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The Representation of Aborigines in Taiwanese Baseball

This is the third in a series of Savage Minds posts on sports and ethnic representation. The first was Oneman’s post on ethnic mascots, followed by my earlier post on ethnic soccer clubs in Australia.

This post draws on a 2000 paper (PDF) by Andrew Morris, presented at the conference Remapping Taiwan: Histories and Cultures in the Context of Globalization, as well a more recent (2004) version of Morris’ work, “Baseball, History, the Local and the Global in Taiwan,” which appeared in the book The Minor Arts of Daily Life: Popular Culture in Taiwan.

MapleLeaf

Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 till the end of World War, when the Nationalists (Guomindang, or KMT) took over. Baseball had become popular under Japanese rule, but managed to survive KMT efforts to de-Japanify the country.

This incredible tightrope-walk between Japanese colonialist legacies and Guomindang- U.S. hegemony in Taiwan continued into, and was in many ways exemplified by, the international success of Taiwanese Little League baseball (Shaonian Bangqiu, or Shaobang) teams beginning in the late 1960s. In a tremendous run perhaps unmatched in the history of international sport, Taiwanese Shaobang teams won ten Little League World Series titles between 1969 and 1981, and sixteen in the 27-year period from 1969 to 1995. This success brought desperately appreciated attention to Taiwan in a time when its most important ally, the United States, was gradually shunning the island in favor of ties to the People’s Republic of China. But it also allowed the playing-out of a very complicated jumble of national and racial tensions that make a study of Taiwanese baseball crucial to a deeper understanding of Taiwanese society during this important era.

This Little League success began in August 1968, with two great victories by the Red Leaf (Hongye) Elementary School team over a visiting team from Wakayama, near Osaka, Japan. This Hongye Village team, made up of Bunun Aborigine youth representing their tiny Taidong County school of just 100 students, earned the right to play Wakayama after winning the islandwide Students’ Cup tournament held in Taibei. They then became superstars after their victories over Wakayama at the Taibei Municipal Stadium. The 20,000 fans who managed to get tickets for each of these historic games were joined by an islandwide television audience treated to more than 13 hours of Taiwan Television broadcasts on the first game alone. Unfortunately, the jubilation at these victories was soon dampened by several revelations. The Red Leaf team included on their roster of 11 boys, five who had already graduated from Hongye Elementary the year previous, and nine who were playing under false names. Moreover, the Wakayama team was not, as many believed at the time and remember still today, the 1968 youth world champions, although they had handily defeated, 15-3, the real world champs (another Japanese team) shortly before coming to Taiwan. Nonetheless, these great victories by the Taidong County village youths constitute a tremendous moment in modern Taiwanese sports and cultural history, and announced to the world that Taiwan was ready to join, in this realm of competition at least, the powers of world sport.

When I was in Taiwan I visited the baseball museum (link to pictures of the inside) attached to the Hongye Elementary school, where the Red Leaf team was from. Although the museum seemed to be falling into disrepair, there is no doubt that the story of the Red Leaf team is as important to the Taiwanese myth now as it ever was.

a perfect example being the new NT$500 bill. As the sagely visage of the iron-fisted Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek is removed from Taiwan’s currency for the new millennium, what better indigenous symbol to replace him than an image of the young Little Leaguers who won his regime so much fame in the 1970s? Taiwan’s central bank announced in March 1999 that the new NT$500 bill would feature a healthy and inspirational image of Taiwan’s “world-renowned” youth baseball champions. Taiwan’s baseball heritage has the attention of the art world as well. Taiwan’s 1999 Golden Horse Award for Best Documentary went to Taidong director Xiao Juzhen’s “Red Leaf Legend” (Hongye Chuanqi), a film about the men who made baseball history for Red Leaf Elementary School, Hongye Village, Taidong County, and all of Taiwan so many decades ago.

500nt

Although there is no doubt that the baseball players on the NT$500 bill are meant to evoke the 1968 team, they are actually members of a different Aborigine little league team. They are Puyuma (卑南) Aborigines from Nanwang Elementary School (南王國小), who had won the championship the year the bill was being made. (I visited this school on the same trip that took me to the museum.)

Aborigine identity became even more important to Taiwan after the end of martial law in 1987. Pro-independence politicians emphasized Taiwan’s unique history under Japanese rule as a way of distinguishing Taiwanese identity from that of China. For the previous forty years the KMT had taught Taiwanese that they were part of China, all but ignoring local history in the school curriculum. Aborigine baseball thus became even more important to Taiwan’s national identity. This was capitalized upon by the Taiwan Major League (TML, 台灣大聯盟) baseball company, which was created to recapture an audience put off by scandals and foreign players. The TML drew from Aborigine languages in naming its teams, as well as in its official anthem, “supposedly based on rhythms and patterns of several types of Aboriginal tribal songs, consists of lyrics (see below) in Mandarin, Taiwanese, English, Japanese and Aboriginal languages”:

NALUWAN — True Heroes
Take charge – the fervent spirit of the rainbow,
Our hearts are filled – with great fire shining bright,
Struggle on – with hopes that never die,
Start anew – a space for us alone.
Fight! Fight! Fight, fight! Speed just like the wind,
K! K! K! Power stronger than all,
Homu-ran batta – truly strong and brave,
Aaa … Na-Lu-Wan, the true heroes!

Today, Taiwanese baseball is once again embroiled in scandal, and it is the foreign players who are being scapegoated in the Taiwanese press. But I don’t think anything will dampen the enthusiasm of Taiwanese Aborigines for the sport. Not only is it still seen as a way out of poverty for many some rural Aborigine children, but now they have two success stories of Aborigine players who made it beyond Taiwan to the American Major Leagues. There is the Dodger’s Chen Chin-feng, and Tsao Chin-hui who was signed to the Colorado Rockies. Chen is not actually from an officially recognized Aborigine ethnic group, but is descended from the Siraya Aborigines of the West Coast. The Siraya are one of the Pingpu (plains) Aborigine ethnic groups, and they have been quick to claim Chen as one of their own:

However, Tuan pointed out that Pingpu aboriginal peoples are not officially recognized by Taiwan’s government as having aboriginal status, as some scholars have said the Pingpu people have mostly been assimilated by the late-arriving Han Chinese settlers in the last four hundred years. Tuan said Chen Chin-feng has followed in his elder brother’s footsteps in playing baseball at various top-level schools since he was very young, and therefore may not have as strong an identification with his aboriginal roots as the rest of his family.

“He is now a big star and a hero to Taiwanese people. If he can get to know more of his background and the family history, Chen Chin-feng can have a big impact on our Pingpu people’s struggle for official recognition by the public and the government,” stated Tuan.

The second player, pitcher Tsao Chin-hui, is an Aborigine from the Amis ethnic group in Hualian county, where I did my research.

ADDITIONAL LINKS: Link to Wikipedia page on Taiwanese Aborigines. Also, a new book on the struggle of Pingpu Aborigines is due out from Routledge sometime next year. A journalist’s account of baseball in Taiwan.

2 thoughts on “The Representation of Aborigines in Taiwanese Baseball

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  2. When they are redundant from myself, yes – but I think they are useful when they show related discussions happening on other blogs – or new posts referencing older posts.

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