Seeing Seqalu through Outcasts of Empire

twitter threads, Indigeneity, Taiwan Studies

For today’s #TaiwanStudies thread I will be doing something a bit different. Rather than doing a book report on Paul Barclay’s 《Outcasts of Empire》, or a review of the Taiwanese TV show《Seqalu: Formosa 1867》, I will be talking about the two of them together.

(Link to twitter thread.)

If this was an essay, I’d title it re-reading Outcasts of Empire alongside Seqalu.” As I started watching Seqalu, I realized that it illustrated so many of the key themes in Paul’s amazing book that I decided to go back and re-read the whole thing just to write a few tweets…

For those of you who want to try this at home, you are in luck.

《Outcasts of Empire》is available as an open access e-book from the publisher.

And 《Seqalu》is available to watch for free on @taiwanplusmedia. Here is the link to the first episode.

Before going any further, if you are unfamiliar with the basic premise or history of the TV show, it will help to watch this 4 minute introduction by TaiwanBar.

I’m the first to admit that Seqalu is less than stellar TV viewing. It’s no Game of Thrones, that’s for sure. And while it has been criticized for some historical inaccuracies, I think it does get some of the big things right about that time and place.

Both the book and the show are about contact zones on the edges of empire, and about the people who live in these zones. What is particularly interesting about the Hengchun Peninsula in the late nineteenth century is that it would be the contact zone with multiple empires:

The Qing, the Americans, and the Japanese would all find themselves both fighting with and negotiating with the multicultural community that lived there, which included Paiwan, Amis, and Makatao Indigenous peoples together with Hakka and Holo speaking Chinese.

Here is a nice short history of the region.

So what does Paul Barclay have to say about such contact regions and the people who lived in them? I want to highlight two claims from his book: (1) this period saw a clash between two different approaches to governing such border regions,

and (2) each approach implied different roles for those people who were most able to function in such border regions, such as Tokitok and Tiap-Moe.

Even though Tiap-Moe is a fictional character, Barclay shows that many women like her played an important role as translators and negotiators in Taiwan’s border regions. (Hopefully some of these real women will get their own shows eventually.)

To oversimplify Paul’s first argument, the Qing empire was built on tribute relations with the border regions, and the further one moved from the imperial seat of power, the looser the state’s control. However, a new global system was emerging which saw state power as being

evenly spread over the entire surface of the state’s official borders. Barclay admits such maps expressed wishful thinking” but governments were much more willing to use force to try to bring reality inline with the map.

In short, the old order, of which the Qing was still a part, was perfectly OK with simply managing” the borders of empire, while the new form of sovereignty that was emerging wanted to erase any internal borders.

In the TV show this dispute is represented in the conflict between Gendre and the Qing officials over how to handle the people living in that area.

A few years later the same dispute would occur between the Japanese and the Qing over some Ryukyuan sailors killed in the same region.

The Japanese themselves had just recently been forced, at gunpoint, to join this new international order, and had been looking for an excuse to impose it on their neighbors.

But here is the interesting thing: as I said above, this new order was more fantasy than reality during this period. In the end, both the Americans and the Japanese still very much relied on what Barclay calls wet diplomacy,”

so named after the custom of drinking together from the same cup to secure alliances, which was common in many Taiwanese Indigenous communities at the time. They needed people like Tokitok and Tiap-Moe, even though they resented still having to depend on such people.

Gift giving was important as well. Paul cites the anthropologist Kamimura Tōru to elaborate on the relationship between gift giving and power among the Paiwan in the Hengchun Peninsula at this time. This passage is pretty long,

but it explains a scene in an early episode from the TV show where a local Han leader, Zhu Yi-Bing, says that he hasn’t exchanged gifts with the Indigenous peoples. It is a weird comment unless you understand that giving gifts bestowed power. Here’s the passage:

These transactions resembled tributary relations in some regards—as they featured hierarchical yet reciprocal ritual exchange—while they partook in some aspects of a kula ring, insofar as hierarchies were ratified only when equilibrium was restored

at the termination of a cycle of gifting and countergifting. In Kamimura’s reconstruction, Toketok, as the big stride chief, and Isa and the secondary great chief (futamata tōmoku) traveled widely to seasonal festivals to present finished goods such cloth, ritual daggers,

alcohol, and millet cakes downward.” In return, subordinate chiefs, themselves members of aristocratic Paiwan lineages, countergifted upward” with domesticated and hunted meat and presentations of large quantities of alcohol at banquets.”

And Le Gendre was made a part of this: Toketok situated LeGendre, quite publicly, in the position of one to whom fealty is rendered in return for protection, thereby inverting the ōmata tōmoku’s place in the gifting cycle—he became a receiver of finished goods

instead of a supplier. If such were the case, then Toketok’s hesitation to receive gifts can be interpreted as appropriate behavior for an ōmata tōmoku in a ritual gifting context.”

Finally, regarding women like Tiap-Moe, Paul writes that it was quite common practice for Indigenous leaders to sell their daughters to Chinese (and later Japanese) to serve as intermediaries and translators between the groups. This practice continued under the Japanese,

with government support and encouragement. Although it also created problems, such as when the Japanese men left these wives” for their real” family. This led the Japanese to set up pensions for these women, and to start limiting such policies.

Only with the emergence of widespread education in Japanese within the Indigenous areas in the 1920s and 30s could this system be fully abandoned. These women are very much the outcasts of Empire” in the title of Paul’s book. Essential to its functioning, but troublesome.

The anthropologist Ann Stoler has written about similar women in the Dutch and British empires.

I’ll end this here.I hope that this encourages some of you to go and read Paul’s work. For those who don’t know, he’s also the guy behind the East Asia Image Collection at Lafayette College, source of a lot of viral photos here on Taiwan Twitter.