by Ernie Diaz
We’re sorry Taiwan. With China so vast and multifarious, we hardly ever get around to you. Besides, you’re so sensitive, so easy to rile up. Why, just look what happened when ex-VP Annette Lu claimed that Chinese people weren’t the original inhabitants of Taiwan; nor were the so-called aboriginals. A huge flap ensued, dusting off a tale of pygmies, curses, and ritual dances.
The borders of Miaoli and Hsinchu Counties, on the northwest coast of Taiwan, seem a lot further from Taipei than its actual 80km. This is a place of mountains and mist. And every two years, during the 10th lunar month’s full moon, it is a ritual ground centuries old. That’s when the native Saisiyat – a minority among Taiwan’s minorities, less than 5,000 strong – gather to observe Pas-ta’ai, the Ceremony of the Short People.
Whether you would participate or just watch, you must tie some silver grass on your arm, for the gods’ protection. A healthy swig of rice wine will put you in the same mood as most of the adult Saisiyat, dressed in elaborate red and white embroidered raiment. Hand-in-hand, forming a huge circle, they dance in and out, repeating the cadences of a shaman who holds responsibility for the ceremony’s success.
Success, in this case, is measured not in abundant harvest or other divine blessings, but in avoidance of bad luck, the omen of a people all but forgotten. Parts of the ceremony, the most vital contact with the spirit world, are conducted in secret only by Saisiyat elders and the shaman. This part takes place near the sacred caves, off-limits to all save those with the purest intentions, lest terrible consequences befall.
These caves were the home of the “Little Black People”, as they are still referred to by the Saisiyat and other native Taiwan tribes who remember them in legend and song. Chinese historians of the Three Kingdoms Period called them black dwarves. Broad-nosed, dark-skinned, with tightly-curled hair, they were “other”, to a degree far beyond the tiny differences which usually separate and make enemies of close-living indigenous tribes.
Nonetheless, these dark, diminutive people were friends, at least at first. According to the legend, they had been on the land long before the Saisiyat arrived. They taught the Saisiyat the secrets of agriculture. They shared their bounty, and the two tribes would celebrate together at harvest time.
But even dearest friends will fight, given enough time, and with different peoples enmity never needs long to rear its ugly head. The legend also holds that the Little Black People were fond of making free with Saisiyat women, flirting and making lewd advances. This provoked ire, but not wrath. That came with the rape of a Saisiyat princess and her handmaidens. The Saisiyat held their peace until the next harvest gathering. The Little Black People had to cross a long rope bridge over a ravine to go back to their caves. The Saisiyat cut the moorings of the bridge and plunged them to their deaths, all but two.
The two left Taiwan, heading east, but not before passing on their sacred songs, and pronouncing their ban: the Saisiyat must memorialize them biannually, keeping the Little Black People alive in spirit, lest their crops fail and they suffer the same fate as those they had slaughtered.
The legend does not bear much close scrutiny. How many Little Black People could have been on that bridge, after all? More likely an extended tribal war did for them. Some versions of the story hold that they had very few women, and that they took women from other tribes by necessity. But the Saisiyat ceremony of contrition is as unique as tribal warfare is commonplace.
The existence of such a strange tribe on Taiwan, however, is much better supported than the story of its extinction. Most Taiwanese today are descended from the Han Chinese, of course, and the two percent of the population known as aboriginal are Austronesian, linked by blood to similar peoples from East Timor to the Philippines to Polynesia.
The Little Black People, on the other hand, were most likely Negrito. Horribly un-PC name, that, but Al Sharpton hasn’t done anything about it yet, and after all, it does mean “little black person”. Today, there are still Negrito populations in the Andman Islands, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They have the short stature, curly hair, and dark skin referred to by their Taiwanese neighbors, but otherwise are among the least-known of homo sapiens.
Out-of-Africa theorists place them in Asia as long as 50,000 years ago, ages before the aborigines got to Taiwan some 3,000 to 6,000 years ago. Such a great gap makes the Negritos’ exact origin and migratory route to Asia a matter of speculation, but bolsters the view of Taiwan’s Council of Aboriginal Affairs, which officially acknowledges the dark-skinned tribe, and which led to Annette Lu’s claim, as provocative as it was.
Regardless of scholarship to the kind or contrary, the Saisiyat will continue to hold their three-night chanting dance-athons during every other 10th month’s full moon. They will continue to make it a custom to avoid fighting during that time, in order to propitiate the spirits of those they wiped out. And as much as it is based on superstition, the ritual will continue to give them faith, as vital as the former is useless.