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[Tribal Experience] Heaven-Facing Lake

Visiting a Saisiyat Community in Miaoli County

Heaven Facing Lake

The Saisiyat, one of the smaller indigenous groups in Taiwan, live in the mountainous Nanzhuang area of Miaoli. This tribal people is best known for the Dwarf Spirit Ceremony, staged every two years by Xiangtian Lake. Every ten years a grand ceremony is staged – and this happens to be just such a year.

Text: Joe Henley
Photos: Maggie Song

In the highlands of Miaoli's Nanzhuang Township, at an elevation of just over 700 meters, sits the scattered collection of modest one- and two-story houses that is Donghe Village, a settlement that rises up a slope along a winding road lined by the likes of betelnut trees, windmill palms, and small garden plots.
The village is typical of many of Taiwan's somewhat isolated mountain communities, most reached by narrow, curving switchback roads agreeable only to those with a strong stomach and a knack for skillfully navigating tight corners.
Above the village is a basin framed on three sides by tree-covered mountain peaks. Today the basin bottom, thought to have once been marshland, is filled by an artificial lake. The Han Chinese who came here centuries ago called it Yangtian Lake; the name was later changed, after the arrival of the Nationalist government, to Xiangtian (“Heaven-Facing”) Lake. But in the language of the Saisiyat, the people who were there before Taiwan's recorded history, this place is rareme an, “the place of dye plants.”

The Saisiyat, like Taiwan’s other indigenous peoples, are possible descendants of prehistoric Iron Age peoples who settled in Taiwan sometime between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago and gradually spread throughout the island, though archaeological research has not revealed any proven connection.
According to one stream of scholarly thought, as these people split into different groups inhabiting regions separated by then near impassible mountainous terrain, they developed their own unique languages, spiritual beliefs, legends of origin, and customs. Today there are 16 recognized indigenous tribes in Taiwan, with the Saisiyat one of the smaller groups, counting just over 6,000 among the country's approximately 543,000-strong indigenous population.
Much like their population, the area the Saisiyat inhabit is quite small. They occupy an oblong sliver of land running southwest to northeast, crossing the border between Nanzhuang and Shitan townships in Miaoli County and Wufeng Township in Hsinchu County.
Rivers and streams have played a key role in the lives of the Saisiyat, who to this day largely live along or near the banks of the mountain arteries that have dictated their history. In the distant past, tribal alliances were known as aehae' ba la, which means “one river”; they were enacted to fight against intrusions from neighboring tribes, or to resolve conflicts surrounding disputed hunting grounds or access to the life-giving waterways themselves.

Fish dish at Beautiful Coffee Villa
Fish dish at Beautiful Coffee Villa
Walu Industrial Center
Walu Industrial Center
The modern history of Taiwan has been one of colonization and re-colonization, a pattern traced back to the Dutch attempt of the early- to mid-17th century through to the more recent Japanese colonial era ended by the cessation of World War II. No population has suffered greater indignities and collective loss of identity during these colonial incursions than Taiwan's indigenous peoples. Time and time again they have been persuaded, by means both peaceful and violent, to vacate their ancestral lands under the capricious banner of “pacification.”
Today, however, efforts are ongoing to preserve the ways of the past through educational initiatives surrounding the revival of tribal languages and ceremonies, as well as promotion of reverence for sacred sites and lands.

For the Saisiyat, these efforts center around Xiangtian Lake. The grounds next to the lake are the hallowed place of Pasta'ay, or the Dwarf Spirit Ceremony, the tribe’s most important ritual. The ritual is traced to the legend of the Taai, or “short people,” who are said to have bestowed their knowledge of agriculture, medicine, and spiritual worship on the Saisiyat.
According to the tale, the Saisiyat and the Taai lived in harmony for a time, until the Taai were accused of improprieties with Saisiyat women. They were subsequently attacked by their erstwhile allies, with most killed, the survivors cursing the Saisiyat to suffer from annual famine and other catastrophe.
Since those times, the Saisiyat have held the Pasta'ay ritual to appease the spirits of those they killed, summoning their spirits with song and dance for offerings of food and drink, then sending them away, their rage placated, the Saisiyat having earned their freedom from the strife of nature and the vengeful spirits at its reins. Small Pasta'ay rituals are held once every two years, with larger events taking place once a decade on the 15th day of the 10th lunar month. The next larger ceremony will be this autumn.

Shop in Nanzhuang
Shop in Nanzhuang
DIY activity at 738 Café
DIY activity at 738 Café
Next to the Pasta'ay grounds is the Saisiyat Museum, housing a collection of over 300 artifacts, including tools, pottery, and traditional clothing. Two short films are screened in the museum's theater at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. The first (Mandarin with English subtitles) provides a brief introduction to the museum and the history of the Saisiyat. The second (Saisiyat or English with Mandarin subtitles) is a cartoon telling the story of the Daughter of Thunder, who descended to Earth to help the Saisiyat develop their long-held ties to the millet crops from which they make both food and drink.
On the ground floor of the museum, with a patio overlooking Xiangtian Lake, is the 738 Café (named for the lake's elevation), a place to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea, a snack or a meal, or perhaps to engage in one of the DIY activities. Patrons are invited to don traditional tribal clothing (vests and head coverings for men, blouses and headbands for women), in the colors red, black, and white, respectively signifying passion, purity, and a reminder of the taboos of tribal society. The cafe's owner, a locally renowned artist, will then guide you through the making of blossoms fashioned from thin pieces of rattan.

By the museum is a concrete path, which runs around the circumference of the small lake, leading over an arched bridge, then by another small café, the Beautiful Coffee Villa, where moderately priced food and drink are also available along with a pleasant view of lilies and their broad pads growing in the shallow waters.
Walking around the lake to the end opposite the museum café will take you to old homes inhabited by the lake's few remaining year-round residents, and to the village market, less an actual place of commerce for the people living there than a spot for tourists to purchase locally-made products such as honey, sausages, and camellia oil.

Down the mountain, a few minutes away from the lake by car along County Highway 21, is the Walu Industrial Center. “Walo,” the Saisiyat name for Donghe Village, means “honey” or “sweetness.”). The building in which the center is housed is a former police station, constructed by the Japanese in 1924, which functioned as such until the late 1980s. Today it is a place where local culture and the arts are promoted, with products made by local artists available for sale, as well as snacks and drinks such as mae'aew honey water or coffee, infused with touches of lemon and ginger.
After stopping at the center, it's a short drive further down the mountain and across Nanzhuang Bridge to Nanzhuang Old Street, a place to stock up on local snacks and treats, and also to acquaint yourself with an approximation of life in an old town as it was decades ago.

Walu Industrial Center
Walu Industrial Center
Xiangtian Lake
Xiangtian Lake
Getting There
To get to Nanzhuang Township and the Xiangtian Lake area, take a train from Taipei Railway Station to Zhunan (1.5 hours). From Zhunan Railway Station take a Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus plying the Nanzhuang Route ( to Nanzhuang Visitor Center. There, take a bus on the Xiangtian Lake Route ( to Xiangtian Lake. A 1-day pass for the Nanzhuang, Xiangtian, and also the Xianshan routes costs NT$150, and you can switch between the routes as many times as you like. It takes around 50 minutes to reach Xiangtian Lake from Zhunan Railway Station.

For more information on enjoying your Miaoli tribal experience, check out

Saisiyat Museum (賽夏族民俗文物館)
Add: No. 25, Xiangtian Lake, Neighborhood 16, Donghe Village, Nanzhuang Township, Miaoli County (苗栗縣南庄鄉東河村16鄰向天湖25號)
Tel: +886-37-825-024
Hours: 9am ~ 5pm (closed on Mondays)
Admission: NT$30

738 Café (738 文創餐坊)
Add: No. 25, Xiangtian Lake, Neighborhood 16, Donghe Village, Nanzhuang Township, Miaoli County (苗栗縣南庄鄉東河村16鄰向天湖25號)
Tel: +886-37-823-922

Beautiful Coffee Villa (南庄向天湖咖啡民宿)
Add: No. 26, Xiangtian Lake, Neighborhood 16, Donghe Village, Nanzhuang Township, Miaoli County (苗栗縣南庄鄉東河村16鄰向天湖26號)
Tel: +886-37-825-559

English and Chinese
Daughter of Thunder 雷女
Donghe Village 東河村
Dwarf Spirit Ceremony 矮靈祭
Nanzhuang Bridge 南庄橋
Nanzhuang Old Street 南庄老街
Nanzhuang Township 南庄鄉
Saisiyat 賽夏族
Shitan Township 獅潭鄉
Walu Industrial Center 瓦祿產業文物館
Wufeng Township 五峰鄉
Xiangtian Lake 向天湖
Yangtian Lake 仰天湖

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