Tradition and Christianity: Controversial Funerals and Concepts of the Person among the Paiwan, Taiwan

By Tan, Chang-Kwo | Oceania, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Tradition and Christianity: Controversial Funerals and Concepts of the Person among the Paiwan, Taiwan


Tan, Chang-Kwo, Oceania


The relationship between tradition and Christianity has been a prominent theme in anthropological writings on Oceania. Since the early 1980s, scholars have begun to address the trend of burgeoning interest in the politics of tradition among Pacific peoples. The use of kastom, 'custom', as political symbol in Melanesia was examined in a collection edited by Keesing and Tonkinson (1982), and the relationship between kastom and Christianity is a central issue in many studies (Tonkinson 1982:302). The relationship has been either perceived as fundamentally antithetical (Jolly 1982), or as in a state of satisfying symbiosis (Burt 1982). This issue was further explored in Jolly and Thomas (1992), and various notions of kastom were considered, some of which were excluded (Otto 1992), and others of which combined with Christianity (Thomas 1992) were considered. The relationship between local tradition and Christianity has also played an important role in shaping the face of local Christianity. In a volume dedicated to ethnographic appraisals of Christianity in the Pacific (Barker 1990a), Barker proposes that Pacific Christianity can be better understood in terms of popular religions, which consist of a combination of indigenous and Christian ideas and forms (Barker 1990b: 10-15, see also Chowning 1990). At the level of organizational distinctions and politics, the divisions of Christian and traditional domains may seem rigid, yet people are often involved in both domains and can tolerate considerable ambiguity and inconsistency (Macintyre 1990).

In this paper, I address the issue of the complex and dynamic relationships between 'tradition' and Christianity among indigenous peoples in the Pacific. Using the term 'tradition', I refer to the indigenous cultural and religious practices that existed before evangelization and persist in contemporary life, as well as a construction of the past (or continuity with the past) deployed for political empowerment. By 'Christianity', I mean the Christian ideas and rites experienced and practiced by indigenous peoples, as well as the social and political organization recognized as 'the church'. I am particularly interested in exploring the relationship between tradition and Christianity as it is mediated by controversial funeral practices and underlying concepts of the person among the Paiwan, an indigenous people of Taiwan.

Taiwan is better known as 'Formosa' in the international literature of history and anthropology. The speakers of Formosan languages, (1) the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, inhabit the northern border of the areas in which the Austronesian-speaking population is distributed (Figure 1). Their population is about 43,0000, 2% of the total population in Taiwan; these aborigines constitute the minority ethnic groups in the contemporary political structure of Taiwan. Historically, their ancestors have had contact with Christianity since the Dutch tried to colonize Formosa in the 17th century. Mass conversion to Christianity took place after the Japanese colonial government retreated from Taiwan at the end of World War II. (2) The majority of the aboriginal population has converted to Christianity. This population includes both Protestants and Roman Catholics, and today most aboriginal Christians are members of the Presbyterian Church, the largest and most influential Protestant denomination in Taiwan (Huang 1996). In many villages, however, we can still see aborigines resisting the campaign of evangelization and abiding by their ancestral customs. Under the leadership of traditional authorities, the performance of traditional rituals has become a highly-charged context for constructing cultural identity. Recently, these efforts have been encouraged by the Taiwanese government, which has come to recognize Taiwan as a multicultural society and has begun to endorse the expression of cultural differences through preserving local traditions.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

During my fieldwork among the eastern Paiwan between July 1997 and November 1998, I found that funeral rituals have become a central site for constructing Paiwan identity for local adherents of traditional religion. …

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