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Jade the obscure: The prehistoric workshops of Ciyakang

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A decorative jade circlet. (MOFA file photo)

A decorative jade circlet. (MOFA file photo)

Ciyakang might not leave a big impression on the uninitiated. Yet visitors may be surprised to learn that 2,000 years ago its workshops were the largest producers of jade in all of Southeast Asia.

Three cigarettes and three bowls of wine are left as offerings for the ancestors before we head up into the mountains to a place that a Truku legend describes as having been flattened by a giant’s footsteps. Some 100 years ago, under a Japanese policy of tribal relocation, a group of Truku people from Tianxiang moved to Ciyakang, in what is now Xilin Village in Hualien County’s Wanrong Township. From the Japanese word meaning high plateau, they called the gentle slopes of this mountainside “Takaday.”

Our guide, Apyang Imiq, grew up in Ciyakang. Through his eyes, a seeming wasteland reveals its historical layers. From the modern era, there are shards of energy drink Paolyta B bottles left by Truku laborers. From the Japanese era, there are fragments of porcelain bowls, ceramic sake lids, stone cisterns, and earth retaining walls. And well camouflaged amid the grass and soil are all manner of stone axes, saws, and irregularly shaped jade remnants—pale green and cylindrical or triangular in shape. They are everywhere, and one can’t help but walk over them. Their ubiquity bears witness to the remarkable legacy of this place.

Jade the obscure: The prehistoric workshops of Ciyakang
When the Truku people came to Ciyakang, they called this area of gentle slopes “Takaday” after the Japanese word for “high plateau.” (Taiwan Panorama photo)

Unrivaled jade workshops

Dating to the Neolithic period, some 2,000–4,000 years ago, these artifacts have long attracted archaeologists. The first to come was the Japanese scholar Tadao Kano (1906–1945), who in 1929 conjectured that Ta­ka­day may have been the site of the largest jade workshops of their era in Southeast Asia.

The site only drew more attention as the field of Taiwanese archaeology developed after World War II. In the 1980s, excavation of the Beinan site in Taitung, the largest prehistoric site discovered in Taiwan, revealed not only large erect stone slabs on the surface but also more than 2,000 stone coffins buried underground, along with over 10,000 jade artifacts.

Archaeologist Liu Yi-chang, a former research fellow at the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica, has pointed out that these jade burial artifacts have now been found at over 100 sites across Taiwan.

There are spots on them created by the presence of iron, manganese, chromium, and the jade material contains unusually large amounts of zinc. These characteristics identify the jade as Taiwanese in origin. And the area around Mt. Laonao on the eastern side of the Central Mountain Range (including the Ciyakang River watershed) is the only place on the island known to have jade deposits.

Jade: A key to understanding prehistory

Under the guidance of archaeologists and a team from the Hualien Archaeological Museum, we work alongside Apyang under the hot sun. Some of us survey the surface, while others dig up soil and spray water on what we unearth, hoping to find something of value. We quickly discover artifacts that were clearly crafted by human hands, such as stone axes and sharp stone saws as well as meticulously cut jade. To our surprise, the jade shows evidence of having been cut by those very same stone tools. We thus have a taste of the satisfaction that archaeologists feel when hard work and dedication bear fruit.

Building on Tadao Kano’s research, Liu Yi-chang began a dig at the Ciyakang site in 1998. What has most astounded archaeologists is the huge quantities of ancient artifacts found in the cultural strata here. Shards of discarded nephrite jade are particularly copious. Taiwan-­mined nephrite ranges in color from dark green to aquamarine and is commonly known as “Fengtian jade” or “Taiwan jade.”

In the eyes of archaeologists, Taiwan jade artifacts have more than just decorative value. They are, in fact, important cultural relics that span thousands of years of the island’s history. Before smelting techniques were developed in the Iron Age, there were no iron and bronze tools or colorful glass, crystal glass or agate beads. There was, however, jade, which held unique significance during Taiwan’s Neolithic period due to its rarity, value, craftsmanship, and cultural importance. Symbolically, it came to denote social status, class, and wealth.

Indeed, the Ciyakang area has been identified as the source of the jade found in burial sites around Taiwan, giving it “unique importance to the prehistoric cultural development of Taiwan.” Walking in the footsteps of predecessors like Liu Yi-chang, Associate Professor Chung Kuo-feng from the Institute of Archaeology at National Cheng Kung University has been carrying out research in this area in recent years. His statement about the site’s significance explains why we are here today.

Explaining prehistoric mysteries

Faced with such an abundance of diverse artifacts, archaeologists have naturally been curious about how they were crafted. Since the Austronesian peoples historically lacked writing, they were entirely reliant on oral traditions and memory to pass along information, and when civilizations transitioned from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, jade craftsmanship and culture were gradually lost and forgotten, and are now preserved only within the archaeological record. What is certain is that behind the production of jade artifacts there lay structurally complex societal systems involving trade, management, exchange, transportation, and more. This complexity bears witness to a civilization that had advanced to a high level of sophistication.

As the site of large-scale jade workshops, Ciyakang offers something unique: Although finished jade artifacts from here remain somewhat rare, a plethora of jade waste and processing tools have been left behind. Archaeologists are attempting to reconstruct the process of crafting jade objects from raw stone by studying these artifacts and the remnants left over from the production process.

From today’s perspective, prehistoric jade production, executed entirely by hand, seems both labor-­intensive and primitive. Yet intriguingly it also demonstrated technical prowess that is hard to match even today. For instance, how were jade bells, smaller than fingernails, crafted? What tools were used to hollow out extremely slender jade tubes? Archaeologists have found it very difficult to replicate these processes using modern tools.

Archaeologist Hung Hsiao-chun, a senior research fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at Australian National University, has led a team that excavated ear ornaments made from Taiwanese jade in various locations, including sites on Palawan Island in the Philippines, as well as coastal areas of central and southern Vietnam, and central Thailand. Her findings lend credence to the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis, which posits Taiwan as the “mother island” of the Austronesian-­speaking peoples. In addition to linguistic and genetic evidence, the diffusion of Taiwanese jade compellingly corroborates this theory.

Many questions remain. These Taiwanese jade artifacts unearthed from Southeast Asia bear witness to thriving maritime trade. Yet it’s puzzling how prehistoric humans were able to travel so frequently to Southeast Asia. How did these jade objects reach such distant places? These questions only lead to more, about ship design and navigation techniques. A solitary clue comes from the Zhishan Rock site in Taipei, where a fragmented jade artifact in the shape of a boat was unearthed. It appears to be carrying at least four individuals and possibly even animals such as dogs. It can’t help but spark our imaginations.

Now a backwater, once a fashion hub

One of the few things that archaeologists unanimously agree upon with regard to the Beinan site is that its finished jade artifacts stand out in terms of their number and cultural sophistication—and by extension the purchasing power of their society—when compared to other contemporaneous sites in Taiwan or Southeast Asia. Bei­nan could be likened to today’s fashion capitals of Paris or New York—a hub of wealth, style and influence. As the leading source of crafted jade, Ciyakang led not just Taiwan but all of Southeast Asia in setting fashion trends.

Excavated from Orchid Island and popular in Southeast Asia but not in Taiwan, “lingling-o” jade earrings, with three pointed protrusions, provide additional evidence. They suggest that artisans of Ciyakang not only exported these items but also accepted instructions to make jade items to order. They bear witness to how knowledgeable the Austronesian-speaking peoples were of geography and how adept they were at utilizing maritime resources.

This history may seem surprising today, when Western Taiwan is routinely given precedence over Eastern Taiwan. As Wen Meng-win from the Hualien Archaeological Museum puts it, “Ethnicity and society are under­stood through stories, such as myths, that reflect the values of the community.” The stories told by the Ciya­kang site hold particular significance now, especially for people living on the East Coast. After all, as Wen points out, “What is now called ‘beyond the mountains” was actually Taiwan’s front door back then!”

Jade the obscure: The prehistoric workshops of Ciyakang
After receiving guidance, visitors dig in the cultural strata. (Taiwan Panorama photo)

Community archaeology

With its unrivaled archaeological importance, Ciya­kang was designated as a county-level heritage site in 2010. That initially brought a strong backlash as it affected the livelihoods of the Truku indigenous people living there. In order to reach a consensus, the Ministry of Culture, archaeological teams, and community ­residents entered into talks that continued for more than a decade. Aiming to respect the opinions and land rights of the tribal people, these stakeholders have worked to find a sustainable approach for protecting and preserving the site while fostering economic development within the community.

Aiming to both preserve and reinvigorate the site, the Hualien County Archaeological Museum, archaeological teams, and local community residents have joined forces to initiate an ongoing archaeological endeavor called “Archaeology Academy.” The initiative stresses “sustainable archaeology” that involves both indigenous communities and the general public. These events begin with tribal youth actively guiding visitors to the site, explaining the modern history of Ciya­kang and conveying Taiwan’s indigenous peoples’ sense of identity and guardianship over their cultural heritage. Heartfelt connections are built through these interactions.

Apart from conveying basic knowledge of archaeological work, these activities give the public a glimpse into the lives of Taiwan’s earliest inhabitants. We become witnesses to the evolution of a civilization and culture and gain a sense of connection to Pacific island nations. The experience sparks our imaginations about Taiwan, the East Coast, and the sea.