Wu Gun: Preserving culture with dignity

From his home in the Luanshan Community of Yanping Township, Taitung County, Wu Gun, a woodcarver from the indigenous Bunun tribe, shares his art and culture with visitors. The Luanshan Community is located along Taitung County Road 197, a picturesque two-lane thoroughfare that reaches the outskirts of Taitung City. Large tour buses are not allowed on this road or the even narrower roads that stretch into the community. This has helped to preserve the beauty and culture of this area as tourist numbers are somewhat restricted, although this has not prevented tour companies from dispersing tour bus passengers into vans for day-long activities, such as the itinerary offered by Wu Gun.

        The first stop is an increasingly famous site of this community referred to as the "walking tree". This is a large banyan tree that has expanded across a vast area, setting down aerial roots, some of which have become as large as tree trunks, and which to the ancestors of today's Bunun residents appeared like legs. The Bunun tribe originally inhabited high mountain areas where there were no banyan trees, but were forced down to lower elevations by the Japanese during their occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945) to allow for better control of their movements.


        The next stop is a ceremonial hut made from natural materials including wood and thatch that is repaired every year. This is where the annual Ear Shooting Festival is held, one of the major ceremonies of the Bunun, which highlights the tribe's traditional hunting and sharing cultures. It is located next to Luanshan Lake, a small, natural lake and wetlands area. Here, Wu Gun introduces himself and the Bunun culture. He then conducts a short ceremony in the Bunun language to ask the ancestral spirits for safe passage and protection for the day's activities. Rice wine is poured into bamboo cups and then poured out onto the ground and betel nuts are also offered.


        From here, it is a few minutes' drive to Wu Gun's home. On the way, we pass a pen of domesticated boar enjoying a puddle of water on a hot summer's day. Upon walking down the driveway of Wu Gun's home we are greeted by some of his art works. Wu Gun describes wood as a close friend and art as an important part of his life. Members of his family and the community dressed in ceremonial attire sing a welcome song. We are then escorted to a thatch covered structure where we are further serenaded in songs performed in the Bunun language. This is followed by the demonstration of the exchange of blessings and millet liquor.


        Lunch comes next, served in a simple bamboo hut with screened windows and electric fans. The food is cooked outdoors over an open fire and includes grilled pork, grilled fish covered in a layer of salt, roasted chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, sticky rice cooked in bamboo tubes, and stir-fried vegetables. After lunch, there are a number of activities. Archery targets are set up and instruction is given on how to use a bow and arrow. A pestle and a mortar are provided to pound sticky rice into a smooth texture. The sticky rice is then cut into small pieces, which are rolled in peanut powder and eaten.

        A gravel path leads to a natural cave-like tunnel. On the other side is a set of ropes for climbing up a large boulder. Nearby is a rope ladder for climbing a steep rock face. In between, there is a panoramic view of the East Rift Valley.


        Wu Gun also offers more in-depth tours, such as a night eco tour to view mountain goats, muntjac and other nocturnal animals. He notes that he began providing tours as a way to promote the Bunun culture and for his children to feel proud of their identity as Bunun. He also hopes that through such visits that people from Taiwan and abroad will gain an appreciation for this culture, bringing dignity, as he understands that tourism is an important opportunity for education, as well as recreation.