Weaving and facial tattoo are popular cultures within the Atayal society. Atayal people are serious followers of ancestral instructions (gaga) and take the Ancestral Spirit Ritual as the most important ceremony. In recent years, with the rise of ethnic consciousness and cultural renaissance, Truku and Seediq, previously classified as Atayal, became independent indigenous people in 2004 and 2008.
Atayal people live in the north central mountains of Taiwan. This area covers mountain townships in New Taipei City, Taoyuan City, Miaoli County, Taichung City, Nantou County and Yilan County. It is the most widely spread indigenous people in Taiwan.
Atayal comes from the word ‘atayal’, which means man, real man or fellowman. They are divided into two subgroups, the Seqoleq and the Tseole. The Seqoleq live mainly in Wulai District of New Taipei City, Fuhsing Township of Taoyuan City, Jianshih Township of Hsinchu County and Heping District of Taichung City; the Tseole live mainly in Wufeng Township and Jianshih Township of Hsinchu County, Taian Township of Miaoli County, Heping District of Taichung City, Renai Township of Nantou County and Datong Township and Nanao Township of Yilan County. The origin of Atayal goes way back to the ancient time when a giant rock exploded. The male and female ancestors of Atayal people walked out the exploded rock and moved to settle in different places. Where the giant rock exploded is a debate between two subgroups. The Seqoleq think it should be in Ruiyan (also known as Piasebukan) of Faxiang Village in Renai Township, Nantou County. The Tseole think it should be in Dabajian Mountain (Papakwaqa) in Wufeng Township of Hsinchu County.
In the eighteenth century, Han Chinese moved inland from the plains on the west part of Taiwan towards low-mountain zones to settle. At the same time, plains aborigines from the west (such as Taokas, Pazeh, Papora and Babuza) also moved to Puli of Nantou County. In order to look for hunting ground and farming land, Atayal people moved along Dajia River from the upperstream of today’s Beigang River in Renai Township, Nantou County, and reached Miaoli, Hsinchu, Taoyuan, Yilan and New Taipei City. Atayal people continued to migrate and expand their territory throughout the eighteenth century and until the end of the nineteenth century. They continually built up sporadic villages along the midstream and upperstream areas of the rivers in the center and north of Taiwan.
At the beginning of the twentieth century during the Japanese Occupation Period, the Japanese government implemented ‘Five-Year Project of Savage-Governing’ and forcefully colonized indigenous villages. They made indigenous peoples to move to low-mountain regions with ‘Collective Movement’ policies. Atayal people were forced to accept Japanese dominion, and anti-Japanese incidents constantly broke out between villages and the government. Dabao Village Incident, the Anti-Japanese Incident of Northern Atayal along River Gogan, and the Skaru Incident were several examples. As the Japanese government oppressed the Atayal with its superior military and political power, the latter had no choice but moved from their own villages to designated locations or locations accessible for government control. In the beginning of the government of the Republic of China in the twentieth century, indigenous elites like Losin·Watan (Lin Rui-chang, a doctor and a provincial member ) from Dabao Village and Gao Ze-zhao proposed indigenous self-governance and became in conflict with the government policies of the time. Both of them were arrested in 1952 under the accusation of communist spies. It was called ‘Mountain People Communist Spy Case’. At the same time, an Atayal student at a Teacher’s College, Lin Zhao-ming (the niece of Lin Rui-chang), was arrested in 1949 for being involved with the ‘Alliance of Formosan Youth for Self-Saving and Struggle’. The history of Atayal people in the first half of the twentieth century was filled with tensions and twists against foreign ruling powers. In the second half of the twentieth century, the government pushed Atayal people to the movement of ‘Settle and Farm’, ‘Seedling and Forestation’, and ‘Improvement of Living Standards’, in order to change the people completely from the living habits and cultural aspect of economic industry. Besides, Atayal people also had more and more intensive contact with the outside world.
Atayal people live on farming and hunting. Important crops are millet, rice and broomcorn. Game meat from hunting is their main source of protein. As the people get more and more involved in market economy, the variety of their crops also increases. Since the mid-twentieth century, people started to grow rice, honey peach (qzmux), pear, high-mountain vegetables, mushroom and ginger.
Staple food for Atayal people refers to millet, broomcorn, rice and sweet potato; non-staple food includes cucumber, pumpkin, wild green and beans. Meat and fish are for festivals. In terms of Atayal specialties, one cannot miss millet wine, glutinous rice wine, marinated meat, Maqau chicken soup and wild boar sausage, etc.
The main material for Atayal costumes is hemp. Cotton and wool are also used since the twentieth century. Blue, yellow, red, black and white are the most common colors.
For Atayal men, their costumes comprise headband, headdress, chest cover, sleeveless-shirt (vest), sleeve-shirt, groin clothes and sheath belt. For Atayal women, their costumes comprise headband, headdress, long-sleeved Mandarin style short jacket, skirt and legging. In terms of decoration, the front side is usually adorned with diamond shapes while the back is embroidered with complicated patterns. As legends go, diamonds are eyes; they represent the protection from ancestors.
The Atayal shell bead jacket is an important wedding gift. Grooms must send their brides one to dozens of shell bead clothes before the wedding. The shell bead jacket is a piece of sleeveless, long upper shirt, with vertically or horizontally arranged white shell beads. Such jacket is a precious treasure, only worn by headmen, elders of a clan or brave warriors on important occasions.
In the traditional Atayal society, the social status and competence of women is determined by weaving. Women must start weaving since very young. The cloth for Atayal weaving is primarily hemp. There are colorful clothes woven out of colorful threads from red, yellow, black, blue, and there are also common white clothes colored with brown stripes. In recent years, Atayal people have revitalized Atayal cultures by creating and promoting cultural products made from traditional weaving patterns and skills.
◎Facial Tattoo (ptasan)
Facial tattoo is a mark of adulthood in Atayal society. It is also a mark of beauty and protection that helps to scare away evil spirits. Facial tattoo is the embodiment of traditional Atayal culture. Facial tattoos are for Atayal men who have joined headhunting or hunting expeditions, and Atayal women who know how to weave. Atayal people believe after their souls leave the human world and arrive at ancestors’ place, they shall be recognized by tattoos on their faces. In other words, facial tattoos also have religious function.
Face, chest, abdomen, hand and leg can all be tattooed, with face as the most important spot. Both men and women wear tattoos on the forehead; they represent three to five overlapped vertical lines. In addition to forehead, men also have tattoos on their chin, while women tattoo parallel slant lines or cross lines on their cheeks. The Japanese government banned the culture of facial tattoo in the early twentieth century, hence broke off the long-lasting traditional culture. In recent years, the patterns of facial tattoos have been applied to creative cultural products and become a distinct mark for Atayal people.
Atayal people spread out in a vast area and develop a variety of housing materials and forms. Judged by function, their buildings can be divided into three types: family house, building attached to the family house and public building (a watchtower).
◎Traditional Family House
Atayal people spread out in a vast area and develop different styles of house in different places, such as the subterranean wood house and bamboo house. The subterranean wood house is made of wood and half underground. Its foundation is deep in the ground and its body is exposed above the floor. That is why it’s called the subterranean house. A bamboo house is made primarily of bamboo with a thatched rooftop. The construction moves upward from the ground. The bamboo house is developed later as people migrated and needed an easier way to build a house. The interior for these two types of house is similar. Their foundation is either square or rectangular; two stoves are installed inside the house, one for cooking and the other one for heating.
The building next to the family house can be a granary and a work hut. The supporting pillars of the granary are wood and its four walls are made of bamboo, sliver-grass stalk and hard wood. The inner wall is usually covered with tree bark while the roof is covered with cogon-grass. People store millet, broomcorn millet, corn, sweet potato and taro in the granary. So it is stilt and raised above the ground so as to avoid moisture and rats. Since a granary is the source of food of the entire family, there exists a taboo that other people must not peep into it when a family member enters. In order to get water and look after the crops, people build a work hut either on the side or in the middle of the field. It is also where people place their crops and farming tools. It is slightly smaller than a house in size.
A watchtower is a public building. It rests on log stilts and stands at the entrance to the village so that a guard can monitor the surrounding from there. Young people also stay there for the evening watch. In earlier times, the watchtower was part of the defense mechanism; later on, it became a place for gathering, socializing and entertaining.
The traditional Atayal society is patrilineal and follows virilocal residence. Monogamy is the norm. Only blood relations that are distant from each other by five generations can be taken as a wedding partner.
2. Village (galang/alang)
A village is the basic unit in Atayal society. There are two Atayal words for the village: galang or alang. Before the twentieth century, traditional Atayal villages were scattered in deep mountains. After the twentieth century, the Japanese government forced villages deep in the mountains to move to low-mountain areas. Scattered and mobile Atayal villages gradually became settlements.
A traditional village refers to a group of people living in the same area, sharing blood lineage and different social functions such as ritual, hunting, sacrifice, and labor. In the village, there are a chief or headman, a council of elders and shared landownership. Internally, villagers are protected; externally, the village connects itself with other villages and forms defense alliances. The village alliance in the area is called mulaxen galang; its goal is to prevent invading enemies.
3. Chief or Headman (marho)
In Seqoleq, the headman is called maraho; in Tseole, it is called posiyn or radan. They both mean ‘a leader’. After Atayal people encountered with the Qing government, the latter started to use the term ‘headman’. In the village, the headman took charge of public affairs; outside the village, he maintained connection with other villages on behalf of his village.
A chief or headman could be inherited or elected. In terms of inheritance, the first son of the chief or the first son from the same clan may succeed to the position. First-son inheritance, son-inheritance after the decease of the father or the younger brother inherits after the passing away of the elder brother are common principles in the village made up by one single family. Election takes place when the chief dies in battle or of a sickness, or is too physically weak to perform his duties. The new chief is decided by the former headman and elders in the council.
4. Ritual Group (gutux gaga)
In Seqoleq, the ritual group is called gutux gaga; it is the most important group for carrying out gaga. Regular rituals include sowing and harvest rituals; irregular rituals include headhunting ritual, rain prayer, sun prayer and ancestral spirit ritual.
Ritual groups are familiar with agricultural calendar. Rituals are hosted by the leader of the family, who is called in Seqoleq ‘maraho gaga’. Under the situation when the village organization corresponds to the gaga society, the chief of the village can also lead the ritual. If there is more than one gaga society, each gaga society is led by the maraho gaga of every clan. Members of each ritual group will perform rituals according to the traditions of each clan, and they shall strictly follow every taboo.
5. Hunting Group (inhoyan qutux linntan/inltan)
The hunting group is called inhoyan qutux linntan in Seqoleq and inltan in Tseole. It is made up men in the village or gaga. At war times, it becomes a battle group. Hunting groups are active on the hunting ground outside the village. They are not allowed to cross the boundary and enter the hunting ground of other villages. A hunting expedition usually lasts for several days.
If the hunting group is inspecting traps near the village, it is considered as leisure and not regulated by taboos from gaga. However, in the time of festival or wedding, the gaga society or the hunting groups must follow their own taboos. During the Japanese rule in the twentieth century, the tradition of hunting group weakened as the need of labor service increased and economy turned to agricultural development. As a consequence, hunting gradually diminished.
6. Sacrifice Group (qutux niqan)
In Seqoleq, sacrifice group is called qutux niqan. The group comprises people who share the same blood, the same food and the same meat.
By function and nature, the sacrifice group can be divided into atonement group and food-sharing group. Atonement group is related to religious rituals. If theft or adultery is committed against gaga in the same clan, the violator must confess; otherwise, ancestors will be offended and cause disasters to happen. Atonement rituals must be done at the confession of guilt. The violator of gaga and people from the same blood family must pay for a pig with bead skirt and bead cloth. They must slaughter and offer the pig, and share the meat among themselves. Now, atonement is mostly performed through church service, politics or legal settlement. Food-sharing group is related to marriage and hunting. People share meat in a wedding. At a weeding, the groom must pay for the food for the bride’s family. This is still an important custom in modern life and culture. When going hunting, food-sharing groups will share the game among all members of the expedition first and share the rest of the game meat with close relatives and marriage relatives that have not participated in the expedition later.
7. Work Group (gutux kenuexgan)
Work group is also called work-sharing group. In Seqoleq, it is called ‘gutux kenuexgan’, sharing work with another person or another group of people. It means division of labor.
There is no regular organization and membership for a work group. Its primary concerns include the goal of work, the amount of work and the place of residence. Usually, members comprise blood relatives in the village and relations by marriage. When the workload is heavy, people will recruit members of the gaga society or relatives living outside the village. Such exchange of labor is conditioned; payment is calculated based on the work and the number of days spent on work. So in Seqoleq, it is also called ‘obayox’ (the system of exchanging the number of working days).
Before the group sets to work, the parents of the family will invite every family to participate in labor exchange. They will prepare tools, materials and food. They will also provide snack at work. After the work is done, a feast of pork and lamb will be served to entertain those who participate in the work. If it is an important project like building a house and collecting harvest, a ritual will usually be performed in advance and taboos will have to be followed in the middle of work.
The Atayal belief in supernatural power is called ‘utux’. Most importantly is the concept of ancestral spirits. Ancestral spirits are protectors of a person’s fortunes. Following the guidance and instructions (gaga) from the ancestors, a person may enjoy good health and rich harvest. However, if a person violates ancestral instructions, he/she will be punished; disasters will also befall them. Atayal people respect ancestral spirits and ancestral instructions (gaga). Agricultural rites from sowing ritual, weeding ritual and harvest ritual are ceremonies performed to thank the ancestral spirits.
After the 1960s, western religion came into the life of Atayal people and existed side by side with their traditional belief. Although there are Catholic and Christian churches in every village, farming practices and rituals for ancestral spirits meant to pass on Atayal culture still remain alive.
1. Sowing Ritual (smyatu)
The date for Sowing Ritual is decided by discussion, in which two families with the richest harvest the year before will also send a representative each to act as chief priests in the ritual.
To start the Sowing Ritual, two chief priests must bring millet cakes and millet wine to the field, and they could not stop or talk to anyone on the way there. First, they go to the field of one of them to do the ritual; then they move to the other’s field for the same ritual. To do the ritual, the chief priests will dig four holes with hoes and plant seeds in each hole. Every time they dig a hole, they say the name of a villager who had a good harvest or the name of one who taught them the gaga of sowing. Its purpose is to invoke the gaga of good millet farmers to bless the fields with good harvest. Later, the chief priests will place millet cakes on the side, pour the wine over the millet cakes and say at the same time, “May the wine of our future millet harvest overfill my mouth!” After the prayer, the chief priests spit the wine over the millet cakes. When they move to next field to do the same ritual, offerings are left on the spot. After finishing all rounds, the chief priests will distribute all millet cakes and millet wine among all families. This act marks the sharing of the power of gaga with every house. Besides, the family can also use the food as the offering the next day. At the same time, the men of the village gather at one place to share marinated meat and listen to gaga from elders. The next day, one representative from each family shall bring the millet cakes and millet wine he received from the chief priests the day before, and shall go to the field before dawn to perform the Sowing Ritual on their own. They do exactly what the two chief priests have done the day before. Afterwards, it is time for every family to gather and socialize. Women and guests from other villages are also invited. In the middle of the Sowing Ritual, the fire in every household shall not be put out; nor shall families borrow or lend fire. Besides, hemp, needle and logging are not allowed.
In the 1960s, as millet fields shrank and rice fields expanded, people began to perform Sowing Ritual in the paddies. Ginger has become one primary cash crop since 2001 and shared same growing fields and harvest season as millet, some Atayal villages started to replace the traditional Sowing Ritual with offering wine and food at the growing of ginger.
2. Ancestral Spirit Ritual (maho)
Between August and October after the harvest of millet, every family will gather at the chief’s house to discuss the date for Ancestral Spirit Ritual. After the date is decided, villagers will go on a hunting expedition to get the game for marinated meat. Every family will make millet cakes and brew millet wine. Besides, every family will send a representative to participate in making the biggest millet cake for the day of the ritual.
On the day of the Ritual, every male family representative from different lineages shall gather, each holding a bamboo pole stuck with game meat and rice cake in their hands, and walk in procession led by the chief and the deputy chief to the ritual ground. On their way, they must say the names of their deceased grandparents and parents to invite their spirits to come together.
The Ritual is presided over by the chief. He invites ancestors to come enjoy people’s offerings and bless the people with good harvest and rich game. After his prayer, the offerings will be left on the spot. People must walk over a fire, which signifies their separation from ancestral spirits. Young people set off to return to the village first, while the chief and elders stay to converse with ancestral spirits (lyutux), pour wine for the ancestral spirits and leave the rest of the wine there. Before the entire company’s return journey, the biggest millet cake shall already be placed outside the village for young people to enjoy by poking and ticking the cake with their mountain knives. They can only resume the return journey to village after the cake is consumed.
The location of rituals is usually outside the village due to the tradition of indoor burial. In the twentieth century, burial site changed to the public cemetery. The Ancestral Spirit Ritual was banned from the village, so the people started to conduct the Ritual in the public cemetery. Usually, it starts with the offering of flowers and the lighting up of candles in front of the tomb. Descendants of every ancestral line will gather under the tree where offerings are piled up. In recent years, traditional rituals are gaining people’s attention. As such, villages resume to collectively conduct worshipping ancestral spirits.