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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Fishing Boats of Orchid Island’s Tao People

Boats of Tao (Yami) people, Orchid Island
Tao tatara boats, with and without culturally significant decorations. (source) Click any image to enlarge.
Orchid Island, also known as Lanyu, is about 45 miles due east of the southernmost point of Taiwan. Only 7.5 miles long, it is home to a culture best known as the Yami, although the people themselves prefer the name Tao, which means simply “people” in their language. Numbering about 4,000, the Tao, a Malayo-Polynesian people, make up about two thirds of the island’s population, the remainder being Han Chinese from Taiwan.

Although Lanyu is now part of the Republic of China, there was little cultural contact with Taiwan until the second half of the twentieth century, leaving Tao society relatively intact and among the least affected by outside influences of all Southeast Asian cultures. The people continue to speak their own language and are culturally more akin to the inhabitants of Batanes, the northernmost province of the Philippines, about 100 miles across the Bashi Channel. They are the only of Taiwan’s remaining aboriginal peoples with a maritime culture.

Lanyu is mountainous, of volcanic origin. Much of it is covered by tropical rainforest, parts of which are untouched. “Coral reefs are distributed around the island and the warm Japan Current also flows by, attracting vast schools of fish.” (source)

Flying fish play a central role in the culture of the Tao, their migrations determining the Tao’s annual cycle of ritual and economic activities. The boats used to fish for flying fish are “a central cultural emblem,” and so distinctive as to have become the island’s best-known cultural artifact and image for tourism.

The Tao’s boats range from the 1- and 2-man tatara, about 2.3m long, to the 10- and even 14-man chinedkulan, at 7.6m long. All are of similar form and construction, their most obvious distinguishing features being the extremely high extensions of the stem and sternposts that sweep up sharply but gracefully from the gunwales, and the elaborate carved-and-painted decoration of the hulls.

Tao boats show similarities to those of Batanes, to the mon of the Solomon Islands, and to those of Lamalera, on the island of Lembata in Indonesia. Chinedkulan are notably seaworthy, having formerly been used for voyages to Batanes (but apparently no longer so used). Tatara are said to be quite unstable and are used only in protected waters in calm conditions.

The Tatara and Chinedkulan Hulls

Structural cross-section of a Yami chinedkulan boat
Structural cross-section of a chinedkulan. "Botel Tobago" is another name for Lanyu or Orchid Island. Image source: R. H. Barnes (see bibliography)
Built on a keel with separate stem and sternpost, the hull is symmetrical fore-and-aft, V-bottomed, and chined. It is built shell-first, with frames that (at least, on the chinedkulan) do not reach to the topmost strake. Thwarts, too, span the second-to-top strakes, not the topmost ones. Making up for this, a strong shelf near the lower edge of the top strake provides a great deal of rigidity. The shelf is not attached to the plank as a separate component but, rather, is carved as an integral part of the planks of the top strakes. Each strake consists of three plank sections. The larger chinedkulan has four strakes, the tatara three.

Frame/plank lashed connection in a Tao tatara boat
Detail of lashed-lug construction between frame and planks in a Tao tatara. Source: R. H. Barnes
The smooth-planked (i.e., carvel) hull is of lashed-lug construction. When each plank is gotten out, “comb cleats” (pairs of lugs with a short gap between) are left on the inside surface. Holes are bored in the lugs. The U-shaped frames are placed in the gap between the cleats and tied in place with rattan lashings. But before this happens, the strakes are assembled to the keel and to one another by blind-pegging. The upper edge of each plank is drilled with numerous holes – from photos, it appears that they are spaced rather closely, perhaps 4” apart. Dowels are inserted in the holes, and the next plank, with corresponding holes, is forced down against the lower one. Joints are caulked with vegetable fiber.

Pegged plank fastening, Tao boat, Orchid Island
Blind pegged fastening of planks. Source: R. H. Barnes (see bibliography)
The planking has three sets of lugs: one set, amidships, holds the frames. The smaller boats have a single frame amidships. The larger ones have two frames, dividing the hull approximately in thirds lengthwise. The second set of lugs, appearing at one end only, is used to fasten a transverse bulkhead. The third set, appearing at both ends, holds lashings to pull the port and starboard planks in toward each other. It’s unclear how the hood ends are fastened to the endposts, or how the butt joints between the plank sections are fastened.

Tao Tatara boat of Lanyu
Tatara with single frame amidships. Also shown are shelf near the bottom of the sheerstrake and a transverse bulkhead at right. Source: R.H. Barnes
The backbone consists of three pieces – the V-shaped keel and two endposts – joined in a stepped joint (and presumably pegged).

The boats are rowed with oars that pivot against a kind of tholepin structure that consists of two or three posts arranged with their bottoms splayed fore-and-aft and their tops, which rise high above the gunwale, lashed together with many wraps of heavy rope. The bottom ends appear to penetrate the shelf that runs near the lower edge of the topmost strake, and perhaps are held in place by lugs in the planking below the shelf.

Thole structures, sheerstrake shelf, steering oar yoke and thwarts (deckbeams) are all visible. Source: R.H. Barnes 
Tao (Yami) Boat Construction Procedures

To begin construction, trees are felled with an ax, and planks are shaped with an adze, each trunk yielding a single plank or backbone section. The center of the trunk becomes a plank’s outer surface. The endposts, in order to avoid grain run-out in the rapidly curved transition from the horizontal to the vertical, are gotten out from the base of a tree with buttress roots, in the manner of grown knees in Western boatbuilding.

Much of the construction of Tao boats is regulated by ritual. All of the major parts of the boat must be cut from live trees, there being a prohibition against the use of dead wood. According to Barnes, “(T)imber should be felled, worked into rough shape and carried back to the village on the same day. The bow and stern pieces require some twenty men taking turns to carry them across the island.” A ceremony and celebration, with feasting, greet the men on their return to the village.

Having brought the major pieces back to the village, the boat is finished in a special boatbuilding shed, using axes, adzes, chisels, gouges, and borers or a brace and bit to produce the holes for the planking dowels.

Construction takes two or three years. When it is complete, a boat may be painted rather simply – usually with white topsides inside and out and a red bottom – and put into use. It is more common, however, to apply elaborate conventional decorations in traditional red, white and black painted and carved patterns that represent human figures, waves, and bow oculi in the form of the sun. Borders made of multiple bands of repeating triangles of the three colors outline the sheer, cutwaters at bow and stern, and waterline. The tops of the endposts are decorated with chicken feathers.

Hull decorations on fishing boat of Orchid Island
Traditional decorations includes (from left to right) the sun-like oculus, human figures, and ocean waves. (source)
The Tao, according to a Taiwanese government website, “consider a boat as a man’s body. Boat-building is a sacred mission and a part of life. Owning a boat means owning the ocean and the sky and having valor. For the Tao, boat-building is the manifestation of divinity and beauty.” Carrying such heavy social/psychological meaning, only boats that will be subjected to an expensive, elaborate launching ritual may be decorated in the traditional manner.

One step of this ritual consists of covering the boat in taro roots which, after flying fish, is the most important staple of the Tao diet. Given the large amount of taro required, land clearing and planting may begin three or four years prior to the start of building the boat. After the boat is covered in tubers, they are removed to become part of a celebratory feast (which also includes roast pig, shared with the community but also slaughtered as a sacrifice) in which the whole village partakes. Women wear special clothing for several days before the ceremony. In the climax to the ritual, men, wearing the loincloths that they also wear when fishing, circle the boat several times to guard it from evil spirits, then lift it above their heads and throw it into the air several times.

Boat launching ceremony, Lanyu
Tossing a newly-built chinedkulan into the air: part of the traditional launching ceremony on Lanyu. (source)
Boat Use on Lanyu (Orchid Island)
“Surrounded by sea, the Tao society is a typical maritime one. Their annual schedule corresponds to the flying fish season. The Tao people designed a calendar according to habitual behaviors of marine life and the movements of ocean currents, which includes restrictions and taboos regulating the fishing area, timing and methods.” (source)

The Tao celebrate flying fish season with a festival consisting of 13 distinct rituals. Flying fish are caught from March through June, but “shoulder seasons” at both ends make the period from February to October the most important part of the Tao’s year economically and culturally. Almost all activities during this longer period relate to catching, preparing, distributing and storing the fish for use throughout the year. Flying fish may not be caught outside of the official flying fish season, although other kinds of fishing, especially for crabs, octopus, and shellfish, occur at other times.

To catch flying fish, the Tao boatmen work in concert with free divers. The larger boats are rowed with one man per oar and steered with a steering oar. Nets as long as 8 meters are spread into a U-shaped wall attached to the bottom, their tops 2m to 4m below the water surface. Divers, numbering between 25 and 40 and remarkable for their lung capacity, spread out some distance from the net in a half-circle that can be up to 300m wide. Using large, whisk-like beaters that they sweep through the water and hit against the bottom, they drive schools of fish toward and into the net. They then gather the ends of the net together, and it is lifted into the boat.

“After each drive, the fish are taken to shore, removed from the net and scaled. For scaling the Yami use stone chips. After the fish are cleaned, they are put back into the boat, the net is loaded into the boat as well, and the group performs one or two more drives. On a lucky day the catch may total over a thousand fish, but such days are rare. Usually a good catch brings in five or six hundred fish.”

The catch is processed communally and distributed by a formula that takes account of who owns the boat, the net, and who participated in that particular drive.

R.H. Barnes, "Yami Boats and Boat Building in a Wider Perspective," in Ships and the Development of Maritime Technology in the Indian Ocean, David Parkin and Ruth Barnes, eds.Routledge, 2002
"Tao: Introduction to the Ethnic Group," in Digital Museum of Taiwan Indigenous Peopleshttp://www.dmtip.gov.tw/Eng/Tao.htm
"A Minority Within a Minority: Cultural Survival on Taiwan's Orchid Island," in Cultural Survival Quarterlyhttps://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/minority-within-minority-cultural-survival-taiwans-orchid
Jerome F. Keating, "The Driving Forces and Scope of the Mapping of Taiwan," in Mediascapehttp://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/Winter2012_Taiwan.html
"Orchid Island (Lanyu)" in Taiwan: The Heart of Asiahttp://eng.taiwan.net.tw/m1.aspx?sNo=0002123&id=650
"Offshore Islands: Penghu; Kinmen National Park; Matsu; Green Island (Lyudao); Orchid Island (Lanyu)" in Taiwan: Heart of Asiahttp://go2taiwan.net/monthly_selection.php?sqno=7
"Yami People" in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yami_people
Dezso Benedek, The Songs of the Ancestors: A Comparative Study of Bashic Folklorehttp://asian-lp.uga.edu/jpn_html/yami/
Katherine Kuang, "Yami Creation Myths": http://www.laits.utexas.edu/doherty/plan2/kuang.html