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Identification. The Bunun of Taiwan use the term "Bunun" to refer to all Bunun; it means "person." Their language is also called Bunun. The Bunun are known to have been divided into six named subgroups (Isbukun, Takebaka, Takebanuan, Takepulan, Taketodo, and Takevatan), each characterized by differences in dialect and culture. There are no longer any Bunun who identify themselves as belonging to the Takepulan subethnic group, and scholars have suggested that the Takepulan have been assimilated into other subgroups. The largest of the remaining subethnic groups is the Isbukun.

Location. The Bunun are scattered in the mountainous area of central Taiwan between 23° and 24° N and at about 120°30 E, an area that includes Yu-shan Mountain, the highest mountain in Taiwan. The climate is subtropical. Annual rainfall is about 200 centimeters. Most rain falls in the summer months from July to September, when typhoons are frequent.

Demography. In 1978, the estimated population was 32,000, or 0.3 percent of the total population of Taiwan. There were 18,113 Bunun reported in a 1932 census, so their numbers have been slowly increasing. There are now some temporary migrants in the cities, but most Bunun still live in the "reservation area."

Linguistic Affiliation. Historical linguists classify the Bunun language as belonging to a Branch of Proto-Northern Indonesian, which is a Branch of Proto-Hesperonesian. The latter is thought to belong to the Proto-Western Austronesian Language Family, which is in turn a branch of Proto-Austronesian.

History and Cultural Relations

There are few written documents with which to trace Bunun history. Oral history indicates, however, that the Bunun lived in the Puli plain in the eighteenth century, and thereafter were forced by Han Chinese immigrants and Plains Aborigines to move to their current location. Most Bunun now regard Yu-shan as their ancestral homeland. Before 1895, the Bunun territory in central Taiwan had expanded east and south from the Yu-shan area as a result of population growth, in the process coming into contact with other aboriginal peoples such as Atayal, Tsou, Ami, Puyuma, Paiwan, and Han Chinese. The Japanese colonial government also had some impact on the Bunun during its occupation (1895-1945). After World War II, the Republic of China (R.O.C.) government and Christianity have been influential. The extent of the impact of neighboring ethnic groups, the Japanese government, the current Han Chinese-dominated government, and Christianity is difficult to establish, but it is clear that the Bunun have been reinventing their culture and society in response to these external contacts.


The Bunun population is the third largest of the Taiwan aboriginal groups, and they occupy the second-largest area. They have been the most successful of Taiwan Aborigines in the expansion of their territory through migration. The average Bunun settlement size is quite small compared to other Taiwan aborigines. A 1938 survey reported an average settlement size of 111.22 persons. Also, the Bunun are located in the higher elevations of Taiwan. A 1929 survey by T. Kano reported that 68.2 percent of Bunun settlements were located above 1,000 meters. Bunun settlements can be divided into three types that are localized in different parts in Taiwan: (1) large settlements with strict clan organization in the north; (2) smaller and more isolated settlements in the east and the center; (3) scattered and isolated settlements in the south which, except for state-imposed administrative divisions, lack clear boundaries.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Like many other Taiwan aborigines, the Bunun lived until the end of World War II on a "traditional" subsistence diet of maize and sweet potato produced by shifting cultivation. This subsistence economy overshadowed commercial activities, though commerce has long been present. The Japanese government successfully forced the Bunun to cultivate wet rice instead of maize before the end of World War II. When the Bunun began to cultivate cash crops about 1970, wet rice was given up. These crop substitutions have contributed to an increase in other commercial activity to obtain food and other consumables.

Industrial Arts. Many new technologies from the Han Chinese and the Japanese have been accepted by the Bunun, and the traditional industrial arts of textiles, house building, and metallurgy have all but disappeared.

Trade. Lacking their own industries, the Bunun are heavily dependent on trade, which, in turn, has bound the Bunun increasingly closely with the wider Taiwan society. Economic exploitation of the Bunun by Chinese middlemen has led to serious interethnic conflict.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, men were in charge of hunting, and women and children were responsible for food gathering. Women performed everyday agricultural tasks, but men performed the heavier work of clearing land and harvesting crops. Men also assumed the important traditional sociopolitical roles (such as military leader and public shaman) ; women performed domestic work. This traditional division of labor gradually has given way in the face of increasing social differentiation. The market economy has reinforced the preexisting traditional value placed on personal performance. Capable women can now take any job or occupy any social status.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, the Bunun classified land into three categories: for hunting, for planting, and for housing. Each type was controlled, respectively by the patrician, household, and settlement. These categories might sometimes overlap when the same parcel of land could be controlled by different social units for their separate functions. This traditional classification no longer exists. First, the R.O.C. government carried out a land survey with the explicit intention of imposing a "modern" concept of ownership. Second, land has become valued as part of Bunun entry into the wider market economy of Taiwan.


Kin Groups and Descent. In comparison with other Taiwan aborigines, Bunun are noted for their complex clan system. The smallest unit is the subclan (gauduslan ). Each subclan is distinguished from other subclans by name. Subclan names are now used as surnames. All members of a subclan are descendants of a common patrilineal ancestor, although the exact genealogical relationship is sometimes unknown. The subclans are organized into clans (also called gauduslan). All clan members are descendants of a common though unknown patrilineal ancestor. The subclans of a clan are hierarchically ordered on the basis of the birth order of the various focal ancestors of the individual subclans. Each clan is identified by a unique clan origin myth describing the birth order of the focal ancestor of each subclan. Clans are organized into another higher level called gavian. Only some gavian are named, and the genealogical relations between the clans may be either assumed or mythical. Kin groups thus emphasize a centripetal solidarity with their assumed or mythical patrilineal descent and birth order, which are inborn or ascribed. Egalitarian and competitive tendencies, however, also are manifest: status is achieved and individually manipulable. By his own achievement, any male can split the original subclan and found a new one if he can attract enough followers. Sometimes he can reorder the hierarchical birth order in a clan, or switch his clan's gavian association. Also, the concept of "person" supports and is more fundamental than patrilineal ideology. The concept of "person" is grounded in hanido (spirit) beliefs, where a person's spirits are derived from the father and a person's body from the mother. Since the end of World War II, this clan system has gradually lost most of its social functions. Kin relations, however, still conform to the Bunun concept of person.

Kinship Terminology. The Bunun are noted for their Omaha kinship terminology insofar as males of a mother's patrilineal subclan tend to be addressed by the same kin term as the mother's brother. T. Mabuchi suggests that the use of this single kin term is based on the Bunun belief in the spiritual predominance of the mother's brother over his sister's children.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Bunun often remarry after losing a marriage partner, but otherwise observe strict monogamy. Residence is traditionally patrilocal and descent patrilineal, and, since the end of World War II, both have been strengthened by Han Chinese influence. Marriage is in principle arranged by parents, though in practice a person has some latitude of choice. Before the end of World War II, there was a preference for settlement endogamy and prohibitions on the following types of marriage: (1) within the same gavian, (2) with the mother's patrician member, (3) with people whose mothers were from one's mother's patrician. With an average of 111.22 people per settlement, the number of gauduslan and gavian in any one settlement was limited. Preferential settlement endogamy and clan proscriptions left so few choices in marriage that, in Mabuchi's opinion, proscriptive marriage rules acted in practice as prescriptive ones. With the increase in external contacts since the end of World War II, marriages outside the settlement, including with other ethnic groups, have increased, but the traditional clan proscriptions have strengthened.

Domestic Unit. Bunun refer to their domestic group as lumah, which includes both the house and all members of the domestic unit regardless of kin ties. Earlier studies emphasized the "extended family" as a major feature of the Bunun. Recent studies have found, however, that the domestic unit is not necessarily a kin unit, but instead has its own logic allowing inclusion of members who lack consanguineal or affinal ties. Traditionally, the domestic unit and the settlement were homologous in structure but complementary in function. The relations between the domestic unit and settlement and between the spatial structure and the material of the house have also changed in response to external forces.

Inheritance. The property of the domestic unit traditionally was inherited by its members according to past contribution to the domestic unit, without taking consideration of kin relations or ascribed status. This made it possible for domestic-unit property to be inherited by nonpatrilineal members. However, the strengthening of patrilineality through external Han Chinese influence has resulted in disputes and lawsuits between members of the same domestic unit.

Socialization. Without age grades or age sets, Bunun socialization traditionally was carried out by the domestic unit and settlement as a normal part of everyday life. The presence of the church and Christianity, and of the state educational system and state ideology, have diluted, or even replaced, some original Bunun cultural ideas. As a consequence, Christianization and Sinicization now also play a role in socialization.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. The settlement was traditionally an important and autonomous sociopolitical unit. Beyond the settlement, there were only temporary alliances among settlements for defense against their common enemy. The domestic unit was the basic social unit within the settlement, and there was no formal intermediate institution connecting the two levels. There were two formal sociopolitical offices through which some people could take charge of the social order: the lisigadan lus-an and the lavian. The lisigadan lus-an was in charge of the social order within the settlement; the lavian dealt with relations with other Bunun settlements and other tribes. Both offices could be attained through the practical achievements of an individual, and thus were not ascribed. Still, the members of a settlement's dominant clan had a better chance of obtaining such offices. The Bunun lacked a formal process for denominating these offices. Succession was earned through successful practice as confirmed by settlement consensus. Differences within a settlement about who would be a more capable leader usually resulted in the Splitting of the settlement. Since the end of World War II, however, the traditional political system has been replaced by the R.O.C. political system and the settlement has completely lost its traditional political autonomy. The new administrative offices (such as village head) can only deal with other settlements, or with higher-level bureaucratic units. Within a settlement, church leaders now play, to a limited extent, the traditional role of the lisigadan lus-an.

Social Control and Conflict. Traditionally, intra- and intersettlement conflicts were resolved by the lisigadan lus-an and the gavian. In fact, this mechanism was grounded in common beliefs and customs, through which a consensus could be created by way of social pressure on the deviant. The presence of Han Chinese immigrants and merchants who do not share Bunun beliefs and customs has weakened this form of social control, and generates conflict in the course of competition for their respective economic benefit. The R.O.C. government has taken a large part in resolving this kind of social conflict. Thus, not only has the mechanism of social control changed, but so has the nature of social conflict. Social conflict between the Bunun and the Chinese has become more serious.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Supernaturals. The traditional religious beliefs of the Bunun are based on the concept of "hanido"the spirit of any animate creature or inanimate natural object. The hanido of any natural object has its own special innate power. The strength of hanido power varies among living beings or objects of the same category. The hanido spirit leaves and is transformed or disappears when a living being dies or an object vanishes. Human beings are like other living beings and objects, except that humans have two hanidos instead of one, a good hanido of the right shoulder and a bad hanido of the left shoulder. A person's hanidos determine what a person wants to do, and the final outcome of any activity depends on the hanidos having the strength to overcome the strength of another living being's or object's hanido. By this kind of belief, Bunun can explain general problems in everyday life. Another important religious concept is dehanin. Dehanin refers to the sky, although its meaning is more ambiguous. It traditionally referred to the power of various celestial phenomena such as wind, rain, thunder, lightning, moon, sun, star, and so on. Because the power of dehanin was inactive in ordinary life, attention was paid to dehanin only during times of disaster. Traditionally, rituals had to be held to express gratitude to the celestial bodies or dehanin for relief from disaster. Today, Christian beliefs have been accepted by being assimilated to the traditional beliefs in dehanin and hanido. "Dehanin" is now used to refer to the Christian God, and "hanido" to evil or Satan.

Religious Practitioners and Ceremonies. Traditionally, any person could perform a ceremony for himself or herself or for others if his or her hanido had enough power. In this sense, a religious practitioner was not a special social category, and potentially any person could serve in any ritual role. Traditional ceremonies can be classified into two categories: life-cycle rituals and calendrical rituals. The former continue to exist with a Christian color, but the latter have been abandoned with the demise of shifting cultivation.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, kin buried the body of a dead person in different places depending on the cause of death. Violent and accidental deaths were regarded as bad deaths (ikula ), and the body was immediately buried on the spot. The hanido of persons who died violently or accidentally were harmful to human beings. Death at home from illness or natural causes was a good death (idmamino madai ). Kin buried the body of such dead persons in their house. If the dead person had made a major contribution to the society, he or she would be buried near the door of the house so that the hanido of the dead person could protect the surviving members of the domestic unit. The hanido of such persons would go to maiason, where their great ancestors lived forever. With Christianization, the dead are now buried at the entrance to the settlement. The same distinction between good and bad deaths is maintained, however, and "maiason" now refers to paradise. Other traditional taboos and customs related to death are still observed.

See also Taiwan Aborigines


Huang, Ying-Kuei (1988). "Conversion and Religious Change among the Bunun of Taiwan." Ph.D. dissertation, University of London.

Mabuchi, T. (1974). Mabuchi Toichi Chosaku-shu. 3 vols. Tokyo: Shakai Shiso-Sha.