A Folk Legend: How the Saisiyat Indigenous Learned to Weave

Saisiyat ceremony | © CenkX / Wikimedia
Saisiyat ceremony | © CenkX / Wikimedia
Photo of Ciaran McEneaney
17 March 2017

As one of the smallest aboriginal groups in Taiwan, the Saisiyat, are eager to preserve their culture, traditions, and folklore. They do so with a variety of folk legends that tell the story of how they came to be and how they learned their crafts. One of their most popular tales is of how a dragon woman taught them the skill of weaving.

A long time ago when the world was young, a group of Saisiyat men went hunting in the mountains. It was on this trip that they came across a dragon lady who had risen from the ocean. She explained that her father had told her to come to them and so she prepared meals for the hunters.

They were impressed by this mysterious woman, and after taking her to the elders of the tribe, they decided that she should marry one of their young menfolk. The dragon lady agreed, and after the couple had married, she took her new husband and 10 of his close relatives to her home deep in the ocean.

When they arrived, the Saisiyat were stunned by the beautiful furnishings this dragon lady had in her home. She had intricately woven carpets, wall hangings, and beautiful embroideries, all of which she claimed to have made herself.

Of course, the Saisiyat were impressed and upon their return to the mountains decided that they would ask the dragon lady to teach them her craft. She agreed without hesitation, and so the first generation of Saisiyat weavers learned their skills. They, in turn, taught the next generation, but the dragon lady noticed that they kept some of the knowledge to themselves. She decided to teach the younger students herself.

Hand Weaving | © Unsplash / Pexels

After a time, the younger students’ skills improved so much that the dragon lady announced a contest between the two sets of students. The younger students easily beat the elder folk, and there was much bickering and discontent.

So unhappy were the older generation that they started to spread rumors about the dragon lady which upset her a great deal. She then decided that if she was so unappreciated, that she would leave and return to the ocean. But before leaving she gave them the promise that after she left they would never again learn a new skill even if they wanted to.

It’s a story that is still told to the young tribe members, however, as lovely as the story is, the Saisiyat actually learned their weaving skills from a pygmy-like people known as the Taai. This cave-dwelling tribe welcomed the Saisiyat to the mountainous region they now call home, and taught them how to farm, weave, and hunt. Unfortunately, a rift between the tribes led to the extermination of the Taai at the hands of the Saisiyat, and now every two years a special ceremony called Pas-taai takes place to commemorate the people slain and appease their spirits.

Today the tribe still value their weaving skills so much so that a woman is not considered a woman until she can weave. In fact, as the men will tattoo their faces in honor of their hunting skills so too will the women tattoo theirs according to how skilled they are at weaving. However, this tradition is dying out as the younger generations feel that facial tattoos will see them thought of as odd in modern Taiwanese society.

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