With a population of around ten thousand, the indigenous Paiwan people of Taiwan forms the island’s third-largest Formosan ethnic group.
Traditional Paiwan territory span both sides of the southern portion of Taiwan’s central mountain range. Their homeland stretches from the highlands around Damumu Mountain southward to the plains of the Hengchun peninsula, at the very southern end of the island, as well as the southeastern hills and coastal plains of Taiwan.
The loose Paiwan confederacies are composed of two main groups, which are, in turn, made up of numerous smaller, highly diverse autonomous units.
Individual Paiwan bands and villages are traditionally presided over by local aristocracies that oversee each unit’s political, military and religious affairs.
The Paiwan is a proud and powerful indigenous community in southern Taiwan. Their distinct culture and customs are reflected in their traditional art, which often features sacred serpent motifs (especially of the Hundred-Pacer) inspired by their native mythology.
These motifs are symbols of the power of the aristocracy and the Paiwan’s connection to the gods of old. These symbols arose from the numerous origin tales of the Paiwan people.
Due to the decentralized nature of the Paiwan nation, numerous narratives describing the earliest history of these people have developed. Many of these often very different stories have been passed down through generations. The following is a sampling of a number of these Paiwan myths and legends.
In ancient times, a god planted upon a rock a stock of bamboo, which in time grew into a tall and imposing bamboo tree.
One day, a powerful storm passed through the area. The bamboo was struck by lightning and began to burn. From its ashes, the First Woman emerged.
After some time, another powerful storm ripped through the area.
This time, the rock beneath the bamboo was struck by lightning and was split in two. From the rock emerged a great snake, which was quickly snatched up by the First Woman and consumed.
After devouring the serpent, the First Woman became pregnant. She soon gave birth to twins—a boy and a girl—who became the ancestors of the Paiwan people.
In the distant past, the sun came down to earth and laid two eggs. One of these sun-eggs was a golden colour, while the other was sky-blue.
After the eggs were safely laid, the sun named a pit viper known as the Hundred-Pacer as the eggs’ guardian. The viper wrapped itself around to sun-eggs and vigilantly watched over them.
Eventually, out of the golden egg hatched a baby boy, and out of the blue egg, a girl. They became the ancestors of the Paiwan.
Another version of the story tells of four eggs being born from the Sun.
Two of these were guarded by a giant green serpent and out of them emerged the ancestors of Paiwan commoners. The other two were guarded by the Hundred-Pacer, out of which emerged the aristocrats of Paiwan society.
A long time ago, in the Austronesian settlement of Kumauan in southern Taiwan, there lived a goddess.
One day, as the goddess headed toward a nearby lake to fetch some drinking water, she noticed two serpent eggs lying upon the grass near her path. One was born to the Hundred-Pacer and the other to a Brown Spotted Pit Viper. The goddess picked up the eggs and took them home with her.
Not long after, out of each egg emerged a pair of human babies. From the Hundred-Pacer’s egg emerged the ancestors of the Paiwan and from the Brown Spotted Pit Viper’s egg emerged the commoners.
Another Paiwan origin story featuring serpents tells of a massive bamboo, which grew atop Mt. Dawu in southern Taiwan.
One day, the bamboo suddenly burst open and from within, emerged numerous baby serpents. In time, these baby snakes grew into adults and, as they grew, they transformed into humans. These became the ancestors of the Paiwan people.
A long, long time ago, at a place known as Kinabakang, there was a large boulder that stood atop a sacred summit.
One day, the crag burst open and from the crevices emerged a man and a woman. The pair eventually married and had offspring. But their first-born was a serpent and the second was blind. More attempts to conceive produced headless, armless, or legless babies. Finally, after many more attempts, they brought into the world a pair of physically complete twins—a boy and a girl.
Their numbers multiplied from then on and these folks became the ancestors of the Paiwan people.