2012 / 11月
Kobe Chen /photos courtesy of Chin Hung-hao /tr. by Geoff Hegarty and Sophia Chen
At the foot of North Dawu Mountain in Pingtung County, the Pacific breezes carry the Paiwan tribe’s ancient ballads across the sea into the wide world. And some of the good that was destroyed in Typhoon Morakot is now being rebuilt.
Rooted firmly at the foot of North Dawu Mountain, Taiwu Elementary School appears the guardian of the sacred peak. After the Morakot disaster in 2009, Taiwu Elementary and the local villagers moved to this new location. With no perimeter wall, the school blends in with the beautiful natural landscape, while a mural on the wall of a school building portrays the origins of Paiwan tribe.
Over a period of two years, with three relocations and six changes of planned location, the school has overcome many difficulties with assistance from many quarters, and was eventually reestablished on September 28, 2011. It was the first school to be completed as part of the Typhoon Morakot reconstruction program. A visiting delegation from the Japan Society of Civil Engineering praised Taiwu as “a most beautiful school.” In its journey from the threat of permanent closure to finding a secure future, Taiwu Elementary School has shown the world its strength and resilience.Relocation
School principal Wu Lihua began her duties on August 1, 2009. But only days after her arrival, the school was hit by Typhoon Morakot. Because of erosion from the continuous torrential rainfall, fissures appeared in the ground on which the original Taiwu Elementary School was built. As the school was positioned on a “dip slope” on the mountain, it was at risk of being carried away by a landslide, so relocation was the only option. Immediately after taking up her position, Wu, who self-mockingly describes herself as having been a rookie principal, was forced to realize the huge difference in responsibility between teacher and principal.
In desperation, Wu told the school staff: “We can all see that the future is going to be very hard. We could do nothing and let the school be closed down. But if we feel that the name of Taiwu Elementary School is worth saving, then we should prepare for a tough battle.”
They decided to fight. But their first enemy was time.
After making the momentous decision to oppose the permanent closure of the school, they had only 20 days before the school semester began. To avoid any interruptions to the school’s normal schedule, they had to find temporary premises in under three weeks. The good news was that the Ministry of Education undertook to find a suitable place for the school’s permanent home. But there was also a problem: There were two possible temporary locations for the school—Jiaping Village and Jiaxing Village—which both had abandoned classrooms available for use, and both really wanted Taiwu Elementary School to move to their community.
Both sides had what they considered valid arguments. The villagers of Jiaxing believed that their village was the best option for the school because it was closer: only five kilometers from Taiwu to Jiaxing. On top of that, an abandoned branch of Taiwu School was already there in Jiaxing. It had been used as a studio by artists and woodcarvers for the previous few years and remained in fair condition. But Principal Wu was concerned because the geological safety assessment of Jiaxing Village was yet to be released, and access roads to the village were in poor condition. She thought that the other village would be a better choice in terms of safety.
It was a stalemate. Then one of the Paiwan elders reminded everyone that according to their tradition, the one who suffered the most deserved the greatest sympathy and care, and there was a duty to prevent further hurt to that person, so the school should decide their own fate. The Jiaxing villagers were eventually willing to concede the issue.
However, because the old classrooms at Jiaping Village had been deserted for many years, only four were fit for use, and as a result one room was shared between two grades. A temporary wooden wall was erected to separate them, and each side used half of the blackboard. The playground was also smaller. In the old school, the kids were able to enjoy activities such as slides and swings in the playground at break time, but here the grounds were too small for everyone, so many were forced to spend break time in the classroom.
Also, the Jiaping school was right next to a junior high school campus, and noise from that school could be easily heard. Because elementary and junior high schools have different class timetables, 40 minutes for the former and 50 for the latter, every time the bells rang, teachers and students were confused whether it was class time or break. One of the teachers, Camake Valaule, who had established the Taiwu Elementary School Choir, came up with a solution: using choir music to replace the bell. This method continues to be used today and has become one of the school’s grandest and most interesting traditions.On to Jiaxing
Nonetheless, while the elementary school children were in class, there was still a lot of noise from the junior high school students playing outdoors at breaks. Meanwhile, the decision regarding a permanent location had been postponed again and again, so Principal Wu was finally forced to make a decision of her own—to relocate to Jiaxing Village, which had by this time passed its safety assessment, until an official ruling was made on their fate.
The return of the Taiwu School to Jiaxing brought cheer to the village, and the students had a better playground for their games.
In the summer of 2010, the long-awaited decision for the school’s permanent location was finally made. An area of 10 hectares at the foot of North Dawu Mountain known as Xinchi Farm was selected as the site for a permanent village—and for Taiwu Elementary School.
The school’s groundbreaking ceremony was held in December 2010. The original school monument and the old banyan tree were also moved to the new location, allowing students to express their feelings about the school in notes hung on the tree.
“Hello Taiwu Elementary School, do you know you are going to settle here? One sudden move to Jiaping, and then another to Jiaxing! Are you happy or sad?” The innocent phrases of the children reveal their feelings for the relocation process over the previous two years. But what prospects will the new school bring?Preserving Paiwan culture
The BenQ Foundation took overall responsibility for the planning and construction, providing NT$78 million and engaging renowned architect Guo Xuyuan and a team from Fu Tsu Construction, all aiming to create a unique school.
After the school’s site was chosen, Principal Wu became aware of the fact that in their new location, her students would have a greater opportunity to interact with the mainstream Han Chinese culture, so extra attention had to be paid to preserving their Aboriginal traditions. She actively discussed the issue with the design team and the Pingtung County Government, hoping to integrate Paiwan images into the design.
Today, when people step into the school, they can see a large wall painted with three tribal symbols: the sun, a ceramic pot, and the hundred-pacer snake, depicting the myths of Paiwan tradition. The school buildings are laid out in an oval design surrounding “Taohu Square.” Taohu is a type of ceramic pot, which in Paiwan legend symbolizes the womb that gives life. Black, red, white and green zigzagging lines on the facade of the buildings represent the tribe’s guardian, the hundred-pacer snake.
The design team also set up building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) solar collectors on the roofs. Annual energy generating capacity is around 88,500 kilowatt hours, any excess electricity being sold back to Taipower, making more than NT$600,000 in annual revenue for the school.Singing tribal ballads
In order to reduce the stress for students and teachers during the school’s relocation process, the well-known school choir has never stopped their rehearsals.
Camake Valaule, who is of Paiwan ancestry, was assigned to Taiwu Elementary School in 2003, and soon after began the school choir. The principal then asked him to tutor a female student who was participating in the National Folk Songs Contest. Although the student won the championship, it’s rather a pity that she didn’t sing Paiwan songs in the contest.
“Learning singing is not just for winning competitions,” says Camake, who wants the children to sing happily and proudly and tell the stories of their ancestors.
The Paiwan tribe traditionally had no written language, so it tells about its history and culture through singing. Camake has no formal training in music and little knowledge of musical notation, so the only way to master the ancient tribal ballads is to learn them line by line from the tribal elders. He records their singing to learn the tunes, and then has them explain the meaning of the lyrics.
After years of effort, Camake has so far collected 40-plus ancient Paiwan ballads, including work and love songs, and he’s hoping to expand his collection with more ritual tunes. He has also asked a friend who knows music theory to transcribe the ballads, so future generations will be able to enjoy the songs as well.Ancient ballad revival
Ancient Paiwan ballads were banned during the period of Japanese rule. Lost for nearly six decades, many people in the tribe had never heard them.
Once, at the wedding of the daughter of the Jiaxing Village chief, the chief asked the groom to sing a few lines of any ancient ballad. As the groom had to admit that he didn’t know any, Camake and the school choir, who were also wedding guests, were invited to sing some ancient ballads on stage. When the chief and the elders heard the choir singing, they were so moved that they shed many tears.
Since the school choir made its name, it has received invitations from all corners of Taiwan and also from overseas. The choir’s 2006 album Singing a Pretty Song was nominated for Best Aboriginal Album at the 18th Golden Melody Awards; the choir was invited to perform in Europe in June 2009, and at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. Their second album The Place the Song Begins won Best Traditional Interpretation in the Traditional Music Category of the 23rd Golden Melody Awards.
“The focus of their overseas travel is not solely to perform; equally important is to provide the opportunity for the children to see the world, and to see and understand different cultures.” Wu emphasizes that the school intends not only to retain the ancient ballads, but also to conserve Paiwan culture in general.
A torch that had been extinguished has now been reignited, and has passed to the new generation. It is to be hoped that they grip it tightly and keep it burning vigorously.A unique school
Taiwu is the first “alternative school” in Pingtung County. They enjoy a flexible enrolment policy whereby the school is able to accept non-local students, and they have a certain amount of freedom in the design of the curriculum (up to 20%). Students are required to take both ethnic education and international education lessons once a week.
The focus is on Paiwan tribal history and culture in ethnic education lessons, and the international education lessons provide opportunities to compare their life experiences with others across the globe. Comparing Paiwan’s sacred mountain North Dawu, for example, with Japan’s Mt. Fuji or Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, there are many questions that can be discussed. What is a sacred mountain? Why is it sacred? Why do people respect their particular sacred mountains? What kinds of rituals do people perform there? How do they balance the issues of opening the site for tourists and preserving it as a sacred place? International education aims to inspire children to think in depth about these and other questions.
“International education doesn’t teach the sort of geography that focuses only on the size or products of other countries.” Wu believes that international and ethnic education are two sides of the same coin, so only through students’ own experience of getting to know the wider world are they able to understand their own culture.
Wu has also created the concept of a third semester, in which the school provides a 10-day special training course during the summer holiday. Students live in the mountains and learn from the tribal elders the ways that their ancestors lived.
In these 10 days, the kids have to learn about the wild flora and fauna, such as edible plants and snails, and also learn how to cultivate major crops like coffee and taro. They have to sing to their ancestral spirits and the land on the mountain, and tell them: “We Taiwu children all follow your teachings, and we live well.”
With the combined efforts of teachers and students, Taiwu Elementary School has transformed the threat of enforced closure into an opportunity to rebuild. Singing once-forgotten ballads, they dare to dream big, working all the while to ensure that their future growth is deeply rooted in their own traditions and a place they can call their own.