Knives of the Taiwan Aborigines

Knives
of the Taiwan Aborigines

By Sherrod V. Anderson & Philip Tom

Hints of the history
of a people can often be discerned as we more closely examine the weapons
of their culture. These are forged and dressed with care, for not only are
they a man’s most constant companions, but are also his major implements
for survival in a hostile world of physical challenges and supernatural
threat. The blades and mountings of the knives of the Baiwan people offer
many clues to a dynamic and intriguing cultural heritage.

Chinese historical records mention contact with the island of Taiwan
as early as the Southern Song Dynasty, during the twelfth through thirteenth
centuries. Two unsuccessful attempts to conquer the island were made du-
ring the succeeding Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty, once under Kubilai Khan in
1291-2 and the other during the reign of Temur Oljeitu in 1297. Chinese
immigration and settlement, chiefly of the coastal areas, proceeded during
the Ming (1368-1644). The first settlers were smugglers and pirates, who
were later joined by Japanese and various Europeans (it was the Portuguese
who left the name Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful island”). Formosa became
the base of operations for the famous Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggung (Coxinga)
in the mid-17th century, and was finally conquered and annexed by the
Qing Dynasty in 1683.

Chinese
and Western visitors found on Formosa and the small outlying islands many groups
of indigenous or aboriginal people. These were classified into separate tribes
or extended kinship-groups. The number of such tribes has varied from three
to twenty-three, depending on the time period and the criteria used by the classifiers.
All of these peoples share a Malayo-Polynesian linguistic base, split into various
dialects. These linguistic sub-groups differ according to the geographic origin
of a particular migratory wave and the subsequent isolation or assimilation
of the settlement over thousands of years.

For this brief consideration of edged weaponry, a division of the peoples
according to their geographic placement on the island would be convenient.
The main island of Formosa may be divided into Northern, Central, and
Southern territories. Knives are important tools and male costume accessories
in all three areas. Certain characteristics distinguish those made and
used in each region. Most blades curve slightly upwards towards the tip,
this feature being more prominent in the Northern and Central groups.

The
knives illustrated here are of the Baiwan people, who inhabit the south-central
mountains and the southern foothills of Formosa. The blades are typically straight,
in marked contrast to the curved styles from more northerly areas. Their form
is furthermore interesting from its marked similarity to straight, single-edged
blades found in the following cultures: 

  • CHINA, Zhou through Song Dynasties
  • KOREA, through the Koryo Dynasty
  • JAPAN, Kofun through Nara periods
  • TIBET & BHUTAN, to the present day

This straight blade shape, most likely a remnant of Song Chinese influence,
is in marked contrast to the various curved forms encountered among the
Baiwans’ ethnolinguistic relatives elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The
blades are secured to the hilts via a long tang which is bent over and hammered
tight against the pommel, which is usually a flat metal plate. The use of a
blade tang which passes entirely through the grip in this way is the characteristic
method of knife assembly in China and Europe; the bending-over of the end of
the tang (as opposed to a simple “mushrooming” over the pommel) is still followed
in the construction of Chinese kitchen cutlery. Again, we see a marked contrast
to blade attachment systems used in the nearby Philippines and the Southeast
Asian mainland. In those areas, tangs typically extend only part way into the
grip. They are secured by adhesive, transverse pins, fiber lashing, metal cleats
bearing on the exposed part of the blade, or by any combination of these.
An
examination of the Baiwan blades show that a majority are quite short. Lengths
of over two feet are exceptional. An interesting characteristic of many of them
is their single bevel (having a cross-section much like the edge profile on
a carpenter’s chisel). Single bevels of this type are not typical of northern
cultures like Japan (except on certain daggers) or China. They are most commonly
associated with the mandau or headtaking knife of the Dyaks of Borneo. The case
for influence from this southern region is strengthened by the fact that some
Baiwan blades are slightly hollow-ground on their unbevelled sides, which is
the norm on most mandau. Indeed, such linkages can also be illustrated by examination
of other, more significant cultural affinities between the Dyaks and the Baiwan.

The Baiwan blades exhibit a rough and inelegant finish. Forging marks
are in evidence and grinding is slipshod. However, close examination reveals
that they are of lamellar construction. The ones illustrated here have
a central layer of hard, high-carbon steel “sandwiched” between cheeks
of softer metal. The basic style of lamination is duplicated in the Chinese
qiangang, the Japanese jakan or san-mai, and in similar effects used in
Mindanao, Indochina, and elsewhere. Despite their rather crude finish,
the blades examined for this article appear to have been heat treated
with considerable skill.

The characteristic shape of the Baiwan hilts is straight, with a slight
flare towards the pommel. Scabbards are open-faced, the blade being retained
in a slightly dovetailed channel which is bridged with numerous wire loops.
The design of these loops resembles in some cases the shape of the thick
wire embellishments to the hilts of some campilan swords of the southern
Philippines. The hilt shapes and open-faced scabbards also have direct
parallels in the dao or single-edged short sword of the Kachins of the
Khamti Shan area of the Assam. Indeed, the Baiwan are culturally related
to several of the Assam peoples.

The aesthetic appeal of the Baiwan knives lies in their hilts and scabbards.
Despite the straight blades, the sheaths continue to be formed in the
upward-curving tradition. Another distinguishing feature of the Baiwan
style is the elaborate carving on the hilt and scabbard. The motifs include
stylized serpents and human faces and figures. The designs are highly
symbolic and are charged with spiritual or magical power.

The
separated faces actually represent human heads, since the practice of headhunting
was widespread among the Formosan tribes. Heads taken in raids were of great
ritual benefit for the warrior and his village. Human figures, often highly
conventionalized and joined together, are symbolic of the community of ancestors
which supports and protects the living generation. A singular human form, as
seen on some hilts, may signify a particular ancestral deity.

Most prominent, often incorporated as geometric patterns as well as figural
designs, is the snake motif. The great totemic serpent is called vorovoboron,
or “elder of snakes”. It is revered as the progenitor of all Baiwan nobility,
and remains as the spirit guardian of the tribe.

Copyright
1999 Seven Stars Trading Co. 

Sherrod V. Anderson, MD

With great sadness we announce the passing of our friend and colleague,
Dr. Anderson. Those of you who have attended tribal arts and antique arms
shows on both the East and West Coasts may remember him as the congenial
expert on the weaponry and applied arts of a number of Southeast Asian
and Oceanic cultures. Sherrod has also contributed his expertise and even
items from his own vast collection to grace the pages of the Seven Stars
catalog and website.

The Doctor was fond of saying that the collecting “bug” bit him when
he was but a wee lad growing up in El Paso, Texas. After medical school,
he went on to live in various parts of the Pacific before settling down
to raise a family in a quiet valley in Hawaii. He also made field trips
along the Pacific Rim to collect and do research. His favorite fields
of study were Kris handles and the war clubs of various Pacific Island
cultures. His scholarship was methodical, and his collecting activities
revealed superb taste and a keen eye for detail. It is a pity that the
demands of his career and the toll exacted by declining health did not
permit him the time to publish the fruits of his studies. Sherrod died
on 23 October 1999 at his home. He is survived by his wife and two sons.

Farewell, old chap! Ye’ll be sorely missed!

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