Drive launched in township to preserve aboriginal witchcraft

Kaohsiung, Sept.17 (CNA) A drive to preserve aboriginal Paiwan witchcraft has been launched in a small township in Taiwan's southernmost county of Pingtung, indigenous community sources said Thursday.
Wong Yu-hua, head of the social affairs section of the Chunrih township government who hails from a so-called Paiwan witch family, initiated the campaign a year ago as she is worried that her tribe's unique spiritual culture would fade and die soon.
According to Wong, witches, pronounced as Pulingau in Paiwan language, have traditionally enjoyed high status in aboriginal communities. But the assimilation of alien religious beliefs and changes in lifestyles and habits in tribal settlements over the past decades have led to a fast disappearance of this special culture, she said.
"Nowadays there are only fragmented and disorganized records of the craft," Wong sighed.
Up to half a century ago, Wong said, there were still more than 100 aboriginal witches in Pingtung County alone. "Today, there are fewer than 20 in the county," she said.
In the absence of written records, witchcraft mantras are passed on orally and the number of people who know them has been shrinking, according to Wong.
"We now can piece together the details of original witchcraft rituals from the recollections of our tribal elders and surviving witches, " Wong said, adding that it often takes several months of hard work to revive something like a 10-minute rite soliciting divine blessings.
An even bigger challenge lies in fighting against entrenched social customs and thinking, Wong said.
Traditionally, Wong said, a career in witchcraft is inherited on the strength of bloodlines that lead back to witch families and ancestors.
Wong said her mother, who is one of the only four surviving aboriginal witches in Chunrih township, is opposed to the idea of starting a class to teach witchcraft to young aspirants.
"My mother said ritual mantra cannot be passed on in this way because only those who come from sorceress families have the spiritual power to learn witchcraft. She believes that, otherwise, our ancestors would make their power felt by boycotting the teaching program," Wong said.
According to Wong, she patiently explained to her mother the impending possibility that aboriginal witchcraft would die out and would be replaced by alien religious rituals.
In the end, her 87-year-old mother and three other surviving witches in the town, all in their 70s, finally agreed to open a witchcraft class as part of the township's community college courses since July 2008.
Every Tuesday and Friday evening, the four elders take turns at the town's senior citizens' activity center to give lectures on mantras and Paiwan festival rituals. There are also practical and field study sessions to teach the students the mysterious and fascinating rites of witchcraft, Wong said.
The class originally had 15 students, but the number has declined to 10 this semester. Most of the students are Paiwan aborigines, but there are also some Han people who are interested in the missing mystery of tribal cultures, Wong said.
She recalled that when she was a child, there were many witches taking part in the harvest festival celebrations.
"Those occasions were boisterous, colorful and joyful. Nowadays, there is usually just one elderly witch performing the rituals. I'm often overwhelmed by nostalgia at those ceremonies," she added.
In light of the current situation, Wong said, she initiated the campaign to revive the Paiwan witchcraft culture through such means as the teaching sessions.
"I hope that for the rest of my life I can see young witches regain prominence on festive occasions and at special rituals, for the rest of my life," Wong said.
Sung Wen-sheng is the only male student in the witchcraft class.
But Sung, a township council member, said he does not plan to practice witchcraft.
"My purpose is to become familiar with the details of tribal rituals and to pass on the culture to younger generations, " he explained.
Sung recalled that his late aunt was also a witch who was often consulted on various domestic matters, including relocation and health issues.
"In addition performing ancestral worship and religious rituals, my aunt was often asked to perform witchcraft whenever family members or tribal townsfolks fell ill. Since childhood, I had been awed by her magical powers and I hope to learn what her mantras meant, " he said.
(By Sofia Wu)