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 that 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.
The Dutch built Fort Zeelandia in Anping near what is Tainan City today, where the Sinkang tribe of aboriginals lived and which became a major commercial hub for the Dutch. Showing a map, Ang showed how the Dutch easily traveled up rivers from the shore right into the heart of the aboriginal territory.
According to Dr. Ang, in order to facilitate trade and business dealings, representatives from the Dutch East India Company learned the local language of Siraya and taught them Latin script and the Dutch alphabet which they used to write their own language, an Austro-Polynesian dialect more closely related to Indonesian and the Maori language than Chinese.
The initial Sinkang Manuscripts contain deeds and contracts written bilingually in Siraya and Dutch with some written solely in Siraya. But, the existence of documents from as late as 1813 shows that the Siraya people used the script for 150 years after Dutch were gone. Many of the later manuscripts contain records of business dealings they had with Chinese and are written bilingually in Siraya and Chinese.
At the time, Siraya scribes who were proficient in both languages were hired to draft the records and sometimes managed to score extra money from the dealer and buyer’s ignorance of each other’s language. One deed dated from the late 18th century, Ang pointed out, has the sale price written in Siraya as 16 dollars while the purchase price, written in Chinese, is listed as 60 dollars. Clearly the scribe cheated both sides, keeping the difference for himself.
Many of the texts are still privately owned, having been passed down by the original owners, while many others can be found in the National History Museum and museums in Tokyo and London, in addition to those held at Academia Sinica.
Ang says that the Sinkang Manuscripts give significant insight into Taiwan’s past and fill in many gaps in how people in Taiwan view themselves, particularly aboriginals.
“It means that we Taiwanese have valuable culture that we have forgotten,” he said. “In our history there are too many things we don’t know. Before now, the Kuomintang taught us we that all came from China, so all of Taiwan’s culture belongs to China. But from this academic work, we can restore the Sinkang language and learn so many things previously lost. ”
For example, Ang explained, they were long under the assumption that so many of the aboriginal tribes didn’t use surnames, but that the manuscripts clearly show family names were common.
Ang explained that through collaborative effort between the linguistics and history departments, they have managed to decipher about 80 percent of the texts that has helped them piece together the now-dead language.
“Through these we have been able to recreate the grammar and spelling,” he explained. “We can reconstruct almost the whole language.”
In addition to the recovered business transaction records, the texts include a Bible translated into Siraya used by Dutch missionaries who came to the island. Such missionary work was considered an important enough undertaking to rewrite the Bible.
“Every week they had to go to Sunday school,” Ang noted. “If they were absent they had to be punished.”
Besides indicating how vibrant and advanced the Sinkang society was, Ang adds they also are helping to answer some questions regarding the Dutch influence. Referring to a temple named “Dutch Princess” and a Taiwanese folk song about a “red-haired woman standing at the port waiting for her Dutch father,” Ang asks “Why do we have these memories? Maybe some of our ancestors are Dutch. I feel I have to solve this.”
Ang also says that the manuscripts have a lesson for the future.
“One of the most important things this teaches is that we must prevent losing our other languages like Hakka, Taiwanese, and the aboriginal languages,” he said. “The new generation only speaks Chinese – even my own children. If we don’t promote our mother tongue, it will share the fate of the Sinkang language in another 10 or 20 years or so. The next generation will have forgotten it.”