Weave for an Identity: Learning Indigenous Weaving as a Han Person

Written by Nai-Wen Chang.

Image credit by the author.

The Anxiety of Identity

It all started from my experience representing Taiwan at an international youth forum in 2010. A section required every participant to introduce one’s country, offering a chance to engage in cultural interactions. It was our turn to present after India, Russia, Germany, the United States, and China. Everything went smoothly until an Indian participant in a dazzling sari raised a question. The Indian representative, out of pure curiosity, asked, “What does your traditional dress look like?” A moment of embarrassed silence filled the air. My senior, the eldest of us, eventually replied, “We don’t wear traditional dress much, but we do have cheongsams.” A Chinese participant immediately countered, “Cheongsam is Chinese dress, not Taiwanese.”

This contingent question, however, has taken root in my mind and become a persistent accusation against my identity. Being accused of lacking traditional attire feels like lacking a specific culture one can belong to. Without this specific cultural root, one might be considered a “person without history,” who can be simplified, replaced, dismissed, and, at last, disappeared.

Taiwanese may feel this strongly due to Taiwan’s awkward de facto status in the international community, particularly by those with Han ancestry and classified as having pan-Chinese culture. In contrast to the Indigenous peoples, who are the island’s predecessors, the Han are immigrants whose population exceeded the former after multiple colonial regimes. Moreover, Taiwan has become a settler colonial state, and the Han have transferred from being colonised to the oppressor. As a result, whenever the Han want to assert their independence as Taiwanese and draw a clear line from China, they often find that the claim is frail.

Ama’s Sewing Machine

To solve this puzzle, I recalled that my Ama, or grandmother in Taiwanese Hokkien, owns a sewing machine and knows how to make clothes. She has an antique sewing machine with a wooden tabletop and a treadle made of black iron. Fifty years ago, long before I was born, she used it to make every piece of clothing for all the family members. “These must be considered traditional attire,” I reasoned. I thus asked Ama if she could teach me how to make traditional attire. She answered with a feeble smile, “I have forgotten how to do it since it is in the past.” 

“The machine has rusted as well,” she added. Since Ama had suffered from a serious illness that eroded her health and mobility, I profoundly felt that cultural inheritance can be so fragile and may be lost once disrupted.

Learning Indigenous Weaving to Rebind

Some years later, I got a chance to conduct fieldwork in Kalibuan, a Bunun village where most inhabitants were Indigenous people, when I was in graduate school. The topic of my dissertation is the relationship between life cycle rituals and tourism. I noticed that people wore traditional attire when attending these rituals to show dignity. For example, men wear patva’uan, which always attracts attention. Patva’uan means “the cloth draping on shoulders” in Bunun and usually refers to a white-undertone vest made of two rectangular clothes with symmetrical tapestry patterns.

Because of my previous experience, I was curious to learn how these traditional garments are produced and consumed. My informants, aged 35 to 55, told me that the generation of their parents passed down these textiles. Unfortunately, in Kalibuan, the elders with weaving skills and knowledge have passed away. Even if you pay a high price, finding a craftsman who can make one today is difficult, if not impossible. Hearing this, along with anthropological training encouraging immersion practice, I decided to learn to weave.

I was lucky to meet some generous and skilled weavers, including the honourable Cina Apin, Ibu Istanda Takiscibanan, and Ibu Lavalian, who shared and taught people willing to learn weaving from the Isbubukun subgroup in Taitung. I started on the inkle loom and gradually advanced to the Bunun ground loom. Initially, I struggled with weaving neat edges and the simplest patterns. After becoming familiar with weaving procedures, I started to practise warping, which I found a tougher task than weaving. When making threads, you need to create something out of nothing. One has to begin with growing hemp and caring for it until it is mature enough for harvest. It still includes the processing phase, including peeling, drying, spinning, and dyeing. A piece of cloth requires at least two seasons and enormous labour if the land and weather cooperate.

During the lessons, I wondered whether I would offend taboos; some clans forbid transmitting weaving skills to outsiders. Furthermore, I was concerned that a Han who had learned Indigenous weaving might commit cultural appropriation. I wanted to avoid any possibility that might sustain current unequal ethnic power relations. I conveyed my anxiety. My weaving tutors told me I would become a weavemate by weaving with them. My different cultural background, as well as my personality and aesthetic taste, would endow my textiles with unique features, just like all the weavers used to do. My textiles might be different, but they are equally beautiful as those woven by the Bunun.

Reflecting on Weaving Practice

Because of an occasional question, I have kept asking myself, “What is my traditional attire?” and finally sorted out an elementary answer through actual weaving. I was gripped by the idea of taking clothes as a necessary component of one’s identity, while identity is not always a rigid checklist that assesses one’s qualifications. Rather, as some anthropologists such as Astuti and Carsten have demonstrated that identity can be achieved by doing and becoming.

It can be understood as “you are what you choose to wear” in the case of clothes. However, choosing is not equivalent to consuming. Nowadays, people obtain clothes mainly by consuming products manufactured by the fashion industry. In one sense, buying clothes rather than making them has liberated people from repetitive, arduous labour. From another perspective, the division of labour, transferring the intense toil to workers in factories, has separated people from the clothes production process, resulting in alienation. The fashion industry seemingly provides infinite choices, but when you want to acquire certain kinds of clothes, in this case, a patva’uan or Han’s traditional attire, this market is incapable of fulfilling your needs. People are only left with choices restricted to mass-production commodities; the distinctness of oneself is reduced to the permutation of consuming behaviours and goods.

By choosing, I mean the desire to decide and then act. The probe of “you are what you choose to wear” leads to the new concept of “you are what you do.” Even though I am Han by blood, I find that the identity can be restored by practising physically, as I learned through my own experience of learning Bunun weaving. The identity, like the lengthy weaving process that begins with hemp planting, can be formed through consistent work. Consequently, weaving one’s identity is both a physical deed and a metaphor that can lead to a lifelong pursuit.

Nai-wen Chang has obtained her M.A. from the Department of Anthropology, National Taiwan University, and she has studied Indigenous culture and rights, especially in collaboration with the Bunun people, in Taiwan since 2014, participating in several academic and applied projects. She currently focuses on material culture studies, investigating Austronesian textiles, mainly in Taiwan and Indonesia.

It was published as part of a special issue on “Indigenous Weaving and Its Evolving Cultures.”

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