A Gift From the Gods — Taiwan’s Paiwan Glass Beads

Legend has it that the ancient glass beads are gifts given by the gods. (Image: Taiwan Ethnological Museum Foundation)
Legend has it that the ancient glass beads are gifts given by the gods. (Image: Taiwan Ethnological Museum Foundation)

The following is a short story from the Paiwan people, an indigenous people of Taiwan. They are well known for their mastery of glass beads, also referred to as Paiwan glass beads.

Once upon a time, the Sun-deity went down to the human world to look for a nice and beautiful land that was suitable for his future generations. He visited thousands of mountains and tens of thousands of rivers until he finally came to the Dawu Mountain.

The Paiwan tribe

The sun deity laid two eggs in a clay pot and ordered a hundred-pacer (sharp-nosed viper) to guard the eggs. The sun shone on the clay pot every day until eventually, after a long time, two cute children, a boy and a girl, were born. The two grew up together and eventually married. Their offspring eventually became leaders of what is today known as the Paiwan tribe in Taiwan. In a symbolical sense, the Paiwan people worship the sun.

They take pride in being the children of the sun. The Ancient clay pot that bore the first of the two first children of the Paiwan is until today regarded as the residence of the ancestors and placed in the most sacred position of the head’s family. The clay pot is passed down from generation to generation. The hundred-pacer became the guardian of the Paiwan leader and a special totem, just for the leader.

The three treasures

There are three things the Paiwan people regard as treasures — clay pots, bronze knives, and glass beads. Each has a different symbolic meaning to these indigenous Taiwanese people. Ceramic pots represent the ancestors; bronze knives represent men, the crutches of the universe, symbolizing power; and glass beads represent women, symbolizing chastity and beauty.

(Image Credit: By 林高志 [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons)

There are three things the Paiwan people regard as treasures — clay pots, bronze knives, and glass beads. (Image: 林高志 via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Paiwan glass beads

Legend has it that the ancient glass beads are gifts given by the gods. Only the heads and nobles (relatives of the heads) have them. Paiwan people call the glass beads “qata,” which means “beautiful fruit.”

The tribe believes that this kind of glass bead contains a divine spirit and that each bead has its own life. Therefore, the beads of different patterns have different names, representing different meanings. Each pattern type and its beads has its own unique legend. With just a glance at the beads, a Paiwan person can see the grade of glass beads and the tribal status of the owner.

(Image Credit: Christine Yeh)

The tribe believes that this kind of glass bead contains a divine spirit and that each bead has its own life. (Image: Christine Yeh)

The Peacock  – The peacock bead, with fine lines and fine peacock tail feathers, symbolizes a noble status and is usually used to adorn the bride and groom.

The Sun Tears – Sun tears are rare and precious. For the Paiwan people, the sun symbolizes the creator, and all things grow by it. The leader who owns such beads shows the connection between himself and the creator, as well as his noble status.

The Dragonfly – Like a dragonfly’s big eyes, the dragonfly bead symbolizes the intimate, romantic, and firm relationship between the ancestors of Paiwan and God.

The Beads of Eyes – Beads of eyes are beads that have countless eyes, symbolizing the guardianship of the gods at all times.

Glass beads make up a very intricate part of Paiwan culture. They are therefore regarded as an important marriage present to the Paiwan leader and the Paiwan aristocrats. They are also indispensable accessories when attending festivals and ceremonies.

Glass beads make up a very intricate part of Paiwan culture. (Image: Olson Lee / CC0 1.0)

Glass beads make up a very intricate part of Paiwan culture. (Image: Olson Lee)

The older the beads the better

The Paiwan reverence for the glass beads as a divinely infused symbol of right and social rank go beyond just the looks of the bead. The age of the bead also plays a major role.

The older the beads, the more valuable they become, and the more respectful the Paiwan handle them. People not only carefully put them in ancient clay pots, but also piously worships them, praying for gods’ blessing to protect the family and the ethnic group.

Paiwan people only know that ancient glass beads were passed down by their ancestors. They did not have the technology to make glass beads. The ancient glass beads that have been passed down by the ancestors are limited in number, and the ancient glass beads that can be preserved to this day are rare and precious. Today, Paiwan people use traditional techniques to create traditional patterns of glass beads and strive to preserve and promote their traditional culture.

Paiwan people only know that ancient glass beads were passed down by ancestors. (Image: Olson Lee / CC0 1.0)

Paiwan people only know that ancient glass beads were passed down by their ancestors. (Image: Olson Lee)

Where do the Paiwan people live?

The Paiwan people are one of Taiwan’s mountainous indigenous tribes. They live in the mountains of southern Taiwan. They regard the mighty Dawu Mountain as being a holy mountain. They believe it is inhabited by divine beings. In the Paiwan language, the mountain is called Kavulungan, the mountain of the mountains.

The Paiwan people are a class society, divided into heads (nobles) and civilians. The leader is hereditary, regardless of gender, and based on age. Thus, there have also been women as leaders. The leader does not only have land rights, but also honors and privileges. Many totems in the leader’s homes and the clothing are exclusive to the leader. In addition, the Paiwan leader is also the leader of the ceremonies. The achievements, misfortunes, and achievements of the entire tribe are the honor and disgrace of his life.

The Paiwan people are one of Taiwan's mountainous indigenous tribes. (Image: Olson Lee / CC0 1.0)

The Paiwan people are one of Taiwan’s mountainous indigenous tribes. (Image: Olson Lee)

In the past, there was quite a large number of indigenous groups in the mountains of Taiwan. These ethnic groups each had their own cultural legends and their own costumes and dresses. Their diversity and complexity attract anthropologists from all over the world, who regard them as a “treasure of anthropology.” These days, unfortunately, due to the impact of social and economic changes, these unique Taiwanese aboriginal people are rapidly disappearing.

Therefore, the Taiwan Ethnological Museum Foundation has made it its mission to preserve the human cultural heritage of Taiwan.  The museum has collected about 20,000 pieces of Taiwanese cultural relics. It is currently carrying out a fundraising campaign to build a new museum, with the hope to display these treasures as soon as possible. The museum’s goal is to promote understanding and peace among the nations of the world and continue to enrich the spiritual civilization of mankind through their stories.

Source article by Pan Shao Ru, The Taiwan Ethnological Museum Foundation, translated by Sharon Koumans.

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our weekly email

Taiwan Rated by WEF as One of the World’s Four Super Innovators
A Cozy Fishing Harbor Known for Its Delicious Crabs
#article-ad-block-->