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The Paiwan (Payuan) link politics, marriage, religion, and art with the family names, clans and a rigid social hierarchy. After the millet harvest, they hold the “Millet Harvest Thanksgiving Ritual”. The Vuculj subgroup holds the Maleveq Ritual every five years to welcome the ancestral spirits to visit their descendants. It is also called the “Human-Deity Alliance Ritual”. Today, the Paiwan has a population of around 102,730 people (as of January 2020).

Geographic Distribution

Paiwan people are distributed in an area with Dawu Mountain in the north, the Hengchun Peninsula in the south, Fanliao in the west, and Taimali (Tjavali) and Xinyuan (Kalurulan) Villages in Taitung City in the east, covering both sides of the Dawu Mountain, and the southern section of the Central Mountain Range across Pingtung and Taitung counties. Paiwan people separate themselves by lineage, custom, and ethnicity into the Ravar and the Vuculj subgroups.

The Ravar is led by the Tavaran/Tavaljan community in Sandimen (Santji) Township, with the Tavaran/Tavaljan being the tribal origin. Socioculturally, the Ravar are characterized by the lily wearing custom and a patriarchal social system, and are famous for their outstanding carving and pottery art. The Vuculj are mainly distributed among the Majia (Maka), Taiwu (Ulaljuc), Chunri (Kasuga), Shizi (Sisi), and Mudan (Butang) townships in Pingtung County, and Daren (Tacudjing), Dawu (Daibu), Jinfeng (Kinding), and Taimali (Tjavali) townships in Taitung County and Xinyuan (Kalurulan) Village in Taitung City.

The old settlements along the North and South sides of Mt. Dawu: Gaoyan (Padain), Fawan (Payuan), Jiaxing (Puljti), Guluo (Kuljaljau), and Laiyi (Tjalja’avus) are ancestral Paiwan settlements. Paiwan culture is characterized by the five-year ritual, equal gender rights, and the first-child succession system. Despite having business activities with the outside world during Dutch colonization and the Qing dynasty, the Paiwan have preserved their rich and complete ethnic culture and customs. Due to agricultural development, currency circulation, Japanese rule, and the indigenous management policy during Japanese colonization, the Paiwan culture and traditions faced many different challenges. The dissemination of Western religions after the R.O.C government’s restoration of Taiwan has increased the number of Christians converts in the tribe, and churches are seen in every community.


1. Food

Farming, hunting, and gathering are the major economic activities of the Paiwan. Major crops used for daily consumption include foxtail millet, upland rice, sweet potatoes, and taro, while meat from hunting is the main source of animal protein. The taro is boiled, made into taro cake, dried, and or powdered for preservation or transport. The betel nut is a stimulant fruit and an important item in social interaction, rituals, and weddings. The Paiwan make millet cakes (qavai) and leaf-wrapped food (cinavu) for festivals/special occasions or weddings. The cinavu is often translated into Traditional Chinese as “祈那福” (literally praying for blessing). The Paiwan wrap the millet (or glutinous rice or powdered taro) and meat with leaves of the khasya trichodesma (Trichodesma calycosum). It is one of the token Paiwan dishes.

2. Clothing

Early Paiwan made clothes from bark fibers or pelts. After acquiring cloth-making skills, they sewed clothes with linen, cotton, and wool fabrics. Women of the Paiwan noble families had more time to weave. Alongside exclusive patterns and totems, noble clothes are exceptionally intricate and extravagant. Traditionally, Paiwan men wear circular-collar long-sleeved short chest coverings with buttons down the front and kilts, with a shawl slung over the shoulder. In solemn ceremonies, Paiwan men wear ceremonial headgear, long vests, leg coverings, and sword baldrics. Paiwan women wear circular-collar robes with buttons down the right with panel skirts, and leggings. In addition, they wear head scarves, elaborate head rings, or forehead bands.

Traditional Male and Female Paiwan Clothing: The Paiwan chief and nobles are privileged to use special patterns on their clothes to accentuate/single out their social superiority. These patterns include human heads, human figures, or hundred pace vipers. In addition to clothing, the Paiwan chief and nobles distinguish themselves from the commoners with tattoos on their arms and wrists. Commoners with honorable achievements are given the privilege to tattoo their bodies or hands. Glass beads are the most precious accessories and important ornaments on their clothes.

3. Arts

In addition to pottery pots, glass beads, and bronze knives, commonly known as the “Three Paiwan Treasures,” the Paiwan craft heritages also include carving and weaving.

◎ Paiwan Carvings: Crafts are important to male Paiwan nobles and are demonstrated in wooden and stone carvings. Some Paiwan believe that the hundred pace viper is the ancestor of the chief. Therefore, patterns and totems of the hundred-pace viper and the amphisbaena are commonly seen. In addition to the beams and columns of family houses, the snake patterns are found on double cups, mortars and pestles, wine containers, and scabbards.

◎ Three Paiwan Treasures: The pottery pot, glass bead, and bronze knife are called the “Three Paiwan Treasures”. According to the Paiwan legend, Paiwan ancestors were born from pottery pots, making this implement a symbol of the origin in the Paiwan culture. Different types of pottery pots are given different names and meanings. Based on the patterns on the pots, there are male pots, female pots, and the female-male pots. The hundred-pace viper pattern symbolizing males is commonly used on male pots; while the nipple and the bell patterns symbolize females and are commonly used on female pots. The female-male pots have both types of pattern. Rare pots are owned by nobles and chiefs. Apart from marking their social status, these rare pots are important dowry items in noble weddings.

Pottery Pot (Courtesy of Li, Jiu-Ho)

According to the Paiwan legend, Paiwan ancestors made “glass beads” with the beautiful eyes of dragonflies, so glass beads are a gift from the gods. It is said that thousands of years ago, Paiwan ancestors carried the earliest glass beads to Taiwan; hundreds of years ago, Paiwan ancestors acquired new glass beads through trade; and in recent years, Paiwan began to make glass beads. Due to the colors, patterns, and legends contained, the Paiwan have given birth to a unique glass bead culture. Each important bead bears a name, such as the “bead of nobility and beauty” that represents the most precious beads; the “bead of clouded leopard” (now also called the bead of the peacock) an important dowry item for marriages between chiefs and nobles for its connotation to legends of love; “the sun’s tear” represents the tears shed from the sun in ancient times.

These names and stories have livened up glass beads, making them the treasure of nobles and a precious item for family heritage and dowry. Glass beads thus represent a superior status in Paiwan culture. According to the Paiwan social status hierarchy, only nobles can keep glass beads.

Bronze Knife Symbolizes Authority and Power: To the Paiwan, the bronze knife is a symbol of authority and power. In Paiwan culture, there are working knives and ceremonial knives. Based on the social status of their owners, ceremonial knives can be divided into common ceremonial knives, warrior ceremonial knives, and noble ceremonial knives. All three types of ceremonial knives have carvings and decorations. A ceremonial knife is also an important dowry item.

4. Architecture

The Paiwan build family houses from slate, while wood, bamboo, straw, or mudbrick is used in some areas. A typical Paiwan family house is built on a trapezium platform. The ground, roof, and walls are built with slate. Stone-slate houses are mainly found in Sandimen (Santji), Majia (Maka), Taiwu (Ulaljuc), Laiyi (Raigi), and Chunri (Kasuga) townships of Pingtung County. The family house of a commoner is composed of two parts: the interior and the front yard. The interior carries a horizontal rectangular shape, and there is a bed near the wall and a stove on the right-hand side of the entrance.

Paiwan—Slate Houses: The family house of nobles has a spacious front yard decorated with plants and benches for shade and gatherings. Most nobles have stone-stacked altars which are about 1.5 meters tall. In the interior, there is a bed base in the front and an urn for storage in the rear.

The Totem Slabs of the Chief’s Family House in Taiwu: The ancestral spirit house of the Vuculj subgroup is also an important Atayal building. It was originally the ancestral family house of the Vuculj founding chief. It was later transformed into an ancestral hall. Inside the ancestral spirit house, there are stone slabs decorated with the hundred-pace viper pattern, and various animal bones and ritual implements are hung. Currently, the ancestral spirit house is the place for worshiping ancestors and performing various rituals.


1. Family and Marriage: The first-child succession system is used by the Paiwan and Vuculj subgroup. Also called the uni-locality system, it means that the first child of a family, either a girl or a boy, will inherit the family property and affairs. In a marriage, a bride or a groom who is not the first child of the family will live with the other party. If both the bride and the groom are not the first children, they will leave their original families and establish a new family. If both the bride and the groom are the successors, they will stay in their respective homes and handle the affairs of both families. Their first child will inherit the family property and affairs of both families. The Paiwan marriage system is also a criterion to define social status. If a commoner marries the child of a noble or the chief and becomes a member of the noble or chief’s family, his/her social status will rise along with the social status of their children. The Ravav subgroup also adopts the first-son succession system.

2. Tribe and Chief: A Paiwan chief is succeeded by the first child of the family. A chief has superior social status, more property, and more power. He/she owns the land, the river, and hunting sites of the tribe. The chief takes care of every person in the tribe, including nobles, shamans, officials, and commoners, while receiving part of their yields. 

3. Social Hierarchy: Social classes in a Paiwan society can be divided into the chief, nobles, shamans and priests, officials, and commoners. Each social class enjoys different rights. The chief and the nobles have higher social status. They are permitted to tattoo human head and hundred-pacer viper patterns on their bodies, have more land resources, and claim land and forest taxes from the tribe. In addition to spacious houses, only the chief and nobles are allowed to have carved decorations in their family houses. The officials rank between the nobles and the commoners. Compared to commoners, officials have some extra privileges, such as tax exemption and the use of specific names. The commoners can win the favor of the chief and the tribe by way of individual achievements.


Supernaturalism (tsemas) is essential to the Paiwan religion. It includes various supernatural beings, such as the mountain god, river god, ancestral god, ancestral spirit, and ghosts. These beings exist in the divine world (i pidi), the upper world (i tjari vavau), the human world (i katsauan), the intermedia world (i tjemakaziang), the underworld (i makarizeng), and the lower world (i tjarhi teku).

Good and evil also exist in supernatural beings in different worlds. Good gods/spirits keep people safe and bring happiness, fortune, and good luck; while evil gods/spirits harm people and bring disasters and misfortune. Of all supernatural beings, the ancestor (vuvu) is the closest to the hearts of the people. As ancestors are deceased relatives living in the afterworld, the Paiwan flick wine with the right index finger toward the house or the ground in front of the family house to offer it to ancestors before drinking it. Every traditional Paiwan home has an ancestral altar. The Paiwan hire shamans (malata) or priests (palakalai) to hold various rituals or communicate with good gods/spirits, evil gods/spirits, and ancestors among the supernatural beings (tsemas).

The government began to intervene in and restrict the Paiwan traditions, religions, and concepts during Japanese colonization. Catholicism and Protestantism spread to Taiwan in the 1960s. Today, churches are found in every Paiwan tribe and Christianity has become a common religion alongside the traditional Paiwan religion. In recent years, Paiwan-style carvings and patterns are seen on Jesus statues, Virgin Mary statues (Catholicism), and crucifixes (Catholicism) or crosses (Protestantism) found in Paiwan churches, representing a dialogue between traditional culture and modern beliefs. The Millet Harvest Thanksgiving Festival is among the most important Paiwan annual rituals. During the ceremony, the priest and the shaman preside over different rituals. The priest is the master of the ritual, while the shaman plays the key role of the ritual making direct communication with the deity and spirit.

1. Millet Harvest Thanksgiving Festival

From the cultivation, sowing, mowing, to the harvest of millet, the Paiwan hold rituals at each stage. Every year after the harvest, they hold the Harvest Thanksgiving Festival (Masalut). “Masalut” carries the meaning of passing over, surpassing, and crossing a year. In agricultural tribes, the term also suggests a “time” indicator. On the first day of the festival, they store millet in the barn, pray for blessings, and select seeds for the coming year. On the second day, the chief summons the shaman and the priest to bestow blessings and check the harvest of each household with him. The chief will then take some of the harvest to use as offerings for the ancestral spirits in the ancestral spirit house. The shaman will perform a ritual before storing the remaining harvest in a new millet barn.

2. Five-Year Ritual

For the Vuculj people, the Five-Year Ritual is the largest ceremony with the most symbolism. The Vuculj believe that the ancestral spirits living on Mt. Dawu will visit their descendants in the village every five years. Therefore, they hold this ancestral ritual every five years. During Japanese colonization, the scale of the ritual was so large that the colonial government intervened in the ritual and prevented some tribes from holding it. Currently, the Five-Year Ritual is held by the Kuljaljau, Pucunug, and Vungalid tribes of Laiyi (Tjalja’avus) Township; Pailjus and Takamimura tribes of Nanhe (Cukalatju) Village; and Lalekeleke, Tjuvecekadan, and Kinayiman tribes of Chunri (Kasuga) Township in Pingtung; and the Tjuabal tribe of Tadren Township in Taitung.

The Five-Year Ritual is divided into three parts: Pre-ritual, Main Ritual, and Post-ritual (the case of Kuljaljau tribe):

◎ Pre-ritual

The pre-ritual is held to make preparations for the main ritual, including the sanctification of the tribal space, the cleansing of the road for ancestral spirits, the building the shoot-ball (djemuljat) rack, making the shoot-ball pole (diuljat), weaving the shoot-ball (qapudrung), and preparing the required offerings and food, including millet wine and millet cakes.

◎ The Main Ritual

● Reception and Entertainment of the Spirits and Shoot-ball When receiving the spirits, the shaman and the priest will recite the names of the ancestral spirits in the divine world, make offerings of millet cakes, pork, pork bones, and millet wine, and sing and dance to entertain them. Afterwards, the priest will preside over the ritual and start the ball shooting ritual (qemapu dung). Before throwing the shoot-balls (qapudrung), the priest practices a simple ritual to assign different meanings to each ball, such as good harvest, health, and happiness. The ball-shooting is the most impressive event of the ritual.

● Driving Evil Spirits Away (pusau)

On the second day of the ritual, every household will perform the spirit entertainment ritual and treat friends and relatives with a feast. In the afternoon, the shaman will perform the ritual of driving evil spirits away (pusau) in the ancestral spirit house, and every household will prepare offerings for evil spirits. Afterwards, warriors under the guidance of the priest will quickly chase/drive/banish the spirits out of the tribe

● The Feast (zemiyan)

A feast featuring singing, dancing, and drinking is held on the third and fourth days for ancestral spirits to gather with friends and relatives.

● The Last Shoot-ball (kadjuq)

The ball shooting ritual (qemapu dung) is held on the fifth day at noon in the ancestral spirit house in order to send off the good spirits. The shaman pays homage to the good spirits with spells, and people will send them off with offerings, singing, and dancing. Many men and boys carry offerings to send ancestral spirits to the place symbolizing the spiritual world of the tribe. After sending off the good spirits, people will go back to the ball shooting site for the last shoot-ball (kadjuq) ritual.

◎ Post-ritual

The Five-Year Ritual is concluded with hunting and termination of restrictions on the sixth and the seventh days of the ritual. If another ancestral spirit ritual is held in the next year, it is called the “Six-Year Ritual”. The process is the same as that of the main ritual, except that the ball-shooting ritual is omitted.