Saturday, May 28, 2011

Among the Headhunters of Formosa by Janet B. Montgomery McGovern

From 1916 to 1918, Western anthropologist Janet B. Montgomery McGovern lived in Taihoku, capital of the Japanese colony of Formosa. She offficially worked as an English teacher in the employ of the Japanese government, but she had come because of a strong anthropological interest in the native peoples of the island's interior and east coast: the "headhunters". (She does use the modern term "aborigines" as well, along with the more dated word "savages", and the German "Naturvölker". Needless to say, this book contains plenty of terms which are now very far out of fashion.)

Among the Headhunters of Formosa, published in 1922, is written with an early 20th-century anthropologist's eye, and even apart from the insights into Aboriginal culture it is chock-full of fascinating historical tidbits on Taiwan as it was a century ago. The author discusses the name "Taiwan" for the island, a Chinese word she expects few Western readers will be familiar with.

1. Janet B. Montgomery McGovern in Formosa

Having lived in Taipei, er, Taihoku for the past several years, I just ate up the first couple of chapters, in which the author records some of her initial impressions of Formosa.

She alights at Keelung - a dirty port city, as she describes it - and is taken by the natural beauty of the countryside, dotted with little villages and tall bamboo trees. She witnesses this on her journey by train from Keelung into Taihoku. (Compare her description to the scenery you get on the modern train ride through Badu, Xizhi, etc.)

I was mildly surprised (perhaps I shouldn't have been) by her observation that most of the Chinese-Formosan women that she sees have bound feet. It was a practice that she had assumed was limited to the upper classes in China, but it turned out most Chinese-Formosan women (Hakkas notably excluded) in 1916 Formosa tottered along on little feet, as bizarre as it is to imagine a working-class woman engaging in hard physical labor in such a state.

(If footbinding was still ubiquitous here in 1916, that raises the question of whether there are creaky old women still living in Taiwan with bound feet. I don't believe I've ever seen one, but I've seen plenty of extremely ancient women here walking with apparent unsteadiness, and I'm not sure I'd recognize a bound-foot gait.)

About Japanese rule of Formosa, the author has nothing good to say. Completely apart from their cruel treatment of the aborigines, she finds that the Japanese cruelly exploit the local population as they harvest Formosa's substantial natural treasures:

During my residence in Formosa I personally saw instances of the most hideous cruelty on the part of the Japanese toward the Chinese-Formosans, and of barbaric torture, officially inflicted, as punishment for the most trivial offences (as later -- in the spring of 1919 -- I saw the same thing in the other Japanese colony, Korea, on the part of the Japanese toward the gentle Koreans). But this is an aspect of Japanese colonization with which in the book I shall not deal. (p. 89)

Japanese rule of Formosa is depicted as paranoid. The fact that she brought a "photographic apparatus" to the heavily fortified port of Keelung was recorded by the police, and on one occasion she is harassed by a Japanese policeman in Keelung who is afraid she is up to no good; upon realizing she is harmless, he mollifies her by explaining that she could easily have been a German spy (which she finds ridiculous).

But, of course, Mrs. Montgomery McGovern is not in Formosa to investigate how the Japanese manage this little corner of their empire, so she looks into venturing inland to meet some Aborigines. The Japanese Director of Schools, quite the blustering buffoon, warns her that unspecified people will "talk" if she travels on her own; when he realizes she is not worried about her reputation as a lady, he suggests she take up tennis if she wants exercise so badly.

Fortunately other Japanese officials were more sympathetic. The author extends particular thanks to two uncommonly helpful examples of Japanese officialdom, explaining further in a disconcertingly worded footnote, "It is due to the efforts of Mr. Hosui and Mr. Marui that the skull of a recently decapitated member of the Taiyal tribe has been presented to the Museum of Oxford University". (p. 70)

2. Janet B. Montgomery McGovern among the Head-hunters

First, let's dispose of one piece of antique rumor. The Aborigines may be head-hunters, but they are not cannibals. In his preface, in fact, Professor R. R. Marett tells us that he heard from a Japanese expert that it is the Chinese of Formosa who will occasionally partake of Aboriginal flesh. I personally choose to take this tidbit of information with some extremely large grains of salt.

While there is some information on the cultures of the Ami, the Paiwan, the Yami, and the Bunun people, it is clearly the Taiyal (nowadays spelled Atayal) people that the author became most familiar with, as they get the most detailed descriptions. Most of this takes the form of anthropological descriptions of their culture, including religious beliefs, festivals, tattooing and body modification, and of course headhunting, the better to tweak the middle-class Western sensibilities of the 1920s.

This is a description of a way of life -- of ways of life, since what went for the Atayal would not necessarily have gone for the Paiwan -- that, while they haven't completely vanished, are certainly not what they once were. Obviously I don't have to say that men don't go on headhunting expeditions in modern Taiwan. The Aboriginal villages the author photographed presumably don't exist anymore (although I have heard of isolated Aboriginal settlements, high in the mountains, that do not welcome outsiders).

In my four years in Taiwan, I have been to some of the excellent museums that showcase Aboriginal life and culture, I have eaten in Aboriginal restaurants, and I have seen the occasional Aborigine in the newspaper showing off their facial tattoos (not that I recall seeing many facially-tattooed individuals in person). That has been about the limits of my own experiences. I feel very unqualified to comment on the author's description of Aboriginal culture, which is frustrating, as it, not railing against the Japanese, is the real heart of the book. I'm equally unqualified to comment on her speculation about the ethnic origins of the Aborigines, or about the possible remnants of extinct pygmy tribes.

An exception to my disengagement from Aboriginal culture is the two consecutive Pasta'ais I attended. The Pasta'ai is a festival held every two years by the Saisiyat tribe, in which they dance, drink copiously, and try to placate the spirits of a tribe of short, dark people (pygmies?) they are said to have massacred centuries ago. The Saisiyat tribe (which she spells "Saisett") gets very little mention from Mrs. Montgomery McGovern, except for when she notes that they are very few in number and not likely to exist for much longer.

You see, Janet B. Montgomery McGovern is very pessimistic about the continued existence of the Formosan Head-hunters. They were despised by the Chinese, she writes, and as for the Japanese:

The Japanese, when questioned about the aborigines, were either curiously uncommunicative, or else launched at once into panegyrics concerning the nobility of the Japanese authorities in Formosa in allowing dirty, head-hunting savages to live, especially as some of the dirty head-hunters had dared to rebel against the Japanese Government of the island. (p. 31)

The only colonial power, the author writes, who showed consistent kindness to the Aborigines were the Dutch, who ruled Formosa for several decades in the 17th century. She found that as a result the Dutch were still fondly remembered in tribal oral histories. They had introduced Romanized writing to the tribes they dealt with, although it had fallen into disuse and she was unable to find any examples, tribal records having been confiscated by the Japanese. (See Wikipedia: Sinckan Manuscripts.)

Overall, writing in 1922, the author feels Aboriginal cultures are probably doomed. No native culture, she writes, could survive the steady marginalization and extermination that the Aborigines have suffered at the hands of the Chinese and then the Japanese.

3. Janet B. Montgomery McGovern as a Person

Now, a word on the author. To my great frustration, even intensive Googling failed to turn up much information on the elusive Janet B. Montgomery McGovern. Among the Headhunters of Formosa appears to be the best-known thing she ever wrote.

I did find, tantalizingly, that a Janet B. Montgomery McGovern was the mother of William Montgomery McGovern. Born in 1897, William Montgomery McGovern was an amazing, Indiana Jones-like university professor. He was said to be the first Westerner to visit Lhasa (disguised as a local coolie), among many other distinctions. He's one of the best-known American experts on East Asia from the first half of the 20th Century.

I can find nothing online that states that the Janet B. Montgomery McGovern who wrote Among the Headhunters of Formosa was indeed William's mother. But although she does not make any mention of family in the body of her book, it opens with the following dedication:

W. M. M.

That's about all I can dig up on this woman, although if this gravesite is her, she was born in 1874 and died in 1938. Those are plausible enough dates -- if she is that person.


Anonymous said...

I had the same experience when trying to find more about Mrs. Montgomery McGovern. I contacted my friend in USA who has access to genealogical databases, she will try to dig more. I bought, from 2nd hand bookstore, her 2nd book, 'Butterflies of Taiwan' and it is a small collection of unusual verses...definitely not a bad poetry of so many bored English housewives. I live in Taipei, work in TAIDA, if you are interested plz contact me and I can give it to you to read. I consider scanning and posting it online, in addition to
entry. There is also work of Japanese prof. Ishii Shinji which she cites, online, and it adds many nice pics and valuable, nontrivial comments: The Island of Formosa and its primitive inhabitants : a paper read at a joint meeting of the China Society and the Japan Society, held at Caxton Hall, on Thursday, February 24, 1916 (1916),
After reading "Headhunters..." I wrote a blog entry (in Croatian) with many pics, also from today aborigines places:
Best wishes, astrosailor

mikidkolan said...

I added the promised info in

Ian Inkster said...

janet Montgomery McGovern was of course the mother of William, the anthropologist professor of Northwestern University who bacame the great adventurer upon whose life it is at times claimed was modeled that of Indiana Jones. the papers clearly connecting them, geneology etc are easily available, and his working and family papers are in the University Archoves at Northwestern.

I am writing a paper for publicationj on her at presnt and will be happy to send it to those who see this and are interested when it is completed, probably early next year. She was a serious and talented anthropologist who was dismissed out of hand by the Japanese anthropologists after 1922 when, of course, as colonists from 1895 they had a free hand in Taiwan. They were of course intent on negating the work of one who was so very critical of their occupation of the island. She was qualified at grad level in anthropology, and indeed studied the subject at grad level at Oxford alongside her son, who, by the way, assisted her imemnsely on the travels etc involved in writing her 1922 book. She always intened a more thorough work on the subject, but her fraught family relations meant that she was virtually isolated and self-emplyed from teh 1920s until her death. She was a relatively successful public lecturer on the professional circuits in the US, and I think the need to push a popular approach merely to survive financially kep her from her more serious work. I have nmo difficulty in claoming that her incredible travels and brave searches, especially amongst the Atayal, were the foundations of her son's later famous successes.

Incidentally, there is little doubt at all that cannibalism did occur in Taiwan along the frontiers of the indigenous and the Chinese/Japanese areas especially escalating from the late 1880s, but it was never a normal cultural pursuit, usually employed as a particualr act of both anger and protection, and without doubt linked to headhunting activity as well as the eastern commercial exploitation of the mountains and forests that increased at that time under the pressure of the incorporation of Taiwan inot the international economy, led by UK and Japan.

Proferssor Ian Inkster, SOAS, University of London.