Crossing Kuroshio

by on 週一, 31 一月 2011 7730 點擊 評論
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Indigenous Taiwanese take to the seas

The circular flow of the warm Kuroshio Current from the equator, forms a sea path which links Taiwan and other islands together in an interrelated cultural area. Within this cultural circle the Kavalan, who once had exquisite maritime navigation skills, left many precious historical records...

On June 19th 2007, a group of brave men from Lanyu (Orchid Island) rowed across the Kuroshio Current, between Lanyu and Taiwan Island, in a traditional dugout Tao fishing canoe, to arrive at the seaside park on Taitung City. They then continued through several coastal destinations in Taiwan before reaching their final resting spot at the Port of Keelung, having covered a total distance of 600 km. Lanyu is located off the east coast of Taitung, Taiwan; however, in the memory of Lanyu’s Tao people, rowing to Taiwan in their traditional canoe was a first, an unprecedented event. After 13 hours of struggle, the 14 rowers safely landed at the Taitung Seashore Park where they were met with the excitement and standing ovation of the people who awaited them. On arriving Shyman Ftaien, one of the rowers explained:

“After leaving Lanyu, due to the strong Kuroshio currents, we first had to row southwards towards the Dawu coastal territory and only then could we cut into the central line of the current and turn to flow northwards before gradually approaching the Taitung coast. Crossing Kuroshio added an extra four or five hours to our journey.”

Kuroshio Current links island cultures

Kuroshio is the Pacific Oceans’ North Equatorial Current. It is forced westwards by the north easterly winds before turning northwards when it hits the east coast of the Philippines. This equatorial current is warm, dense and of high salt concentration. It is also highly affected by seasonal wind direction and intensity. When the southwest monsoon blows through in the summer, the current and winds head in the same direction, making Kuroshio even more powerful; yet come winter, the opposing strong north-easterly winds actually slow down Kuroshio. As the Kuroshio Current flows northeast it passes through Lanyu and Green Island off Taiwan Island’s east coast, and then continues along Taiwan and Okinawa before disappearing into the East China Sea. Topographical factors mean that the strongest part of the current is right in between the Lanyu/Green Island and Taiwan Island.[1] No wonder it was such an undertaking for the Tao to reach Taiwan.

Back when there was no fuel power, the sheer force of the Kuroshio Current became a useful natural resource and a favourite route for travelling ships. The Japanese academic world hence raised the research hypothesis of a ‘Kuroshio cultural group’, pointing out that the Kuroshio Current created correlations in the movements of people from the islands and areas in its path, and also that the peoples and cultures connected by the current were highly interrelated. Taiwan, Lanyu, Green Island, and even the Kuroshima isles of Okinawa formed an ocean culture along the flow of Kuroshio stream; a culture that was predominantly Austronesian.

The sea route of indigenous legends

7From a Taiwanese point of view, the islands located along the Kuroshio current - Lanyu and Green Island - always held an important role in indigenous fables and legend. Green Island, the island originally known as Sanasai, even developed its own complicated storytelling system.[2] The main storytelling indigenous groups in Taiwan were the Puyuma, Ami, Kavalan, Ketagalan and from their stories we are able to see the key importance that Green Island held in the ethnic migrations. The basic prototype of a Sanasai legend was as follows:

In earlier days, due to domestic hardships, there was a group of people who left their southern island homeland (some believe this homeland to be Sanasai) and drifted northwards. During the migrations, they first set foot on an island called Sanasai, before continuing along the east coast of Taiwan where they would find a place to disembark. Then they either settled down at this place, or continued on to find a better place to settle.

Yonaguni Island, the most western point of Okinawa’s Kuroshima isles, which is less than 100km and visible from Taiwan on clear days, was also a part of this Kuroshio Culture Circle, according to Japanese academia. In recent times, the relationship between Yonaguni and Taiwan remains close. However, the current understanding is that Luzon, Batan Island, Lanyu, Green Island and Taiwan are of the Austronesian diaspora, while those of Kuroshima, seem be the result of northern peoples migrating southwards.

In other words, based on ethnicity, culture and language, the concept of a Kuroshio cultural circle constructed by Japanese academia has long separated Taiwan and Okinawa, who are geographically so close, into two separate language families. Moreover, Kuroshio which flows north all the way to Okinawa from the Philippines and the migrations that flowed with the current and stop at Green Island were also different from the construct adopted by the fields of archaeology and linguistics, which state that ‘Taiwan was the starting point from where the Austronesian language family spread’ on their route from north to south.

Interesting as these questions may be, there exists insufficient archaeological data and historical documents, so we need new excavations and research if we are to progress in our understanding.

The Kavalan Waveriders

Interestingly, the Amis and Puyuma tribes, separated from Green Island only by a small sea, are rarely known for their sea activities. Meanwhile, the Basay of the Kavalan tribe, who are located all the way up on Taiwan’s northern coast and are known as the distant Kavalan, are famous for excelling in water-based activities.

For example, documents from 1722 record that Zhu Wenbing was blown to modern-day Lanyang Plain, Yilan, during strong gales. Having to disembark with a broken down ship, he eventually came into friendly contact with the Kavalan. They got along so well, that eventually some Kavalan took him back to Jinshan County on the northern coast. They took one day to get to Rueifang and one more to get to Jinshan.[3]

Estimates would suggest that when they rowed him back it was probably around July, when the southerly winds are in full force. Therefore they would have had to return facing the winds. According to the descriptions of 17th century missionary Jacinto Esquivel, the Kavalan would come to the mouth of the Danshui River during the harvest season and ambush the locals and Chinese traders.[4] Thus it is clear that the Kavalan were long familiar with this route.

The Kavalan did not only adventure north to Danshui, but also south along the east coast, where they threatened the Amis. A Japanese explorer, who drifted down to an east coast Amis village at the beginning of the 19th century, left a valuable record:

In this place, from midsummer to autumn, there are often Kavalan boats which come by the shore. The boats are long and thin, with oars like centipede legs. There are about 20-30 people with strange facial features, wearing multicoloured garments and hats full of feathers, howling and taunting as they go. The locals (Amis) all seem frightened, and during these months seem rather scared of going down to the seashore. When the Kavalan on the ships see people on the land, they disembark, kidnap the people, then leave.[5]

The ocean in our history

Thus historical documents would seem to indicate that Kavalan boats were able to row vigorously along the east coast of Taiwan past Hualien in boats filled with 20-30 people. This shows the impressive strength of their maritime manoeuvrability. The westerner Taintor, who was travelling in the Lanyang Plains, Yilan in 1875, also noticed that the Kavalan were not just fishing on the seashore and rivers but also going into the oceans, from the east coast, past Yilan and all the way to the north coast.[6]

Although Taiwan’s sea routes extend in all directions, most modern history developed in western Taiwan. Thus, Taiwan was rarely included as part of the Kuroshio cultural circle when investigating its relationships with surrounding regions and ethnic groups. However, the example given by the Tao people in the 21st century, reminds us that indigenous sea navigation is still a dynamic and distinctive cultural feature for Taiwan; what has been deciphered from past documents, and the discovery of these messages from the seas, have already become a part of Taiwanese history.

Translated from Chinese by Nicholas Coulson. Images courtesy of  Su-Juan Zhan and Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.


[1] 李玉芬,〈黑潮對綠島早期涉外關係的影響〉,《東台灣研究》3(1998),pp. 84-85.

[2] 移川子之藏等,《臺灣高砂族系統所屬の研究》(東京:刀江書院,1935), pp. 389-509.

[3] 黃叔璥,《臺海使槎錄》,文叢4(臺北:臺銀經研室,1957),pp. 140。

[4] Jose Eugenio Borao, “The Aborigines of Northern Taiwan According to 17th-Century Spanish Sources.”《中研院臺灣史田野研究通訊》27(1993), pp. 103;翁佳音,〈近世初期北部臺灣的貿易與原住民〉,收於黃富三、翁佳音(主編),《臺灣商業傳統論文集》(臺北:中央研究院臺灣史研究所籌備處,1999),pp. 72。

[5] 秦貞廉(編輯),〈臺灣屬島チヨプラン地漂流圖記〉,《愛書》第12輯(1939), pp. 47-48。

[6] Taintor, E.C.,” The Aborigines of Northern Formosa,” Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series No. IX(1875), pp. 53-88。

最後修改於 週三, 08 一月 2014 17:35
Su-Juan Zhan (詹素娟)

國立台灣師範大學歷史學博士,現任中央研究院台灣史研究所副研究員兼副所長。專長為族群史、區域研究與史學理論。

最新自 Su-Juan Zhan (詹素娟)

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