Ambassador of the Bead Spirits

by Philip Diller (December 2006)

For the seasoned collector or newcomers to Taiwan's rich indigenous cultures alike, Paiwan 排灣 beads 琉璃珠 stand out as the distinctive component of the heavy and colorful Paiwan necklaces. They are also an essential vibrant element of the splendid Paiwan traditional costumes. For the Paiwan, their beads are more than adornments; they are living spirits which have been carefully passed down among the chieftains for generations, protecting and guiding them for as long as they can remember. The art of making beads was rediscovered by Umass Zingrur 巫瑪斯-金路兒 whose efforts have inspired a creative blossoming of handicraft arts among the Paiwan and in turn revived strong interest in Paiwan art and culture.

Paiwan Aristocracy

Paiwan society is distinctive among the aborigine peoples of Taiwan tribes in preserving a stratified and aristocratic social hierarchy. A legend explains that a clay pot once left in the sun became pregnant and gave birth to Paiwan nobility. Lineage of the noble class of the chieftains is maintained through strict traditions governing marriage and the passing of traditions. The eldest heir inherits the family’s home, name, and property, including bronze knives, clay pots, wooden carvings, ceremonial clothing and ceramic and glass beads. These treasures are often passed down as dowry, and indicate and embody the owner's social status. The iconography of these inherited treasures represent the legends of the Paiwan people.

Paiwan women

Beads specifically indicate rank, ability, achievement and origin within Paiwan society. They also represent wealth and once served as currency. The Paiwan experience the beads as living spirits, possessing spiritual powers, bringing blessings and protection or misfortune. Traditionally, ownership of beads was strictly controlled by the nobility and they were usually only seen at weddings and important ceremonies, and never shared with other tribes. Perhaps it is because the technique of their fabrication was lost that the beads have been especially coveted by Paiwan nobility over the centuries.

Beads are worn differently by men and women. Strung beads are worn as necklaces by women in single or multiple strands, while men wear a single strand choke necklace, sometimes including long strands of animal bones and shells. Other ornaments include bracelets, rings, earrings and ankle bracelets which also all have their specific meanings and applications. Paiwan beads are of different sizes and colors and are usually integrated into necklaces or other jewelry. The larger colored beads have individual names and meaning. The sequence and position of beads in a string also has import. Vivid serpent and insect motifs are richly depicted in red, yellow, and black throughout Paiwan costumes and handicrafts. Small single-colored beads appropriate for embroidery appeared during the Japanese occupation.

Unknown Origins

Collectors and cultural hobbyists are quick to ask about the authenticity of the Paiwan beads. Where do the ancient Paiwan beads come from? How old are they? How are they made? Some scholars suggest that it was the ancestors of the Paiwan who brought the beads with them to Taiwan. Ethnographer Chen Chi-lu notes that analysis of the old beads reveals they contain lead but no barium, placing their origin within southeast Asia. The beads might thus date the arrival of the Paiwan people to Taiwan since similar beads are found in other areas of southeast Asia but not among any of the other tribes of Taiwan. This suggests the Paiwan arrived on Taiwan after ceramic and glass beads were already widely circulated in southeast Asia.

To date, researchers have found no record of the significant technology which would have been required to manufacture beads on the island. So it seems unlikely that the beads of Paiwan royalty would have been manufactured on Taiwan. Others offer that the Paiwan beads came from Europe as archaeological records increasingly suggest early exchange between Europe and Southeast Asia. The beads may also have been a currency of trade with European merchants during early colonial expansion as researchers have noted aborigine cultures in northern Borneo that have similar beads. This would suggest that the Paiwan may be descendants of Borneo aborigines, who may have carried glass beads with them across the oceans arriving in Taiwan between the 13th and 15th centuries AD.

Alternatively, Paiwan glass beads may have had their origin in Holland. The Dutch possess similar bead designs and scholars have recorded oral Paiwan histories relating that the glass beads came from the "Balaca" - a Paiwan name for the Dutch who occupied Taiwan in the seventeenth century. There are Dutch records of trade with Taiwan aborigines at the time specifically noting ceramic and glass beads. Whatever their mysterious origin, the beads that Paiwan nobility have passed down through the generations were not made in Taiwan and the technique of their manufacture was lost or unknown to the Paiwan.

Umass's Revival

Umass Zingrur recounts, "My encounter with beads was a fortuitous one. I remember when I made a trip to Taipei in 1972 to meet with an old friend, antique collector and curio shop proprietor to talk about a series of intricate Paiwan knives I was planning to carve. I was hoping that Mr. Chang could sell my works in Taipei and to the Japanese, but instead he took me to a glass case in his shop and showed me strings of brightly colored beads. 'Learn to make these beads,' he said, 'Don't sell knives.' That is how I started the long and involved process of rediscovering the art of making these beads. Today I have reconnected our people with the old beads, though all I know about the old beads is limited to what the elders have told me."


"My process of rediscovering how to make these beads was long and circuitous," continues Umass. "I didn't know much about glass beads at first, so I secretly examined my mother's cache of a few treasured beads. The old beads were not transparent, so I thought they must certainly be kind of ceramic. I had to discover what the beads were made of and how they were made. So I visited many of the elders of the tribe, but no one could tell me what the beads were made of. Most of the elders remembered the beads as being a gift from heaven which had been carefully handed down through the generations."

"I also hoped to learn more of the story of the beads from the tribal elders; so as visited different clan families around Pingtung, I spoke to many of the elders, not only hoping to get clues about how the beads were made but also to collect the fantastic stories memories of different beads." Among the Raval clan of the northern Pingtung Paiwan area, Umass compiled twenty-eight pattern types and four color types each with specific names, stories and meaning. The naming and stories of different beads vary from clan to clan.

Bead Spirits

Lukarung is the bead of the male deity and Tangiyut is the bead of the female deity. These two beads uniquely belong to the Talimarau family, once the chiefs of the Raval tribe. Year-round, these two beads are kept in a sacred clay pot. Once a year, these two holy beads disappear from their pot to go out to visit all the families of the Talimarau clan to rid them of their troubles, thus allowing them to flourish year after year. In 1950, because the last generation had abandoned their traditional beliefs and adopted western Christianity, offerings to the two holy beads ceased and the beads were lost. As the Talimarau clan lost the protection of these two sacred beads, following generations descended into chaos, losing the former eminence of the chieftains. The Lukarang is black with two Milky Way designs symbolizing the night sky. The orange Tangiyut is marked with crosswise waves symbolizing time.

necklace and pot

Every day people's homes gradually fill with steam and smoke as they rise to cook their meals. The morning sunlight percolating through the steam creates a rainbow as the spirits of the heavens greet each other and welcome in the unending flow of life. The chief’s bead is the most precious and its name also signifies sunlight. When the chief marries, the bride's family must present a Mulimulidan to show her noble stature. Like water vapor in the sunlight bringing forth a splendid rainbow, these white beads crisscrossed with red, yellow and blue wavy lines, are generally placed in the middle section of a necklace. The Mulimulidan participate in many different legends.

In ancient times a mother, Samuakakai and Father, Sakulele had their first of two children shortly after marrying. To their amazement, they gave birth to a grapefruit, and in their grief, the couple hid the grapefruit from their clan in a basket in the corner of their home. After a while the couple discovered that Tsaingau beads had appeared around the grapefruit. These beads later became the hands and feet of their child. The child grew to be a brilliant boy loved by all. The boy quickly grew up to become a brave youth, helping the chieftain to lead the tribe. The story of Magazaigaw teaches modesty and respect.

The Kurakurau bead is a kind of Mulimulidan. According to legend, a great peacock not of our world flew into the sky seeking a bride from among the most beautiful young women. After a long and difficult search, he finally came upon the daughter of a chief washing clothes in a stream. He fell in love with her and presented her with a stunning string of beads decorated with the patterns of peacock feathers and asked the chief for her hand in marriage. But the chief could not part with his beloved daughter and could not agree to the union. The saddened peacock flew into the sky raining beautiful beads down onto the kingdom, beseeching the chief with his request and offering a hundred peacock bead bracelets, a hundred peacock bead necklaces, a hundred peacock bead rings, and a hundred peacock hair clasps as a betrothal gift. On the evening of their marriage, the peacock regained human form and carried his princess bride into the sky. The surface of this bead is exquisitely designed with fine lines. Some have winding parallel wavy lines while another variety has small vertical peacock tail feather shapes.

Lusena means tears in the Paiwan language and adau means the sun. In ancient times the sun hung not far away. The blazing sun beating down on the earth made it difficult for all living things to flourish. Rivers ran dry and crops failed. The people heatedly debated pushing the sun to a higher perch, but could not find an object that would not melt in its heat. The steam from a pregnant Paiwan woman's fire cooking three strands of millet in a boiling pot of water pushed the sun higher up into the sky. The steam then condensed into water and fell to the ground, ending the drought. The sun discovering his separation from the world, burst into tears which crystallized into beautiful beads as they fell to the ground. When people later saw drops of water, they would say these are the wistful tears of the sun. This is a semi-transparent pale yellow bead which is rare among the original beads. It is often the central bead in an arrangement and is special in that you can see orange water drop shapes inside.

Innovation Embraced

"Once I had succeeded in developing a satisfactory process to create beads that looked like the ancient beads of our elders, I wanted to systematize the new bead production process so the techniques could be passed on to the younger generation of our tribe," Umass continues. "Making glass beads involves hand molding the pattern and color of each bead and then firing it twice at a temperature of 1200°C. If the firing is successful the color of the beads changes and the colors slowly appear as the bead cools over hours. If the bead cracks while cooling, the artist must start all over again."


The careful observer can still distinguish original heirloom beads of Paiwan heritage from modern beads of the rediscovered generation. But, following Umass's years of research, the Paiwan have revived their artistry and modern beads. Reminiscent of their previous incorporation into noble costume, they are increasingly being refined and integrated into modern fashion as well.

Umass's contribution to the emergence of Taiwan's indigenous cultural enterprise proved significant. The Aruway glass bead arts show in 1999 inspired the indigenous community. Beads were rediscovered as a form of creative expression and broadly embraced by youth, inspiring new designs and expression. Bead design inspired motifs integrated into paintings, t-shirts, oil paintings and even iron sculptures. The rediscovered stories and myths of the beads further inspired new songs, dances and even cartoons. Revitalized Paiwan beads further raised interest in the luxuriant dress and splendid decorations, wood carvings, pottery making, weaving, embroidery and other native crafts of the Paiwan.

Flourishing Enterprise

Today, in Santimen Township 三地門鄉 in southern Taiwan's Pingtung County, bead makers have further refined the process. Glass rods are smelted with oxygen, and the soft glass is stuck to a heatproof rod and rolled on a grindstone. Dragonfly Bead Art Studio continues to produce eight traditional designs based on patterns of the original beads as well as new designs. At Dragonfly Studio twenty-five women artisans make roughly a thousand beads a day, fulfilling domestic and international orders. The beads are used as decoration for furniture, ceilings, and floors in addition to traditional application of necklaces, earrings, and key rings. The studio has also trains local Paiwan women to make beads.

Shih Hsiu-chu 施秀菊 of Dragonfly Studio 蜻蜓雅築 explains that her beads are made more collectible by linking the tradition of bead making with modern life. "What I've put into the glass beads is my entire life." Shih explains that those who come to the studio seeking beads come to share her life and the beautiful tales of the Paiwan.

Cultural Continuity

Sun Ta-chuan 孫大川, former vice-chairman of the Council of Indigenous Peoples and a Bunun tribesman remarks that the most valuable aspect of the preservation of the aboriginal culture is to provide a chance for people to learn to respect diversity, because diversity is the mother of creativity. While collectors and academics worry over the preservation of aboriginal culture, the aborigines continue their ongoing process of innovation into the present. Their handicraft is not limited to creating the aesthetically pleasing but envisions the continuation of the unending transmission of the knowledge and wisdom of their people.

Umass's inspiration generated a vibrant bead enterprise in the Sandimen area of Taidong which has continued to blossom as a third wave of bead entrepreneurs now flourishes among over twenty handicraft workshops who aspire to raise their dazzling craft to the stage of world-class jewelry. Evidently the protective spirits of the Paiwan have been true to their promise protecting their people from harm and leading them to a bright future as the Paiwan continue to care for the beads. Revived by Umass, the Paiwan bead spirits have returned to bring their vivid colors and their inspiring stories brightly into the world.

photos courtesy of Olson Lee 李文瑞