Amis people live in groups. Their villages are big with a large population. Rituals and festivals are especially grand in manners. The most representative ritual is the Annual Harvest Festival. The current Amis population is 203,964 (until March 2016).
Amis people call themselves ‘pangcah’, which means people or fellow people. In Taitung, Amis people usually live to the north of the Puyuma, so they are called by the Puyuma as ‘Amis’, which means people from the north. This term was adopted by scholars and later became the popular name of the people. For Amis people, there are ‘creation myth’ and ‘the legend of origin’. Amis people in the north say their ancestors were born from gods, while Amis people in the south believe their ancestors were born from the stone.
The Amis is the largest indigenous people in Taiwan. They live on the plains to the east the of Central Mountain Range and to the south of Liwu River; their territories cover Hualien County and Taiwan County of East Taiwan and Hengchun Peninsula in Pingtung County, covering a vast area. According to regional differences and customs, the Amis can be divided into Northern Amis (aka Nanshi Amis), Central Amis (including Xiuguluan Amis in the East Rift Valley and the coastal region), Southern Amis (the Amis in Taitung and Hengchun Peninsula).
Amis people came into contact with outside world around four hundred years ago when the Dutch conducted gold expeditions to the east. Nevertheless, the most intensive contact between the Amis and the outside world happened in the last twenty years of the Qing Dynasty. In 1874, the Mudan Incident occurred. To prevent international forces from invading indigenous areas, the Qing Government implemented the Mountain Development and Aborigines Pacifying Policy. In addition, cross-island roads to the east were opened in the north, center and south of the island, and Han Chinese were also encouraged to settle in the east. To complete the construction, the Qing Government over-recruited Amis people to straighten the roads. Miscommunication caused conflicts. In 1877, Jingou Village and Gangkou Village on the east coast united in armed resistance against the military power of the Qing Government. It was called the ‘Dagangkou Incident’. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, Amis people continued to exchange with the large presence of Han Chinese settlers among them and learned paddy rice farming techniques as well as the cultures and customs from these new settlers.
During the Japanese Occupation Period in the early twentieth century, the Japanese government set up the barrier defense lines to defend against Truku and Bunun peoples. The Amis villages nearby were called to help. However, the Japanese were too aggressive and the Amis started to revolt. In 1908, the Cikasuan Village in Hualien was completely destroyed by the Japanese on the pretext of a runaway aboriginal frontier guard who neglected his duties. Their purpose was in fact to rebuild East Taiwan from scratch. It is called the ‘Cikasuan Incident’. In 1911, Madawdaw Village and Turik Village revolted against Japanese because the people were harshly insulted and humiliated by the Japanese; it is called ‘Madawdaw incident’. After going through series of conflict and readjustment, the Amis society grew from a village society to gradually a modern society that tries to strike a balance with the foreign state power.
Since the 1960s, increasing employment opportunities in the urban areas pushed Amis people to move and form new settlements in Taipei City, New Taipei City, Taichung City, Kaohsiung City and Hualien City. Unlike their Amis fellow people back home in indigenous villages, they become the urban Amis.
The traditional Amis industry is agriculture and fishing. In recent years, skill and labor work are added to the list. Traditionally, Amis people cultivate millet (hafay). In the Qing Dynasty, people learned to grow paddy rice (panay). Growing paddy rice became gradually popular in the Japanese Period and rice turned to the staple food for Amis people. The popularity of paddy rice also has impact upon the concept of annual rituals that was previously developed on the growing of millet. The time for harvest festivals has been adjusted to the harvest of paddy rice. This has great impact upon the changing Amis culture.
In recent years, since Taiwan has transformed from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy, opportunities for skill and labor work increase. A large number of Amis people become involved in labor, pelagic fishing industry, or service industry in Taipei and Kaohsiung.
In the past, traditional Amis villages were built around the community house with family houses sitting next to each other. On the outskirts of the village, there were cultivation fields, hunting ground and fishing area. It was an agglomerated type of village. In the village, there were a watchtower and a community house to maintain the safety of the village; traditional family houses included a set of a family house, a granary and a place to keep domestic animals like a pigpen or a cowshed. Traditional Amis family houses were built with thatch; they were rectangular buildings with one room and a front door, which were renovated every two or three years. The interior of the house was partitioned by wood plank or bamboo board into a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom. The core of the house was a fire stove (paruod) sitting upon three pieces of rock. In the twentieth century, due to changes in the social environment and economic industry, the number of houses built with steel and cement also increases. They have become the main house style for Amis people.
In addition to paddy rice, Amis people also eat collected wild vegetables, game meat or fish caught in hunting and fishing for daily meals. Now, Amis people take paddy rice (panay) as their staple food. Glutinous rice still plays an important role in the culture and is included in every wedding and funeral. Amis people make steamed glutinous rice called ‘hakhak’ and make mochi ‘toron’ by pounding glutinous rice in the mortar. They have become two specialties from Hualien and Taitung.
Amis people have rich knowledge about plants and they know very well about how to apply vegetables to their food. So they are jokingly nicknamed as the ‘People that eat grasses’. Common edible wild herbs and plants refer to betel nut (’icep), Taiwan ebony (kamaya/kafohongay), breadfruit tree (apalo/facidol) and so on. Meat and fish from hunting and fishing provide Amis people with protein in their food. Stone fire pot and marinated meat (siraw) are typical Amis food. To make the stone fire pot, one puts burned stones into the cooking pot made of betel nut leaves (cifar/kadong) to cook the fish or shrimp. The flavor is rich. Preserved and marinated meat (siraw) is also very typical because of its strong and unique taste. Besides, the Amis grow betel nut trees around their houses; the fruits they harvest are not only their snacks but also important gifts at the festivals, weddings or socializing events for men and women. Amis people call betel nuts ‘’icep’.
Before, Amis people made traditional costumes by taking tree barks as the base and weaving the base with banana tree fibers with the help of a bamboo needle. The cloths were made in this way. In addition to tree barks, people also used durable sackcloth and animal hide. Wild rattan provided the materials to make hats with. As the exchange of goods become more and more convenient, people made less and less clothes by hand. In the first half of the twentieth century, cotton cloths obtained through exchange have become the most common materials for costumes.
Amis traditional costume can be divided into Hualien County and Taitung County styles, the difference seen in headwear, upper garments and skirts. The colors used in the costumes are usually red, black, white, blue and green. The form of the costumes, together with the bright colors, create a colorful and lively image. Amis chief and priest enjoy special status in the society, so they wear long robes, a betel nut bag and a hat at important occasions and rituals. A betel nut bag is for betel nuts, lime, betel pepper, pipe and tobacco. Mothers will make them and give them to her children as gifts; or a girl will send the betel nut bag to her lover. Therefore, it is also called the ‘Lover’s Bag’ (’alufo). The Lover’s Bag is the most practical and common accessory in Amis daily life or rituals. The traditional hat, however, is a mark of identity. The chief and each age rank use the hat to indicate their different identity and rank in the society.
Amis people use natural plants to skillfully develop all kinds of implements for daily use. Implements made with wood are the musical instrument wood drumstick, wood clapperboard, and wood spoon. Bamboo implements are bamboo water bucket, bamboo bird-driving tool and bamboo firecracker. Rattan implements are fish basket and fish trap. Shell ginger leaves and alligator weeds are woven into mats. In addition, ceramic implements are also famous. Wood clapper and wood knife are made with ceramic and burned outdoors. Tafalong Village in Kuangfu Township, Hualien County, is the most famous for this craftsmanship.
6. Singing and Dancing
Amis songs and dances usually go together. Songs are sung by a leading vocal and the chorus. Chanting and singing in the polyphonic harmony fulfill the needs for different religious ceremonies, banquets and socializing events and entertainment hours. With the changes of dance steps and team formation, the singing and dancing of Amis people exhibits a versatile characteristic. One particular Amis song, the ‘Elders Drinking Song’ by Difang Duana (Guo Ying-nan) an Amis elder from Taitung, was used in the 1996 Olympics Games and became internationally well-known.
In the Amis language, the village is called ‘niyaro’’; it means people within the fences. It denotes the geographical feature of Amis villages and how they are protected by bamboo and wood fences. The politics in Amis villages is maintained by the leader system and age rank as well as connected by families that follow matrilineal marriage system.
1. Matrilineal Marriage
The Amis social system is regulated by the leader system, age rank and matrilineal marriage. The main feature is for this type of marriage matrilocal residence; properties and legacies are passed down from mother to daughter. In an Amis traditional marriage, women play an important role. Before the marriage, the groom has to work at the bride’s house voluntarily for months or years. After marriage, the groom moves in to live with his wife and her family. Since the 1960s, Amis people had more and more contact with other ethnic groups and the traditional matrilocal marriage was gradually replaced by exogamy. Properties were also inherited by men instead of women. The Amis society has gradually changed to follow a patriarchal system.
The highest leader in an Amis village is the great chief. He is elected from a meeting participated by local leaders, representatives from male age rank and representatives from the priest’s family.
In the early modern times, the most well-known Amis leader is Kolas Mahengheng. Kolas Mahengheng was from the Amis village Falangaw in Taitung. He was born in 1852. He was called Mahengheng because he was tall, big and had a sonorous voice. At the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of Japanese Occupation Period, Kolas Mahengheng often traveled from one village to another in East Rift Valley and the eastern coast to settle inter-village and inter-people disputes. He also helped to pacify resistance actions launched by the villages such as The Cikasuan Incident and The Madawdaw Incident. In 2000, in order to commemorate his personal contributions to the society, Taitung County Government made the bypass road leading to Taitung Train Station ‘The Mahengheng Boulevard’.
3. Age Rank (selel/kapot)
In the Amis village, men are divided into different ranks by age, and are responsible for planning and implementing all kinds of village affairs. Amis boys at the age of thirteen and fourteen are required to come to the community house (sfi) to receive training in all kinds of knowledge, labor, military drill and work. Such training is given to boys ranked by two to five years apart. They live together, study together, and receive different assignments according to their age. The age rank of Amis people serves as the military, administrative and political functions in the village. Every rank has a special name.
The Amis is the largest group and the people are dispersed widely. The name of the age rank in the village follows two systems: inheritance name system and creation name system. The inheritance name system is practiced in Nanshi District, Hualien, where Amis people inherit the names of age ranks from their predecessors. The creation name system is practiced in southern Amis villages like Falangaw where people create new names for the age rank according to major events of the year, such as ‘La Riben’, which means the arrival of the Japanese time, ‘La Minguo’, which means the arrival of the time of the Nationalist government, and ‘La Diannao’, which means the arrival of the computer age. By creating new names for each age rank, Amis people try to remember the important events in the village. Age rank and matrilineal society system indicate that in the Amis society, there is a division of labor between men and women in both family affairs and public affairs.
Amis people believe all creatures, heaven and the earth have their own spirits. They take the spirit ‘kawas’ as the core of their belief. There are different types of spirit that belong to god, ghost, human, animal and plant. There are also spirits of different natures and the spirits can by differentiated by space like the spirit of heaven and the spirit of underworld. In heaven, there are God of Heaven, God of Sun and God of Moon. In the world, there are God of River, God of Sea, God of Land and God of Animal. The Amis believe in pantheism.
The priest in the Amis language is called ‘cikawasay’ or ‘sikawasay’. They are professional religious men, and they help people avoid disasters and recover from illnesses by communicating with gods and spirits through divination. In addition to praying for good fortunes or driving away bad fortune for an individual, the priests also give thanks to gods and pray for blessings by conducting rituals before and after agriculture festivals or hunting expeditions. After WWII in the time of the Nationalist Government, Christian faith came into Amis villages; the big sects include the Presbyterian Church, the Catholic Church, the Holiness Church and the True Jesus Church. Christian pastors or Catholic fathers take the place of the priests and their services in the village. They have become the most common and major religious professionals in Amis villages. Nowadays, in addition to traditional faith and western religions, in the Amis villages in Taitung and Hengchun Peninsula, Amis people are also practicing Chinese religions. There exists a diversity of religions in the Amis villages.
1. The Harvest Festival (ilisin/malalikid/malikoda/kiluma’an/zukimisai/siukakusai)
The Harvest Festival takes place after the harvest of millet. The purpose of the festival is to offer thanks to gods and spirits. The Amis name of the Harvest Festival differs from village to village. People first called it malalikid, malikoda or kiluma’an. Years later, due to the influence from Japanese language, different names like zukimisai and siukakukai emerged. At present, it is more commonly called the Harvest Festival.
Originally, the Harvest Festival took place after the harvest of millet. After the cultivation of paddy rice, the time for the Festival changed to take place after the harvest of rice. Every year from July, Amis villages from the south to the north hold the Harvest Festival according to when paddy rice is harvested in their village. The Festival lasts from one to seven days. Although it is named as ‘Harvest Festival’, it is an event with many purposes and significances. It is a harvest, an event to give thanks to gods, a time for people to socialize, for age rank to be upgraded, for testing the outcome of military training. It is indeed a comprehensive series of activities covering economic, religious, social, political and cultural aspects. The Harvest Festival contains multi-facet significances with various elements of cultural characteristics. Besides, the number of participants is also large and the event is big. Although most Amis people have moved to urban areas, they still hold harvest festivals and pass on traditional cultures and values to younger generations. The Harvest Festival has become an important event where the new generation exhibits their shared sense of cultural identity.
2. Fishing Ritual
The Amis Fishing Ritual includes the Sea Ritual and the River Ritual, which takes place in May and June. They worship God of Sea and God of River, and pray for the peace and abundant harvest of people as they go fishing in the sea. There are different names for the Fishing Ritual. Northern Amis call it ‘mia’adis’; Coastal Amis call it ‘misacepo’’; the Amis of Falangaw call it ‘mikesi’’; and Xiuguluan Amis call it ‘komoris’. In the 1970s, Dulik Village stopped holding the Sea Ritual, but it was restored in 2011. People call the Ritual by a new name ‘pafafuy’.
The Fishing Ritual has the significance of respecting elders. The Ritual starts with young people worshipping God of River or God of Sea with fish, crab and rice wine. Afterwards, men of each age rank dive into the sea and river to catch fish. As it approaches noontime, young people put the fish together and cook them. Then they share the cooked fish will elders according to the seniority of the age rank. It means elders come first. Elders will also give the fish back to the young people who have performed well in the Ritual in return. Ethic values of mutual assistance, sharing and respecting elders are demonstrated throughout the ritual.