Legends of the beads of the Paiwan tribe: Part 1

The Paiwan tribe traditionally possessed a strict social hierarchy that consisted of chieftain and clan, nobility and commoners. Colorful glass beads have long been an important part of that tradition. These beads were a symbol of one's status with certain beads reserved for the chieftain and nobility. Such beads were considered the most beautiful and valuable.

Paiwan artist Ljegeay Mavaliv explains this with an anecdote from his childhood: "Once my mother bought a 'tears of the sun' bead because she liked it, but it was not meant for a person of her social class. Although she carefully stored it, one day it was gone. The elders of the village reminded us that what was not rightfully ours would eventually leave us."

These beads were worn as protection against evil spirits and during ceremonies and on special occasions, by both men and women, often as part of single or multi-strand necklaces or chokers. They were sometimes given as a symbol of honor, such as to a warrior who had performed well on the battlefield. They were also family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation, and served as currency or as symbols of ownership and wealth and were often essential betrothal gifts. Although they are of utmost importance to the Paiwan culture, no information about their origins or production methods was passed down through its oral history. It is not known if the Paiwan ever possessed the knowledge to produce these beads and simply lost this knowledge over time or obtained them through trade. There are some scholars who believe that the Dutch brought them from Indonesia, but while the Dutch did use these beads to trade with the Paiwan tribe, it is likely that the beads were already in use long before the Dutch occupation of Taiwan in the 17th century, and perhaps even as long as 1,500 years ago.

In more recent time, large numbers of “antique” Paiwan beads were sold to collectors as outside influences diminished the importance of these beads, especially among the common class. With the number of beads dwindling and no idea how to make them, the Paiwan tribe faced a crisis. Without these beads it was difficult to conduct many of the traditional ceremonies, which threatened the survival of the tribe's culture.
        Umass Zingrur, a Paiwan artist, took it upon himself more than 30 years ago, to research how to make these beads. He traveled all over Taiwan studying glass making and pottery making techniques. Although the original beads were made from lead glass, Umass discovered a quartz clay formula that results in beads that closely imitate the traditional.
In addition, he interviewed the elders of the tribe and found that each bead has a name, a meaning and a legend. Actually, there can be more than one name, meaning or legend per bead, as these may vary among the tribal clans. He concentrated his efforts on researching and reproducing 34 of the most common beads, 28 with patterns and 4 of solid color. His contributions have resulted in the revival of the art form and the appreciation of the tribal elders.        In this eight-part article, the names, meanings and legends of these beads are described.  


This bead is associated with satisfaction and smiling. It is also referred to as the lake or pond bead. According to legend, a great chieftain’s daughter very rarely smiled. She almost always looked very unhappy. This worried the great chieftain. One day out of frustration he announced that any man who could make his daughter laugh would win her hand in marriage. Many men tried various methods but all failed until one day the lake prince released hundreds of little crabs. Watching the way the crabs moved sideways, the great chieftain’s daughter could not help but laugh. The great chieftain kept his promise and they were married.  


     This bead is also called the “grain” bead (in reference to millet, sorghum, wheat and rice) and has patterns associated with water and mountains. The mountain and water deities help those who work hard by preparing abundant harvests, but do not feed those who are lazy. Thus, this bead is associated with the harvesting of crops.




    These two beads form a pair and represent a tribal god (Lukarung) and goddess (Tangiyut), respectively. In addition, Lukarung is associated with space and Tangiyut is associated with time, as on a space-time continuum. According to the oral history of the tribe, only one pair of these beads was known to exist in the world. These beads were kept in a sacred pottery vessel of the Talimarau family of the chieftain class. It is said that once a year, the beads would disappear from the pottery vessel stored in this family’s home to travel among the members of this family, driving away evil and increasing their prosperity.  Today, these beads are associated with royalty and are considered a family heirloom of chieftains, as well as able to drive away evil and bring about blessings. 


Source: Much of the information contained in this article is from research conducted by and provided courtesy of Umass Zingrur.  

Note: There are variations in bead shapes, colors and patterns. These illustrations are a reference only and may not provide a completely accurate depiction.