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  Literature and Artistic Development

The History of the Development of Aboriginal Literature (Chung-Chen Pu)


The Taiwanese aborigines are an Austronesian people, originally from continental southeast Asia. They started migrating to Taiwan about 6000 years ago and established their tribes on the Island.

In the long history of the Taiwanese aborigines, pictograms were invented in very early years, but a writing system did not exist. Thus, memories, history, values, taboos, worships, and the like in traditional aboriginal culture, were presented and passed on through oral expression, such as via speaking, singing, chanting, etc. The written language did not become a means of communication in their lives until their encounter with people of other cultures when they started to learn these “foreign” people’s language.

Aboriginal literature includes oral literature (folk literature) and written literature, with the former including to legends, myths, folk tales, ritual texts, and folk songs and the latter prose, drama, poetry and so on.  

For traditional aborigines, what is termed “oral literature” today was never consciously considered as literature, but  was rather an indispensable part of their everyday lives and was learned in the course of their daily routines.   Thus, every member of the tribes could contribute to the creation, sharing, and spreading of such oral literature, except for the most mysterious and subtle knowledge that was usually only possessed and conveyed by the chiefs, priests, or those with a special status or position in the tribes. The content of the oral literature, as it reflected the changes in nature and in the social environment; displayed the interest of the aborigines in their surroundings. In addition, its was often situated within or combined with rituals, customs, values, and morals and hence was the prominent medium for use in educational and cultural training. Even till today, oral literature still plays a crucial role in the teaching and preservation of the culture heritage in some tribes. Rituals, taboos and thinking that are associated with ancient legends and myths serve as a connection between the past and the present, and allow the unique ambience of myth and legend amongst the tribes which still survive in the modern society.

The aborigines’ initial contact with foreign culture happened in the 17th century. Foreign influence on the aborigines’ language and customs grew and spread rapidly after the Dutch took over Taiwan. Further when Taiwan was under the rule of the Ching Dynasty, many attributes of the rich culture of the aborigines faded away during the process of sinicization process, and oral literature disappeared along with their learning of the Chinese writing system, for it was not able to accurately or precisely deliver the meaning and connotations of their own language. Although the aborigines had already had contact with written language during the time, their first experience and formal learning of a national language occurred during the period of the Japanese occupation (1895-1945). For the first time, a written language was available to the majority of people, not just exclusively to a limited population.  This time also saw the first elite group of aborigines receiving modern education. Some of them learned and started to express thoughts and emotion through written language.

When Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China in 1945, the aborigines entered the period of the second national language – Mandarin Chinese  (1945-1980).  While the assimilation policy of the R.O.C. government suppressed traditional culture and suffocated oral literature, the aboriginal tribes opened their arms to western religions, such as Protestant and Catholic, which had profound impact on their daily life, bonds with ancestors’ souls, and belief in traditional gods. This social phenomenon left obvious traces in the aboriginal literature. Many literature works created during the time were written to praise gods in western culture.

The development of written aboriginal literature is closely associated with the international movement ti recognize and enhance the status of aboriginal peoples. As this movement thrived around the world, it also took off in Taiwan in the 1980’s. The issue related t to the survival and development of Taiwanese aborigines drew more and more pubic attention. The young generation who went to colleges in Taipei started writing to fight discrimination, deprivation, and suppression. Most of the works during the time were written in words of protest and accusation, and while they may be seen as propaganda instead of literature, they nevertheless ignited the writing of the literature of the next stage.

In 1997, the Council of the Indigenous Peoples was established under the Executive Yuan, and several laws addressing aboriginal rights and issues were passed one by one following1998. The social and legal recognition for the aborigines was significantly increased, which subsequently led to changes in the nature and characteristics of literary creation. Writers were more concerned about history, culture and language, and, additionally, writing for the purpose of literature creation in itself also appeared, and thus the arrival of the so-called aboriginal literature today was announced.

As we pass into the 21st century, studies of both oral aboriginal literature and written literature have been impressively enhanced in quantity and in number. In addition, more and more young aborigines are devoting themselves to literary creation. Their work stands out with its own distinctive writing styles and subjects, enriching Taiwanese literature and providing more spaces for creativity and for deconstruction in the rhetoric and word formation of Chinese language. 



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