Despite the Western perception that Taiwan is ethnically Chinese, the island is actually a rich and diverse melting pot of ethnicities and culture. Along with 11 indigenous groups that are not officially recognized by the government, Taiwan has 14 recognized indigenous groups that trace their roots on the island going back hundreds or thousands of years. One of the more distinctive and colorful officially-recognized tribal groups is the Bunun.

The Bunun tribe of Taiwan is the fourth largest indigenous group by population. They are spread out over a wide area of the southern part of the island, concentrating in Taitung County in the southeast. The Bunun people are a proud people, known for their strength and sure-footedness, and are perfectly adapted for life in the high mountains. Like the Atayal and Truku tribes, the Bunun were historically high-mountain people, who were one of the last to be “pacified” by the Japanese. Even to this day, they have an established reputation as skilled hunters and fierce fighters. The Bunun are also noted for being the only indigenous group in Taiwan with a calendar system (based on moon cycles) and a written language that are both over 1,000 years old. The tribal group also has very colorful customs and rituals that have attracted the attention of tourists and scholars worldwide. Most of them can be experienced at their most significant cultural festival, which occurs in the month of May.

This festival is known as the Bunun Ear-Shooting Festival (Mala-Ta-Ngia). It is an annual festival that coincides with the first millet harvest of the year and the peak of the hunting season. The festival showcases hunting skills, survival skills, feats of physical strength and teaches the importance of family bonds.

As a cultural reporter, I was determined to find my way deep in the mountains to experience an authentic Bunun Ear-Shooting Festival for myself.

After getting lost in the mountain roads of Yanping District, in Taitung County, Taiwan, I had almost lost hope that I would find the Bunun Ear Shooting Festival in the village of Yongkang. This two-day festival at the beginning of May has a reputation of being the biggest Bunun festival in the Taitung area, and I didn’t want to miss it. The GPS wasn’t working well in the mountains, and I couldn’t find the flags indicating the location of the event. With persistence, I finally located the festival by catching the steady chorus of the Bunun voices singing their world-famous “Pasibutbut” songs. These songs, which resemble loud, clear chanting, are prayers to the gods and ancestors for a bountiful millet harvest. I am thankful the voices were so clear and loud, as they led me over a great distance to the festival.

The annual festival is named after one of its important competitions, archery. The archery contest sharpens the hunting skills of the warriors and teaches discipline to the young boys. The traditional target was once the ears of pigs or deers. Now, they are animal-shaped targets drawn on cardboard. I tried my hand at shooting the bow and arrow after waiting in line with the other tourists. I wasn’t as good as the Bunun warriors, but a large cow in my face will surely meet its fate with my arrow…I think.

There were many Bunun from several villages around the district, as well as tourists from all over Taiwan. The two-day event brings people together in the spirit of friendly competition and strengthens family bonds. It is an important time for the adults to teach the younger generation survival skills. Like the other tourists, I relished the opportunity to learn about the special characteristics of this fourth largest tribe in Taiwan.

For the Bunun, there is nothing more important than strength and endurance. The men and women traditionally lived a hard life in the rugged mountains, and needed these qualities to survive. The competitive activities that I witnessed centered around their hunting and millet cultivation activities. The performance groups sang for divine blessing, before the contestants showed their skills at millet planting, weeding, harvesting, and grinding. The teamwork displayed with the pounding of the grain with mortar and pestle was impressive, while the women threshed the millet. Only men were allowed to compete in the archery contest and they showed their strength in the wood-carrying, pig-catching, and wrestling contests. The wrestling matches made the crowds go wild, as short, heavy men with large bellies tried to pull each other to the ground.  I heard that the Bunun women consider the portly physique of their men to be sexy. “The larger the belly, the better,” I was told with a wink.

I looked down at my stomach, which was quite large after stuffing myself with millet and smoked muntjac meat, which was from a small species of deer. I thought, perhaps this was the one place on earth where someone with my physique would be appreciated. Especially after the hosts shared their millet wine and offered so much cultural enlightenment and hospitality to all of their visitors, I felt quite at home, there in the mountains of Taitung, far away from any stereotypical images and sounds of urban Taiwan.

(Feature photo of Bunun people from 1900)

 

Tony Coolidge

Tony Coolidge is the founder of ATAYAL, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting the indigenous peoples of Taiwan and beyond. Tony and ATAYAL produced Voices in the Clouds, a documentary about Tony's search for his Atayal aboriginal roots in Wulai, Taiwan, and hold an annual exchange program bringing Maori students from New Zealand to Taiwan. He is based in Tainan, Taiwan.