What’s Your Real Name (2002)

Naming Customs of Taiwanese Aboriginals and Ethnic Politics— On What’s Your Real Name (2002) by Mayaw Biho

What’s Your Real Name (2002)
What’s Your Real Name (2002)

The Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott, a Nobel laureate in Literature who has visited Taiwan, writes in his poem “The Schooner Flight”:

“…but we live like our names and you would have
to be colonial to know the difference,
to know the pain of history words contain…”

Taiwanese aboriginals were ruled by Japan for half a century, followed by another half century reign by the Han government. Their names and identities, switched from Japanese ones to Han, have constantly been removed over the past century. In May 1991, aboriginal groups launched their name rectification movement. After more than ten years of effort, more and more aboriginal people managed to rid themselves of the meaningless Chinese names enforced on them by the Han people, ones they would even feel mortified at, by adopting their native names with unsatisfying Han Chinese spellings. In the name rectification movement, they’ve been trying to rectify and restore the culture and history that their names stand for. The Amis documentary filmmaker Mayaw Biho underlines the theme, educational for both Han and the aboriginal people, in four episodes of his What’s Your Real Name (請問貴姓) series.

It’s also common for the Han ethnic group to change their names; their motives include the want to have a more refined and artistic name, or to change their fortune or career. The aborigines’ rectification of names is based on the wish to return to their linguistic and cultural identity, trying to maintain their ethnic collectiveness. In the film, Xiaman Jiabadu, a Tao teacher at the elementary school, emphasizes the sacredness of naming. “Name is not just a sign or a code. It implies the continuity of life,” he says. Nevertheless, we still see many aboriginal people named by the Han, with a japes like Hsieh Lu-Ren (passerby), Jiang Na-Ge (overthere), Chou Zedong (the same name as Mao’s, the former chairman of China), Tsai Hsiao-Niao (little bird), and so on. We witness how the Han people cause the aborigines another historical trauma.

Although today, with these aboriginal movements, many Han people are aware of this cultural discrimination hidden in policies, or at least they know how to respect the aboriginal people’s identity and culture. Under this Han political and cultural hegemony, however, still we can’t really feel the same way as aboriginal people do about how their identity are dominated by the Han centrism or marginalised by the mainstream. In the film, an Atayal girl Pisui CIyo describes how she couldn’t fill her native full name in the tourist visa application form or IC card personal data, which are designed only for Han names. Another Pisui (Pinuyi XiLang) is often called “Miss Pi”.

What’s Your Real Name opens a door for us to get in touch with the diversity and connotations of different aboriginal ethnic groups names. Some aboriginal groups don’t have the concept of a surname. Their names combine with those of the places where they’re born, while others come with their clan names, such as the Tsou people. The Say-Siyat’s name is composed of the family name, father’s name and the first name. The Payuan’s names reflect their status in the family and their places in the social hierarchy, so the naming should have the permission of the village head and elders, and one can’t have a name that doesn’t match their class. The names of the Tao people show one’s age, family status, and which songs they can sing (for Han people who don’t have much singing culture other than the KTVs, who wouldn’t be envious of this), and often embody the sort of humility in their linguistic culture. From the various meanings and pronunciations of the aboriginal naming, not only do we learn the difference between the Han and aboriginal naming customs, we should also remind ourselves that in Taiwan, a single, homogenised aboriginal group doesn’t exist. Instead, they’re highly distinct from one another. Their cultures can’t be so conveniently simplified and eliminated by the Han people.

What’s Your Real Name, produced and directed by Mayaw Biho, shows the filmmaker’s constant care and qualities in his filmmaking. As a member of the Amis, Mayaw’s works, outstanding in both quality and quantity, have not only focused on social issues and the preservation of the Amis culture, he also directs his camera to the issues or movements of aboriginal groups other than the Amis. For instance, In The land in My Heart: Igung Shiban (心中的土地), an Atayal, YiGong Xifan (with the Han name Tian Chun-Chou), fights against a cement plant for land originally belonging to them, and National Bandits, Beautiful Mistake (國家共匪) records the Bunun and the Atayal people’s protests against national park policies. In his visionary document Coming and Going, Island of Tachen (來去大陳), Mayaw picks a theme not relevant to the aboriginal cultures at all, turning his concerns for discrete ethnic groups and cultural identity to the marginalised mainlander descendants. The documentary is one of a few masterpieces in Taiwan.

The value of Mayaw’s works lie in the subjects he cares about and the historical elements of them. The objective angle from which he observes things also contributes to the films’ multilayered views. His works always have a clear standpoint, a cultural and political standpoint that doesn’t cover nor simplify the complicated part of a certain issue that needs to be presented. While The land in My Heart shows Mayaw’s support for aboriginal Taiwanese movements, it also points out some issues of the aboriginals themselves. The third episode of What’s Your Real Name, apart from the Bunnun naming and the relevant marriage customs, also presents the young generation’s confusion and struggle with the taboo that bans people of the same clan from entering into a relationship. This is one of the qualities that make Mayaw’s works so touching to me.

The impact of his profound, honest documentaries that never avoid such issues will bring viewers an understanding and impact on them, which will inevitably be real and substantial to the viewers too. What’s Your Real Name’s humorous, interesting, and unadorned narrative brings us into the history and reality of the aboriginal people’s naming. It’s a nice opportunity for the Han people to put their ethnocentrism aside and have a genuine understanding of the aborigines’ naming, languages, and their eventful and complex history.

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