The majority of Thao live at the Ita Thao Village of Yuchih Township and the Tapina Village in Shueili Township, Nantou County. The Basket of Ancestral Spirits is worshipped by every family at home; it embodies the existence of the spirits of bygone forefathers.
Ancestral-Spirit Ritual in August is the most solemnly celebrated ritual of the year; white mochi cakes, symbolically representing white eels, are offered at Hunting Ritual and Eel-Worship Ritual to show respect for hunting and fishing cultures. The current Thao population is 770 (until March 2016).
The name of the people, Thao, was first used in the Japanese Occupation Period. Japanese scholars borrowed the phrase ‘ita thao’ (I am human) from the people and referred to them by ‘thao’ (human). As legends say, ancestors of Thao people originally lived on Chianan Plains. A hunting expedition brought them to the Central Mount Ranges where they came across with a rare white deer and started chasing after this animal for days until they reached the present-day Puzi (Tutingzi). At that place the white deer jumped into the Sun Moon Lake. As ancestors looked around, they found a paradise with a rich number and variety of fish and a great stretch of open land perfect for cultivation and hunting.
Thao people living at the Sun Moon Lake area take Lalu Island (Guanghua Island or Little Pearl Island) as the most sacred place where ancestral spirits reside. During the Qing Dynasty that spanned over two hundred years, this area was referred to as ‘Shuishalian liushe’ (Six Villages by the Waters); they referred to four Thao villages (Toushe, Shuishe, Maolanshe and Shenlushe), one Bunun village (Pushe) and one Seediq village (Meishe). As Han Chinese immigrants searched for arable land and the government enforced policies such as aboriginal military colony and forest development, Han Chinese and Plains aborigines (Taokas, Papora and Babuza) flushed into the region, dividing and reducing the previous powers of Thao and causing a gradual dissolution of their influence over the Shuishalian region.
After the Japanese came, some of Thao population remained in villages of Dingshe (Toushe), Neiaozishe, Shiyinshe, Shuiweishe, Shuishe and Maolanshe. Later, as the Sun Moon Lake Hydroelectricity Engineering Project kicked off, Thao settlements were inundated and the people were forcibly relocated to Bujishe (later known as Dehuashe or now as Ita Thao). At the same time, the Japanese government also promoted Sun Moon Lake tourism, turning a visit to Thao villages and the Pestle-Pounding Music of Thao into one of the popular ‘Eight Wonders of Taiwan’.
When the Nationalist Government withdrew to Taiwan, bans issued by the previous Japanese rulers were lifted. As a result, a large number of Han Chinese moved in to settle and start business. The population grew day by day. Focusing on upgrading living standards, the Nationalist Government initiated Urban Land Replanning Project in 1983, partitioning and expropriating the land and living quarters of Thao as well as inviting business corporations to purchase land and build resort hotels. The original Thao inhabitants of the region could not compete against the commercial edges of Han Chinese immigrants and business corporations.
Legends say the ancestors of Thao came from the Chianan Plains and the neighborhood of Mount Ali; therefore, Thao people were once classified ethnically as Tsou. However, these two ethnic groups actually have different languages, religions and life rites. Since 1998, Thao people started to fight for recognition as independent ‘Thao’ and finally won such official recognition in 2001. At the moment, most people live in the Ita Thao Village (Dehuashe of Riyueshe Village) and the Tapina Village (Dingkan Village) in Shueili Township, Nantou County. Some have moved to metropoles such as Taichung or Taipei.
1. Industry and Cuisine
Thao people had early contact with the outside world and other ethnic groups. At the time of agriculture, they cultivated dry rice and paddy rice as staples and sweet potatoes, taros, peanuts, corns, wild greens or fruits available in the fields as non-staples.
Men hunted to bring home game like water deer, wild boar or Reeves’s muntjac. Fishing was also an important source of food. The Sun Moon Lake offers a rich variety of fishes. When the harvest was more than necessary, people often pickled extra fishes and shrimps for preservation. Pickled or soused fish has thus become a special Thao traditional food.
At present time, Ita Thao is a popular tourist destination. Except for attending private farms and participating in seasonal bamboo shoots harvest, Thao people actually no longer lead an agricultural lifestyle. Most of them are involved in tourism and catering industry.
As shown in “Depictions of Tributaries of the August Qing”, Thao people were already well-known for their ‘dagobum’ (Dagewen) prints in the Qing Dynasty. Dagobum prints were woven products of linen and dog hair. Subsequently through trade exchanges, Thao were introduced to better accessible cloths such as cotton.
In terms of Thao traditional costume styles, male clothes were made of leather, linen and barks, like leather cap, headdress, necklace, chest cover, sleeveless top, waist skirt, long leggings and leather shoes.
Female clothes were made of linen and cotton, like headscarf, sleeved top, breast cover, waist skirt, waistband, knee-length legging and flower wreath. Dark, hazel, blue, grey and black colors are preferred. Geometric patterns are mostly used on breast covers for both men and women as well as on women’s skirts.
In earlier times, Thao people made canoe by hollowing out a single tree trunk and used it as the means of in-bound and out-bound transportation for the village. The big public canoe can carry 5 to 6 people, while the smaller canoe of a family for fishing only carries 1 to 2. Since the Nationalist Government forbade people from logging the forest, the craft of traditional canoe making by chiseling the trunk has become rare, extinct and replaced by plank canoes.
Every last day of July on the lunar calendar, women in the village would gather at the house of Chief Yuan to perform ‘Pestle-Pounding Ritual’. It is also a call for the hunters to come home and attend the ‘Ritual for Ancestral Spirits’ and the ‘Harvest Festival’.
Pestle-Pounding music has its origin from the agricultural lifestyle of the earlier times. Pestles are tools people use to husk grains. As they pound on the stone(s), clear and crisp sounds are made to follow one note after another, creating melodious scales and natural rhythms. Nowadays as tourism is booming around the Sun Moon Lake, Thao Pestle-Pounding Music has become the most popular and important performance on any tourist schedule.
◎House of Ancestral Spirits
If someone from the village volunteers to serve as the ‘Chief Prayer’ at the Ritual for Ancestral Spirits in August on the lunar calendar, that year would be regarded as ‘Major New Year’ and the celebration will last for more than twenty days. If no one volunteers to be the ‘Chief Prayer’, it would be ‘Minor New Year’, in which the celebration will last only for 4 to 5 days.
A House of Ancestral Spirits will be built at the initial phase of Major New Year as one important part of the ritual. Building materials are local resources such as bamboo, wood and thatch. Grains and bones of animals will be used as decorations. The House is normally as big as two to three pings (6 to 9 square meters), with two jars of wine and several stools placed inside.
At the Ritual for Ancestral Spirits, Elder Gao and Elder Chen will welcome the Highest Ancestral Spirit (Sun Moon Shield) into the House of Ancestral Spirits. Women are not allowed to touch the Shield.
During the Ritual, Thao people sing traditional songs and dance outside the House of Ancestral Spirits every evening. Women in menstruation and pregnancy are not allowed in the House. As the Ritual ends, the House of Ancestral Spirits will be dismantled. The House is only a temporary construction for the use of the Ritual.
More than a hundred years ago, the traditional family house of Thao was shaped rectangular. Daily life centered on a triangular stove. The double sloping roof was covered with thatch; double walls were made of arrow bamboos; a granary was built inside; and the entire space was designed for both family life and farm work. Villagers were all involved in the construction of a family house, dividing labor among them, men and women alike.
As Thao people were relocated to the present-day Ita Thao Village during the Japanese Occupation Period, changes also occurred to the form of their family house. Most people used mudbricks and clay tiles for their houses. After the time of the Nationalist Government, almost every family house was built with concrete, steel and corrugated iron sheets.
Regardless of the changes of the time, before or now, at the celebration of every newly-built house, Thao people always have to invite a priestess to the house to pray and worship the Basket of Ancestral Spirits, and they also invite ancestral spirits to move into the new house with them.
1. Clan System
Thao is a patriarchy society. Marriage arrangement is based upon clan. In earlier times, endogamy was the standard; but in the recent fifty years, exogamy or intermarriage with other ethnic groups has become more common.
A clan is composed of individuals sharing one family name and is the fundamental unit for marriage and family. Clan members usually belong to a specific ritual group and share a division of labor in the ritual. At the moment, Thao people have seven Chinese family names: Yuan, Shi, Mao, Chen, Gao, Bi (Bai) and Zhu (Dan). Each family name derives from the sound and meaning of original Thao clan names. For example, Yuan derives from the clan of Shawanan, which means ‘round’ or ‘circular’ (In Chinese, a circle is pronounced as yuan); or Mao derives from the clan of Lhkapamumu, which means strong, and Mao resembles the sound of the last two syllables ‘mumu’.
2. Village Organization
In the Ita Thao Village, a two-chief system led by the clans of Yuan and Shi is still in practice. A chief, usually inherited by the first-born, helps to settle disputes among the people in daily life, implements decisions made in the village meetings and elders’ meetings, and most importantly presides over traditional annual rituals.
Although Thao came into contact with other ethnic groups early in history, they still maintain rigorous beliefs in ancestral spirits and follow strictly the protocols of every ritual. In real life, Thao have also accepted Taoism from Han Chinese or Christianity from the west. Idols of Taoism, the crucifix, and the Basket of Ancestral Spirits are commonly seen in a house, which showcases the peaceful coexistence of diverse religions and beliefs.
1. Belief in Ancestral Spirits and the Basket of Ancestral Spirits
Thao religion centers on people’s belief in “ancestral spirits”, including the Highest Ancestral Spirit and the spirits of the clan. The Highest Ancestral Spirit is male and resides on the autumn maple tree on Lalu Island; while the ancestral spirits of the clan are begetters of each clan.
Thao people believe in the existence of ancestral spirits. Each family has a Basket of Ancestral Spirits (Gongmalan in Chinese); it is hung on the left or right wall in the house. Inside the Basket, there are pieces of clothing and accessories of the ancestors. Nowadays, as people also practice the beliefs of Han Chinese, they place the Basket next to ancestral tablets or placards at the shrine.
In every traditional ritual of Thao, people make offerings to the Basket of Ancestral Spirits of rice wine, cooked rice, rice cake et cetera. Whether it is a traditional ritual, the custom of the cycle of life, or an ordinary activity like moving, buying a car or furniture shopping, the priestess must be invited to the house to worship the ancestral spirits, to report to them of the current event and to pray for the coming of good blessings.
◎Priestess (Xianshengma in Taiwanese)
The professional priestess responsible for worshipping the Basket of Ancestral Spirits is called ‘Xianshengma’. Her job is to act as the important medium between people and ancestral spirits, to serve the Highest Ancestral Spirit and the ancestral spirits of the clan, and to preside over every traditional ritual of the year and other ceremonial activities. In the society of Thao, the priestess is the most important inheritor of culture and Thao language.
There are five priestesses in Ita Thao. Their position is tenured, hard and designed to learn and serve the people for a lifetime. To become a priestess, one must 1. be married and a mother; 2. have served as the chief prayer at the ritual for ancestral spirits; and 3. still have her husband and children around. Only women with these three qualifications can pray, pass the recognition by the Highest Ancestral Spirit on Lalu Island and become a priestess.
2. The Ritual for Ancestral Spirits of the Clan
The Ita Thao Village by the Sun-Moon Lake comprises clans originally from different communities. On every 25th of June on the lunar calendar, descendants of the chief of each clan must return to their old village and worship ancestral spirits. Nowadays descendants of clans of Yuan and Shih still maintain this tradition; every year, they travel to old villages by boat to worship ancestral spirits.
As the boat reaches 500 meters away from the old village, the chiefs start to summon the names of ancestral spirits by the lake. As they reach the site of prayer, they invoke ancestral spirits with vinasse and place the cooked eggs without shell on the shrine. They also leave the rest of the wine on the tree trunk to allow ancestral spirits to continue feasting. At the end, they follow the Chinese customs, burn paper money and set off firecrackers.
3. Hunting Ritual, Eel-Worship Ritual
Thao people celebrate Hunting Ritual on 1st of July to pray to ancestral spirits for abundant harvest. People will place their household Basket of Ancestral Spirits in front of the house of Chief Yuan and Chief Shih. The priestess presides over the Hunting Ritual and worships the Baskets. In the second half of the Ritual, she must finish the offered chicken and bury the bones in the earth; if the hunting dogs should eat those bones, they will become lazy and will not catch up with animals.
On 3rd of July, Thao people celebrate Eel-Worship Ritual. Every family must prepare and offer white eel mochi made of sticky rice cake to respect the significance of fishing in their culture. Since white eels from the Sun-Moon Lake are tough, people use them to pray to ancestral spirits, hoping that people will be as tough as white eels. The white-eel worship service ends in the morning. In the afternoon, white-eel mochi will be halved; the head belongs to each family, and the tail remains at the house of two chiefs. In the evening, everyone will come to the house of Chief Yuan and Chief Shih to drink and share the white-eel mochi offered at the ritual.
4. The Ritual for Ancestral Spirits
On every 1st of August on the lunar calendar is the time for the Ritual for Ancestral Spirits (New Year) for Thao. Every year is either Minor New Year (without a chief prayer) or Major New Year (with a chief prayer) according to the fact that whether a chief prayer is available.
The Minor New Year ends after the priestess worships the Basket of Ancestral Spirits and every family enjoys their drinks. It lasts for about four days from 1st August until 4th August.
In the Major New Year, a temporary house for ancestral sprits is built on 4th August. People visit the house every evening to sing and dance under the leadership of Elder Chen and Elder Kao. Such singing and dancing lasts for more than two weeks. The Council of Tribal Elders will decide the responsibility of the elders of each clan.
The ritual is divided into different stages: Pestle-pounding music, Evil-dispelling Ritual, Trapping and Hunting Ritual, Building of Ancestral House and Singing and Dancing Teaching Ritual.
On the last day of every July on the lunar calendar (New Year’s Eve), women will gather at the house of Chief Yuan and make music by pounding pestles or bamboos in order to recall men working or hunting far away to come home for a reunion.
All men must gather before the house of the priest of Mao family and participate in Evil-Dispelling Ritual. At the same time, elders will discuss issues relating to this year’s Ritual for Ancestral Spirits. Women are not allowed.
The priestesses perform worship to the Basket of Ancestral Spirits in front of the house of Elder Chen. After they finish the collective worshiping, they must immediately go to every house to perform the same worship to each family’s Basket of Ancestral Spirits.
In the evening, everyone goes to the house of Priest Mao, Chief Yuan and Chief Shih to drink.
◎Trapping and Hunting Ritual
Elders lead young people to the hills behind the village and teach them how to make hunting devices and set up traps.
Priestesses worship ancestral spirits with fermented rice before the house of Elder Chen. This day is crucial as to whether a chief prayer will be available or not for this year.
After the worship to ancestral spirits, people start to drink from the house of Elder Kao and change to every other house of the village in order to thank the hard work of priestesses for the whole year.
◎Building of House for Ancestral Spirits
If a chief prayer is available, it is the Major New Year. People will build a house for ancestral spirits in front of the house of Elder Chen or Elder Gao (the final decision rests with the Council of Elders); priestesses will take charge of the prayers for blessing.
◎Singing and Dancing Teaching Ritual
Every evening, people will take turns and gather before the house of Elder Kao and Elder Chen. These two elders will lead and teach young people to sing and dance for the Ritual of Ancestral Spirits. There are many taboos and the songs are not allowed in ordinary days. There are the following steps:
● The first half (5th until 10th of August) shmaila is the big drama and to sing for ancestral spirits.
● Minfazfaz welcomes the Highest Ancestral Spirit into the House of Ancestral Spirits (11th of August)
● Manqatubi means to tour around in the village to dispel evil spirits (12th until 21st of August)
● The Highest Ancestral Spirit visits every family (22nd until 23rd of August)
● Dismantle the temporary house of ancestral spirits (28th of August)
The highlight of Major New Year is ‘The Highest Ancestral Spirit’s Visit to Every Family’. It is crowed and goes on all night long. Every family sets off firecrackers and sings nonstop. Han Chinese immigrants and tourists all participate with great zeal. It is the peak of the Ritual for Ancestral Spirits and is very significant.
After every family finishes praying to the Highest Ancestral Spirit, it often approaches noontime of the next day. In the next or next few days, the priestesses will finish with worshipping at the house of ancestral spirits and sending away ancestral spirits; the temporary house for ancestral spirits will be dismantled and burned in order to mark a perfect ending to the entire Ritual.