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
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
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:
This straight blade shape, most likely a remnant of Song Chinese influence,
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.
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
The characteristic shape of the Baiwan hilts is straight, with a slight
The aesthetic appeal of the Baiwan knives lies in their hilts and scabbards.
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
1999 Seven Stars Trading Co.
Sherrod V. Anderson, MD
With great sadness we announce the passing of our friend and colleague,
The Doctor was fond of saying that the collecting “bug” bit him when
Farewell, old chap! Ye’ll be sorely missed!