A 1911 map of Japan, including Taiwan. Image: Wikipedia

We live in a world that is full of diversities that make it beautiful. The human race has witnessed massive changes from ancestral times to the current date. The advances of science and technology, the Industrial Revolution, and the Renaissance have compelled many ruling powers to expand their territory for commerce and set up colonies there. These colonial rulers often set themselves apart from the indigenous people of their colonies and tried to diminish their culture.

Human history is full of examples of the struggles between indigenous peoples and colonial powers. The Seediq, one of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan, has such a history of fighting for their rights and culture against the Japanese colonial power.

                                                The mountains of Wushe, Nantou county, Taiwan. Photos courtesy of Kaisanan Ahuan, Wikitongues volunteer

Today the Seediq tribe’s population is only 20,000 to 25,000 and their language is classified as critically endangered. The name Seediq means “person” in general, but it is also used in their language. Seediq is part of the Austronesian language family. The language consists of three major dialects, Turku, Toda and Tgdaya. Counting these together there are 25,000 people who speak the Seediq language. Each dialect group refers to itself by the name of its dialect.

The indigenous Seediq tribe has an amazing history. The tribe fought against Taiwan’s Japanese colonizers and made them accept indigenous people’s rights.

A Toda village.

The Seediq people lived in the mountains of Wushe, Taiwan. They lived a life of independence and isolation from the outside world. They had unique facial tattoos and features that symbolized maturity and bravery.

The Seediq maintained an autonomous lifestyle and tried to live peacefully with other tribes. But in 1895, they faced a major crisis when the Japanese invaded Taiwan. The self-ruled tribe made many attempts to revolt against the Japanese colonizers. Among these, the Wushe incident, which broke out in a place called Nantou, was the most significant. It is also called the Musha incident.

A traditional Seediq house built of wood and stone.

The Japanese colonizers had decided to settle in the woods where the Seediq tribe lived, and to remove any form of a threat they confiscated the tribesmen’s weapons. But those arms were one of the primary tools they used to search for food.

There were three major reasons behind the Wushe incident: the banning of weapons, the Ren Zhi Guan incident, and the Jei Mei Yuan incident.

In 1930, when the Japanese colonial government banned an indigenous market that was one of the aboriginal people’s major means of survival, it triggered the Ren Zhi Guan incident. The ban resulted in a series of protests by the Seediq people and the colonial government had to open a new trade market. But the new market turned out to be a curse for the Seediq.

The Japanese rulers gathered 300 Bunong tribespeople near a village called Jie Mei Yuan, and when 100 people from the Seediq community went to the new market, the Japanese gave them wine to drink. But in the afternoon when they were all drinking, the Bunong slaughtered many Seediq people on orders from Japanese soldiers. This tragedy is known as the Jei Mei Yuan incident.

Memorials to the Wushe incident in a park in Nantou.

This incident caused great havoc. In 1930, Mona Ruda, a Seediq tribesman, decided to fight against the Japanese and persuaded others to join him. Of the 12 tribes, six agreed. The Seediq people decided to attack the Japanese on a sports day that was held in a small village called Wushe. On that day, the rebels broke into an unguarded cache of weapons that had been confiscated by the Japanese and killed every Japanese person, including women and children.

Three months after that incident, the Japanese government sent a military team to fight with the Seediq. Although the Seediq people lost that battle, it became a symbol of the broader fight for indigenous people’s rights.

There is a film called Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq-Bale (Seediq means “person” and Bale means “real,” so the literal translation is “Real Person”). The film was directed by Wei Te-sheng and based on the Wushe incident. The specialty of this movie is that it is in the Seediq language, not Chinese. This epic film has gained popularity in the Seediq community. The film was also nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2012. It shows the story of the revolt of the Seediq people against the Japanese colonial rulers.

The tradition of tattooing was banned by the Japanese colonizers of Taiwan in the early half of the 20th century. The ban was an attack on the Seediq people’s pride and identity and they started to lose their traditions. Their tradition of weaving has been under threat because of capitalism and industrialization of society, yet they are trying to preserve their ancestral customs by introducing creative ideas to adapt to changing times.

In recent years, the Seediq tribe has been making a comeback. For seven decades, ever since the Kuomintang arrived in Taiwan in the late 1940s, the Seediq were classified wrongly as a subgroup of the Atayal to make it easier to administer them. Recognition finally came in April 2008, when the Seediq tribe was listed officially as Taiwan’s 14th indigenous group.

The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Hsun Chen and Jing Tang Lin in providing insight regarding the Seediq people and their language.

Abhinash Das

Abhinash Das, of Assam, India, recently completed postgraduate studies. He works on endangered languages and helps document them digitally for their preservation.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *