Behind the legend of the Little Black People Ritual

View from the site of the Basta Ay, or Little Black People Ritual, in Wufong Township, Hsinchu County. Photo: Trista di Genova
By Sean Kaiteri / Contributor, The Wild East

The Story of the Legend of the Pas’ ta ay in my own words:)
(editor’s note: The Basta/Pasta Ai/Ay, or “Ritual of the Little Black People” (矮靈祭) is performed by the Saisiyat tribe in northeast Taiwan)

No one is really sure exactly when these events transpired. Some say only a hundred years ago or so, while others put it at thousands of years ago.

One thing all agree on is that the Saisiyat were in trouble as they had been forced to flee to the mountains far from their traditional grounds near the oceans.

Broken, bedraggled and half starved, they found themselves deep in the misty mountains of Wufeng (五峰鄉, ‘five peaks’) where they came across a race of 3-4 foot-high, dark-skinned indigenous peoples, the Da Ai.

After overcoming natural suspicions and language barriers they became firm friends.

The Da Ai taught the ragtag group the necessary survival skills plus a few other essential skills – the cultivation of wild rice, the pounding of wild rice into a sticky rice and perhaps the most important; how to make rice into a delicious and potent wine.

The Da Ai were natural and gifted users of magic with the ability to communicate with animals and understand the secret whisperings of the ancient trees that were commonplace in the mountainous wilderness. When in need of instruction as to which wild flowers or herbs were needed to make a poultice or heal an injury the wise giants of the forest would provide the answers.

They would often cross a high-suspension bridge over a raging river to visit with the Saisiyat and together share their seasonal bounties in various harvest festivals.

However, things took a turn for the worse and most if not all the Da Ai womenfolk were taken out in some terrible tragedy. This left the poor Da Ai with no means in which to procreate and therefore meant certain doom for the little healers.

They pleaded with the Saisiyat to give them their daughters so that might continue, but there were few takers due the tribal rules of marrying into outside tribes and a general fear of what the offspring of such a union would turn out like.

Still being men of flesh and blood, and without the pleasures of the skin, the Da Ai on occasion would molest a nubile young Saisiyat damsel. This of course began to create a rift between the two formerly friendly tribes.

During one of the still ongoing gatherings between the two tribes an indecent incident took place between a Da Ai and the sweetheart of a young man, named Chu (pig).

Vowing to avenge the dishonour brought upon his betrothed, Chu hatched up a plan to exile his former spiritual masters to their side of river.

But of course in the best-laid plans of man everything that can go wrong went terribly and most tragically wrong….

Chu’s plan was simple enough… Whilst the Da Ai were gathering and feasting on the Saisiyat’s side of river he would sneak over to the connecting bridge and cut wedges from the mainstay pillars that were holding the bridge up. These he would pack mud, sticks and leaves so as to leave no trace of his attempted sabotage. Then when the merry-makers returned to their side, he would rush in, shout a few choice of “Go home, stay home and don’t come back.” Then he’d knock over the bridge thus preventing their return, for a while at least.

However, when all the returning Da Ai were on the bridge in the sunrise hours, the bridge collapsed under their combined weight and they all plummeted to their untimely deaths in the raging river far below.

Only one of their kind survived the terrible accident, the powerful and wizened Shaman. Seeing his entire tribe and race dashed to pieces on the jagged rocks below and washed away in the swirling waters he was naturally furious…

He summoned up the Great Sky God and placed a powerful and everlasting curse on the entire tribe of the Saisiyat.

The skies darkened and blood seeped up from the ground below… All the wild pigs and other animals fled in fear. The crops of rice and other vegetables withered and died. Finally, a plague of poisonous snakes slithered into the village, randomly exacting a venomous revenge on who ever was in the way.

Chu, himself, was distraught beyond belief as he had never intended for it to go this far. All he had wanted to do was to teach the Da Ai a lesson, not send them into the purgatorial mists of time.

With a deeply heavy heart and a understanding of the gravity of the situation, he set about trying to make amends for his grave and deadly mistake.

Distraught, Chu sent himself into exclusion where he might ponder his fate and that of the Saisiyat. He made his way to the tallest of the 5 peaks (Wufeng) and cried out to the Great Sky God to help him to correct and make amends for his great wrong-doing.

The Great Sky God felt pity for Chu and believed him when he explained that his intentions were not to annihilate the Da Ai, only to teach them a lesson. The Great Sky God suggested that Chu perform a ritual magical apology to the Shaman in the hope that it may appease the remaining little magician.

Chu set about cleansing himself and working out the details of the spell-cum-apology. When he felt that he was ready, he set off back down the mountain range to find the Shaman.

Upon returning to his village which was now in ruins, and to Chu’s further dismay he found that not only his sweetheart, but all his living family members, including aunts, uncles and cousins had succumbed to a plague and that he was the only remaining member of his clan.

More determined than ever to set things straight, he found his way across the river and went to the cave where the Shaman was now forced to take shelter.

Here he set about performing the apology in the form of a powerful incantation through a series of 19 complicated songs and dances that told of the greatness of the Da Ai and welcomed their spirits back from the netherworld. It took a full week to recite and was cast under the soulful eye of the Shaman.

The shaman was impressed with Chu’s sincerity and realised that if both the Da Ai and Saisiyat were lost, they could never be recognised by future generations. The Shaman forgave Chu, but under the condition that the ritual be performed on a yearly basis. Failure to do so would end in the complete erasure of all the clans of the Saisiyat.

Chu accepted the conditions and with that the little Shaman set off down the river never to seen or heard from again.

It was only then that Chu realised that he had aged 100 years.

An old man, and not loving it, Chu returned to the village and found that indeed the curse had been lifted, the snakes had left and green shoots were appearing in the farming areas.

A meeting was called between the clans so as to decide the future of the Saisiyat. Chu explained that the ritual must be performed every year and also explained that due to the aging effects, he would only be able to do it one or two more times.

He also explained that by having no family he would not be able to train any of his family members to carry on the role. He asked that some of the other clans give him a wife so that he might be able to have a son that could carry on the ritual and the family line.

The clans were divided and afraid of Chu, around half of them wanted to leave the cursed place and relocate elsewhere. Soon after they did move south into the area in Miaoli. One family (Xia) gave Chu 7 of their daughters to Chu to be his wives, and in time they begat him many sons.

The youngest wife and also the smartest knew that if Chu or any one person were to perform the Pas Ta’ Ay, they ran the risk of dieing of old age age. So she had the ritual broken up, with different pieces being performed by various members of the differing families, thus diluting the aging effects so that no one was really harmed.

The tribes that left also agreed to come back once a year to assist in the performance.
Thus ends the story of how and why the Pas Ta’ Ay must be performed.

See Jules Quartly’s write-up in the Taipei Times, “In Honor of the Little Black People

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