Swept away from Sinology by the Allure of Taiwan's Pacific coast

by on Friday, 26 April 2013 Comments


I have been living in Taiwan since 1992, but, like most inhabitants of the island, I have been turning westwards more often than eastwards. And when I was leaving on research trips, most of the time they took me to southwest China, to remote mountainous areas, to study religious rituals and social changes, seemingly as far away from the Pacific world as possible. Still, a few months after my arrival in Taiwan, I spent some time in Taitung County, and, since then, the Pacific coastline entered my vision and my imagination. As the years went by I returned more frequently to Eastern Taiwan, as if drawn by a mysterious force leading me away from what had been my center of gravity. In 2008, I spent around 4 months of rest in Tafalong, an Amis village in Hualien County. festivalDoma06ONLINEThat was a hot summer, and there were few trees around. I was often lying down, trying to recover from the heat as well as from the state of exhaustion that had led me to this refuge. When I was able to, I wandered around, most of the time in the early morning or in the late afternoon, and later on I painted – painted the fields, the mountains and the houses that were surrounding me, painted the feelings of heat and exhaustion which were sometimes overwhelming, and painted also the stories, chants and myths I heard. I also listened to family tales and to ancestors' genealogies. The documentary we subsequently produced with the Renlai team is called "On the Fifth day, the Tide Rose", referring to the chant that describes the deluge from which the first couple that inhabited the village escaped. I still remember the struggle against heat and exhaustion, my reactions to the personal and collective stories I was listening to, the strange and enchanting beauty of this part of Eastern Taiwan, situated between two mountain ranges, and the mysterious attraction of the sea nearby. You do not see the ocean from Tafalong, but the Pacific is waiting a few kilometers away, like a giant, threatening and captivating presence. You do not see the ocean in the paintings created at that time, but it is hidden into them – for the Ocean is the primal force that made me come with these tiny islets of ink, colors and paper scattered among the Sea of Unknowing.

Along the years, the experience of standing on the Eastern seashore gave rise to a pervading feeling: I started to see the Pacific Ocean not only as a physical but as a "mystical" space as well; and reading more about the Pacific world I realized intimately that its immensity and the experience of its crossing had inspired in-depth spiritual experiences expressed through stories, myths, poems, music and epics; its borders and islands have witnessed the coming and melting of all the world's mystical traditions breaking along its shore wave after wave; it is ultimately one of the privileged spaces where humankind has refined and chanted the experience and "resonance" of the Divine. The commonality of such spiritual experience is sometimes summarized by the term of "oceanic feeling", though such wording remains open to challenges and controversies. The metaphors of "depth", "abyss', 'water", "resonance', "oneness" and "circularity" also find special echo through the physical experience specific to the Pacific world. Linguistic and musical expression, mystical experience, literary and artistic metaphors, and cross-cultural synthesis here melt into one.

And Taiwan is a point of departure, of melting and of destination of the stories weaved by the waves...


But does Taiwan's youth, especially its indigenous youth, nurture a sense of belonging to the Pacific world? Does its original connection with this open world encourage its creativity, its perception of the "resonance" that related stories, music and art forms take throughout this oceanic interchange? Such questions have been shared and debated by more and more people, as Taiwan's quest for meaning and spiritual depthwarcanoes48ONLINE has intensified and evolved during the last ten years or so. The quest for the Pacific connection (a quest often inchoative and ambiguous,) has been part of a shifting Taiwanese identity. Taipei Ricci Institute and Renlai have been actors in such endeavors, and have gathered a wealth of material on Taiwanese indigenous people and Pacific arts and stories, accumulated through filmed interviews, field trips and documentary records of international conferences. Ricci Institute and Renlai have also played a role in the formation of the Taiwan Pacific Studies Association, and have led groups of indigenous youth to Canada and to Fiji. This is how the project of making a documentary revolving around Taiwan's indigenous youth and the Pacific took shape – and this is how I went to the Solomon Islands in the summer of 2012. The timing of our trip coincided with the 11th Pacific Arts Festival that was drawing Pacific islanders from the entirety of the Melanesian and Polynesian worlds. Therefore the experience was twofold: it was an authentic meeting with the Solomon archipelago, and also an encounter with the diversity of cultures and people that together weave into one the Pacific family. And indeed, feelings of diversity and of commonality were continuously intertwined during all the encounters that took place during our time in the Solomon Islands.

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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