The 400-year-old cradle of Taiwanese culture


(Credit: Alamy)

The island’s oldest city, known as the “Birthplace of Taiwan”, is celebrating its quarter anniversary by highlighting its multicultural past.

In 1624, a battered fleet of ships owned by the Dutch East India Company arrived on a forested island off the coast of China. The Dutch merchants were looking for a foothold to trade with China’s Ming dynasty, but had failed to take the Portuguese enclave of Macau. The rugged, unknown island they retreated to was a last resort. They established a base on a long sandbank and built a fort which they named it Fort Zeelandia. They called the place where they settled Tayouan – or Taiwan.

The Dutch traded with the local Siraya people who spoke an Austronesian language more closely related to contemporary Malay, Tagalog and Maori than modern-day Mandarin. Some scholars argue that the word “Taiwan” itself has indigenous roots – derived from “tavo-an”, meaning “meeting place” in Siraya.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of both Fort Zeelandia and the city of Tainan that developed around the fort. And here in Taiwan’s oldest city, the celebration is in full swing. The Tainan 400 celebrationswhich began in January with the hosting of Taiwan Lantern Festival and will continue into December, are dedicated to exploring Tainan’s many stories, told in many languages. Under the slogan “Tainan, Where You Belong”, a whole year of concerts, exhibitions and public celebrations highlight how the city has developed as a melting pot of different cultures.


Four hundred years after the Dutch built it, Fort Zeelandia still stands in Tainan Credit: Alamy

Today, the best way to experience Tainan is simply to wander its narrow streets and enjoy its cultural diversity. Tainan is proud of its reputation as Birthplace of Taiwan and the cradle of Taiwanese culture, it has managed to hold on to its roots more than other Taiwanese cities. Compared to the capital Taipei or Tainan’s nearest neighbor Kaohsiung – with its skyscrapers that seem to stretch into the future – Tainan feels like a place where past and present collide. New high-rises compete for space with ancient monuments and tangled back alleys lined with centuries-old buildings. On weekends, the streets are noisy with the sound of firecrackers and temple processions: the city has more Buddhist and Taoist temples than anywhere else in Taiwan.

Fort Zeelandia still stands in Tainan’s Anping District. Tourists wander the sprawling ruins where modern Taiwan was born, snapping photos of the ancient brick walls entwined with massive banyan roots. Next to it Kaitai Tianhou Temple is dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. With a history dating back to 1668, the temple is the oldest shrine to the island’s most popular deity. Inside, visitors continue the old-fashioned tradition of throwing poo, croissant-shaped blocks of wood and ask the goddess for advice on their business dealings, family problems and love affairs. Outside stalls selling prawn crackers, fried sweet potato balls and Tainan’s local delicacy kuann-tshâ-pang or “coffin bread” (fried bread filled with seafood sauce) speaks to the city’s reputation as Taiwan’s street food capital. And across the road, elderly residents sit on plastic chairs in the shade, chatting in Taiwanese, a dialect descended from the original Hokkien spoken by settlers who arrived from Fujian in China that has largely disappeared elsewhere on the island in favor of Mandarin.

Before the Dutch arrived, Taiwan’s population consisted largely of culturally and linguistically different origin groups. When the Dutch established Taiwan’s first school in present-day Tainan in 1636, classes were taught in Siraya, and in 1661 the missionary Daniel Gravius ​​published his translation of the Gospel of Matthew in Siraya as well. A year later, the Ming Dynasty rebelled Coking captured Fort Zeelandia and expelled the Dutch, setting off waves of migration from China. This first wave of Chinese settlers consisted mainly of Hokkien speakers from Fujian. But two decades after the Koxinga, when Taiwan passed into the hands of the Qing Dynasty and Tainan became the capital of the new Taiwan Prefecture, other groups arrived, including a large Hakka-speaking community. The island remained under Qing control for two centuries until it was ceded to the Japanese in 1895. The Japanese stayed until the end of World War II, and Japanese became the island’s lingua franca. Today in Taiwan, there are some older people who are still more comfortable speaking Japanese than Mandarin or Taiwanese.

During all this long, complex history, Indigenous languages ​​were increasingly pushed to the margins. Some, including Siraya, disappeared almost entirely. But there were further threats to Taiwan’s cultural and linguistic diversity on the horizon. In 1949, after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shekNationalists retreated to Taiwan. To consolidate their rule, the Nationalists imposed martial law and declared Mandarin the national language, even though hardly anyone in Taiwan spoke it. Nevertheless, for nearly four decades, the Nationalists did their best to turn Taiwan’s culturally and linguistically diverse people into a Chinese-identifying, Mandarin-speaking monoculture.

Will Buckingham

Tainan has more traditional folk temples than any other Taiwanese city Will Buckingham

But the nationalists’ monocultural vision of Taiwan was always a fiction, and in the decades since the end of martial law in 1987, the country has been rediscover their multicultural and multilingual identity. In Tainan and elsewhere in southern Taiwan, this pro-Mandarin policy was policed ​​with less fervor and resistance was more firmly entrenched. As a result, Taiwanese remains an integral part of the city’s identity today. And as a sign of the city’s ongoing commitment to the diversity of languages ​​and cultures official website for Tainan 400 visitors are greeted in Taiwanese, Siraya and Hakka.

To understand how Tainan is rediscovering this cultural diversity, I visited Temple of Confucius in downtown Tainan to speak with the head of the temple’s cultural foundation, Dr. Tsio̍h Bo̍k-bîn. As we sat in the airy hall with burgundy walls and sweeping eaves, Tsio̍h explained how Taiwanese culture was built from successive waves of colonialism. Tsio̍h noted that even the temple itself, which seems archetypal Chinese, is a hybrid. Constructed using construction techniques borrowed from the Dutch, it was rebuilt and restored by the Japanese. “The Temple of Confucius is a composite, a tapestry,” he said. It is a complete record of Taiwan’s colonial history.”

In addition to his work at the temple, Tsio̍h is committed to reviving the Taiwanese language. “I think we need a strong and clear expression to be Taiwanese,” he said. “Language is a sign of self-expression. Taiwanese society is moving towards a vision of a linguistically equal society. Not only Taiwanese, but also Hakka and aboriginal languages. We want our society to be able to see these languages ​​as equal.”

But there are challenges too. During Taiwan’s decades of martial law, Mandarin was the standard language on the island. And while Taiwanese is now being taught again in schools across Taiwan, few young people speak it fluently. One person working to reverse this trend is YouTuber and Anping native Chiu Ka-éng, who goes by the name Ayo. Ayo’s YouTube channel, Tâi-lâm muē-á kàu lí kóng Tâi-gí (A Tainan Girl Teaches You Taiwanese), is popular for its energetic delivery, retro visuals and language research.


Many parts of Tainan, such as Shennong Street, date back to the Qing Dynasty (Credit: Alamy)

“There are over 7,000 languages ​​in the world, but they are gradually disappearing,” Ayo told me over Zoom. “I wonder if my native language will disappear in my lifetime. The link between language and place is very close. Language has a specific feeling, and if you change the language, the feeling disappears.” For Ayo, this makes the Tainan 400 celebration an opportunity “to imagine together how this place came to be”. It is a chance to ask, “what kind of future do we want in the next 100 or 400 years”.

Alongside Taiwanese, another language revival is underway in Tainan: Siraya. At the forefront of the revival are Uma Talavan, an indigenous Siraya, and her husband Edgar Macapli. Three decades ago, the couple came across Gravius’ translation of the Gospel of Matthew. Since then, they have dedicated themselves to reviving Siraya as a living language. When I met the couple at a cafe in the suburb of Xinhua, they brought a stack of newly published Siraya textbooks and we discussed how, after more than a century of silence, Siraya is now spoken again and taught in more than 20 schools across Tainan.

This revival is also a reminder of Taiwan’s deeper history, a history that stretches back thousands of years. “The buildings could be 400 years old,” Talavan said. “But this country is not 400 years old. For our people, our history, our life… I always say it’s 400 plus.”

I asked Talavan what her hopes are for the revival of the language. “In the future,” she said, “we want Siraya to be used from kindergarten to university.” I told her that I have started learning the language, out of curiosity. Talavan laughed. “Maybe you can be a Siraya teacher too,” she said.


Tainan may be celebrating its 400th anniversary, but Taiwanese history goes back thousands of years (Credit: Alamy)

To spend time in Tainan at 400 (or “400-plus”) is to realize that, despite the best efforts of outsiders, Taiwan remains a complex tapestry of languages ​​and cultures. And this year’s celebration is a reminder that identity need not be simple, or single, and that there is strength and richness in complexity.

As Tsio̍h told me before I climbed on my bike to ride home from the Confucius Temple: “We Taiwanese are not so clean. We are a hybrid society. We should be proud of it and start telling people this history and these stories of hybridity . Then maybe we can find peace with ourselves.”

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