Part One here
If the Tao people of Taiwan’s Orchid Island can overcome some modern-day challenges while celebrating and sharing their rich heritage, the future looks bright for this amazing but remote haven
Check out this link at Travel & Culture magazine to read AmCham’s abridged version of this article.
By Trista di Genova, The Wild East
The two most central traditions in the Yami culture — boat-making and tending the fields – define the lives of Tao men and women. What’s considered ‘men’s work’ is making boats, fishing and collecting shellfish to provide supplements (yakan) for the family.
Women aren’t allowed to touch the boats, watch the boat-launching ceremony, prepare fish or cook it (except when the catch is too big, when the whole family pitches in); that is men’s work. ‘Women’s work’ is to carefully tend the fields for staples (kanen) of taro, sweet potatoes and millet — the latter now faded in importance since it’s not planted as a communal effort.
Men and women thus need to work in harmony; for example, without taro, boats cannot be properly inaugurated, and without skillful fishing the family won’t have enough to eat. For the rest of the year, there is what’s considered ‘men’s fish’, ‘women’s fish’ and ‘old people’s fish’. ‘Women’s fish’ was described by Teresa as the more colorful, tender, vegetarian-type fish, ‘not stinky’, whereas ‘men’s fish’ eat anything, and ‘old people’s fish’ is usually the tougher, least appealing variety. Octopus, she explained, may be eaten by men or women, but not by expectant mothers, for fear the child mightn’t be born ‘with the bone’.
The Tao’s most important festivals are founded on these fishing-farming traditions: the Flying Fish Festival, Boat-Launching Festival and Harvest Festival (celebrations vary for each village; for schedule check the Taitung County government website: www.ccl.ttct.edu.tw/en/e_index.aspx or call the Taitung Tourism Office: 089-357131). To celebrate Tao boat-making skills, a team of Tao men last year constructed a boat to launch on June 26, and row all the way to Taipei, to be presented to President Ma Ying-jeou.
Stories that are handed down generation to generation often differ slightly, but knowledge of how to make boats was given them, the Tao say, by ‘visitors from the Underworld’ who taught by example, showing how they themselves lived productive daily lives, harmonious between men and women as well as with nature. The Tao learned from this how to build more sturdy, seaworthy boats and to honor gifts of the creator. The Bamboo and Stone Man also gave them solemn advice: “No matter what you do do not waste anything. Use only those resources that you need and do not spoil anything that the creator has given to us.’ To protect the island, he laid down customs and rules for managing the island, and named it bongso no tao ‘island of people’.
Also, eating flying fish at first made Tao people sick with rash or diarrhea. So the spirit of the Flying Fish King appeared to a Tao elder in a dream and passed on the knowledge of how to properly prepare and eat the fish, and gave strict rules for how and when to catch them, and how to honor gifts of the ocean. Countless generations later, flying fish are still caught and prepared this way; they’re dried with seasalt and stored, eaten dry or stewed in water, and served with tail through its eye (although nowadays this last detail is often forgotten).
By the 1950s, scholars described the Yami (as they were then called by Japanese anthropologists) as ‘a peaceful people, lacking in martial spirit’, noted for an absence of an ‘intoxicating drink’ (yet a keen taste for foreigners’ tobacco cigarettes). Blood revenge was strictly limited to the same number in counter-killings. Their weapons – limited to stones as missiles, a long, flat club and the spear not thrown to kill – served only as ceremonial attire and to ward off evil spirits. When conflicts arose, say quarrels over women, property damage or disagreement on fishing grounds, in the absence of a Tao system of leadership, the wealthy men of each village (determined by ownership of fields, pigs and goats) intervened and decided an outcome. In the event of combat, the battle took place at a fixed time between sparring families day and lasted hours, until one party was exhausted or in case of death, with the killer fleeing into the mountains.
Outsiders observed how Tao men and women formed lasting, monogamous bonds where adultery, rape, prostitution or domestic violence were unheard of (Tracy pointed out that such an incident would be ‘loss of face’ for the offender, as on such a small island everyone would soon learn of it). Men and women lived together, may change partners, and usually didn’t (and still don’t) marry until a child’s produced; until then ‘both are considered single’, Teresa said. The woman may separate if a child isn’t produced, or if the man isn’t a proficient fisherman. In Teresa’s case, once she became pregnant, her husband began building his boat – a rite of manhood — and they married upon its completion. Childbirth, she says, signifies the woman’s maturity. The child she calls ‘son of the sun’ — Lookupmiyaro, or dawumata, ‘eyes of the people’. ‘Eyes are very important; if you don’t have eyes, you don’t have anything’, she explains the custom.
Furthermore, childbirth is so important that the grandparents’, parents’ and entire family name now revolve around the first child’s, a system called teknonymy. With the first child’s birth, the mother’s given name changes to its name, prefixed with ‘Sinan-X’ (pron. She-nahn). Likewise, the father’s name takes the child’s, prefixed by a “Siaman” (pron. Shaman); the grandparents, ‘Siapun-X’.
Yami existence has in many ways achieved a balance with nature, and reverence for it. They were instructed by their ancestors to do so; the King of the Flying Fish – their most important cultural hero — appeared to an old man in a dream, and taught them everything they know about it. During Flying Fish Season, only enough are caught to last the family for the year. During these 4-5 months usually until the end of May, flying fish is almost exclusively eaten (tuna was offered me though, part of the summer fishing season), a custom that avoids overfishing and allow other fish stocks to mature.