8/17/2006

Road to Ilan

Within the span of 35 hours, my classmates and I had made a dozen stops in our wet and winding journey through Datong (大同) and Ilan (宜蘭), beginning with Pingling (坪林) early Saturday morning and culminating in a short slog through a marshy bird sanctuary Sunday afternoon, our local escorts informing us about the comings and goings of widgeons, turtledoves and kingfishers (including the world's only known sighting and photographing of an albino kingfisher). We were an eager bunch, and yet by the end of the first day we had lost six of our comrades to various excuses. As they scurried back to their comfortable Taipei homes, the rest of us were settling in at the China Youth Corps Hotel in Ilan. We figured we would like to see this stretch of the country firsthand. Some shiny pictures in a magazine, a book or two from the National Chengchi Library or a spiffy Powerpoint presentation on Taiwan might have been enough for our less adventurous classmates, but not for us. This is the account of two remarkably beautiful places, one Taiwanese and the other Atayal (泰雅) Aboriginal, that we discovered along the way. In my opinion, both places are markers of bygone eras. Neither the Chiuliao (九寮溪) River Learning Community's Natural Ecology Zone nor the Huang Chu-jen Residence's (黃舉人宅) Haidong Academy in the Ilan Natural Center for the Arts, and in particular the ideas they encompass, has a place in the modern world.
Chiuliao (九寮溪) with its lush mountains impressed me for different reasons. In contrast to the barren and rocky peaks of the western side of the Northern American continent where I grew up, these were crowded with trees, massive ferns and other vegetation. Almost hidden within this surface of green swirls I could make out hundreds of betel nut trees, notorious for their shallow roots that give rise to landslides during typhoons. They were not planted in rows and did not seem to be in any particular order. Described in the travel literature as "an uncontaminated primitive river" with "clear and abundant water," the Chiuliao River, cutting down the center of the ecological zone, looked inviting. An informative sign at the head of the trail next to the river explained the following about the region: Wildlife abounds in the Chiuliao River area, and there are about 31 species and 68 varieties of birds, 12 species and 27 varieties of reptile, 28 species and 125 varieties of insects and 5 species and 10 varieties of fish.
On the back leg of our hike, I struck up a conversation with a local Atayal guide. After small talk, I asked her if she could speak Atayal. She explained she could not but that she wanted to learn. Hoping she would give an opinion on the betel nut trees growing up on the slopes behind us, I asked what the local community was doing to survive economically:
"Right now, it is not going to well," she admitted. "Most of us have to leave if we want to work regularly."

"What can you do to earn money?" I prodded, glancing over my shoulder at the trees.

"We need to develop this area."

"How?" I asked, wondering what she could possibly mean. Did she mean building a factory? How would they build it here?
"We should plant crops like barley and fruit," she answered. The path was bringing us back to the parking lot so I nodded. This was a stock answer and I doubted I was the first person to hear it. The only things likely to get developed are another snack stand, a new brochure or a different kind of gimmick to bring in tourists. Why is it that every time we come upon aborigines in Taiwan, it is in a tourist scheme such as this?
I could not help help thinking about an essay by Hsieh Shih-chung on eco-tourism, especially after witnessing the dance performance upon arrival at Chiuliao. Writing on the Atayal of Wulai's (烏來) Shan-pao Kung-ssu (山胞公司), he states: "Aborigines in the SPKS are unwilling to admit the spuriousness of those 'traditions for sale' because it is a strategy for maintaining their living." Hsieh seems to have hit the nail on the head–imagine my surprise if our guide had turned to me and said:
"We'll probably keep on pretending to be lovely and innocent aborigines for the gawking tourists. It's the only thing we can think of doing. Besides, the government usually gives us grants if we do."
Hsieh also touches upon an experience reminiscent of Chiuliao: "In reality, the dance performance of the aboriginal women in Wulai is the most critical tourist attraction. In the performance, audiences watch ten dances. The hostess introduces them one by one in order. Tourists receive information about the colorful attire and ornamentation of the performers, and about the songs, sung in the aboriginal language. Furthermore, they are told that "all these performances are indigenous." However, in the program, these ten performances include dances of other aboriginal groups–Saisi[y]at (賽夏), Yami (雅美族), and Ami[s] (阿美). In other words, the repertoire of this Atayal dance group includes not only local dances but dances from indigenous groups all over Taiwan. Moreover, eight of the thirty people in this dance group come from ethnic groups other than the Atayal. So it seems that if one wants to get away from something like this, one must avoid arriving in a big bus with a lot non-aborigines.

The Huang Chu-jen residence (黃舉人宅), home to 19th Century scholar from Ilan named Huang Zan-syu, is an example of the U-shaped Chinese building with a courtyard. Built in 1871, it is one of the only authentic examples of architecture at the Ilan National Center of the Arts.

Huang Zan-syu as described on residence placards was a brilliant student, just one of four from Taiwan from 1821 to 1850 to pass the chu-jen (舉人) examination of the second degree (defined as an equivalent to a masters degree). The terms of the test were as follows:
1. Qualification: Applicants must already hold a chu-jen of the first degree.
2. Time:Every three years, in the eighth lunar month. The first session would commence on the ninth day of the month, the second on the twelfth and the third on the fifteenth day.
3. Fuzhou, the provincial capital of Fujian (Taiwan remained a prefecture until 1886).
4. Organization: Test Superintendent (filled by the provincial governor), Examination Officer (plus an assistant) and a General Examination Affairs Officer.
5. First Session Content: Three topics from the Four Books and one rhyming poem of five lines.
6. Second Session Content: Five topics from the Five Classics.
7. Third Session Content: Five essay questions.
Students such as Huang who passed the examination were awarded 20 taels and official robes. The government allowed them to hang a special tablet with the engraving "First in Learning" above their door.

In the rigidity of the seven before-mentioned steps, we can detect the kind of anal retentive and trivial mindset that has obviously slowed down China's development over the past 600 years (and even Taiwan in more recent times). Who cares, for instance, whether someone in a high position can write five lines of rhyming poetry? The time of the test, whittled down to certain days spaced three days apart according to lunar calendar echoes superstition more than anything. The professed goal of Confucian teaching was" to illuminate doctrines from the past and present" but the test seems lacking in the latter. The topics are not scientific or mathematical. They hardly seem to reflect the present, in this case meaning the mid-nineteenth century, a point in time well into the Industrial Revolution for many parts of the world.
Within the residence, Huang conducted his Haidong Academy. Far from enlightening students with concepts from the modern world, it seems this schoolmaster tortured them with four principle courses: reading, memorization, recitation and calligraphy. Instead of learning how to solve problems, draw designs or read and write critically, his students labored away at memorizing the necessary textbooks an official "would need to know." Those deviating from the plan were punished. Forced to kneel or stand, Huang handed them harsh reprimands. Movement to higher levels depended on both "endowment and progress of the student."
The Huang Chu-jen Residence also houses all kinds of interesting artifacts. They include an antique shaved ice machine, popsicle bags, toy tops, an abacus, coins (including taels), scales, a beautiful desk, dining sets, rice husking apparatus and so forth. Even so, I had a hard time tearing myself away from imagining the educational process, so painfully depicted at this museum. Thank god I was never a Taiwanese elementary or high school student. The display inside reads: "The school began after the 15th day of the first lunar month and ended after the winter solstice in the 12th month. Basically, school lasted all month. Classes lasted the entire month."
Several topics emerged in the places we visited in Datong and Ilan including Atayal industry and government as well as Taiwanese handicrafts, history and wildlife protection. Out of the various communities, we began to detect a common theme, an odd de-urbanization leitmotiv meant to lure people out of the cities in order to support local economies. For example, in the Pearl Community we called upon Saturday, our host spoke of the harmful influence residing in the cities has had upon the human psyche. Even though people live in cramped conditions in large population bases, he explained, they have grown isolated from each other. For him, the solution was straightforward: return to the countryside where folk still know how to smile (the mask he demonstrated turned a grimace into a smile to emphasize the point). The countryside represented a place where neighbors communicate with each other and therefore a place where this tendency to detach oneself is reversed. Visitors from the city represented, more cynically, economic support. Their stopovers would pump money into such areas. We then heard from Atayal aboriginals. Their local leaders, not surprisingly, persist in squabbling amongst themselves. They are far from implementing (or even imagining) economic solutions to allow wage-earning family members to return from Taipei, Taichung or Kaohsiung. At the National Center for the Traditional Arts, we were witness to yet another effort to strip visitors off the bigger population centers to support a more remote community and its economy. Once inside the park, our little fraternity of classmates agreed the Huang Chu-jen Residence Haidong Academy was a must-see. Mr. Huang's pedagogy fascinated us, for it captured the essence of many of Taiwan's educational institutes. Simply put, it was not hard for us to deduce that Taiwan's obsession with test-taking is certainly not a recent development. It was a pity that almost than half of the Cultural and Ethnic Structure of Taiwan class (I am not even accounting for those who missed the trip entirely) missed this center. It had good cheap food, interesting sites and lovely scenery. For those of us who braved the rain and who were able to forego our cozy Taipei shops, cafes, restaurants and living rooms for a second day, the trip was as pleasurable as it was tiring.

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