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Learning Taiwanese Indigenous Cultures From Lyrics: Interview With Professor Yuh-Fen Tseng

The interview between the special guest editor, Toshiyuki Seki, and the Music Department Profession at the National Chiayi University, Yuh-Fen, Tseng.

One of my Taiwanese friends said that “the history of Taiwan is short”, and this has always been on my mind. If you look up the dictionary for the definition of “history”, it says “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs” (Oxford). If so, the history of Taiwan should start from when people first came to this island. In fact, a history textbook in Taiwan, starts from referring to prehistoric times such as the “Zhang-bin” (*1), a culture that’s happened during paleolithic period. And this doesn’t look like a short history at all.

Due to the rise of sea level, Taiwan became its present island form around six thousand years ago (*1). Meanwhile, the ancestors of Taiwanese indigenous people came into their existence on this island. They eventually spread all across Southeast Asia, Oceania and even reaching islands such as Madagascar and Easter, called collectively the Austronesian People. And Taiwan is inferred as the origin of this massive migration.

From these premises, the history of Taiwan seems not only long, but also dynamic. And before Han people migrated into Taiwan, indigenous people were holding the majority for thousands of years. However, my afore-mentioned friend has a point. Indigenous people did not have letters, and the lack of written records has created a vast portion of blank within the acknowledgment of our history.

But their cultures and their spirits has been passed down orally, notably through music, sung from generation to generation. And these traditional knowledge and perspectives can often inspire us living in a modernized society. Even UN has confirmed the importance of it, stating “Traditional knowledge plays a critical role in protecting the planet’s biodiversity and of maintaining the overall health of the ecosystems.” (*2).

This article is dedicated to celebrate International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. We’ll be looking into the lyrics of five songs from Taiwanese indigenous artists, with explanations from professor Yuh-Fen Tseng, to find out the meaning and culture behind it.


Yuh-Fen Tseng, received her Ph.D. in Musicology from Taipei National University of the Arts, and the Master of Arts degree in piano Performance from New York University. She is currently the professor at the music department of National Chiayi University in Taiwan. Yuh-Fen Tseng's music profession spans diverse fields such as musicology, ethnomusicology, music aesthetics and piano performance, and has accumulated a lot of administrative practice experience in performing arts over the years. At this same time, awaring the indigenous cultural heritages are vanishing quickly, she has been long devoting herself to the preservation of Taiwanese indigenous music and dance.


Sauljaljui "Hearing You Speak"

Sauljaljui - "Hearing You Speak" YouTube

Lyrics quote "Child, why are you so lonely and down? Has anyone tried to dry your tears? We’ll listen to you. Tell us what’s going on. You won’t feel lonely anymore.”

Toshiyuki Seki:

This song is about trying to console a child who’s feeling down. The subject is “we”, so it can be considered as a parent’s perspective song, or moreover, by the whole community. Did the community take care of their children?

Prof. Yuh-Fen Tseng: Almost every tribe had their own educational system for children. However, within this modernized society, they are prone to poverty and can be politically weak. Parents have to go to the city to earn money. So many of the children are left in the village with their grandparents. These patterns are everywhere.

Toshiyuki Seki:

I also feel like this song facilitates communication between different generations.

Prof. Yuh-Fen Tseng: Many of their lyrics are like this. For instance, the Seediq peoples have a song called "uyas hnici rudan (song of elders' words)". When an old person feels that there’s not much time left in this world, they sing the things they want to tell. Therefore, lyrics vary from person to person. And this custom has become a certain genre.


"amanan na kemazu (Don't do that!)"

Sangpuy - "amanan na kemazu (Don't do that!)" YouTube

Lyrics quote "Don’t do that! Don’t do that! We deforest the mountains. Don’t do that! Don’t do that! We make the water muddy. What should we do? What are we going to do? Have we human beings ever reflected on ourselves? The earth is shaking. The typhoon is forming. The thunders and lightnings are the counterattacks from the raging nature.”

Toshiyuki Seki:

You can feel his strong rage against the destruction of environment. It’s said on the text book that Taiwanese indigenous people are Animism. Did the indigenous people worship nature and sympathized with it?

Prof. Yuh-Fen Tseng: Yes, we can say it’s Animism. Before being modernized, they had many rules and knowledges to co-exist with nature. For instance, Amis peoples have deep understanding of herbs, and can tell which herbs are edible or not, and their effects. Seediq peoples had rules, such as not killing a pregnant deer or baby deer when they go hunting. However, these knowledges are on the verge of extinction, and people are now trying to record and preserve it.

Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe

" Lalu ulu medan (Bitter Life)"

Song review quote "In a back and forth conversation expressing self-lament, this song is often sung during the midday break and at the end of the day’s work where people are gathered together. This is how the Paiwan distract themselves from loneliness and share their feelings with each other.”

Toshiyuki Seki:

I felt the singing is functioning as a therapy for indigenous people. They may have been going though hardships, but at least by singing out their sentiment and sharing it with others, there was salvation in it.

Prof. Yuh-Fen Tseng: Almost every tribes had their own sad song. For instance, Bunun peoples have songs called “pisdaidaz” which is a song relating to sentiment. Someone will sing about topics such as their families moving into the city, and the others sing along in harmony. Seediq peoples have songs about broken hearts. But it’s not about love relationship. It’s about women lamenting hard life. These sentiments are common among the Taiwanese indigenous people. For they used to live harmoniously with nature, without being marginalized like in the present era. Just to sing out the sadness made them feel better. And they sung together in harmony to comfort the one singing, such as the Bunun peoples did. I think it’s a healthy way to deal with your sadness.


"Sa'icelen (Cheer Up)"

ABAO "Sa’icelen (Cheer Up)" YouTube

Song review quote "I still want to head to the destination. Although I might give up halfway. Reaching the destination is not the only thing to worry about. I am also concerned about the storm. But why should I be concerned? No need to worry so much. Cheer up. Cheer up.” Amis traditional song “Fancalay a romiad (Wonderful Day)

Toshiyuki Seki:

In this song, the protagonist is heading somewhere but completely exhausted, and prepares for the worst to happen. However, he concludes as “So wonderful. It is such a wonderful day.” I felt catharsis from this super optimism. Is this mentality a common thing among the Taiwanese indigenous people?

Prof. Yuh-Fen Tseng: Yes, it’s their typical nature. Generally, they are very optimistic compared to Han people. But some of them can feel uncomfortable in the city, for they cannot fit in. That’s why they need to get together and sing and dance, in order to reconnect with their traditions. They often seem very happy that way.


Challenges remain for the Taiwanese indigenous people


For someone like me, focusing on Taiwanese music and its industry, can feel the strong presence of indigenous people. Artists such as ABAO, Sangpuy winning and performing at the Golden Music Awards has now become common. However, professor Yuh-Fen Tseng points out the remaining inequality saying “Their social opportunities are still limited. Entertainment, or sports, are some of the few fields indigenous people can seek to succeed.”

Indigenous people may tend to excel in fields such as entertainment and sports, however, that does not apply to every individual, and projecting these stereotypes against them can be sometimes harmful. Some may want to become a doctor, programmer, chef or designer, and ideally, every option should be on the table for everyone. But I still want to believe that music can facilitate people’s understanding towards indigenous people, and provide an opportunity for more practical change within the society.



*1 Hua-yuan, H and Hideki, N. (2020) Shousetsu Taiwan no Rekishi: Taiwan Koukou Rekishi Kyoukasho. Yuzankaku.

*2 United Nations | Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2021) Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Peoples’ Sustainability | DISD. Available at:

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