Erenlai - Kalis Gyls
Kalis Gyls

Kalis Gyls

French Translator of Taiwanese Aboriginal Literature.

Friday, 27 January 2012 13:53

The Genesis and Development of Aboriginal Literature

The literary creations of Taiwan Aborigines, from a global dynamic to a local level; From the first authors of the Japanese language to the expression of a collective “I” in Mandarin; Genesis, definitions, formats, topics and actors.

About two weeks ago, I was invited by the organizers of the Workshop of Doctoral Students in Chinese Studies (CECMC) to give a paper on my PHD thesis. Since 2010, I’ve been enrolled in the Doctoral School of Arts, Humanities and Languages at the University of Provence, among the LEO2T team (Far East literatures, Texts and Translation), and under the supervision of Noël Dutrait. I had previously written a Master's thesis on this subject between 2002 and 2005.

My field of study throughout this project has been that the formation of "those" literatures (press, cultural magazines, anthropological publications, fiction and poetry, etc.), their themes, and the profile of their actors are closely related to the social reality around them. Therefore, first of all I returned to the general context of Taiwan, its history and its various ethnic and cultural components. The population of the island is 23 million and the Aboriginal population is only 500,000. The majority of people are of Han ethnicity.

Then, I shed light on the term "Aboriginal Literature" which in fact covers two realities: the first is the “oral” literature of these peoples (myths, legends, ballads), and the second is the “written literature”, which appeared later due to the lack of any true scriptural system among them.

These literatures emerged during a process of democratization on the island, which began around the lifting of the martial law in 1987. Indeed, the political demands of the Aborigines which were expressed at this time show their cultural renaissance. Taiwan experienced several waves of invasions between the fourteenth and twentieth century’s, and from these encounters with foreign civilizations unpublished, hybridized and modernized cultural expressions were coined. These marked the start of a subjective representation of these people.


I was also able to establish a short history of the aboriginal literary creations, since the beginnings of the Japanese colonization (1895-1945.) Starting with the first authors of the Japanese language (who were mostly composers of songs) to the writers of Mandarin expression from the late 1960s to the present. The extreme diversity of those texts also led me to understand why I had decided to work exclusively on the novelistic and poetic productions. Consequently, I was interested in the controversy over the definitions that were given about these authors in Taiwan: sometimes called "native writers" or "native literary creators" in academic texts. It seems that the questions of their "blood", the themes they deal with in their writings, or the linguistic tools they use (Mandarin, romanized or sinicized mother languages, etc.) are respectively put forward by the leading observers of this literature (writers, literary critics, researchers, whether they are Aboriginal or Han). Following this, I recognized the institutional framework of these creative productions (aboriginal literature prices, editorial relays), and briefly analyzed the lines of force that emerged from their literary and sociological reception (analysis of the literary prices posters, the generic division in "songs-poems’, “prose” and “novels”, or "traditional literature" and “literary creations in mother tongue," etc.).

Talking about aboriginal literature without mentioning the content of these texts was inconceivable. So I declined the major themes that appeared regularly in them, all genres included, and emphasized how these writings seemed to be "caught between a crossfire”: the critique of the Taiwanese society and its globalizing modernity, which destructs the cultures of these peoples, mixed to a reconfiguration of the oral tradition by writing (myths, legends and songs translated into Mandarin, or transcribed in romanized and sinisized native languages, etc.), or to a form of ethnical promotion by praising the alternative lifestyle, supposedly closer to nature, that the Aborigines knew before the arrival of the first foreigners in Taiwan.

The brevity of the exercise didn’t allow me to quote all the authors in this literary field (33 writers were officially registered in 2008); so I only presented some of the Paiwan poet Monaneng’s work. He’s an author/activist whose writings largely reflect the struggles of the indigenous activists in the 1980s (rectification of the name of these peoples, from "mountain compatriots" to "Aborigines", the denunciation of prostitution in which aboriginal young girls were constrained to take part, etc.). His collection of poems in Mandarin was the first to be published in 1989.


Among the other topics which are frequently raised are the "mountains" and the“ocean”, i.e the environment that would be natural to these peoples. Two authors, among the most famous in Taiwan and around the world, almost systematically articulate their stories around these aesthetic constructions:

The work of the Bunun Topas Tamapima, who was born in 1960 and is the author of three collections of texts, regularly highlights these "mountain forests" as a narrative framework in his stories, the traditional hunting to which his people are devoted, the various taboos of this practice, the relationship of his tribesmen to nature, and their misunderstanding of the modern world that changes their ancestral way of life. However, we can observe throughout his publications a kind of emancipation of the topics related to his people, which gradually converge towards a more collective dimension. There is an interaction between people from different groups and also with the evocation of demands which are common to "all" the Aborigines.

Syaman Rapongan is a Tao author who was born in 1957 on the Orchids Island, a small island off the southeastern coasts of Taiwan. In his stories, he talks about his return to his native island, his quest for re-learning traditional uses of his people (making boats, the art of fishing, etc.), but also of his difficulties in reintegrating among his own people: he is seen as an assimilated Aborigine who had been abroad for too long from their ocean culture. Syaman Rapongan retraces a true identity pilgrimage throughout his fishing expeditions, his relationship with the sea and fish shoals, or his interaction with the ancient Tao.

The second part of this paper allowed me to provide an update on the state of my research, during which I could make a short visit to Taiwan in September 2011. This was not my first visit as I had lived there between 2001 and 2003.



So I spent the first year of this research translating the latest collection of texts by Topas Tamapima, Lanyu xingyi ji 蘭嶼行醫記 (Memories of a doctor on the Orchids Island), which was published in 1998 and has recently been adapted to the television. In this book, he traces, through very short texts, his experience as a doctor at the dispensary of the Orchids Island. He also talks about the results of the meeting between him, the doctor/hunter of the mountains, and the Tao of the ocean. My presentation at the PHD students Workshop also allowed me to justify the choice of this book (his novelty and visibility), as well as the literary interest that represents its translation (autodiegetic narration that illustrates the "look" of an Aborigine on what surrounds him, the double han and aboriginal viewpoints of the author, etc.). I spent 1500 hours on translating this text of 253 pages into French (123 pages in the format of an academic work). Whilst completing this translation, I also gathered various documents on my subject, and established contacts with other researchers in Taiwan, the United States (Berkeley) and Canada (Manitoba).


Finally, I retraced the one-month stay I made in Taiwan in 2011 September. It wasn’t really a "field" in the ethnographical sense, but rather an "impregnation". I hadn’t visited Taiwan for 8 years and I think I needed to re-evaluate things, to remember who those Aborigines were. They are the common man shown in this literature, rather than the intellectuals who write these texts. So I did a tour of the island and visited:

1. The National Museum of Taiwanese Literature of Tainan, in the south of the island, where I could see a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Taiwanese literature in native languages (Hakka, Minnan or Austronesian languages);

2. The dispensary of Ch'angpin in Taitung, in the east of the island, where I found Topas Tamapima who I had last seen in November, 2003. I filmed a one-hour interview with him, where we had a casual conversation about his work, his life, his work as a doctor, his views on politics, the situation of his fellows and about Aboriginal literature. I also had the opportunity to meet Professor Tung Shu-ming at the University of Taitung, who is the author of one of the first PHD thesis on this literature, and who gave me a lot of advice and documentary sources;

3. Orchid Island where I visited all the places described by Topas in his latest collection of texts. I met his former colleagues at the dispensary, interviewed the staff of the nuclear wastes treatment factory, and interacted with the local people. Beyond the advantages to this passage of visiting the island (i.e. to help me to better understand the subject of my translation), the collection of different opinions on Topas also made me avoid to praise his personality and the reasons which led him to write. Separated by five years of inactivity and more than 10 000 miles from the subject of my research, I realized how much I would have stumbled upon this pitfall if I hadn’t made this visit.

4. Taichung, where I met the American-Taiwanese professor Hung Ming-shui who, before his retirement, taught a course on this literature at the University of Tunghai. We exchanged an extensive amount of information over a whole afternoon, after which he gave me the personal notes he had made on these texts, and a long article on this literature;

5. In Taipei, where, after a long interview, I was able to recover data and books from Lin Yi-miao. Lin is the chief editor of the Publication Society of the Mountains and Seas Culture, a publishing company that relays the arts and cultural activities of Taiwan Aborigines. Next, I went to meet the Paiwan poet Monaneng who agreed to be filmed during the interview. He also performed some of his poems in front of the camera.

At the end of this paper, I collected some questions from the public, which enabled me to wonder about some pre-existing analytical categories in Taiwan that I had pursued. I figured that it was imperative to deconstruct them to avoid falling into essentialization. Those questions also allowed me to understand the importance of being in regular contact with ones research supervisor, to measure his expectations, but also to clearly define an initial question, a methodology and research axes. While I was mostly considering my subject under a anthropological, sociological and literary perspective, one of the public comments made me realize the importance of the delimitation of my field and the approach under which I intended to study it. The draft plan of my PhD thesis is structured around three parts:

1. The authors and the texts

2. An annotated translation of "Memories of a doctor on the Orchids Island"

3. The reception of this literature in Taiwan

These three parts are organized around two major questions, according to a historical and literary approach:

- What "view" do those authors express?

- How is it reflected in their backgrounds, their texts and their reception?

The responses will help us to understand more sufficiently the following problem:

What can develop from the meeting of these "view points"? What is its literary and symbolic significance, both at a local and a global level?

Taken from a report of the meeting at the EHESS (School of Graduate Studies in Social Sciences) on December the 13th, 2011, from 17 to 19 pm

All photos by C. Maziere

Read here the original report in French


Monday, 31 December 2012 15:49

No or Know: Orchid Island, Aboriginal Resistance and Subjectivity

In this video interview by Christophe Maziere, famous aborigine writer Topas Tamapima discusses a variety of topics related to the aborigines of Orchid Island and the identity issues they face.

Friday, 28 September 2012 11:56

Aboriginal Literature Inside Out

In this video, I discuss my views on Taiwanese aboriginal literature, my encounters with famous aboriginal writers Topas Tamapima and Monaneng, and the place indigenous literature occupies in the Pacific and the world.

From an academic point of view, many aspects of Taiwan have already been studied all around the world. Aboriginal issues are really suffering from a severe lack of recognition in Western countries, even if some other specialists like Scott Simon are emerging, they depart only from an anthropological and political starting point. I’m probably one of the very few western researchers who work in this field through written literature, and I think it really represents a great value for our knowledge of this field. It’s also a way to ensure that all the work which have been already been put in by researchers like Elizabeth Zeitoun, Josiane Cauquelin or Véronique Arnaud will be continued.

Readers in Mainland China can watch it on youku here

Written version of the interview

Can you tell us about your academic background?

So, between 1999 and 2005, I read Chinese Studies at the University of Provence in France and I lived in Taiwan for two years, between 2001 and 2003. Then I did a Masters degree for which I wrote a dissertation about the contemporary written literature of Taiwanese Aborigines. In 2010, I decided to continue my research in this field by starting a PHD thesis in the same university, under the direction of Noël Dutrait who has supervised me since the beginning of my studies.

What was the subject of your Masters dissertation?

Despite the fact that there were already some indigenous writers like Gao Yisheng or BaLiwakes, who were mainly songwriters under the Japanese colonization, a true indigenous written literature in Mandarin had started to appear around the lifting of the martial law at the end of the 80’s. In 2003, an anthology devoted to indigenous writing was published. It brought together the most representative indigenous writers of Taiwan and their work, consisting of 7 volumes which were structured around the three major literary genres that are novels, poems and essays. These texts often took the form of original fiction, traditional myths and legends or a mixture of the two. The dissertation I wrote for my Master degree was a work of synthesis about all these writers and their texts. I also translated four novels written by Topas Tamapima, the first indigenous writer of the post martial law generation. I interviewed him for the first time at the end of 2003 in his dispensary in the county of Taitung. At this time, I also met Sun Dachuan, the current minister of Aboriginal Affairs, who helped me a lot.

What are you going to discuss in more detail in your PHD thesis?

A lot of research has already been done in this field in Taiwan. But there is almost nothing in western countries, except a few works in English by scholars like Terence Russel, Darryl Sterk and John Balcom. However, most of the works in English I’ve read are just translations and don’t really analyze the contents of indigenous literature.

By attending some conferences in Western countries about Taiwan, I realized that most of people were mainly interested in the substance of these texts. So I’ve decided to shed light on the viewpoint that was expressed by all these writers in their background and their texts. This is the first part of my dissertation which tries to summarize the background and the major texts of the 33 indigenous writers who are officially identified in Taiwan by the online data base of the Mountains and Seas Publication Society. By “viewpoint“ I mean the perception of the world around them. In the second part of my dissertation, I try to compare this viewpoint with the viewpoint that is expressed through the literary and sociological reception of this indigenous literature in Taiwan.

The final part of my thesis is an annotated translation in French of the last collection of short stories written by Topas Tamapima and which were published in 1998. Its name is Memories of a doctor on the Orchids Island and it retraces the experience of the author as a doctor on Orchids Island at the end of the 80’s. This translation helps to analyze the “viewpoint” of an indigenous writer throughout one of his works. We can see through this translation the mobility of the author’s viewpoint because in those short stories, Topas always seems to be caught between his professional status as a doctor, whose field is Chinese medicine, which was originally foreign to the indigenous people, and some collective reminiscences which constantly remind him as to the defense of all the Aborigines against Han society. So, the aim of my research is to see what arises from the meeting of this multiplicity of different viewpoints.

During your research, you met the two famous indigenous writers - Topas Tamapima and Monaneng. Can you tell us more about those meetings?

The first time I met Topas was at the end of 2003. At this time, I still was a Masters student and I was already writing a dissertation about the indigenous writers of Taiwan, which focused especially on the works of Topas Tamapima. The meeting was very fun and friendly; It was at his dispensary, Changpin, on the southeast coast of Taiwan in the county of Taitung. I asked him some questions about his background, his childhood, about some novels he wrote and which I had translated into French for my Masters degree dissertation. The second time I met him was in 2011, it was still at his dispensary. He didn’t remember our first meeting. It was a bit frustrating for me. I interviewed and filmed him for an hour. We had a deep discussion about everything, indigenous literature, what he thought about the current state of aborigines in Taiwanese society, his political viewpoint and his experience as a doctor on the Orchids Island amongst other things.

The meeting with Monaneng was a few weeks later in his massage room in Taipei. We talked about his background and his writing too. In front of my camera, he read one of his most famous poems. Its name is ‘When the bells start to ring’ and it talks about young indigenous women who become prostitutes. The meeting with him was really touching.

Is the Pacific represented in Topas and Monaneng's writings? How?

To me, the Pacific is absolutely not at the heart of their writings. Their writings were born around the lifting of the martial law and I think Topas and Monaneng were particularly concerned about the plight of the indigenous people. They mainly criticize the clash between indigenous cultures and modern civilization which was imported by the Han people. They don’t talk about the Pacific, maybe indirectly like in Memories of a doctor on Orchids Island in which Topas describes the ocean culture of the Tao and the sea which surrounds Orchid Island.

Do you think that TW aboriginal literature fits into the TW literature ? And into the idea of the common Pacific literature?

When the true indigenous literature in mandarin started to appear around the lifting of martial law, I mean with regular and homogeneous publications, not like the works of some indigenous writers like Lifok O’Teng or Kowan Tallal which were very underground, quite sporadic and isolated before the 80’s, at the beginning this true indigenous written literature was just another symptom of an identity and a cultural crisis among Taiwan Aborigines. I mean, although the idea of writing novels or poems as an indigenous writer was also promoted by some Han writers and intellectuals, the first indigenous texts in mandarin were just a global reaction to the critical situation of Taiwan Aborigines. But during the 90’s, it’s true that this literature began to be institutionalized with the creation of some specific literary prices which were also organized by the Council of Indigenous Affairs in Taiwan. From that moment on, this literature began to be indirectly instrumentalized by public authorities,for example, if you analyze the posters which promote these literary prices, you can realize that one of their goals is to increase the diversity of Taiwanese literature. So, at the beginning, indigenous literature didn’t belong to Taiwanese literature, but it has been progressively included in it as another aspect of the literature of the island.

It’s difficult to say if Taiwanese indigenous literature fits into the idea of a common Pacific literature. Of course, some writers like Syaman Rapongan describe the Pacific. But I think, I mean, as far as I have progressed in my research, I think that Taiwanese indigenous literature belongs more to a “world indigenous literature” rather than to a “Pacific literature”. You know, even if the contexts are very different, the content is very similar in the writing, for example, some Native American writers or some Australian indigenous writers also criticize colonization, the destruction of a modern civilization over their original culture, the destitution of their tribe, as well as some social problems they encounter like alcoholism or poverty. I mean, in my opinion, the common point is more social than geographical in what we call the “minorities literatures”.

What is the benefit of your research for the study of Taiwan?

From an academic point of view, many aspects of Taiwan have already been studied all around the world. The Aboriginal issues are really suffering a severe lack of attention in Western countries, even if some specialists like Scott Simon are emerging, he approaches his research from an anthropological and political perspective. I’m probably one of the few western researchers who works in this field through written literature, and I think it is of great value for our knowledge of those issues. It’s also a way to ensure that all the work which have already been done by French researchers like Elizabeth Zeitoun, Josiane Cauquelin or Véronique Arnaud will be continued…





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