A Bunun tribal elder showing golden millet grain, their staple food.
A tribal event showcasing physical strength and strengthening family bonds
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 had 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.
Visitors are encouraged to try the Bunun traditional customs, like archery.
The annual festival is named after one of its important competitions. The archery contest sharpens the hunting skills of the warriors and teaches the young boys. The traditional target was once the ears of the pigs or deer. 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 I think I could shoot a large cow if it was not too far from me.
Most of the tribal participants and spectators wore the colorful traditional Bunun costumes of their village.
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 the special characteristics of the 4th largest tribe in Taiwan. These included their special singing style, which could be heard for miles around in the mountains. Another notable item in Bunun culture is their thousand-year-old written calendar. It is the closest thing to a written language that existed in Prehistoric Taiwan.
The millet grinding competition uses a traditional mortar and pestle, and requires synchronized teamwork.
For the Bunun, there is nothing more important than feats of 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 the men were allowed to compete in the archery contest. 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.
Wrestling is a popular competitive event at this festival.
I looked down at my growing 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 soemone with my physique would fit in very well. 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.
The Bunun elders made me feel like part of their family.