HOW I EARNED A MASTER'S DEGREE IN TAIWAN STUDIES WITH A BACKPACK AND VIDEO CAMERA
In 2003, I studied at Minghsin University of Science and Technology (MUST), and at the National Chengchi University (NCCU) Mandarin Language Center in Taipei, Taiwan. Soon after, I applied to study a Master's degree at the graduate school at NCCU. I also applied for, and received, a Taiwan Scholarship which helped me fund my course in Taiwan Studies.
The next four years of my life alternated between the classroom in Taipei and the remote mountains of southern Taiwan. I spent most of my life savings on travel, camera gear and mountaineering equipment.
My studies led me to a high-mountain watershed named in Chinese Nei Ben Lu (內本鹿), or Laipunuk in the local Bunun language. The Bunun, one of Taiwan's 16 ethnolinguistic groups, had moved to remote Laipunuk to hide from the Japanese army which had taken control of the island and the indigenous peoples beginning after the1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki.
Laipunuk, in the southern mountain highlands, was the last refuge of the Bunun, remaining unconquered by the Japanese until just before the end of WWII. It remained the only unmapped location in all of Taiwan. Bunun youth at that time grew up with traditional culture – until the arrival of the Japanese field police.
A few of these children survived, and at the time of my graduate research, they ranged in age from 70 to 90 years old. I found that they were eager to share their personal experiences and unique culture.
Below, is the map I developed for publication marking the location of Laipunuk.
If you find this topic interesting, watch the video playlist below and continue reading to learn more about this unforgettable Learning Adventure.
Taiwan Studies Playlist | YouTube | 12 Videos
Graduate Studies at National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan
2006 | Receiving my Master of Arts diploma from the president of National Chengchi University, Taiwan, ROC
Within a few months of starting my graduate program at National Chengchi University, I was lucky enough to meet filmmaker Tommie Williamson. He was the key person who invited me to Taitung on the southeastern coast of the island and opened the door to the Laipunuk oral history project.
Tommie provided me with technical support, office space, and lodging at the Bunun Cultural and Educational Foundation (Bunun Village).
Austronesian Taiwan | The Big Picture
Having lived on the Big Island of Hawaii for twenty-five years, I immediately felt a personal connection to Taiwan and the native culture, naming it the other Big Island. The two islands share the ancient and mysterious Pacific Ocean legacy of Austronesian-speaking peoples.
Little did I know when I first came to study in Taiwan, but the island was the source of the centuries-long process of the peopling of the Pacific, the so-called “Pacific Rainbow” that maps the migration of peoples, materials and languages across the islands of the Pacific, from Taiwan all the way across to Hawaii (see Figure 1 below, Distribution of the Austronesian Language Family, ECAI Pacific Language Mapping).
My Master's Thesis
My Master's thesis focused on the last living members of the Istanda family, elderly Bunun who were born in or near Laipunuk.
The research was made possible through my Taiwan Scholarship and friends like Nabu Istanda at the Bunun Cultural and Educational Foundation (BCEF), Taiwan's first charitable body created by indigenous people, for indigenous people.
Developed by Pastor Pai Kwang Sheng in 1995 based on his vision to build the Bunun Village, BCEF is managed by Laipunuk descendants and their families.
My research was ethnohistorical in practice, that is, recording oral history and comparing it with existing written documents. In order to do this, I lived with the Bunun tribespeople for four years, recording their ways of life, their music, their traditions and their histories.
Significant challenges to the ethnohistorical approach included my limited language skills, and although I understood basic Chinese, the Laipunuk elders mainly spoke Bunun and Japanese, and historical documents were for the most part in the Japanese script of that era.
With the support of the Bunun Village, Tommie Williamson, and my translator and guide, Nabu Istanda, I was able to develop my skills in ethnographic filmmaking and face the challenges of translating these heart-felt stories of the Bunun and their mountain home.
I was also invited by Nabu to participate in several mountaineering expeditions in order to see Laipunuk for myself (see photos, videos, and the links provided).
Nabu Istanda and Viliang | 2006 Laipunuk Expedition 內本鹿
For four years, I lived with and listened to, the Bunun people. I recorded films of the tribal elders sharing oral histories of events such as the arrival of Japanese forces in Laipunuk, the last region of Taiwan to be officially subjugated, a forced and tearful resettlement of the Bunun in 1941 from their high mountain homes to the malaria-infested lowlands near Taitung on Taiwan's east coast.
Their story was as fascinating as it was tragic. Once I got to know this family, including Tama Biung Istanda (pictured above), one of the last living Bunun with personal knowledge in old Laipunuk, I found myself deeply involved in the project of recording and translating their stories.
I fulfilled the commitment I made to share their stories with future generations.
The Last Refuge of an Indigenous People
In my research, I refer to Laipunuk as the last refuge of the Bunun. Their history is that of a marginalized people who experienced rapid and forced integration into a dominant foreign culture – spelling the end of the life the Bunun and neighboring tribal peoples had known for centuries.
Nevertheless, the remoteness of the region, coupled with the relatively late arrival of Japanese forces compared to the rest of Taiwan, afforded the Bunun children of the 1930s a traditional indigenous way of life. The boys learned hunting skills from their fathers, and the girls learned weaving and food-gathering from their mothers.
They are the last of their kind, and it is an immense privilege to have the opportunity to document their stories.
– Steven Martin
Faculty of International Studies Press Releases
In 2014, Dr. Steven Martin was invited to Taipei to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in cooperation with Academia Sinica, the foremost research institute in Taiwan, ROC. The Museum offered Steven a place in their upcoming publication, a book to commemorate their 20th anniversary: Religion, Law and State: Cultural Re-invigoration in the New Age. After three years of communication and collaboration, the Museum’s book has been published and is now available to English and Chinese readers.
Opening Ceremony of the 2014 International Conference on Formosan Indigenous Peoples | Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines
Papers and Presentations
- Martin, S. A., & Blundell, D. (2021). The last refuge and forced migration of a Taiwanese indigenous people during the Japanese colonization of Taiwan – An ethnohistory. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics. https://doi.org/10.1080/13537113.2021.2011545
- Martin, S. A. (2020). A Taiwan knowledge keeper of indigenous Bunun – An ethnographic historical narrative of Laipunuk (內本鹿), southern mountain range. Ethnography. DOI: 10.1177/1466138120937037
- Martin, S. A., & Blundell, D. (2017). Cultural continuum among the Bunun of Laipunuk (Nei Ben Lu), southern Taiwan (pp. 215–246). In H. Chang and A. Mona [C. Tsai] (Eds.), Religion, law and state: Cultural re-invigoration in the new age. Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines and SMC: Taipei.
- Martin, S. A., & Blundell, D. (2014). A new trial for the journey home to the Bunun villages of old Laipunuk, Taiwan: Contextualizing island Formosa through cultural heritage, digital mapping, and museology. Proceedings of the 2014 International Conference on Formosan Indigenous peoples: Contemporary Perspectives (p. 89). Taipei, Taiwan, ROC, September 15–17.
- Martin, S. A. (2011). Laipunuk (Nei Ben Lu)—The last frontier of the Taiwan aborigines during the Japanese occupation on Taiwan: Ethnographic narratives of a Bunun elder. The International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies (IJAPS), 7(1) 123–142.
- Martin, S. A. (2011). Rebuilding mama’s house—An ethnohistorical reconstruction and homecoming of the Bunun on Taiwan. Journal of International Studies, 1(2) 61–78. Phuket, Thailand: Faculty of International Studies, Prince of Songkla University.
- Martin, S. A. (2010). Laipunuk (Nei Ben Lu)—The last frontier of the Bunun during the Japanese occupation on Taiwan: Ethnographic narratives of an Isbukun elder. Scholarly presentation [PowerPoint]. 3rd Annual PSU Phuket Conference: Multidisciplinary Studies on Sustainable Development. Nov. 17–19. Prince of Songkla University, Phuket, Thailand.
Thank you for visiting my Taiwan Learning Adventure page.
I hope you enjoy the photos, videos, and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about my Taiwan Research, or other Learning Adventures, or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.