Exploring the Gendered Cultural Politics of Seediq Bale’

Written By Chin-ju Lin.

The historical epic Seediq Bale (賽德克.巴萊, 2011), directed by Wei De-sheng (魏德聖) is the most expensive and highest grossing blockbuster in Taiwan’s history. It features the last Indigenous insurrection, the Wushe Incident (霧社事件) of 1930, which took place under the Japanese colonial regime.

To represent their history as truthfully as possible, all Indigenous actors and actresses were dressed in Seediq costumes and spoke in Seediq. After the premiere, survivors of the Wushe Incident and their descendants were invited to appear on stage. Following decades of colonialism and declining cultural identities, Wei’s film—a visual representation of the Seediq past, the subjective identities of the people, and their reasons for participating in the uprising—gave a long-suppressed and generally disregarded voice and agency to the Seediq people. Seediq Bale does not make fun of the Indigenous people as did Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969). Neither does it create a hero from an ethnic majority to save endangered indigenous tribes, such seen in Dances with Wolves (1990).

In general, Seediq Bale was well-received. It provides a critical representation of colonized lives under Japanese rule. Nevertheless, some authors question how Wei, being of Han ethnicity, could realistically and faithfully represent an Indigenous history. This article further interrogates those impossibilities of writing a post-colonial historiography from a gender perspective, particularly the reconstruction of masculinity.

Seediq Bale is a movie of colonized men fighting against their colonizers, seeking to heal their damaged masculinity and achieve recognition of their humanity. Wei’s emphasis on headhunting is an attempt to represent the masculinity of “true men.” This act connects “true men” with bravery, pride and dignity and allows them to be accepted by their ancestors. This legend is repeated with the ancestors’ images appearing at critical moments. In the name of headhunting, the Seediq men’s violent revolution is dedicated to ‘gaya’- ancestral laws of the Seediq- and to their timeless ancestors, who appear to guide their spiritual path.

Contemporary Seediq people disagree with Wei’s representation of headhunting and gaya, however. The Atayal writer Walis Nokan (瓦歷斯・諾幹) clarifies that traditional community leadership followed collective decisions. No single man made his own decisions but consulted with the elder and other leaders of the same tribe. He argues that Wei’s movie promotes individualistic heroism. I have also observed other Seediq people disagreeing with Wei on several occasions, all of which involved issues of individualistic heroism. For example, the most controversial issue is that Wei arranged Mona Rudou to fatally shoot his wife and children. The staging of this event appears as a display of masculinity; a man shows his domination over his family members’ lives and his ability to sacrifice those he loves. The Seediq translator Kuo Ming-Cheng/Dakis Pawan pointed out that for the Seediq this act is a violation of gaya. He advised the director to handle it with caution but failed.

Dakis Pawan has told us that “blood sacrifice for ancestors and pride” was not part of Seediq culture, with no corresponding terminology in the Seediq language. In other words, in Seediq culture, headhunting does not equate to “blood sacrifice for ancestors and pride,” an essential element of the movie that Wei invented. Wei’s creation of “blood sacrifice” is quite different from “headhunting through gaya,” which reflects a true Seediq cultural practice. Successful headhunting was a triumphant event to be celebrated either by the whole tribe or by any man who in a dispute was able to prove his innocence in a trial by ordeal. To die on the hunting ground was regarded as unfortunate, bringing bad luck to the family (as recorded in the Temporary Committee on Old Taiwan Customs). Wei’s heroic claim in the movie that “Seediq Bale/true men died on the battlefield” is not just confusing, it is rather ridiculous.

By contrasting the two different perspectives of Wei and the Seediq people, I argue that these disputes rightly demonstrate a huge difference in contemporary concepts of individualistic heroism and the Indigenous perspective of collectively enacting displays of manhood/masculinity. Wei’s idea of heroism is to demonstrate the masculinity of the colonized man, of his pride and bravery, of his masculine ability in headhunting and his determination to be a man/human again. In contrast, the Seediq men honor gaya to reach political decisions collectively. Doing so does not deny the importance of individual masculine identity. But no individualistic heroic identity can be achieved without consideration of the continuity of the tribe. Therefore, there would be no concept of “blood sacrifice for ancestors” without considering the consequence: the genocide of the Seediq. That is why “blood sacrifice for ancestors” does not make any sense in Seediq culture or according to gaya. In Seediq culture, individual masculine identity is situated in a collectivity with the ultimate goal of ensuring the survival of the tribe.

In Seediq Bale—a product of a Han settler director—the headhunting tradition was remembered, romanticized, praised highly as heroic and even strengthened in an inaccurate way to promote individualistic masculinity and to forge a new national identity. Feminists have rightly pointed out that nationalism has “typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope”. If the KMT earlier appropriated the Wushe Incident on behalf of Chinese Nationalism for political propaganda, Seediq Bale serves to forge Taiwanese Nationalism as an antagonist to Chinese Nationalism. Taiwanese nationalism is achieved by a softer tone, in the name of multiculturalism. However, due to the misrepresentation discussed here, colonial oppression and resistance is no longer the main focus. Violent revolution, a means for colonized men to reclaim their pride and bravery as “true men,” has now been replaced by a stereotypical cultural tradition of headhunting; the Seediq culture is falsely represented, omitting its collective nature and the spiritual meanings of headhunting. In this depiction, Seediq culture could be misunderstood as “barbaric” and the people seen “uncivilized,” inadvertently serving as a violent other to foster Taiwanese national identity.

As a form of life writing Seediq Bale appears to be narrated through the eyes of the Seediq people and to give voice to the Indigenous. However, what is claimed as authentic Seediq culture, an imagined heroic and individualistic headhunting culture, has been reinvented by a settler male director to strengthen a notion of colonized masculinity. For Wei, a Han, producing a movie to promote individualistic heroism not only seemingly does no harm but also serves to forge a new national postcolonial Taiwanese identity. In contrast, for the Seediq people, individualistic masculinity that led to genocide should have been repressed and forgotten. They would probably have preferred to remember and re-honor their traditional Seediq culture that discourages the idea of individualistic masculine identity and works in a colligated political system. A Seediq perspective on the uprising and genocide might still be forthcoming and would be welcome as Wei’s movie reopened the historical trauma without the Seediq being ready to see themselves represented in such a compromising way.

 

Chin-ju Lin is Associate Professor in the Graduate Institute of Gender Studies at Kaohsiung Medical University, Taiwan. This is a modified excerpt from her article “The Colonized Masculinity and Cultural Politics of Seediq Bale”. Image credit: Flickr/ James Wu

 

2 comments

  1. Let’s start with a framework for representing a social group. The perspective of an insider differs from the perspective of an outsider because the first lives the group’s culture while the second observes and analyses it from the outside. Both perspectives are valid and their combined insights allow a well rounded cultural understanding for outsiders as well as insiders.

    However, if an outsider usurps the perspective of the insider, no matter how well-meaning, then the representation gets inherently distorted. So, it is not surprising that film director Wei De-sheng, culturally a Han-Taiwanese, “could [not] realistically and faithfully represent an Indigenous [Seediq] history” because it is not sufficient to have “all Indigenous actors and actresses [] dressed in Seediq costumes and [speak] in Seediq”, as pointed out by the author in this article.

    Let’s continue with a framework for understanding historical film. No matter how historically truthful the setting and the décor, no matter how close the story line follows historical facts, ultimately the film is fiction that has to adhere to the requirements of drama and to the world-view of the non-indigenous audience of its time. So, it is no surprise that Seediq Bale failed to “realistically and faithfully represent an Indigenous history”, as pointed out by the author in this article.

    But there is another framework that applies specifically to the interrogation presented in this article, a framework for understanding gender in a community that is based on two sexes, male and female. There are two complementing urges that mould the interactions between individuals. First, the urge to attract individuals of the opposite sex and, second, to gain priority of choice among the individuals of the same sex. Masculine men on the one side and feminine women on the other side have an advantage in satisfying these urges.

    Now it is easy to see that one cannot talk about masculinity without considering the preferences and expectations women have regarding men. This discussion is missing in the article.

    And it is easy to see that one cannot talk about masculinity without considering men’s role in the community, specifically their role in providing for their families as hunters and their role in communally protecting their hunting grounds as warriors. Seediq Men gained masculine dignity from their ability to perform their roles.

    Under colonial rule the men got curtailed in their ability to hunt and they lost control of much of their hunting grounds, such missing out on most opportunities to perform their masculinity, and the women got stolen at will by the colonial overlords. The spiritual realm, represented by gaya, was unsuitable to provide guidance and support in that situation. So, only two paths stayed open to the men: get drunk permanently or spill blood giving rage free rein.

    Having been deprived of their masculinity in relation to women and among themselves, the Seediq men eventually chose the second path. References to head hunting and to gaya only served to provide the suicidal enterprise with a veneer of meaning then and to the film’s audience now.

    Most processes and events in history are banal. The imagination of memory may transform the banal into heroes and into heroic deeds, such catering to the needs of the targeted audience.

    However, how Seediq Bale “serves to forge a new national postcolonial Taiwanese identity” is beyond me. After all, the presented culture is the culture of one ancient tribe of hunter-gatherers. How could their world-view inform the world-view of modern Taiwanese who live in an unrecognisably different social and physical environment? In which way could a highly graphic depiction of a suicidal revolt inspire the Taiwanese in international power relations?

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    1. Let me introduce one more framework. This time on the evolution of culture.

      Culture includes all human creations. Every human society adapts to the local environment. The result of such adaptation is the specific culture of a group. Environments evolve, so culture has to evolve as well. However, sometimes the environment does not change gradually but gets completely uprooted suddenly. Humans seem to be ill equipped to adapt their culture to sudden, severe, deep changes in their environment. The result is disorientation followed by social and individual disintegration.

      When a colonial power subdues a tribe of hunter-gatherers then a sudden, severe and deep change to the social environment of the group happens. Some individuals assimilate, others fall into drunken stupor, and all males tend to fall into violent rage at times, especially if they have a past as fierce warriors.

      Hunter-gatherers are organised in small independent tribes. This allows for the egalitarian societies they live in. Modern societies are large and, therefore, must be highly stratified with complex hierarchical social structures.

      This difference allows a single police officer of a colonial power to impress his authority on a whole bunch of fierce warriors. Everyone knows that he can call in a practically unlimited number of soldiers with superior weapons on short notice if his authority gets challenged.

      Perhaps I should also elaborate a bit more on the gender framework from my previous comment. How does one understand gender in a community that is based on predominantly heterosexual relations?

      There are two complementing urges that mould the interactions between individuals. First, the urge to attract individuals of the opposite sex and, second, to out-compete all individuals of the same sex to gain priority of choice among the attracted opposites. Masculine men on the one side and feminine women on the other side have an advantage in satisfying both urges.

      I complained in my previous comment that the interrogation presented in the article does not include a discussion of femininity, deducing from the suggested framework that masculine posture is intricately interwoven with feminine posture and, therefore, must be analysed together. But how can this be done when the story of the film is centred on the men in their hunter, warrior and spiritual head hunting roles? Could this lopsidedness be the reason that the story culminates in an utterly destructive process that is legitimised by unconvincing, stilted spirituality? An equally elaborate depiction of women in their female roles might have provided balance. This might have shown that broken social bonds drown out reasoned discourse and such enable senseless rage.

      The film depicts how the masculine expression of the men got stunted under colonial rule but it did not show how the feminine expression of the women got corrupted. So I cannot really blame the author of the article for not interrogating femininity as I was equally unable to do in my previous comment.

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