The blazing sun shone on the royal blue ocean, and it was so eye-catching. Blowing in the wind, we straightly went to the south part of Taitung, afterwards, we arrived at Chihpen Tribe, which were also known as Katratripulr. When walking along XiChang Road, which locals called “the second road of Chihpen”, the gentle woody smell led us forward, then we arrived at Xian-Ting's studio. When entering his studio, a colorful and spectacular tool wall came into view, Xian-Ting invited us to sit down, and started a conversation at the most comfortable pace. Xian-Ting Gao, an Pinuyumayan man in Katratripulr, native name Kuciling Katatepan, an art worker now, mainly creates works of wood, including sword sculpture, custom-made furniture, traditional craft and installation art, and especially best known for sword sculpture.
Xian-Ting’s sword always amazes people with its precise methods, exquisite looks and unique shapes. We took a deep look into his work, and literally saw the identity of culture and the persistence of inheritance. When talking about the learning journey, he said “ My first carving experience happened at 15 years old. “ Xian-ting’s grandmother was good at making traditional clothes, hence, he used to do some simple works for her. He had gotten acquainted with creating something by his own hand when he was really little, additionally, he loved to paint. All these things made his childhood filled with creative energy. One day, while he was painting at home, an elder of his family asked him, “You have painted for a long time. Do you want to carve it on something?” He remembered he said nervously, “Really? What if I fail?“ The elder only replied “Just give it a try.” Since then, Xian-ting took the elder as his teacher, following him to learn the sculpture artistry.
“For me, the meaning of sword is stratified.” Xian-ting had tried a lot of creative ways, after a period of groping, he decided to spend most of time in sword sculpture. Asking him why he chose the sword as his main creation, he answered, “ First, the carving knife is closely related to my creation. The sculpture is about removing something not needed and keeping something needed. In the process of making sculpture works, the knife plays a vital role. Every cut and chop is a reshape, presenting different visual perception and overall curve, even relating to the balance between cuts, all details quench the beauty of sculpture.” “Second, for a Pinuyumayan man, the sword occupied an important position in life. About 10-12 years old, all boys who live in the tribe will move into a men's house, which is called Palakuwan. We will live, learn, and take the test for different age levels together, and when we get through the test, the elder will give a sword to us as a gift. For example, in the beginning, when we learn to deal with prey and chop down bamboo, we’ll be given the first sword of our life, Pinuyumayan named Kamatr, it’s a short knife about 15 centimeters long. And when we’re 16 years old, traditionally after headhunting, we’ll be given a salute knife, called Tazaw, mainly for the dressing-up occasion. Therefore, the sword symbolizes not only personal growth but also cultural glory.“
Since Xian-ting focuses on sword sculpture, he realized that every detail of the sword is a branch of knowledge, taking the shape of the scabbard for example, it’s the simplest part in sword sculpture, but Xian-ting had drawn it for one year repeatedly to reach the standard which his teacher set. It was unavoidable to feel frustrated when he faced the endless modification, but just because of the steady and firm practice, Xian-ting constructed his own taste of art. Apart from this, his teacher also paid great attention to the cultural concept, declaring that “inherence” and “creation” should separate. If choosing to carve the traditional pattern, one should never change the content, as not violate the spirit which had passed down by ancestors. On the contrary, if it’s the creation, then nothing is limited. Hence, we could easily distinguish these two main categories in Xian-ting’s works, if the sword is in traditional shape, the scabbard must be with traditional sculpture, and at the same time, he never forget to create something new on his own. Since Xian-ting followed his teacher to learn tribal crafts, he had cautiously complied with these two principles.
After talking about his creation principle, Xian-ting started to talk about the creation process. Before carving, he will definitely do draw design, then select the suitable wood material. Every kind of wood has its own features, including different origin, grain and hardness, and it will substantially determine the quality of the work. After the material selection, he will confirm again that whether the draw design fits in the wood grain or not, do some adjustment then start the carving work. In addition to this, the collocation of the knife handle adds the finishing touch all the time. Take rattan-series sword for example, Xian-ting had done a lot of preliminary work. When he finished the draw design, he found that it’s not easy to shape a soft rattan image on rough wood, so he asked his great-grandfather to teach him how to weave the rattan, after he fully understood all marks, creases and overlaps, he finally had the concept to started the material selection and wood carving work formally. And he always chooses body parts or horns of the prey as the knife handle of rattan-series swords, because when deeply talking about symbols, we’ll find that rattan-pattern scabbard is like container, and the knife handle is like prey inside it, the image of hunters in the wilderness arises spontaneously. Xian-ting’s craftsmanship is not only visually stunning, but also culturally profound.
“We sing the songs which were passed down by our ancestors all the time. When is our turn to sing our creation for them?” Xian-ting told us, this idea came from Sangpuy Katatepan, at that time, Xian-ting was deeply moving by the words, and it sowed a seed in his mind. Ten years ago, Xian-ting traveled to New Zealand, and read books in the local library, he saw the information that Māori regards silver fern as the tree of life because its rhizome could generate starch, then they transforms it into totems and apply in daily life, Xian-ting was totally inspired! Therefore, when he went back home, he transformed the scaly tree fern into a totem, and in the period of drafting, the seed in his mind gradually sprouted, he finally realized that this is where his heart led. He wanted to not only inherit his ancestors' knowledge, but also create the totem or pattern which reflects contemporary tribal life, hoping to reconnect the generations through the power of art. He believes that when this cultural energy accumulates well from generation to generation, the beauty of Pinuyumayan will grow stronger and stronger in times to come. In the end, Xian-ting said “The sword is the key to home.” From daily usage, deeply understanding to independently creating, It’s a remarkable ride to listen to Xian-ting’s journey with sword. The closer to culture, the more humble he was, but no matter how long he has walked, the direction is always home undoubtedly.