The tribes of Taiwan share DNA with Maori
TAIWAN'S politics is in the grip of a rather bitter feud over identity. The ''pan-blues'' view themselves mainly as Chinese, the ''pan-greens'' as Taiwanese. The split concerns whether people view themselves as belonging chiefly to Taiwan, because their families were established here before Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the island in 1949 after losing the civil war to the communists -- or whether they see themselves principally as Chinese, linked by ancestry or birth to mainland China. Standing to the side of this debate are the original Taiwanese, known usually as aborigines, about 2 per cent of the population.
The 12 original tribes of Taiwan are Austronesian by language and culture, as are the great majority of the island peoples who settled the Pacific islands. Since most historians now believe the Pacific was settled from East Asia, the island of Taiwan seems to have been their main place of origin. Work on DNA is backing this thesis up. About 60 per cent of Maori DNA is in common with Taiwanese aboriginal DNA. The aborigines also have anthropological connections to the Malay people of Southeast Asia.
Han Chinese people did not begin migrating to Taiwan until after a Dutch settlement in the southeast of the island, from 1624-62, was removed by Ming dynasty pirate-turned-admiral Zheng Cheng-gong.
Until then, the aborigines lived on the subtropical island in a manner remarkably similar to that of many rural Pacific Islanders today.
The contemporary identity conflict has naturally led leaders of the 460,000 people who call themselves aborigines -- and who use aboriginal names completely different from those of the ethnic Chinese majority among the 23 million population -- to affirm more strongly their own identity and to claim extended land ownership.
Aboriginal descent is usually most importantly traced through the mother, as most of the cultures are matrilineal.
The chairman of the Council of Aboriginal Affairs, a government-funded body, is Walis Pelin, a tall, substantial figure who would look at home with a group of aristocratic Tongans. A leader of the Atayal tribe, he has recently visited Aboriginal leaders in the Northern Territory.
The tribes have different origin myths, he says, but archaeological evidence points to their emergence in Taiwan 6000-10,000 years ago.
Many of the 17th century Chinese settlers were soldiers, says Pelin. Most of them were men. So they widely sought wives among the aborigines.
The aboriginal word for grasping a neighbour's hand, kanchu, was mistakenly adopted into Taiwanese as the word for wife, because those seeking a wife would shake hands on the ''deal'' and then ask the correct word. The aborigine would give the word for the action -- shaking hands -- while the Chinese would assume it was describing the wife.
The aborigines thus mixed with Chinese people and used Mandarin. They retained their cultures, says Pelin. ''They didn't always want to reveal their identity.'' They fought at first to keep their land, he says, but then reached a compromise, realising that they could not compete with these new arrivals for the flat, coastal land -- and retreated into the mountain chain that stretches down the east of Taiwan.
When Japan took control of Taiwan following its naval defeat of China in 1896, the aborigines renewed their fighting -- against the Japanese. ''But in a very short time, they were beaten,'' says Pelin, whose own tribe lost some 60,000 people fighting Japan in the early years of the 20th century.
The smallest surviving tribe is the Saozu, whose ancestral lands are close to the Sun-Moon Lake, one of the most beautiful areas of the country. They number about 500 and their language has almost disappeared, known only by the elderly. An educational program to restore the language has begun.
Pelin says all the aboriginal languages are still spoken in family homes in the more remote mountain areas, but that in the cities and the main centres most children learn only Mandarin. He and his wife speak Atayal, but their children cannot.
The council has decided that only those aborigines who can speak their own languages will be eligible for special scholarships to colleges and universities. In primary and high schools, it will become compulsory for indigenous children to learn their languages. The council is training teachers for this ambitious program.
About 36 per cent of aborigines now live in cities, the rest on their traditional land, mostly in the mountains, but the 36 per cent return often, says Pelin, for festivals and family events.
The aborigines on their own land virtually all have access to electricity and running water and either grow crops or raise stock on their land. Some also work in the tourism industry.
Many still chew betel nut, as do many Melanesians, and taro is a staple food -- as is sweet potato, whose shape they say resembles that of the island of Taiwan. Traditional tattooing is also enjoying a comeback.
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