Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Painted Skin (Amis)

Long ago, in a community near today's Hualian (Hua-lien), a cruel chief was in power. This chief was not content to rule his own village; he had long fingers, thirsting after the goods and even the people of other villages. So, his men would raid and terrorize the region, carrying off personal possessions, farm animals, and even the menfolk of his neighbors, enslaving them. Of course, those who could resist without already being surrounded and overpowered were slain without mercy. You can well imagine that this chief was utterly despised by just about one and all, but who could oppose him? He was kept in power by his fierce army of warriors.

In a neighboring village, there was a stalwart young man named Shabu'er. When he was younger, he had been one of many whose relatives, in his case, his own father, had been dragged away by a raiding party only to be murdered later on when their usefulness had expired. Thus, this Shabu'er nursed a deep hatred for the greedy, bloodthirsty tyrant who had deprived him and many of his friends of their fathers.

He was determined to kill this evil chief, so he bode his time for the right opportunity, keeping his plans to himself.

One day, Shabu'er disappeared from his village. His relatives and friends were greatly alarmed and searched far and wide for him, scouring the valleys, mountain ridges, and forests, but there was no trace of him.

Little did they know that Shabu'er was off hiding in a part of the forest. He had brought with him a pot full of charcoal ashes and was busily applying the ashes to his face, drawing lines and circles.

The next day, a stranger appeared in the village of the evil chief and humbly presented himself to the tyrant. He claimed to be from a very far distance under difficult circumstances. He was a very odd person, with black markings on his face and dressed in virtual rags, which seemed to tally with his story of a rough journey. He appeared strong and nimble, though. He told the chief he was now stranded in a strange area without kin or friends. Would the chief take him on as a servant?

The chief looked at this stranger in rags, with his bizarre, frankly unsettling makeup. The chief nodded his assent and put the man to work in his home. There, the stranger, Shabu'er in disguise, joined the rest of the servant staff.

In time, Shabu'er proved to be the most loyal and energetic of all the servants. If the chief suddenly craved fresh fish and shrimp, Shabu'er would run to the sea and jump in and personally catch the seafood his master desired. Then, after reapplying black ashes to his face, he would return with the fresh catch. If the chief then wanted delicacies of the forest, such as venison, Shabu'er would run off to the forest and bring back exactly what the chief wanted.

The day came when the chief said of his newest servant, "Finally, I've found a true, loyal, capable man, someone on whom I can totally depend, someone I can trust!"

One night, when the chief was snoring away, drunk as a fish from rice wine, Shabu'er crept towards the chief's bed. Never had there ever lived a mountain cat as stealthy as Shabu'er! He took out a long blade and pounced on the chief, and before the wicked man could utter a cry, Shabu'er cut off his head. Then, tying the chief's head to his belt, he escaped from the house.

Early the next morning, the chief's other servants discovered his headless body in bed and sent out the alarm. All the braves were roused from sleep and ordered to find the man who had dared to cozy himself up to their chief and then murder him. All the servants but one were accounted for; the culprit--the foreigner with the facial tattoos. And what did he look like without those tattoos? No one had a clue. The chief's men fanned out through the village and its outskirts but could not find a sign of him. They remained in the dark as to who he really was and from where he had actually come.

Shabu'er returned to his village, his markings long since wiped clean from his face, and displayed the head of their hated enemy, the neighboring chief who had plundered, kidnapped, and murdered with impunity. With great detail, Shabu'er related the story of his adventure, how he had disguised himself and how he was able to avenge the wrongs inflicted on him and so many other villages.

The villagers celebrated, danced, sang, and drank rice wine in gratitude for Shabu'er's slaying the evil chief.

From that day on, after victories and before celebrations, warriors would decorate their faces with warpaint. In time warriors would extend the painting to their chests after coming home successfully from raids.

All this was done after the ancestor and liberator Shabu'er had first shown everyone the way.

Cai Tiemin, pp. 78-79. (For full citation, see 7/3/17.)

For a story that explains the origin of tattooing, see 12/20/17. 

This legend hints at a custom once found among the indigenous communities of Taiwan: headhunting. More about headhunting shall be found in an early 20th-century urban legend to appear here in the future. 

Motifs: A545, "Culture hero establishes custom(s)"; cA1595, "Origin of tattooing"; H1228, "Quest undertaken by hero for vengeance"; K1810, "Deception by disguise"; K1821.2, "Disguise by painting body"; P12.2.1, "Tyrannical king"; Q421, "Punishment: Beheading"; Q421.0.4, "Beheading as punishment for murder."

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