Legends and myths about “the little folk” are common throughout the world. From pygmies and gnomes 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.

Illustration: Depiction of dwarves in European folklore
European depiction of dwarves

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 ancestors of the indigenous 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 powerful dark-skinned dwarves known as the Ta’ai—for guidance.

No more than three feet in height, the Ta’ai were unimpressive in appearance, but they wielded powerful magic and possessed superhuman physical strength.

The Ta’ai dwarves were also wiser than the Saisiyat and instructed their dimmer neighbours to plant millet and other crops for subsistence. 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 soon began to harass Saisiyat women and raid Saisiyat fields—leaving the Saisiyat people starving and traumatized.

This continued for many years until, finally, the Saisiyat had finally had enough.

The Saisiyat tribesmen came up with a plan to entice the dwarves—who lived beyond a canyon connected to the Saisiyat village by a single suspension bridge—to come and partake in a Saisiyat harvest celebration. This, the Saisiyat decided, would present them an invaluable opportunity to strike against their oppressors.

The dwarves were delighted by this and agreed to join in the festivities.

Photo: Primitive suspension bridge over river

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.

In the chaos, the whole bridge and almost every dwarf on it plummeted to the depths of the caverns. The mighty Ta’ai nation was never able to recover from the disaster.

A few dwarves did manage to survive this catastrophe but were devastated. They decided to leave this place in search of a new home elsewhere to the south and east.

Before the last of the dwarves departed, however, they laid down a curse: Unless the Ta’ai dead were regularly honoured and remembered by their Saisiyat murderers, all crops would forever fail—causing the Saisiyat to starve.

With this heavy pronouncement, the Ta’ai vanished and were never seen or heard from again.

The Saisiyat took the dwarves’ words seriously and began holding large festivals honouring the souls of the dwarves who fell into the abyss.

They have continued this tradition right down to the present.

Photo: Modern pas-ta'ai festival in Hsinchu, Taiwan
Modern pas-ta’ai festival in Hsinchu, Taiwan

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.

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Posted by:The Island Folklore Society

A society for the collection, preservation, translation, promotion and celebration of Taiwanese Tales & Traditions. Visit islandfolklore.org to learn more.