The View from Taichung: Taiwan as Melting Pot: the once and future Austronesian state

Paiwan village of slate houses in the mountains of Pingtung (Photo by Michael A. Turton)

International Business Times reported this week on the ongoing excavations at the cemetery near the site of the old Spanish fort on Hoping Island in Keelung harbor. The article observed: “The cemetery contains bodies from Europeans, local Taiwanese people and possibly people of African origin brought to the island as slaves.”

This little comment shines a sudden beam of light on the ethnic mélange that constitutes what today we call “Taiwanese”: the people of a nation whose genes come from everywhere on earth.

When Koxinga attacked Tainan, he brought a unit of Africans, former Portuguese slaves taken from South Africa who had come over to him in Macao. They served him with fierce loyalty and helped entice Africans in Dutch slavery to run away to Koxinga. They were known for their fighting prowess. Many of them took Han wives. After fighting for Koxinga they passed out of historical knowledge. Perhaps they remained in Taiwan, their genes slipping quietly into the local population.

The Dutch too made a few contributions, but it was the settlers from China who brought over their own complex ancestry and mixed with the indigenous people of Taiwan. “There are many Chinese men,” the old saying went, “but no Chinese women,” a variant of which runs that there are Chinese grandfathers, but no Chinese grandmothers. Incoming Chinese males acquired wives and land by intermarrying with the local aborigines.

These settlers were themselves a mix of people who moved down into southern China from the north, and mixed with the population of southern China, many of whom were Austronesian just like Taiwan’s aborigines. Indeed, scholars have been arguing for decades that the boat peoples of south China and Hong Kong may well be remnants of the original Austronesians, who were people of the boat like no other in human history.

Today people often note that Taiwanese men acquire Vietnamese wives as testimony to how multicultural Taiwan is, but Koxinga imported thousands of women from Vietnam and elsewhere in SE Asia for his female-short troops. Of course Vietnam was once part of the Austronesian cultural area, and the Vietnamese wives of today carry the genes of their Austronesian forebearers.

I often reflect on these facts when I read some reporter describing the people of Taiwan as “ethnic Chinese” or when people refer to themselves as having "Taiwanese blood." These ideas are vapid political constructs whose intent is overtly nationalistic: to claim a people is “ethnic Chinese” is to veer dangerously close to arguing that Beijing should be annexing them. Or when people write about Taiwan’s “deep historical links to China”, actually less than four centuries old, but ignore Taiwan’s thousands of years of historical links to Austronesian peoples and trade and emigration networks that spanned half the globe, from Madagascar to New Zealand and Hawaii.  

It is not a historical inevitability that Taiwan has deep trade links with China, but a complex accident of Dutch, Ming, and Qing imperialism. Rather, Taiwan is the cradle of a great seagoing expansion, and a longtime participant in southward-looking trade networks. The Qing era is a blip in time compared to that, but sadly, a blip in recent historical time.

The Austronesian roots of Taiwan, and the many peoples who have blended here, can provide the Tsai Administration with a rhetorical alternative to the “Chineseness” of Taiwan, one that can help reposition Taiwan toward southeast Asia: Taiwan, the once and future Austronesian nation. For the Austronesian influence on Taiwan is vast, leaving its mark in everything from the shapes of local communities and local place names, to food traditions and many customary practices.

Much of this has disappeared or been misidentified. For example, Frank Bessec, who did field research in the Puli area in the 1960s, writes of local “Han” whose women worked in the fields but whose men were averse to farmwork. He attributed that to an archaic practice brought over from China by the Han, but this arrangement is far more likely to be indigenous in origin. In Daya north of Taichung city, a friend tells me, there’s a group of families who bury their dead in the yard, an echo of the aboriginal practice of burying the dead beneath the house. A friend of mine married into a family who address their grandmother using an old aborigine term for her, and didn’t even realize it.

In the 19th century Chinese visitors to Taiwan marveled at the high status of women in aboriginal culture. Today we continue to marvel at the number of women in Taiwan’s political life, compared to the paucity of females in positions of power across the Strait. The long reach of aboriginal influence continuing down to the present day?

In some ways Tsai, herself part aborigine, is ideally positioned to posit Taiwan as an Austronesian ocean nation with its own identity, the heir to centuries of trade networks to the south and beyond. Yet Taiwan cannot begin the process of building an alternative Taiwanese image with a strong Austronesian base until it fully embraces its own aboriginal peoples and their struggle for lands and recognition. It must also recover, identify, and reconstruct the aboriginal influence on Taiwan culture, and present it in a way that makes it comprehensible to both locals and outsiders.

Taiwan, the once and future Austronesian nation? As Taiwan’s businesses find China ever more difficult and shift their factories to ancient Austronesian areas like Vietnam and Indonesia, as the current Administration pursues a policy of promoting trade links across the western half of the Austronesian expansion, it’s an idea out of time whose time has at last arrived.