Head Hunter No More
The heads are being counted, fewer and fewer. But these are not the heads the Tsou people historically hunted when they raided their neighboring enemies. That custom has been abolished and died almost a century ago. It is the head count of their own people, dwindling now to fewer than 4,000 individuals.
“If the current trend continues, our people will be extinct in a few generations.” Dai Su-yun sounded her alarm, chatting with me over a fine cup of tea that she carefully brewed for us. We are here to inspect our project among her people.
Dai is the wife of An Da-ming, one of the most successful tea farmers in the Alishan region at Dabang, which is the heart of where the best Taiwan teas are grown, as well as the heart of the indigenous Tsou people of Taiwan. Though Dai is very concerned about the future of the Tsou people, she herself is not of Tsou ancestry, but married into the family. The fate of the tribe, of the ethnic group, and even of her husband, is no doubt in jeopardy.
“We have one daughter, well-passed marrying age, and she seems in no hurry to get married. In fact, there are so few options around here for a mate that she would rather stay single,” Dai said with a somewhat sad tone. “Young people either don’t marry or, even if married, don’t have kids. And many of the younger ones leave here and flock to the city,” Dai further lamented.
While sipping her very fine award-winning tea, I promised to ask my close friend Professor Yu Shuenn-der, a leading ethnologist of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, to come and have a look. At the moment, Professor Yu is staying at our Zhongdian Center, continuing his yearly studies of Tibetans at a neighboring village in Yunnan. Perhaps a survey and proper demographic study here would help reveal a bit more about reasons for the grave situation the Tsou people are facing.
“My brother-in-law is a very experienced doctor in reproductive medicine and constantly handles infertility cases. Perhaps he can come and help too,” I suggested. “But if the children of the Tsou simply do not want to have babies, then perhaps we need to send in a phycologist or marriage counselor/planner instead,” I quickly added.
While much of the world is facing the pressure of population explosion, the Tsou people are in the reverse, trying futilely to be more fertile and grow their numbers, which were small to begin with. Small enough that even Wikipedia only has a six-line entry about the Tsou people, far less than what some of us at CERS know about this unique tribe.
Perhaps that is somewhat understandable. Because of their head-hunting tradition, very few people dared to enter the region in the past. One exception was Torii Ryuzo, a Japanese anthropologist who studied the Tsou around 1920 when Taiwan was still under Japanese occupation. His richly illustrated book recorded the last vestiges of the Tsou tribe and formed the basis of what we now know of as the colorful history and unique practices of this people.
Even up until the mid-1970s, it was difficult to acquire the special permit necessary for any foreigner to enter the region. Some remote villages claim to have seen foreign visitors only once or twice. In 1984, an ageing Japanese anthropologist entered a village and was told that he was only the second foreign visitor, ever. The other was a Japanese woman missionary, over half a century ago.
Dabang where CERS has our project is the center of the Tsou community, with over 800 people in the tiny village town, less than three city blocks square. Others spread out over the nearby hills and valleys, mainly conducting tea farming and other agricultural production.
Through a chance meeting five years ago with Amo and his wife Huiling, we got to know better the Tsou culture and its disintegration. The young couple were very keen to find a way to restore to some degree their people’s past. Hunting, a mainstay of the Tsou people’s traditional activity, had largely been curtailed. The culture that was attached to this subsistence livelihood likewise eclipsed and disappeared. Modern yet simple houses had replaced the indigenous thatched roof houses of the Tsou.
Amo and his wife had been dreaming of rebuilding at least one such house as a testimony to their past. Coming through their simple abode’s door was a CERS team exploring the area for the first time. We were impressed by their passion and made a multi-year commitment to assist them in realizing their dreams.
Through several more visits and multiple trips by our Taiwanese designer Sharon Ko and associate Eufung Hwang, the project gradually moved along. Today, two rather impressive buildings have been erected, sitting majestically deep inside a very remote mountain valley of Dabang. There are dormitory, kitchen, bathrooms, dining and even an exhibit area. A third building is being planned.
Since early this year, Amo and Huiling have hosted over two hundred local Tsou students to visit the premises. These young people not only come to look at the buildings and the collection of Tsou relics inside, but are taught how to use the traditional knife to make utensils, how to use bow and arrows in archery, how to start a fire over a traditional stone stove and cook a simple yet tasty meal. At times, they were invited even to stay overnight in the two houses.
During our own visit recently, we observed with keen interest nine Tsou children, barely ten to twelve years old, enthusiastically spending their Sunday learning to live as their ancestors had done in the past. Yes, this is another small CERS project, again started with little fanfare and visibility, now coming into fruition.
Heading back to “civilization”, I left Alishan riding the small-gauge train which was started over a hundred years ago by the Japanese. Along the way I occasionally caught glimpses of the many cars and busloads of people heading up to the famous tourist destination of Alishan. No one would ever take a detour to visit this unique Tsou people of Dabang, but for me even the nature and wildlife of Dabang are just as wonderful.
But then, how many people have ever heard of such a small indigenous tribe. That might as well be. I knew in my heart that the future generation of the Tsou people would have a weekend playground where they would feel connected to their ancestors.
Perhaps with their own identity, they will also live with more dignity and integrity. With that, they may also fulfill a new mission, multiplying and perpetuating their population to enhance the headcount of these once majestic and gallant head-hunting people.