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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.2 (2003) 331-360

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Clothing and Power on the Periphery of Empire:
The Costumes of the Indigenous People of Taiwan

Henrietta Harrison


The indigenous people of Taiwan define themselves in part by wearing what they refer to as their traditional costumes on certain festivals and holidays. A photograph [not reproduced here because of its quality—Editor] shows a group of elderly men of the Atayal tribe in these traditional costumes at one such festival. The men wear startlingly clean white jackets decorated with elaborate embroidered bands on the sleeves and around the hem. Beneath these jackets they wear the grey trousers of Western-style men's suits and either dark leather shoes or sports shoes. The former village head is seated in the center facing the camera; he wears tennis shorts rather than trousers. At the start of the ceremony a young woman who was a political activist for the indigenous people's movement asked him to take off the shorts so that the young people would see what traditional Atayal costumes looked like. The old man was obviously embarrassed but did briefly take off the shorts, though he soon put them on again.1 It was clear that he did not [End Page 331] want to appear in this costume. Figure 1 shows a group of Atayal men and one woman photographed about 1930. The pale jackets of the men with decorative bands on the arms are clearly related to the clothing worn by Atayal men in the 1990s. These two photos might well lead us to question the authenticity of the costumes worn in the 1990s. If, on the other hand, we turn our attention to the posture of the two groups of men, we see quite a different process. Members of the earlier group stand submissively in front of the camera with their hands by their sides or clasped in front of them. Behind them is a Japanese building, a symbol of colonial rule in this remote part of Taiwan. By contrast the men in the 1990s sit squarely, legs apart, hands on their knees, in a posture familiar from the iconography of dominant Chinese males. Their attention is focused not on the photographer but on the ritual [End Page 332] they are performing, and behind them a group of women and younger men looks on.

This article looks at the relationship between authenticity and the representation of power in the costume of the Taiwan indigenous people. I argue that as early as the eighteenth century members of indigenous elites appropriated elements of metropolitan clothing as symbols of status within their own communities, while at the same time consistently resisting styles, whether metropolitan or local, that would subordinate them within relationships fashioned by colonialism. The result of the tension between these two motivations has been a constantly shifting interplay between a rhetoric of the body drawn from the indigenous people's traditions and one drawn from the metropolitan centers.

Humans and Savages: The Period of Chinese Rule

During the period of Qing rule, clothing reflected patterns of power within indigenous communities but also the slowly increasing influence of the attitudes of the growing Chinese population of the island. Chinese ideas of gender definition were important but were mediated through the even more important distinction between civilized human beings and savages. The combination of cultural and gender subordination caused women to adopt Chinese dress and standards of modesty as they came into regular contact with Chinese settler communities. Indigenous men, on the other hand, adopted some elements of Chinese costume, usually as symbols of wealth and power, but also continued to wear the old styles that marked dominance over their own communities. In the eyes of the Chinese these traditional styles symbolized the savagery, ferocity, and extreme masculinity of the indigenous men. In the frontier culture of nineteenth-century Taiwan, such masculinity might outweigh the disadvantages of being thought a savage.

When large-scale migration from the Chinese mainland began in the...


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