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Unearthing the treasure in Taiwan's graveyards

2015/01/04 12:05:24

Oliver Streiter (right) Photo courtesy of Streiter

By Cheng Che-fon and Flor Wang CNA staff writers

Spending time in cemeteries is not something the average foreign national in Taiwan would put on their itinerary, but for Oliver Streiter it's a must.

Since 2007, the German citizen has visited 45,000 tombs on more than 500 graveyards in Taiwan, Penghu and Kinmen and has compiled a collection of 180,000 photographs.

The casual observer could be forgiven for speculating that Streiter is perhaps an ardent fan of the American television drama series Ghost Whisperer. But that would be a far jump from reality.

Streiter, in fact, is an associate professor at the Department of Western Languages and Literature at National University of Kaohsiung who studies tombs, in particular their inscriptions, for clues on what they say about a place's culture, history and people.

Using GPS-equipped cameras, Streiter takes photographs of the cemeteries he visits and later analyzes the writing on the tombs, the offerings laid there, the family names and dates, as well as other details.

"A tomb inscription not only identifies the dead, but also indicates the person's social identity, the language of the place, its customs and its craftsmanship," said Streiter, who holds a PhD in linguistics from Saarland University in Germany.

He documents not just tombs, but also nearby structures such as temples, churches, columbaria and crematoriums.

Streiter, who has lived in Taiwan for 10 years, said his interest in grave markers dates back many years when he first became intrigued by the inscription on a tomb in a public cemetery in Anping, Tainan.

"That's when I started to study tombs in Taiwan and I'm still immensely interested in them," he said. "They provide valuable information about how immigrants came to Taiwan and settled here."

A close examination of the epitaphs on older tombstones in Taiwan yields information such as the cultural identity and origins of the deceased's family and the name of the emperor who was in power at the time, Streiter said.

For instance, during the period of Japanese colonization in Taiwan, the tomb inscriptions would include the words "Taisho" or "Showa," which indicated that Emperor Taishō-tennō or Emperor Tennō Hirohito was reigning in Japan at the time, he explained.

When Kuomintang forces relocated from China to Taiwan, however, the Japanese emperors' names were apparently removed from many gravestones on the island, Streiter said. Also the Japanese-style tombstone column fell rapidly out of usage, although nowadays still used in Tainan and Penghu.

Then as time went by, the practice of expressing loyalty to the Japanese emperor in the epitaph was phased out and the deceased's place of birth was included instead, he added.

Another interesting cultural marker is the type of offering placed at a grave, said Streiter, who has published several academic papers about tombs in Taiwan.

"If you see betel nuts and millet wine at the tomb of a veteran from mainland China, this means he was married to an indigenous woman."

Streiter thinks, however, that there is not enough recognition in Taiwan of the fact that tombstones are a rich part of the country's cultural heritage. He said it is regrettable that so many cemeteries have been leveled by public authorities in recent years.

"Government authorities should treasure the tombs and handle them carefully as they are a great cultural heritage."

As for the ghosts, Streiter said he has nothing to fear because he always pays them the utmost respect.

"Every time I visit and take pictures of a grave, I first greet solemnly the dead and ask for pardon for troubling him or her," he said.

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