Taiwan’s indigenous tribes give new identity to Han Chinese

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“I was always afraid of how other people would see me. Won’t they think I’m weird? he said.

More than two years later, Li, now 34, feels completely at home in the indigenous community, also known as the Zhiben tribe. He helped fix houses, learned to hunt and joined the group’s protests against the installation of a nearby solar farm. Her back and shoulders are covered in traditional tattoos.

“I was completely naturalized. I would say I’m from this tribe,” Li said. “I’m native in spirit, though not by blood.

Li is one of a growing number of young Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in Taiwan, who in recent years have become fully immersed in one of the island’s indigenous cultures – spending days exploring the routes of ancestors to through the mountains, to hunt and to participate in festivals and ceremonies.

Growing identification with Taiwan’s indigenous communities is part of a revival of indigenous culture and a renewed focus on Taiwan’s Austronesian roots – trends that undermine Beijing’s claims to the island, which it says is an inalienable part of China.

The adoption of indigenous identities by young Han Chinese in Taiwan, the dominant ethnic group in China, also undermines one of the main arguments used by Chinese leaders to justify the unification of China and Taiwan – heritage and common ethnicity.

According to government statistics, more than 95% of Taiwan’s population of around 23 million is made up of Han Chinese, descended from generations of southern Chinese who began settling in the archipelago more than 100 years ago. 400 years, as well as those who arrived with the fleeing Nationalist army. in the late 1940s after its defeat by the Chinese Communist Party.

Taiwan is also home to around 580,000 people from one of 16 officially recognized tribes, descendants of the Austronesian people whose presence on the island dates back thousands of years.

For some Taiwanese, these tribes hold the answer to key questions of personal and national identity, after decades of dislocation and cultural repression under the control of others – the Dutch, the Chinese Qing dynasty, the Japanese and then the military. Chinese nationalist of the Kuomintang.

“I know I’m Taiwanese, but what does it really mean to be Taiwanese? said Ching Che Lin, 34, a ceramic artist who began the years-long process to reach the village of Lalaulan, part of the indigenous Paiwan community, in Taitung after being introduced by his wife, a member of a other neighboring tribe.

While studying art and traditional pottery as a student, Lin often wondered what Taiwan – which he says is most obviously influenced by Chinese culture in southern Fujian, Japan and Western ideals – could claim as his own. Born in Japan and raised in different parts of Taiwan, he found it difficult to talk about his identity.

“Identity is tied to the land and how much you understand your relationship to the land,” Lin said. “I fell in love with the tribe because their culture is rooted in the land.”

As the focus shifts to Taiwan’s indigenous ties, ties to China appear to be weakening. The number of residents who considered themselves Chinese fell to less than 4% last year, and those who considered themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese were below 32%, compared to 62% who identified as only Taiwanese, according to an analysis of the surveys. by the Center for Electoral Studies at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

Recently, leaders such as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who is a quarter Paiwan, have promoted Taiwan’s indigenous identity. In 2016, Tsai issued the first official apology to indigenous groups for centuries of mistreatment, including the seizure of ancestral lands and assimilation policies that banned indigenous languages ​​and traditions.

Since then, government initiatives have ranged from teaching indigenous languages ​​in schools to employment programs, local health centers and grants to revive traditional customs.

It is for this reason that indigenous author Ahronglong Sakinu of the Lalaulan tribe and others have made it their mission to bring in people from outside. Sakinu joked that the number of Han Chinese people who have joined the community in recent years has been such that there are now “more light faces than dark faces” in the group.

“We should no longer cling to our own river; we should face the sea,” Sakinu said.

Wang Ping Shen, 23, who joined the Lalaulan community after attending a harvesting ceremony in 2016, said he saw more and more people like him who are not natives taking trips to the mountains to follow the paths traced by the ancestors of the tribe, a reminder of a world before the Han Chinese migrated to the island.

“The more people know about these stories, the harder it is for them to be forgotten. There is a saying that the tribe is like a small stream. Now the tribe must come together and become a river so that it can flow even further. Stories will only be remembered if we all come together and remember them,” Wang said.

As Taiwan faces increased diplomatic isolation due to Chinese lobbying against the island’s recognition as an independent nation, government officials have pointed to Taiwan’s Austronesian ties to South Pacific countries. Others have used those links to challenge Beijing’s claims to Taiwan.

In 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a New Year’s message describing Taiwan’s unification with China as “inevitable”, and he warned that he would not rule out the use of force to achieve it. In response, representatives of Taiwan’s Indigenous Historical and Transitional Justice Committee wrote in a letter: “We have lived here, in our homeland, for more than six thousand years. It is a land where generations of us have given our lives to protect it. This is sacred space. Taiwan does not belong to China.

For the most part, the groups welcomed foreigners eager to learn and appreciate their traditions. “If we only cared about blood ties, we would be trapped in a maze and it would be impossible to revive our culture,” said John Lu, a member of the Lalaulan tribe.

“It’s a real uphill struggle to bring those cultures back to life, and there’s very few people involved, so it could be great to have even one more person there to learn the language and culture and participate.” said Kerim Friedman, a professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan.

For many of these young Han Chinese people entering indigenous communities, China is the furthest thing from their minds as they search for a sense of community, a different pace of life from the cities, or the freedom to live. be themselves.

Seven years ago, Judy Chang was a student at a police academy in Taiwan when she heard Sakinu tell the story of a young schoolboy from the city who lived with him.

The boy was miserable, ignoring everyone as he listened to music on his headphones. One day Sakinu took him to the mountains right after it rained. The boy began to play, jumping and rolling in piles of leaves and mud. Suddenly he burst into tears. He had never been allowed to play like this before, he said.

Hearing the story, Chang, who loved nature but chose a career as a civil servant for stability, also burst into tears. “This boy is like me. I love the mountains, but because of the constraints imposed by my family or those that I impose on myself, I have never been really free to do what I want.

Today Chang, 28, has moved to Taitung, where she spends as much time as possible with the Lalaulans, whom she considers family. Here, she finally feels in her place. “Going to the mountains is like coming home,” she said.

Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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