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Keeping tradition alive in Taiwan

Nick Haslam finds a few surprises in store as he travels to a remote village in southern Taiwan hoping for a rare glimpse of a traditional marriage ceremony held by the Rukai tribe.

It sounded too good to be true, a chance to visit the rarely witnessed wedding ceremonies of the Rukai, one of the smallest indigenous tribes of Taiwan.

Hsui-Min, bride at the Rukai wedding
Hsui-Min emigrated from Taipei to Sweden eight years ago

My informant assured me I would be among the first outsiders permitted to attend the traditional wedding, to be held in a few days time.

The Rukai, I was told, with a population of only 11,000, live in the mountainous southern region and are renowned as skilled hunters, artisans, and farmers.

An agile and wiry people, they are fiercely proud of their ancient traditions and are determined that their tribal practices remain as untouched as possible.

No journalist worth his salt could pass up such an opportunity. So I booked a ticket on the high-tech super fast train and sped 250 miles (400km) from Taiwan's capital Taipei into the tropical south.

Traditional songs

In late afternoon, after a long drive on narrow roads high into mist-covered mountains, I arrived at Wutai, the principal Rukai settlement with neat houses of thick slate slabs, standing above a steep valley overhung with bamboo.

Map of Taiwan showing the capital Taipei and Wutai, in the south

The village square bustled with activity as women in bright traditional dress prepared for the wedding feast.

That evening, to the eerie chanting rhythm of traditional Rukai songs, an elaborate rehearsal was held as village elders put the six young couples, who would wed the next morning, through the rituals of the ceremony.

One man, with tufts of blond hair protruding from his fearsome Rukai boar hunter's cap, stood a head and shoulders above the others. A foreigner, I conjectured, who had become enamoured of the beautiful Rukai girl at his side, and decided to spend his life here in these lovely hills.

Suddenly a young man in the crowd lunged at one of the brides, but was quickly overcome and jostled from the square.

In hushed tones I was told he was a jilted suitor making a last-ditch attempt to persuade his lover to elope.

The ceremony

The next morning the village was astir early. The brides issued forth gorgeous in high head-dresses and flowing robes, wearing the ornate glass bead necklaces for which the Rukai are famous.

Grooms, equally resplendent in tight leggings of brocade and bright tunics, walked sternly down the lanes to where their brides waited in elaborate palanquins.

Elderly mothers wept and lamented as the girls, dabbing at their eyes with crimson handkerchiefs, were carried shoulder high down to the wedding ground.

Here, sheltering from the hot sun beneath large green leaves, they sat throughout the long ceremony which culminated in a parade of dowries consisting of pottery, cloth and a very large dead boar.

Tribal customs

During a lull in the activities I went forward with an interpreter to ask one of the brides, a slim girl in her late twenties, a few questions.

Bride and groom at the Rukai wedding
We saw the chance to get married Rukai style on the Taiwanese tourist board website

I asked her whether she planned to stay in the hills for the rest of her life.

Hsui-Min gently raised her leaf shade and looked a little surprised.

"I don't live here," she replied, in perfect English.

"I emigrated to Sweden from Taipei eight years ago. I live in Stockholm. That is where I met Tony."

She motioned to the tall, blond foreigner: "My new husband."

I tried to stifle my incredulity.

"You are not Rukai then?" I said.

"On no!" she replied with a tinkling laugh.

"None of us are. We saw the chance to get married Rukai style on the Taiwanese tourist board website. The others are from Taiwan's big cities. You really didn't know that?"

Later, at the wedding feast, where 200 people sat under a long awning, tribal elder Wu Piriane shed some light on my confusion.

The Rukai wedding ceremony
The Rukai are the fifth largest tribal group in Taiwan

"We are anxious to keep our tribal customs alive," he said.

"So we asked the Taiwanese tourist board to sponsor us. They agreed and we supply authentic costumes and act out the roles we remember from our own weddings many years ago."

Pushing back his beaded cap, he gave a shrewd smile.

"It brings in money to the village and visitors like you. Next year we are going to advertise on the web in English!"

I said goodbye to Hsui-Min, who introduced me to her real parents, a soberly dressed middle-aged couple, and her new husband, Tony, a hotelier from Stockholm who raised a glass of rice wine.

"This has been so much fun," he said.

"Much better than a dull town hall wedding at home in Sweden."

Weakly, I smiled and wished them well.

Ahead lay the long journey home and the big question of how I was to explain to my editor that the exclusive scoop was, in fact, a well-practised piece of theatre.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 29 March, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Taiwan
22 Mar 08 |  Country profiles

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