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waves of invasions between the fourteenth and twentieth century’s, and from these encounters with foreign civilizations unpublished, hybridized and modernized cultural expressions were coined.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


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