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Orchid Island is located off the coast of Taiwan and is today incorporated as part of the Republic of China. The history and culture of the island intertwine and create a phenomenon where there is a multiplicity of names and terms referring to the Island and its inhabitants. It is first seen on early 17th century Japanese charts as “Tabako Shima”. A French map within that century refers to it as Tabaco Xima. To the Chinese, it is Hung-tou Yu, and when the Japanese occupied the area, they called it Kotosho.
In the neighboring Philippines, the island is called Botel Tobago, one of the main names by which it is popularly known in the world today. Now the Taiwanese call it Lan Yu Tao- which translates in English to Orchid Island. Torii Ryuzo, a Japanese ethnologist who studied the island in the 20th century referred to them as Yami. These complexities are based on foreign powers overlooking native customs and an already well-established language system.
In the local language, the island is commonly referred to as Pongso no Tawo, “Island of the people” or Irala. Irala is a term the Tao people, natives of the island, use to describe the island, and it simply means “land.”
The Yami language is part of the Austronesian language group, and the Malayo-Polynesian subgroup to be exact. The Austronesian language family is composed of languages throughout the Batan Archipelago. While the language is still commonly spoken throughout the island, a lot of the traditions and customs of the people are threatened or lost due to foreign influences and the subordination of the languages value.
When they come of age, Yami children today are encouraged to pursue education in the neighboring Taiwanese mainland where the language and aspects of their culture are invalidated. Young Yami people today stand to lose not only their language but their traditions as well- the Chinese government and education system work to assert Mandarin as the only acceptable language on campuses and as the lanagiuage of modernity and progress. The same applies to culture, Yami traditions are deemed primitive and uncivilized. Basically, young Yami people living abroad, especially on the Taiwanese mainland for school are taught that their traditional way of life on the Island is unacceptable and not beneficial to achieving the modern vision of success and happiness.
This leads to the phenomenon where many young Yami people, after going to school and graduating from universities abroad, choose to stay in those foreign countries, especially the Taiwanese mainland, located just 40 miles northwest of the island. This results in a lack of knowledge on a lot of their ancient traditions and customs. There’s also the fact that the lack of a concrete and modern job market or industry on Irala makes many ambitious young people look elsewhere to settle down. The island becomes to them what it is to the tourists who go there, a place of visitation, but not somewhere to settle down comfortably. This phenomenon can be observed in many cultures around the world where young natives are exposed to foreign- especially western notions of civility and sacrifice their traditional identities in pursuit of the promises of modern comfort. This shift has put the Island and way of life at risk of being completely expunged due to population aging and an inability to properly pass on traditional beliefs to a new generation. This assimilationism goes beyond language and tradition, but also impacts/ modifies spirituality and the belief systems of the Yami today. Christian practices and ancestral beliefs have been combined to form a sort of religious syncretism.
Traditionally, Yami culture and everything done within it is based on a basic survival instinct. Concepts that’re deemed unnecessary or unproductive to daily survival aren’t very much tolerated- or simply do not appear within Yami culture. These go further than the well-known western distractions based on entertainment were all familiar with. Concepts such as direction which is so omnipresent in Western culture, are just about nonexistent to the Yami. In place of that notion, they have a good understanding of the direction of the wind on and around the island and use it to figure out when the best to will be to fish. The Yami also follow a certain cultural and ancestral geography that guides their belief systems and traditions. The term “Irala” used to signify the island, means “towards land” in Yami language, while “ilawod” means towards the sea. Imanira is their ideological location from which all foreigners come. Imanira becomes a site of active imagination, myth, and suspicion for the Yami, holding neither bad nor good connotation, it becomes a place of curiosity associated with all foreigners who come upon the island. Malavang a Pongso is another location in a sense, for the Yami, it is a location within their belief system for the dead- who automatically have a negative, “evil” connotation associated to them. When someone passes in traditional Yami culture, relatives and loved ones have but a few minutes to mourn the diseased before they must be immediately erased from their minds and forgotten, as thinking of the dead is said to invite bad spirits from Malavang a Pongso and demons into your mind.
Today there are approximately 3000 inhabitants on the 45 square kilometer island. There are six villages on the island, each with approximately 300 people. The Yami follow a patriarchal system of lineage. There are no clearly evident social hierarchies, no kings or chiefs on the island- just a code of honor and a generally shared sense of respect for social order held by all the islanders. A very monogamous people, they follow strict traditional beliefs on marriage, partnership and how the society should generally be organized. A married couple unit holds great significance to them. Although there aren’t any overtly evident rites of passage to adulthood, a man can get married after joining a fishing expedition and has mastered diving enough to where he can provide for his potential family.
A similar system is set up for women, who must be of age to possible have children, demonstrate adequate agricultural knowledge- especially when it comes to cultivating the taro and sweet potato plants, knowledge on how to properly maintain a family and fabric production. A proposal is then to be offered to the brides family and upon their approval of the union, a bride price is to be paid. Women hold a special significance on the island bue to their relatively small population compared to men. At all times, there are 30% less women than men on the island. This creates a sense of competition amongst men and adds to the very evident machismo culture of the Tao.
They have set in place taboos which when violated, require a series of often harsh penalties to compensate for the unrest caused and return the social order. Incest is one of the main and basic taboos of the Yami. “Ripos” are regarded as close family structures consisting of three generations of kindreds and extending to third cousins. The “inainapo” are members of another family structure that’s composed of five generations and extending to third cousins. While marriage within the ripo is considered a form of incest, the inainapo is held accountable for any necessary blood vengeance a family may be involved in.
For example, adultery, which is seen as a capital offense and an insult to the importance the Yami place on their monogamous structures, is punishable by the death of not just the perpetrators/ adulterers but it causes a chain reaction in which every male within the inainapo family line of the perpetrator must be killed to reinforce the message and show the risks of disobeying such taboo. Affinal relations are categorized into several groups known as “icarwa” to the Yami. There is the icarwa of spouses, extending to spouse’s ripos icarwa of mother’s siblings, extending to their ripos icarwa of father’s sisters, extending to their husband’s ripos icarwa of siblings, extending to their spouses’ families; icarwa of children’s spouses, extending to their families; icarwa of siblings’ spouses, extending to their families.
Traditionally a self-reliant people, whose way of life is based on fishing and farming for their own sustenance, although the globalization has had its impact on the island and islanders are now exposed to the world market, forms of sustenance that do not require that traditional system of self-reliance, imported goods and services advertised to make life “easier,” fishing and farming still hold a certain cultural significance and define the people of the island.
Taro stands out as the main and most significant root crop on the island. The fields of taro are owned by family lineages. There are many kinds of taro that grow around the island, growth is slow and requires several years for the plant to fully mature, however, being a year-round crop, it can and is grown at any and all times of the year. When a taro tuber is harvested, the stem of the plant is cut off and replanted, so a new tuber can be later harvested.
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