Sakinu Ahronglong: 山豬 (Hunter School)
This is not a novel but more a (probably not very) fictionalised autobiography. However, it is here because it is from an indigenous writer from Taiwan, because it tells lots of interesting stories about our narrator and his family and people and because it reads very well and is thoroughly enjoyable.
Sakinu is from the Paiwan people. The indigenous peoples of Taiwan almost certainly descended from peoples who emigrated from China. Both the Ming and Qing dynasties conquered Taiwan till they were ousted by the Japanese in 1895. The Kuomintang took over after World War II and have occupied the island since, though it is still claimed by mainland China. The not always happy relationship between the indigenous peoples and the Han Chinese is part of the novel.
We follow Sakinu and his family and the Paiwan. Young Sakinu is a bit of a troublemaker so, at weekends, his father takes him with him hunting. Sakinu resents this as he would rather be playing with his friends and his father goes long distances to hunt his prey. However, he gradually comes to appreciate it as he learns a lot from his father who is very much in tune with nature. Though he hunts and therefore kills animals, he is very respectful towards them and only kills what he and his family will eat. He even apologises to them for killing them. Sakinu’s father and his father are very knowledgeable about the habit of animals.
We learn a lot about various animals, including the monkey tribe, hawks and the flying squirrels. The latter seem easy to catch but Sakinu’s father soon comes across one who cleverly outsmarts him. Sadly, they will later be much reduced because of high-tech hunting and habitat destruction.
Habitat destruction is a key issue everywhere but particularly for indigenous peoples, with their habitat destroyed to make way for roads and railways (this happens to Sakinu’s people), intensive farming and tourism.
We also see what has happened to the Paiwan people, as they have closer contact with the Han Chinese. As with other indigenous peoples, such as the Native Americans, they have turned to alcohol and now drunkenness, people sleeping in the streets and alcohol poisoning. Aneurysms and strokes. Spousal strife and family break-up.
They used to drink their own millet wine and this did not cause this problem. It as complicated to make and one of the many traditions Sakinu revives is this one.
We also learn a lot about their traditions and stories. Most of their traditions are allied to nature, as are their stories. We learn about the couple who disguise themselves as respectively a hawk and a snake to outwit their parents who do not want them to meet.
They do have contact both with the Han and with other indigenous peoples. The Amis people are their neighbours and relations are not always smooth. However, it is the Han that are the worse.
When China came (by which he meant when the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan in 1949), they trapped us with their laws, they snared us with their rules saying, “You can’t do this,” and “You can’t do that.” And now we have lost the forests that belonged to us and the hunting grounds and the rivers and the places that we cultivated for generations.”
Many of the indigenous people have had to go into the cities to work. We get a story of young Sakinu and his brother going to Taipei for the first time and looking for their father, not very successfully.
Above all, Sakinu wants to preserve and, in some cases, bring back the Paiwan Culture. When he gets married, he wants a traditional Paiwan wedding, something that had not happened for some while (even though his wife is Pingpu). His father, who is Christian, strongly objects but Sakinu has his way and feels very happy at doing so.
He feels, with considerable justification, very proud of his efforts to preserve the traditional Paiwan culture. I’m Paiwan! Now I am proud to tell everyone my only faith is Paiwan, from beginning to end, never to change.
This is a wonderful little book, showing how an indigenous people, one few of us will have heard of, is trying to preserve its way of life. Sakinu writes well, telling much of what he feels in the form of stories. He is serious in his intent, but throws in bits of humour. His character comes through as does that of his father and grandfather. Above all, we learn of a people most of us have never heard of and almost certainly will not come into contact with and their efforts to remain true to themselves and their traditions.
First published by Si xiang sheng huo wu in 1998
First English translation Honford Star in 2020
Translated by Darryl Sterk