Contrasting the ‘Ethnic’ with the ‘Indigenous’: exploring different depictions of the ‘other’ in Taiwan.

Written by David O’Brien

Recently I had the pleasure of a few days in the beautiful, chilled-out Taitung, Taiwan’s self-described “most indigenous city”.

Taitung County does indeed have the largest proportion of indigenous people of any county or city in Taiwan with 35.5 per cent of the total, and its Bunun, Paiwan, Rukai, Amis, Puyuma, Tao and Kavalan residents are proudly present giving the area a particularly multi-cultural feel.

Having spent the last 15 years researching ethnic identity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, I was particularly interested in seeing how Taiwan’s oldest inhabitants would be represented here.

I have always been interested in official depictions of ethnic minorities in China. In these depictions, the PRC’s 55 ethnic minorities are almost always portrayed as colorful, exotic, simpler, possibly even dangerous others, to the normalized modernity of the Han.

As Dru Gladney puts it, the ethnic signifier of being Han in the PRC was fashioned in “relational alterity” or through identifying “Otherness” in the non-Han peoples of China. In doing so, the assigning of ethnic identities embodied the colourful, backward, and exotic/erotic national minorities through a process of “internal orientalism”.

For Gladney, the Han are a modern phenomenon, which did not exist before Dr Sun Yat Sen tried to bring the various peoples of China in opposition to the Manchu Qing.

Of course this can be and indeed is, hotly debated in Mainland China where the government is extremely sensitive to what it terms “Han Chauvinism” and the potential it has to cause disharmony among the Zhonghua minzu, the Greater Chinese family.

It is not just the government who argue against this interpretation of the Han as a modern phenomenon contrasting to the colorful others. Increasingly young Chinese are seeking or reclaiming a Han ethnic identity as evident in the popularity of the so called Hanfu revival movement, the craze of young Chinese donning long flowing robes they claim are the real traditional clothes of the Han.

Practitioners argue that these garments originated in the Wei and Jin dynasties and, unlike the body hugging qipao dresses which are derived from Manchu fashions of a much later period, are in fact the real costume of China’s largest ethnic group.

Ethnic tensions are present across China in different degrees and for different reasons. The essential contradiction in ethnic policy which emphasizes both the otherness of the minorities and the unity of the whole, along with Marxist/Maoist discourses that place the Han on an arc of development ahead of all the others, are contributing factors in what can at times be a most unstable relationship.

Åshild Kolås, writes that the perceived ‘backwardness’ of minority nationalities, has produced an effect of distinguishing each group according to specific ethnic markers, such as dress, arts and crafts, architecture, typical livelihoods, festivals and religious practices; these markers become ‘stereotypes [which] are currently being commodified for the sake of tourism, through the making of ethnic arts and handicrafts products, the creation of staged ethnic tourist performances, marketed locally and in ethnic theme parks and tourist villages’.

This commodification of ethnic cultures is also visible throughout China from airport departure lounges selling ethnic dolls, to the ‘ethnic restaurants’ found in cities across China.

In 21st century China, to be ethnic is to be something simpler, from another time, something which can be experienced – at a price – as an antidote to the pressurised modern Han world of competition, pollution and overcrowding.

One of Taitung’s main attractions is the National Museum of Prehistory which opened in 2002 and offers in its promotional material to unveil the story of Taiwan’s prehistoric as well as modern indigenous cultures. It aims to gives visitors “a better understanding of the great diversity of Taiwan’s prehistoric and indigenous cultures, so that we may all come to cherish and respect the land and protect the cultures and environment”.

It is indeed a worthy aim, although situating the indigenous people in a museum of pre-history is of course problematic.

However, Taiwan has come a long way from the 1980s when many still referred to those who lived there before the arrival of the Han as “mountain people” and most portrayals were either negative or exotic.

An overarching narrative of the museum is that the indigenous people of Taiwan as Australasians, are closely linked to the peoples of modern day Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Polynesia, New Zealand, Hawaii and beyond. The focus is very much south and east and not west to mainland China, this is of course very striking for anyone familiar with official Chinese ethnographic narratives.

As I explored further another big difference was the detailed information given to the complexity of customs, cultures and religions of the different groups. In the PRC depictions of ethnic minorities are often essentialised, with little context given. The minorities wear these types of clothes and dance these kind of dances etc. but often little more than that.

My visit to the Beijing’s Ethnic Cultural Park (中華民族園), far more of a theme park than museum, right next door to the Olympic Stadium, where young girls of the Dai ethnicity perform the New Year water splashing ritual on the hour every hour for visitors, and you can dress up as your favourite minority for photographs, was very different from my experience in Taitung.

One of the museum’s most striking exhibits is a large montage of photographs of indigenous people working as doctors, teachers, train drivers, business people, shopkeepers etc. While the museum is a museum of prehistory, the montage is clearly making the point that the indigenous are as likely to perform your heart surgery as they are to sing for you.

The absence of the normalized modernity of ethnic minorities in the PRC has always worried me. If their culture and traditions really are respected why are they always situated in the pastoral past?

Yes there are of numerous and deep problems in Taiwan when it comes to depictions of indigenous people, and you can still buy fridge magnets and dolls of ethnic girls in the museum shop. That being said, I was struck by the respect and sensitivity of the museum’s depictions, a respect and sensitivity that is often missing in the PRC when it comes to how its minorities are portrayed.


David O’Brien is Assistant Professor in the School of International Studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo China. He’s also Non-Residential Fellow at Taiwan Studies Programme, University of Nottingham. Photo Credit: Flickr: waychen_c


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