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Bearing the Burdens of History (I)
By Chen Yen-Chen ∥ Translated by Joshua Dyer
Apr 12, 2021

We are told that during the Age of Discovery, as the Portuguese explorers sailed past Taiwan for the first time, they cried out in astonishment, “Ilha formosa!” (“Beautiful island!”). Indeed, Taiwan is a rich and fertile land, blessed with an abundance of flora and fauna. Its geography is diverse, its landscape both pleasing and well-suited for human inhabitation. Although research now suggests that first people to call this island Formosa were likely Spanish colonists, the story of the Portuguese explorers has long since become a touchstone of pride for all Taiwanese, and a powerful echo of the reverence that binds its aboriginal people to the island, their spiritual mother.

 

Taiwan and much of Latin America occupy parallel histories: colonization by the Spanish; periods of dictatorial rule followed by struggles for independence. Over the course of history, control of Taiwan has successively passed from the aboriginal inhabitants to the Dutch, to the Spaniards, to the Tungning Kingdom (the Ming successor state established by Koxinga), to the Qing Dynasty, to Imperial Japan, to the Kuomintang, before finally flowering under modern democracy. Alongside this intermingling of cultures and bloodlines, Taiwan’s literature has developed into the variegated display of forms we see today. Yet, because they originally had no written language to record their stories, the literature of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples has only gradually, through the tireless labor of dedicated individuals, gained belated recognition.

 

For Salizan Takisvilainan, a young poet of the Bunun people who left his tribal lands to pursue an education but eventually returned, drawn by the deep love of his native culture, the barriers to cultural preservation presented by the lack of a written language are all too real. To better grapple with these challenges, he established Millet String Publishing House, an independent publisher based in Nakahila Village, Jhuosi Township, Hualien County. A laborer of language, a bearer of words, Salizan uses the Latin alphabet to phonetically record the stories of village elders, and prepares them for native-language publication. So far, he has produced A Simple Dictionary of the Takbanuaz Dialect of the Bunun Language, An Oral Account of the Kasibanan Incident, and Mipakaliva: Age of Legend – Myths of the Bunun People of Jhuosi Township. Concurrent with his publishing work, Salizan has worked as a mountain guide and porter, and undertook the writing of Moving Mountains: A Tale of Rangers and Porters.

 

After completing his obligatory military service, Salizan began following tribal elders into the mountains, where, over the next ten-plus years, he gathered materials for the Moving Mountains: A Tale of Rangers and Porters, three pieces of reportage comprising his personal experiences supplemented by a plethora of practical field studies. The eponymous first essay deals with heads straps, the indispensable tools of transport of his ancestors – woven headbands from which a large basket was suspended, allowing one to bear weight with the head and neck, while the basket rests against the back. In earlier times, head straps allowed Bunun tribesman to carry quarry home after a hunt, or to transport the large stone flags needed to build stone houses.

Moving Mountains: A Tale of Rangers and Porters

 

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