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The 400-year-old cradle of Taiwanese culture

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(Source: Alamy)

Known as the “Birthplace of Taiwan,” the island’s oldest city is celebrating its quarter-century by highlighting its multicultural past.

In 1624, a ragtag fleet of Dutch East India Company ships landed on a forested island off the coast of China. The Dutch traders were seeking a foothold for trade with China’s Ming Dynasty, but had failed to capture the Portuguese enclave of Macau. The rugged, unexplored island to which they retreated was a place of last resort. They established a base on a long sandbar and built a fort, giving it the name Fort ZeelandiaThey called the place where they settled Tayouan – Taiwan.

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

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of Fort Zeelandia and the city of Tainan that grew up around it. And here, in Taiwan’s oldest city, the celebrations are underway. Tainan’s 400th Anniversary Celebrationwhich started in January with the organization Taiwan Lantern Festival and will continue in December, are dedicated to exploring Tainan’s many stories, told in multiple languages. Under the theme “Tainan, Where You Belong,” the year of concerts, exhibitions and public celebrations highlights how the city has evolved as a melting pot of different cultures.

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

Today, the best way to experience Tainan is to simply wander its narrow streets and soak up the cultural diversity. Tainan is proud of its reputation as birthplace of taiwan and the cradle of Taiwanese culture, and has managed to hold on to its roots more than any other Taiwanese city. Compared to the capital Taipei or Tainan’s nearest neighbor, Kaohsiung—with their soaring skyscrapers that seem to reach into the future—Tainan feels like a place where past and present collide. New skyscrapers compete for space with ancient monuments and tangled side streets lined with buildings that are centuries old. On weekends, the streets are noisy with the sound of fireworks 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 old brick walls intertwined with the roots of mammoth banyan trees. Next to it, Kaitai Tianhou Temple is dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. The temple, whose history dates back to 1668, is the oldest sanctuary of the most popular deity on the island. Inside, visitors continue the old-fashioned tradition of throwing Maybecroissant-shaped blocks of wood and asking the goddess for advice on business, family problems and romance. Outside, stalls sell shrimp crackers, fried sweet potato balls and a local Tainan delicacy kuann tsha pang or “coffin bread” (fried bread stuffed with seafood sauce) attest to the city’s reputation as Taiwan’s street food capital. And across the road, older residents sit on plastic chairs in the shade and chat in Taiwanese, a dialect derived from the original Hokkien spoken by settlers who came from Fujian, China, that has largely disappeared in other parts of the island in favor of Mandarin.

Before the arrival of the Dutch, Taiwan’s population consisted mainly of culturally and linguistically diverse indigenous groups. When the Dutch established the first school in Taiwan in present-day Tainan in 1636, classes were held in Siraya, and in 1661 the missionary Daniel Gravius ​​​​also published his translation of the Gospel of Matthew in Siraya. A year later, the Ming rebel Coxinga took over Fort Zeelandia and drove out the Dutch, initiating waves of migration out of China. This first wave of Chinese settlers consisted mainly of Hokkien speakers from Fujian. But in the decades after Koxinga, when Taiwan passed to the Qing dynasty and Tainan became the capital of the new Taiwan prefecture, other groups arrived, including a significant Hakka-speaking community. The island remained under Qing control for two centuries until it was handed over to the Japanese in 1895. The Japanese remained until the end of World War II, and Japanese became the island’s lingua franca. Today, there are a few older people in Taiwan who still speak Japanese more comfortably than Mandarin or Taiwanese.

All this time a long, complicated historyIndigenous languages ​​were increasingly marginalized. Some, including Siraya, almost disappeared completely. However, new threats to Taiwan’s cultural and linguistic diversity loomed large. In 1949, after defeat in the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shekThe Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. To consolidate their rule, the Nationalists declared martial law and declared Mandarin the national language, even though almost no one in Taiwan spoke it. Nevertheless, for nearly four decades, the Nationalists did their best to transform Taiwan’s culturally and linguistically diverse people into a monoculture that identified as Chinese and spoke Mandarin.

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Tainan has more traditional folk temples than any other city in Taiwan (Source: Will Buckingham)

But the Nationalists’ monocultural vision of Taiwan has always been a fiction, and in the decades since martial law ended in 1987, the country has been rediscovering your multicultural and multilingual identityIn Tainan and elsewhere in southern Taiwan, the Mandarin-only policy was enforced with less fervor, and resistance was more entrenched. As a result, Taiwanese remains an integral part of the city’s identity to this day. And as a sign of the city’s ongoing commitment to a diversity of languages ​​and cultures, official website in Tainan 400 greets guests in Taiwanese, Siraya and Hakka.

To understand how Tainan is rediscovering this cultural diversity, I visited Temple of Confucius in central Tainan to talk with the head of the temple’s cultural foundation, Dr. Tsio̍h Bo̍k-bîn. As we sat in an airy hall with burgundy walls and swooping eaves, Tsio̍h explained how Taiwanese culture has been built from successive waves of colonialism. Tsio̍h noted that even the temple itself, which seems archetypal Chinese, is a hybrid. Built using construction techniques borrowed from the Dutch, it was rebuilt and restored by the Japanese. “The Confucius Temple 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 involved in the revival of the Taiwanese language. “I think we need a strong and clear expression of being Taiwanese,” he said. “Language is a symbol of self-expression. Taiwanese society is moving toward a vision of a society of linguistic equality. 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. 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 that trend is YouTuber and Anping native Chiu Ka-éng, who goes by the name Ayo. Ayo’s YouTube channel, The Tai-lâm muē-á kàu lí kong The Tai-gi (Tainan Girl Teaches You Taiwanese) is popular for its energetic delivery, retro visuals, and language exploration.

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Many parts of Tainan, such as Shennong Street, date back to the Qing Dynasty (Source: 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 connection between language and place is very close. Language has a certain feeling, and if you change the language, that feeling disappears.” For Ayo, this makes the Tainan 400 celebrations an opportunity “to collectively imagine how this place came to be.” A chance to ask “what kind of future do we want for the next 100 or 400 years?”

In addition to Taiwanese, another language is undergoing a revival in Tainan: Siraya. The revival is being spearheaded by Uma Talavan, a native Siraya, and her husband, Edgar Macapli. Three decades ago, the couple stumbled upon Gravius’ translation of the Gospel of Matthew. Since then, they have devoted themselves to reviving Siraya as a living language. When I met the couple at a coffee shop on the outskirts of Xinhua, they had brought with them a stack of recently published Siraya textbooks, and we talked about how, after more than a century of silence, Siraya is now being used again, taught in more than 20 schools in Tainan.

The rebirth is also a reminder of Taiwan’s deeper history, stretching back thousands of years. “The buildings may be 400 years old,” Talavan said. “But this land is not 400 years old. For our people, our history, our lives… I always say it’s more than 400 years old.”

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

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Tainan may be celebrating its 400th anniversary, but Taiwan’s history goes back thousands of years (Source: Alamy)

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

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