Experiencing Central Taiwan's rich indigenous culture
Words by Cheryl Robbins Translated by Angel Pu
Photos provided by Cheryl Robbins
It may be a small island, but Taiwan has a rich and diverse culture that includes 14 officially-recognized indigenous tribes. While there are literally hundreds of indigenous communities all around Taiwan, many indigenous people live in urban areas such as Taichung to gain access to study and employment opportunities. Thus, there are options for experiencing and exploring indigenous culture without leaving the city limits, such as the National Museum of Natural Science (國立自然科學博物館). This museum houses a bilingual (English/Chinese) permanent exhibition on Taiwan's indigenous peoples, including introductions to the tribes, as well as their distributions, traditional lifestyles, arts, clothing and ornaments, hunting weapons and ceremonies.
The museum also holds special exhibitions of various aspects of indigenous culture. Two current examples are "Sons of the Sun" and "Seediq Bale: The Intersection of History and Film". The former runs until May 27, 2012 and describes the legends of the Paiwan tribe. The latter runs until Feb. 20, 2012 and provides detailed explanations of the Wushe Incident and the traditional culture of the Seediq tribe, as well as the making of Taiwan's first epic film, "The Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale", released in Sept. 2011.
The main entrance of the museum is along GuanQian Road, about one block from Taichung Port (ZhongGang) Road.
Along the Art Museum Parkway is Gulu Gulu Music Restaurant (咕嚕咕嚕音樂餐廳), owned by Paiwan tribe member Jang Kn Jang, who is more commonly known by his more easily-pronounced Chinese name, Jin-Ming Chiu (邱金明). This eatery serves indigenous cuisine and the indigenous theme is evident from the driftwood sculptures marking the entrance. Inside, decorations include colorful murals and cultural touches such as woodcarvings and bunches of millet, once a staple grain of Taiwan's indigenous peoples. Dishes include Ah Vai (阿粨), a mixture of millet and pork that is wrapped and steamed in leaves. Grilled meat dishes are favorites as are stir-fried betel nut flowers and a millet casserole with vegetables or seafood. The music part of the name comes from nightly live performances by Chiu himself or other indigenous artists.
Gulu Gulu Music Restaurant is located about a block from the entrance to the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts.
To experience central Taiwan's indigenous culture first-hand, a visit to an indigenous community is highly recommended. Another incentive for making the trip is that indigenous communities tend to be located in places of natural beauty. For example, only a few areas of Renai township in Nantou county have been developed for tourism. Thus, this is a great destination for those seeking to get off the beaten path and discover the stories that make Taiwan so unique.
One such story is the 1930 Wushe Incident which gained much attention following the release of the movie "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale". This was a months-long conflict between the Seediq tribe and Japanese colonial forces. The Seediq tribe once inhabited the very high mountains, but was forced to move to lower elevations by the occupying Japanese and to serve as physical labor in the collection of camphor oil. The Japanese also put an end to many customs such as facial tattooing.
In response, Chieftan Mona Rudao of the Mahebo Community (馬赫坡部落) led an attack by 300 Seediq warriors on a sports meet at the Wushe Elementary School on Oct. 27, 1930. After killing 134 and injuring 215, Mona Rudao and his forces were able to hold their positions for a few days. However, they were eventually overpowered and had to retreat to the mountains surrounding Mahebo. There they hid in caves with their families, safe from bombs dropped by Japanese planes. As the Japanese became determined to end the fighting, they resorted to the use of poisonous gas. This was the turning point of the battle. Understanding their dire situation, many of the Seediq warriors and their families decided to commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner.
A good starting point in your exploration of this historical event is the Mona Rudao Memorial Park (莫那魯道紀念碑) located in Wushe along Provincial Highway 14. Towards the end of the fighting with the Japanese, Mona Rudao committed suicide. His remains were taken to Taipei by the Japanese and it was not until many decades later that they were returned to Renai township and laid to rest in this memorial park, the entrance of which is marked by an elegant white gateway. To reach the memorial, take National Freeway 6 to its end and connect onto Provincial Highway 14 toward Wushe. By bus, take a Nantou Transportation Company (南投客運) bus from Puli (埔里) toward Cuifeng (翠峰) or Songgang (松崗) and get off at Wushe.
Continue along Provincial Highway 14 to the Lushan Hot Springs (廬山溫泉). Take the road that leads upward, past the hot springs resorts, and follow the signs to the Old Mahebo Battlefield (馬赫坡古戰場). It is claimed that this is where the fighting continued with the Japanese once the Seediq warriors retreated from Wushe. However, locals say that the actual battlefield is several kilometers away in the adjacent forest and is nearly impossible to reach, even on foot. Nonetheless, this area is worth a visit for its tranquil scenery and Seediq-run hot springs campgrounds.
Between Wushe and the Lushan hot springs, you will pass the Yunlong Bridge (雲龍橋). Sculptures of Seediq warriors in traditional clothing decorate both ends of this bright-red structure. Standing inconspicuously next to this landmark are the remains of one end of an older version of the bridge, which Mona Rudao destroyed to keep the Japanese from entering what is today the Lushan community.
You will also pass through the Seediq village of Chunyang (春陽村), which is blessed with natural hot springs and mountain scenery. While in this village, make sure to visit the workshop of Mama Chang (張媽媽), also known by her Seediq name, Bagan-Narwee. Mama Chang has developed her weaving skills over the course of 70 years. She is considered a national treasure, not just for the quality of her woven works, but also for her knowledge of the tribe's traditional songs and her skill at playing the mouth harp, a traditional musical instrument. She can also speak some English.
As there are many places to see and stay, a source of general tourism information is the Renai township administrative office (仁愛鄉公所).
In neighboring Xinyi township, also in Nantou county, is Wangxiang village (望鄉部落), which is a Bunun tribe community. When the weather is good, it is possible to clearly see the main peak of Yushan (Jade Mt.), northeast Asia's tallest peak and the sacred mountain for the Bunun. This village is home to a large number of Yushan National Park eco-tour guides and many hikers begin their trip to the summit of Yushan here.
For those looking for a less-taxing workout, try Hunters' Trail. This six-kilometer landscaped trail was once used by the village's hunters on their way deep into the mountains in search of game and offers panoramic views of the area. The village has created a number of murals depicting tribal legends, which can be explained by local guides. Nighttime activities include traditional and contemporary dance performances and a dinner of indigenous-style cuisine. A good contact point is the Wang Hsiang Bunun Holiday Village (望鄉布農渡假部落), a guesthouse run by Yohani Isqaqavut (尤哈尼‧伊斯卡卡夫特), a former minister of the Council of Indigenous Peoples.
To reach Wangxiang village, take National Freeway 3 and get off at the Mingjian/Jiji exit (名間/集集交流道). Connect to Provincial Highway 3 toward Jiji and Shuili (水裡). Then connect to New Provincial Highway 16 and to Provincial Highway 21 toward Shuili, Xinyi (信義) and Tongfu (同富). After reaching Tongfu, turn right at the sign marking the entrance to Wangxiang village at about the 101.5-kilometer marker. Or take a Yuan Lin Bus Company (員林客運) bus from Shuili toward Heshe (和社), Dongpu (東埔) or Shenmu (神木) and get off at Heshe.
There is so much more in terms of indigenous culture to explore in central Taiwan than can be introduced in a short article. Hopefully, this brief description will stimulate you to travel into central Taiwan's mountains in search of unique and unforgettable cultural and ecological experiences.
National Museum of Natural Science
1, GuanQian Rd., North Dist.
Tel: (04) 2322-6940
Gulu Gulu Music Restaurant
2, Lane 13, WuQuan West 4th St.,
Tel: (04) 2378-3128
Renai Township Administrative Office
29, RenHhe Rd., Renai Township, Nantou County
Tel: (049) 280-2534
Wang Hsiang Bunun Holiday Village
31, Wanghe Lane, Wangmei Village,
Xinyi Township, Nantou County
Tel: (049) 270-2681; 0936-185-753
Cheryl Robbins is a freelance travel and culture writer. She is also the founder of Tribe-Asia (www.tribe-asia.com), a company devoted to promoting Taiwan's indigenous arts, culture and tourism opportunities to international markets.