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Lee Hung-Fu

Dance in ritual context: The Mlisin ritual in Amis village of Makutaai, Eastern Taiwan.

Lee Hung-Fu (Taiwan): Dance in ritual context. The Mlisin ritual in the Amis village of Makutaai, Eastern Taiwan", 14th International Congress on Dance Research, Aridaia, Greece, 13-17/9, 2000.

1. Introduction

During conducting fieldwork in Taiwan in 1993, I traveled along the East coast and visited six of the Ami’s villages to participate in their annual festivals. I found that the participants in the annual festival in these villages were very few (about 50-100 persons), except in the Makutaai village, which had over 200 participants joining the annual festival. Also, all of the five other villages hung two different kinds of flags in front of the main entrance of their villages. One of the flags represented a welcome for outsiders attending the event, and the other one was the National flag of Taiwan. It seemed to me that today, the annual festival held by these five villages attempted to attract more tourists and represented a cultural activity of the government.

However, while I visited the Makutaai village, I noticed that both flags failed to hang on the dance plaza and over 200 villagers attended the mlisin. I also discovered, by chance, that a film company, commissioned by The Taiwan National Museum of Natural Science, was recording the village annual festival. To record a complete document, the village attempted to revive and perform their traditional festival in full. I was impressed by these factors and became interested in finding out the purpose for the Makutaai village to hold the mlisin.

My observations and participation in mlisin, as well as my interviews with elderly informants, suggest that the participants are not concerned with the religious significance of the festival. Instead, singing and dancing have become the focal point and the most important activities within the festival. Nevertheless, the mlisin dance, the highlight of the festival, continues to have significant meaning for the village people. Once, the dance was a symbolic means of communication with their gods, but now the village people seem to practice the festival and hold the dance primarily to bring their community together and to entertain visitors. In particular, the dance provides a symbolic arena in which the males enact their political authority through the age-set system.


2. The island

Taiwan is also known as Formosa, a beautiful island. It lies between Japan and the Philippines, situated off the southeaster coast of mainland China, separated from Fukien province by the Taiwan Strait. It is a small island approximately 246 miles long from north to south and 90 miles wide at its broadest point from west to east. It is known as a mountainous country; nearly two-thirds of the island is mountainous. Geographically, Taiwan has six distinct regions: 1) the north mountains, 2) the northern foothills and basins, 3) the western foothills and plains, 4) the southern foot-hills and plans, 5) the central mountain range, and 6) the eastem mountains and basins. The central mountain range stretches from north to south and is important ethnologically because it is believed by many indigenous people to be their ancestral home.

Today, the population of Taiwan is over 21 million and it is composed of two distinct ethnic groups, the Han and the indigenous people. The Han people are composed of Hokkien(yú^), Hakkah(¢[¶[), and other Chinese. The Hokkien people are the earliest Han immigrants from Fu-chien province, who occupy the plains area of the western coast. They represent about 70 percent of the total population. The Hakkah people came to Taiwan a little later, from Kuang- tung province, and inhabited the north hill area. They represent approximately 14 percent of the Taiwan population. The other Chinese who constitute a little over 14 percent, were followers of Ching Kai-shea and came to Taiwan from all provinces of China between 1945 and 1949. The remaining population of less than two percent are the indigenous people(Loh 1984:13) 0

The indigenous people

Before 1945, most Japanese scholars believed that the indigenous people in Taiwan came from the south through the Malaya Archipelago. However, post-1945 archaeological finds and anthropological studies have discovered diverse origins and migration routes: (1) from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan; and (2) from the Chinese mainland through Indo-China, Indonesia and the Philippines to Taiwan. They are believed to have begun inhabiting this island at least 3500 years ago. The indigenous people in Taiwan physically belong to Proto-Malaysian and linguistically belong to Malay-Polynesian. In terms of linguistic and physical characteristics, there are varied degrees of differences and similarities among the people that are necessary to identify individually.

The classifications

Under Ching rule (1683-1895) of Taiwan, the Chinese categorized the indigenous people into two groups: 1)Shan-fan(­uju), Ye-fan(Αju) or sheng-fan(q\ju), which means mountain savage, wild savage or raw savage respectively; and 2) Ping-p ufan (s^ÔWju), hua-fan("oju), or shou-fa (±qju) which mean plain savage, acculturated savage or cooked savage(Loh 1984:14).

This general classification is lack of scholarly perspective. It defined the indigenous people based on the areas of their residence, such as in the mountains or on the plain and depended on the degree of acculturation or adoption of the Chinese custom to identify them as wild or acculturated. It also depended on the manner of food consumption to categorize them as “raw” or “cooked” savages. As a matter of fact, some of the indigenous people living in the plain areas have adopted much of the Chinese Culture, while many others still keep their traditions. Therefore, It is improper to classify all the indigenous people who live in the plain as acculturated savage as p’ing-p’u or acculturated savage.

Systematic classifications for the Taiwan indigenous people by scholars began in 1899. According to linguistics, material cultural, mythology, physical-type, and religion, the number of divisions range from three to ten. The most widely accepted classification, adopted by the Institute of Ethnology-Academia Sinica, divided the indigenous people into nine tribes: 1) Atayal(ðlÅ–Ïe) 2) Saisiat(ýŒYÏe) 3) Bunun (^²Ïe) 4)Tsou(‘Ïe) 5) Rukai(o›ñQÏe) 6) Paiwan (’ccpÏe) 7) Puyuma(QSWSÏe) 8) Amis (?–Ïe) and 9) Yami (Å–Ïe)

The Amis

The population of Amis is the most numerous among the nine indigenous people in Taiwan. It numbered about 135,000 in1993, which is 40% of the total indigenous people in Taiwan. The Amis were first identified by Japanese scholars in 1899. The people were reported residing on the valleys, foothills and coasts of eastem Taiwan form Hualien to Taitung (Liu 1975:8-9). South of the Amis are the groups of Puyuma on the plain and Paiwan in the central mountains. The group to the west is Bunun in the central mountains, and to the north-west is Atayal.

According to cultural differences and geographical distribution, the Amis are formerly classified by ethnologists into five groups: 1) the Nan-shih Amis (Wâ). 2) Hsiu-ku-lan Amis(ÀdÒ). 3) Coastal Amis (wm¸\?– ). 4) Peinan (QSWS?–) Taitung Amis(ðSqg?– and 5) Heng-chun Amis (F`%f?– Yuan 1969a:8, Loh 1982:14).

Vinawian – The men’s age-set system

Following description of the men’s age-set system is according to both ethnographic reports and my informants. According to the village-chief and a previous record (Chang 1989:101), the men’s age-set system is termed vinawlan in contrast to the village – niaroh. Vinawlan is the term for a collection of male individuals and niaroh refers to a collection of households. The political organization of the tribe is based on the age-sets system, “with the men’s house serving as a sort of combined dormitory, military barracks, and club house” (Yuan 1969a: 135). The men’s age group can be viewed as composed of a number of name sets to differentiate the order of status.

Each set, Slal, in the young men’s age grade

Each set, slal, is a corporate group with members joining at the same time, and always acts as a unit in the men’s group. Members of the same set are referred to as ilay, age-mate, and they are obligated to attend each other’s marriages and other important events in their life circle. A set becomes extinct when all its members die.

Sets are ranked in order of age seniority. Each set moves as a unit toward higher grades or positions in the men’s group every three years. The senior set is privileged and has authority over the junior set. A set is always regarded as an unseparated unit. When commands or words are directed to and for in the men’s group activities, it is always a set name that is called or referred to. A personal name is seldom used in this context.

Each set has a representative, kakaililan. He is responsible for the execution of an order transmitted from the senior set. He is the eldest in his set. If one of his agemates disobeys an order, he does not have the right to execute punishment. Rather, he reports the case to his immediate senior set and they will make a proper judgment to punish this junior member. Jobs assigned to the young men’s grade are handed down set by set. Each set is not allowed to disobey a command from above, but has the privileges to order or command anything to anyone in his lower sets.

Mama No Kapax, the leader set in the young men’s grade

The eighth set, mama no kapax, acts as a leader set in the young men’s group. Its role is to link the elder and the young men’s age grade. The responsibility of this set during the mlisin is to consult with the elder grade by attending their meeting, to seek advice on affairs of the mlisin and to take responsibility for executing commands over the young men’s grade. Mama no kapax, the highest set in the young men’s age grade, takes criticism and is reprimanded from the elder grade, yet has absolute authority and command over the junior sets.

Traditionally, the members in the mama no kapax would meet together to make a proposal, then seek approval and comments from the elders through mapulun ku vinaolan, a procedure which is a required series of meetings with representatives of lower sets visiting representatives of higher sets step by step. For example, the upward movement started with mama no kapax, visiting representatives of their immediate higher set, which was the lowest set in the elder grade, for consultation on the affairs of the village. Then, the two lowest sets in the elder group visited representatives of the next higher set for further consolation and agreement, then continued upward in the same way. The series of meetings ended at the place of the kakitaan, the village chief, with all representatives from each set gathering together. Another important role of mama no kapax was described by one of the informants as the following; “When the chief was unable to attend the village meeting, the members in the mama no kapax had to host the meeting instead of being conducted by the elders.”

During my fieldwork, I noticed that innovations and modifications of village affairs and the annual festival were proposed and discussed during such a meeting. For example, the decision to modify the present annual festival into a “traditional” form, in terms of recording the event as a cultural property for National museums by an outside film company was made during such a meeting. Today, under the economic influence of the larger society of Taiwan, the original form of economic activity of the village has been changed. The village should be viewed as a semi-agricultural society at the present time because the real boundaries of the village subsume all the villagers working outside the village for wages or other forms of cash rewards. Most of the younger generations go to nearby urban centers to make their livings rather than to employ local agriculture, hunting and fishing as their major income in the village. I was told by the old informants, that the activities of agrarian rites before the mlisin were not being practiced now because planting millet or water rice was not their economic main concern.

According to the Tsun head, in order to explore the cultural and sight-seeing value of Eastern Taiwan, the local government requests each Amis village to set its ritual time between the beginning of June and the beginning of September. Since most of the younger generation lives in an urban environment, the date of the annual festival depends on their schedule. Through a meeting of the men’s age group, they finalize the date of the festival, based on when the youth are most available to come back to the village to attend the event. The final result also has to be sent to the Taiwan East Coast National Scenic Area Administration Tourism and written up in local newspapers for the public. The National Scenic Area Administration Tourism also posts many posters at local railroad stations, bus stops, and restaurants to promote the event to the tourists. The posters are illustrated with each Amis tribe’s schedule of the annual festival from the beginning of July to the beginning of Sept. A young informant told me: “The annual festival is like the new year holiday; I go back to my village and get together with my parents once a year”. As a result, at the present time, the mlisin can be regarded as an event of local government cultural activity and an opportunity for the village’s younger generation to have a family reunion.

Process of the Mlisin. The first day-Misavulats, pounding millet

The day before the festival, the young males of the village paid a fee of NT$300 each and the elder males paid a fee of NT$70 each toward the village fund for the annual festival. The money was collected by a representative of the sixth young set, malakatawai. If one of the household’s young was unable to come back to attend the event, the household was required to pay the absent fee of NT$300. The fund was used to purchase wine, cigarettes, betel nuts and soda that would be consumed by the village people during the festival period. Fees for the 243 young men and 78 older men totaled NT$78,360.

A meeting at 10 a.m. on the first day of the festival was called by the Tsun head through a loudspeaker. Because too many old men were absent from the meeting, it was postponed until 2 p.m. The members in the meeting were composed of the old men, the elder’s assembly, the Tsun head, the chief, two representatives from mama no kapax, and six representatives from each junior young set. They gathered at the community activity center which used to be the men’s house. A leader of the mama no kapax hosted the meeting. In the meeting, he reported the total amount of money collected and estimated how much money would be spent during the festival period. The estimated expenditures were written of red paper strips, read out loud and then stuck to the wall for presentation.

The elders started to discuss the matters of the annual festival. During the meeting, opinions were expressed by the sets in hierarchical order. First, they reviewed the problems of last year’s annual festival, such as the dance not beginning on time or a great number of the young males being absent. According to the village chief; “The key issue we discuss is that we hope the younger generation will go back to the village and participate in mlisin.” Another important discussion was that this year the Taiwan cultural ministry invited the village to perform the annual festival dance on the National Day. In the meeting, they discussed advantages and disadvantages of participating in the celebration. The meeting was not finished until 4 p.m..

At 5 p.m., both young sets, malakatsawai and tsivilatsai, were preparing to kill and cook a pig as breakfast for the men’s group who were dancing until 3:00 a.m., the next morning. The pig was purchased by the village fund from the local market. At 7 p.m., Catholic members attended Easter mass. A French Catholic father performed religious services for the Makutaai villagers, even though he resided in the neighboring village of Fon Pin. The followers put on traditional costumes, priests and nuns included, because the dancing began immediately after the mass. According to an old informant, they worshipped their ancestors by attending the mass, and also invited them to share their food after the ceremony as a sign of appreciation to them.

At 9:30 p.m., Easter mass was finished and the Catholic followers, both males and females, began dancing the mlisin dance in the church. Around 11 p.m., after they danced inside the church, hand by hand, toward the open ground in front of the church, their dancing ended. The lowest young set in the young men’s grade, milatonai, gathered at the dance ground in front of the Catholic church and cleaned the plaza at 11:30 p.m. The plaza was the only space for the villagers to hold the dance and their amusement activities during the festival period. At 12 a.m., the second lowest young set, palalanai, initiated the singing and dancing and then the other five young senior sets joined the dancing in order of seniority.

After all sets, except mama no kapax, formed a dance circle in front of the Catholic church, the seventh set, tsivilatsai, served as their leader to initiate song and dance steps for other junior sets to follow. Usually a song was repeatedly sung by all the sets, taking turns, at least once and sometimes more, if the senior set did not initiate another song. The mama no kapax, the highest set in the young men’s grade, participated in the dancing a bit later. They joined the dancing circle by placing themselves in front of their immediate junior set. Then, they became leaders in initiating the singing and the dance steps. Usually the more senior the male was, the later he could arrive. The sets in the elder grade joined the dancing in the same way as the mama no kapax. They were also entitled to initiate the singing of a song. Only the most senior set was exempt from obligation to dance, however, each of them was free to join the dancing whenever they wanted.

After about three hours of dancing, the men’s group dancing was stopped and a group meal was held. The cooked meat, rice, and soup were allocated into shares by tsivilatsai under the direction of mama no kapax. The tsivilatsai called each set’s name and the milatonai was in charge of delivering the food for each set. Each share was consumed by a set; the eating was thus carried out in their separate groups. Next, the village chief, kakitaan, officially announced the commencement of mlisin. The group eating finished at 4:30 a.m. and the dancing continued until 7:30 a.m. Between these times, some of the young and the elder members stopped dancing and returned to their home to sleep. The rest of the members continued to dance until dawn. These members were composed of the chief, Tsun head, two senior males from the elder representatives assembly, five members from the set of mama no kapax and twenty junior members in the young grade. At 7:30 a.m., the kakitaan announced that the first day of mlisin had ended and he held a meeting immediately behind the center of the dance grounds. The attendant included mama no kapax and representatives from each set of the elder grade. They formed a square sitting on four benches to listen to the chief speak. The content of the speech was, according to my translator: “The headmen appreciated the men’s age group in organizing the procedures of the festival and requested them to inform the absent younger generation to come back to the village and join mlisin”.

The second day-Misaruku, worship of spirits

The Tsun head expected the dancing to start at 4 p.m. and he hurried the males to the dance ground through the loudspeaker, repeating the announcement several times. The mama no kapax started to dance and the other lower young sets sporadically joined the dancing. A young informant told me; “I am reluctant to dance, because I have danced all day long and need to take a rest.” They danced intermittently, waiting for the other sets in the elder grade to join the dancing. After 6:30 p.m., most of the village men appeared, so the dancing ground was soon active. One person in the dance circle, usually a junior, presented wine to each person at the gathering, drinking one by one from the same cup.

At 8 p.m., a ceremonial event called pakomodan began. In this ceremony five young men were presented to the public as role models. They were selected from the sets of palalanai, miaawai, tsilumialai, malakatsawai and tsivilatsai and brought to the center of the dance ground by the leader of mama no kapax, where they were presented as model young men. According to my translator, they were spoken to by the chief, vice-chief and Tsun head in a very harsh manner without using negative words. Each of them was given a large can of wine to drink. This kind of performance connoted a meaning of training and encouragement to these young men. According to the Tsun head, traditionally big pieces of thick pig skin were given to these young men to bite into halves instead of wine. Beginning thirty years ago, this tradition was left out because the use of pig skin was considered to be uncivilized by the elders at that time.

At 9 p.m., the men’s group started to execute the “last dance”. I observed that it was a processional dance occurring in a counter-clockwise direction. The dance required vigorous energy, so that the bow movement made a feather on the cap touch the ground. When the dancing ended at 9:30 p.m., the young men’s grade was required to stay at the dance ground and a meeting was held immediately. The meeting was to criticize the young men’s grade performance on the second day of the festival. The way of criticism was followed by the hierarchical order of sets within the young men grade. Before the meeting, the junior sets prepared three long benches to form a square in the center of the dance ground. The highest young set sat on the center bench. The seventh upper set sat on the left bench and the sixth upper set sat on the right bench. The other junior sets sat on the ground in front of the mama no kapax, and the order of the sets was based on seniority from left to right. The senior sets were entitled to give talks to and share comments with the junior sets. If the performance of the junior sets did not satisfy the senior, they would be reprimanded or punished.

During the meeting, the members in the mama no kapax gave talks to encourage the junior sets to dance vigorously, to be proud of being Makutaai young men and to remember their cultural heritage. After all the members in mama no kapax, the eighth set, completed their speech and were dismissed automatically, the seventh set was allowed to move to the seats of the eighth set and to give comments to the rest of the lower sets. The rest of the sets followed the same action as the seventh set to move to the next higher seats. When all the senior sets in the young men grade were dismissed and only two junior sets were left, the meeting could be finished, and this usually occurred around 11:30 p.m.


The third day-Saajawa Bakumalan, the first day of dancing

The Tsun head made an announcement at 4 p.m., through the loudspeaker to the men’s group, asking them to go to the dance plaza to dance. On the third day, city emigrants, relatives and visitors from outside were invited to attend the festival. Whenever important figures arrived, they would be announced. At the same time, the dancers would sing more loudly and dance more vigorously to express a welcome to those visiting. Visitors, such as acquaintances, friends, businessmen, local civil servants, and political figures would usually contribute gifts in the form of either money or drinks. The contributions were also written on red paper strips and announced by mama no kapax through the microphone to the public. After all the contributions were collected, the announcement of the gifts began. At this point, the dancing was stopped and all the villagers clapped their hands, expressing their appreciation for the outsiders. The list of names included Chinese businessmen, Chinese neighbors, Amis shopkeepers, Amis government employees, teachers, news reporters, local policemen and Amis representatives from other countries and provinces, etc. It was an opportunity to express their relationship to the outside.

The men’s group ordered an abundant dinner at 6:30 p.m. from a local restaurant to welcome the visitors. The employees of the restaurant and the younger members set twenty round tables. The tables were arranged inside the dance ground with eight persons around a table. Only the village political figures such as the Tsun head, or the local representative, who worked in the governmental institutions, could both greet the visitors and take a seat to have dinner with the guests. The oldest in the men’s group was excused from the dancing to join the dinner with the visitors. The other sets of the men’s group continued the singing and dancing during the reception time. Because the females were forbidden to join the dancing and the dinner, they enjoyed the dancing either by standing or sitting outside the dance circle. The elder females would give betel nuts or water to the men’s group as a refreshing beverage while the males were dancing. When the men received the betel nuts from the elder women, they sang a prolong “hou” sound and stamp their right legs to the ground firmly as a way to express their appreciation to the women.

After the dinner was finished at 8 p.m., the outsiders, including males and females were invited to participate in the dancing. The villagers placed these visitors in a random order, instead of according to their age. The outsiders could stop or join the dancing whenever they wanted, but they had to stop dancing when the men’s group was ready to begin the “last dance”. However, it was not prohibited to take pictures or to use camcorders to record the dance while the men’s group was dancing. When the “last dance” reached its peak moment, the spectators clapped their hands expressing their enjoyment. After the men’s group finished the dance, the young men’s grade was required to stay at the dance ground and the same meeting as the night before was held immediately again.

The criticism of the junior sets’ performance on the third day was lighter than the performance on the second day of the festival, because they had improved in performing the dance and serving the elders. During the criticism, members in the eighth set, the seventh set, and the sixth set of the young men’s grade were conducted both in Amis and Mandarin languages to communicate with the other lower sets, because most of the younger males under thirty years old could not speak their native language fluently. In the meeting, the activities and the schedule for the next day were announced by mama no kapax. After the seventh and sixth sets completed their speech, the fifth sets, tsilumialai, held a singing competition to entertain the other junior sets rather than to give a serious speech. The singing competition was not finished until 12:00 a.m., the next day. On this day, the lowest young set in the young men group could not leaf the plaza while the seniors were still present. Their departure was only permitted by an order from a representative of mama no kapax.

The third day was also the last day for the men’s group to perform the dance. Some of the young men would return to their urban dwelling to work on the fourth day of the festival. I was told by a young informant (32 years old) that his boss did not want him to attend the festival. He requested five days off to join the festival, but his boss only gave him three days to go back to the village and participate in the festival.

The fourth day-Sekolaja Bakumalay, the second day of dancing

On the morning of the fourth day of the festival at 6:30 a.m., the lowest set, miavata, gathered at the dance ground and cleaned the plaza for the recreational competition activities of the young men’s grade. The activities took place at 8 a.m. and a temporary tent was built for the participants for resting or observing the recreation. The activities were divided into two types of competitions: casting a net to cover balls, and playing basketball. In the first game, each set assigned a representative to participate. The young men’s grade also designated a person to serve as a commentator to describe the game’s process for the participants. His description of the game as it progressed was quite humorous so the game was led in a comical atmosphere. The young men’s grade also offered a reward. NT$500, which came form the village fund, to the winning set. The second game was to play basketball. Other sets of miavatai, milatonai, palalanai, miaawai and tsilumialai played the game. The competition activities were finished at 11:30m a.m.

The fourth day of the festival was the first day for the females‘ group to dance. A leader of the females’ group, the vice-chiefs wife, made an announcement to the young girls and the elder women, requesting them to come to the dance ground at 5:00 p.m. After thirty minutes, she found both groups had still not appeared at the plaza, so she repeated the announcement several times and hurried them to the dance floor. At 5:00 p.m., three members’ form the senior sets in the elder grade initiated the singing and dancing. Then, the other women sporadically joined the dancing. When the women were all dressed ion colorful costumes in Amis style, the dancing ground was soon vibrant. The dance form was the same as the as the men’s group performance in the circle. Like the old men, the old women sat in the center of the circle to observe the dancing or chat with each other. The dancing did not stop until 9:30 p.m.

The fifth day-Paklan, go fishing

Paklan was a traditional way of ending a festival period by going fishing and eating the fish. This obligation was performed by the seventh set, tsivilatsai, and the sixth set, malakatsawai, under the direction of the leader of mama no kapax. At 8 a.m. they went to a seacoast, located near the village, that was regarded for being able to catch an abundance of fish easily. At the same time, the elder seniors in the village, including the set of the headman held a meeting and took turns giving their comments regarding the village’s affairs. However, their comments appeared to be only an exchange of opinions and did not constitute any decision for execution. Around 10 a.m., both sets came back to the village and allocated the fish to each elderly household first. Then, the sixth set was in charge of sharing the rest of the fish with the young men’s grade.

The Mlisin music

According to a 65-year-old informant, the native term masaklu could be interpreted as singing and dancing together during the festival. Dance activities in the MakutaaiVillage have various terms to indicate dancing and singing such as saplimo that refers to singing, drinking and dancing together. However, there is no specific, individual term related to music and dance in the annual festival. Also, from my observation, the dancing is accompanied by vocal music only. According to the village chief, some instruments accompanied other dance events, however, no other dance events except mlisin were held during my fieldwork. Therefore, I am unable to indicate what kind of instruments are used with the other dance activities.

According to the village chief, traditionally, the mlisin festival contains thirty different songs. It is prohibited to sing these songs at other religious or celebratory occasions. The songs must be sung in a particular order. At the present time, the mlisin contains only ten songs, however, the first and last songs remain from former time. Many songs have been forgotten because most of the younger generations moved out to live in urban areas and seldom return to the village. Therefore, many older men do not have opportunities to teach these songs to the youth. Once the old generation passes away, many mlisin songs will disappear along with these people.

Call and response are the main structure of mlisin songs still practiced. The call is sung by one and sometimes three or four individuals, and the rest of the members in the group dance sing the response. In many mlisin songs, the response does not enter until the latter half beat of the last note of the call. The format is used repeatedly in a cyclic fashion. Songs for the festival are sung with non-lexical syllables (Loh 1982:204). The lyrics mostly consist of vocables such as hai, hin, hoi, yan, etc. Occasionally the leader may sing meaningful texts in a quasi-recitative style, but in general, lyrics play only an auxiliary role in the mlisin. In the style of solo-chorus, the leader sings a longer melody, but the group responds with an identical shorter phrase, or simply repeats the leader’s phrase (Loh 1982:300). During my fieldwork, some of the senior members in the elder grade criticized the younger generation’s singing because the non-lexical syllables in each song were never delivered clearly.

In the festival, only after the singing has started, can the dancing begin. Usually a good singer or the best singer in the group, can act as a leader by initiating a song and suitable dance steps for the junior sets to follow. Each song is repeatedly sung by all the sets in turn at least one time and possibly even more if the senior sets fail to initiate another song. At the end of each song and dance, the members immediately sing the “wou” song, a short or prolonged vocal, together as the official end. If a song is repeated too many times, anyone of the elder members is entitled to initiate the “wou” sound, signaling the end of the song. Sometimes during the dancing, the dancers sing the “wou” sound to express their enjoyment.

The symbolism in the Mlisin dance

Dance is often a part of a ritual which is constitutes larger event than dance itself (Snyder 1984:23, Turner 1982:19). It is very important to recognize that dance is only a part of that larger whole and that contains many symbolic elements. From this perspective, to take account of dance within the ritual context is one way to examine the relationship between dance and the other parts of culture. For example, in the mlisin dance, the handholds enact and embody the concept of unity within an age set and the organization of dancers is associated with the structure of the age-set system.

During the mlisin period, the dance is mainly associated with the men’s age-set system. To understand the symbolic meaning of the dance movement, we need to take into account the relationship between the dance movement and age in the Amis society. Age has been an important subject of study in any changing society or group. The sociology of age provides us with an analytical framework for understanding the interplay between humans and their society (Riley 1987:1). Age in the Amis society of the Makutaai village is organized by the age-set system. Stewart points out that an age-set is a formalized grouping; similar social age members join the grouping and become a group, and keep this group identity throughout the course of their life (1977:400). In his definition of age groups, Gulliver emphasizes the corporate nature of the group, and describes them as a “permanent collection of people who recognize a degree of unity, a unity that is acknowledged by nonmembers”(1968:159).

I observed that the age-set system of Makutaai is a formalized age-group and the members act as a unit. The age-set system incorporates its identification of a corporate group and integrates with its social obligation, and social incumbency. Through social activities, the men’s age groups fulfill their social needs and achieve their social identity. For example, if a member in the set makes a mistake in executing orders from the elders or his performance does not satisfy the seniors, the whole set will be reprimanded instead of punishing the individual. I also observed on the first day of the festival, each set forms their own group for eating while gathering in the dance plaza. The set is the basic unit within the age-set system.

In the dance, we observe the value Amis ascribe to this unit reflected in several aspects. The hand-holds become significant as they serve to collect the members together as an unseparated unit which reinforces the importance of the set. As described, the movement locomotion is determined collectively within a set or within the men’s group by the set’s members rater than by an individual. According to the village chief, when the dancers move in unison, the dance looks beautiful. It can be inferred that the aesthetic of beautiful dancing is established based on the performance of the set as a unit rather than a random collection of individuals. In other words, uniform movement reveals the value of the set which is unity, and this enables the members to achieve their social identity within the age-set system.

Another aspect of the age-set system in Makutaai is the relationship between a given set itself with the junior sets and the elder sets. The sets in Makutaai are ranked in order of age seniority. A given set gives respect and demonstrates obedience to the senior sets; conversely a given set is entitled to command and criticize the junior set. In the dancing, this internal relationship between the sets is demonstrated among the members. For example, the senior sets are entitled to lead the dancing and to instruct the movement for the junior sets. The junior sets respond to these orders which may command more energetic dancing or more uniformity.

Under the age-set system, elders and leaders of various grades have absolute authority over their juniors, who respond to any order with unconditional obedience. In the dance, sometimes a representative in a given set sings a short “wou” song to stimulate his agemates who respond to this action through their bodies by dancing more vigorously. As soon as they react together, the dance immediately achieves a sense of community. I observed the leader-chorus singing style as not only a style of singing but also a method of interaction between the dancers. Thus, the interaction between the authority of the leader and uniform response of the total group may be parallel to some forms of the leader-chorus singing style.

In the dance circle, the members are hierarchically ordered by set from left to right with the eldest set on the left. The position of the eldest set may decide the moving direction of the dance. The eldest or the chief, who leads the dancing, places himself on the left in the dance circle. The dance moves in a clockwise direction as he initiates the right leg of the movement. In the “last dance,” the processional style, the eldest in the young men’s grade places himself on the right so the dance travels counter-clockwise. The direction of the dance may interconnect with the authority of the eldest, or the chief, whose social status is the highest within the age-set system.

In the Makutaai Amis village, the individual’s social role and obligations change along with the various stages in his life-course. As Keith points out, agemates have various meanings at various life stages (1984:23). The individual’s privileges and obligations slowly evolve as the individual’s age grows older (Gulliver 1968:161). For example, the men in Makutaai enter into elderhood at the age of 60, enjoying all its privileges and advising the chief and the council. During the dancing, the members in the elder grade have more “freedom” to participate in the dancing than the younger members. For example, the elder members are entitled to perform “improvisation,” and they are released from wearing the traditional costume in the dance. The older men are exempt from the dance and have the right to wear the head dress for the youth. However, these situations do not occur in the young grade. The younger members are required to act as a group in the dancing because it is the way to become recognized as an age-set through group performance in dance. On the other hand, the concept of unity in a set is not emphasized for the elders. Their obligation to dance is gradually released as they enter into the elder grade. Sometimes they represent themselves as an individual when they are performing the improvisation.


The mlisin dance provides an important context in which the males enact their political authority through the age-set system, ultimately bringing the village together and achieving a sense of unity. The age system not only is the key to the village’s internal organization but also a primary factor of social interaction as symbolized in the dance movement. Through the dancers bodies, the movement conveys the messages of the concerning social norms and values, and presents the symbols recognized by the members themselves. The members are ordered in the dance circle by seniority, which is the basic structure of the age-set system. The dancing and movement reinforce the individual’s social identity, obligation and status in the Makutaai. In short, the mlisin dance and movement interconnect the age-set system and life cycles of the individual set members. The symbolic movement reveals the significance of age in the society. It becomes associated with the village peoples’ lives and the changing social structure of Makutaai Amis.


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Mr. Lee Hung-Fu


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