The Tsou (Cou) people settled in elevated Alishan Mountain in central Taiwan. Important ceremonies include the Homeyaya (Millet Harvest Festival) to show appreciations to the Gods and the Mayasvi (Triumph Festival) to demonstrate war merits. Currently, the Tsou population is 6,702 people (as of January 2020).
The Tsou (Cou) people settled southwest of Yushan Mountain in central Taiwan, with Alishan Township in Chiayi County as the center. Some Tsou people settled in Jiumei (Luhdu) Village, Xinyi Township, Nantou County, and some even migrated further down south to Namaxia District in Kaohsiung City. The Tsou (Cou) people call themselves “Tsou”, meaning “people”. According to the Tsou legend, after creating the Tsou and Maya peoples with the maple leaf, the Great God Hamo created the plain peoples with the leaf of the bishop wood (Bischofia javanica). Then, the Tsou people gradually migrated to the present location, distributing in the upstream Zhengwen River drainage basin and Zhuoshui River drainage basin in Alishan (Psoseongana) Mountain in Chiayi County. The three major communities include: Tapang and Tfuya in Alishan (Psoseongana) Township of Chiayi County, and Luhdu community in Jiumei Village of Xinyi (Nehunpu) Township in Nantou County.
The historical record of the Tsou people date back to the Tapang and Tfuya records by the Dutch in the 17th century. After the 18th century, the Tsou people interacted more closely with the Qing dynasty. Apart from the symbolic tax payment for the Qing government, the Tsou people leased land to the Han people for cultivation and farming. During the Lin Shuangwen Riot, they even assisted the Qing government to maintain public order in the mountain area. At that time, the administrator-Wu Feng, who held the authority to trade mountain resources was decapitated for exploiting the Tsou people. The decapitation event became government propaganda during Japanese colonization.
During Japanese colonization, the Tsou people maintained harmony with the colonial government for two possible reasons: (1) the Japanese were approved by the tribe before entering Alishan Mountain, and (2) the Tsou people believed that the Japanese were their brother Mayas separated by the deluge. Therefore, they faced the colonial government with acceptance and exchange attitudes. During the colonial period, Tsou chiefs accepted language, medical, and agricultural education and did not resist the colonial government.
After Taiwan’s restoration, elite Tsou people were killed for political reasons in the February 28 Incident and the White Terror period. From the 1980s, the Tsou people have become activists in social movements to fight for indigenous rights, such as the anti-stigmatization movement through demolition of Wu Feng’s bronze statute, and the refutation of the government and society’s over exaggeration and misinterpretation of Wu Feng’s legend. In addition, Kanakanavu and Hla’alua peoples were considered to be southern Tsou compared to the Tsou people in the north in earlier classification. Due to independent ethnic awareness, these two “Southern Tsou” tribes were eventually separated from the Tsou in 2014 and became two independent ethnic groups in their own demonyms.
1. Industry and Food
Agriculture, fishery, hunting, and gathering are traditional ecomonies of the Tsou people. Foxtail millet, upland rice, sweet potatoes, and taro are their major crops of agriculture. While the meat of wild boars, sambar deers (Rusa unicolor), and goats are the primary sources of protein, the meat of birds and fish serve as the secondary protein sources. Due to tourism development in recent years, service industries have been trending in the tribe, such as the Tanayiku Natural Ecological Parkand tourism mountain villas and guesthouses. Under market and economic influences, the Tsou people have begun growing the Japanese horseradish (Eutrema japonicum), high-mountain tea, jelly fig (Ficus pumila), and peaches. The Cuo bamboo tube rice is rather famous. First, after soaking it in water, glutinous rice is put inside a Makino bamboo tube and roasted. Apart from preventing the glutinous rice from burning, the moisture contained in the perennial Makino bamboo adds an additional aroma to it. When hunting in the mountain in the past, hunters would bring dozens of bamboo tubes with them for dining in the forest.
Traditional Tsou Clothing
Feathers on leather headgear mark a man’s bravery. Traditionally, male Tsou clothes are made of leather, while female Tsou clothes are made of cotton, silk, or brocade. Common colors include red, white, black, and blue. Particularly, men usually dress up in red. Men’s clothes include pelt headgear, chest coverings, long-sleeve upper garments, pelt vests, pelt leg coverings, and pelt shoes. The headwear carries important meanings. Wear the pelt headgear means adulthood, symbolizing they are ready to assume tribal and family responsibilities. When dressing up, men will put some feathers of the eagle, the Taiwan blue pheasant (Lophura swinhoii), the Mikado pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado), or the condor on the headgear to symbolize their bravery. Women’s clothes include the black headscarf, bosoms, long-sleeved upper garments, dresses, and leggings. The Tsou people dress code is connected with age and social status. Warriors, such as the chief and the marshal, can add a red decorative band with pearls, jades, and shells on the front of their headgear. In addition to the copper bracelets and arm ornaments, those who have hunted the wild boar can wear arm ornaments containing wild boar tusks.
With mature processing skills, the Tsou people often make leather clothes with pelts. Processes before tanning include pelting, stretching, sun/fire drying, de-hairing, and tanning is the last process. Pelting refers to removing the skin/hide from the animal and maintaining it in one piece as much as possible.
◎ Stretching To dry the pelt under the sun more easily and to prevent folds, the Tsou people stretch the pelt with bamboo or wooden rods. In addition, the grease on the pelt is removed to avoid decay. After stretching, the pelt is dried by the sun or fire to prevent decay. Lastly, tanning is done repeatedly by two people under the beam in the house or a tree. Some may put the pelt in the mortar and tan it with a pestle to make the pelt softer.
Traditionally, the Tsou people built the kuba (assembly hall), emo (family house), and shed with wood, bamboo, and thatch. Today, most family houses are built with reinforced concrete or steel structures, although traditional construction methods are still used. The kuba (assembly hall) is the center for the Tsou people to disseminate politics, education, and culture.
◎ Kuba (Assembly Hall) The Tsou people call the assembly hall the “Kuba”. It is an elevated building with guardrails for males to learn culture, knowledge, and hunting and combat skills. Columns are primarily made of birch and cedar, the floor is made of cedar plank and bamboo, and the roof is made of thatch. The Tsou people also grow the tallow flowered dendrobium (Dendrobium clavatum) by and atop the assembly hall. It is the ethnic flower for the heavenly god to recognize the Tsou people.
◎ Emo (Family house) The Tsou people build the family house with bamboo and thatch in a rectangular or oval shape. The central fireplace (stove) is the center of the house. There are racks on the upper side for storing articles and pelts. Space in the family house symbolizes both genders. The door facing east is the front door for use by men, and the door facing west is the back door for use by women. The front yard symbolizing men is the storage for firewood and animal bones and the place for drying grains and holding rituals. The backyard symbolizing women holds the chicken or pig sheds, and is the living space for women.
◎ Emo No Pesia (Forbidden Shrine, Ritual Shrine) In earlier times, the forbidden shrine was located on the left-hand side in the family house. There is a fireplace (stove) inside for cooking offerings. The barn is the most important part of the shrine, which is the transitional housing of the goddess of millet. Cooking fish is prohibited. In addition, the Homeyaya (Millet Harvest Festival) is held in the forbidden shrine. It is also the place for the witch/wizard to cure illness and the spiritual symbol of every family. After Japanese colonization, the forbidden shrine is removed outside of the family house and becomes smaller. After the forbidden shrine is moved out of the family house, it also becomes the place for worshipping the god of military and the storage of armaments.
1. Kinship Structure
Traditionally, the Tsou (Cou) people formed a sub-clan (lineage group) with several patrilineal families. Each sub-clan shares the same family name, the farms, the same fishing area, co-host the millet ceremonies, and shares the same family house in the hosa (grand community). In the family house, there are the sub-clan’s symbolic holy objects: ritual millet and animal bone racks. A sub-clan is the most basic kinship unit in Tsou society. Principal private property includes the houses (native family, split family, working house, warehouse, animal shelters) that are shared within a sub-clan, and the farmland and fishing grounds are also shared within a sub-clan. Sub-clans of close blood relationships will form a clan, with the first branch founder’s family as the native family, including the family name. Members within the same clan share the same farmland and hunting grounds before distributing to sub-clans. A clan is a marriage unit, i.e. intermarriage is not allowed in the same clan.
2. Family and Marriage
The Tsou society is patrilineal, and all children live with the father and the father’s family. On marriage, patrilocality is practiced, with the parents deciding on the marriage. Marriage by service is popular in traditional Tsou culture. In this system, the groom will need to help the bride’s family for some time after marriage. The length of service varies from one week to years. Today, marriage by service has extinguished.
3. Hosa (Grand Community) and Denohiu (Minor Community)
The hosa (grand community) identification is important to the tsou people. With one grand community as the center, a “Hosa (Grand Community)” is formed with several branches— denohiu (minor communities). The grand community is the earliest settlement formed. Due to farming, minor communities are formed around a grand community. However, the grand community is always the political, religious, and economic center. The Kuba (Male Assembly Hall) administered by the community chief is the political center of a grand community.
4. Kuba (Male Assembly Hall)
The Kuba (Male Assembly Hall) is the most important symbol of a grand community. It is the center for religious, political, and economic activities within the community. Major functions of the assembly hall include male education, community meetings, war assemblies, ritual training, hunting, and social gatherings. It is the venue for heritage, education, negotiation, and assembly, and a place for handling public affairs. Therefore, apart from being a community symbol, it hosts the war ritual held in the middle of the year and becomes an important cultural symbol of the Tsou people.
In the Tsou (Cou) culture, Hamo is the supreme God, ruling heaven and earth. There are hitsus (deities) of other areas, such as the Millet God, Rice God, Land God, Military God, and the Smallpox God. When daily life and supernatural power co-exist in harmony, everything goes smoothly and crop yields are high. Therefore, the Tsou people communicate with supernatural powers through the wizard/witch to resolve conflicts between daily life and supernatural powers. In the 1960s when the Tsou people generally accepted Western religions and changed crops from millet to rice, traditional ceremonies began to be neglected. As traditional ceremonies and festivals have regained their importance in recent years, they have become important events to bring together the ethnic group. Annual Tsou ceremonies are related to millet growth and harvest. The Homeyaya (Millet Harvest Festival) is held after the harvest every year. In addition, Tfuya and Tapang communities hold the Mayasvi (Triumph Festival, also called the War Ritual) in the middle of the year to pay their respects to history and pray for success and unity in future wars.
1. Homeyaya (Millet Harvest Festival) Dancing Performance at the Millet Harvest Festival The Homeyaya (Millet Harvest Festival) is held every year after the harvest to show appreciations to the Millet God and to bring community solidarity together. Every year when the harvest is about to take place, elders of each clan will determine the harvest time; make preparations for the festival, such as brewing wine, making glutinous cakes, and setting up the ritual shrine; and prevent evil spirits from invasion with the pear-leaf microglossa (Microglossa pyrifolia). On the ritual day, elders and people of every clan worship the deity with wine, meat, and glutinous cakes to thank for good harvest and say prayers for their family.
2. Mayasvi (Triumph Festival, also called War Ritual, Unity Ritual) Triumph Festival rituals and activities The Triumph Festival is a community ritual of the Tsou. It is held by the Tfuya community during January to March and by the Tapang community during August to October. It is a ritual worshipping the Heavenly God, the Military (War) God, Life God, and the spirit of decapitated people to pay their respects to the wars in the past, pray for victory in future wars, and rid bad luck and illness. In the War Ritual, the representatives of each family gather in the assembly hall. After receiving and worshipping deities, they will tour the forbidden shrine of each family. The Tsou people believe that the Heavenly God and War God will descend from the bayan trees by the assembly hall during the ritual. Therefore, members participating in the ritual will circle around the tree and sing the song of the Gods.