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Taiwan aborigines pass on witchcraft tradition
By Cindy Sui
BBC News, Taiwan
It is not the Harry Potter kind of witchcraft, but it's equally spellbinding, say elders in Taiwan's Paiwan tribe.
The indigenous tribe has recently started a class to train young people in the traditional skills of witchcraft.
The centuries-old traditions have diminished due to modernisation, the influence of other religions and assimilation into mainstream society.
The Paiwan is one of 14 aboriginal tribes that have lived on the island for thousands of years, long before the majority Chinese arrived.
Taiwan's aborigines are considered Austronesians, with similar language and customs to people living in the Pacific Islands.
Witchcraft is an important ancient ritual for the Paiwan. Witches - or mediums as they are sometimes called here - treated diseases, prayed for the community, blessed people and protected them from evil.
"In the past, mediums had a high status in the tribe," said Weng Yu-hua, who spearheaded the opening of the class and whose mother is a tribal witch.
"They played an important role, especially during major occasions such as before a hunting excursion, before the year's crops were planted, or when the tribe mourned the death of one of its members," she said.
Half a century ago, the Paiwan tribe had more than 100 practitioners of witchcraft, but the tradition has nearly died out with the spread of Christianity. Now the tribe has fewer than 20 witches.
This year, Ms Weng managed to obtain funding from the government's Council of Indigenous Peoples to run the class.
The class was opened in a Paiwan village in Pingtung County, where most Paiwan live. It has more than 10 students - housewives in their 30s to 50s.
Lessons involve teaching students how to seek guidance from the gods and communicate with the souls of deceased ancestors.
"I took the class because my paternal and maternal grandmothers were both spirit mediums," said Djupelang Qrudu, a 51-year-old student in the class who preferred to use her Paiwan name.
"They wanted to pass their skills to me, but because of Western influence and the fact that I wanted to go to school, I had no chance to learn from them before they died."
Paiwan children of Djupelang's generation went to Christian schools opened by missionaries because there were no schools in their villages.
"I went to Friday evening Bible study or Sunday school, but I did not bother to learn my own tribe's religion," she said.
Later, Djupelang had marital problems, divorced, fell ill and had to quit her job. She returned to her home village and sought advice from a witch.
"The witch told me I was chosen by my grandmothers to inherit their craft. They chose me among all the girls in my family. That's when I realised I could not forsake my true calling," said Djupelang.
But no classes were available until now.
The teachers are elders in their 70s and 80s who want to pass on their skills.
Chanting and leaves are used to help the witches connect with the other world.
There are specific chants for each occasion. For instance, there is a chant to bless hunters, a chant to pray for a good harvest and a chant to invite the various gods and the souls of tribal ancestors to the village.
The Paiwan's religion involves many gods: the god of Dawu Mountain, their homeland in southern Taiwan; the god of agriculture; the mountain protector god; the life god, and more. The Paiwan also worshipped their ancestors.
"These mediums use chanting to call back the gods and ancestors to give the village strength," said Ms Weng.
The class, however, does not promise to instill psychic power in the students, but simply help discover it if it already exists in them.
Students in the class must have either had witches or shamans in their bloodline or be descended from village chiefs.
More classes are being planned, due to the first one's popularity.
But a major challenge for those who want to preserve the art of witchcraft is the lack of a Paiwan written language. All the witches' chants were memorised and passed on orally.
With the opening of the class, aboriginal people such as Ms Weng have begun recording the chants and transliterating them.
"We've only been able to note down about half the chants," she said. "The elders have difficulties chanting for a long time."
It will be an even greater challenge to pass the traditions down to the next generation, said student Djupelang.
"Young people might think this is superstition," she said, but added that during the recent deadly Typhoon Morakot, many Paiwan found comfort in the witches' prayer ceremonies.
"It's good we're rediscovering that our own religion can also offer us comfort in hard times," she said.