In 1957, Maya, a small town in Taiwan’s Gaoxiong (Kaohsiung) County, was assigned a new name: Sanmin Township (Sānmín Xiāng, 三民鄉), after Sun Yat-sen’s Sānmínzhǔyì (三民主義 / Three Principles of the People). Although the residents of Maya — then, as now, predominantly members of the Bunun tribe — were likely not in favor of this change, Taiwan was then under an authoritarian regime with an assimilationist policy, so there’s little to nothing they could have done.
During KMT rule, when the change to Sanmin was made, a major point of government policy was stressing the Chineseness of Taiwan — even if, such as in this case, the links had to be manufactured. The Kuomintang (Guómíndǎng), after all, was and still officially is the Chinese Nationalist Party, as the Taipei Times likes to remind its readers.
Fortunately, Taiwan no longer has the same political situation as 50 years ago. Some activists are now trying to get the name of the town changed back to Maya. President Chen Shui-bian recently expressed his support for this, which is not surprising considering that the current administration prefers to stress Taiwan’s historical links with just about anyplace but China. In recent years Taiwan’s ties with Austronesia have been receiving increasing attention.
I’m still trying to find out if “Maya” represents the proper spelling or if it’s merely a romanization of a Mandarinized form of the Bunun name. In Chinese characters this place is written 瑪雅鄉 (Mǎyǎ Xiāng / Maya Township). The characters 瑪雅 are also used for the Maya people of southern Mexico and northern Central America.
- Tribal names hold key to preserving Aboriginal cultures, Taipei Times, August 5, 2007
- Zǒngtǒng gǔlì yuánzhùmín xiāng-zhèn huífù chuántǒng míngchēng (總統鼓勵原住民鄉鎮回復傳統名稱), CNA, August 1, 2007
- President encourages indigenous townships to restore names, CNA via Taiwan Headlines, August 2, 2007
further reading: Pinyin News on aborigine names
I somehow neglected to add, before pressing Publish, what ought to be obvious: Taiwan certainly has more than one place where the name in the language of one of Taiwan’s tribes has been replaced by something Sinitic. It’s just that most of those cases are earlier and thus not always as clear. Also, many names have been Sinicized, rendering their roots obscure, such as in the case of “Wanhua” and even of “Taiwan” itself.