Music from the Marshland
The Harvest Festival of the Indigenous Amis Tribe
Hundreds fill a field in the Fata'an tribal community on the climactic night of the local harvest festival. Most participants are Amis in splendid traditional regalia, but many of those standing in the loose concentric circles are like us, jeans-clad visitors, panting and waiting eagerly for the next dance. The air is refulgent with the glare of floodlights and the glisten of damp grass. It is late summer in eastern Taiwan, and all around us bodies are in motion and perspiring together.
By Bryan Beaudoin
I push a sweaty lock of hair away from my eyes, and in my excitement pay no heed to my shortness of breath. A single voice rises into the night and we all extend our arms toward the sky. A moment later the Song of the Ocean is again a jubilant lilt and everyone is moving. Clumsy dancer that I am, I nevertheless cannot but lose myself in the churning frenzy, following the young Amis on stage as they pantomime the motions of hunting, fishing, and farming. We are engaged in the traditional celebrations of the Harvest Festival or Fengnianji (in Chinese).
With a population of about 180,000 the Amis, or Pangcah as they call themselves, are the largest of Taiwan's 14 officially recognized aboriginal tribes. Their traditional territory stretches from northern Hualien County down Taiwan's east side along the narrow coastal plains and the East Rift Valley, a narrow strip of land between Taiwan's central and coastal mountain ranges. Two features of traditional Amis society are particularly notable: matrilineal descent and the age-grade system, under which each Amis belongs to a cohort of peers of similar age throughout life. While it is hard to say to what extent the matrilineal roots of the Amis still influence them today, after centuries of contact with Chinese and Japanese culture and with modernization, the age-grade system is still a part of life in the villages. As tribe members explained to me and some fellow travelers on a recent visit to various villages, at least some aspects of both traditions are discernable in contemporary Fengnianji festivities.
Fengnianji is both a harvest
Fengnianji is both a harvest festival and the Amis New Year's celebration. Before the Japanese introduced rice cultivation during their period of colonial rule (1895-1845), millet was the staple grain for the Amis. It was believed that the success of crops lay in the hands of a rather finicky millet deity, who was appeased through a variety of ceremonies and rites throughout the growing season. In the past, Fengnianji was a more sober affair, including many religious rites held over a week or more in order to thank the heavens for a bountiful harvest and drive away evil. In Fata'an (either Mataian or Guangfu in Chinese) at least, only adult men participated, and the ceremony was also used to form a new age-grade cohort for young men coming of age. These days Fata'an's Fengnianji has been transformed into a lively series of events and an important occasion for youth to learn about their Amis heritage. In a day when educational needs and job opportunities whisk away most of the younger generation at an early age, the harvest festival is a time for young and old to be reunited and to preserve and reinvigorate their culture. With ever-changing social and economic conditions in mind, festival organizers have also made many adjustments to welcome tourists while at the same time preserving key religious aspects of the festivities.
It was young people who took center stage the last and most exciting night of Fata'an's Fengnianji, which is known as Lovers' Night. As we looked on, a ring of men, young and old, slowly rotated to a hypnotizing beat. At the emcee's signal, women and teenage girls flocked to the circle in search of ideal matches. As the custom goes, a female expresses her interest in a particular male by gently tugging at his embroidered bag, or dofot (in the Amis language). If the young man is keen, he will place the bag around the woman's neck. After a few minutes of flirtatious tension, the lights went out, and in the dim bustle of silhouettes one could see the glint of more than a few giddy smiles. By the time lights went back on, quite a few young couples had vanished from the field. Traditionally, the Amis's elaborate courtship process was also initiated by the woman, and included an exchange of food and betel-nut kept in dofot, along with other symbolic gestures. Although Fata'an parents suggested that this part of the Fengnianji is now just for fun, some of the young people we saw had a pretty serious look in their eye!
Since the 1990s Taiwan's Han Chinese majority, and governments at various levels, have been giving greater recognition to aboriginal cultures as a vibrant part of the island's cultural heritage – at times as a way of proclaiming Taiwan's cultural uniqueness to the outside world. These changing attitudes in part explain the increasing appeal of Fengnianji to tourists, and the festival has been changing with the times. In Tafalong (Taibalang or Futian in Chinese; a short drive east of Fata'an), another Amis community with a large festival, a sudden and intrusive influx of tour buses raised hackles a few years back. But the community decided to adjust, and after moving the festival away from the local highway and discontinuing billboard advertisements, it has been able to strike a better balance between sharing its culture with outsiders and keeping Fengnianji first and foremost for the people of Tafalong.
Not far south from Fata'an is the smaller community of Mafo (also called Mafu). While other nearby communities have grappled with their suddenly increased renown in recent years, the intimate, casual air surrounding Mafo's festivities suggests that it has had no such problem. During our visit community members came and went as they tended to work, family, and other responsibilities, and it seemed that at any one time there was never more than about fifty people gathered at the elementary school where they held their Fengnianji. One man stirred a gigantic vat of pig stew while still wearing his Pizza Hut uniform. After paying our respects to the organizers, we were soon pulled into a small group of people dancing near some chatting elders. A nimble-footed woman sprinkled homemade millet wine at each of our feet before offering a glass.
In such a small community as Mafo, it seems that Fengnianji has become a sort of all-purpose gathering, a time not only to rejoice but also to take care of tribal business, including elections of the chief. As we sat quietly observing the proceedings conducted in the Amis language, an enterprising elementary-school-aged girl tried to sell me some betel-nuts from her dofot. "You're American?" she asked. "Could you get me Justin Bieber's phone number?"
What could a polite guest do but offer to do his best!
??????? Guangfu Township is located south of Hualien City about one-third of the way to Taitung City down the East Rift Valley. You can self-drive from Taipei along quality highway, but be forewarned that the narrow, serpentine stretch of cliff-hugging coastal highway between the town of Suao and Hualien is both breathtakingly beautiful and quite forbidding. It should take between four and five hours, not counting stops to take in the Pacific blue. The less-confident driver or easily carsick passenger may prefer the three-to-four hour train ride from Taipei.
There are several options for accommodation in Guangfu, but it is best to remember that the Amis Harvest Festival is now a big tourist draw and reservations should be made well in advance. We stayed at a hotel and recreational tourist area on the site of the old Hualien Sugar Factory. Established in the 1920s, the factory itself is no longer in operation, but the site preserves much of the rich heritage of the area – especially in architectural terms. According to one Japanese architecture expert, it contains the most complete, best-preserved industrial dormitories from the Japanese colonial period to be found anywhere. To meander along the narrow roads of the complex is to receive a primer in wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of finding beauty in imperfection and of the acceptance of transience. Patinaed siding and weathered roof tiles serve as a reminder of the ambivalent legacy of Japanese colonial rule and culture in this part of Taiwan. Those buildings that are now part of the hotel have been meticulously restored, providing immaculate interiors for guests while at the same time preserving such unique architectural elements as earthquake- and typhoon-resistant buttresses. We slept on aromatic tatami mats and bathed in wooden tubs. Luxury, simple yet elegant!
Hualien Sugar Factory (花蓮觀光糖廠)
Another option is the Amis-operated Lalan's House (Lalan Unak), which offers lodging for mid-sized groups by reservation, in addition to cultural activities. The small inn is located in front of a marsh, once part of a larger wetlands area significantly reduced in recent years by construction projects. The ecosystem here was once a central part of the life of the local Amis. During our visit, the son of the hostel's proprietor gave us a demonstration of how an ingenious traditional three-layered fish trap, or palakaw, has been used to catch fish in the wetlands here. The eco-friendly fishing methods of the Amis are based on the natural lifecycles of aquatic animals, and are a great example of the sustainable use of natural resources. For those visitors interested in the local ecology and indigenous culture, the Tourism Center of the Guangfeng Farmers' Association organizes guided wetland tours.
Lalan's House (拉藍的家民宿)
Guangfeng Farmers' Association (光豐農會遊客中心)
There is a wide variety of interesting foods available at the larger harvest festival events. In all of the communities we visited, wild boar is a major part of the festivities, eaten at every meal. In Mafo, several middle-aged men were tending to a pork stew being prepared in gigantic pots. "Other than salt, water, and bamboo shoots, all it contains is pork – the whole pig, and nothing but," they boasted. The broth was simple but hearty, the blood adding a bit of a bitter nip after each mouthful. The larger festivals at Fata'an and Tafalong both had a variety of food vendors. In Fata'an we enjoyed fresh sea urchin (great with cold beer) and thick slabs of pepper-seasoned, charcoal-grilled pork with fresh scallions. Not a bad way to recover one's stamina between dances!
For a more complete meal, don't miss the Cifadahan Cafe, which features simple, delicious Amis fare, including two traditional local staples: freshwater fish and wild vegetables. A set meal includes mouthwatering stone-grilled pork, a light soup, sticky rice, and crudites. The assortment of fresh, raw vegetables is, no doubt, like nothing you've seen come from a Chinese or Western kitchen – ferns, pigeon peas, pumpkin leaves, chayote, Chinese onion, miscanthus hearts, and hyacinth beans. Most of these vegetal delights are slightly bitter or astringent, and thus very refreshing when paired with a sweet dip.
There are two interesting fish dishes on the menu. In the first, a large freshwater Taiwan tilapia is packed in salt and grilled over charcoal. Peeling back the salt-caked skin, you will find plenty of very juicy flesh. The second dish is a fish and vegetable stew served in a dried-leaf bowl. The staff adds heated river stones to the bowl to cook the stew before your eyes. All of the dishes are modestly seasoned so that the natural flavors of the ingredients – and their incredible freshness – will meet your palate with full force. The owner is an avid woodcarver, and her handiwork is on display everywhere at Cifidahan, many pieces adorned with her favorite owl motif.
Cifadahan Cafe (紅瓦屋文化美食餐廳)
For assistance in acquiring more information in English, you can also call the 24-hour tourist hotline of the Tourism Bureau at 0800-011-765.
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