Revitalizing Siraya Culture: Fearless Campaigners on the Path to Recognition


2017 / September

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Phil Newell

The Green Valley Siraya Park, at Jiu­ceng­ling in the Xin­hua District of Tai­nan City, is home to ­Cheng­-hiong­ Ta­la­van, founder of the Si­raya Culture Association. It is also the main base of the movement for the Si­raya to be officially recognized as one of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. The park is nestled between mountains and water. Over the pond there is a simple floating bridge constructed out of water pipes and bamboo. The pond is quite deep, and as soon as you step on the bridge, it sinks by several centimeters, adding a sense of danger.

We ask the Talavan family if we can take their picture on the bridge, and Cheng-hiong immediately agrees. Then the whole family step cautiously onto the bridge, with daughter Uma Talavan leading the way and grandchildren following grandparents as they all hold hands for a beautiful family portrait.



On the pathway to revitalizing Sirayan culture, three generations of the Talavan family are working hand in hand, just like in the picture, for the same goals. Cheng­-hiong­ Ta­la­van has spent his entire life encouraging the descendants of ­Pingpu Aborigines (who include the Si­raya) to awaken to a sense of their identity. His daughter Uma Ta­la­van and her husband Edgar Ma­ca­pili have devoted themselves to Si­ra­yan language and culture. His grandchildren Euphony and Lici Ta­la­van, together with other young people from the tribe, sent a letter to President Tsai Ing-wen appealing for recognition of the Si­raya name and identity. The three generations are working together to revitalize Si­ra­yan culture.

Waking up to identity and human rights

Now aged 75, Cheng­-hiong­ Ta­la­van recalls being called a “savage” as a child. He didn’t understand what this term meant, and he asked about it repeatedly, until finally his uncle whispered in his ear, “‘Savages’ means the ­Pingpu!” Only after asking even more questions did ­Cheng-hiong­ learn that the ­Pingpu were Formosan Aboriginal peoples.

The Si­raya are one of the ­Pingpu peoples. When the Dutch came to Taiwan in the 17th century, the Si­raya were the first people they encountered. But under a succession of foreign ruling powers, the Siraya were forcibly Sinicized, losing their traditional customs and language, until their very identity became obscured.

Cheng-hiong says there is no sense in indigenous people accepting discrimination against them. Instead they should proudly be who they are. That is why at every gathering or occasion, he has long seized the opportunity to say to everyone, “We are savages,” reclaiming the term.

One person lobbying and trying to wake up his tribespeople to their identity can only have a weak influence. ­Cheng-hiong­ therefore also devoted great efforts to forming the Si­raya Culture Association, drawing on collective power to revitalize Si­ra­yan culture.

Cheng-hiong’s daughter Uma Ta­la­van is currently chairwoman of the Si­raya Culture Association. She was born and raised in the tribal community, so it was only after growing up and leaving the community that she discovered that her group was considered different. Her love of her homeland and her awakening to her identity caused her to realize that her memories of childhood represented the life she wanted. “So if there’s anything that feels awkward to me, or something that clashes, it makes me want to plunge right in and challenge it.” Thus does Uma describe her inspiration for and involvement in human rights and cultural movements.

Another happy turn of fate was that on a trip to study music in the Philippines, she not only brought back a husband who would later become a key figure in the revitalization of the Si­ra­yan language, but also discovered that the school hosted talented people from all over the world, which allowed her to see the beauty of multiculturalism. From there she reflected: “What about me? What can the Si­raya show other people?”

This caused Uma to proactively explore the treasures of Si­ra­yan culture after returning home. “I hoped I would become a person who not only unearths Si­ra­yan culture, but also polishes it to a shine.”

A miraculous linguistic renaissance

In going from feeling bewildered at being called a “savage” by Han Chinese to discovering his identity as an indigenous person, ­Cheng-hiong­ Ta­la­van also found out that he knew nothing at all about his culture.

Even today, the S­ira­yan language is listed on the ­UNESCO website as an “extinct” tongue which has been gone for over 200 years, never being heard or spoken in that whole period of time.

However, from historical evidence we know that when the Dutch arrived in Taiwan in the 17th century, they wrote out Si­ra­yan using the Latin alphabet. Si­raya people continued to use and pass down this Romanized writing system. For example, they used it to draw up land ­contracts and trading contracts with Han Chinese. These are the well-known “­Sinckan manuscripts.”

In their quest to recover Si­­raya linguistic culture, ­­Cheng-hiong­­ and Uma Ta­­la­­van searched everywhere to collect words and phrases in Sirayan from elders. But the results were very meager. The dramatic turning point came after they obtained a Si­rayan translation of the Gospel of St. Matthew, made by early Dutch missionaries. After ­Cheng-hiong­ had invested so much effort in the hope of opening the door to the Si­rayan language, amazingly the key to unlocking its secrets turned out to be his Filipino son-in-law, Edgar Ma­ca­pili.

Ma­ca­pili is a member of the Bi­­saya indigenous people of the Philippines. Like Si­ra­yan, Bi­sa­yan is a branch of the Austronesian language group, and when he opened up the Sirayan Gospel of St. Matthew that it had taken ­Cheng-hiong­ Ta­la­van so long to find, Ma­ca­pili found he could read most of the content. He recalls his impression of Si­ra­yan: “This language is like the mother or older sister of the Bi­sa­yan language—they have a family relationship. What’s more, Si­ra­yan is purer, having not been impacted by too many foreign terms.”

Originally a musician, Ma­ca­pili turned himself into a linguistics scholar. He compared texts in Dutch, English, Si­ra­yan, and Bi­sa­yan word by word and phrase by phrase. The main difficulty is that when the Dutch wrote down the Si­ra­yan language in the 17th century, their own spelling system had not yet been standardized, so they were unable to accurately record the Si­ra­yan pronunciation. It took Ma­ca­pili more than seven years, burning the midnight oil on countless occasions, to complete his Si­raya Glossary: Based on the Gospel of St. Matthew in Formosan (Sin­kan Dialect), a Preliminary Survey, which contains more than 3000 Si­ra­yan vocabulary items. Only later, with this as a starting point, could there be textbooks, illustrated books, pocket books, audiobooks, the training of teachers, and finally the introduction of Si­ra­yan language classes into the formal educational curriculum in 2016.

A different youth

The third generation of the Ta­la­van family, sisters Euphony and Lici Ta­la­van, learned Taiwanese and Si­ra­yan side by side from early childhood. They grew up very differently from most children. From ages three or four they travelled around with ­Onini, a Si­ra­yan-language music group that instructs people in the basics of Si­ra­yan culture. When other kids were in class or playing, they often took time off to perform or protest. Says Lici Ta­la­van frankly, “My whole life has been a social movement.”

As we interviewed and followed around elder sister Euphony, we often saw her discussing questions of Si­ra­yan sentence structure with her father Edgar Ma­ca­pili, or conducting the ­Onini group in singing practice sessions, fully exemplifying the role of the oldest daughter. And her comments reveal a different logic and understanding from her own generation: “Having one more identity allows me to experience things in a different way, to maintain a tolerant attitude toward other cultures, and to understand and discuss controversial social issues with empathy.”

The words and deeds of the older generations of the clan are imprinted indelibly on the children’s hearts. ­Euphony wants to go back to school and study for a degree in linguistics, and she is very interested in the analysis of sentence structure. She is also considering researching the Si­rayan language herself, so that in the future she can help write teaching materials and lesson plans to assist more teachers of the language. Lici says, “I have known my future goal from early childhood: to work to revitalize Si­ra­yan culture.” Even in choosing her university major, she considered what would be of most value to the Si­raya in the future.

Fearlessly moving forward

Today, the Si­raya’s campaign for official recognition as one of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples is still ongoing. To this end, members of the Si­raya community have several times brought administrative lawsuits before the Tai­pei High Administrative Court, demanding that the central government formally recognize their historical status and identity.

On May 19 of 2016, judgment was about to be rendered in an administrative lawsuit over the Si­raya people’s status. As Uma Ta­la­van waited for the announcement at the Tai­pei High Administrative Court, Cheng­-hiong­ Talavan was in Xin­hua in Tai­nan with some fellow tribespeople, preparing tang­yuan (boiled balls of glutinous rice flour) to celebrate success in the lawsuit. But a few minutes later Uma, her eyes red with tears, stepped out of the court and announced to the media that the lawsuit had failed. As she did so, she repeated the exhortation that Cheng­-hiong­ had given her previously: “If the judgement goes against us, we have also won, because there is no reason for us to lose.”

When Cheng­­-­hiong­ got the news back in Xin­hua, he still tried to fire up his fellow tribespeople, saying that they should go ahead and eat the tang­yuan to celebrate victory in the future.

Having not admitted defeat for more than 20 years, Cheng­-­hiong is pledged to the revitalization of Si­ra­yan culture, and has continually advanced toward this goal. He has always believed that the Si­raya will eventually be formally recognized as an indigenous group.

The transition to a new generation is inevitable, and the seeds that have been planted in the minds of the newest generation have broken out of the darkness of the soil and into the sunlight. The children and grand­children of the Siraya believe that, like that family portrait, hand in hand they will continue to fearlessly advance on the path to a Siraya renaissance.

Relevant articles

Recent Articles

繁體 日本語

復振西拉雅 無畏向前正名之路

文‧鄧慧純 圖‧林旻萱 翻譯‧Phil Newell





身分覺醒  人權啟蒙





萬正雄的女兒萬淑娟(西拉雅名Uma Talavan),現任西拉雅文化協會理事長。從小在部落長大,她回憶當年:「我一直記得兒時每天的日常,採野草莓,跟著家人在雨天撿蝸牛,隨處可聞到的花香和四季的變化。」她感性的話語彷彿帶著我們在燠熱的午後來到她兒時奔馳的山林,與她一起回想與土地的故事。

























シラヤの復興へ―― 世代を越えて続く「正名運動」

文・鄧慧純 写真・林旻萱 翻訳・松本幸子


































X 使用【台灣光華雜誌】APP!