Tsai Min-hsuan, MA student, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Culture, National Taipei University of Education
“The Wanderer Shen-fish,” part of a twelve-essay collection by Tao writer Syaman Rapongan, chronicles the writer’s return to his native Orchid Island and the reawakening of his ethnic consciousness. Rapongan explores the clash between tradition and modernity, what it means to be a true Tao (“human being”), and his people’s struggle to wrest a living from the sea. To the Tao, the “shen-fish” is a valiant species. Tao men consider it a great honor and glory to craft spears and hunt the great fish.
Back on Orchid Island, Rapongan learns to dive and spear fish, risking danger undersea. In the eyes of his scrupulously traditional parents, the writer has broken a great taboo by entering ocean waters alone at inauspicious times. But Rapongan persists in the hope of honing his spearfishing skills and recovering his ethnic identity.
Rapongan admits to becoming more and more superstitious as he grows older. He begins to accept his elders’ animistic beliefs, converting from atheism to pantheism. He feels that the fishes of the ocean understand his innermost concerns, and he acquires a great respect for nature. As he is hunting the shen-fish, other schools of fish suddenly disappear, intimating the approach of a large and dangerous predator. But Rapongan’s sixth sense tells him the oncoming creature is not a sea monster or a shark, but the legendary shen-fish.
The shen-fish lives for at least twelve years, growing to nearly the size of an adult human male. Transfixed by the fish’s bright-eyed gaze, Rapongan fails to harpoon his prey. He then loses his weapon in a struggle with the beast. Fatigued, the writer begins to consider the true significance of killing a shen-fish; from this fishing experience, he also comes to realize the wisdom and necessity of traditional taboos.
Rapongan returns home, sad and tired. His father, an experienced fisherman, at once understands his son’s emotions. The older man proceeds to share his wisdom and experience of the sea with the novice. Their talk revolves around anito – evil spirits – superstition has become a part of Rapongan’s beliefs and he now holds that life experience is of greater value than scientific evidence. More than simply a celebration of the writer’s love for the sea, “The Wanderer Shen-fish” is a moving tribute to Tao tradition, life wisdom that has come down through the ages.
Syaman Rapongan (b. 1957), a member of the Tao ethnic group, was born in Imorod Village, Lanyu (Orchid Island) Township, Taitung County. Syaman Rapongan is the writer’s tribal name; his Chinese name is Shi Nulai. After high school, he declined an offer to enter university without having to take an exam and instead went north, where he served as a factory apprentice and did odd jobs. But he frequently dwelt on his childhood dream of going to university and in 1980 he enrolled at the Department of French at Tamkang University.
In 1988, while the democracy movement in Taiwan was flourishing, aboriginal recognition, environmental protection, and anti-nuclear movements also proliferated. Rapongan got involved with the Orchid Island grassroots anti-nuclear movement, and his first article, “Humanity,” appeared in the China Times supplement and spoke of nuclear waste and Orchid Island. In 1989 he decided to go back to the outlying Orchid Island, where he set about relearning traditional Tao ways of life and developing two levels of identity: the first, an aboriginal individual’s self-identity, and the second, the process by which the tribe checks and recognizes this identity.
The quest to return to the tribal village is also apparent in Rapongan’s The Myths of Badai Bay (1992), a collection of myths and legends. His feelings about the return to the tribe are laid bare in Cold Sea, Deep Feeling: The Ocean Pilgrims (1997). In 1999 Rapongan studied for a Master’s degree at Tsing Hua University’s Institute of Anthropology in the hope of using academic discourse to describe the features of the Tao people’s orally transmitted literature, rites and rituals, and lived experience. That same year, he published Black Wings, which won the Wu Choliu Prize.
Among his many roles, Rapongan has worked as a substitute teacher and has been a member of the Taipei City Government Indigenous People’s Commission, a consultant for Taiwan Public Service Television Foundation’s Aboriginal Programming Committee, and a member of the Executive Yuan’s Orchid Island Community Development Committee. This varied experience has enabled him to work for and write about his tribe from different perspectives, as in The Memory of the Waves (2002), which tells of his feelings for the ocean. This book marks a departure from the ambivalence that marked his previous writings about the return to the tribe and instead portrays the Tao people with a tone of reminiscence.
In 2005 Rapongan began studying for a doctorate in the Department of Taiwanese Literature at National Cheng Kung University. In May of that year, he became the first Taiwanese person to cross the South Pacific in a canoe, with help from the “South Pacific Dream Travel” program set up by the Council for Cultural Affairs.
In December 2006 Japanese writer Nobuko Takagi came all the way to Orchid Island and interviewed Rapongan face to face as part of her literary odyssey. Rapongan’s prose collection The Seafarer’s Face (2007) and his short story collection Old Seafarer (2009) have opened up new directions for Taiwan’s oceanic literature.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=4519
|Work(English)：||The Wanderer Shen-fish|
|Anthology：||Taiwan Literature: English Translation Series（《台灣文學英譯叢刊 》）|
|Translator：||Fan Pen Chen|
|Publisher：||Forum for the Study of World Literatures in Chinese, University of California, Santa Barbara|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://unitas.udngroup.com.tw|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Unitas Publishing Co.|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://paper-republic.org/publishers/taiwan-literature-english-translation-series/|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：|