The Circulation of Labour and Money: Symbolic Meanings of Monetary Kinship Practices in Contemporary Truku Society, Taiwan

Ching-Hsiu Lin


This paper examines the symbolic meanings attributable to the circulation of labor and the earnings of migrant laborers in contemporary Truku society, one of Taiwan’s indigenous groups. With the integration of Truku society into capitalist market-based economies from the 1960s onwards, for many the most effective way to extricate themselves from the problems of poverty has been to secure work as a migrant laborer. For many Truku people, the major part of the household’s earnings comes from migrant labor, and as such it plays an important role in economic, social, and political relations in society. Concerning the relationship between migrant laborers and their householders back home, many studies have focused on how families use the earnings from migrant labor, and how this urban-to-rural flow of money supports household subsistence and agricultural development. Often they will examine the interrelationship between the productive contribution of migrant laborers and the social and economic status of their households in society. However, these studies downplay the role of social and kinship relations and morality in terms of how the earnings from migrant labor are used. On the contrary, many anthropological studies of money suggest that each culture has its own symbolic meanings of money and monetary exchange, articulated within its inner cultural and social logics. However, I argue that these studies overlook the impact of external social and economic changes on local society. In this paper, I attempt to discuss the interrelationship between migrant labor and monetary kinship practices in order to give consideration to the external and internal symbolic meanings which are attributed to the earnings from migrant labor. I first describe the emergence of the migrant labor market, which is associated with the process of capitalization in Truku society. Secondly, I analyze how the advent of migrant labor was itself involved in the processes by which kinship practices became monetized. Finally, I explore the symbolic meanings of monetary kinship practices. I argue that it is necessary for Truku people to follow a complex set of norms in the regular cycles of kinship practices, because they are based on social and kinship morality and belief in ancestral spirits. As such, any surplus from the earnings of migrant labor goes mainly toward monetary kinship practices, rather than for economic development in local society. However, for those Truku suffering from poverty, the performance of monetary-based kinship practices can become an onerous financial burden. As a consequence, it is through monetary kinship practices that the relationship between the poor and the rich is converted into a long-term relationship between the debtor and the creditor respectively. Hence, monetary kinship practices have become a mechanism for wealthier households to strengthen their social and political influence in society. As such, the circulation of labor combines with monetary kinship practices in the process of forming social and economic hierarchy in contemporary Truku society.


Monetary kinship practices, Migrant labor, Taiwanese indigenous people, Truku people

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