Erenlai - Focus: Turning East, Taiwan's Pacific Frontier
Focus: Turning East, Taiwan's Pacific Frontier

Focus: Turning East, Taiwan's Pacific Frontier

This month's Focus explores Pacific culture in Taiwan and its place in the wider Austronesian and Pacific context.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A new world begins

“Where land ends, the world begins.”
This quotation sets the tone as we present our Focus on Taiwan in the Pacific, transcending land’s natural boundaries and turning our attention to the ocean, as we explore a world so unfamiliar to Taiwan. Most of the authors in our Focus are members of the newly established Taiwan Society for Pacific Studies, the creation of which is not inconsequential to Renlai. As the publication and website of the Taipei Ricci Institute, Renlai and eRenlai are key components of the research organisation originally set up by a group of foreign missionaries. Back then, these Jesuits were also navigating bravely beyond the boundaries of their own lands in Europe and America, to experience their own new world beginning.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Land-Locked Island: Taiwan's Lack of Pacific Perspective

Professor Hsia Li-Ming talks about the need for mainstream society to start realizing their role in the Pacific and calls on the arts to provide the impetus for the Taiwanese to turn their heads East to the strange, terrifying and unattainable waters on the other side of the Island.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Crossing Kuroshio

Indigenous Taiwanese take to the seas

The circular flow of the warm Kuroshio Current from the equator, forms a sea path which links Taiwan and other islands together in an interrelated cultural area. Within this cultural circle the Kavalan, who once had exquisite maritime navigation skills, left many precious historical records...

Friday, 28 January 2011

The development of Pacific Studies in Taiwan

Edwin Yang talks about the development of Pacific Studies academic tradition in Taiwan. Though focused on the establishment of Pacific theory native to Taiwan, it is also relevant to Pacific discourse in other establishments and to any current or future scholars with an interest in the Pacific.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Looking south: Taiwan’s diplomacy and rivalry with China in the Pacific Islands region

[inset side="right" title="Fabrizio Bozzato"] is a doctoral candidate in International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University. He is researching Taiwan’s diplomacy in the South Pacific.[/inset]Six of the twenty-three countries that currently bestow diplomatic allegiance on the ROC are in the South Pacific. Therefore, the Oceanic region is of prime geopolitical importance to Taipei. The chief motivation behind Taiwan’s activities in the Pacific Islands is the defense of its ‘diplomatic space’ by countering China’s efforts to extirpate Taipei’s diplomatic presence. In addition, Taiwan uses its aid policy as a means to raise its international profile through promoting itself as a humanitarian power and aims to further its access to the natural resources of the area. Over the last decade, China’s growing economic power vis-à-vis Taiwan, and Beijing’s sturdy response to the ‘Taiwanised’ diplomatic policies of Taipei’s past presidency, have intensified the Sino-Formosan diplomatic conflict in the South Pacific. As a result, today the dynamic of the Cross-Strait rivalry - together with Taiwan’s until-recently runcinate relationship with the regional dominant power, Australia - deeply informs and shapes the relations between Taipei and the Pacific Island countries. At the same time, it appears that the island states have developed a greater understanding of the two dragons’ diplomatic competition, thus becoming more skilled aid extractors. The current Taiwanese administration has latterly educed a ‘diplomatic truce’ with the mainland and started meeting Canberra’s demands by reforming its aid policy and delivery. The diplomatic armistice with China allows Taiwan to improve its relations with Australia and foster its image as a responsible regional stakeholder. However, being fundamentally a Chinese concession predicated on concessions from Taipei, the truce is still precarious and reversible.

Part 1

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Part 2:

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Fabrizio Bozzato gave a speech on this topic during the conference "Mapping and Unmapping the Pacific" held in Taipei (Feb. 2011). The complete paper of the speech is available here.


Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Dispelling Cultural Imperialism: Taiwan's Gaze towards the Pacific

Professor Tung Yuan-Chao discusses the problems of anthropology in the contemporary world, given the questionable moral origins of this academic field. She attempts to define a new framework in which Taiwan can look at its Pacific neighbours without echoes of Western imperialism affecting their gaze. As well as discussing how body habits can be more important to identity than ancestry.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Keep Rowing: The subjectivities in the crossover action

Article abstracted from the original Subjectivities in the Crossover Action: A note on the ‘Keeping Rowing Project’ from Lanyu to Taiwan, 2007. The project was initiated by Chien-Hsiang Lin (林建享), who did much of the organisation and directed an accompanying documentary of the whole process called Kawut na Cinat'kelang (Rowing the Big Assembled Boat).

Lanyu (Orchid Island) is an offshore island in eastern Taiwan. Because of its distance from mainland Taiwan, the Tao, indigenous people living on Lanyu Island, still maintain a relatively traditional culture. For example, the traditional houses, T-pants, fishing rituals, plank boats etc., are distinctive features of Tao culture, and they still now remain part of Tao people’s daily life. Meanwhile, as Tao culture has been shaped to symbolize the culture of ‘Maritime Taiwan’ in recent years, sailing plank boats have been further ritualized as the dominant image of Tao culture.

In the everyday life of the Tao, plank boats are important tools for fishing, as well as an artifact related to social organization and the cultural systems of gender division, ritual, taboo, knowledge, and handcraft. But, during the past ten years or so, a new model of boat-making has been developed. The new model was not for fishing anymore, but for market value. Boats are sold to collectors, museums, resorts, and festivals for display. Recently, this has become the main purpose for boat-making in Lanyu.

The peak of the new type of boat-making could be demonstrated by the Keep Rowing Project, 2007. The dream project was created and promoted by a Taiwanese documentary film maker. The plan was to handcraft a traditional plank boat and row it across the treacherous Kuroshio Currents to Taitung, then keep rowing northwards along the East Coast of Taiwan before turning southward to Kaoshiung city. It was a cruise around Taiwan Island.

The film maker invited a native Tao as co-organizer to promote his dream project in Lanyu. The project was named ‘Keep Rowing Project’, and it was sponsored by both the government and the Keep Walking programmer of the Johnnie Walker Whisky Company. After gathering sufficient funds, the Keep Rowing Project finally kicked off at the end of 2006.

They began to handcraft their 14-seat plank boat in November 2006. The completed boat was completed and named “Ipanga na” in the Tao language. The row to Taitung took place on 19th June 2007, where they departed from Lanyu at 4: 30 arriving at 17: 30 at Taitung, before being exhibited at the National Museum of Prehistory for one week. A week later they rowed on northwards to Changbing, Hualien, Nan Fan Ao, Yilan, Keelung, before finally arriving in Taipei. Where they participated at the Forum on Austronesia Nations chaired by President Chen and held exhibitions at the National Museum of Taiwan, in City Museum of History, Kaoshiung consecutively.

The Crossover

A Crossover refers to crossing physical or invisible borders whether geographical, social or cultural. Usually, crossing borders also implies combining or mixing the elements between each border, then striding up or breaking through the obstacles, to progress and develop. The boat cruising across Kuroshio Currents from Lanyu to Taiwan was named ‘Ipanga na 1001’. The exact meaning is ‘crossover’ in the Tao language. Certainly, the organisers as well as all participants knew the value of Keep Rowing Project was crossover itself.

There were several implications of ‘crossover’ in the Keep Rowing Project:

  • Historically, it was the first time that a traditional Tao boat crossed the geographical boundary between Lanyu to Taiwan.
  • The voyage was undertaken with the aim to crossover cultural boundaries rather than for fishing. Thus, there was no formal ritual for watering, and the owner of the symbolic boat was Taiwanese.
  • The action was a crossover in terms of the social boundary, because the team of rowers in different sections of the voyage were organized by different tribes.

Even so, some traditional rules and taboos when handcrafting and rowing boat were still followed:

  • All wood materials for boat-making were obtained from Lanyu Island.
  • The boat-making process was conducted using traditional methods. For example, it used no iron nails.
  • The taboos of preventing the access to or proximity of females were followed during boat-making and rowing.

In addition, the action had much breakthrough symbolism:

  • The boat size was the biggest Tao boat historically.
  • The destinations, distance and time in navigation all set new records which had never been attempted in the past.
  • The participants in the event were both cross-tribal and cross-ethnic. The rowers were from different tribes, and the project was completed successfully by both Taiwanese and Tao people.

The Subjectivities

11The locations chosen for boat-making, departure, destinations, exhibitions and speeches all symbolized the crossover action. How should we interpret the subjectivities in the crossover action? Firstly, all of the original ideas, organizing, promoting and applications for the action came from and relied on a Taiwanese film-maker who cared about the revival and preservation of Tao culture over time. The co-organizer was a Tao person who back in the 1970s was one of the social movement leaders against the nuclear waste storage site that was to be operated on Lanyu. In the Keep Rowing Project, the Tao co-organizer was presented as the main character leading the rowing action while the Taiwanese film-maker stayed backstage. It was truly a wonderful partnership, even if perhaps the Taiwanese film-maker should have been seen as the main initiator and organizer of the project.

Secondly, in the Tao cultural and social tradition, Taipei or Taiwan was not significant reference. In terms of the cultural roots, rather than rowing a boat to Taiwan or Taipei, perhaps rowing a boat southward to Batan Island in the Philippines where Tao people originally emigrated from would be more meaningful. Therefore, why ‘keep rowing’ to Taiwan? On the other hand, during the past one hundred year history of Lanyu, Taiwan or Taipei was the center for governing, as well as for modernization. Visiting Taiwan or Taipei by traditional boat signifies a connection between their islands traditional culture and modern city society.

Thirdly, the idea for the Keep Rowing Project stemmed from the inquiries from Tao elderly people as to why ‘so many new boats were made for exhibition, but not for rowing’. In the end, the Keep Rowing Project did not only follow the new model of making boats for exhibition, but also persevered in rowing onward to illustrate the Tao culture as a culture based on maritime. In that, the Keep Rowing Project itself became another performance, to exhibit the Tao’s excellent handcrafting and navigation capabilities. In the end the action was less for the purpose of internal culture revival, than an external cultural performance. It was for this exact reason that the original project was undertaken.

Finally, before the rowing action, only some Tao residents in Lanyu had been conscious of the meaning of the Keep Rowing Project. There was no any formal activities or rituals held when the boat departed to Taiwan. However, when the first team of rowers returned to Lanyu, there were great activities to welcome them back like heroes. Sometimes, it seems that Keep Rowing Project only belonged to one tribe in Lanyu - Landao. Yet, it the only issue that all people talked about around the whole island since the social movement against the nuclear waste storage site in 1970s.

Despite the aforementioned, the Keep Rowing Project definitely highlighted the Tao traditional boat in Taiwan society. The successful navigation from Lanyu to Taipei, a distance of more than 600 km proved the quality and capability of Tao sailing. Furthermore, all rowers, who aged from 28 to 86 years old, and participants had showed strong will and great honor. Glory had been brought to the Tao people.

One of the keys to the actions success was the Taiwanese filmmaker. He developed a personal friendship and trust with the Tao people, in particular the Landao tribe, over a long period of time. He also had a tacit understanding with the co-organizer, and showed positive force to dissolve the ethnic boundaries between Taiwanese and Tao people by promoting the action.

Therefore, whether viewed by the outcome or through the backstage stories in the process, the Keep Rowing Project seems to have worked to perfection. As a result, the issue of subjectivities in the crossover action was never discussed. Or, in other words, it was an action of inter-subjectivities.

A perfect row

In the Keep Rowing Project, there were multiple meanings produced by the articulation between places, mobility and a Tao boat with Tao rowers. In this scenario, a unique place was necessary. Lanyu provided the traditional Tao territory, an island of ethnic space. Taiwan is another island nearby Lanyu and represented the otherness which governs Tao people. Taipei was the capital city and the socio-economic center in Taiwan. For Tao people, visiting Taipei meant approaching a modern space and a modern imagination beyond Lanyu Island.

The special mode of movement between places was necessary, too. Sailing was very welcome in Taiwanese society because it fit well with the image of ‘maritime Taiwan’ promoted by some political parties and NGOs to shift Taiwan’s identity from a continental country to a maritime country.

Finally, the traditional Tao plank boat made by traditional handcrafting methods and rowed by Tao people themselves and the navigation was an adventure which was never done before. Here lies the true crossover mobility. The Keep Rowing Project had been completed perfectly, but, the Tao boat of hope has to keep rowing onward to the future.

 

Reference

1. Chen, CS (1961) A Geography of Taiwan, reprinted by SMC Publishing Inc (1993), Taipei.

2. Chen, YM (2001) The History of Taitung County: volume Yami, Taitung County Government, Taitung.

3. Hsia, CJ, Chen, CW (1998) The Economic Development of Taiwan, the Social Formation of Lan-Yu, and the Spatial Role of National Park, Taiwan: A Radical Quarterly in Social Studies 1 (4): 233-246.

4. Hsia,Liming,(2011), Moving Toward the Ocean: Note on Keep Rowing Project 2007, Renlai Magazine 78:26-29.

5. Qalup‧Damalasan(2007), Crossing, Transformation and Continuities: The New Context of Canoe Making in Landao tribe, Lanyu, Taiwan. MA thesis, National Taitung University.

6. Keep Rowing, http://keeprowing.blogspot.com/ 2011.01.22

 

 

 

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A subaqueous loner—Syaman Rapongan

Maka sagaz ka mo katowan.[1]
-May you have the soul of great fish.

Syaman Rapongan[2] (b. 1957) is a contemporary Tao (or Tawo)[3] writer in Taiwan. Since his debut publication in 1992, he has brought Chinese-language readers literally back to Tao-speaking people on Pongso no Tao (Island of Man)[4] on the west rim of the Pacific Ocean. This indigenous writer’s blue-water literature (poems, myths, essays, short stories and novels)[5] has often been praised by Taiwanese literary critics as one of the few windows to the beauty of tidal waters running about and especially on the east coast of the island. His special contribution includes introducing an undersea perspective, enabling many lively scenes below sea level to surface, publicizing Tao values and a worldview of simple and harmonious coexistence with nature, confronting the disadvantaged reality of his people in an uncompromised way, as well as creating a poetic language combined with Tao and Chinese.[6] Although unlike another Taiwanese writer of the sea, Liao Hong Ji,[7] Syaman Rapongan may not feel motivated enough to establish an arayo (dolphin fish) preservation society, trumpeting the love of nature as its archangel, neither does his culture teach him to see the ocean (and its marine resources) as some object for conquest, a manly act particularly testified by The Old Man and Sea of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), or as some traffic artery for moving peoples and goods, another piece of past fully annotated by early modern European Expansion literature.[8] No call for preservation; no laud for human intervention. Instead, in Syaman Rapongan’s writing of the sea, one sees deep affection, “…a feeling, a way of life that is simple, primitive, humble, and unaffected”.[9]

To borrow the expression of ‘an undersea perspective’ from Chang, I personally feel tempted to say that seeing Syaman Rapongan as someone who finds peace with his home environment, ancestral culture and eventually himself after returning from years of urban wandering is too abbreviated a cliché, a real ‘perspective above sea level’ that, on the one hand, seriously undermines his struggle to find that peace, and on the other, rather naively predicts (if not already advertises) a positive outcome.[10] Returning to one-self, or termed in another fashion rebuilding one’s identity, is never a Snow White fairy tale; one does much more than waiting for some white-horse rider, a prince savior. Neither is it a personal matter to be figured out behind a closed door. The people closest by are often heavily involved. For Syaman Rapongan as well as for many other indigenous intellectuals who have tasted similar bitterness, the process concerns much more than that. The alienating from one’s identity often starts much earlier than the literal departure from home with a shabby suitcase, and the end of restoring it is still somewhere out there, yet to be reached but may very well never be found. In short, far beneath the peaceful image created by Syaman Rapongan’s sea literature, there lies the real battlefield where this subaqueous loner[11] struggles to rebuild who he truly is. And this essay serves to highlight the writer’s identity struggle by constant references to his sea literature.

When He Was Shi Nu-lai (施努來)

Before the late 80s, there was no Syaman Rapongan but a young man bearing a Chinese name: Shi Nu-lai. Being the only son to a very traditional father who believed that a real Tao man should excel at traditional production skills such as “building dadalas and houses, catching flying fish, catching dog fish, telling stories, singing chants”,[12] Nu-lai was often told the tales and myths about Tao by his father and mother. Usually at the eve of the day, Nu-lai was also found amidst his uncles and other men from the village at someone’s gazebo, listening attentively to their sea adventures and chants of ancient songs. By the age of ten, he already knew the difference between oyud (the fish for women) and rahet (the fish for men), so he would not feed his little sisters with the wrong fish served in the wrong utensil.[13] In other words, the boy Nu-lai was like any of his forefathers on the Island of Man, given the kind of education that would make him a real Tao in the future.

However, what his forefathers did not experience in their childhoods was the power of another kind of education to which the young Nu-lai was fully exposed. In addition to the delicious stories from his parents and uncles, he was also told by primary school teachers to “become a teacher in the future, so that [he] could teach these ‘savage kids’ on Lan-yu and ‘civilize’ them”. So did the priest at his junior high school tell him the same thing: “be a priest, tame those savages on your Lan-yu island who know nothing of God, and make civilized men out of them”.[14] Nu-lai was utterly confused; why were there two very different interpretations of his people? Looking at Chinese veterans drinking sorghum liquor inside the only grocery store on the island, he asked himself who were these people; watching strange ships sailing by his island either from the east to the west or vice versa, he wondered where they were going.[15] The idea of a whole new wide world outside his small island gripped Nu-lai’s mind, never let him go, and eventually brought him with his aspirations and ambitions away from the Island of Man.

Against his father’s wish, young Nu-lai left Lan-yu at high-school age to pursue his dream, a college education. At his graduation from senior high school, he had a chance to enter three different colleges without taking the compulsory entrance exams. However, he refused them all because he believed indigenous students could rely on their own, instead of on governmental preferential initiatives, to get permission to any college. After doing years of odd jobs in manufacture and transportation as well as years of self-study, the young man proved himself and passed the exam to the Department of French, Tamkang University. By this time, according to Chiu Fei-hsiang, Nu-lai “had experienced all sorts of setbacks in life…In his eyes, nothing should be taken ‘for granted’”.[16]

Besides attending university, Nu-lai was also a wholehearted participant in urban indigenous movements that kicked off since early 1980s. Issues from land, autonomy, education, social justice, name rectification, to anti- nuclear-waste facilities on Lan-yu were among the most important appeals to the Taiwanese government at the time to redress the social and economic disadvantages of its many indigenous groups. Like his fellow indigenes, Nu-lai was deeply provoked by the frustrations with these movements—namely the suppression from the authority, the disagreement of goals among the indigenous activists, and the gap between the indigenous activities and their home communities[17]—into rethinking his tie with his mother culture, and finally making the decision to return to the Island of Man.

The Making of Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安)[18]

9“Soon after returning, Shi Nu-lai started his struggle with officials from the household registration, had his name in the end officially rectified as Syaman Rapongan, and started quietly to build a house for his small family”.[19] It was already in the late 80s, and the way back home was extremely difficult for the man who left as an innocent child filled with dreams but returned as a frustrated grownup. In the cities, his friends didn’t regard him as ‘cooked’ (Sinicized or Chinese) enough[20]; his critical attitudes and later frustrations also prevented him from becoming an urban insider. Back home, however, the obstacles to reintegration were unexpectedly much more formidable.

In the first few years, Syaman Rapongan could not speak fluent Tao; nor did he have many experiences of male collective activities such as lumbering in the mountains and going to sea. Besides, he was neither physically fit for manual labor nor mentally as calm as a mature Tao was supposed to be. In one word and in the word that gnawed at him, he was ‘degenerated’ by Tao standards. In order to detach himself from the stigma, he went to the sea almost every day to dive and to fish, sometimes with his uncles or cousins and always despite the weather conditions. The more he practiced, the better he became in maneuvering his homemade spear gun as well as his breath and the larger amount of fish he was able to bring home and offer to his family.[21] He also followed his father and uncles to the mountains to learn everything about the building of canoes.[22] Without a doubt, he worked very hard to be reborn a Tao man. “This is what I am after,” he said, “to build up my social status by labor (traditional work), to go deep into my culture’s civilizing process with labor, to live and share with my people the food from nature, to clear myself of the stigma of being Sinicized, and to allow my repressed proud to come back to life”.[23] This, as he thought then, was the way back to his mother society and his true identity as Syaman Rapongan.

What he did not expect, perhaps, was the series of protests from his beloved family against his excessive love affair with the sea. Worrying about his safety, his mother proposed to his father that they should hide his spear gun; his woman asked him to make real money and spare time for their children; his children complained that he was the laziest father in the world who didn’t make a penny for them; even his father who was so glad to find his only son did not forsake the traditional way of life would dissuade him from going to sea, threatening that he and his mother would not share his catch and they both have decided that he should go to Taiwan to make money for the family. They have had enough sea food.[24] “The entire family”, Syaman Rapongan said, “wanted to kick me out of the house, just because I don’t make money but go diving in the sea every day.”[25] He was very torn, very confused. He came home to stay away from the frustrating and kindless urban environment, but now his home wanted to spit him out of his sea and out of his way back to it. As much as he wanted and worked to be a Tao by living as a traditional Tao, the cruel reality once again set back his plan, as if it were taunting at his naiveté. The way back is not that easy.

This family dispute ended in a compromise: Syaman Rapongan would do any job as long as his family did not force him to leave his island.[26] But life goes on, so do various kinds of struggles and compromises. As his newest novel, Lao Hai-ren (2009), shows, the writer is now more aware of the dangers on the way to rebuild his identity and knows better how to translate those dangers through written words. Like the writer himself, the three main characters in his Lao Hai-ren, Ngalomirem, Tagangan and Zomagpit, are in-between people who try to survive towering waves created by clashes between modernity and traditionality. Also like he himself, they all choose to return to traditionality, the deepest bottom of the sea, to build their own philosophies of life. Again like he himself, however, they all appear like losers in the eyes of others, a psychopath, a zero-king, a drunkard, and an irresponsible family man. They have anger, they complain, and they feel confused.[27] But they continue; they are not there yet, but they are going.

Conclusion

10As Syaman Rapongan puts it, the sea “has always accepted…will never abandon…After all, the sea itself has neither periphery nor center”.[28] Being ultimately inclusive and rid of discrimination, it allows generations of peoples from all over the world, including Tao, to weave their own tales of life at sea, be they tales of forceful conquest, precarious journey, or simple survival. For Syaman Rapongan personally, the purpose of writing the sea is to “[continue] the education given to me by fathers and grandfathers…[and] to appreciate the sea with ‘serenity’”.[29] He was told many stories during his childhood; then he left these stories behind for a long while, thereby a certain way of life that later proved to be the closest to his heart. It was not until his return and his deliberate devotion to live as a real Tao—to build the dadala[30] his fathers used to build, to row on the sea where his fathers used to row, to dive in the sea where his fathers used to dive, and to catch the fishes his fathers used to catch—notwithstanding protests from his loved ones, that he finally found one meaning behind these stories, saying that, “So, as it turns out, they told me so many stories precisely because they expected me to become a ‘writer’ in the future”.[31] It further supports that the sea and the writing of the sea have come to be the center of his life.

Just as the writer still has much to speak about his people, home-island and home-sea, the person Syaman Rapongan is also on the way to peace with himself and reality. For him, the process of rebuilding a true identity, both personal and national, is far from completion. In Lao Hai-ren, he admits that the serenity of his fathers and grandfathers still remains beyond his reach: “But, I have not yet reached their [his fathers and grandfathers’] level, the level of seeing the world with true ‘serenity’ that is to be learned from nature”.[32] By returning to his personal identity crisis, cultivating in the Tao way of life, observing carefully both his people and the world, employing the language and knowledge acquired outside his own society, and explaining the course of reality through his sea-soaked eyes, Syaman Rapongan is still striving to obtain that serenity.

The 2000 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Gao Xing-jian, especially emphasizes the personalness of a writer in his or her lifelong pursuit of truthfulness. According to Gao, truthfulness is the ultimate criterion for literature that is worthy of all efforts and sufferings. A writer should reduce him- or her-self to the state of commonness, deprived of all privileges and powers so that he or she could produce a relatively unaffected observation of the world, a real testimony to life.[33] Likewise, Syaman Rapongan from another corner of the world is also pursuing a similar course and is in fact doing much more than that. He does not, will not, and actually cannot stop at sensational self-masturbation. As one of the few literate intellectuals on his island, he has too much to do. He wants to document the traditional way of life of his people, to redress the faults committed both voluntarily and involuntarily by former anthropologists, to ponder about how and why his people has been devastated by imposed modernity, and to propose a possible way out of their social and economic impasse.[34] In him, we see a subaqueous loner talking about the sea, but behind his lonely back, the shadow of an island always looms large. He is a literary writer with an activist mentality.

Not only does the sea provide Tao people with food so that they do not starve, but it also creates space for them to connect culturally so that they do not merely survive, walking on their land like alien zombies. The sea holds to the key to the material and mental life of the entire people. As the soul that went before Syaman Rapongan’s body[35] told him, “My son, you must learn to love the sea. It is because of the sea that we can exist as a people”.[36] This is how important the blue water is to Syaman Rapongan. His dear wish, as he puts straight forwards in one interview, is “to build a true literature based on a true life, and to build this island’s sea philosophy based on this true literature”.[37] That indeed is his calling as a Tao and a writer of the sea. Toward that goal, he is still marching.


Major Publications (with brief introductions)[38]

Ba-dai-wan de Shen-hua 八代灣的神話》 (Myths from Ba-dai Bay). Taipei: Morning Star Publishing Co., 1992.—Syaman Rapongan’s first book; a collection of myths and his personal reflections on contemporary Tao; divided into two parts, with the first on myths, and the second on personal reflections.

Leng Hai Qing Shen—Hai-yang Chao-sheng Zhe 冷海情深—海洋朝聖者》(Deep Love for Cold Sea: The Oceanic Pilgrim). Taipei: Unitas Publishing Co., Ltd., 1997.—A collection of short stories about Syaman Rapongan’s life on Lan-yu; the book marks the writer’s constant struggles with himself and his family because he voluntarily went unemployed and devoted himself solely to the ocean as a bare-hand diver in order to explore Tao civilization and find the meaning of life. The book also marks the writer’s initial identity transition from a Sinicized man to a real Tao who embraces the value of physical labor and learns to cultivate the art of story-telling. The book was the Annual Reading for 1997 by United Daily News.

Hei-se de Chi-bang 黑色的翅膀》 (Black Wings). Taipei: Morning Star Publishing Co., 1999.—Syaman Rapongan’s first novel; it questions the future of Tao people through the characterization of four young men (Kaswal, Gigimit, Jyavehai and Ngalolog) Should they run rigorously after the tempting ‘white body’ on the land or wait patiently for the arrival of ‘black wings’ on the sea? Although this appears a rhetorical question, Syaman Rapongan reveals that the conflicts are severe and their impact profound. This novel won Wu Zhuo-liou Literary Award in 1999.

Hai-lang de Ji-yi海浪的記憶》 (Memory of the Ocean Waves). Taipei: Unitas Publishing Co., Ltd., 2002.—Another collection of short stories; divided into two parts, with the first on the countless ties between Tao and the sea (six stories), and the second on Tao’s staunch fights against foreign influences. Experimenting boldly with different genre and languages, the writer combines verses with prose and juxtaposes Tao and Chinese languages. As another Taiwanese writer and critic, Song Ze-lai, points out, Syaman Rapongan deliberately defamiliarizes his language and syntax in order to praise traditional Tao values and to guide his readers, especially Tao, back to the original way of living, far from influences of Chinese culture and modern civilization.[39]

Hang-hai-jia de Lian 航海家的臉》 (The Face of a Navigator). Taipei: INK Literary Publishing Co., 2007.—Also a collection of articles; it continues the oceanic theme but exposes more of Syaman Rapongan’s personal battles with modernity or traditionality and his pursuit of prosperity or return to innocence.[40] Calling him-self a nomadic soul, Syaman Rapongan knows there may be no end to his battle. His course is a romantic one, without any definite plan. Nor will his beloved sea offer any answer or guidance. Nevertheless, consolation can be found in sweet solitude and family understanding. Syaman Rapongan’s first attempt at trans-Pacific navigation with a Japanese captain and five Indonesian crew members is also included here.

Lao Hai-ren 老海人》 (Old Ama Divers)[41]. Taipei: INK Literary Publishing Co., Ltd., 2009.—Syaman Rapongan’s second novel; highly praised and awarded (The Wu Lu-chin Prize for Essays, Chiu Ko Publishing Co. Annual Selection in 2006). Instead of following the previous semi-biographical direction, Syaman Rapongan focuses on three outcasts on his island, Ngalomirem, Tagangan and Zomagpit, whose pretty names fail to bring them pretty lives. Ngalomiren is regarded as a psychopath, Tagangan a miserable student though a brilliant octopus-catcher, and Zomagpit a hopeless drunkard. Through these figures, Syaman Rapongan portrays how Tao society stumbles between traditionality and modernity, and how broken the society has become in both material and mental terms as its humble and simple way becomes recognized again. In spite of a slight hope for reconciliation, this way back to the humble and simple Tao world is arduous, sometimes painful, and fully filled with regrets. My favorite.

Final Note: So far, all of Syaman Rapongan’s books are only available in Chinese. Nevertheless, English translation of some of his stories can be found in certain anthologies of contemporary Taiwanese literature.

(Photos, in order of publication: Pan Hsiao-Hsia, Lin Chien-Hsiang and Tomo.Yun)


[1] A Tao saying. See Lao Hai-ren, p. 111.

[2] Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安), a name of Tao (see Note 3), literally means ‘the father of Rapongan’. Tao people change their names at least three times in life. Take a boy named Rapongan for example. He’s called ‘Si Rapongan’ throughout his child- and single-hood. After his first child (Sumalud) is born, his name will be changed to ‘Syaman Sumalud’ (the father of Sumalud); so will his wife, who for instance is called ‘Si Maveivou’ before her marriage and maternity, change her name to ‘Sinan Sumalud’ (the mother of Sumalud). Once the couple has their first grandchild (Tagangan), they will both be called, ‘Syapen Tagangan’, the grandparents of Tagangan. See Lao Hai-ren, p. 235, note 17. In this essay, since neither syaman nor rapongan could stand alone as a meaningful reference for the writer, his name will always be fully cited when necessary.

[3] Tao or Tawo (Da-wu, 達悟), also known as Ya-mei (雅美), is one of many indigenous peoples that fall currently under the jurisdiction of Taiwan government. Being officially recognized, Tao is entitled to legally protected rights in culture, language, education, employment, etc. Nevertheless, due to a persisting influence from main(is)land Taiwan, the island Lan-yu has witnessed a steady outward flow of its people, mainly Tao, and thereby, the loss of Tao language, culture, and traditional livelihood. At the same time, the scandalous introduction of nuclear waste facilities in 1970s has also put the island’s people under lifelong threat. It was one of the issues that triggered numerous Taiwan indigenous movements in 1980s. These together compose the background to Syaman Rapongan’s embarkation upon a literary career (see When He was Shi Nu-Lai). According to the 2009 census, Tao population numbers 3,748, nearly 0.8% of Taiwan’s total indigenous population (see Council of Indigenous Peoples). Tao is well-known for its oceanic culture, dadala (Tao joined-log canoe, see Note 32), flying fish festival, traditional attire (male T-back and silver cone-shaped hat), female hair dance, et cetera. It is known that Tao and the Ivatan people on the Batanes Island in the Philippines share cultural and linguistic ties. Trade was in the past a custom between the two peoples. See Syaman Rapongan’s ‘The Story of Syapen Mitoli’, Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 195-204.

[4] Lan-yu (蘭嶼), Orchid Island and Botel Tobago all refer to the small volcanic island lying approximately forty-five kilometers to the southeastern coast of Taiwan. The island is home to Tao (see Note 3), who call it by the name of ‘Pongso no Tao’, Island of Man. See Lao Hai-ren, p. 191, note 8.

[5] For Syaman Rapongan’s works, see Major Publications (with brief introductions).

[6] See Chang, Rui-fen, ‘The Course of Pen and Oar—Reading Syaman Rapongan’s Memories of Oceanic Waves in Summer (筆與槳的方向—夏日讀夏曼·藍波安《海浪的記憶》)’, UNITAS《聯合文學》, 2002 (215). Also, Sun, Ta-chuan (a.k.a. Palabang), ‘Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安)’, Taiwan Indigenous Voice Bimonthly《山海文化雙月刊》.

[7] Liao Hung Ji (廖鴻基, b. 1957) worked as a seafarer and fisherman at his early teens. His life on the sea later becomes a source of creation that enabled him to produce literature especially about the relationship between fish and men. His characterization of that relationship resembles Hemingway, since he focuses on the brutal struggle of force. Liao is also the founder of ‘Kuroshio Ocean Education Foundation’ (黑潮海洋文教基金會), who is now devoted to the study of whales and the preservation of oceanic environment and culture.

[8] Recall the famous line in The Old Man and the Sea: “Man is not made for defeat…A man can be destroyed but not defeated”. For literature on the sea as a route of transportation, see Exploiting the Waters (Crayenborgh 2010, 17th edition), edited by Yedda Wang and Daan Elders.

[9] See Chang’s ‘The Course of Pen and Oar’.

[10] See the short paragraph on the front cover of Syaman Rapogan’s Hang-hai-jia de Lian for example: ‘After spending much of his youthhood wandering in Taiwan, finally, Syaman returns to the island Lan-yu, living with his people, building dadalas to go to sea with them, diving into the ocean to catch fish, watching the waters, pondering, and changing into a real Tao man’ (在台灣流浪了所有的青春歲月/終於,夏曼回歸蘭嶼這座小島/與部落的人一起生活/造拼板船出海捕魚/潛海抓魚,望海思考/成為真正達悟族的男人).

[11] A subaqueous loner, 海底獨夫, is Syaman Rapongan’s favorite nickname. See Leng Hai Qing Shen, p. 220: ‘Like a loco talking to himself along the way, sandwiched between the dark sky and pitchy sea, I priggishly called myself a member of the arrogant subaqueous loners’ (我像瘋子一樣,一路上自言自語的,黑暗的天宇和黑暗的海洋夾著一位,自以為是「海底獨夫」的狂傲份子。)

[12] In Chinese:會造舟建屋、捕飛魚、釣鰭魚、善於說故事、吟誦詩歌……。 See Leng Hai Qing Shen, p 99.

[13] See Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 172-177. Also, Lao Hai-ren, p. 17.

[14] In Chinese for the first:將來當個老師好好教育你們蘭嶼這些「野蠻」的小孩成為「文明人」; for the second:將來當神父馴化你們蘭嶼那些不認識上帝的「野蠻」人成為「文明人」。See Lao Hai-ren, p 16.

[15] See Lao Hai-ren, p.15, and Hang-hai-jia de Lian, p. 7.

[16] In Chinese:[努來]已嘗遍人生的挫折……在他的眼裡,已經沒有什麼事是「順利」的了。See Chui, Fei-hisang (邱斐顯). ‘Literary Brave-heart Syaman Rapongan, Embrace the Dream of Flying Fish’ (文學勇士夏曼·藍波安 擁抱飛魚之夢)’. New Taiwan《新台灣新聞週刊》, 2006 (530).

[17] See Kuan Hsiao-yong (關曉榮). ‘From Shi Nu-lai to Syaman Rapongan’ (從施努來到夏曼·藍波安), Preface to Syaman Rapongan’s Leng Hai Qing Shen 《冷海情深》, pp. 5-9.

[18] ‘The Making of’ indicates that it is still an ongoing process.

[19] In Chinese:返鄉後不久,施努來經過一番與戶政人員的鬥爭後,正式改名為夏曼·藍波安,開始默默地為自己的小家庭建造家屋。See Kuan’s ‘From Shi Nu-lai to Syaman Rapongan’, p. 7.

[20] See Lin, Chien-hsiang (林建享), ‘Interview with Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安訪談)’, Literary Landscape Episode 9《文學風景》第九集, Public Television Service, Taiwan 公共電視.

[21] See ‘The Oceanic Pilgrim’ in Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 97-129.

[22] See ‘The Kuroshio and the Family Canoe’ in Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 49-68.

[23] In Chinese:這就是我所要追求的,用勞動(傳統工作)累積自己的社會地位,用勞動深入探討自己文化的文明過程;與族人共存共享大自然的食物;廢除自己被漢化的污名;讓被壓抑的驕傲再生。See Leng Hai Qing Shen, p. 148.

[24] See Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 11, 14, 43, 122, 183 and 211.

[25] In Chinese:全家人……都要把我趕出家門,只因為我不賺錢,只因為我天天往海裡潛。Ibid, p. 212. Syaman Rapongan’s struggle is especially obvious in ‘No Complaints…No Regrets’, Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 205-220.

[26] This is not to say Syaman Rapongan never visits Taiwan. He finished his MA program at the Department of Anthropolgy, National Tsing Hua University, and is now a PhD student at the Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Cheng Kung University. He certainly visits Taiwan, but Pongso no Tao is always his home.

[27] See Hao Yu-hsiang (郝譽翔). ‘The Moving Life of an Oceanic People: Syaman Rapongan’s Lao Hai-ren (海洋民族的動人生命:夏曼·藍波安「老海人」)’.

[28] In Chinese:海洋終究一直在包容…當然也不可能拋棄…畢竟海洋本身是沒有邊陲,也沒有中心。See Lao Hai-ren, p. 21.

[29] In Chinese:[延續]父祖輩們給我的教育…用「寧靜」觀賞海。Ibid.

[30] Tao dadala (達悟拼板舟) is often translated into Lan-yu dugout or canoe, a type of light and narrow wood boat made by hollowing a single tree trunk like a monoxylon (Greek μονόξυλον, mono- single + xylon tree). Although this translation appears appropriate in terms of the materials and functions of the boat, it might still mislead people into thinking that dadalas are made of single tree trunks. According to professional studies and Syaman Rapongan’s stories, however, dadalas are actually made of 21 or 27 pieces of logs from different types of trees, such as Longan or Syzygium for the bottom, Neonauclea for the keel, breadfruit for the gunnel, and so on. Therefore, it is better to translate a dadala into ‘joined-log canoe’ or simply keep the Tao name ‘dadala’. See Wang, Ya-Ping,  ‘Study the Wisdom of Tao dadala based on the Collections of Union Catalogs (從聯合目錄藏品了解達悟族拼板舟(dadala)的智慧)’, Cyber Island E –Paper 《數位島嶼電子報》, 19.

[31] In Chinese:原來他們跟我說許多的故事就是要我將來當個「作家」。See Lao Hai-ren, p. 21.

[32] In Chinese:然而,我還未進階到他們用「寧靜」看世界,在自然環境裡萃取「寧靜」的層次。Ibid.

[33] See Gao Xing-jian’s (高行健) Nobel Centennial Symposia Lecture, ‘Le témoignage de la littérature’ (The Testimony of Literature)’, delivered on December 5th, 2001. A Chinese version has also been prepared by Gao and published by Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University. See Gao, Xing-jian, ‘The Testimony of Literature—Seeking Truthfulness (文學的見證—對真實的追求)’, NTU Studies in Taiwan Literature 《台灣文學研究集刊》, 2006 (2): 165-174.

[34] See Lin, ‘Interview with Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安訪談)’.

[35] ‘Souls that went before one’s body’ is a special Tao phrase; it means one’s deceased fathers. See Hang-hai-jia de Lian, p. 26, note 1. Sometimes, the deceased fathers or forefathers are also referred as ‘bodies that went before one’s soul’. See Lao Hai-ren, p. 23 or p. 176.

[36] In Chinese:孩子,你要養成愛慕海洋的性格,因為海洋的關係,才有我們這個民族。See Leng Hai Qing Shen, p. 113.

[37] In Chinese:從一個真實的生活,去建構一個真實的文學,而這個真實的文學也企圖去建構這個島上的海洋哲學。See Lin, ‘Interview with Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安訪談)’.

[38] For an introduction of Syaman Rapongan and his encounter with the Martinique-born Francophone writer, Roland Brival, see Lu, Nancy T, ‘Orchid Island’s Syaman Rapongan Lives and Writes in Praise of the Ocean’.

[39] See Song, Ze-lai (宋澤萊). ‘Strange Rhetoric and Group Guidance in Syaman Rapongan’s The Memory of Waves’ (夏曼·藍波安小說《海浪的記憶》中的奇異修辭及其族群指導), Research in Taiwan Studies 《台灣學研究》, 2007 (3): 16-33. Song doesn’t agree with Syaman Rapongan’s idea of returning to the traditional way of living. In his opinion, indigenous peoples should study more and learn more about capital economics. These are their ways out of present economic and social disadvantages. However, I don’t think Syaman Rapongan says the traditional way of living is the only way either. He knows clearly that diving is not the only future for the next Tao generations. For young people, the purpose of learning the traditional production skills is to understand the value of the life of their ancestors, to keep them aware of their Tao identity, and to offer them room for reflection upon their life journey. See Leng Hai Qing Shen, p. 118.

[40] ‘Return to Innocence’ is also the title of a 1994 chart-topping single by Enigma, an electronic musical band founded in Germany. This success was particularly polluted when it was found out that parts of an Amis chant, ‘Jubilant Drinking Song’ (飲酒歡樂歌), produced by two Amis elderly singers Kuo Ying-nan (郭英男) and Kuo Hsiu-chu (郭秀珠), were sampled without their permission. Amis, a.k.a Pangcah, is the largest indigenous group in Taiwan.

[41] Ama divers (あま) are Japanese divers, who are famous for collecting pearls or abalones in coastal waters. Since the three figures of Syaman Rapongan’s second novel also make living by collecting different kinds of marine resources, it is more appropriate to translate the title of his second novel to ‘Old Ama Divers’ than to the literal ‘Old Sea Men’.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Taiwan: Apart from or a Part of the Pacific Region

Professor Tsang Cheng-Hwa (Institute of History and Philology at the Academia Sinica) discusses the need for researchers to work across disciplines on an international scale towards a more comprehensive understanding of the Pacific and Taiwan's current and future role there.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Going on a Pacific island 'holyday'

When discussing Taiwan’s links with the Pacific islands, it is well worth considering the religious dimension.  I have previously written about the connection that Taiwanese religious groups, in particular New Religious Movements, are seeking to forge with Mainland China[1].  However if we look in the other direction, from the gritty megacities of China to the lightly populated islands of the Pacific Ocean, we can see another current of religiosity that is circulating belief, culture and innovation.

The New Testament Church (NTC) is a small charismatic Protestant Church based at Mount Zion in Kaohsiung County in southern Taiwan. It was founded by a Hong Kong movie star in 1963 and has managed to survive leadership disputes, struggles with the Taiwanese government and natural disasters to now be in its fifth decade.  No small feat for a modestly sized and socially marginalized group. You can watch me give a brief introduction to the NTC here and here.

The NTC believes that God has chosen Taiwan’s Mount Zion instead of the traditional and better-known Mount Zion in Israel.  The mountain serves the important roles of not only being God’s home, but also the venue for the impending Tribulation (when Jesus will descend to Mount Zion and members of the NTC will ascend to heaven).  The NTC has developed Mount Zion into a community of around 300 adherents, complete with agricultural and educational facilities.

Furthermore, the NTC is a passionate and dedicated exponent of organic agriculture.  The rationale behind choosing organic farming over conventional (that is, pesticide-based) farming is that it is the ‘God-based’ way to farm. The NTC equates God’s law of creation, as outlined in the bible, with the natural method of farming.  As the bible does not contain any directive to use chemicals, the church therefore refrains from doing so.  In avoiding such pollutants, the NTC can more easily recreate their ideal of a holy and “Edenic” environment.  It seeks to do this on Mount Zion and at its properties abroad.

Mount Zion is an interesting place for tourists to visit, and one of utmost spiritual importance to the NTC.  However the spiritual power of the mountain is not limited to the peak in Taiwan – other places around the world also share in it.

The NTC has developed a series of ‘Offshoots of Zion’ around the world.  These rural properties are places where the NTC’s international adherents live, worship and farm.  Mostly scattered around Malaysia and the Pacific Rim, there are also two Offshoots of Zion on Pacific Islands – Eden Isle (伊甸島) on Tikehau, Polynesia and Mount Tabor (他泊山) on Tahiti.

Just as in Taiwan, the NTC’s community in the Pacific developed out of the Assemblies of God church. Having established Mount Tabor in 1985, the NTC has around 300 “exclusively Chinese” adherents in Tahiti[2]. The church has not limited itself to one island though, expanding elsewhere in the region.

Inhabited by the NTC since 1993, Eden Isle is a small island where the NTC has an organic farm and open-air church.  Based on reports by visiting sailors, the number of people living on Eden Isle seems to vary between 5 and 10.  This number can swell exponentially when international members of the NTC arrive for religious celebrations and various types of exchange programs.  There are a number of online reports from sailors passing by Tikehau who have been welcomed in by the NTC and given tours of the island[3].

In considering these two Pacific island spiritual centres, Mount Zion in Taiwan, and the NTC that binds them, we can get a glimpse of the dynamics between the two regions.  The main temple on Mount Zion was rebuilt in the late 1980s using indigenous Taiwanese techniques and designs.  In turn, the venues of worship on Eden Isle and Mount Tabor reflect the style of Mount Zion’s temple. Mount Tabor’s temple appears to be an almost perfect copy of Mount Zion’s temple. The Eden Isle temple is smaller and more open than that of Mount Tabor, yet remains true to the form of the temple on Mount Zion.  Yet it is not only a temple template that the NTC has imported.

Representatives of the NTC have been keen to point out to me the work that the church has done in the Pacific with regard to organic farming, particularly innovations in composting methods.  Indeed, the French Polynesian government has even engaged the NTC to provide consultancy services and training in organic farming techniques [4].

However, the flow of knowledge and religious concepts is not simply one-way.  Children from the NTC’s ‘Eden Homestead’ school system spend time in the Pacific centres learning about agriculture, in both its practical and spiritual dimensions.  These children are not just from Taiwan and Malaysia, but also Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA.  In this sense, Eden Isle and Mount Tabor have become the metaphorical hub of a trans-Pacific ‘spiritual wheel’, circulating the beliefs of the NTC around the Pacific Rim.

The traditional costumes and accoutrements of the Pacific islands have also made their way back to Mount Zion. For instance, whereas once couples were married at Mount Zion wearing western-style wedding outfits, now they dress in more simple outfits that demonstrate a Pacific influence (through accessories such as floral garlands, shell belt buckles and bare feet)[5].  Alternatively, dressing like this could also reflect Taiwan’s own indigenous traditions.  Either way, it contrasts starkly with the modern wedding traditions that are so popular in Taiwan.

The New Testament Church is only small and has a fledgling presence in the Pacific. Nevertheless, it is a pertinent example of how a decidedly non-mainstream Taiwanese organization has created a presence in there. The NTC's exchange of ideas – be they religious, agricultural or cultural – is multifaceted and of use to us when trying to conceive how Taiwan sits in relation to its Pacific Island neighbours.

Photo: P.F.

[1] http://www.erenlai.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3982:an-overview-of-religious-life-in-modern-taiwan&catid=688:october-2010&Itemid=331&lang=en

[2] http://chinaperspectives.revues.org/1118#tocto2n3

[3] http://www.thebigvoyage.com/the-pacific/tikehau-day-2-lagoon-excursion/

[4] http://tahitipresse.pf/2009/12/le-bio-une-voie-davenir-pour-lagriculture-polynesienne/

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeFTDGwo8sA

Friday, 28 November 2008

When I look eastwards

Three generations of Amis women gather in Haruko's household (Tafalong village). They wear their traditional costumes to improvise dances and sing an Amis song.

Monday, 31 January 2011

The Story of the Blue Child

Author: Egoyan Zheng (伊格言) Translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart

 

The Western limits of the Pacific Ocean. The island nation of Taiwan.

The North coast. The beach at sunset. Although one might call it sunset, given the low latitude, even in the midst of late Autumn, night never fell early. Although the sunlight had actually already long vanished beyond the horizon; there remained the sapphire curtain of night permeated with a milky glean hanging down from the edge of the heavens.

K walked alone away from the bright lights of the fish market beside the quay and wandered along the deserted beach, enjoying the stirring chill of the sea breeze after nightfall. In the distance, above the dark coastal highway, several blimps passed by from time to time at irregular intervals, more intermittent than frequent; one had to wait quite a while to catch sight of the circular beam of the searchlights passing by.

When there were no blimps passing, the vast space in the distance on the margins of his vision was a pitch black. Nearby the neon lights of a seaside amusement park glistened, the carousel with its colorful vaulted arches shone with an orange light in the midst of the pitch black surroundings. It was on appearance a popular scenic spot, in the day time it would most likely be teeming with tourists. Now though, even the majority of those that had loitered had already dispersed. The part of the beach K was standing on was a long way off from the fairground. He couldn't hear any of the voices or the music. Or perhaps it was because the sea wind rose up to carry away the noise. However, in his line of sight, the fine strokes of sketched light stood out amongst the vast dark background, and the flowing multitude of people and things as they followed the revolutions of the vaulted axis, appeared at that instant to be so beautiful and unreal, like a ghostly gathering of the after images of light...

At that time the beach was deserted. The fluorescent blue crescent of the moon had already shown its face hesitantly in the midst of the thin cloud cover. By the light of the moon, K could see the edge of the sea amidst the darkness, wave after wave of spray licked rhythmically at the beach.

It was just then that K suddenly saw Eurydice.

And at the same moment, Eurydice caught sight of K.

There had been something occupying the darkness of an intangible space, impenetrable to the moonlight. It was like a shadowy figure surfacing from the dark realms of consciousness in a dream. K suddenly saw, only a few metres ahead, at an extremely close distance, a woman standing alone, facing the direction of the sea.

It was at this moment that the woman turned to face him. The moonlight shone on her face. K immediately recognised her. And judging from the expression on her face, the woman recognised K too.

EgoyanZheng_StoryofBlueKids02It was Eurydice. Black-haired Eurydice. They had first met two years ago on the new recruit training course at the Directorate of National Intelligence in Hong Kong. It was a course dealing with a hypothetical case in teams. Someone of K's level would not normally teach this kind of mini-course. However, due to the small scale of the training course that time (only 12 new trainees in total were in attendance), and as the lecturer who was originally going to lead the course was sent to Istanbul at short notice, K was temporarily relieving him of his duties, to instruct the course.

Eurydice looked quite quiet. She had an elegant quality to her. K remembered the dark brown irises of her serious eyes, the curve in the bridge of her nose, and the glimmering sheen of her short hair back then. K remembered also the sly expression that flashed from those eyes that looked like those of a cute animal when she smiled in that sweet way she had. Like something very, very light had suddenly dropped into the pond.

To put it more clearly: after a long intervening period of time, K realized, he remembered almost every detail of her appearance and bearing from the first time he saw her...

Of course, Eurydice was quite beautiful. But her beauty wasn't by any means of a particularly uncommon sort. K was already 35 then, and had seen his fair share of beautiful women. K couldn't help but be perplexed: what was it that led him to remember so much about her?

However, except for this, it seemed there was nothing else. Even though the impression of those little details about Eurydice would occasionally flash across K's mind, he wouldn't have said that he often thought of her. K for a while even thought that Eurydice must have had some sort of conspicuous, innate particularity about her, and so he unconsciously gave rein to the efficiency and memory power of an intelligence agent.

EgoyanZheng_StoryofBlueKids01

Under the pale blue light of the moon, they waved at each other. Then they immediately started to laugh. They probably laughed because of the stunned look on each of their faces at first.

"Why is the Agency Director in a place like this? ... Are you here on vacation, Sir?" Eurydice asked.

"Eh... yeah, I'm here on vacation... you don't need to call me Sir." K laughed and said: "The scenery is beautiful here. What about you? On vacation too?"

"I suppose you could say that." Eurydice paused for a moment: "Eh... actually, I grew up around here. I came back to visit..."

"Really?" K raised his eyebrows, and joked, "You can just be honest; I know our unit has a case underway around here..."

"No, no," Eurydice laughed again, "... I came here, just to come home. To come home and have a look around again...”

There was a moment, even under such a gloomy light, when K thought he saw that smile of hers. Some light matter falling noiselessly into a pond, the feeling of calm ripples. But this time the falling happened in a shadow blacker than darkness. It made Eurydice seem further away than the actual short distance between them.

"Oh, so you were actually born in Taiwan..." said K.

"Yeah..." Eurydice paused. K was aware that she wanted to say something, but she didn't say it in the end.

"... So... so you know a few places off the tourist trail?" K considerately changed the topic of conversation.

Eurydice thought for a moment. "Yeah" She smiled again. This time it was of a brighter sort. "But, it's hard to describe how to get there..."

"What do you mean?" K's curiosity was piqued.

"Hmm...Just come with me. It's quite nearby; we'll be there in no time." Eurydice made a gesture: "We'll have to hope we're lucky though. You can't always see it..."

They started onwards along the coastline. They discussed the weather, they discussed the fish markets, piled with seafood, they discussed the moonlight, and they discussed the dreamy magnificence of the seaside amusement park, an engraved sketch of light on the dark curtain of night. Then Eurydice explained to him, along the coast to which they were headed, out on the open sea there were often fixed eddies produced perhaps due to submerged reefs on the seabed. In certain seasonal periods, because of the change in tides and ocean currents, the fixed eddies would become particularly powerful; this caused disaster for certain coastal water molluscs.

"They are descended from the Portuguese Man o' War." Eurydice said.

"Isn't that the most poisonous jelly-fish?"

"Yes, it was the most toxic jellyfish of the classic era. Now it's extinct..." Eurydice explained: "From here - if we're lucky - we'll be able to see a variant species of the Portuguese Man 'o War. It's got a very pretty, very cute name; it's called a Blue Child."

"A Blue Child... Is it still poisonous?"

"Yes, but its poison is a lot less powerful." Eurydice smiled, "Just as long as you don't fry it up and swallow it down, then it should be OK..."

K smiled too, "I'm not that much of a glutton..." K paused briefly. "But as for you, I'm not quite so sure."

"The Blue Child could almost be described as a species unique to Taiwanese Waters..." the sound of both of their laughter spilled out into the sea breeze of the dark night. Eurydice continued to explain to K, "A unique species, that is to say, it can't be found anywhere else in the world, only in Taiwan and Okinawa. And what's even more unusual is that, of the whole of Taiwan, it's only found in this area of the Northern coastal waters…A particular kind of Nitrate can be found in their bodies. Once this compound comes into contact with air it oxidizes instantly... look, over there."

Eurydice pointed to the ground not too far ahead on their right hand side. K saw two or three flakes of fluorescent blue, roughly the size of a fingernail resting quietly on the darkened moist sand. Like a shiny shard of glass.

"I didn't think we'd be able to see one so soon. I guess it's our lucky day..." Eurydice said: "That's a "fragment" of a Blue Child...when the eddy currents produced by the topography of the seabed take their lives, ripping their bodies to shreds, they then get exposed to the air, the oxidized nitrates then give out the fluorescent blue light even more strongly..."


EgoyanZheng_StoryofBlueKids05K drew nearer and squatted, and felt the two dormant shards of blue fluorescence. Although it looked like pretty shards of broken glass, as he had anticipated it was slimy, cold and slippery. It was possible with some of them to make out whether the piece belonged to the medusa or the tentacles. Their brilliance was much brighter than that of the glow-worm, which had already been extinct for 100 years. K immediately perceived that his fingers were tainted with luminous blue flakes of powder.

(Luminous Blue from oxidization? This meant that there was some degree of combustion involved, K thought to himself.........That is to say, it seemed to be the kind of Mollusc that, when faced with inevitable disintegration, will spontaneously and quietly combust.)

"How does it feel?," Eurydice asked him: "Cold and gooey?"

"Yeah, yeah..." K dipped the tips of his fingers into the tidal pool by his feet, to wash the luminous blue powder off with sea water: "How strange and how beautiful..." K raised his head, and thanked her ceremoniously: "Thanks for bringing me to see these..."

"You might want to wait before you thank me," Eurydice laughed heartily. The emerald green pool was now completely luminous, the ripples of a spring afternoon. Her eyes narrowed into two curved arcs: “Maybe there will be some more up ahead...".

They continued to walk onward. As predicted, as they walked further along the road they saw more and more fragments of fluorescent blue. Evidently they had been carried along on to the bank with the rhythmic surge of the tidal waters. The moon was bright, K could vaguely make out the line between the wet and dry sand on the shore. And surrounding this line, the distribution of the blue luminous fragments looked as if fluorescent petals had been scattered along the road.

However, not long after, the fragments became more and more concentrated. They formed a vague imprint on the sand parallel to that of the waves. It looked like some sort of track left by something that had moved along the beach.

By the light of the moon, they walked around the sand banks and came to a small bay. Nearby a few tidal pools of different sizes lay still. On the beach giant planks of driftwood lay half buried in the sand, standing erect they threw colossal shadows on to the sand. Like the fractured skeleton of some prehistoric Behemoth.

The tide was still lapping rhythmically at the shore giving out an empty, ethereal echo. As far as the eye could see, the sea in the bay was already alight with a plane of the luminous blue light of jellyfish. Some of the fragments of the Blue Child jellyfish bodies were floating on the water, others rose and fell with wave after wave, and there were others still that had sunk to the bottom of the shallow and clear waters of the tidal pools, like the dizzying light given off by the constellations, silent and brilliant in the night sky. He didn't know why, but a fantasy flashed into K's mind that he'd never seen before: a massive Blue Child jellyfish darting about in the dark depths of the sea, the darkest depths. Except for the lone Blue Child, there was no other traces of existence. The Blue Child moved silently about. It's body was like a throbbing, transparent heart. It's tentacles spread eerily across the water, like Medusa's Ophidian hair...

At that moment, perhaps because of cloud coverage, the moon wasn't shining as brightly. Their parallel shadows merged into the massive shadow cast by the gigantic driftwood bones. K saw the mist streaming across the surface of the moon. The wind off the sea got stronger. Like a huge echo in a sealed off cavern, the mass of the wind filling the aural cavity, relentlessly assaulting the ear membrane.

K suddenly realized that this was actually a deathly banquet. The resplendent show of death's skeleton. In regard to jellyfish, it is only in the instant of their sudden death, after their bodies are torn to pieces by the eddies, that one can see this kind of sight.

 

"The last time I saw the Blue Child," Eurydice broke the silence, "was four or five years ago. It's been ages..."

"...so, you haven't come back home for that long?"

"Yeah..." Eurydice paused again, then changed the topic of conversation,

"I really liked a classic era Chinese poet. When I came back to this scene, it made me think of a few of his poems..."

"What kind of poetry?" K asked.

"Are you testing me on it?" Eurydice laughed.

"... have a go!," K laughed along with her, "you can't just say something halfway, then leave me in suspense... Tell me what kind of poetry it is"

"It's Gu Cheng's poetry. I don't think I can remember the whole thing...," Eurydice tilted her head in thought, "OK, I'll give it a try..."

 

Eurydice paused for a moment, then started to recite softly,

 

"...Behind the eternal canopy of the heavens

There is a pair of doves

They sleep, wings akimbo

The just forgotten kiss

Warms the home of the West wind..."

"...It starts, it starts to get cold

A floating handkerchief

It stops

Stopped, and floats afar once again

On the brown banks of the Samoan shore

The bride walks towards the ocean..."

 

"There is one other poem..." Eurydice smiled, her face imperceptibly flushed.

 

EgoyanZheng_StoryofBlueKids08

"...There is iron on the door, on the sea

There is rusty rain...

"Some people sleep on a bed

Some people float on the sea

Some people sink to the sea floor

Comets are a kind of dish

The moon is a silver cup

Ever floating, decorated with that slice

Of beautiful lemon, beautiful...," She paused for an instant before continuing,

"Don't speak, I don't know

I don't know myself..."

Eurydice's voice was focused and calm. In spite of the strong wind, her voice was unaffected by anything, like a fine, tensile fibre, cutting cleanly through the wind, and cutting through the vast layers of darkness that the wind penetrated.

It was just then that K felt keenly that something strange had happened to his body. As if some shapeless, colourless something, had invaded his chest cavity with a heaviness and fullness. That hueless something seemed to be a living body, the qualities of which seemed to seep in a circular manner with Eurydice's calm voice into the space outside the chest cavity. Like a flaw in his psyche, or a rupture. K felt his heartbeat and his breathing start to quicken, however they didn't become any shallower, but became warmer, heavier and deeper...

He felt strangely out of sorts. The feeling was so strange, that he wasn't sure if it was apt to to use the phrase "out of sorts" to describe it...

Because in that instant, K was in a happy frame of mind. K saw the moonlight shining on Eurydice's profile. She inclined her head to glance at K, and then as if abashed, she moved her gaze away. In such a dim light, it was hard to make out her face; however in the darkness, K thought he could see the ripples of gentle laughter. It was like the subtle beauty of insects with translucent wings bumbling along at a hair's breadth from the mirror-like stillness of the surface of an old pond on a windless afternoon in Spring. Their minuscule bumbling and sloping seemed also like dust or light fluff, floating along in circles around the centre of the pond...

EgoyanZheng_StoryofBlueKids06Thinking back on this moment, it was the start of their romance. On the way back, they followed the steadily dimmer fluorescent blue light on the ground, away from the moon, the cliffs of the sand dunes, and the shadow thrown by the off-white driftwood bones. The "Blue Children" without their luminosity, looked more like old dirty pieces of broken glass. They were both more subdued than they had been on the way...

In retrospect, that they were subdued was, of course, inevitable. K had been quite perplexed by his own reaction at the time. On their way back, K felt the hueless presence that had seemed to seep into his chest cavity gradually leave him. However, in the moment that he was rid of the warm feeling of heaviness and fullness, he felt somewhat cold. A coldness gently extending from the top of his head, to the pit of his stomach, around his waist, his arms and the palms of his hands. The cold sea breeze which hadn't bothered him at first, now penetrated the darkness to stir every hair and pore on his body to tremble...

(It couldn't have been more different from the second day they met. K still to this day remembers vividly the second day, how under the bright sun of the northern coast of Taiwan sand made up of crushed shells had clung to Eurydice's pale skin...)

(...With a flawless sky of pure blue. Without a thread of cloud. It was strange. It wasn't hot. Just bright. What K at first glance saw as a grain of rice-white sand, on closer inspection was not completely white, but was made up of a variety of different colours and textures. When the shell sand had formed a thin translucent layer on Eurydice's skin, the sun's rays, by way of the sand's texture, were diffracted at a certain angle. And that diffracted light at certain moments, would coat the entire scene in bright whiteness. In that moment, it brought a snow-blindness that lasted for a short while, but soon afterwards, it dissipated in what felt like a wave...)[inset side="right" title="Egoyan Zheng"] His real name is Zheng Qianci, and he was born in 1977. He graduated from the psychology department of NTU and read a Masters in Chinese Literature at Tamkang University. 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize Nominee 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award Nominee[/inset]

However, K was as relaxed and cheerful as before. The silence between he and Eurydice wasn't that awkward and tense kind of silence, but rather like a feeling that something which had been stretched taut had been slackened.

This was also part of what troubled K. Or rather what troubled him most keenly...

In the dark night, under the moonlight, they walked back towards the closing fish market and the fairground. The fine grains of sand under their feet gave off a soft, tender sound. The bright lights of the fish market had all gone dark; in the distance, there remained the faint flickering of a few small lights.The fairground was now in complete darkness, only the neon sign at the entrance was still reluctant to depart, the eyes of light blinking noiselessly to the rhythm of their flicker settings.

Like a shapeless tame beast, crouching.

 

 

 

Images: 1 PetteriO; 2 Ka13 ; 3 Johnny Myreng Henriksen ; 4 oneillkza ; 5 Isaac Wedin ; 6 redjar

 

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