Review: Pas-taai – The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936

A Time Capsule from the Last Century Pastaai — The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936

Chia-Yu HU

Department of Anthropology, National Taiwan University

As we now live in an age of photography and mechanical reproduction, does that mean, as Walter Benjamin believed, that we are also entering an age when the aura disappears? By viewing the 1936 film of the Saisiyat Ceremony, we can experience the power of film to transport us through time. The images of people and situations captured 70 years ago reappear before our eyes, allowing us to experience an at once real and illusory past; a past where the images are clear, but the message is obscured. “Pastaai — The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936” is a significant film in several ways, portraying the inauguration of Taiwanese ethnographic filmmaking, interaction between a Japanese anthropologist and Taiwan’s aboriginal community, and changes to the Pastaai ceremony. This information is projected within the context of the film and even faintly among the images portrayed.

1.Taipei Imperial University’s Ethnographic Films

During the 1930’s, few individuals used cameras to record films. The government produced the majority of motion pictures, which served to record events or as propaganda tools. Taipei Imperial University (TIU) was likely the first academic institution to begin producing its own films.

“Pastaai — The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936” was among those films recorded by the TIU Course on the Study of Local Peoples, now know as the National Taiwan University (NTU) Department of Anthropology. Of the films shot by the Course on the Study of Local Peoples, 17 reels still remain. Nine of these reels record the island’s indigenous peoples – Datung River-Hsinkang (1931), Ilan Lau-lau-a (1932), the Five-year Ceremony in Neiwen Village (1934), Mahoan Village, Patzu Village, Mataian Village (two films, 1935), Pastaai-Saisiyat (1936), Taiya Tribe in Fuhsing Township, Nana Village, while the others include “Anatomy of the Dugong”, “Investigation of Taiwan’s Temples”, “Investigation of Ilan Historical Data” and “A Visit to Xiamen”. Besides the recording of “The Five-year Ceremony”, which had been edited and includes an explanatory script, the films are unadulterated black and white 16mm rough cut silent films.

The Course on the Study of Local Peoples used cameras as tools in their field work. Professor Utsurikawa Nenozo was responsible for performing interviews and his assistant Miyamoto served as cameraman. TIU Linguistics Professor Asai Erin also filmed a few documentaries about Taiwan’s aborigines. Miyamoto’s films, which include “Pastaai — The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936”, were later transferred to the NTU Department of Anthropology for storage, while Asai’s films were stored in the Center for Asian Studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. In the 1930’s, motion pictures were still in their infancy. The new technology was not only expensive, but the quality of the recordings was unstable. Therefore, few films were made and most of those that survive have not yet been organized or presented. For several decades after Japan’s defeat, the films produced by the Course on the Study of Local Peoples gathered dust in a storeroom. They were only found in 1994 after the Department of Anthropology performed an inventory of all its specimens and images stowed away in their storerooms. Time had taken its toll on the films and they were unplayable. In 2000, the National Film Library and Department of Anthropology worked together to conserve and duplicate the films. The following year, in coordination with the National Digital Archives Program, the Department of Anthropology began to study and digitize the restored films and do research on related background information. Thanks to these efforts, the public can finally view Taiwan’s first ethnographic film, made over 70 years ago.

2.Anthropological Investigation’s Role in the Abolishment or Preservation of Aboriginal Ceremonies

This film of the Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936 was one of the best preserved among the department’s early documentaries. The camera technique is relatively mature and the subject matter is profound, but the film is especially significant because its background touches on Japanese colonial rule, anthropological investigation, and changes in aboriginal society. According to surviving records, Miyamoto and Utsurikawa of the Course on the Study of Local Peoples performed fieldwork on the Saisiat people at least twice. They first visited Hsinchu and Miaoli in October 1931 to examine the Saisiat tribe’s migration legends and genealogy. The two returned between November 26 and December 1, 1936, this time investigating the Pas-taai Ceremony held in Taai village near Mt. Wuchih in Hsinchu. These two anthropologists did not leave us any explanation as to why they decided to survey and film. However, the famous headman of the Saisiat, Taro Umao (Tsao Ming-cheng), who took part in the Beipu Incident (1907) and the Syakaro Punitive Expedition (1926), and his family often appear in the film. Some therefore suppose that the headman helped to make arrangements and provided assistance to the researchers. Following the Wushe Incident (1930), the Japanese government intensified programs to “civilize” aborigines and abolish undesirable customs. From 1932-1927, Taiwan’s Governor-General Nakagawa Kenji carried out assimilation and interior land integration policies, which broadened the scope of alterations to Taiwan’s original culture and customs. Japanese authorities categorized many aboriginal ceremonies and rituals along with some religious practices of the Han Chinese people as superstitions that should be abolished. While Miyamoto and Utsurikawa did not leave us any clues, history sheds some light on the motivations for their survey of Taiwan’s ceremonies and temples, which undoubtedly were related to these policy changes.

Interestingly, while the anthropologists’ records do not mention any connection between their work and these policies, the Saisiat people themselves report that the anthropological survey had far-reaching effects on the tribe. Taai Village resident, Mr. Chao Chen-kuei, a teacher, learned from his father’s handwritten journal and tribal elders that his father, Oebay Taro (Tsao Wang-hua, second son of Taro Umao), held the post of sergeant in the 1930’s. His responsibilities included representing the tribe in dispute mediation and assisting the Japanese Government with coordination and communication work. In September 1937, the Japanese government tried to abolish the Pas-taai Ceremony. Oebay Taro advised the governor that the Saisiat would be willing to fight such an order to the death. Upon hearing this, the governor asked Miyamoto and Utsurikawa to investigate firsthand. With Oebay Taro serving as translator, they interviewed the ceremony’s officiant, tribal elders, and Taro Umao to learn aout the Pastaai Ceremony. Miyamoto and Utsurikawa were persuaded by the Saisiat that the ceremony was a valuable part of the local culture and should not be abolished. Following their report, the governor allowed the ceremony to continue, but ordered it shortened to five days from the original seven. When the Pastaai Ceremony was held again in 1938, Hsinchu Governor Akahori personally attended, much to the delight of the Saisiat tribesmen. There are some differences between the academics’ records and the recollections of the Saisiat people regarding the research and filming. There is also an inconsistency in the timing, as the work was either carried out in 1936 or 1937. These details are not so important if we consider the anthropologists’ fieldwork from another angle, from the tribe’s point of view. In their minds, the lead figures were their fellow Saisiat, who had their own expectations and motivations. They could utilize the anthropologists as an outside resource to improve the tribe’s inferior position. If the Pastaai Ceremony was thereby allowed to continue, it is a rare example in Taiwan’s anthropological history and is worth celebrating.

3.Images of the Ceremonial Grounds

We may never know if it really was the anthropological investigation that spared the Pastaai Ceremony, but it has in fact continued over the years. Today it is still one of the grandest, most solemn, and most unique of Taiwan’s aboriginal ceremonies. After reviewing the film, it is clear that the ritual’s structure, taboos, and symbols have changed little over the past 70 years. The ceremony is made up of three parts: the pre-ceremony preparations, official ceremonial activities, and post-ceremony appreciation and celebration. Miyamoto’s film focuses on the seven days of the actual ceremony, including the Welcoming of God on November 27, the speech by the headman at midnight on the 27th, and its official close on December 1. The first full moon after the rice harvest in 1936 fell on November 28 (Oct. 15, Chinese Lunar Calendar), so the tribe followed the lunar calendar to schedule the ceremony. The films opens with a shot of the grass knots hung on the ceremonial hut. A mortar and pestle are pushed out of the hut, while the tribesmen stand outside singing to welcome the spirits. They then use the mortar and pestle to make a glutinous rice cake offering. A series of scenes follow portraying the Saisiat delaying (kish-rinaolan), entertaining (kish-tomal), chasing (papatnawaSak), banishing (papatnaoloraz), and seeing off (kis-papaosa) the spirits after providing them with provisions (papasibilil). Tribe members carry a hazel tree trunk horizontally and symbolically cut it down and then into pieces (mari ka sibok).

The film also reflects some of the unique aspects of the ceremony. Prior to the paksa:o, which serves to welcome the spirits and provide them with food, each participant carries a fish into the ceremonial hut. The kirakil headdress, which can only be crafted around the time of the ceremony, was worn on the head. Today, the kirakil is a heavy flag used in the ceremonial dancing that must instead be carried on the shoulders. In the film, three young mean wearing the kirakil continuously leap and dance. At the center of the ceremonial grounds stand a crowd of singing and dancing Saisiat tribesmen. While some don traditional woven clothing, others are wearing Han Chinese or Japanese style clothing, revealing that the diversification of everyday goods and materials had already begun. The scene is bustling and impressive, with more than 200 people circling the grounds observing the ceremony. In addition to watching the images portrayed on the screen, we can also go a step further to learn about changes that occurred in the ceremony by noting what is missing from the film. The Pastaai Grand Ceremony, which is held every 10 years, should have fallen in 1936, but in we do not see the sinatun, or flag of the grand ceremony, raised high over the festivities. Many of the Saisiat elders mentioned that prior to the Japanese Occupation, the Pastaai Ceremony was held once each year and the entire tribe gathered together on the same ceremonial grounds. Made in 1936, the film shows that was no longer the case, with the ceremony already split between the northern and southern ceremonial grounds. However, it does not tell us whether the ceremony was still held once a year at this point or if the Grand Ceremony was only developed after this time. The film has left behind a few mysteries that have yet to be solved.


This film of the Saisiat Ceremony is a valuable historical document that represents the first time a Taiwanese local cultural event was documented on film. Its value comes not only from the images it conveys, but from the introspection it provokes in viewers. By watching, viewers get a bit of a jolt, not only because of what it does portray, but also because of what does not appear in the film, both of which require our reflection and understanding. What we can perceive from watching the film comes not only from the onscreen images, but from the contemplation and emotion that viewing precipitates. The audience experiences the vitality of human culture through a film that was made over seven decades ago. While the world has swiftly changed around it, the Pastaai Ceremony still survives, illustrating the cohesiveness and dynamism of the Saisiat.