Legends and myths about “the little folk” are common throughout the world. From pygmies and pixies to dwarves and fairies, these fantastic beings are found in the traditional tales of cultures as far-flung as those of Greece, Germany, India and Indonesia.
Taiwan also has its own native tales about a mysterious nation of dwarves. The following is just one of these and it has given rise to a well-known festival, which is still celebrated on the island.
A long time ago, in the northwestern hills of the island of Taiwan, on the border region between the present-day counties of Hsinchu and Miaoli, lived the ancient Austronesian ancestors of the Saisiyat people.
In the beginning, these early Saisiyat tribesmen were as newborns in the world. Helpless and uninstructed, they looked to their neighbours—a nation of dark-skinned dwarves known as the Ta’ai—for guidance.
The Ta’ai were a people small in stature—no more than three feet in height—but they commanded vast knowledge in the magical arts and possessed superhuman physical strength. The Ta’ai folk were wiser than the Saisiyat and instructed their dimmer neighbours to plant millet and other crops for subsistence. They demonstrated to the Saisiyat the wonders of their sorcery and enlightened them on many secrets of the world. The Saisiyat both revered and feared their mighty dwarf friends and teachers. They approached the Ta’ai with tremendous respect.
However, the friendship between these two nations was not to last. As time passed, the Ta’ai grew arrogant and mischievous. They harassed Saisiyat women—playing pranks on them as well as making unwanted advances. They raided Saisiyat fields—stealing Saisiyat crops before the Saisiyat themselves could gather their harvest. Each year, the Ta’ai left just enough food for the Saisiyat to scrape by till the next harvest season, and then this cruel cycle of pillaging and stealing would be repeated.
This continued for many years until, finally, the Saisiyat had had enough. The Saisiyat tribesmen gathered together to scheme. They came up with a plan to entice the dwarves, who resided on the other side of a canyon connected to the Saisiyat village by a long suspension bridge, to come over and feast in a harvest celebration with the Saisiyat people. This, the Saisiyat decided, would present them an invaluable opportunity to strike against their abusers.
When the time finally came, as all the harvests were being collected, the Saisiyat chief sent a message to the dwarves. The chief invited the Ta’ai to join the Saisiyat in celebrating the end of the harvest season. The dwarves were delighted by this and agreed to join in the festivities.
When the Ta’ai came upon the suspension bridge and began to cross the ravine, however, an ambush by a group of Saisiyat warriors violently attacked the perilously exposed dwarves. During the engagement, Saisiyat sappers began swiftly undermining the structure of the bridge and, very quickly, the bridge began to buckle and crumble under the collective weight of the Ta’ai. The dwarves attempted to fight their way off of the collapsing structure but it was too late. The whole bridge and virtually every dwarf on it plummeted to the depths of the caverns. So many were swallowed up by the earth that day that the mighty Ta’ai nation was never able to recover from the tragedy.
A few dwarves did manage to survive this catastrophe but were, no doubt, devastated and deeply shaken by what had transpired. They decided to leave this place of horrible memories in search of a new home elsewhere to the south and east.
Before the last of the dwarves departed, however, they turned to the Saisiyat and laid down a curse: Unless the Ta’ai dead were regularly honoured and remembered by their Saisiyat murderers, all crops planted by the Saisiyat would forever fail so that the Saisiyat would meet their own doom and, in turn, disappear into the earth themselves. With this heavy pronouncement, the Ta’ai vanished and were never seen or heard from again.
The Saisiyat were fearful. The deed was done. They had struck against their powerful dwarf neighbours and now they face the consequences. As a result of their scheming, they had incurred this terrible curse. They took the dwarves’ words seriously and decided to hold a large festival to honour the souls of those whose lives had perished at their hands. The Saisiyat hoped that this would appease the Ta’ai spirits and prevent the cursed prophesy from its fulfillment.
They have continued this tradition right down to the present.
Today, the Saisiyat people of northwestern Taiwan hold a biennial festival to mark the end of that year’s harvest season.
The above ancient Saisiyat tale about the Ta’ai Dwarves is the origin story behind this festival known as the Pas-ta’ai, which in the Saisiyat tongue means “the Festival of the Little Folk.” The Saisiyat people today welcome tourists and travellers to join them in their sacred rituals and together pay homage to those ancient and mysterious fallen dwarves.