As the world gets caught up in the fever of best-selling author Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol,” a book essentially about the world’s oldest and best-known fraternal organization, the Freemasons, many people are beginning to show interest in the secret society, especially regarding its mysterious Scottish Rites.
The Scottish Rites are a series of progressive degrees that are conferred by various Masonic organizations or bodies on a Mason after he undergoes a series of dramatic plays which illustrate certain moral and philosophical lessons, helping to make the candidate a better and wiser person.
Such rites of passage like those of the Freemasons which mark a person's progress from one status to another, are in fact a universal phenomenon. One can find them in cultures around the world.
In the aboriginal cultures of Taiwan, indigenous people in various tribes all have their own rituals and ceremonies that a person – in most cases a man - must undergo before being fully accepted as a member of the tribe.
The Puyuma, a relatively small group with around 10,000 tribesmen who now inhabit parts of Taitung County on Taiwan’s East Coast, have a series of rituals that enable a boy to become a qualified adult.
Such rituals are carried out mostly in a men’s gathering hall called the House of Men.
The training a Puyuma man receives in the House (or “palakawun” in Puyuma dialect) helps the relatively small tribe produce some of the strongest warriors and hunters among Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes.
The making of a man in the matrilineal Puyuma society
Traditionally the Puyuma tribe is a matrilineal society in which men marry into women’s families and the children take their mother’s last name. Women are in charge of household affairs, and family property is passed from mother to daughter. Women are also responsible for overseeing traditional ceremonies and rites.
Somewhat surprisingly then, this female-controlled society was once identified by the Japanese as producing the strongest warriors among Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes.
During the Chinese Qing Dynasty the Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) even conferred a title on the tribe for helping to end the mutiny of Zhu Yi-gui on the island, earning the east coast tribe the title of “The Great Lord Puyuma.”
The Amis and Paiwan tribes, two of the largest aboriginal tribes in Taiwan in terms of population, were even asked to pay tribute and taxes to the numerically smaller Puyumas because of the latter’s military prowess.
Scholars believe that the reason this matrilineal society has consistently been a strong power can largely be attributed to the Puyuma’s renowned Men’s House, a training center exclusive to male Puyumas which is notorious for a Spartan, rigid training regimen that transforms a boy into a man and ultimately a fierce warrior.
An organization that accepts only male Puyuma, the House is somewhat similar to a fraternity house in the West, except that the Puyuma version is a man-only, self-contained society where no women are allowed to enter.
Even more unlike the fraternity in the American colleges, once a man is admitted to the House he is forbidden to have sex with a woman or he will be seriously punished. Once a man is married to a woman, however, he no longer belongs to the Men’s House.
Interestingly enough, if a man becomes a widower or is divorced from his wife, he can resume his membership and is welcome to return to the House.
Boy’s Dormitories and the House of Men
Liu Tung-pao (劉桐保), a retired school teacher who is now a senior tour guide in Taitung, is a Puyuma. Liu notes that when a male of his tribe reaches a certain age, usually 12 or 13, he is required to first check into one of the Boys’ Dormitories or "takuvan.” These are stilt houses built off of the ground in contrast to the House of Men, which sits directly on the ground.
The choice of which dorm to join is decided by the relations of the boy’s mother.
"In the dormitory - or should we say Spartan training centers, to put it more frankly, since they are designed to make these boys fierce warriors - each young male Puyuma is trained in combat and survival skills, and also learns construction.”
It is also in the dorm that a boy memorizes his tribe’s mythology.
"This part of the training is important in making sure that the village and tribe’s oral history is passed down to younger generations.”
According to a study by Taiwan’s top research institute, the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, the Boys’ Dorm is divided into four to five different grades based on the child’s age.
The 13-14 bracket is called “malanakan” or "Grade One”; those aged 14-15, “ribatukan”; 15-16, “kitubangsar”; and 16-18, "malatawan”.
After one reaches the age of 20, he is qualified to enter the House of Men.
Theoretically, in the Boys’ Dorm, the candidates move up to the next grade as they grow older. Those who perform poorly, however, may be punished by the school authorities, and a boy may be held back in the same grade for another year.
The whole upgrading system and teaching process is based on a tutorial system wherein a senior student is responsible for taking care of the junior one.
In the first or second year, the dorm will hold tests of courage similar to what you might find in a fraternity or sorority. A senior may ask a younger member to reclaim something he put in a cemetery or somewhere equally creepy. If one fails to accomplish the mission, he will be severely punished by a caning carried out by all malatawans, the senior students in the 16-18 bracket, according to the Academia Sinica study.
"The main spirit of the system is absolute obedience,” says the Puyumas’ Liu, adding that the younger members of the tribe must obey older members without the slightest hesitation.
"You do not ask questions, you just do what they tell you or you will face series consequences,” Liu notes.
According to Liu, in order to move up to the next level, each boy must undergo the caning process to prove that he is physically and mentally ready for the next round of challenges.
Another famous or notorious Puyuma punishment is the so-called nettle ordeal, which entails using a plant called Urtica thunbergiana but better known as the “biting cat” to brush one’s body from the feet up to the belly and finally on to the chest. This may not sound like such an ordeal, yet any contact with the plants’ stinging hairs can cause excruciating skin irritation.
Such ordeals are also used as a form of entrance exam for a boy to move up to the next level, as those who can bear such huge pain win greater respect and acceptance from their peers.
Monkey Ceremony and Hunting Rites
Between each of the stages in the Boys’ Dorm comes an important annual event, the Monkey Ceremony or Vasivas in Puyuma dialect.
Though the name of the ceremony might sound funny, the Monkey Ceremony is no joke and includes many “tests” including the killing of a monkey with a bamboo staff.
To the Puyuma, the naughty and clever-looking human-like monkey serves as an imaginary enemy for these soldiers in training. Today this tradition continues in Taitung’s Nanwang Village, although only symbolically, with the use of toy monkeys made of straw rather than live animals. In addition, the whole process which originally lasted for nearly half a year has been cut into half a day, serving only to keep the traditional ritual alive.
Besides the Monkey ceremony, which marks a man’s transition to the House of Men from the Boys’ Dorm, there are another three years of an in-between stage which is called Miabutan by the Puyuma.
These three years serve a function similar to compulsory military service, requiring a man to suffer all kinds of ordeals before he is eligible to enter the “Great Hunt” or the Hunting Rite, another annual festival.
Boys who pass all of the tests are eligible to take part in the Hunting Rites, or Mangayau, in which they are required to successfully hunt and kill a wild animal within five days.
The original tradition called for a trainee to bring an enemy’s head back to the tribe; after head hunting was abandoned during the Japanese colonial period, however, the headhunt was converted into an animal hunt.
Once this is accomplished the boys are considered adults and given the title of vasalan in recognition of their status as genuine adult males, and they are granted official permission to have contact with women and ultimately, to get married.
The annual ritual usually begins at the end of December.
At the end of the hunting rites, the males are welcomed outside the village under an arch built from bamboo. The women crown the males of their family with flower wreaths and prepare ceremonial clothing for them to change into. The celebration then moves to the House of Men and there is singing and dancing until late into the night.
After the whole unbelievably long process of rite of passage, each newly-granted vasalan is officially introduced to each household in the tribe, assuring that their hard-earned status will be firmly attached to these Puyuma men until the day they die.