Monday, September 30, 2013

Xiaolin Plains Aboriginal Night Ceremony

Text and photos by Rich Matheson
Originally posted at

October, 31,  2011
Wulipu is a small village nestled on a plateau in the Nanzixian River valley with, until recently, little to differentiate it from other mountain villages and little reason for the average Taiwanese to visit. Until 2009 there was a larger village, Xiaolin, five minutes upriver with 300 or so houses, a Beijidian temple on the main street and a couple of shops selling sundries. It was a quaint village with lovely 'San He Yuan' style houses lining the main street. Most of the villagers were Pingpu so a traditional konkai or meeting hall and lookout tower were in a park below the village, closer to the river. Earth God shrines indicated the north and south perimeters of this village.

During Typhoon Morakot In 2009, a catastrophic failure in the mountain above completely destroyed this historic village. In two movements, thirty million tons of mud crashed down on the village at speeds of up to 180kph. Today only one house outside the town's southern boundary still stands. Once high above the main road, it is now at river level, a stark reminder of the vibrant village and people that it once stood with.

Exacerbating this terrible human tragedy was a significant loss of Aboriginal culture.

Today the government has Taiwanese Aboriginals neatly divided into fourteen "officially recognized tribes"; the reality is not so tidy.

Archaeologists believe Taiwan was peopled at least 10,000 years ago, and some linguists believe Taiwan is the birthplace of the entire Austronesian language family.

In the earliest written records, Han Chinese referred to the Aboriginals on Taiwan with the blanket term Dong Fan (東番) 'Foreigners from the East'. Taiwan's early colonizers, the Dutch, documented some of these tribes. After Holland's short-lived foray in the south of Taiwan, the Qing continued to use the term Fan for all aboriginals, but further classified this term into Sheng Fan (生 meaning unassimilated) for aboriginals living outside a protective boundary (an actual ditch and mound of dirt that is still extant in places today) and Shou Fan (熟 meaning assimilated and paid taxes) for those within the boundary.

These two terms gradually gave way to the arbitrary terms 'High Mountain' (高山) and 'Plains' (平埔 Pingpu) Aboriginals. During the Japanese Era these distinctions were preserved but the High Mountain Aboriginals were further classified into the Atayal, Bunun, Saisiat, Tsou, Paiwan, Puyuma, Ami and Pingpu (Pepo.)'The KMT government adapted this system with nine officially recognized tribes with the notable exception of dropping the Pingpu. Today we have Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyama, Rukai, Tsou, Saisiyat, Yami, Thao, Kavalan (2002), Truku (2004), Sakizaya(2007), and Sediq (2008) for a total of 14 recognized Aboriginal groups.

The Pingpu are an as yet unrecognized Taiwanese Aboriginal group. With the recent cultural consciousness developing in Taiwanese society, they continue to fight for identity recognition and the protection of their rights.

Taiwanese Pingpu have become almost indistinguishable from Han Chinese over the years, and much of their language, rituals and folklore have been lost. The Pingpu of Xiaolin, however, are naturally isolated by rugged geographical barriers – the Alishan Mountain Range to the west, the Yushan Range to the east and a capricious river that flows from the snow capped peaks of Yushan, the Nanzixian (楠梓仙溪), thus they have maintained a degree of cultural preservation rarely seen in city-dwelling Pingpu.

Xiaolin was once inhabited by the Tsou, and today's Pingpu people that now inhabit the area were moved to the area with the "Opening up the Mountains and Pacifying the Aborigines" policy (開山撫番) -- a sometimes violent Qing Dynasty initiative of opening mountain areas to allow Han Chinese to develop and cultivate the land and to pacify and assimilate the aborigines into Han culture. The Xiaolin Pingpu are mostly Dawulong (大武壟社群), a part of the Taivoan (one of three Sirayan subgroups). During the Japanese era this region was heavily logged for its valuable camphor and a ban on hunting was imposed, furthering the acculturation of the Pingpu. The region was exploited for camphor up to and into the KMT era and then left alone until the building of Provincial Highway 21 to Namaxia in 1983. At the same time the government gave the village a face-lift. Thatch roofs were replaced with tin, and bamboo walls were coated with lime plaster.

One of the Pingpu's greatest cultural assets is their night sacrifice and this year's ceremony was the first time it was held in the recently completed Wulipu Housing and Cultural Village (五里埔永久屋社區的平埔文化園區). The assimilation of Han rituals such as burning incense, Tiao Gu Zhen combined with their own ancient traditions and little outside influence or interest make the festival different from other Pingpu festivals.

This year the ancient ritual began at 6am when a preselected 'spirit bamboo' (向竹) was harvested. The Pingpu word 'xiang' (向) indicates spirits or magic is present. Then a konkai (公廨, a traditional gathering place for worship and public functions) in the new Cultural Village was inaugurated via a censer representing the Pingpu Ancestral God of Protection Taizu (太祖) being moved in from the old konkai. The ancestral spirits were invited into the new konkai and then the Xiaolin villagers worshipped Taizu by burning incense and bowing.

Seven bundles of straw were bound to the spirit bamboo and it was erected in a ceremony inviting Taizu to descend from the heavens and bless the people. The bundles tied to the bamboo are said to be a ladder for the gods and spirits to climb down as well as symbolizing Taizu who is depicted as seven sisters. One more bundle of straw hangs from the top of the bamboo, and some say it takes the place of a human head used in ancient times.

A delicious feast of traditional Pingpu food was prepared for all guests and participants. A special rice, 'mai' (米買) and rice wine chicken soup (雞酒) were said to bestow the blessings of Taizu to all who ate it.

Kaohsiung City Mayor Chen Ju (陳菊) pledged the city government's continued support for the preservation of Xiaolin's Pingpu Culture.

One of the few remaining elders, 72 year old Pan Xiu Duan (潘秀緞), sang a moving song in her ancient tongue, then explained the meaning of the song. Her house was the only structure left of the entire village.

Pingpu tribes from Nantou's  Kahabu Sizhuang village (噶哈巫族四庄) and Tainan's Liuchongsi (六重溪) and Kamasua (吉貝耍) villages were invited to perform their local rites in a Pingpu cultural exchange. The traditional Sirayan bamboo musical group ONINI also performed.

Traditionally, Pingpu's two biggest threats were said to be natural disasters and Highland Aboriginals. Nowadays the Highland Aboriginals are as assimilated into Han culture as the Pingpu and pose no threat. In 2009 a natural disaster brought to the government's attention the precarious state of the Pingpu culture. The light in all this tragedy is an increased awareness and interest in Pingpu people and their culture.

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