In Search of an Author: Taiwan's Great Epic

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Monday February 5, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Life is fragile, short and often, as stated in the Book of Ecclesiastes, "a vanity of vanities." Yet throughout the ages, writers around the world have composed majestic epics that capture and interpret the depths of human experience. A few examples are: the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Indian Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, the Roman Aeniad, and John Milton's Paradise Lost.

While these epics relate to specific cultural and language sources, after being translated they have reached far beyond their origin and constantly provide insight into the conflicts, values, glories and defeats that all humans face and relate to regardless of the age they live in.

Today, with the aid of scientific research and inventions, the world that is known to humankind continues to shrink. Air planes allow us to travel halfway round the world in less than a day and the Internet makes communications with any place in the globe instantaneously possible.

Earth is becoming a global home, and while certain mythic concepts may then be questioned, this does not mean the age of the epic is over. In some ways, the opposite is true. With the discoveries of science, a new age of epics is just beginning and Taiwan ironically finds itself a part of that.

Science, which includes DNA and linguistic studies, goes beyond giving us the age of the Earth; it now more accurately demonstrates the paths of human development and migration. This in turn creates potential epics that call for an author.

For example, the story of how all humans came "out of Africa" to populate the planet has yet to be told in a way that expresses its fullest meaning and dramatic form.

It goes without saying that such epics can still meet the basic standards that epics require. They must involve vast settings. What is vaster than the population of the world?

They must have heroes capable of deeds of great valor and strength. Who were the leaders and people capable of leading such great migrations?

They must of course contain an answer to an epic question, such as: What reasons best account for such crucial migrations?

Three epics of human migratory experience immediately come to mind here. Each calls for its own author and one directly involves Taiwan.

The first epic is the aforementioned "out of Africa" experience, which all humans can relate to. Were there different periods of migration with different motivations? Why and when did this migration split into two different directions: one that went to Europe and the other to Asia? What happened after that?

The second great migratory epic involves the population of the Americas. Who led the first groups across the Bering Strait? What epic question drove these people to leave present-day Russia and cross the strait into the continents that are now known as the Americas?

This "American migration" is one that will link to the latter development of the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan empires as well as the numerous plains, woodland and other "Indian" tribes and nations.

This epic would have a certain foreboding irony hovering over it. For after all the migratory development and empire building in North and South America, those peoples would ironically receive that name of "Indians" in the 15th Century when colonials from the European side of the "out of Africa" experience crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Those Europeans were not bent on returning to Africa but rather on seeking passage to the almost mythic "Spice Islands," which promised great wealth. The Spice Islands or Moluccas lay below the present-day Philippines and are part of the Indonesian Archipelago. They would have their own relationship to the third migration epic, that which created the "Austronesian empire" or Austronesia.

This third epic directly involves Taiwan, and it can help Taiwanese in their own search for identity.

Taiwanese are discovering how their past links them to the origin of this vast Austronesian empire, which stretches from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east, and from Taiwan in the north to New Zealand in the south.

Taiwan played a vital part of this last great migration and so this must be seen as part of Taiwanese identity.

Looking far back, Taiwanese can relate to the out of Africa experience. However, their groupings both in DNA and linguistics link them more immediately and specifically to the people who spread across the Pacific and not to those that crossed the Bering Strait into the Americas in the second epic.

There will always be some in Taiwan who only consider the extremely narrow perspective of its more immediate past. Those people would be most aware of the many "recent colonials" that came and intermingled with the Aborigines, namely the Dutch, the Spanish, the Ming loyalists, the pursuing Manchus, and even the Japanese, who were the first to control and unite the whole island of Taiwan.

Some others might, almost as an afterthought, want to link Taiwan to the fleeing minority of Han who followed Chiang Kai-shek when he and his troops lost the Chinese Civil War on the continent. They had no place to go but to the island of Taiwan.

However, all that is peripheral to the past Taiwanese, who stoked the migration that would create vast oceans and create Austronesia.

Most of the relatively recent colonials from the Dutch onward did after a generation or so intermingle and intermarry with the Aborigines. This would set the final stage for the epic that reveals how more than 85 percent of Taiwanese share DNA with the Aborigines of the past.

Linguistically the issue is different. Taiwanese regardless of DNA, have had to learn new language after new language with each new colonial regime. This finally resulted in today's older generations learning Japanese, and then later Mandarin.

These also accounts for why many older Taiwanese are still comfortable with Japanese and have made sure to preserve their native Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) over Mandarin.

The Austronesians were a seafaring people and their epic will need to explain their motivation to cross the seas. This is all part of the "out of Taiwan" aspect of its history.

There is more: Recent theory indicates that perhaps not all the Austronesian peoples came out of Taiwan; some could have come from the Indochina and Vietnam areas. Nonetheless the "out of Taiwan" branch became more "elite" and ended up being more dominant. All this will need to be addressed in the "out of Taiwan epic."

What the future author will find challenging is how to dramatize this. How did the Maori in New Zealand, and the residents of Easter Island end up coming "out of Taiwan?"

Science has aided in helping Taiwanese see their rich past and their link to Austronesia. However, the epic still remains one in search of an author.

Who will step up to fill that role?