The Disappearance of the Hand

01 May 2018 by Suyen Hu

Inspired by a large hand print land on a deed of sale that I found unexpectedly at Pitt Rivers Museum during a weekend in Oxford, part of my mission in Taiwan now is to find more stories behind the deed. Assisted by loyal fans on our Chinese Facebook page, I was so fortunate to find more deeds like this. What surprised me is that some of the deeds are not just museum exhibits, but also precious items used for family ancestor ceremonies!

When this treasure hunt went further, more deeds were found, but the mysterious hands were no longer present on later documents. By tracing the years in which the deeds were signed, I gradually realised that there might be an interesting but painful history of Taiwan behind all those deeds. The earliest deeds I have found were signed between 1854 to 1857 when the Qing Dynasty was engaged in the Second Opium War with the British. It might be a time when more and more Chinese (strictly ethnically speaking, Han people) chose to settle down permanently in Taiwan.

Land of course is the key not only to survival, but to wealth. The Han people took advantage of the illiteracy of the aboriginals and took away large areas of their lands into their own hands by playing with the legal words as in the deeds. The illiterate aboriginals were unable to write and therefore they used their hand prints to sign the deeds. The conditions set in the deeds were actually very harsh and unfair and there was no hope at all for the descendants of the aboriginals to get their land back according to the terms.

The land deed found in the Pitt Rivers was signed in 1894; the last year the Qing Dynasty was in power in Taiwan. In 1895 the Imperial Qing court signed the treaty of Shimonoseki with Japan and the whole island of Taiwan was ceded to Japan. The later deeds we found were all signed after 1895 and do not contain hand prints. Did the Japanese prevent the use of the hand print? Or had most of the fertile land that used to belong to the aboriginals been taken over by the Han people by that time, around 1895, since most of the deals were made between Han people after that date. Or had some of the aboriginals lost their ethnicity by being forced to adapt to the Han Chinese customs or by marrying Han people? History is fascinatingly full of mysterious question marks.

What is more fascinating to me is that I have found a piece of our own history unknown to me starting at Pitt Rivers in Oxford! Owing to an early collection by Colonel Pitt Rivers, I am uncovering and tracing my own historical and cultural roots as my ancestors might be one of the poor aboriginals who lost both their lands and their identity.