In honor of the Little Black People

The Saisiyat tribe of Hsinchu and Miaoli will perform a solemn rite this weekend to commemorate a race of people that they exterminated

By Jules Quartly  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sat, Nov 27, 2004 - Page 16

Drinking, singing and dancing are expected to take place deep in the mountains of Miaoli and Hsinchu when the "Ritual of the Little Black People" (矮靈祭) is performed by the Saisiyat tribe once again this weekend.

For the past 100 years or so, the Saisiyat tribe (賽夏族) has performed the songs and rites of the festival to bring good harvests, ward off bad luck and keep alive the spirit of a race of people who are said to have preceded all others in Taiwan.

In fact, the short, black men the festival celebrates are one of the most ancient types of modern humans on this planet and their kin still survive in Asia today. They are said to be diminutive Africoids and are variously called Pygmies, Negritos and Aeta. They are found in the Philippines, northern Malaysia, Thailand, Sumatra in Indonesia and other places.

Chinese historians called them "black dwarfs" in the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220 to AD 280) and they were still to be found in China during the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1911). In Taiwan they were called the "Little Black People" and, apart from being diminutive, they were also said to be broad-nosed and dark-skinned with curly hair.

After the Little Black People -- and well before waves of Han migrations after 1600 -- came the Aboriginal tribes, who are part of the Austronesian race. They are thought to have come from the Malay Archipelago 6,000 years ago at the earliest and around 1,000 years ago at the latest, though theories on Aborigine migration to Taiwan are still hotly debated. Gradually the Little Black People became scarcer, until a point about 100 years ago, when there was just a small group living near the Saisiyat tribe.

The story goes that the Little Black People taught the Saisiyat to farm by providing seeds and they used to party together. But one day, the Little Black People sexually harassed some Aboriginal women. So, the Saisiyat took revenge and killed them off by cutting a bridge over which they were all crossing. Just two Little Black People survived. Before departing eastward, they taught the Saisiyat about their culture and passed down some of their songs, saying if they did not remember their people they would be cursed and their crops would fail.

The Saisiyat kept their promise and have held the Ritual of the Little Black People every year, though they scaled down the ceremonies during the Japanese colonial period (1895 to 1945). Now the ritual is held every two years on the 10th full moon of the lunar calendar, with a big festival once every 10 years. At this time, the Saisiyat are not supposed to fight and they congregate in their ancestral areas of Miaoli and Hsinchu, in the mountains.

"I've seen it written of as a celebration, but to me it seemed quite a mournful affair, especially in the way the music came across, which was trancelike, a haunting kind of chant with a series of 10 to 15 songs," said long-term Taiwan resident Lynn Miles, who has been to the ritual three times and will be going again this year.

"There's nothing else quite like it in its tone and in its mood. I've been to other festivals but this is non-stop."

Miles said the dances were not set pieces but usually involved holding hands and moving around in a circle, chanting, with those who know the songs doing most of the singing and a shaman figure keeping order.

A spokeswoman at the Council of Indigenous Peoples (under the Executive Yuan) said that those who have "unclean thoughts" have their souls snatched by the spirits of the Little Black People and will pass out until the shaman revives them.

Miles said the shaman seemed to serve a public-order function by chasing off those who were too drunk or out of order.

The ceremonies are held in two places. The ritual began yesterday in Nanchuang Township, Miaoli County, and will carry on there until Monday. Rituals start today in Wufeng Township, Hsinchu County, and will last through tomorrow.

Getting there:

To Wufeng:

Route 122 to Wufeng can be accessed off No. 1 Highway near Toufen.

To Nanchuang:

Take western No. 1 Highway. Near Toufen, take Route 124 toward Sanwan to Nanchuang. Shuttle buses will take visitors to the ritual site at Xiangtian Lake.