austronesian languages come fifth in terms of speakers, lagging behind only Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo and Afro-asiatic. They come second in terms of diversity.

According to scholarly research, the Austronesians began leaving Taiwan in a large-scale expansion between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago. While no one can be certain, it is likely that population pressures and food shortages provoked this human wave. Of the four Austronesian language groups, three are found only in Taiwan. Major groups in Taiwan who speak Austronesian languages are the Ami, Atayal, Bunun and Paiwan.

Diaspora to the islands

Of these groups leaving Taiwan, the “express train to Polynesia” theory is the most compelling. The Polynesians are regarded as the greatest seafarers the world has known. Polynesia was discovered around 3,000 years ago. Without modern navigation aids or maps, they explored the Pacific from one end to the other, using the stars, sun and ocean currents to navigate. The Polynesians discovered every landmass of significance in the Pacific. In 1280 AD, sailing in the waka, the great ocean-going canoes carved from a single massive tree trunk, the Polynesians made landfall in Aotearoa. The Dutch cartographers named it Nova Zeelandia, and Captain James Cook named it New Zealand.

Whether the Maori had a concept of Aotearoa as an entity is difficult to tell. The Maori spent a great deal of time fighting each other, as did the Formosan aborigines. The Land of the Long White Cloud, especially the North Island, provided fertile ground for agriculture and the development of culture.

The Formosan aborigines are important because they inhabited Taiwan for many thousands of years before the Han Chinese showed any interest in the island. The dislocation caused by the last Ice Age, between 15,000 and 7,000 years ago, had a profound effect on human settlement patterns. The development of a rice culture, likely to have occurred about 10,000 years ago in what is today China, had the effect of displacing Austronesia’s less sophisticated farming cultures.

Rice culture is important for two reasons. First, rice can be intensively cultivated. Of all the grain crops, it is the most productive in terms of output and area. Second, rice cultivation requires a sophisticated system of agronomy and political governance. It therefore promotes both density of population and a surplus of production which can be expropriated for political purposes by an elite, encouraging the development of civilisation.

The Formosan aborigines, during the period of contact with the first Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company) and the Spanish, could be readily divided into two groups: the plains aborigines and the mountain aborigines. The plains aborigines lived in forts made of bamboo, living by slash-and-burn farming and hunting. Duties were divided by sex: woman did the gardening and cooking and looked after the house; men hunted (mainly deer) and fended off other tribes who were conducting headhunting raids.

Headhunting was part of the Formosan aboriginal culture. The culture was often matrilineal: that is, a man would marry into his wife’s family. The Dutch Reformed Church attempted to evangelise the plains aborigines with some success.

The other group of Formosan aborigines, the mountain aborigines, was not readily absorbed into the mainstream of Taiwanese life. Armed resistance persisted until the Wushe incident in 1930. In response to long-term oppression by Japanese authorities, the mountain aborigines at Wushe attacked the village, killing over 130 Japanese. The Japanese retaliated, killing over 600 aborigines.

Even today, both male and female mountain aboriginals often have facial tattoos. They can be readily distinguished from the Han Chinese by their body type and facial features.

In days gone by, the Formosan aborigines believed in an all-powerful deity, coupled with ancestor worship and shamanism. Christian evangelists have been active among them and Catholic missionaries have been particularly effective in promoting the social advancement of the Taiwan aborigines, who have learned that any form of government support comes with strings attached.

Jobs are scarce in the mountains and many Formosan aborigines enlist in the army or police force or join security firms. In recent years, Formosan aborigines have encouraged tourism and other similar enterprises to break the stranglehold of the government on their economic lives.

The Dutch called the aborigines “Indians” or “blacks”. The VOC (Dutch East India Company) ruled Taiwan from 1624 to 1662 from Fort Zeelandia, near Tainan City in southern Taiwan. The VOC traded with the natives, as it always did, and established the rudiments of government.

Tenacious and uncooked

The Ching Dynasty, when dealing with the Formosan aborigines, referred them as “wild” or “raw” as opposed to “cooked”; that it, subjugated. The Ching emperors (1644–1912) did not have much time for Taiwan or the Formosan aborigines. The Chinese settlers who were then beginning to cross the “black water” from Fujian were contumacious and little better than the “Eastern Savages”. The settlers were notably reluctant to pay taxes.

The Chinese settlers, however, had no women with them; women were very reluctant to cross the “Black Ditch”. As normally happens in such a situation, the Chinese men married (if one could call it that) the aboriginal women, as happened with the Peranakan in the Malay Peninsula. The Taiwanese, as opposed to the mainland Chinese, frequently have Formosan aboriginal blood running in their veins.

As for today’s Formosan aborigines, Taiwan is not a society that easily forgives those who fail to adhere to its Chinese mores of studying hard and making money. That the Formosan aborigines persist as discrete societies after 400 years of almost unrelenting harassment is an achievement; that they are taking their destiny into their own hands is a greater achievement.

The conference on Austronesian linguistics in Taiwan in July 2015, sponsored by the Government of the Republic of China, demonstrated that the island of Taiwan is not only a Chinese island. By building bridges to the Austronesian world, Taipei has shown a degree of imagination that would surprise its critics. The Formosan aborigines are indeed “the people who were there before”.

Taiwan’s multiracial condition does highlight Taiwan’s strategic location in Asia as a pivot between north-east Asia and South-East Asia. Just think of the nations it has as neighbours: the Philippines (Tagalog, Austronesian); Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia, Austronesian); Malaysia and Brunei (Malaysian, Austronesian). These nations resulted from the great exodus that settled the globe from Madagascar to Easter Island.

The proudest claim the Formosan aborigines can make is a simple one: we persist; we survived the Dutch, the Spanish, the Ching Empire, the Japanese and the Kuomintang. We speak our own languages and we live in our own villages. We will endure and our children will endure.

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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