Monday, March 20, 2006

Taiwan's Aborigine Roots

The China Post is generally a low-quality rag, but here is a shining moment on a unique and little-known facet of the history of The Beautiful Island:

The 350-year-old document looks pretty good for its age. The real-estate contract is worn, browned and frayed on the sides, but it's in one piece and still legible.

"Legible," that is, if you happened to know the now-dead aboriginal language of Siraya.

Taiwan's first language of business and commerce was not English, Dutch or even Chinese, but rather an Austro-Polynesian dialect that no one alive today would recognize in its written or aural form.

No one, that is, but a handful of researchers who have been painstakingly working to recreate the language. On such person is Dr. Ang Kaim of Academia Sinica's Taiwan History Department who has been studying the language and the 187 Sinkang Manuscripts written in it for over 20 years.

"The spelling and writing style is very similar to that of 17th century Dutch," Ang says indicating specific similarities between the two scripts such as a looping 's.' "These show that the Dutch taught the people living in the Sinkang region their writing system, which they used primarily for contracts and other records."

In the early 17th century, Dutch adventurers arrived on the shores of Taiwan, drove out other European colonists, developed virgin land, built settlements, planted sugar cane, engaged in trade and worked to convert natives to Christianity. The explorers from Holland also built forts, taxed the locals, and hired resident Chinese to work the farms that provided agriculture. Through the Dutch East Indies Company, Holland came to rule Taiwan, using the island primarily as a hub for trading with the rest of the region.

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