Watan Tanga is an Atayal elder and master in the chant-singing art of the tribe's ancient language. In 2012, Taoyuan City honored his talent as an oral passer-down of his traditional art, and that same year the Ministry of Culture named him a preserver of an important traditional art and a "living national treasure."
The Atayal people have no written language, and so developed the speak-singing form called lmuhuw to record and pass on their history of migration, their genealogy, and traditions around hunting, farming, and religion. Lmuhuw is a rare feature in modern life, and it is increasingly important that this intangible cultural tradition is fully preserved.
Unlike ordinary conversation, lmuhuw communicates information symbolically and metaphorically, its relatively concentrated form making it a valuable crystallization of the traditional wisdom of the Atayal people.
Lmuhuw uses ancient rhythms and phrases rather than the common vernacular, and with no written record, its masters must rely on memory. However, to ensure the thorough preservation of the traditional oral history, Tanga has recorded it all in phonetic transcription.
As well as keeping alive the traditional chant-song epics, Tanga is also a skilled maker and performer of the mouth harp and the vertical flute — skills that are increasingly valuable in a time when indigenous culture and language abilities are in a period of rapid decline.
In 2018, the Bureau of Cultural Heritage and Council of Indigenous Peoples jointly launched "Lmuhuw Dictionary —A Glossary of an Atayal Oral Tradition (1)," a book which was compiled by a team of six artists and 19 Atayal elders with an in-depth knowledge of the traditions of their people, all under the leadership of Tanga.
The book is the first specialist dictionary for lmuhuw, and contains explanations, guided readings, 200 vocabulary entries and definitions, example sentences, regional usages, and information on the communities from which the writers and reporters hail. It also contains a parallel corpus in both romanized Atayal and Mandarin characters.
Tanga's work shines a spotlight on Taiwanese indigenous heritage and the uniqueness of Atayal oral traditions. Not only has he helped raise public awareness of these, he has also inspired other members of indigenous communities to work on cultural preservation, ensuring that these cultures and their memories can be passed on to future generations while preserving the rich diversity of Taiwan's cultures.
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