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The Rukai (Drekay) society is characterized by a social class system formed upon a well-defined division of labor and blended with marriage, politics, religion, worshipping, and art. With the lily as the “symbolizing flower” for purity, bravery, courage, and honor, the right to wear lily ornaments is a core value of the Rukai culture. Foxtail millet is its principal economic crop, leading to the irreplaceable millet harvest festival. Currently, the Rukai population is about 13,465 people (as January 2020).

Geographic Distribution

There are three origins accounting for the demonym of Rukai (abbreviation for Ngudradrekai), but so far none conclusive. First, it is believed that “Rukai” is what they called themselves: people living in high and cold mountains. Second, “Rukai” is a transformation from the Paiwan language, suggesting the east, upstream, and deep mountains, where the Rukai people settled. Third, “Rukai” is a transformation from the Puyuma language, referring to a tribe at the foot of the neighboring mountain. In the Rukai legend, there are three origins of the ethnic group. First, the descendants of the Eastern Rukai: it is said after landing on the east coast, ancestors settled in the east and west of the Central Mountain Range. Second, the descendants of the sun, pottery pot, or stone according to the Western Rukai. Third, the descendants from the Greater Ghost Lake and Lesser Ghose Lake areas in Maolin according to the oral history of the lower three branches in Maolin District, Kaohsiung City. The Rukai people are distributed on both sides of the south of the Central Mountain Range, belonging to three administrative regions: Kaohsiung City, Pingtung County, and Taitung County.

The Rukai fall into three sub-groups by living environment and by cultural identification: The Eastern Rukai, Western Rukai, and the lower three branches. The language, social system, and cultural features of these three sub-groups are different at different levels, and the biggest difference is found between the Eastern Rukai, Western Rukai, and the lower three branches, including vocabulary and accent.

The Eastern Rukai settled in the upstream Danan (Taromak) River in Dongxin (Taromak) Village, Beinan (Pinang) Township, Taitung County. The Western Rukai settled in the Ailiao River drainage basin, Wutai (Vedai) Township, Pingtung County. There are eight villages in Wutai: Kucapungane, Adiri, Jilu (Kinulane), Wutai (Vudai), Shenshan (Kabalelradhane), Dawu (Labuwan), Jiamu (Karamemedesane), and Guchuan (Kudrengere). Some migrated to Sandimen (Santji) Township,Qingye (Talamakau) and Dewen (Tjukuvulj), Majia (Makazayazaya) Township,Sanhe (lziuci laulauzang) and Meiyuan, and Jinfeng (Kinzang) Township in Taitung County. The lower three branches settled in the Zuokou River drainage basin in Maolin (Teldreka) District, Kaohsiung City, those communities include Dona (Kungadavane), Wanshan (Mandaulan), and Maolin (Teldreka).

Due to work and study, only half of the Rukai people still live in their native places in recent years, while the other half of the population have left their homelands to make a living in Pingtung County, Pingtung City, and Kaohsiung City that are closer to the Kaohsiung and Pingtung urban areas, some have even gone further to Taichung City and New Taipei City, living together by kinship or by geographic relationship.


1. Industry and Food

Rukai (Drekay) economic activities include agriculture and hunting. In agriculture, foxtail millet, upland rice, sweet potatoes, and taro are the major crops. In hunting, the wild boar is the main meat source. The sweet potato and taro are the Rukai staple foods. They often roast dry the taro for preservation. The Rukai people cook dried taro with vegetables and meat in the form of congee. In addition, as the most easily grown and accessed crop, peanut is a common non-staple food of the Rukai. Hunting is the man’s job. Men must capture wildlife before they become adults. A Rukai man is qualified to carry the lily, it symbolizes a warrior’s achievement after capturing six (some villages five) male walisane (wild boars) with tusks. Foxtail millet plays an important in Rukai daily life. Apart from worshiping with the millet in rituals, they make abai (millet cake) for feasts as a symbol of sharing and congratulation. Like the Paiwan, Rukai people also make cinavu (food wrapped in leaves), i.e., they wrap meat covered with powdered taro in the leaf of Khasya trichodesma (Trichodesma khasianum).

2. Clothing

Traditional Rukai Clothing

Rukai clothing belongs to the square clothing system mainly made with cotton and linen, with a dark background decorated with sharp-colored (red, yellow, green) embroidery. Men’s traditional clothing is primarily leather. In the past, the men’s dress code includes leather headgear, head scarf, upper garment, baldric, waist belt, deerskin jacket, deerskin breech-less trousers, and decorative headgear as well when dressed up. Women’s casual wear includes the head scarf, robe, skirt, leg covers, gloves, etc. When dressed up, women wear embroidered clothes or clothes with bead accessories, along with various accessories, such as garlands, neck ornaments, and shoulder ornaments. Today, Rukai people dress up for important functions or weddings to show their respects for the hosts and showcase their culture. The Rukai dress code is class-specific. Take the pattern for example; only the Chief can use patterns including the hundred pace vipers, the sun, the human head, and the pottery pot; and nobles can use human-shaped and snake patterns. Commoners can pay tribute to use more patterns on their clothes. Currently, under the influence of the living environment and information development, patterns and themes for clothing have diversified, and the traditional pattern restrictions have been relaxed, except for the headgear, particularly the use of feathers of the Mountain Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus nipalensis) which can only be used by the Chief, and different villages have their own headgear restrictions.

The lily is a symbol of virtue and purity. Rukai Bamboo Comb The hundred pace vipers pattern carved on the wooden knife handle.

3. Art

◎ Lily In Rukai culture, the lily is associated with the origin of their ancestors, particularly to the Rukai people who settled in the Ailiao River drainage basin. Traditionally, the lily is a symbol of bravery and competence for men. A man is qualified to carry the lily only after capturing six (some villages five) or more male wild boars and the citation and crowing ceremony. The lily is even more important to Rukai women, as it is a symbol of virtue and purity. A true “lily ornament” contains the peacock flower (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) inside and is exclusive for nobles only. Common women wishing to wear such a “lily ornament” must go through the “kialidrau” (lily authorization) ceremony before they are authorized to wear it.

◎ Carving In Rukai culture, there are wooden, stone, and leather carvings, with the wooden carvings being the most famous. Apart from decorating building components such as large columns, eave trusses, beams, and walls, Rukai people use carvings on daily-life tools such as wooden spoons, benches, double cups, and comb. Connected to the legend of ancestral spirits, the hundred-pacer vipers has a rather important position in Rukai culture and has become a common totem. Traditionally, carving is the privilege of the Chief, because the commoners were not allowed to make, buy, or receive carvings with the hundred-pacer viper pattern. Today, this taboo and restriction have gradually extinguished to give more opportunities for the continuation and development of the Rukai carving art.

4. Architecture

Rukai people settled in the south of the Central Mountain Range at medium elevation. As it is hot and humid, they built houses with slate. The western Rukai and the lower three Rukai branches have developed slate house that keep buildings cool in summer and warm in winter. Due to inaccessbility of slates, eastern Rukai people build houses with wood and bamboo, and they build youth assembly halls under the influence of other cummunity groups. Door, Window, Yard, and Seat Layout in Slate Houses The Rukai people only use wood for beams and columns and slate for other parts, the yard, and the enclosure wall. In general, a slate house has a rectangular shape and two doors. The building is divided into three parts. The bedroom and living room are in the middle part, the kitchen and the storage is on the left and right, and the hallway and tool storage are on the sides. As it is difficult to get slate and time-consuming to build slate houses, most Rukai people build their homes with reinforced concrete today, and some will bond slate on the concrete wall to maintain the traditional slate house style. The scale of slate houses varies by social status. Apart from having the biggest house, the Chief enjoys other privileges, such as eave carvings and a more spacious yard. A large rectangular slate sadrengedrenge (column) will be erected at the Chief’s premises as a symbol of leadership. The place where the sadrengedrenge (column) is erected is served as the kalatadrane (assembly plaza). In addition to the family house, the Rukai people build pavilions and workshops with slate, wood, and thatch. The pavilion is for leisure, and the workshop is the place for women to weave.


There are four social classes in traditional Rukai (Drekay) society: chiefs, nobles, aristocracy, and commoners. All are adopted by inheritance and follow the Chief’s leadership. Each social class has different rights and obligations, and the children’s social status can be changed through marriage.

1. Family and Marriage Rukai society is formed by family, with the first son as the successor of both parents’ families, including the family houses and the family name. Other children must move out of the family after marriage. If there is no son in the family, the daughter will find a husband to inherit the property. Monogamy is practiced. Rukai people emphasize marriage between families of the same social class. That is, they will first consider the social class of the bride or the groom, and “same-class marriage” is acceptable by most Rukai.

2. Village and Chief A village is a regional organization formed by one settlement or several neighboring settlements for purposes including politics, economy, military, education, and social welfare. In Rukai tradition, the chiefdom is inheritable. There are other professional elder groups, like the marudrange (Chief’s messenger), family representative, military strategist, artisan, siabakale (swordsman), taraivigi (wizard/witch), and bariakalai (priest), supporting different community needs. Although a Chief is very powerful, he will discuss community affairs with village people before implementation.

3. Social Class System There are four social classes in traditional Rukai society: chiefs, nobles, aristocracy, and commoners. The chief and the nobles have higher social status and more land resources. They expropriate land and forest taxes from the village and have the right to get body tattoos and use carvings in their family houses. As a social class between the nobles and the commoners, the aristocracy refers to village people with military merits or special skills. They enjoy privileges, such as tax exemption and can wearing garlands, granted by the chief. Influenced by the first-son succession system, aristocracy is the heredity of the family’s first son, while other children are commoners. Before engaging in any work, such as logging, marriage, crossing, and brewing wine, the commoners must pay a tax to the chief. After specific ceremonies and paying specific taxes, commoners will be granted privileges such as getting body tattoos, use of lily ornaments, clothing patterns, and some names.


The Rukai (Drekay) people believe in the existence of all kinds of supernatural powers, including the sun, star, moon, and rainbow in nature, and the hundred-pace viper and clouded leopard. They also communicate with and worship ancestral spirits. As a result of government policies, the development of traditional Rukai religious concepts were interfered with during Japanese colonization, and some of their traditions, culture, and religious ceremonies were banned. Since Christianity spread to the ethnic group in the 1960s, there are Western churches in every village, and Christianity co-exists with traditional Rukai religions.

Most Rukai today believe in Christianity, which has become a power to support and influence the ethnic group. In recent years, new interactions between Rukai tradition and culture and the church have been seen. For example, the Catholic church in Kabalelradhane Village of Wutai Township presents the Virgin Mary statue in traditional Rukai attire to blend tradition and culture with modern beliefs to co-vitalize the new Rukai life. Traditionally, millet is the center of traditional Rukai rituals. The Kalabecengane (Millet Ritual) is held after the millet harvest. The Tapakadrawane (Black Rice Ritual) is specific to the Kungadavane (Dona) of the lower three branches. In addition, tiyuma (swinging) is popular to the Rukai people. It is an activity often held at weddings or the harvest festival for friendship-making between males and females. This exciting activity often brings a ceremony to its climax.

1. Kalabecengane (Millet Ritual)

Foxtail millet is the major crop of the Rukai and the center of annual festivals, with the Kalabecengane (Millet Ritual) as the most important. The festival is held after the millet harvest to thank the deities. At the festival, the Rukai people worship deities and ancestral spirits with millet cakes, millet rice, and millet wine. In addition, Rukai people will symbolically give crops to the chief. The chief then gives some to people in need of food and some for worshipping the ancestral spirit, suggesting taxation and sharing. Traditionally, the harvest ritual lasts longer than a month. As the modern lifestyle has changed, the ritual is held for 1-3 days today from August 15 every year (the government has set the second Friday of July as Rukai Day). To prevent a conflict in the worshipping practices between traditional rituals and modern religions, rituals in the festival have been simplified, and the focus has been changed to the reunion of villages and sharing.

2. Tiyuma (Swinging)

Swinging is one of the highlights in traditional Rukai ritual for friendship-making between males and females. Often held at a wedding, the activity was originally a female privilege of the chief’s family. During the Harvest Festival, the chief will share the swinging privilege to kinsmen partly to appreciate their hard work and partly to provide an opportunity for friendship-making between males and females. In the activity, males will erect the swing and control the swing line. Then, they invite unwed females with a good character to swing. Males will swing females to the highest point, it is exciting and thrilling. Therefore, in either weddings or the Harvest Festivals, swinging can always bring an activity to its climax.

3. Tapakadrawane (Black Rice Ritual)

The Rukai believe that it is the spirit from the deep lake that gives the seeds of black grains, including rice and millet, for women to grow. Traditionally, the Tapakadrawane (Black Rice Ritual) is held in November every year to thank the deities and spirits for bringing the grain seeds. This festival is very important to the Dona (Kungadavane) from Maolin (Teldreka).

4. Molapangolai (Oponoho Ancestral Spirit Ritual)

To the Oponoho, the Molapangolai (Ancestral Spirit Ritual) is the most primitive and the most special ceremony held once every four years in the lapangolai (specific ancestral shrine) in spring. The doloi (holy stone) is the major activity in the ceremony praying for peace and health for people. The taavala competition is held to test if the youth is capacitated to resist invasions and protect their kinsmen’s safety.