Sun Moon Lake's Thao artisanal tradition – Deeply rooted and deeply hidden
By Cheryl Robbins
The Thao tribe, one of the smallest of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes, with fewer than 1,000 members, inhabits the shores of and areas neighboring Sun Moon Lake. No one knows exactly how long ago, the Thao people arrived here. The Thao, themselves, believe that their ancestors came from the Alishan area of Chiayi County. There is a tribal legend that describes the sighting of a white deer by a Thao hunting party. They chased that deer for several days, and watched as it ran into Sun Moon Lake. That deer transformed into a fairy who convinced the elders through their dreams of the benefits of this area, such as rich supplies of water and fish.
One of the largest Thao communities is Dehua. This community extends out from the Idathao Pier, where throngs of tourists arrive aboard yachts that travel around the lake, picking up and dropping off passengers at different points. Since this is a busy transport hub, the plaza around the pier is always very active with groups taking photos, street performers and live music by indigenous artists. The streets that lead away from the pier are lined with snack stalls selling everything from indigenous to Chinese to Vietnamese cuisine, gift shops, restaurants and convenience stores.
From the pier, the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway station that leads to the equally touristy Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village theme park is in view. With all of this tourist activity, it is difficult to imagine that this is an indigenous area. Much of the culture has been exploited for tourism or Thao residents have been marginalized, pushed back from the mainstream areas.
The Thao Cultural Development Association (search Tcda on Facebook) is working to change this by preserving the Thao language, culture and traditional arts. This association is sending the message that traditional culture does exist here, although it may take a little bit of digging and exploring of smaller lanes, away from the crowded streets, to find it.
For example, it promotes the work of Yuan Guang-He. An elder of the tribe, he is the only remaining artisan who creates traditional fish traps. It is not that Yuan is not willing to teach these skills or to pass on his knowledge, it is that, as in many of Taiwan's indigenous tribes, there are no young people willing to learn.
Traditional fish traps were made from locally obtained natural materials such as bamboo, rattan and other plant materials. Yuan learned the process for making these from his grandfather. In his personal collection, he has a fish trap built by his grandfather that is still in excellent condition even after 100 years!
These fish traps have a tapered inside. This allows adult fish, larger in size than juveniles, to be trapped, as they are unable to maneuver their way out. Smaller juveniles can turn around and escape the trap, so that they can mature and reproduce, thereby maintaining fish stocks. This is part of the traditional knowledge of living in harmonious co-existence with nature.
These traps were hung from bamboo frames, which were submerged in the water and reached by wooden canoe. The traps floated while camouflaged along the surface of the lake. There was no need to bait these traps, as the fish would literally swim into them unaware. Traps of different sizes were made for different species of fish, the most common being the relatively small sharpbelly. At one end of the trap is a secured lid that can be opened once the trap is removed from the water to take out the fish.
These traps are no longer used, as they have been replaced by larger nets situated on platforms, which can be accessed using modern boats. However, Yuan insists on continuing this artisanal tradition.
In addition to the traditional fish traps, Yuan puts his weaving skills to use to make indigenous Amis-style shrimp traps and even decorative and functional baskets.