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The inauguration ceremony
The very first impression of the island (Lanyu) was its powerful beauty: small mountains spread over the island covered by forests. Countless, gigantic structures consisting of rocks and boulders which are formed by wind and sea over thousands of years. The strong wind penetrates each corner of the island and it changes almost every second the colour of the sky. The impressive view of the ocean in different notes of blue is obviously the most dominant background of this unique landscape. Fascinated by nature, my residency in Lanyu officially begun.
Two days after my arrival the inauguration ceremony of Chien-Ping’s new house started. This was an elaborate celebration which had to be carried out by strictly following the traditional procedures of Tao. This is a long-term process including numerous, intricate physical and organizational acts. At the same time the ceremony is a great honour for the host and his family. In traditional Tao society, one (mostly male) must have passed a lot of conditions for the permission of hosting this inauguration ceremony. There are criteria which include skills of various physical crafts, the establishment of a proper family structure, the ability to sustain one’s own family while taking certain responsibilities of the whole clan and so on. The list is basically a life-long process of a Tao man to establish his status and prestige in a traditional, male-dominated society.
The most essential part of the ceremony was a special singing ritual conducted by the most honoured guests and clan members, which has lasted for a whole long night. During this period of time, participants sat in a circle in Chien-Ping’s living room where they sung in turn one single melody all night long. This is a traditional song consisting of only few microtones and it is designed for solemn occasions of Taoist tradition such as inauguration ceremonies. Whilst singing in turn, each singer has to interpret the same melody with varied lyrics. All lyrics should be formulated extemporarily in the ancient Tao language – an elderly sophisticated utterance of Tao language which is differentiated from everyday speeches, and most of these texts are depictions of the wealth and generosity of the host. This requires enrichment of linguistic knowledges of the ancient Tao language and a high attention of each singer.
One single melody consists of few microtones, which is designed for solemn occasions of Tao tradition, was in turn sung by each participant with different lyrics. All lyrics must be formulated extemporarily in the ancient Tao language – an elderly sophisticated utterance of Tao language which is differentiated from everyday speeches. This requires enrichment of linguistic knowledges of the ancient Tao language and a high attention of each singer. Although having no idea about the content, the intensively mutual interactions between them were comprehensible. Due to the alternation of solo and tutti, participants appreciated and responded attentively to each other in means of literary creativities, which are transformed by their voices. Throughout countless repetitions of the only melody, this unique collective performance has gradually become the embodiment of enormous life power, which is carried out by Tao people over generations.
The island of human and alien
By approaching the local community to pursue their daily lives, I noticed that the faith of Tao plays a very central role in the society. Apart from Christian practices, which serve rather as a platform for collective events and social gathering, the ancestral belief of Tao is deeply ingrained in the social as well as everyday life of each individual. Excepting legends of various divine figures, Tao respect the existence of ghosts/spirits as well as miscellaneous supernatural creatures. Due to the expectation of coexisting with them, the Tao have arranged particular rules to conduct their shared lives on the island. In Lanyu, there are certain areas which are deemed to be living spheres of different creatures or spirits. Only in case of necessity, people are allowed to access into these areas, and yet they will need to get a “permission” of the unknown occupants. Via a proper ceremony, which can be a short, certain speech or lighting a cigarette (instead of an incense stick), one requests for a permission of accessing into the area. Tao people believe that in case they are not welcomed, a discernable sign such as a noise or fall of a branch would be conveyed by the spirits/creatures. This way of mutual sharing and expecting of natural resources with imaginary beings reflects the philosophy of a peaceful unity of human and nature. Nevertheless, there are still other mysterious figures which symbolize the fear of a parallel unknown world in the culture of Tao.
One of the most scary characters from Tao legends is a creature called “Fonggo” (spelled according to phonetic). In the local community, there are numerous tales of Fonggo which are told by Taos over generations. In these narratives, Fonggo was embodied in varied forms of animals or other mythical creatures and is supposed to be dangerous and offensive. Among different versions of the appearance of Fonggo, the depiction of a “half-human, half-goat” creature has been approved by most Tao people, who claim to have been witnessing it in the reality. It is indeed not surprising that Fonggo has been associated with a goat in such frightening legends. In the tradition of Tao, goats and pigs are a valuable part of the family property which means that Tao people would spend lots of time in their daily life for caring and breeding these animals. The image of a goat transforming into a demonic creature is not only weird but terrifying.
The way of transformation from an ordinary part of life into a dangerous, monstrous organism is fascinating. From an artistic point of view, I even perceive its internal link to the complexity of the painful process of ‘modernisation’ on Lanyu, which is solely conducted by external political forces. Histories such as the former existence of Lanyu farm has demonstrated another cruel form of transformation – from the political exclusion of a certain social or ethnic group to the powerlessness of each individual, from collective rage and violence to the personal emotions and memories.
As history transforms into the individual perception, maybe, the fear of Fonggo has become a part of the memory of each individual, who has suffered in a silent history…
A dark side of memory
Related to the Japanese colonisation in Taiwan (1895-1945) and establishment of the current Taiwanese government thereafter, the modern history of Lanyu is extremely complex. Alike many other national histories around the world in which colonialism was involved, a great part of Lanyu’s history consists of continuous occupation and exploitation implemented by different political authorities. During my research on historical background of the present “modernity” in Lanyu, which is mainly adapted by the economic and political system of the Republic of China on Taiwan, I noticed that the island has been turned into a prison facility for nearly twenty years. In 1958, the Veterans Affairs Council of Taiwanese government established Lanyu Farm – an correctional facility spread over the island – and has sent 3000 prisoners/felons as well as veterans to Lanyu for forced labours over decades. During this period, aboriginals were even outnumbered by prisoners who mostly came from the main island of Taiwan and were permitted to move freely during their leisure time. Due to cultural conflict between the two groups and the chaotic organisation of prison facility, inhabitants of the island were frequently assaulted by these special immigrants. Without available governmental protection, numerous Tao people have become victims of criminal acts such as rape, theft and robbery.
On the other hand, prisoners/veterans sent by the government had to face a bitter situation on the island as well. Separated from their families and lives in the cities, most felons were ‘dumped’ by the political system with no hope of a way back to the modern society. They had to live in isolation by following a daily routine of exhausting, physical work which gradually drove them to a problematic mental condition. Apart from crimes towards to the group of aboriginals, brutalities and abusive violence were also implemented behind the bars. Severe conflicts between prisoners and/or veterans – supervisors of the prison camp –caused violent acts even homicide, meanwhile, Tao people were permanent eyewitnesses of this cruel scenarios.
“…obviously, they had struggled with frustration here for decades. And so did we!”
As I talked with a middle-aged Tao man from Jiranmilek (Dongqing village) who experienced this period of coexistence with the imprisoned neighbourhood, I was deeply impressed by the above sentence from our conversation. Briefly, and in plain words, a dark part of Lanyu’s history has transformed into the collective memory filled with fear and suffering, which has shaped a whole generation of Tao.