Academic journal article Oceania

Cultural Performance and the Reconstruction of Tradition among the Bunun of Taiwan

Academic journal article Oceania

Cultural Performance and the Reconstruction of Tradition among the Bunun of Taiwan

Article excerpt

During the first month of my fieldwork in 1991 among the Bunun, an Austronesian-speaking indigenous people of Taiwan, I spent most evenings in the Community Center watching the people of Vulvul practice singing and dancing, as they prepared for their forthcoming performance at the National Theatre in Taipei. After a few nights I was bored watching the same thing, as the initially exciting gathering turned into a kind of routine. At the same time, I was increasingly anxious about what seemed to be the 'folkloric reification of culture' (Thomas 1992a:275). I was told that the Bunun had no dance, and no word for dance, which they had to invent since all indigenous peoples were expected to be natural-born dancers. The newly composed dance was made by putting together bits and pieces of cheer squad dancing and the dances of other indigenous groups, such as the Amis. I was not the only one who felt uncertain and ambivalent about the 'inventedness' or 'inauthenticity' of this 'tradition'. (1) One night the practice was interrupted by a conflict between one leading man, Tatua Qila, and a Bunun schoolteacher, Cina Nivu, over the best way to go about the business of inventing new dances. Tatua Qila accepted the fact that they had to invent some dances and agreed that dancing could make their performance more dynamic and attractive. However, he was not prepared to go as far as Cina Nivu was asking, to modify their traditional singing to suit these new dances. Tatua Qila felt that to do so they would not be enhancing but rather suppressing tradition with modern things. He eventually got the upper hand in the argument because he and his family were the best singers in the settlement. However, when they went to rehearse with three other Bunun villages in the National Theatre, they had to follow the instructions of the Han-Chinese program organizer and put in some more new dance steps, whether they liked it or not.

And this was just the beginning. The people of Vulvul were on the threshold of a new era which has seen the proliferation of cultural performances, the development of ethnic tourism and an increasingly self-conscious and bureaucratized discourse of 'tradition'. Within a few years they have been to several countries in Western Europe, China, and Japan to perform their 'world renowned' music, and still more invitations pour in. In 1997 they signed a contract with the newly built, nearby Sky Dragon Hotel to perform regularly for tourists. At the beginning of 1999 they started to have tourists stay in their homes during the festival period. They also recorded three CDs in 1999, 2004, and 2010. The 2004 CD was a collaborative work with American cellist David Darling. What is happening in Vulvul is not unique among the Bunun and other Taiwanese indigenous peoples. It is part of what Sahlins (1993a:849, 1993b:3) calls a 'worldwide movement of cultural self-consciousness', which is developing among the erstwhile victims of colonialism. 'Tradition', or better still, 'culture', is now on everybody's lips. (2)

Compared with other Pacific societies, especially Melanesia, where kastom has long been an influential concept anda key political and identity symbol (Feinberg and Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1995; Jolly and Thomas 1992; Keesing and Tonkinson 1982; Lindstrom and White 1993), the Bunun have been relatively slow in developing this cultural self-consciousness. This is related to both the unique political and historical contexts in Taiwan, and the Bunun's culturally specific way of interacting with the state. In this article I attempt to understand the meanings and impact of the 'invention' of tradition and the objectification of culture among the Bunun. I start with the question of how and why 'culture' and 'tradition' come to mean certain things to them, and examine the role played by the state and the church in this historical process. Then I move on to focus on cultural performance as a form of social action that constructs not only the Bunun's self-image and the perception of their own place in the encapsulating world, but also certain social relationships. …

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