Critical Women in Seediq Bale: A Response to Professor Chin-ju Lin Concerning Seediq Cultural Politics

Written by Darryl Cameron Sterk.

Image credit: 賽德克.巴萊-電影交響詩音樂會(12.03.11)by Yi-Lin Hsieh/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In her article “Exploring the Gendered Cultural Politics of Seediq Bale,” Professor Chin-ju Lin offers a critique of Seediq Bale (directed by Wei Te-sheng, 2011) in terms of gender. She appreciates that Wei focused on indigenous agency, but criticises him for focusing on male agency.

She makes a number of claims in her article, claims that I discuss in my upcoming monograph Indigenous Cultural Translation: A Thick Description of Seediq Bale. Here I should like to follow Lin in focusing on gender, particularly her claim that Mona’s shooting of his wife was “a display of masculinity” where “a man shows his domination over his family members’ lives.”

The scene is near the end of The Rainbow Bridge, the second half of the film. Chief Mona Rudo’s rebellion has failed. Mona announces the news to the surviving women and children in the village and then, inexplicably, starts shooting. As soon as he does, his wife Bakan Walis asks him, “Where has your ancestral spirit gone?” In Seediq:

Wada inu gaya su di? (The Rainbow Bridge 1:45:12–)

preterite where gaya your sfp

Where has your gaya gone?

Gaya here means Mona’s morality, but the reference to “ancestral spirit” in the Mandarin suggests that morality, as something inherited from the ancestors, was inside a person, and would leave the body if a person sinned. At any rate, Bakan demands an explanation. So Mona gives her one: he’s afraid she won’t be able to stand it if the Japanese catch and torture her. In other words, he’s going to kill her to spare her suffering. Then Mona asks her to wash her face with her own saliva in a purification ritual, which she does willingly, with what seems to me to be love in her eyes. The last thing he does is thank her for “fulfilling” (chengjiu 成就) him and all the other men of the village.

Mona’s expression of gratitude is in reply to a beautiful plaintive song Bakan sang with their daughter Mahung several weeks earlier, after she finds out that Mona had decided to rebel. Here is my Mandarin to English translation:

Don’t you men forget that you are in our debt

that all your manly pride came from womankind

We wove it all for you, we “fulfilled” each proud tattoo

This is not a long-suffering wife who is dominated by her husband and who tolerates his displays of masculinity. This is “behind every great man is a great woman.” In Seediq the song goes like this:

Maanu su so nii, p-luwe su yaku? (The Sun Flag 1:43:22)

how=you like this, cause-pitiful you me

How can you you like this, making me so pitiful?

Yamu ka seno nii, mneyah yaku yamu? nom men here, came

You men came from me.

Yami tmninun kana miri dnii.

We(non-inclusive) wove all miri this

We wove all this miri (that you wear).

In the first line, Bakan complains about the way Mona is treating her. In the second she appears to be expressing a commonplace, that every man needs a mother. However, she makes it sound like she is a universal mother, because she addresses all the men in the singular. In the final line there is nothing about the tattoos of a successful headhunter, as in the Mandarin, just weaving. Weaving may be of the lives of the men, because the Utux Tmninun, the Weaving Spirit, is said to have woven the lives of the living out of the skeins of yarn in a cave at the base of the Pusu Qhuni, the Root Tree whence the Seediq people believe they are descended. The Seediq had noticed that it is women who gave birth, so that metaphorically women were like Utux Tmninun, or transcended Utux Tmninun, by ensuring the continuity of the lineage.

In the Seediq, Bakan sings that she has been weaving miri. Miri is a diagonal weave, and could therefore be translated as twill, but it is not just twill. Miri is in a diamond pattern, where the diamonds represent the eyes of the ancestors, doriq utux rudan. Moreover, miri is bumpy. It is sometimes called relief weave or “floating” weave, as if the eyes of the ancestors, always watching the living to see if they are behaving themselves, in a premodern panopticon, are floating above the cloth. In mentioning miri, Bakan is at least saying she clothed her husband, but she is also surely being explicitly critical of her husband in a Seediq cultural idiom: “I’m watching you, the ancestors are watching you,” is what Bakan is saying.

Kari Seediq means “the Seediq language”


Image credit: Temi Nawi courtesy of Darryl Cameron Sterk

Seediq culture, “traditionally,” was patrilineal, though not always, as sometimes children took the mother’s name. It was definitely patriarchal. Today we have all embraced the ideal of gender equality and we may not find it easy to appreciate traditional Seediq patriarchy. Whether or not we agree with it we can at least understand it sympathetically. This Wei Te-sheng does.

I do not know if the Seediq ancestors’ eyes are still floating above the cloth now, watching the living to see if they are behaving themselves. What I do know is that morality has changed, that in inheriting gaya the younger generation have changed it. Seediq culture is now civil, no longer martial. In this way, women have more of a say than they once did. Seediq culture may still be heroic, though, but the heroes today are the ones who are fighting for Seediq’s cultural survival. They are fighting to keep the members of the community, the elements in the culture, and the words in the language together. The traditional metaphor for keeping all of these things together was weaving, tinun, whether miri or some other weave. The strands of yarn the women had spun from local ramie and wove into fabric represented the words combined into meaningful phrases, the cultural elements combined into a way of life, and the individuals combined into families and villages.

In Seediq Bale men cut these ties asunder; and though I would not expect to find the same division of labour today, my observation is that it is still tends to be women who are trying to keep things together. I relied on Temi Nawi, who has devoted the last three decades of her life to Seediq education and research, for the material on weaving. It is Iwan Pering and Lituk Teymu who are spearheading the first Master’s program partly taught in an indigenous language, at Providence University. The first class is starting this fall, and the students are both men and women. The program includes both weaving and hunting, traditional women’s and men’s work. Iwan tells me she isn’t going to force hunters to teach women, or weavers to teach men, but, for the sake of cultural transmission, she is going to strongly encourage it. This isn’t exactly an unqualified commitment to the value of gender equality, but it certainly shows that Seediq cultural politics have changed.

Darryl Cameron Sterk is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Translation at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His current research is on indigenous translation studies as a distinct sub-field of minority translation studies by using Seediq in Taiwan as a case study. He is also a literary translator, freelance translator and translation teacher.

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