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Taiwan Panorama / Editor’s Picks / Article:As My Grandpa Would Have Put It...Indigenous People Regain Their Names
Editor’s Picks
As My Grandpa Would Have Put It...Indigenous People Regain Their Names
(Jane Wang/photos by Hsueh Chi-kuang/tr. by Brent Heinrich)
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With the gradual increase in social consciousness in recent years, Taiwan's indigenous people have obtained the legal right to reclaim their traditional system of names.

When the legislative amendment guaranteeing this right was passed last year, the Atayal legislator then known as Kao Tien-lai immediately went into action, rushing to the household registry office in Chienshih Rural Township, Hsinchu County to secure the first ID card translating a full aboriginal name into its phonetic representation, using Chinese characters. Thenceforth he has been formally known as "Legislator Malai Gumai."

But besides a small number of political personalities who followed suit, openly "grabbing the microphone," the response was not nearly as great as many anticipated.

How did Taiwan's indigenous peoples, over the course of 400 years of contact with mainstream Han Chinese society, lose their own names anyway? And what advantages does this legislation regain for them?

In January of last year, the amendment to the Regulation on Personal Names establishing indigenous people's right to register using traditional names, after being postponed for two years, finally passed, through the urging of the Legislative Yuan's president.

For the indigenous rights activists who 12 years ago sought their "correct names" and cried out for cultural self-identity, this was justice late in arriving. Looking back over the course of history, "we were forced to change our names three times," says Lhavakau Rakerake, secretary-general of the Alliance of Taiwan's Aborigines.

Retitled thrice

Since Taiwan formally came under the dominion of the Qing court 400 years ago, Han Chinese have been crossing the Taiwan Strait in large numbers and competing for resources with the indigenous peoples. The Qing dynasty survey Fansu Liukao (Six Studies of the Barbarians) records that early colonialists believed the "savages," who had no surnames, were backward and of indiscriminate bloodline. In order to assimilate and colonize them, the Han gave such surnames as Pan, Chi and Hu to the "mature savages" of the plains.

The nine unassimilated tribes remaining today, known in that era as the "unripe savages," were not affected. Only the Saisiyat's names were changed into Chinese characters. But because the names were translated according to their meaning (instead of phonetically), the original clan structure was preserved.

After signing the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki at the end of the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese began their 50-year rule of Taiwan. They followed the Qing dynasty's policy of "civilizing the barbarians," and they carried out a large-scale census throughout the island. But they only used the Japanese phonetic system to spell out traditional names. They made no hard-and-fast stipulation that the locals adopt Japanese surnames. Of those who did so voluntarily, most were the families of soldiers, civil servants and teachers who joined the governmental hierarchy. During the dour latter stages of World War II, the indigenous people were forced to change their surnames and become citizens of Japan. They were conscripted into the military as "loyal and brave aboriginal soldiers" and sent to Southeast Asia to fight. Along with the Japanese war effort, the temporary campaign to change aborigines' names fell by the wayside.

The comprehensive alteration of the indigenous peoples' name systems took place after the Nationalist government relocated to Taiwan. The authorities of the day dictated that, within a three-month period, the aborigines choose their own Chinese family and given names. Nevertheless, in those days, people living in the villages could recognize only a handful of Chinese characters, so the "power over their destiny" lay in the hands of bureaucrats at city halls, schools and so forth.

The specter of incest

The Puyuma scholar Paolaban, whose Chinese name is Sun Ta-chuan, lightheartedly surmises that the reason he has the surname Sun might be because his mother's cousin, who chose his name, admired the ROC's founding father Sun Yat-sen. Fortunately, his mother's cousin was familiar with all the members of the family, and none of the people in their bloodline ended up with different surnames.

Nonetheless, many are the heartrending stories of this kind. Yuchumu Eh Boizhonu, a member of the Tsou tribe who lives in the Alishan area, says that his paternal grandfather is called Shih Pien, yet his father is surnamed Pu. He thinks it is the result of registering at different times.

Even more unfortunate than blood relatives with five or six different surnames are those who have been saddled for life with terrible-sounding given names, such as Lanjiao (Taiwanese for "male genitalia") or Bindoa ("lazy"). Only later when Taiwanese was more widely spoken in aboriginal villages, did these people realize that those who had given them names were ridiculing them in a roundabout way.

Jan Chang-jui, head of anthropology at the Taiwan Provincial Museum, believes, "The main function of names is to clarify blood relationships." One side effect of disrupting the various tribes' traditional naming systems is, as Lhavakau Rakerake puts it, "what the old Rukai are most worried about--the possibility of incest." This is the hidden torment deep in the hearts of almost all the indigenous people.

If the tribes still have self-autonomy and their mother tongue has not been lost, even though they've switched to Han surnames, their close interpersonal relationships will still allow everyone to call each other by their traditional names and know whose child everyone is.

However, along with Taiwan's economic development, large numbers of indigenous people have left their villages and moved to the cities, and the second generation has accepted Han names, too. They have grown removed from their relatives and other tribe members with the same surname. Then regretable problems can easily result.

Lamduk, a Paiwan Councilman for Pingtung County, once personally had an experience of this nature. He met a girl in the city, and the two fell in love. Once he took her home to meet his parents. It was then from the lips of his elders that he learned she was his own first cousin, the daughter of his paternal aunt, and they were legally forbidden from marrying. Fortunately, they found out in time and averted a great mistake.

I am an aborigine

In addition, because of the deeply rooted, inflexible Han Chinese stereotype that "Chinese and natives are different," as well as the disadvantaged status of indigenous people in modern society, the significance of indigenous people's names has expanded into a crisis over their self-identity and the resuscitation of their traditional cultures.

Paolaban recalls with emotion that while he was growing up, he often found himself in the embarrassing situation of being among several Han Chinese, one of whom would refer to indigenous people as "barbarians"; he would then straighten his back and declare that he himself was a Puyuma. Because of this, he longs to use a name that clearly designates his aboriginal identity. "When the old folks call me by my tribal name, it has such a warm and familiar feel."

Yijang Baluar, an indigenous rights activist who once headed the Alliance of Taiwan's Aborigines, divulged in an interview with the press that in high school and his freshman year of college he was simply unwilling to admit he was an aborigine and, of course, correspondingly unwilling to use his original name, because he considered himself a second-class person.

Paiwan sculptor Sakuliu Pavavalung, who in recent years has energetically promoted a revival of indigenous culture, calls even more urgently for traditional indigenous names. The truth is, behind names lie many ancestral legends, and wisdom about living in harmony with nature. Someone who throws away his name throws away his culture, and does not deserve to be called an indigenous person.

Back in 1984 when the Alliance of Taiwan's Aborigines was founded, all the members' business cards carried the phonetic translation of their indigenous names in Chinese characters. Because a number of preachers and missionaries participated in the original movement, the church's response was extremely enthusiastic.

Before the amendment on personal names was passed, some people worked hard within the system.

Syaman Rapongan (Chinese name: Shih Nu-lai), who returned to his village and devoted himself to traditional life in order to become a true Yami, wrote an article describing the process of registering his daughters using their traditional names, Si Jyatawa and Si Jyanobell. He argued at great length with the registrar, who insisted that the Chinese characters chosen to spell out the girls' names were too long. Finally, Syaman Rapongan won out, because the first characters were "Shih" (representing "Si"), the same "surname," after all, as their father's.

A lukewarm response

Sakuliu Pavavalung's son Reretan reached school age this year, but he is still a member of the "phantom population." Before the amendment on personal names had been passed, Sakuliu had sent letters to every DPP legislator, expressing his urgent desire to restore traditional names. Now that legislation is in existence, he still has not registered. Why?

His answer is very simple: "I don't know how to change it." Up to the present, details of implementation have been lacking.

Registering a changed name has many different implications. The first difficulty facing indigenous people is, with no writing system of their own, should they transliterate their names into Chinese characters or the Roman alphabet?

In regard to this problem, Paolaban believes that each indigenous group has its own distinct naming method; recovering the names is not the action of individuals, but should be based on information from a detailed survey. From common discussions among the nine groups and linguistic scholars, a single universal system should be derived. Otherwise, with some people changing their names and others leaving them the way they are, an even greater state of chaos will result.

Furthermore, most indigenous people inherit an older relative's name, so the rate of repetition is very high. Alliance of Taiwan's Aborigines chairman Yuka Nava says that throughout Jenai Rural Township where he lives, 30 or 40 people are named Walisa Yuka. In the past when everyone lived in villages and knew one another, this created no difficulties. Nowadays, when the population moves around a great deal, having the same names can give birth to lifestyle and organizational problems. To resolve them, everyone must pool their collective wisdom.

Before a common consensus is reached, rushing forward to register one's traditional name with Chinese characters might easily cut off other possibilities. Sakuliu Pavavalung refuses to use Chinese characters, because they are phonologically inadequate.

The Bunun speak

Even if indigenous people can resolve their own internal problems, they will still run up against new difficulties. The Bunun, quickest to exploit the new opportunity, are a good example. Soon after the amendment was passed last year, Topas Tanapima, superintendent of the Taoyuan Rural Township Health Clinic in Kaohsiung County, cooperated with the Taiwan Bunun Cultural and Economic Development Society in designing a questionnaire surveying the opinions of the five Bunun subtribes across southern Taiwan.

Of the 342 valid responses, more than 95% were in favor of restoring traditional names. A majority of the people wanted to do away with their Chinese names, but 30% believed they should combine Chinese names with traditional surnames. Because the Bunun have a hereditary christening system, duplicate names are very common, and extra differentiation was seen as necessary.

The Bununs' names are decided by a meeting of elders, and they are spelled out in the Roman alphabet instead of Chinese, to achieve a more accurate transliteration. Because of this, the Society was able to rapidly complete a survey of people's names in each subtribe. Once organized and unified, it was published as the Phonetic and Denotative List of Bunun Surnames. They then distributed copies to each subtribe for further updating.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of Bunun are still unable to proceed forward. One obstacle is the fact ROC identification cards are currently written vertically, and if the rather lengthy Bunun names are to fit on them, the space for names must be either made horizontal or considerably enlarged. Yet no relevant agency has made a move to correct this problem.

Sakuliu Pavavalung uses a metaphor to describe their predicament: "Here is a bowl of rice. The central government says all we have to do is come here and eat. But the rice is 180cm high, and we Paiwan only stand 120cm tall--that's where the household registry office is at today."

The most practical obstacle is that once the ID card is changed, a chain reaction takes place. All other personal documents have to be changed as well. If there is no single authoritative agency to simplify the overall process and provide assistance, people are overwhelmed with the whole procedure.

However, if we were to set aside the technical difficulties and analyze the problems they face in even greater detail, what lies hidden underneath is a deeper level of cultural disparity.

A difference in culture

In a paper published in 1939, the Japanese scholar and professor at Taipei Imperial University Uturigawa Nenokura wrote, "Among the various tribes of pakasagozoku [indigenous Taiwanese], surnames do not exist. What are equivalent to so-called family and given names are personal, familial and ethnic titles that are given at birth or used collectively. But their names are very different from what we think of as names."

The rationale of the existing system is founded on the Chinese patrilineal tradition of surname inheritance. When indigenous "names" are adapted to fit this set of game rules, an array of problems appears.

Yuka Nava explains that the Atayal method of naming a boy is to choose an individual name (usually that of the grandfather), followed by his father's name. This symbolizes that the ancestor's life is perpetuated in the descendant's body, and that the boy is receiving support from the spirit world. Such a method differs vastly from the Chinese inheritance of paternal surnames.

National Chengchih University Graduate School of Ethnic Studies graduate student Wang Ya-ping, in her Study of Traditional Indigenous Naming Systems, noted that before the amendment was passed, Atayal clergyman Dwoao Yogeihai chose the name Jiwasa Dwoao for his daughter. Because this did not comply with the principle of sharing the same surname (that is, the first character in a Chinese name), the registering agency refused to process the application. His daughter remained unregistered until after he died in a car crash.

The Yami have a different kind of problem. Shih Lei, researcher at the Academia Sinica's Institute of Ethnology, says, "They consider giving birth to be a major achievement in life." So they reflect this passage of life in their names. If the name starts with "Si," that means this Yami person is still single. If someone becomes a father, he will change his name to "Syaman," followed by the given name of his eldest son or daughter. If someone becomes a grandfather, his first name becomes "Syaben." "It's just as if we Chinese people were called 'my baby's dad' or 'my child's mom,'" Shih Lei explains. But current law stipulates that a name can only be changed once.

Furthermore, civil law declares that a person is limited to having one name. A number of Paiwan villages have a system of double lineage (through both the father and mother). Because of this, children have two names as soon as they are born. Conflicts are therefore inevitable when registering names. Councilman Lamduk, who has been enthusiastically pushing the villages to recover their traditional naming system, recently negotiated the naming of a baby girl with the families of both the mother and the father. They debated until later than three o'clock in the morning, but still reached no agreements.

Respect pluralistic culture

Confronted with such considerable differences, when the indigenous people try to resume their naming traditions, it is often very much like cutting one's feet to fit in one's shoes.

Gali Galahei, a member of the Saisiyat tribe who served as reporter for an indigenous news magazine on Public Television, says that to change or not to change the name is not the question. If someone cannot speak his own mother tongue and doesn't understand his own culture, what's the use in having a name he cannot read and whose meaning he doesn't understand?

Lifok, an Ami from Iwan Village in Taitung, put forward another direction of thinking. He feels that names are a kind of label, in the same way that a person can possess different roles, such as teacher, son and father. "In Han society, outside my own community, everybody knows I am Huang Kui-chao. When I return to the village, I am Lifok."

Paolaban thinks transliterating traditional names into the Roman alphabet would be more accurate, but the draw-back is that not everyone would be able to use it. From a longterm perspective, it would have an effect on interpersonal relationships. While he was studying in Europe, he became acquainted with a Swedish classmate. Because he could not pronounce his classmate's name correctly, he felt ill-at-ease when conversing with him, thus influencing his will to communicate.

Therefore, Paolaban advocates transliterating with Chinese characters. Although it would not be as accurate phonologically, for Han people or first-time acquaintances it would be easier to use. Within the indigenous groups, they can communicate correct pronunciations by spoken word. He says with a smile, "Even though I myself am an aborigine, there are some sounds in the Paiwan language that I can't pronounce accurately."

For Han Chinese to learn the traditional names of various tribes is the beginning of respect for pluralistic culture.

Writer Jackie Chen once interviewed a group of indigenous people learning to be journalists. To be polite, she would always ask people to introduce themselves when she first met them. If they used their indigenous name, she would spell it out using Japanese katakana, or Mandarin phonetic symbols, with which she was more familiar. According to Chen, deciding which names to use when addressing indigenous people usually depends on the first impression and what rolls across the tongue most smoothly. Although the names may at first seem like meaningless combinations of syllables, with a little effort you can soon get used to them.

Perhaps debating whether Chinese or traditional indigenous names should appear on those little yellow or pink ID cards is only a question of outward form. Whether society respects and understands the differences among the various indigenous groups is the point worth deeper contemplation.

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