Once upon a time a black, hobbit-sized people inhabited Taiwan, fishing by the sea and living in the hills. They prospered for millennia but dwindled as waves of Austronesian-speakers and then Chinese immigrants populated the island.
According to Saisiyat (賽夏族) legend, a tribe member killed off the last of what they call the "short people," or ta-ay (達矮), by cutting down a bridge over which they were traversing. The remnants of the short people had been accused of molesting a Saisiyat princess. Before the race died out, however, the short people passed on their knowledge of agriculture, medicine, fire lighting, rice wine making and folklore to the Saisiyat. Much of this knowledge was handed on in the form of songs and dances, which the Saisiyat believe they must perform, or they themselves will die out. Comprised of about 5,000 members, the Saisiyat is one of Taiwan's smallest Aboriginal tribes.
In recent times the commemorative "festival of the short people" (矮靈祭) has been performed every two years. Every decade there is a special festival and it falls this year on Dec. 2. It will be held over three days and nights in Wufeng (五峰), Hsinchu County.
Deep in the mountains at a spiritually elevating 850m there will be small entertainments and stalls selling local pears, wild pork, Aboriginal craftwork and traditional Chinese night market food. Thousands of people are expected to attend. In the open-air arena, lit by dim electric lamps, the Saisiyat will lead chants and join hands to dance in circles. Unlike the biennial festival, Saisiyat leaders will carry hat-like flags representing the tribe's clans, or families. These brightly colored flags represent the sun and stars, as well as the spirits of the short people. It is every tribe member's duty to touch their flag at least twice in their life.
Saisiyat members, including the tribe's secretary-general Chu Fong-lu (朱逢祿), estimated these rituals began from 100 to 500 years ago. Some say the festival itself is circumstantial evidence of the existence of the short people, but geneticists and language theorists have more compelling proofs. Even our leaders believe in the little people. Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) reportedly said two years ago that short people were the original inhabitants of Taiwan, rather than Austronesian-speakers that include Aboriginal tribes like the Saisiyat. This caused outrage, but Lu nevertheless stuck to her belief.
The issue is a political hot potato because it defines the nation's identity. Competing historians juggle "out of China" and "out of Taiwan" theories to describe the dispersal of Austronesian-speakers to the Philippines, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hawaii and other islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Jean Trejaut, of the Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taipei, claimed in a paper last year that Taiwan was a center of migration about 6,000 years ago and suggested Austronesian-speakers were the first modern Taiwanese. In an exchange of e-mails, Professor Peter Bellwood of the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at Australian National University, said he agreed with Trejaut but thought the earliest Austronesians came from South China up to 8,000 years ago. He emphasized, however, "These were not Austronesians, but pre-Austronesians."
Either way, skull fragments and other evidence from over 1,000 sites around Taiwan attest to prehistoric cultures that were not Austronesian-speaking. According to the National Museum of Prehistory, Taitung, digs have shown Tsochen Man (左人) lived here up to 30,000 years ago and Changpin culture (長濱文化) died out about 5,000 years ago. This is where short people may enter the story.