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Paiwan tribe: Respect for ancestors and art traditions

Paiwan tribe: Respect for ancestors and art traditions
Paiwan tribe: Respect for ancestors and art traditions
Paiwan tribe: Respect for ancestors and art traditions

The Paiwan tribe has a population of nearly 79,000, and is distributed in southern Taiwan (Pingtung County) and southeastern Taiwan (Taitung County). The Paiwan traditionally had a strict social hierarchy of chieftain and clan, nobility and commoners. The commoners provided the physical labor, such as farming of the land, and a portion of their harvest was given to the noble landowners. The chieftain and noble classes had the responsibility of overseeing the affairs of their village including managing the ceremonies and maintaining traditions.
Important symbols and motifs
Classes were further distinguished through the use of motifs. Only those of the upper classes were allowed to decorate their clothing with ceramic vessel or human figure motifs or to carve them into the wooden lintel above the entryway to their homes. The distinctive diamond-shaped pattern of the hundred-pace pit viper was reserved for the chieftain and the chieftain’s clan.
The hundred-pace pit viper (Deinagkistrodon acutus) earned its name from the belief that once bitten a victim will only be able to walk about 100 paces before succumbing to the deadly venom. This snake is considered a sacred animal among the Paiwan, Rukai and Bunun tribes.
Another motif, depicting four human heads or human figures in a row, reminds the chieftain that his/her authority ultimately comes from the people although the chieftain was not elected but inherited the position.
Maleveq (Five-Year Worship)
The Paiwan hold a number of important ceremonies and rites, the largest and most complicated of which is the Maleveq or Five-Year Worship, which as its name suggests is held approximately every five years, on a date determined by a shaman, to highlight the tribe’s respect for ancestors. The ceremonies and activities associated with the Maleveq can last for days and traditionally even longer than two weeks, and require much preparation. Before the the Maleveq commences, numerous rattan balls are made and a large bamboo scaffold is erected. On the first and last days of the ceremony, the shaman throws the rattan balls into the air from high on the scaffold. Each of the noble clans sends their bravest warriors to spear these balls on the tips of long bamboo poles. Traditionally, each of the rattan balls had a meaning concerning the fate of the person who speared it, and could be auspicious or inauspicious. Today, this has been modified into a more light-hearted event with all of the balls considered to bring good luck. Following the end of the Maleveq, the bamboo poles and rattan balls are collected and destroyed.
The Maleveq celebrates the connections between tribal ancestors and tribal deities by commemorating a legend of a woodcarver named Lemej and the goddess Drengerh. One day, Lemej was working on a carving when the goddess appeared before him. Moved by the suffering of the tribe due to lack of food, she took him with her to the heavens. The tribal deities gave Lemej seeds and taught him hunting skills. Then, he was sent back to his tribe to pass on what he had learned.
To kick off the Maleveq, the chieftain and clan, noble clans and shamans gather together to invite the spirits of the ancestors to join them in the celebration. Then, all of the residents of the village entertain their ancestors with special dances. At the end of the Maleveq, food offerings are prepared and songs are sung to send off the ancestral spirits and to beseech them to bless the members of the tribe. Today, only a couple of Paiwan villages have preserved this festival.
Cultural treasures
The belief systems and tribal legends have had a deep influence on Paiwan art, and especially on the preservation of three of its cultural treasures: ceramic vessels, glazed beads and bronze knives. Ceramic vessels are considered sacred because of their relationship to the origins of the tribe. According to one Paiwan legend, the ancestors of the tribe were born from two eggs that were kept inside a large ceramic vessel and guarded by the hundred-pace pit viper. The sun’s rays warmed the vessel and the eggs hatched resulting in the birth of the Paiwan tribe’s first members. (There is more than one legend regarding the origins of the Paiwan tribe but most involve similar elements of the ceramic vessel and hundred-pace pit viper).
These vessels are personified and divided into male and female. The male vessels display hundred-pace pit vipers and the female vessels exhibit protruding nipple patterns. These vessels are not for daily use but rather for sacrificial offerings and betrothal gifts, and since their possession was restricted to the nobility, they came to symbolize status and wealth. The knowledge of making these pots was all but lost, making it difficult to carry out many traditional ceremonies. Artists such as Sakuliu and Erge have been working for many years to revive this art form.
The second cultural treasure is glazed beads. Glazed beads were worn during ceremonies and special occasions. They were important symbols of distinction, social status, ownership and wealth. It is thought that the Paiwan did not originally produce these beads and their numerous associated legends reveal nothing of their origins. Starting in the early 1900s, large numbers of "antique" Paiwan beads were taken away by or sold to collectors. With the number of beads dwindling and no idea how to make them it was difficult to conduct many of the traditional ceremonies, which threatened to discontinue the tribe's culture. Umass Zingrur, a Paiwan artist, stepped in. Thirty years ago, he began to research how to make the glazed beads. Once he determined the quartz clay formula that resulted in beads that looked like the traditional ones, he created a systematic bead production process that he passed on to the younger generation of artists of the tribe.
There is a concentration of Paiwan glazed bead and pottery workshops in Sandi Village of Sandimen Township in Pingtung County. This is also one of Taiwan’s most accessible indigenous villages, located along Provincial Highway 24, about a 10-minute drive from the Sandimen exit of National Freeway 3.
The third cultural treasure of the Paiwan is the bronze knife. A Paiwan male would not leave home without his knife at his side. In Taimali Township of Taitung County, Sakinu Ahronglong dresses in traditional Paiwan attire as a matter of preference. At his front and side are three knives. He notes that each of the knives has its purpose, such as for hunting, carving up game and cutting away vegetation. Sakinu, who once worked as a policeman, made up his mind years ago to preserve and pass on Paiwan culture. In 2005, he established a “school” in his village for teaching hunting culture to Paiwan youth, including the process of hunting and the relationship between man and nature. Even before that, Sakinu had received some semblance of fame as a writer of two books on his experience of learning the Paiwan hunting culture from his father. These works have been incorporated into textbooks used in classrooms throughout Taiwan. One of these books, “The Sage Hunter”, was made into a movie in which Sakinu starred. This movie was not only shown in Taiwan, but also in the U.S., providing a vehicle for Sakinu to introduce Paiwan culture to Western audiences.
More information about Taiwan’s indigenous art and villages can be found at

Written and Photo by Cheryl Robbins /

Updated : 2022-05-24 14:50 GMT+08:00