Taiwan aborigines keep rituals alive
By Caroline Gluck BBC News, Taiwan Last Updated: Thursday, 7 December 2006, 13:51 GMT
Once upon a time, so the legend goes, the Saisiyat people – one of Taiwan’s 12 officially-recognised aboriginal groups – lived in mountains next to a tribe of dark-skinned dwarves, or pygmies.
The short-people were both feared and admired by the Saisiyat as they were thought to have magical powers. But they also had bad tempers, and often flirted and made advances towards the Saisiyat women.
The story varies in detail but, according to one version, the short people were invited to the Saisiyat’s annual harvest festival and angered one man by making advances towards his wife.
He took revenge by cutting down a bridge that killed all but two of the short people, who put a curse on the Saisiyat.
Alarmed, the Saisiyat begged for mercy and were forgiven on one condition – that they sing the songs and dances of the pygmies – called the Ta’ai – to appease the spirits of those they killed.
That ritual ceremony is said to have been carried out for as many as 400 years, and continues today.
Last weekend, the Saisiyat – who number about 5,000 people and live in two main areas in northern Taiwan – observed the rituals of the Pas-ta’ai, the Ritual to the Short People.
Saisiyat tribe members perform the Ritual of the Little Black People in Wufeng. PHOTO: TAIPEI TIMES
It is an elaborate ceremony, held at two complementary and overlapping sites in Miaoli and Hsinchu counties over several nights, during the full moon of the 10th lunar month.
It takes place every two years. And every 10 years – which happens to be this year – it is larger and takes on added significance.
Thousands gathered for the first day of the ceremony in Wufeng, Hsinchu county, many of them drunk thanks to the potent local rice wine.
I was asked to enter a building where tribal members tied pieces of Japanese silver grass, which grows wild in the area, around my arm, camera and tape recorder.
“If you put on this grass, it protects you from evil things,” explained Galah A-Talo, as he tied the grass. “It gives us security; it’s a blessing.”
“If you enter Saisiyat territory, you have to wear this; respect our tradition,” he went on.
The main ceremony was taking place in an open field.
Men and women were dancing and singing, arms crossed, hand-in-hand and moving in and out of a huge circle.
They all wore bright red and white traditional costumes with intricate weaving, and beading.
Some have ornate decorations at the back, from which hang mirrors, beads and bells that ring and clang as the dancers move – representing a communion with the spirit world.
“This is the biggest event for the Saisiyat people, and it helps to unify and solidify the tribe,” said elder Tahes A-Obay.
The ceremonial ground is the focus of attention and visitors are welcome.
But some rituals are held in secret by tribal leaders, including those to welcome and send away the spirits of the small people.
Local villagers believe the pygmies lived in nearby caves, which are considered sacred, and warn that terrible things can happen to curious visitors.
Photographers and cameraman will discover their pictures have been erased, and some people are said to have been struck down with terrible illnesses.
Bad luck can also follow those who misbehave at the ceremony.
“One of my relatives just disappeared, with only his shoes left behind,” said Obay A-Awi Tawtawazy. “No-one found his body… he disappeared without trace.”
“Another cousin said something bad to the elders and did not apologise. All of a sudden, he got hurt when he was doing farm work. He went into a coma for a year and passed away.
“The message is Saisiyat people should reflect on themselves – what they say, what they do. It’s the true meaning of peace for the Saisiyat people.”
Academics are divided about whether pygmies could have been Taiwan’s earliest inhabitants, pre-dating Austronesian-speaking groups.
Some theories suggest dark-skinned, short people could have been slaves brought by early traders.
“There’s no conclusion about the out-of-Africa theory,” said anthropologist, Hu Chia-Yu, at National Taiwan University.
“We haven’t found any physical remains of pygmies in Taiwan; although in historical letters by Dutch traders in the 16th century, there were mentions about short people. Several other indigenous tribes also have legends about small people,” she said.
But the Saisiyat legend and the ceremony have a powerful resonance.
Anthropologist and filmmaker Hu Tai-li, from the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, has been visiting the Pas-ta’ai for the past 20 years and says the traditions have got stronger over the years – paralleling the push by Taiwan’s aboriginal groups for greater public recognition and political rights.
“The first one… only a very few people could sing the songs; most were elders… but after 20 years, through their efforts and some stimulation from outsiders like us… young people began to start learning.
“Now, a lot of people can sing. They take turns for the whole period. It’s very difficult for only a few people to sustain this for three nights… But they had consciousness of the dangers of the dying out of these very sacred songs.”
As day breaks, the dancers wind down.
There is a special feeling in the air after this marathon communion with the spirits.
It has brought a sense of unity to the Saisiyat community who feel proud that they are still carrying out traditions in the way their ancestors had wanted.