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Indigenous bible helps restore cultural identity in Taiwan

After two decades' work, a tribe gets it own New Testament

Fr. Anton Weber (in white alb) visits Tsou indigenous Catholics Fr. Anton Weber (in white alb) visits Tsou indigenous Catholics
  • Francis Kuo, Chiayi
  • Taiwan
  • November 15, 2012
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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 very special gift: Father Anton Weber is going to present them with a copy of the New Testament, in their own Tsou dialect.

The Divine Word priest from Germany ministered to the tribe in Alishan, a village in Chiayi diocese, for 30 years. For two decades during that time, he worked on the New Testament translation. Not long after he finished the first draft he was assigned to a new duty in Germany. So the project was passed to a six-member group led by Fr. Nobert Pu and Sister Lisa Wang, both Tsou natives.

Fr. Pu believes 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 reviving and sustaining the Tsou language, Fr. Pu says it will also “enrich the aboriginal’s 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 number of adherents.

According to the Indigenous Theology Research Center at Fu Jen Catholic 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 Bible translations since 1968.

But the greatest strides were made in the 1980's. This was when an awakening occurred among indigenous people, who wanted to restore the use of their original languages and indigenous names, when 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.

Fr. Weber himself has been invited by Fr. 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," says Fr. Weber, who is already back in Taiwan.

"I hope it might also cultivate an atmosphere of Bible reading so  young people will not be so 'secularized' when they go to study and work in the city."

Since his return, Fr. Weber says he has been  gratified to see young Tsous embracing their mother tongue by attending language courses and using it to celebrate Mass.

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

"The colonization of 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 Fr. Jozsef Szakos, he has also compiled a Tsou dictionary comprising 100,000 Romanized words. His pioneering work has brought him an official accolade from the Taiwan government for fostering aboriginal development.

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