My second day on the road in Nantou County in October 2015 was completely unplanned. I left Puli and headed deeper into the mountains simply to see what was there, not having done any advance research. From a glance at the map I had a rough idea where I’d be going—deeper into traditional Taiwanese Indigenous lands to the east of Puli Basin (埔里盆地). Ultimately I ended up visiting several settlements and two reservoirs in a few hours of riding around what is now known as the township of Ren'ai.
Ren’ai Township is entirely beyond the former Tuniu Boundary Line (土牛界線), a porous frontier dividing Han Chinese lands from Indigenous territory in Qing dynasty era Taiwan1. At its greatest extent in 1875 this boundary encompassed Puli and neighboring Yuchi, home to Sun Moon Lake (日月潭). Imperial Japan, after conquering the lowlands in 1895, embarked upon a long and often violent mission to assimilate the high mountain people over the course of the next half century. The colonial authorities were intent on exploiting the natural resources of the interior—primarily camphor and lumber, but also certain minerals—and legitimizing Japan as a “civilizing” power on par with the nations of Europe. Despite this, what is now Ren’ai Township was administered as the fāndì (蕃地, literally “savage land”) of Nōkō County (能高郡) until control was relinquished in 1945. Only in 1950 was Ren’ai given its present name, one of several common terms derived from the ideology of the ruling KMT party2.
After departing from Puli I headed southeast along Wǔjiè Road (武界路, also known as 投71鄉道), driving through mushrooms farms and betel nut plantations on the way to the mountains. Puli Basin bottoms out at approximately 500 meters above sea level so it’s quite a climb to where the old road slips over a pass at 1,300 meters elevation. Since 2006 there is a shortcut: the kilometer-long Zhuōshè Tunnel (卓社隧道), punched through the mountain at roughly 1,000 meters. The interior is quite damp, a consequence of considerable groundwater seepage, which makes for a slick ride through the dimly-lit passage to Ren’ai Township.
The view from the other side of the tunnel is spectacular. After a sharp descent along twisting mountain roads I passed through a stone slab gateway3 and arrived at the home of the Wǔjiè Indigenous community (武界部落) of the Bunun people (布農族). In official terms this is Fǎzhì Village (法治村) but Buqaiz is the traditional name for this place in the Takituduh dialect of the Bunun language. From what I’ve read this community was forcibly resettled here from the mountains to the south in 19194. Additional information about Boqaiv can be found in English here and in Chinese here, here, here, here, and here.
Buqaiz sprawls across the Zhuóshuǐ River (濁水溪), the longest in Taiwan, which meanders south through the mountains before turning due west toward the sea. The Zhoushui River divides Changhua from Yunlin and has traditionally been an informal boundary between northern and southern Taiwan. Here in the high mountains it is a sluggish, silty stream, from which the name—which means “muddy” or “turbid” water—is derived. This high sediment load is a result of the many landslides that occur in the highlands, particularly after earthquakes and typhoons. Extreme rainfall events can wash an incredible amount of material into the river, something you’ll see direct evidence of in the photos to come.
Wujie is also home to a historic dam and reservoir of the same name, both part of the much larger Sun Moon Lake Hydroelectric Project (日月潭水力電氣工事). Construction began in 1919 but came to a halt a few years later due to the global post-war recession. Work resumed in 1927 and what is now known as the Dàguān Power Plant (大觀發電廠) began generating power in late 1934. Wujie Dam (武界壩), located approximately 20 kilometers from Daguan, diverts the flow of Zhoushui River through a 15 kilometer-long tunnel (武界引水隧道) to Sun Moon Lake, raising the water level by about 20 meters and increasing capacity sixfold. This complex system, one of the world’s most elaborate hydroelectric projects of its time, was designed to ensure a constant supply of water to downstream generating station. In the many decades since it was built this system has been continually improved and expanded.
What makes the waters of the reservoir such a vibrant shade of turquoise? I suppose I wasn’t that surprised when I first observed this phenomenon at Wujie—after all, aren’t mountain lakes often this bright? In temperate and alpine areas this effect is commonly caused by rock flour deposited by glaciers but Taiwan, even with its many high mountains, does not appear to have experienced much glaciation in recent eras. That being said, the mechanism is probably the same: sediment suspended in the water column absorbs certain frequencies of light to produce a milky or turquoise appearance. Not just any sediment will do—it needs to be of the right particle size and chemistry—but apparently the conditions are met here in the mountains of Nantou, which are primarily made of uplifted sedimentary rock.
Heading north along the reservoir I soon entered the northernmost settlement of Bunun people, a place known in the Takituduh dialect as Sima-un and in Chinese as Wànfēng Village (萬豐村), home of the Qūbīng Indigenous community (曲冰部落)5. This community was famously involved in the Zǐmèiyuán Incident (姊妹原事件) in 1903, an event dramatized in the Taiwanese cinematic epic Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale. In short, the Japanese persuaded the Qubing to ambush a large party of Seediq people from the Tgdaya group (克達雅) who were lured downriver under false pretences. After a feast and celebratory drinking the Bunun slaughtered approximately a hundred Seediq, greatly inhibiting their ability to resist Japanese advances into the highlands. This massacre occurred not far from where Wujie Dam was built several decades later.
In 1922 the Qubing were forced out of the mountains and settled at a place named Ququaz, or Gēgēyuán (哥哥原) in Chinese, on the east side of the Zhoushui River. The completion of Wujie Dam and the accumulation of silt over the years caused the community to relocate twice more, making Sima-un their third home in the area.
Just north of Wanfeng Village one will pass the Qubing Ruins (曲冰遺址), an archaeological site excavated by Chén Zhòngyù (陳仲玉) from 1981–1987. His team found an entire village with dozens of homes, nearly two hundred stone sarcophagi, and tens of thousands of artifacts, many showing evidence of extensive trade across the region. It was a significant discovery—the first of its kind in the mountainous interior of Taiwan—and, with signs of human habitation going back as far as 3,500 years before present, it also ended the debate about whether Taiwanese Indigenous people had settled the mountains prior to the arrival of Han Chinese settlers in the 1600s6. I had no idea about any of this when I swung by so I only snapped one quick photograph without examining the site too closely. There probably wouldn’t have been much to see anyway; the site appears to be completely overgrown despite its status as a third-class national monument.
I continued north, exiting Bunun territory, and soon arrived in Pulan, home of the Sōnglín Indigenous community (松林部落). A century ago this was Seediq territory but a group of closely-related Truku people (太魯閣族) from the highest reaches of the Zhoushui River were relocated here in the immediate aftermath of the Musha Incident (霧社事件) in 1930. This village moved several times, much like the others already described in this post, before settling in its current location in 19507. Knowing none of this I drove around the back of the village and stopped for lunch at a small eatery with a picnic table out front. Turns out the boss was Han Taiwanese who had married into the community so it was standard Taiwanese fare—steamed dumplings, if I recall correctly. I enjoyed making smalltalk with some curious locals while dining before hitting the road again.
The shadows were growing long as I sped by Wàndà Power Plant (萬大發電廠) on the way to Wùshè Dam (霧社壩) and the stunning reservoir of the same name. The power plant entered into service in 1943 but the dam and reservoir were not completed until 1957. This reservoir also has a major siltation problem but this only becomes obvious at the far end. From the viewpoint at the deepest end of the reservoir it seems absolutely idyllic.
I spent the last hour or so riding around places I’ve already seen on previous trips, particularly this crossing of the Central Mountain Range in 2014, so I didn’t take many photos. Once you get anywhere near Qīngjìng Farm (清境農場) the many coach buses that ply these mountain roads become so hazardous that stopping to take a quick picture becomes much less appealing. I ended up making the journey back to Puli at dusk, impressed with what I had seen on this random ride through the mountains of Ren’ai.
If you haven’t already read the first part in this series I suggest you do so. The next post in this series details some of what you’ll see in Puli itself and will conclude with posts about Sun Moon Lake and Xinyi Township. Hopefully you’ve found this informative—it ended up being much more work than I had expected given the paucity of English language writing about this remote region of Taiwan.
- Subjects of the Qing emperor were forbidden to cross into “savage lands” but the Taiwanese interior was virtually lawless in those days. Informal trade, intermarriage, and violence occurred all along the frontier, not unlike what we imagine of the heavily mythologized American Wild West. For more about this subject I strongly recommend picking up a copy of Outcasts of Empire: Japan’s Rule on Taiwan’s “Savage Border,” 1874-1945 by Paul D. Barclay, available here. For a brief overview check out this review by Michael Turton. Also worth noting: despite a century of population changes Ren’ai Township remains approximately 80% Indigenous Taiwanese. ↩
- After taking control of Taiwan the KMT renamed countless streets, settlements, and administrative divisions to indoctrinate the population through geography. Among the concepts commonly imposed as place names are the Eight Virtues or Bādé (八德), typically paired off to yield four proper names: Zhōngxiào (忠孝, loyalty), Rén’ài (仁愛, benevolence), Xìnyì (信義, faith), and Hépíng (和平, peace). These names were assigned to the high mountain districts that had only been known as the “savage land” of their respective counties in Japanese times, an act of Indigenous erasure and nowadays an obvious candidate for reform through transitional justice legislation. Thus we have Heping in Taichung and Ren’ai and Xinyi in Nantou, but no Zhongxiao, because it sounds vulgar in Taiwanese Hokkien. As near as I can tell the highest administrative division with the name Zhongxiao is a village in Yilan—and it’s regularly the target of ridicule. Zhongxiao is used more often in Taipei but I suspect that’s only because Mandarin Chinese is more commonly spoken there. ↩
- Several Taiwanese Indigenous peoples—primarily the Rukai, Paiwan, and some Bunun—traditionally constructed homes out of stacked stone slabs, usually slate. There are several sites in Pingtung where such dwellings can still be seen, for example in Lǎoqījiā (老七佳) and Kucapungane. For those who don’t often leave Taipei you will find an imitation stone slab house at the Taipei Campus of Shih Chien University (實踐大學臺北校區). ↩
- This confusing barrage of nomenclature is a consequence of describing a place as well as the people who live there in several languages with multiple romanization systems. Most places in Taiwan have historic names in one or more Indigenous Taiwanese languages, Taiwanese Hokkien, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese, all of which can be romanized in a variety of ways. In this case the original Bunun place name Buqaiz (or Boqaiv) was transliterated into Japanese as Bukai (from which Bogai and Vogai, other common names, are derived). A Mandarin Chinese reading of the Japanese kanji for Bukai is how we arrive at Wujie (formerly Wuchieh in the Wade–Giles romanization system). The name of the community itself also dates back to Japanese times; originally they were called the Sabakam or the Sabakan, one of several communities of the Takituduh group of Bunun, who are known as the Zhuōshè (卓社群) in Chinese. ↩
- The people of Sima-un were historically the Taqtaban (alternatiely: Kantaban, Kantavan and Gantaban) according to the Japanese. Qubing (sometimes romanized as Chuping) has no relation to these historic names—it is a Chinese place name derived from the visual appearance of the nearby riverbed. Ququaz, a place, is sometimes referred to as Gogowa, probably the original Japanese name. ↩
- It should be noted that the only link established between the Qubing Indigenous community and the Qubing site is entirely an accident of geography. Whether the Bunun are the descendants of the people who lived here thousands of years ago is unknown. What we do know is that the Bunun only recently acquired this territory. ↩
- Administratively this is Qīn’ài Village (親愛村), home to three Taiwanese Indigenous peoples: Truku, Seediq, and Atayal. Pulan itself is only the Truku part of the village from what I can tell. In Japanese times it was known as Inago, and it seems the ruins of the original Japanese garrison can still be found nearby. For more about Pulan try here or here. ↩