Introduction to the ethnic group

Bunun man of Ganzuowan peaks gan zhuo wan
 (the backdrop is the Mainland Chinese style building)

Bunun means “human being” in the group’s language. Taiwan’s Office of the Governor-General Provisional Committee on the Investigation of Taiwan Old Customs published “Fan tsu tiao-ch'a pao-kao shu” Report on the Survey of Barbarian Tribes: first part of Wulun tribe(蕃族調查報告書武崙族前篇) in 1916, which transliterates Bunun into Wulun in Mandarin. According to their oral history, the Bunun people originally lived on the western plains of Taiwan, but they gradually moved to the mountains in Renai and Hsinyi Townships in Nantou County because of the invasion of the Han Chinese and conflicts among the Pinpu tribes on the Taichung plain. After they entered into the Nantao mountain areas, they formed six tribes. Based on the book “The Formosan Native Tribes: a Genealogical and Classificatory Study” (台灣高砂族系統所屬之研究), the Bunun can be divided into six tribes: the Take-baka, Take-vatan, Bubukun, Take-todo, Take-banuan and Take-pulan.


In the Bunun’s own categorization, the entire group contains only two branches: the Take-banuan and Bubukun. The two branches have different cultural and linguistic features as well as a different origin and migration history. According to Mabuchi Toichi and other Japanese scholars’ surveys and tribal elders’ oral history, the Take-banuan originate from Lugang Township in central Taiwan while the Bubukun migrated from the southern plains to the mountains. When the Bubukun moved along the Chiayi and Nantou hills through Fanzaitian (in Jiiali Township, Tainan County), these two branches met in lamongan and then entered into the mountain areas together.


Geographical Distribution

Bunun distribution map

The Bunun are the fourth largest ethnic group among Taiwan aborigines. The size of their living area is second only to that of the Atayal, which also shows that they have the greatest ability for expansion. The Bunun population is distributed in the south of the Central Range, from the upper stream of the Jhuoshuei River in the north to the upper and middle parts of the Gaoping and Bainan Rivers in the south. The administrative divisions where they live include Renai and Hsinyi Townships in Nantou County, Taoyuan and Sanmin Townships in Kaohsiung County, Haiduan and Yanping Townships in Taitung County and Chuohsi and Wanrong Townships in Hualien County. A few members have moved to other regions and gained the status of “Plain aborigine,” and they mainly reside in Changbin Township, in Taitung County and Ruisui Township, in Hualien County. The total population is around thirty-seven thousand, with the largest group in Hsinyi Township in Nantuo County and the second largest group in Chuohsi Township in Hualien County.


Bunun villages were usually spread throughout mountain areas at a high elevation, but after the Japanese government implemented a mandatory group relocation policy, many villages were moved to lower and more accessible places so they could be monitored by the colonial government.


“Fan tsu tiao-ch'a pao-kao shu” Report on the Survey of Barbarian Tribes: first part of Wulun tribe(蕃族調查報告書武崙族前篇) records that Bunun tribes initially lived on Jade Mountain (New High Mountain) and then spread out from there. The group’s resettlement in the middle phase of the period of Japanese rule (1895-1945) is the last time that the Bunun dispersed and migrated on a large scale.


In Bunun oral history, there is no myth about the creation or the origin of the universe, only mention of some conversations between natural objects such as the sun, moon or stars, and the Bunun. The Bunun’s myth of origin starts with a folk song describing some natural events, phenomena and the growth of plants, showing the Bunun’s understanding of their interaction with nature and all living things. The Bunun did not clearly distinguish themselves from other animals, so in their origin myths, there are humans borne by worms, excrement or stones as well as women who are impregnated by seeing snakes shedding or having intercourse with animals. Their culture began only after they had shot down the additional sun (which became the moon) and the moon had taught them rituals. After the great flood drained away, mysterious phenomena ceased, and then the Bunun began to move outward.


Wise elder in Yongkang village,
Yanping township, Taitung county

Social Structure and Social Organizations

The main components of a Bunun village are the clan and its members; however, many villages now contain several clans due to migration and reconstruction throughout a long history. The Bunun respect elders highly, so they live together with their entire extended families. They are also avid hunters, so they usually build an animal bone rack on the wall of the house entrance or under the front eaves, and sometimes they hang animal bones on the trees by the house. These are two major features of the Bunun tribe.


The characteristic of Bunun social organization that sets them apart from other Taiwanese aborigines is their complicated clan system. Clan identity and structure are determined through blood relation, which shapes the unique, multi-layered self-cognition of the Bunun. When encountering other Bunun, the Bunun consider the largest/highest category to be the “tribal system” or “community,” sometimes called simply “the tribe,” and the “family” to be the smallest one.


Bunun society is patrilineal, so males have a dominant role. All of the clans have a central clan tribe, and these tribes are gerontocracies, so they have a tribal elder council under the chief.

Three types of leaders can be found in a Bunun village: first, the priest of agricultural rituals, who observes celestial phenomena and weather, and also maintains social order and mediates disputes; second, the leader of the Ear Shooting Ritual, who was usually the best hunter, bagging the most game in that year, but has recently been replaced by other members who consistently occupy the position; third, the political leader, who is a warrior as well as a commander, taking charge of warfare, headhunting and clan revenge.

Under the KMT government, local leaders and representatives are selected through elections but the “elder system” remains a crucial component in the Bunun’s concept of power.

The Bunun clan applies strict exogamy, and directs symbolic social behaviors and maintains a close social network. The clan is the basic unit in many practices of daily life, too. For a clan, or a phratry, allegiances based on blood ties or semi-blood ties determine its categorization and regulate personal interactions. These relationships enhance chances for survival and increase mutual benefits, so up until today, the Bunun people have continued to follow the rules, preserving especially the taboo of clan endogamy.


Bunun women

Cultural collection- Shoulder basket

Women and children

Production Method and Food Culture

In addition to hunting and farming, the Bunun also engage in fishing and animal husbandry. Their livestock include poultry such as chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys, and domestic animals, such as deer, wild boar, goats, monkeys, rabbits, pigs and cows.

The Bunun have a very simple diet; for example, millet, corn and sweet potatoes are their staples, but during busy farming seasons they mainly eat sweet potatoes, taro and pigeon pea soup cooked in a temporary stove in the field. The Bunun also collect nuts, edible wild herbs, mushrooms, wood fungus or ferns.

The most typical beverage is millet wine, which is their tribal wine. In addition to this type of wine, they also brew sweet corn wine. Traditionally, millet wine is made for rituals. In a Bunun drinking custom, they sit in a circle and drink from the same cup in order. This habit is called “rotating the cup.”

Millet is the most unique and symbolic food in the Bunun diet. The distinction between millet and other crops is that sowing millet seeds (binsax) is viewed as the symbol of family and kaviaz. Only members of the same family and kaviaz can consume the same millet harvest; otherwise, their lives will be in danger. By contrast, members of the same family and kaviaz can enjoy the same harvest. Therefore, millet is not only a symbol of continuity and identity for the family or kaviaz, but also a representation of the sharing relationship among members.

The traditional Bunun production method was slash and burn agriculture. They mainly consumed their products themselves, and only a few additional crops and game were traded for cloth, pots, salt or other everyday items with the Han Chinese in the neighboring markets at the foot of the mountains.

The Bunun economy underwent transformations, and was also affected by state policies and the police administration during Japanese rule. Under KMT rule, the government initially continued Japanese policies, and many Bunun communities were forced to move in groups that were given arable lands, so Bunun economic activities were similar to how they were in the period of Japanese rule. In fact, because the arable lands were distant from the community, some families returned to their traditional lifestyle after the Japanese left. Cultivating paddy rice was encouraged in the late phase of the Japanese occupation, but it did not become the main production method in many regions nor did it affect the value of millet for both food production and culture.


Ritual and Religion

The traditional Bunun religion is animism, and it teaches that man has two souls, one on the left shoulder, the other one on the right. The two souls each have an independent will, so they are responsible for different human behaviors. The left soul lures man to be violent, greedy and angry while the right one leads man to be generous, altruistic and brotherly. Both of these two souls originate from the father’s testicles. Since they come from the same person, they have equal powers. The soul’s power is determined by heredity, but souls can also be trained and their powers can be developed by man.


Bunun manah tainga

 Bunun performance

 2007 manah tainga in Yanping township-
Traditional "Top spinning" game

 Pasikau church inTaoyuan village, Yanping township

2007 manah tainga- the contest
of making the trap for mice

According to Yin Guay Huang, Bunun seasonal rituals are closely related to millet cultivation. Most of the traditional Bunun rituals were abandoned after the introduction of paddy rice cultivation by the Japanese and the introduction of Christianity. Only few tribes hold the customary Ear Shooting Ritual, and this ritual has become an important annual activity in these tribes.

The Bunun are one of the ethnic groups with the largest number of traditional rituals. Because of their emphasis on the millet harvest, they have developed a whole series of long and sophisticated sacrificing rituals. In the traditional Bunun calendar, months and years are divided by the stages of the millet’s growth. The schedules of agricultural activities or hunting are also determined by the life cycle of plants and by the lunar cycle. The full Moon represents the fulfillment of human life, as well as the rich harvest of millet. A moon that is not full symbolizes that bad things are transitory, and people use the symbol to wish that bad things will disappear as soon as possible. After the weed hoeing ritual, the Bunun spin tops and wish for the millet to grow as fast as the tops spin. They also used to build a swing and wished for the millet to grow as tall as the swing reached.

Christianity was introduced into Bunun society in 1945. Many Bunun people converted to Christianity and they have integrated their culture into the church’s services and new theology; for example, singing hymns in their traditional chorus.

Three pieces of a wooden "picture calendar” were found in Take-vatan. Carved on the wood are graphics about the abstract concepts of time, seasonal rituals and the agricultural cycle. These three wood pieces are all in different formats, but one can see that the ancient calendar is a lunar calendar corresponding to crop seasons, so that the months are consistent with the annual cycle of agriculture.

The Ear Shooting Ritual is an important seasonal ritual. The song “Praying for a Millet Harvest” has been admiringly described as “the voice from heaven” because of its extraordinary eight-part harmony. This treasure was discovered by Japanese musicologist Kurosawa Takatomo in Lilongsha tribe, Guanshan District, Taitung Sub-prefecture (now Kanding Village, Haiduan Township) in 1943, who also introduced it to the world. The eight pattern harmony not only shows the Bunun people’s great musical sense, but also expresses their idea of harmonic and orderly personal relations.



Traditional Bunun garments include leather products made from Formosan Reeves' muntjac, water deer and Formosan serow, and ramie products after the processes of scraping, pounding, heating, dying and then weaving into cloth. Their traditional knitting pattern is vertical herringbone stitch and the color combinations are usually white background with a red, yellow and purple pattern, or a red, yellow and white pattern. Men wear a long white sleeveless jacket with beautiful woven designs on the back, together with a bib and a loincloth in rituals. In other occasions, they wear long sleeve black shirts and blue tops with short black skirts.


Women's garments follow the Han Chinese style which uses blue and black as the main colors on both skirts and shirts, with the borders of the diagonal necklines embellished with colorful patterns. Leather clothes and hats are part of the males’ dress, too.

When the Bunun are faced with modern tourism and the need to reconstruct their self-image, they tend to position themselves as “the protectors of the Central Range” and transform their image of a hunting culture into that of the ethnic group with “ecological wisdom.” Many Bunun people also take advantage of their mountain knowledge to work in the national parks.
The most well-known features of the Bunun are the “Bunun Tribal Village” (currently “the Bunun Leisure Farm”) in Yanping Township, Taitung County and the legendary “Hongye Little League.”

The Bunun Leisure Farm was founded by Pastor Guang-sheng Bai and run by the Bunun Cultural and Educational Foundation as part of the “program of hope,” also headed by Pastor Bai. The Farm has many facilities, including aboriginal handicraft gift shops, a village theater, a Bunun weaving studio and wood carving, stone carving, pottery and painting exhibits of many aboriginal artists. In addition to traditional cultural statues, there are also aboriginal singing and dancing performances, a coffee shop, aboriginal restaurant, a traditional handicraft studio, a tea house and hostels. After the first several difficult years, the Farm began to attract many tourists on holidays.


The Farm is not as unproblematic as it may appear at first glance, however. Many outsiders and other Bunun people think that the Farm was heavily influenced by religious elements throughout its development, which has blocked non church members from participating in its operation. Even after the initial stage, Farm officer positions are now mainly occupied by Pastor Bai’s family, so the Farm appears to be his “family business.” For many Taoyuan Villagers, the Tribal Village/Farm is the Bai family’s tribal village, but not their own tribal village. Many people also disagree with its “profit-oriented” operating policies, because under this method of operation, an “aboriginal tribe” has become a “tourist resort,” a “tourist destination” or a “place to watch aborigines.”

Bunun children in Hairei Township

Street wall-painting for the house of village head
inTaoyuan village, Yanping township

Cultural collection- Leather hat

Bunun cultural collection- male sleeveless shirt


"The Hongye Little League” is another aspect of Bunun culture that shapes the Bunun’s image. Hongye Village is located in Yanping Township, Taitung County. The Bunun are the major residents. The Hongye Little League Team was set up in 1964 and it won all its baseball games after that. In 1968, after the Wakayama Team from Japan’s Kansai Little League won the world championship, they were invited to have a friendly game with the Hongye Little League Team who routed the world champions with a resounding victory of 7:0. Thirty years later in 1992, through local enthusiasm and hard work, the Hongye Little League Memorial Hall was built on the campus of Hongye Elementary School, which trained the legendary team. On the front plaza, a memorial monument was erected describing the history of the Hongye Little League Team’s defeat of the world champions, and a plaque reading “in honor of us, the Bunun” which explicitly shows the Bunun peoples’ pride in this legendary victory.



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