The Beidawushan Series: Lily, Butterfly, Viper

A butterfly drinks nectar from a flower

The title of this post is a pun on Meteor, Butterfly, Sword, the name of a famous Taiwanese novel.

The Taiwanese actors Ivy Chen and Baron Chen in the 2010 TV adaptation of Meteor, Butterfly, Sword

The Taiwanese actors Ivy Chen and Baron Chen in the 2010 TV adaptation of Meteor, Butterfly, Sword

The indigenous Rukai people live in the northern Dawu mountains, just to the north of Paiwan territory, and also used to be under the rule of the Puyuma King. Like the Paiwan, they have a class systems which distinguishes nobles from commoners, though they are more patriarchal. Linguists claim that Rukai was probably the first language to split from proto-Austronesian, so in a way it is the oldest living Austronesian language. You can hear the language in this song about the Rukai villages devastated by typhoon Morakot in 2009 (you can find a description of a trip to these villages here).

Replica of a traditional Rukai house

Replica of a traditional Rukai house

According to a Rukai legend, the goddess at the top of Beidawushan wept, and her tears fell onto a Taiwanese lily. The Rukai people were born from that lily, and a cloud leopard led them to their home. Thus, the Taiwanese lily is very important in Rukai culture, and there are rules about when using the design of the lily is appropriate.

A picture I took of a Taiwan lily along the Taoshan trail (in Sheipa National Park)

A picture I took of a Taiwan lily along the Taoshan trail (in Sheipa National Park)

The Rukai also have a legend about the daughter of a chieftain who fell in love with a hundred-pacer viper, so there are also rules about when to use the image of that specific kind of snake. This legend has been adapted into the novel Princess Banenn by the Rukai writer Danaro, which is as far as I know the only fantasy novel based on the mythology of Taiwan’s indigenous people. There is also a computer game adaptation, which is also, as far as I know, the only computer game based on the culture of a people indigenous to Taiwan. Though most of the story takes place at Little Ghost Lake, both the novel and the computer game have a scene which takes place at Beidawushan (there’s also some scenes at Taimali in what is now Taidong county).

The Paiwan people also have a legend about the hundred-pace viper marrying a young woman (illustrated here), and regard it as a sacred animal. In Taiwan, the image of the hundred-pace viper is often used as a symbol of the Paiwan people.

A photo of a hundred-pace viper

A photo of a hundred-pace viper

Why is it called the ‘hundred-pace’ viper? Folk wisdom says that it’s so poisonous that, if it bites you, you can only walk a hundred paces before you die. In reality, its bite will not kill you that quickly, but without timely antivenom treatment you will definitely die.

And there are the purple crows.

The purple crows are butterflies, not birds. They can be found all over Taiwan – I’ve seen a lot of purple crows in urban areas such as Keelung and Changhua city – but in winter most of Taiwan is too cold for their survival. Thus they migrate to the valleys of the Dawu mountains in winter, which have an abundance of flowers. Some come from as far away as Japan.

A purple crow butterfly in flight.

A purple crow butterfly in flight.

The purple crow is also a very important animal in Rukai culture, and there are also traditional restrictions on using the butterfly design. However, I suspect they might be easing the restrictions, since the Rukai villages in Maolin seems to put butterfly images everywhere (that might be for tourists). The Rukai have noted that the Rukai and the butterflies have generally chosen the same valleys for habitation.

A group of butterflies drink from a puddle

The butterflies generally only live at 500 meters above sea level or lower during winter, though in summer they can be found at much higher elevations. Even so, the Beidawushan hikes are generally at too high an elevation to see many butterflies. Nonetheless, I think it’s cool that Beidawushan is at the heart of such an ecological wonder.


Continue to the next part: “The Cloud Forest”


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5 thoughts on “The Beidawushan Series: Lily, Butterfly, Viper

  1. Pingback: The Beidawushan Series: The Paiwan People (Part 2) | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. Hi! I’m Kat, and currently trying to research and learn about Taiwan’s aboriginal stories about butterflies. I was wondering how you learned about those stories that you have written about in this post (I haven’t really been able to find things online besides this, especially in English.) I’d love to hear more about how you came across the stories and talk to you further if you know more. My email is katherinelin.xd (at) gmail (dot) com Thanks so much!

    • The sources were either books I’ve read (in Chinese) or things I learned from the visitor centers exhibits in the indigenous towns. Since I no longer live in Taiwan, I’ve lost access to most of those books, and when I quickly looked at the books I still have access to, it does not seem any of them have stories about butterflies (though they have plenty of other stories from Taiwan’s indigenous people). Are you specifically interested in the Rukai people, or in stories from any of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan?

      Generally, it will be a lot easier to do research if you can read Chinese and/or are physically present in Taiwan. If you are neither in Taiwan nor can read Chinese, it’s going to be tough.

      • Hi Sara! I can read some Chinese. Thanks so much for replying – I don’t know why I didn’t get a notification. I’m interested in legends about Taiwanese butterflies specifically. I’m planning to go to Taiwan in mid-January. Do you have any suggestions as to where to start looking or for any contacts that may be able to help find cultural stories about Taiwanese butterflies?

      • When I visited Maolin (in Southern Taiwan), I stayed at the De En Gorge Guesthouse – here is their website (in Chinese):

        The owner (the older man, not his son) is a retired teacher who seems to know almost everyone in Maolin (a set of three Rukai villages). He is a native speaker of the Rukai language, and he could certainly suggest contacts for learning more about Rukai culture and folklore. His wife is Bunun, so he may also have contacts for learning about Bunun culture/folklore.

        Most of the indigenous groups in Taiwan have culture/heritage centers who could probably find good contacts for you. There is the museum of aboriginal cultures in Taiwan which I suppose may also help, but I think if you have the time it’s better to visit the villages and the cultural/heritage centers which are dedicated to a specific cultural group.

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