The Thao people mainly reside in Ita Thao (Barawbaw) Village, Yuchi (Qabizay) Township, Nantou County, and Dapinglin Settlement, Shuili Township, Nantou County. Currently, the Thao population is around 817 people (as of January 2020).
The Thao people living in Ita Thao Village still preserve the traditional Thao belief of the ancestral spirit and worship the ulalaluan (ancestral spirit basket) in the house as a physical symbol of existence of the ancestral spirit. Major traditional Thao rituals and ceremonies include the Azazak Pulako (Sowing Ritual) in March, the Mulalu Matansun Pintuza (Hunting Ritual) in July, and the Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual) in August. Agricultural rituals and ceremonies reflect the correlations between seasonal changes and the lifestyle of Thao people. At the hunting ritual, Thao people make glutinous rice cakes in the form of an eel as an offering to show their respect for hunting and fishery in the culture. The Ancestral Ritual in August is the most important and solemn ceremony. In addition, Thao people adopt the lunar calendar.
The demonym, Thao, meaning “people”, of the Thao people was introduced by Japanese scholars during Japanese colonization. It is said that the ancestors of the Thao people originally settled in Jianan Plain. When entering the Central Mountain Range during hunting, they accidentally found a rare white deer. After chasing it for days to what is today’s Tutingzi (Puzi), the white deer immediately jumped into the Sun Moon Lake. The Thao people stopped and found that it was a fertile place with many fishes, suitable for farming, hunting, and fishing. Therefore, they brought other Thao people to settle there. Lalu (formerly called Guanghua Isle, Zhuzi Isle) is the supreme ancestral spiritual place to the Thao people in the Sun Moon Lake area. In the Qing dynasty, the place was called “Shuishalian”, there were Tou (Shtafari) Village, Shui Village, Maolan Village, Shenlu Village, Pu Village, and Mei Village, collectively they were called the “Shuishalian 6 Villages”.
During over 200 years of the Qing dynasty, as the Han immigrants sought land and the government implemented the wilderness cultivation and forest development policies, the original Thao territory was divided and reduced, and their influence in Shuishalian gradually disappeared. During Japanese colonization, some Thao people continued to settle in Ding (tao) Village, Neiaozi Village, Shiyin Village, Shuiwei Village, Shui Village, and Maolan Village. When the area was flooded after the construction of the Sun Moon Lake hydroelectric power plant, the Thao people were forced to migrate to Ita Thao (Barawbaw) Village. In addition, thanks to the colonial government’s tourism promotion, Sun Moon Lake, the Thao tourism and the pounding performance have become one of the “Eight Wonders of Taiwan”.
Colonial prohibition was abolished since the R.O.C government took the reign, and many Han people moved and engaged in commerce there, the Han population started to increase . To improve local living quality, the government implemented urban re-zoning in the region in 1983. As a result, more land of the Thao people was split and expropriated for more business groups to purchase lands and build hotels there. The Thao people who had been living there for generations were forced to face the competition from the Han people and financial groups with commercial advantages. The Thao ancestors came from the Jianan Plain and Alishan Mountain. Ethnologically, they were classified as a branch of the Tsou people. Due to the significant differences in language, religion, and life ceremonies, the Thao people have striven for demographic rectification. After their long-time efforts, the government eventually recognized the ethnic group as the 10th indigenous group called the Thao in Taiwan in 2001. Currently, the Thao people are settled in Ita Thao (Barawbaw) (Sun Moon Village) in Yuchi (Qabizay) Township in Nantou County and Dapinglin Settlement (Taypina wa Thaw, Dingkang Village) in Shuili Township. There are also Thao people migrating to cities like Taichung and Taipei.
1. Industry and Food
Through early contact with other ethnic groups, “upland rice” and “rice” have become the staple food of the Thao people during the farming period. Non-staple food includes the sweet potato, taro, peanuts, corn, and wild edible plants and fruits. In addition to hunting, fishing is an important food source of the village and families. As Sun Moon Lake has rich seafood output, the Thao people cure their catch for preservation, making cured seafood one of the Thao specialty foods. Today, Ita Thao (Barawbaw) Village has become a famous tourism spot, and no farming is practiced anymore. Except for homegrown vegetables and seasonal bamboo sprouts, most Thao people engage in the tourism business and catering service.
Traditional Thao men’s and women’s clothing. (Women holding a pestle.) In the Qing dynasty, the “Dagobum” cloth of the Thao people earned fame, as recorded in the Imperial Qing Portraits of Periodical Offering. Dagobum is a cloth knitted with flax yarn and dog fur. Influenced by trade and exchange, the Thao people have switched to cotton fabrics of higher availability. Traditional men’s Thao clothing is made of leather, linen, and bark, including the leather headgear, headwear, chest wear, vest, skirt, breech-less trousers, and leather shoes. Traditional women’s Thao clothing is made of linen and cotton, including the headscarf, top covering, chest wear, skirt, waist belt, knee coverings, and floral headgear. Dark brown, light brown, blue, grey, and black are the common colors of Thao attire, and geometric patterns are common.
◎ Shipbuilding: Early Thao people emptied an entire tree to make a canoe, which was the principal vehicle for external transportation. Public canoes for a maximum of 5-6 passengers are for servicing kinsmen, while canoes for family use or fishing are smaller, for a maximum of 2 passengers. After the restoration of Taiwan, logging is prohibited, and the traditional technique of making canoes by emptying trees is rarely seen and nearly extinct. Today, canoes are made of patched wood boards.
◎ Poundings: On the last night of every July on the lunar calendar, women of the village perform the “Masbabiar” (Pounding) ritual at the home of Chief Shinawanan family. It also calls men hunting in the mountain: the Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual) and Harvest Festival are coming, it’s time to come home. Pounding owes its origin to the early agricultural period. When Thao people unhusk grains with the pestle, the poundings form a pleasant sound and become a natural melody. Gradually, this has become a performance. Today, at Sun Moon Lake where tourism is thriving, the pounding is still a famous performance and one of the must-see sights of visitors.
◎ Hanan (ancestral shrine): If a member of the tribe wishes to be the pariqaz (ritual master) for the Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual) in August on the lunar calendar every year, the New Year’s celebration will be long, and the ancestral ceremony will last for over 20 days. If no one wishes to be the ritual master, the New Year’s celebration will be short, and the ancestral ceremony will last for only 4-5 days. In a long celebration, the Thao people will build a hanan (ancestral shrine) as an important ritual. The ancestral shrine with an area of about 10m2 is built with local materials, such as bamboo, wood, and thatch, and decorated with grains and animal bones. Thao people will put wine jars and quilts inside the shrine and make a fire at the stove to warm the ancestral spirits. In the middle of the ceremony, elders of the Shtamarutaw and Shkahihian families will take people to welcome the pathalar (supreme ancestral spirit) to the ancestral shrine. Women are not allowed to touch the shrine. During the ritual, people will sing and dance folksongs and folkdances in front of the shrine every night. During their menstruation and pregnancy, women cannot enter the shrine. After the ritual, the shrine will be demolished immediately. Therefore, the shrine is a temporary ritual structure.
◎ Family House: About 100 years ago, traditional Thao family houses had a rectangular layout, with a tripod stove at the center. The family house has a grass gable roof, bamboo woven double-layer exterior walls, and a barn inside, integrating daily life with farming. When building a traditional family house, Thao people would form a labor group with both genders to finish the job. After collectively migrating to what is today’s Ita Thao (Barawbaw) Village during Japanese colonization, the Thao people were deeply influenced by the Han people, including the style of family houses. The Han people used to build houses with clay bricks and tiles. After the restoration of Taiwan, they began to build houses with reinforced concrete and corrugated metal panels. Regardless of the evolution of building styles, from the past to the present, the Thao people will have the shinshii (female priest) worship the ulalaluan (ancestral spirit basket) after the completion of a new house to invite the ancestral spirits to move into the new house.
1. Kinship Organization Thao society is a patrilineal society. Intermarriages between clans were observed. In early days, they usually married within the same clan. In recent years, marriage across clans is becoming increasingly popular. In addition to being a marriage unit, the clan is also a kinship unit. In general, a clan is formed by people carrying the same family name. They are usually members of different worship groups playing different roles in rituals. The Thao people adopted seven Han surnames: Shinawanan, Shkatafatu, Shkapamumu, Shkahihian, Shtamarutaw, Shapit, and Shtanakjunan. Each is a transliteration or translation of the corresponding Thao surname in the Thao language. For example, Shinawanan means circular, and they picked a character with the same sound as “circle” in Mandarin Chinese; Shkapamumu means strong, and they picked the declination “mumu” and transliterated it in Mandarin Chinese.
2. Ita Thao Organization The Thao people still maintains a dual-chief system. Today, it is the Shinawanan and Shkatafatu families. The chiefdom is inherited, and a chief helps settle disputes among people and implement the resolutions made by the community meeting and the elder council. In annual ceremonies, the chief is the ritual master.
Although the Thao people began contact with other ethnic groups very early, they still firmly uphold apu, the ancestral spirit belief, and follow all rituals of passage. The Thao people also accept the religions of other ethnic groups, such as Daoism of the Han people and Christianity of the Western culture. Therefore, they have Daoist deity statues, the cross or crucifix, and the ulalaluan (ancestral spirit basket) at home, presenting a polytheistic phenomenon.
1. Ancestral Spirit Religion and Ancestral Spirit Basket Clothes and Ornaments of Ancestors in the ulalaluan (Ancestral Spirit Basket). The ancestral spirit is the core belief of the Thao people. There are the pathalar (supreme ancestral spirit) and clan ancestral spirit. The supreme ancestral spirit is a male deity living in a bishop wood (Bischofia javanica) on Lalu Island, while the clan ancestral spirit is the primogenitor of the clan. Believing in the existence of ancestral spirits, every Thao family keeps an ulalaluan (ancestral spirit basket) at home containing the clothes and ornaments of ancestors. The Thao people used to hang the ancestral spirit basket on the wall on the left- or right-hand side of the house. Today, Thao people believing in Daoism put the ancestral spirit basket in place of or next to the ancestor tablet on the family altar. Traditionally, Thao people worship the ancestral spirit basket with offerings including rice wine, rice, and rice cakes (mochi) during traditional rituals. In addition, Thao people must hire the shinshii (female priest) to worship the ancestral spirit basket at home in all rituals of passage, including birth, aging, illness, and death; relocation; buying a car; and other bits and pieces in daily life. Apart from reporting to the ancestors, Thao people pray for good luck from ancestors through worshipping the ancestral spirit basket.
◎ Shinshii (Female Priest) The “Shinshii (Female Priest)” is responsible for worshipping the ulalaluan (ancestral spirit basket). She is the medium between people and ancestral spirits, serves both the supreme ancestral spirit and clan ancestral spirit, and directs annual ceremonies and other rituals. To Thao people, culture and language are the most important heritages. Currently, there are five female priests in the Ita thao (Barawbaw) community. The female priest is a permanent post, and the workload is very heavy. As the permanent priest of the village, every female priest must comply with the conditions including (1) married and they have children, (2) being the master of the Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual), and (3) the husband is alive and they have a son. With such, a female priest can pass the ritual of the supreme ancestral spirit on Lalu Island to become a true female priest.
2. Lus’An (Clan Ancestral Ritual) The Ita Thao (Barawbaw) village of Sun Moon Lake was formed by different clans from different areas. On June 25 on the lunar calendar every year, the descendants of each clan must worship the spirit of their primogenitor at the place of origin. Currently, the family of chiefs Shinawanan and Shkatafatu still worship their ancestors according to the tradition by taking a boat to their place of origin. When the boat is about 500m away from the place, the chief begins to call the name of each ancestor along the lake’s shore. When arriving at the ritual place, he invites the ancestral spirit with distiller’s grains. After removing the shells, he puts eggs on the altar and hangs the wine in the pot on the tree trunk for the apu (ancestral spirit).
3. Hunting Ritual and Eel Ritual On July 1 every year, the Thao people will conduct the Mulalu Matansun Pintuza (Hunting Ritual) to pray for a good catch from the ancestral spirit. People will leave their ancestral spirit basket in the family of chiefs Shinawanan and Shkatafatu. The female priest performs the ritual. In the middle of the ancestral spirit basket ritual at the Hunting Ritual, the female priest will finish eating the chicken used in the ritual and throw the bones in the ditch for the water to carry them away. Otherwise, hunting dogs that eat them will become lazybones and will not catch the preys. At the Mulalu Matansun Tuza (Eel Ritual) in July 3, every member must prepare glutinous rice cakes in the form of an eel as the offering, marking out the importance of fishing and hunting in Thao culture. In addition, as the white eel in Sun Moon Lake is very tough, people also pray to be strong as the white eel to the ancestral spirit. In the morning, the ritual ends. In the afternoon, people cut the eel-shaped rice cakes (mochi) into halves. Each family will take the head back home and leave the tail for the chief of the above two families. At night, all people will go to the family of chiefs Shinawanan and Shkatafatu to have wine and share the eel-shaped rice cakes used in the ritual.
4. Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual) The Thao Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual, Thao New Year) begins on August 1 on the lunar calendar. The presence of the pariqaz (ritual master) determines the length of celebration. A short celebration (without a ritual maser), usually from August 1-4, will end after the female priest worships the ancestral spirit basket and every family drinks wine. In a long celebration (with a ritual master), the Thao people build the hanan (ancestral shrine) on August 4 and sing and dance in front of it every night led by the elders of the Shkahihian and Shtamarutaw families. The celebration lasts for one month. The role and responsibility in each activity of the elders of each clan are determined by the elder’s council. Based on the ritual agenda, the five important stages include the masbabiar (pounding), titisan (cleansing), trap making, ancestral shrine building, and smayla (walking through).
◎ Masbabiar (pounding) On the last night of July on the lunar calendar, women of the village perform the “Masbabiar (pounding)” and hitting bamboo sections at the home of the chief of the Shinawanan family to call men working far away and hunting in the mountains to come home for the reunion. Women pound to call men to come home for the reunion Thao men join the titisan (cleansing) at the Shkapamumu (priest) family’s house.
◎Titisan (cleansing) All men gather in front of the Shkapamumu (priest) family for the cleansing. Elders also discuss the Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual) of the year. The cleansing is a man-only activity. The female priest will worship the ancestral spirit basket in front of the Shkahihian family. After the group ceremony, the female priest will worship the ancestral spirit basket at each family. In the evening, all members of the village will drink at the Shkapamumu (priest), Shinawanan (chief), and Shkatafatu (chief) family’s houses.
◎ Trap Making Elders take youth to the mountains and teach them how to make hunting traps. The female priest will worship the ancestral spirit with shupak (sweet distiller’s grains) in front of the Shkahihian (elder) family house. This is the important day to determine the ritual master. After the ritual, people begin to drink at the Shtamarutaw (elder) family's house and continue at each family’s house. They also thank the female priest for her service in the year.
◎ Ancestral Shrine Building If a ritual master is determined, there will be a long celebration, and people will build the hunan (ancestral shrine) in front of the Shkahihian (elder) or Shtamarutaw (elder) family’s house (to be determined by the elder’s council). The female priest will bless the process.
◎ Smayla (walking through) After building the hunan (ancestral shrine), people gather in front of the Shtamarutaw (elder) and Shkahihian (elder) family’s houses in turn. Elders will lead the singing and teach young people the songs and dances for the ritual. The ancestral ceremony songs are sacred and must not be sung on ordinary days. The agenda of the ceremony is as follows: Shmaila (First Half, August 5-10): People sing for the ancestral spirit. Minfazfaz (Middle Section, August 11): Welcome the pathalar (supreme ancestral spirit) to the hunan (ancestral shrine). Manqatubi (Parade): People walking around the village (August 12-21). Inspection of the pathalar (supreme ancestral spirit) of all families (August 22-23). Demolition of the ancestral shrine (August 28). The Minrikus (Final Ritual) is the most wonderful part of the long celebration. People sing and dance all night and set off fireworks. Both the Han people and visitors are very excited to join the event. After every family in the village finishes the blessing by the pathalar (supreme ancestral spirit), it is nearly noon on the next day. A few days later, after worshiping the ancestral shrine to send the ancestral spirit away, the female priest will demolish and burn the ancestral shrine to complete the whole Ancestral Rituals.