Tue, Nov 30, 2004 - Page 16 News List

The songs remain the same

Over the weekend, the Saisiyat tribe from Hsinchu and Miaoli held its biannual events to mourn and celebrate the legacy of the Short Black People, who are thought to be Taiwan's original inhabitants

By Jules Quartly  /  STAFF REPORTER


Linked hand-by-hand to hundreds of other dancers, we whirled around like dervishes. At other times, we rhythmically rocked back and forth, or shuffled in a circle. All the time, the tribal elders were singing simple trance-like chants that rose and fell. The moon was high, bright and full above us.

In the amphitheater's stands, at the staging area for the biannual "Ritual of the Short Black People" (矮靈祭) in Wufeng Township, Hsinchu County, the multi-colored dancers looked like a single entity, a dragon prowling around the ground beneath.

The ritual was festival-like, even ecstatic at times. It was staged like an open-ended concert in that the audience members were also performers in a drama that has been re-enacted for ages. You could watch the action from the gallery and buy hongs or share rice wine, beer, cigarettes and betel nut; or take a stroll around the arena, to the stalls selling local crafts, roasted wild white pig and other delicacies; or join the dance.

There were around 4,000 people of all ages at the site, perched at an elevation of 1,500m in the Central Mountain Range. There were no amplifiers, except for the tannoy that occasionally broadcasted information. Around 80 percent of those present were from Aboriginal tribes, mainly Saisiyat and Atayal. There were some Chinese businessmen supplying arcade machines or roadside stalls, students and local tourists, some Japanese (mainly media) and 10 or so foreigners.

Before the dancing on Saturday that began at 6pm, there was a ritual held in private by Saisiyat tribal leaders, of which there were six main families, led this year by the Zhu () family. Then the tribal members danced and later everyone who wanted joined in. This went on until 12:30am or so, when the main event wound down and people made their way home, or to hundreds of houses in the vicinity to carry on celebrating.

I was staying at a hospitable Zhu family home in the area and the next morning the sounds of parties going on in the surrounding hills filled the air. Gradually, these sounds were submerged by the trill of karaoke sessions that lapped over a lazy Sunday afternoon, as people ate and rested and toasted each other.

The Saisiyat tribe -- which is said to have killed off the last of the black pygmies that were likely the earliest settlers of Taiwan -- has held the Ritual of the Short Black People for around 100 years, ever since their extermination is believed to have happened.

The Saisiyat have held similar kinds of dances for millennia, often with the pygmies. They were possibly performed many thousands of years earlier by that ancient race which, until relatively recently, lived in caves at the bottom of one of the mountains in the area, by a stream.

The previous night in Nanchuang Township, Miaoli County, starting around 10pm for outsiders, there had been a cycle of rituals held every two years to commemorate the Short Black People.

Two connected Saisiyat tribes, those from Hsinchu and Miaoli, hold complementary rituals and sometimes the same rituals in different sites. The god of the Short Black People was transported between the two staging areas, from Nanchuang to Wufeng for Sunday night's dances. Yesterday morning and early afternoon was a final ceremony involving chopping down a sacred tree.

The Nanchuang ritual was held near Xiangtian Lake, in the mountains of Miaoli, about an hour's drive from Wufeng over the ragged peaks. It began by welcoming the god of the Short Black People. There was no amphitheater, just a staging ground, a private ritual room, basic changing areas and hundreds of stalls or makeshift shops that spilled over an area that was bounded by woods. Small tent cities had mushroomed and the four-day event had just begun.

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