Sunday, November 7, 2010

Books: Chingchuan Story

You're unlikely to find Chingchuan Story outside Taiwan, and even on the island it isn't widely available. This is a pity, because it's an easy-to-read, engaging portrait of life in an aboriginal village.

The author, Barry Martinson, is a Jesuit missionary who has lived and worked in and around Chingchuan (nowadays often spelled Qingquan) in Hsinchu County since 1976. His writing style is unadorned and his anecdotes are arranged in short chapters. These cover his efforts to preserve Atayal culture as well as promote Catholicism. He doesn't shy away from unsavoury aspects of indigenous life (such as alcoholism), nor is he afraid of recalling episodes when he made a fool of himself.

One of the most memorable chapters deals with hunting and traditional cuisine. In it, he admits he has never been able to eat flying squirrel (now a protected species):

"Perhaps this has something to do with its preparation. The flying squirrel is seldom cooked. It is salted and placed in cooked rice for several days. Then it is eaten, by hand, straight from the soggy rice."

Later in the same chapter he relates another rodent-eating experience:

"I remember when Youmin and his family were cooking large field mice by placing them over the fire for a few minutes until their hair was charred off. Youmin broke off the feet and tails and tossed them to his little children to gnaw on. Then he slit open a mouse intestine and squeezed the contents onto a spoon [saying the Atayal regard it as a traditional medicine]. Reluctantly I tried it. It was over two weeks before I could get that taste out of my mouth."

For details of how to obtain this book or others by the same author, go to the publisher's website.

To read Martinson's article about Chingchuan's most famous former resident, the warlord-general Zhang Xueliang (Chang Hsueh-liang), go here.

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