Distributed on both sides of the Central Mountain Range at an elevation of 500-1,500m, Bunun people are the ethnic group living at the highest elevation among all Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Forming a society with patriarchic families, the Bunun population has expanded gradually and distributed widely across Taiwan due to historical migration. Based on the spirit (hanitu) concept, they believe that personal ability, diseases, and mishaps are related to hanitu. The Ear Shooting Festival (malahodaigian) is the most representative ritual, and Prayer of Millet Harvest (pasibutbut) is internationally renowned.
Currently, the Bunun population is about 59,536 people (by Januray 2020), mainly distributed in Ren’ai and Xinyi townships of Nantou County; Zhuoxi and Wanrong townships of Hualien Country; Yanping and Haiduan townships in Taitung County; and Taoyuan and Namaxia districts in Kaohsiung City. Urban migration has also been popular in recent years.
The Bunun calling themselves “Bunun” live on the Central Mountain Range and its eastern and western side. This demonym has become the name of this ethnical group since Japanese colonization. According to the Bunun legend, their ethnic origins include the excrement, stone, and calabash, with the calabash and the excrement being the most common. The calabash has its story that when a calabash fell from the sky in ancient times, a man and a woman came out of the broken gourd, and they were the first ancestors of the Bunun. The latter goes with the story that in ancient times, where were two caves. The naihai insect made two balls with its excrement and threw one in each cave. Then, a man and a woman came out from the caves. They got married and had children, which were the ancestors of different Bunun tribes as they multiplied.
According to the Bunun migration legend, Bunun ancestors originally settled on Yushan (Jade Mountain) and its northern peaks. They gradually moved down the mountain to Lamungan. To meet environmental needs, they further distributed to the plains and coastal areas in western Taiwan. When Han people expanded their power after the 17th century, Bunun people retreated to Lamungan and turned to the mountains in eastern Taiwan via central Taiwan. Then, they gradually migrated to the mountain area in Hualien, Taitung, and Kaohsiung. Bunun people are widespread and treat their migration history seriously. Before the 17th century, Bunun people originally lived in the mountain areas in central Taiwan and the coastal areas in southwestern Taiwan (upstream and downstream of the Zhuoshui River and its banks). After assembling at Lamungan, they emigrated to the mountain areas in Nantou County.
Since the beginning of the 18th century, they migrated from the mountains in Nantou County across the Central Mountain Range to Hualien. Then, they reached the mountains at the boundary of Taitung County and Kaohsiung City. During Japanese colonization, due to the colonial government’s nationalization of indigenous property and militarization of mountain governance, the Bunun people were upset, causing various rebellious incidents, such as the “Dafen Incident” (1914), “Danda Incident” (1916), and the “Daguanshan Incident” (1932). These incidents urged the colonial government to implement a “mass relocation” policy, forcing the Bunun people to move to the locations they occupy today. The tension between the Bunun and the Japanese continued until national government rule began. After the forced migration during Japanese colonization, no mass relocation of the Bunun has been recoded. However, due to mass relocation, the Bunun people began to live with other ethnic groups, which has affected the development of their relations with other ethnic groups.
According to ethnological research in the 20th century, the Bunun people are divided into the following six branches by dialect and by custom.
1. Takiitudu: Settled upstream of the Zhuoshui River in Nantou County neighboring the Sediq in the north. The Bunun settlement is mainly distributed in Wanfeng (Kantaban), Fazhi (Vogai), Zhongzheng (Kadu), Wangxiang (Kalibuan), and Jiumei (Mahavun) villages in Ren’ai Township, Nantou County.
2. Takiibakha: Originally settled in the Kashe River drainage basin in Xinyi (Nehunpu) Township, Nantou County. Major tribes include the Zhongzheng (Kadu) village in Ren’ai Township and Tannan (Laidazuan (malavi)) in Xinyi (Nehunpu) Township.
3. Takbanuaz: It is said that the Takbanuaz is the oldest Bunun tribe current distributed along the Luanda River drainage basin, a tributary of the Zhuoshui River, in Nantou County and upstream of the Taiping River of the Xiuguluan River, across the east and west of the Central Mountain Range. The principal locations include Xinyi (Nehunpu) Township in Nantou County, Zhuoxi (Takkei) Township in Hualien County, and Haiduan (Haitutuan) Township in Taitung County.
4. Takiivatan: Settled in the Danda River drainage basin upstream of the Zhuoshui River in Xinyi (Nehunpu) Township, Takiivatan people mainly live in Dili (Tamazuan) Village of Xinyi (Nehunpu) Township in Nantou County, Mayuan (Mahowan) Village of Wanrong (Malibasi) Township, and Zuoxi (Takkei) Township in Hualien County. Some have moved to the plains on the eastern coast, including Nanxi in Changbin Township (Kakacawan) and Qimei in Ruisui (Kohkoh) Township.
5. Isbubkun: Originally lived in the Junda River drainage basin and the Chenlan River drainage basin of Xinyi (Nehunpu) Township in Nantou County, the branch moved to the Taiping River drainage basin and the Lakulaku River drainage basin in Hualien County, the Xinwulu River drainage basin in Taitung County, and the Laonong River drainage basin and Nanzixian (Namasia) River drainage basin in Kaohsiung County. Isbubkun is the largest branch among all Bunun branches, accounting for over 50%. The principal group settled in Xinyi (Nehunpu) Township of Nantou County, Haiduan (Haitutuan) Township of Taitung County, and Namaxia (Namasia) and Tauyuan (Ngani) districts in Kaohsiung City.
6. Tapukul: It was divided into two secondary subgroups Isbabanal and Isbubkun in the 18th century. The Isbabanal settled with the Isbukun and eventually lost its own language. Its distribution is similar to that of the Isbubkun. The Tapukul migrated from Tataka and the west of the Namaxia (Namasia) River to the opposite side of Namasia today, between the Tsou and the Kanakanavu peoples. Under greater Tsou influence and with a smaller population, the Tapukul was eventually absorbed by the Tsou.
1. Industry and Food
The Bunun practice slash-and-burn agriculture, with major crops including foxtail millet, corn, and sweet potatoes. Today, traditional dietary habits have been changed to rice and sweet potatoes as staple foods, and wild edible plants and fungi as non-staple foods, with the pigeon pea, mostly serving in soup, as the major non-staple food.
Traditional Male and Female Bunun Clothes: The Bunun make clothes with pelts, linen, and exotic cotton. Male clothes include leather headgear, leather over sleeves, leather shoes, long sleeveless chest coverings (vests) with buttons down the front, leather long sleeveless chest coverings (vests), leather loincloths, chest and abdominal pockets, and leg coverings. Female Bunun clothes are mainly made of ramie fabrics, including tight-sleeve dresses with embroidered piping, knee-long apron trousers, and leggings, with major colors including blue and black. On the white ramie background, the men’s long vest is matched with colored threads including black, pink, green, yellow, red, and dark blue for knitting (pick up and knit) into rectangular, straight strap, horizontal strap, and triangular patterns. On the back there are wide-edge diamond patterns using the pattern of the hundred-pacer viper’s back. This is the most striking clothing feature specific to the Bunun.
Eight-part Polyphony: The Bunun pasibutbut (Prayer of Millet Harvest) earned international fame for its eight-part polyphony. When Japanese ethnomusicologist Takatomo Kurosawa sent pasibutbut (Prayer of Millet Harvest) to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1952, they were shocked by the complex polyphonic structure of this ancient tribal song. The song has also redefined the assumption on music development from one note, two notes, and then to polyphony as suggested by Western musicologists.
Every November to December, the Bunun hold the Sowing Ritual (Minpinan). To pray for a good millet harvest, after the ritual people find qualified male family members to circle around at the yard of the family house to sing the song of pasibutbut (Prayer of Millet Harvest). The Bunun believe that the more beautifully and more harmoniously they sing, the happier the deity is, and the more the yield will be in that year. Therefore, every singer sings devoutly. The song begins with a four-part polyphony, when the pitch reaches to a certain level, the eight different keys appear in the track (recording), that’s why people call it the eight-part polyphony. In fact, this is a unique method of polyphony in the world at present.
Featured Architectural Tradition-Stone-Slab-Block House: Traditionally, Bunun people build houses with slate, wood, thatch, rattan peels, and Taiwanese cypress bark. The application of these materials varies as the locations of settlement differ. Building houses with the slate and Taiwanese cypress bark are the most characteristic Bunun architectural tradition. Bunun people build family houses on a square platform. Their houses have less windows, and the building is short and enclosed to prevent the discovery and intrusion of animals and enemies. Today, slate has been replaced by reinforced concrete.
The stove is very important to Bunun people. It is often located at the corner of the wall on the right-hand side of the door or on both sides of the door. In general, the stove on the right is for cooking and the one on the left is for rituals. To Bunun people, the fire of the cooking stove is very important and cannot be extinguished. Otherwise, accidents will happen to male family members during hunting. Even when it is necessary to expand the family house due to a population increase, the cooking stove cannot be moved.
The “rice storage” is the holiest place of the house and the principal symbol of a family. Non-family members are not allowed to access this place, or the family will be extinguished. In addition, the “rice storage” is also a place of worship. When a boy is born or a wife is married, they must hold a ritual in the “rice storage” and live there for a while before they become part of a family.
1. Kinship Organization Bunun society forms an extended family from the family concept. With several patriarchic extended families, they form a sub-clan, i.e. phratry or clan, to share hunting sites and the clan honor and disgrace.
2. Family and Marriage Bunun are patriarchic, featuring living with the father and patriarchic succession. An extended family is formed by two or more generations, i.e. a big family usually with up to 30 to 40 members. While patrilocality is practiced, seniors of the family will decide on marriages across clans. Currently, the percentage of cross-clan marriages is rising. Although the original Bunun marriage system is very stringent, this system began to collapse with the impacts from religion, culture, social habits, and different dominating cultures.
3. Tribal Organization Bunun people used to live separately by family. After the mass relocation during Japanese colonization, a shared maintenance and operation model among family seniors (madadaingaz), priests (mapuadahu), sorcerers (is-am-aminan), and troop leaders (lavian) has been extinguished. Taking charge of tribal foreign affairs, including political affairs and military operations such as negotiation and alliances among tribes and settlements and enemy hunting, the troop leader (lavian) must have distinguished achievements in war, good knowledge in military and geography, courage, and attack and defense skills. Taking charge of tribal home affairs, such as annual rituals and life rituals, and mediation of disputes among individuals, families, and clans, the tribal priest (mapuadahu) is equipped with rich knowledge in agriculture and meteorology and is familiar with all types of rituals and ceremonies. In different locations, the same person may take different roles at the same time.
Hanitu (spirit) is the foundation of the Bunun traditional beliefs. The term refers to the spirit of all creatures in nature, such as animals, plants, and souls, and the spirit of each creature has its own internal power. Human beings have two hantius, each on each shoulder. The one on the left shoulder is an evil spirit, bringing evil things such as violence, greed, and anger. The one on the right shoulder is a good spirit, bringing generosity and fraternity. Dihanin is another Bunun traditional belief. It means the heaven, also called heavenly. Dihanin is the origin of everything and the heavenly god of the human spirit. In addition, the Bunun people believe that dreams are divinations that can predict a person’s future luck. They are a kind of magic, assistance, and communication.
The annual rituals of the Bunun people are closely related to growing millet. The ritual dates vary significantly among branches or subgroups in different places. During Japanese colonization, the colonial government forced the Bunun people to grown rice. Alongside the change in cash crops and the stigmatization and prohibition of foreign religions, annual rituals were deeply impacted and almost sanctioned. Currently, the Ear Shooting Festival (Malahtangian) held together with the government for promoting tourism is the most famous Bunun annual ritual. Although Christianity has become the religion of most Bunun people today, some rituals are still practiced in the traditional way to pass on the Bunun culture. Malahtangian: Malahtangian is held in April or May or when the moon is waxing or waning. It is an event of heritage, education, competition, unification, and law.
As the most important ritual in the year, Malahtangian mainly prays for rich catch in hunting and good harvest from agriculture. A few days before the ritual, males will hunt in the mountains, while females brew wine at home to prepare for the ritual. The ritual begins at 3:00 to 4:00 in the morning. The priest will call all males and children to the ritual, while females are prohibited. The ritual begins with a gunshot. After the family ritual (males only), males will go to the fire ritual site (patusan) for the fire ritual (mapatus).
Parts of the Ritual:
1. Lighting up the fire (with a pure heart).
2. Gun offering (pray for health, spirituality, hunting skills, and hunting site ability).
3. Animal meat offering (pray for animal catch). As this ritual can tell the family fortune in the year, the Bunun people are exceptionally cautious about it, for fear that something bad could happen to the family. Before the end of ritual, the Bunun people will sing a ritual song. Lastly, there is the animal bone (including the enemy’s head) offering to call the animal souls for an endless catch and to soothe the enemy’s soul.
“Declaration of Honors” (Malastapang): Men will declare their heroic acts to demonstrate their power. At a banquet, the Bunun people will make friends or exchange with others with the “Declaration of Honors” (Malastapang). It is also a symbol of personal social status. In some cases, Malastapang can be translated as an “Ode of Honors”, an occasion for Bunun males to demonstrate their power. It is also a show time for this convergent ethnic group. In the past, only people participating in wars or hunting heads were qualified for the Malastapang. Today, Malastapang has been replaced by hunting and social status.
Malastapang is led by those with prestige for males to declare their hunting results and achievements in head hunting. After a person declares one of his achievements, others will repeat the same phrase to confirm that. This continues until everyone in the ritual finishes his declaration. If someone fakes or lies, he will be beaten, disgraced, and kicked away from the ritual. In addition, this disgrace will follow him for the rest of this life.