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Short History of the ThakBong Project: About Variationism, Diffusionism and Socio-Cognitive Grammars

Yoann Goudin & Oliver Streiter APLAC, National University of Kaohsiung, Taiwan


The Thakbong project is an open-ended project, which in its current stage can best be described as a digital endeavor to document, archive and research epigraphy in the Taiwan Strait and beyond.

Epigraphy refers, according to the common understanding, to the observable practice and technique of carving inscriptions into objects of hard materials, such as stone, wood, metal and, less frequently, ceramic, steel, glass and concrete. The epigraphic objects can be natural, e.g. rocks, or man-made , such as tombstones, or ancestral tablets. Characters can be carved in, so-called yīn 陰 carvings, or out, so-called yáng 陽 carvings. In addition, they can be painted to enhance their social functions or to change or underline the symbolism of the writing. More than 100 epigraphic genres are distinguished in the Chinese languages used in the Taiwan Strait by a rich vocabulary. Yet, these languages only loosely attempt to organize epigraphic practices in hierarchies. An overarching notion of epigraphy is virtually absent in these languages and potentially irrelevant to practitioners, as well as for believers of related rites.

The notion of epigraphy is thus an imported notion, which is not rooted in the local cultures of the Taiwan Strait. In other words, there is no closed class of objects and inscriptions that local people would group together on the base of their epigraphic properties such as uniqueness, hard material, deicticity and locality. In addition, local cultures perceive these objects in their specific religious, spiritual or social practices, while the term epigraphy in Western cultures, in its greco-romain tradition, is concerned with language, script and content and the methodologies that allow to classify languages and scripts and record the content. The term epigraphy is thus a Western term, the introduction of which as an analytic concept into the Asian context, would require explicit motivation.

In fact, the ThakBong project started from a Western perspective, focusing on language, script and content. Thus, in the beginning our documentation and analysis of tombstones in burial sites was not much different from what the documentation and analysis of printed lists found in libraries would have been. The transformation of the ThakBong project and the transformation of our thinking therefore can be characterized by a deeper and deeper embedding of documented inscriptions in their specific cultural context. Despite this shift in perspective from a Western language-centered epigraphy to objects embedded in local cultures, we still value the notion of epigraphy itself, as it offers us a linguistically inspired approach to the analysis of these inscriptions and their contexts beyond the limits of religous practices, religions or languages.

We thus argue that the introduction of the term epigraphy in the Asian context permits us to describe a wide range of cultural heritage objects, which without the term epigraphy would be dispersed over different anthropological fields. Our description is based, and this is the linguistic heritage of the term epigraph, on grammar and eventually on a common or shared grammar which connects different more specific grammars, e.g. of tombstones and ancestral tablets, which expresses the similarity of these different objects types. Despite in differences, e.g. stone versus woood, and techniques, e.g. carving vs. painting, both inscription types share a topic-focus structure, whith the focus containing a data, a reference to a deceased person and references to the offspring. Differences in size, material, technique and the emic naming of the object as well as the ritual function of the epigraphic object are the main triggers for differences in the inscription. Thus reurring to the notion of grammar allows to lay out communalities and to reveal differences.

Epigraphy as a system of grammars partially shared among different epigraphic genres and extending into other cultural domains.

Modeling inscriptions in more abstract forms of a grammar, not only identifies similarities among epigraphic objects, but also of epigraphic objects to a wider range of cultural practices in this region, such as architecture, photography and painting. We thus claim that all these practices mutually share important conceptual structures, which can be approached, highlighted and understood from the perspective of inscribed objects. Epigraphy is thus a language-rich articulation within a network of grammars of a culture. Language and writing serve as well understood tool for the analysis of the grammars, their interaction and their function. The careful analysis these epigraphic grammars, we claim, sheds light on the interactions of cognition, language and culture in a specific region in the specific time marked through the dates and the deicticity of the epigraphic inscription and object.

This vast thematic and geographic scope of the ThakBong project was not anticipated from the beginning of the project, when, in 2007, two young men, equipped with a digital camera, a shovel, and a pair of hedge clippers, set out to take photos of tombstones in various parts of Taiwan on prolonged weekends. To understand the gradual transition from the endeavor to document tombstones on Taiwan to the endeavor to document epigraphy in East and Southeast Asia, we have to step back in time and understand what happened, when we entered our field.

Believing initially that the only thing we would have to do was to continue to document tombstones on Taiwan in a standardized and repetitive way, we constantly found that our previous conceptions and approaches were not among the most suitable. Most of the time, the awkwardness of conceptions and approaches were revealed by the findings in the field and the difficulties we had in properly documenting and inserting them in our data structure. An example for such a finding might serve the fact that sometimes part of the content usually written on the tombstone, is not written on the tombstone, but on the wings, locally called shoulders, which surround the tombstone. Similarly, couplets to the right and left of the tombstone might encode the date of birth of the deceased and or the intended direction of the tomb. It is obvious that in these cases the wings and couplets have to be included into the documentation and the data structure. Yet, if we would limit our documentation to only those wings and couplets of which we can understand the relevance at the moment of the documentation, we would exclude all wings and couplets we might eventually understand at a later point of our research. Findings like these thus motivated us to reconfigure the conceptual framework of the project, to redefine the research objects and aims, and to experiment with new tools and techniques, e.g. recording the direction of the tomb as a potential indicator of the data of birth. Yet, we tried not to break off with an earlier approach. Instead, we added onto it, we refined and extended. We tried to keep backward compatibility and, if possible, redocumented sites. Merging the previously collected data with the new data, we also added a touch of a diachronic dimension to our data collection. This primacy of the field work, and the status of empirical data as a potential game-changer in the setup of the research, contrasts with the academic habitus, which focuses on the verification or the examplication of a theory following a standardized and immutable procedure.

Allowing our research objectives and goals to shift, we intentionally challenged the emerging field of Taiwan studies, which in narrowly delimited areas replicated conventional research practices, and thus might miss the aims of the very field, which is to understand the complexity of Taiwan. The freedom we took to resize and redefine the research population and to eventually study populations outside Taiwan with the aim to study Taiwan, all while the project was developing, was a first and necessary step in overcoming habitual academic boundaries. And although when starting in 2007, our project had no finalized academic battle plan and provided us only with a sandbox in the search for alternatives in the emerging field of Taiwan studies, the decision to be flexible on the researched population was central to the project development, as approaching new sites in new regions gradually triggered transformations of the project. Triggers were usually unexpected, unexplained or marginal findings in the field. To make sense of these, to understand their distribution in time and space, and their correlation with independent variables, we needed data from comparative regions that might provide us with the key for phenomena found on Taiwan.

We will use the case of the Japanese tombstone column to illustrate how the Thakbong project, which had started with a geographic focus on Taiwan, opened up geographically to neighboring regions. To do so, we have to go back in history: After occupying Penghu and Taiwan in 1895, the tombs of Japanese, and later on, the tombs of local community members featured a column-shaped tombstone, gradually replacing a top-rounded tombstone style. This new tombstone style at a first look seems to be a replication of the column that is used in Japan as grave marker, as site marker or commemorative stone. To understand this process of assimilation and the modifications people on Taiwan and Penghu applied to the Japanese model in order to make them functional for them, we have to understand the details of the Japanese column as used in Japan. This includes the different shapes or types of columns, the sizes of these columns and how they were inscribed, putting what kind of information onto which side of the column. We would also have to understand the the significance and symbolic value of this stone form for the Japanese colonizers. How did they understand this shape and was it important to them? Thus, in order to understand this adoption and assimilation of the Japanese column and its development to a popular tombstone form on Taiwan that lasted even beyond the Japanese colonial period, in some regions of Taiwan up into the 21st century, we had to understand, the historical formation of this shape in Japan, possible alternatives and standards of inscription, as well as the geographical and temporal distribution of this tombstone form in Japan.

Consequently, we documented burial and epigraphic sites in Japan, transcribed and analyzed inscriptions and thus gradually acquired the foundation for a comparative analysis of the original form in Japan with the assimilated form on Taiwan. Yet, as the column as tombstone form was not only introduced on Taiwan, but during earlier colonization movements also to Kagoshima, Okinawa and Penghu, we conceived a comparative analysis of these regions. Would there be differences when, where and how columns were assimilated into local practices? What would be the factors that might explain possible differences between these regions? Thus, looking for partially shared histories, i.e. the Japanese colonization, in otherwise comparable regions, i.e. islands along the Kuroshio current, we gradually extended the geographic focus of our study with the purpose to understand and explain a specific tombstone related to the Japanese colonization of Taiwan and Penghu.

Sites on the Ryukyu Archipelago -- 琉球群島遺址

Beyond a shared colonial history, there is a wide range of cultural aspects that conceptually link regions for a comparative analysis. To these belong religions, ethnicities, climatic or geological conditions, or paths and networks of trade or migration. To fully understand the interplay of a locally constructed in-group similarity, an local out-group dissimilarity and an imagined, recollected or reconstructed global similarity to a larger, non-local community, these three different foundations of comparison had to be covered. The existence of Muslim tombs in Taiwan, for example, sparked our interest in Muslim tombs in Hong Kong, the Chaiwai and Wan Chai Muslim Cemeteries, Macau and Malaysia. Likewise, the graveyard of the Ningbo Landsmannschaft in Taipei triggered a comparison with tombs documented in Ningbo, China. Most importantly however, the migration for centuries from Fujian, to Jinmen, to Penghu, to Taiwan, made it necessary to document sites in these regions to avoid intellectual complacency, e.g. the idea that tombs in Taiwan are copies of tombs in Fujian. Thus common religions in different cultural contexts, different religions in similar cultural contexts, or practices in regions regions connected through paths or networks of migration require the comparative analyses of epigraphy as one among various indicators of how communities develop and adapt their cultures to construct their identities.