Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reawakening a dormant language (Taiwan Review)

In the summer of 2005, Chun Jimmy Huang (黃駿), then a doctoral student at the University of Florida, visited the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung, eastern Taiwan. Accompanied by his parents and his sister, Huang was expecting to learn about the people who lived in Taiwan thousands of years ago. By the end of his visit, however, he was feeling somewhat perplexed. 

“Inside the museum, there was a display titled ‘Siraya tools’ that included fishing equipment, bamboo utensils and a cradle,” recalls Huang, now an assistant professor of English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Guam.

The Siraya, an Austronesian-speaking group, dominated Taiwan’s southwestern lowlands before and for some decades after the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) 1624–1662 occupation of what is now Tainan City in southern Taiwan. In fact, the word Taiwan, many believe, is derived from the Siraya language. The Executive Yuan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) recognizes 14 ethnic groups as aboriginal tribes, but in recent years has rejected petitions seeking formal recognition for the Siraya.

“I realized I’d seen several of the museum exhibits in my home in Jiali,” he says of Tainan’s Jiali District. “Until then, I’d thought of myself simply as a ‘Taiwanese’—someone of Southern Min descent,” he explains. Southern Min is a term used to describe the people and languages of one part of Fujian, the mainland Chinese province closest to Taiwan. The majority of Taiwanese trace their ancestry to that part of China.

“I called relatives on my father’s side to ask about our identity. To my surprise, a great uncle told me, ‘Oh yes, our family is actually huan-a,’” says Huang, using a Taiwanese word which literally means “barbarian.” Commonly applied to Taiwan’s indigenous minority in the past, the term is now considered offensive.

This discovery surprised not only Huang, but also his father. “When he was little, his mother, my grandmother, used to take him to worship a pot like ones we’d seen in pictures in the museum. His grandmother called the deity Alid, and exactly the same name was in the notes beside those pictures,” Huang says. “My father, then 54 years old, was rather confused. Like me, he’d always thought of himself as a Southern Min Taiwanese. But later he remembered having wondered why his home religion was different from that of his childhood friends.” In the Siraya language, the word alid originally meant “deity” or “spirit” in the general sense, but in Siraya religion, Alid is also the supreme spirit that is above all other gods. It is the water contained in the pot, rather than the pot itself, that embodies the spirit of Alid...

The rest of this article, which appears in the October issue of the central government's Taiwan Review magazine, can be read online.

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