Sunday, 23 March 2014

Writing Indigeneity in Taiwan

       Ever since Clifford and Marcus (1986), anthropologists have been aware of the political implications of their craft; and these concerns have reverberated through Taiwan Studies (Shih, Thompson, and Tremlett 2008). Writing about indigenous peoples has potentially important political repercussions, as Clifford recognized in writing about the issue of Mashpee identity in the United States.

        Ku Kun-hui (2005) documented the early political demands of Taiwan’s indigenous rights movement, especially the right to be referred to as “aboriginal peoples” or “indigenous peoples” rather than as “mountain compatriots.” Indigenous leaders also demanded creation of the Council of Indigenous Peoples, refusing to be subordinated in a Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission reorganized into a Minority Commission. This is a crucial issue from a legal viewpoint. Due to their colonial situation, indigenous peoples have inherent rights, especially to land and sovereignty, that are not shared by ethnic minorities.

        There have been emotionally-laden debates about whether the terms “Aboriginal” and “Indigenous” should be capitalized. This is a non-issue in Chinese, as characters (原住民族) have no letters to capitalize. In English The general argument for capitalization is that “Aboriginal” and “Indigenous” are the names of ethnic groups and should be capitalized, as are “English” and “French.” Mohawk political philosopher Taiaiake Alfred, however, questions such assumptions, even arguing that the word “Aboriginal” is a form of assimilation to colonial power. He prefers to use the names of the peoples themselves, which in his case would be Onkwehonwe (Alfred 2009: 23).  

        Taiwan, with over half a million indigenous people (more than 2% of the total population), is a fascinating non-western case of indigeneity. Like Canada, the state-indigenous relationship lies at the crux of the issue, as indigenous peoples live in an ongoing colonial situation. Ku (2005) argues that indigenous political leaders were able to capitalize upon the desire of some politicians to affirm a non-Chinese identity for their country, hence gaining visibility and power for indigenous peoples. For her part, Yang Shu-yuan (2005) shows how the Bunun interact with the state, exercising sovereignty by cultivating a reputation of docility and cooperativeness.  

        An exploration of state-indigenous relations shows that words like “aboriginal” and “indigenous” are state-centric categories used in the control of populations. These words – unlike Mashpee, Onkwehonwe, or Bunun – subordinate people with their own identities and histories to the logic of governmentality. If one recognizes that these words are state categories like “citizen” (which in Canada includes French, English, and Onkwehonwe) or “immigrant” (which may include French, English, Chinese, etc.), it is difficult to justify capitalizing them. If anything, the practices of capitalizing reifies state categories. Making it appear as if Indigenous is an ethnic group like the English and the French may appear to promote equality, but it renders invisible the inherent rights of indigenous peoples, who best assert effective sovereignty through space-based identities of Mashpee, Onkwehonwe, Bunun, etc. If anthropology is to contribute to decolonization, it must begin with decolonization of the mind, and that begins with careful writing.


Alfred, Taiaiake. 2009. Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Clifford, James. 1988. “Identity in Mashpee,” pp. 277-346 in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Clifford, James and George E. Marcus (eds). 1986. Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ku, Kun-hui. 2005. “Rights to Recognition: Minority/Indigenous Politics in the Emerging Taiwanese Nationalism.” Social Analysis 49 (2): 99-121.
Shih, Fang-long, Stuart Thompson, and Paul Tremlett (eds.). 2008. Re-writing Culture in Taiwan. London: Routledge.
Yang, Shu-Yuan. 2005. “Imagining the State: an Ethnographic Study.” Ethnography 6 (4): 487-516.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

What is Law? Legal Pluralism in Taiwan

Indigenous hunters demanding recognition of their right to hunt (Image source:

The ‘law’ side of things is not a bounded set of norms, rules, principles, values, or whatever from which jural responses to distilled events can be drawn, but part of a distinctive manner of imagining the real (Geertz 1983: 173).

        Law is often perceived as part of the bureaucratic rationality of modernity. It is assumed that, in developed societies, legislatures draft laws, police officers enforce them, and courts ensure they are applied fairly. The idea is that law begins and ends with the state.

       Anthropologists, especially in the field of legal pluralism, have long challenged these assumptions. They demonstrate how social actors have never based their actions solely on state law, but rather selectively to a range of authorities, including elders, religious leaders, even animals or spiritual forces. In our globalizing world, people “imagine the real” by reference to a diversity of international legal principles and national laws, as well as local customs. This is especially visible on the frontlines, when police and conservation officers have to deal with local people who imagine the real in very different ways from state lawmakers.

        Research in Taiwan illustrates the pluralistic nature of law. Jeffrey Martin (2007) explores how policeman negotiate between law (fa, ), sentiment (qing, ), and reason (li, ) as they are called upon to enforce, for example, laws against restaurants expanding their serving areas well out onto public sidewalks. They experience the quandary of whether law should manage sentiment (“rule of law” – often associated with western modernity), or if sentiment should manage law (“rule of man” – often associated with Chinese tradition). As Martin says, “where law sees sentiment as partiality, sentiment sees law as partiality” (2007: 685). In popular nationalism, Taiwanese are often quite proud that their society is dominated by compassion (renqingwei, 人情味) rather than cold-hearted enforcement of law.

        Indigenous peoples are acutely aware of potential conflict between customary law and state law, demanding formal state recognition of legal pluralism as a recognition of inherent sovereignty. The Rukai people of Taiwan have local law called Dualixia. Traditional legal values include the sacred nature of nobles and chiefs, the payment of tribute to them for land use, the necessity of hunting for maintaining social relations, and the jungle as a spiritual place where ancestral spirits and oracle birds also have their place in law. These customs have been challenged by private property regimes, intensive agriculture, and state law. Portnoy and Awi argue that many Taiwanese laws, especially the Forest Law, Wildlife Conservation Law and Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, are based on western ontologies including a nature-society dichotomy (2012: 44). They hope recognition of indigenous legal institutions can promote indigenous autonomy and ecological sustainability.

        Legal pluralism and the existence of “informal” non-state legal institutions often get overlooked in the promotion of “rule-of-law,” (Janse 2013), not to mention in implementation of international laws regarding, for example, environmental conservation or human rights. Yet, even democratic Taiwan, the paradigmatic Chinese example of rule-of-law, is intimately shaped by an interaction of pluralistic legal values. Indigenous people show that this need not be a source of conflict or obstacle to development. Recognition of legal pluralism can also provide inspiration, and may contribute to a better world for all.  

Note: The current issue of the Erasmus Law Review is dedicated to legal pluralism, and is available free on-line.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Janse, Ronald. 2013. “A Turn to Legal Pluralism in Rule-of-Law Promotion?” Erasmus Law Review 6 (3/4): 181-190. [, accessed March 16, 2014].

Martin, Jeffrey. 2007. “A Reasonable Balance of Law and Sentiment: Social Order in Democratic Taiwan from the Policeman’s Point of View.” Law & Society Review 41 (3): 665-697.

Portnoy, Caleb and Awi Mona. 2012. “Laws of the Jungle: Conflicts Between International-National Environmental Law and Taromak Rukai-Environment Relations.” Taiwan Journal of Anthropology 10 (1): 21-50.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Gods, Ghosts, and Governors : Embodying Religion and the State in the Contemporary ROC

Medium in Taiwan (source:

        Observers of Chinese religion have long been enchanted by the endurance of Chinese imperial symbolism, even though imperial China was usurped by Japanese modernity and then by republican democracy on Taiwan, as well as by a communist regime on the Mainland (Ahern, 1973, Feuchtwang 1992).
More recent studies bring contemporary states into the temple. Chi Chang-hui (2009) explores “heteroglossia” on Jinmen, as the Nationalist state tries to encourage worship of drowned virgin as a deity, but local people treat her as a ghost. Tsai Yi-jia (2004) examines a Medium’s Association in the context of Cross-straits rapprochement, as socially marginalized mediums organize within the framework of modern professionalism. Stephan Feuchtwang (2003) studies temples and festivals as civic institutions with democratic elements.
Institutions are the key to understanding these situations. On Jinmen, the Ministry of Defence established a temple to Wang Yulan in an attempt to augment official nationalism, but built it outside the territorial limits of established religious institutions, thus reinforcing local perceptions of her as a ghost (Chi 2009). On Taiwan, mediums felt compelled to establish a professional association and refer to Chinese political icons to justify their activities (Tsai 2004). And on both sides of the Straits, religious actors assert local sovereignty through religious institutions, even as they are treated as mere representatives of “local culture” by intellectuals and politicians.
These approaches make it clear that religious institutions are not repositories of tradition, but arenas for the actions of embodied individuals. As Wolf said, whether a spirit is a ghost, ancestor or god depends on the point of view of the worshipper (Wolf 1974: 146). If we study religious institutions as part of lived environments, they can be well understood through a dwelling perspective that “treats the immersion of the organism-person in an environment or lifeworld as an inescapable condition of existence” (Ingold 2000: 153).
Difference in cognitive experience explains why ROC state officials can hope to install Wang Yulan as a goddess, whereas villagers perceive her as a ghost. For officials who arrive on Jinmen by plane or boat, Wang Yulan appears to be on the inside of Jinmen. For villagers who cross the habitual limits of temple processions to visit her shrine, she is clearly on the outside and thus a ghost. The mediums, by channeling Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong, assert a meaningful place in their contemporary political environment. They strongly favour a Taiwanese perspective when they treat deceased Mainlander veterans as hungry ghosts (Tsai 2004: 68), marking Mainlanders as eternal outsiders. Temples create zones of autonomous space, their sovereignty reinforced when politicians and other outsiders must politely request permission to enter. These studies demonstrate that religion is not the embodiment of abstract culture, but rather the ongoing action of conscious beings in space and time.
        If anthropology is to become an ethology of the human species rather than a study of superorganic cultures based on assumptions of a nature-culture divide, a combination of an institutional approach with a dwelling approach is extremely useful. 

See Youtube for some great videos by Fabian Graham on Taiwanese popular religion. 

Ahern, Emily. 1973. The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Chi, Chang-hui. 2009. “The Death of a Virgin: the Cult of Wang Yulan and Nationalism in Jinmen, Taiwan.” Anthropological Quarterly 82 (3): 669-690.
Feuchtwang, Stephan. 1992. The Imperial Metaphor. London: Routledge.  
______. 2003. “Peasants, Democracy and Anthropology: Questions of Local Loyalty.” Critique of Anthropology 23 (1): 93-120.
Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.
Tsai, Yi-jia. 2004. “The Writing of History: The Religious Practices of the Medium’s Association in Taiwan.” Taiwan Journal of Anthropology 2 (2): 43-80. Available on line at:, last accessed November 5, 2013.
Wolf, Arthur. 1974. “Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors.” In Arthur Wolf (ed.). Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 131-182.