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Indigenous bible helps restore cultural identity in Taiwan

TAIPEI (UCAN): The Tsou indigenous people of central Taiwan number only around 7,000, but a significant number of them are Catholic and this Christmas, they are looking forward to receiving a special gift from Father Anton Weber, who will present them with a copy of the New Testament in their own Tsou language.

The German priest from the Divine Word Mission Society ministered among the people in Alishan, a village in Chiayi diocese, for 30 years. For two decades he worked on producing a New Testament translation.

Not long after he finished the first draft, he was assigned to Germany, so the project was passed to a six-member group led by Father Nobert Pu and Sister Lisa Wang, both local Tsou people.

Father Pu believes that the new translation will help “restore our cultural dignity, as the use of our mother tongue in expressing faith and praying to God will foster a sense of belonging among our people.”

As well as reviving and sustaining the Tsou language, Father Pu says, “It will enrich the aborigines’ social and cultural vitality which makes us more confident in facing these changing times.”

Including the Tsou, there are 14 indigenous peoples in Taiwan. The Protestant and Catholic Churches have been working among them for several decades and, as a result, have attracted a substantial following.

According to the Indigenous Theology Research Centre at Fu Jen University, Taiwan’s 240,000 Catholics include about 100,000 to 120,000 indigenous people.

Amis, Atayal, Truku, Paiwan, Bunun, Rukai and Tsou Catholics already have the gospel, Mass missal and hymns in their respective languages, and the Bible Society in Taiwan has been working on biblical translations since 1968.

But the greatest strides were made in the 1980s, when there was an awakening among indigenous people, who wanted to restore the use of their original languages and indigenous names, as the law at the time required names to be given and registered in Han Chinese form.

Since then, the use of tribal languages has extended beyond the Church and into the realm of politics, becoming a symbol of indigenous pride and cultural identity.

Now, with the publication of this New Testament, the indigenous cause has reached a major milestone.

Father Weber himself has been invited by Father Pu and his team to present it to the people at Christmas. “Besides preserving the Tsou language, I hope the bible will encourage the younger generation to learn and pass on their mother tongue,” Father Weber, who is back in Taiwan, says.

“I hope it might also cultivate an atmosphere of bible reading so young people will not be so secularised when they go to study and work in the city.”

Since his return, Father Weber says he has been gratified to see young Tsous embracing their mother tongue by attending language courses and using it in the celebration of the Mass.

Speaking Greek, Latin, English, French, German and Chinese, he learned the Tsou language by asking the elders to record folk stories for him, jotting down words he came across in conversation and taking part in tribal gatherings.

“The colonisation by Holland and Japan in Taiwan, and the influx of Fujian migrants from mainland China have influenced the language,” he says. “I have found Japanese, Fujian dialect and even English terms mixed into the tribal vocabulary.”

Working with Hungarian Father Jozsef Szakos, he has also compiled a Tsou dictionary comprising 100,000 Romanised words. 

His pioneering work has brought him an official accolade from the Taiwan government for fostering aboriginal development.

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