The Saisiyat society is founded on clan. Every clan was given a Chinese surname as early as the Qing Dynasty, and they followed social regulations and marriage protocols. Among Saisiyat beliefs and rituals, beliefs in ancestral spirits and dwarf spirits are the most important ones. The Pasta’ay or the Dwarf Spirits Ritual is the most well known. The current Saisiyat population is 6,497 (until March 2016).
Saisiyat people call themselves ‘saisiyat’, which can be transliterated into ‘sai-xia’ in Chinese. According to Saisiyat creation myth, people believe in the time of flood, the surviving brother and sister got married and gave birth to a child. They dismembered the child and threw its flesh, bone, stomach and intestines into the sea. Every part of his body turned into the ancestors of every village and every ethnic group.
Saisiyat people live in the northwest part of Taiwan. Separated by Egongji Mount, some live in Hsinchu County and some in Miaoli County. The Saisiyat in Hsinchu County live in the basin of Shangping River in Wufeng County; their villages include Daiai Village and Huayuan Village in Wufeng Township. Surrounded by Atayal villages, this group of Saisiyat people is also influenced by Atayal culture. The Saisiyat in Miaoli County live in the basin of Donghe River and Nanhe River in the upperstream of Zonggang River; they also share the basin of Shitan River in the upperstream of Houlong River. The majority of villages are located in Donghe Village, Penglai Village, Nanjiang Village of Nanzhuang Township and Baishou Village of Shitan Township. This group of Saisiyat is surrounded by Hakka and Chinese villages, so they learn a lot about Hakka culture.
In the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, the power of Saisiyat people extended to (reached) Sanwan and Toufen in Miaoli County, bordering plains aborigines like Taokas in the west. After mid-Qing Dynasty, Hakka immigrants moved eastward to Xinzhu and Miaoli, and started to harrass the power of Saisiyat people. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, camphor was a valuable product in the international market. To share a piece of pie, the number of armed settlers grew and invaded indigenous villages. Saisiyat people were severely affected. Gradually, Saisiyat people leased land to camphor developers in exchange for rent while some also became camphor industrialists.
During the Japanese Occupation Period, the (Japanese) government claimed the Saisiyat territory was public and violated their vested rights of levying camphor tax and landownership. Such unfair treatment caused armed resistance called Nanzhuang Incident in 1902. Subsequently in 1907, the Saisiyat of Wufeng Township in Xinzhu County were recruited by Hakka people to take part in another anti-Japanese armed resistance action called Beibu Incident.
In the history of Saisiyat people, expansion movements of Hakka and Han Chinese settlers and competition over camphor profits during the Japanese Occupation Period help to shape current distribution of power, inter-people relationship, and cultural situation among Saisiyat villages. In recent years, Saisiyat people have moved to urban cities such as Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Miaoli.
Saisiyat people take rice, millet, sweet potato and taro as staple food. In festivals, they will have meat and fish. Typical Saisiyat food includes rice cake, raw marinated meat and sticky rice wine. Rice cake and sticky rice wine are made of sticky rice. The source of raw marinated meat is game. Saisiyat people put a layer of raw meat, and fish on top of another layer of rice. They marinate the combo long enough until the bone and the meat become soft. The result tastes a bit sour but is very typical Saisiyat cuisine.
Traditional Saisiyat clothes are made of hemp. Through debarking, spinning silk, doubling thread, framing thread, dying and turning, hemp threads are made into cloths and cloths are sewn into pieces of clothing. After encountering Han Chinese in the west, Saisiyat people traded with them and replaced hemp cloths with cotton cloths. Traditional Saisiyat costumes include sleeveless long shirt, sleeveless short shirt, skirt, loin cloth, shawl and chest cover. White, red and black are the most common colors. White is the background; red for the patterns; and black serves as embellishments. There are costumes for every day and festivals. Daily costumes refer to plain color sackcloth. Festival costumes are adorned with geometric patterns and all kinds of accessories. After the Japanese Occupation Period, Chinese clothes became relatively accessible. Yet, Saisiyat people still put on traditional festival costumes on important occasions.
Accessories include headdress, necklace, earing, bracelet and legging. Traditional materials can be found in shell, bone and bamboo. Nowadays, modern materials like plastic, button and paillette are also used.
◎Hip bells and Dance Hat for the Ritual of Pasta'ay
Hip bells (aka hip rings) and the dance hat (aka moon banner) are the most featured articles in Saisiyat rituals. Hip bells are mostly triangular and strapped to the back of the dancer with a cloth band or laid across the shoulders of the dancer with a ribbon sling. Bells are attached to the lower rim so that as the dancer moves, they shake and make clinking sounds. The dance hat is also called ‘moon banner’; it is a cloth banner a dancer holds or carries on the shoulder or on the head. The front of the cloth banner is decorated with star, moon, flower, grass, the name of the clan, bells and paillette. Young men from every clan at the Ritual carry the moon banner and dance back and forth in the dancing line.
3. Body Tattoo
During Japanese Occupation Period, Saisiyat people still practiced the culture of body ornaments such as tattoo, hair pluck, ear-piercing and tooth chiseling. Both men and women had tattoos on their forehead, but men also tattooed their chin with vertical lines (aka chin tattoo). Only men who made great contribution to the village and who had hunted heads can have body tattoos like horizontal lines on the chest. The more lines a man has on his chest, the higher his status is in the society.
Traditionally, weaving is for women. Typical patterns include geometric forms, diamond shape and straight lines using red, black and white threads.
◎Bamboo and Rattan Plaiting
Bamboo and rattan are materials for plaiting bamboo or rattan articles of daily use, such as seed basket, back basket, hand-carry basket, food basket, basket for miscellaneous items, rice sieve and the basket for ancestral spirits. The most typical article is double-shoulder back basket. Skills of plaiting are passed down among men. Production processes include obtaining the materials, sorting out the materials, making the foundation, weaving the body, closing and fixing. To avoid damage by insects, yam juice or grass ash is smeared on the surface of the article.
A Saisiyat house is mainly built of bamboo. Giant bamboos are used as pillars, and the walls are made of regular bamboos. The rooftop is covered with bamboo strips and thatch. In a traditional Saisiyat house, the fire stove is an important place. Three pieces of rock were erected and is located either in the middle of the house or on the left side to the entrance. Families usually gather here to get warmth and cook food. The bed is at the corner against the walls. Above the entrance of a traditional house is a shelf for animal bones or mandibles of a boar, monkey and muntjac. On both sides and in the back of the house are the space for rearing domestic fowls and livestock, such as a chicken coop or a pigpen. A traditional Saisiyat house used to be a single-space house. Gradually with influence from Han Chinese culture, different concepts of space use like partition and living room start to emerge.
1. Clan and Family Name
Saisiyat has a patrilineal society based on clans made up by families in which succession is through the male line. Clans are basic social units; they are the units for cooperation in political, military and religion. For example, house building, cultivation, hunting and ancestral spirit ritual groups are all collective clan efforts. Clans help each other and work closely together. Different alliances are formed among different clans. Such alliances are led by powerful clans; besides, they also follow the taboo against mixed-marriage.
There are eighteen clans in the Saisiyat society. Each clan has its own designation, which comes from fauna, flora, natural phenomena and physical phenomena. During the Qing Dynasty, the Saisiyat clan system was combined with Han Chinese surnames. Clan names were either transliterated or translated into Chinese by selecting the original meaning of the designation. In Chinese, these clan names are Dou, Zhao, Zhu, Feng, Gao, Pan, Qian, Gen, Zhang, Xia, Xie, Ri, Si, Qiong, Hu, Chan, Shi, Xie and Mo. Later, there were changes in the choosing of Chinese characters: Xie (蟹) became Xie (解); Hu (狐) became Hu (胡); and Chan (蟬) became Zhan (詹). Among these clan names, Shih (Si) (獅), Xie (血) and Mo (膜) are the smallest clans.
2. Marriage and Family
Saisiyat families follow patriarchal and patrilocal system. The entire extended family lives together, where male elders in the family are revered. Monogamy is followed. Before the Japanese Occupation Period, exchange marriage was popular. Two families agreed to exchange daughters in marriage arrangements. Saisiyat people also value clan organization and relationship. Inter-clan or inter-alliance mixed-marriage was not allowed.
3. Village Organization
Saisiyat villages are made up clusters of households in the neighborhood. The leader of the village is served by individuals who have the qualities and capability of communication, justice and enthusiasm. Public affairs are decided in meetings by elders of each clan; after decisions are made, they are handed to the leader of the village for implementation.
In the culture of Saisiyat, there are two types of belief: belief in ancestral spirits and belief in the dwarf spirits. The belief in ancestral spirits is closely related to the people and the fortunes of the people. The belief in dwarf spirits is related to ancient history and legends. The belief in ancestral spirits brings protection for the people; it influences the fortunes of the people. In the daily life of Saisiyat people, if they are going away on a long trip, spending the night in the mountains, socializing or giving away gifts, they will always worship ancestral spirits with wine and meat. Saisiyat people communicate with ancestral spirits through shamanism. The most important craft is divination. It helps to heal illness, solve problems and find lost objects.
Since the Qing Dynasty, the Saisiyat have had intensive contact with Han Chinese. They partly accepted Chinese religious practices and concepts such as Tudi Gong (the Earth God), Three Mountain Kings, and worshiped the memorial tablets of ancestors. Subsequently, the Catholic and Christian faiths were introduced to the villages. Right now in the Saisiyat society, there coexists a diversity of religion from the traditional belief, the Chinese faith, and Catholic and Christian churches.
1. Ritual of Pasta’ay
Pasta’ay is also called the ‘Dwarf Spirit Ritual’. As the legend goes, Saisiyat people and the Ta’ay people lived next to each other. Saisiyat people learned from the Ta’ay people the art of agriculture, medicine singing, dancing and rituals. So they were very grateful for the kindness of the Ta’ay people. Every time when the Saisiyat were having a festival, they always invited the Ta’ay people to come and enjoy. However, the Ta’ay people liked to harass the women of Saisiyat. When the people could no longer tolerate such misbehavior, the Saisiyat set up a scheme to kill the Ta’ay people. Those survived the murder scheme cursed the Saisiyat, and the curse stays with the Saisiyat even until now. In order to remember and console the spirits of the Ta’ay people, Saisiyat people hold the ritual of every year, praying that the dwarf spirits shall stop cursing and harassing their people. The Saisiyat value the legend and the dwarf spirits. They follow the taboos in the Ritual as well as a lot of other limitations and customs in daily life.
Originally, the Ritual of Pasta’ay took place every October on the lunar calendar. It was later banned by the Japanese government and became a small ritual that took place once in two years and a big event once in ten years. The Ritual is hosted by both the southern and northern ritual group. The celebration of the Pasta’ay lasts as long as a month and can be roughly divided into pre-ritual stage, in-ritual stage and post-ritual stage.
● Pre-Ritual Stage: Decide the time of the Ritual and prepare silver grass knots that drive away evil spirits.
● In-Ritual Stage: Follow taboos and the ritual procedure.
● Welcome the Spirits: The Saisiyat welcome dwarf spirits in the early morning.
● Meet the Spirits: As the evening falls, the ceremony of meeting the spirits start and Saisiyat people will put on ceremonial hats and hip bells and dance until dawn. In meeting with the spirits, elders will talk to the people, reminding them of following traditional cultures and important rules in the Ritual.
● Entertain the Spirits: The day after welcoming and meeting the spirits is the time to entertain the spirits. Saisiyat people will continue singing, dancing, and chanting traditional Saisiyat songs.
● Dispel the Spirits: In this part, dwarf spirits will be invited to return. The same singing and dancing continue. After the people have the dwarf spirits back, they will destroy the stand posts, fill the mud holes in the event site, and have every hole filled up to restore everything back to normal.
● Send Away the Spirits: The Saisiyat send the dwarf spirits to the wilderness and say goodbye to them.
● Post-Ritual Stage: There will be a feast to celebrate the completion of the Ritual.
The legend of Pastay’ay attracts the curiosity of the general public because of its mysterious nature. It is the most well-known Saisiyat festival.
2. The Ritual for Ancestral Spirits
The Ritual for Ancestral Spirits takes place in spring and autumn. In spring, it happens after the planting of paddy rice in June on the lunar calendar; in autumn, it happens after the harvest in November on the lunar calendar. The purpose of the Ritual is to worship deceased ancestors of the clan; relatives from the father’s side in each clan must all participate. The Basket (or bag) of Ancestral Spirits is the symbol of the Ritual. The container in the Basket of Ancestral Spirits is filled with water. The male leader of the family presides over the ritual and dips the water with the index finger of his right hand and smears the water on the lips of each family member. This gesture symbolizes passing the strength of the ancestors to them to strengthen them. During the Japanese Occupation Period, the Ritual of Ancestral Spirits and the Basket of Ancestral Spirits were banned by the Japanese government. So people changed their ways of worship. Right now, in the Ritual of Ancestral Spirit, people offer wine and meat to ancestral spirits. Elders offer these foods to ancestral spirits to the east on behalf of the people. Family members share lunch together, enjoying traditional food like pork, fried fish and rice cake in the traditional manner with their hands. Now, the procedure of the Ritual has been simplified from dipping the water, praying, worshipping, to feasting. What has not changed is the sincerity people express by remembering and commemorating their ancestors.