The Lily and the Butterfly: Mountain Motifs in Taiwan’s South

For centuries, the Central Mountain Range that stretches nearly the length of Taiwan blocked the eastward progress of Han Chinese pioneers settling the western lowlands. As a result, the traditional cultures and lifestyles of the Austronesian indigenous people in the east remained largely intact until the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule.

Some of the Austronesian tribes that were living in the western half of Taiwan in the 17th century assimilated into Han society. Others migrated from the plains to foothill regions deep in the interior. Even now, several townships within sight of the Central Mountain Range are majority Austronesian. 

In Taiwan’s far south, the mountain range doubles as the boundary between Pingtung County in the west and Taitung County in the east. One in 12 of Pingtung’s 815,000 residents has indigenous status, most of them members of the Paiwan tribe.

The other significant tribe in Pingtung – and in neighboring Kaohsiung’s Maolin District – is the Rukai, sometimes known as the Drekay people. With a population of around 13,500, they are one of Taiwan’s smaller ethnic groups. Despite being few in number and spread over a substantial area, the tribe has an intricate social structure comprising hereditary chiefs, nobles of varying ranks, and commoners.

Compared to other indigenous communities, the Rukai in Pingtung’s Wutai Township did not interact much with the outside world until after 1972. That year, a colonial-era road which had been abandoned soon after World War II was finally reopened.

During the decades of isolation, children grew up speaking only the tribal language (which, like all of Taiwan’s Austronesian languages, is totally different from Mandarin and other Sinitic languages). Trading with the lowlands was difficult, so the inhabitants of this stunningly scenic valley subsisted on millet and sweet potatoes grown on stony terraces, supplemented by hunting and gathering.

Ecology experts have praised Rukai hunting traditions for their sustainability. Elders often postponed expeditions after listening at dawn for the song of particular birds and deciding the omens were not right. Tribesmen hunting boars or muntjacs by themselves had to stay within a specific patch of forest where the right to trap and shoot had been passed down from an ancestor. By custom, no hunting was allowed during late spring and summer, when hoofed animals breed, and when meat was more likely to spoil.

One ancient custom that has seen a minor revival in recent years is hand tattooing. In the past, girls between the ages of 12 and 16 had their hands tattooed as a rite of passage, the tattoos signifying status, purity, and beauty. When it became obvious that this facet of tribal culture would disappear with the passing of the final few tattoo-wearing Rukai ladies — all born before World War II — a cultural activist decided to get her hands tattooed. As in the days of yore, a thorn mounted on a piece of bamboo was used to embed charcoal-based pigments into the skin.

The lily is a recurring motif in both Rukai and Paiwan communities. When worn by a woman, this white flower symbolizes beauty and virtue. On a man, it testifies to his courage and hunting skill.

Like many place names in Taiwan, Wutai is derived from an indigenous place name, in this case Vudai. The Chinese characters used to write it are apt. They mean “Fog Plateau,” and visitors should expect sudden yet bewitching mists.

One of Wutai’s more significant settlements is Shenshan, located on Highway 24. Shenshan means “Holy Mountain,” which is appropriate, because the village has a delightful and unusual Christian place of worship.

Like many buildings in the valley, the exterior of Shenshan Roman Catholic Church features a great deal of locally sourced slate. However, it is the interior that enraptures travelers. Rather than conventional pews, worshippers sit on wooden chairs, each one carved from a section of trunk to resemble a tribesman in traditional garb.

Shenshan Waterfall

Last year saw the opening of a new 1,000-meter-long trail to one of the area’s natural attractions. The beauty of Shenshan Waterfall and its cyan pools is now accessible to anyone with healthy legs and decent footwear.

The village from which Wutai Township takes its name is a few kilometers deeper into the mountains. On the slate-roofed abodes here, certain emblems appear again and again: white lilies, mountain boars, hundred-pacer snakes, and crucifixes.

Few Han Taiwanese are Christian, but the majority of their indigenous compatriots attend Protestant or Catholic churches. Wutai’s Presbyterian Church is another striking expression of indigenous religiosity. The imposing crucifix behind the altar consists of two varnished logs. The altar itself was shaped from a knot of tree roots. The Bibles on the shelves are in romanized Rukai, and the same script appears on many of the tombstones in the adjacent graveyard.

Wutai Presbyterian Church

As the migrating butterfly flutters, it is little more than 20 kilometers from Wutai Presbyterian Church to the Purple Butterfly Valley in Maolin. Driving from one location to the other takes over an hour, however, because you need first to return to the lowlands from one steep-sided valley before entering another drainage basin.

Maolin is the site of the Rukai’s annual Black Rice Festival, usually held in July. Through this colorful event, the tribe expresses its gratitude for bountiful harvests, and asks the gods to provide adequate rains throughout the year. Maolin also has one of Taiwan’s most remarkable ecological attractions. Thanks to its mild climate, the valley is the main wintering ground of Purple Crow butterflies. They gather in vast numbers, creating a lepidopteran phenomenon on a par with Mexico’s Monarch butterflies.

Purple Butterfly Valley in Maolin

The Purple Butterfly Valley is best visited between November and March. To make butterfly-watching easier, the local government has marked out a butterfly walkway and an ecological park. Fortunate visitors may see a “butterfly waterfall” as hundreds of thousands of these beautiful insects glide down a hillside.

To find out more about Maolin, Wutai, and the surrounding region, visit the website of Maolin National Scenic Area Administration. For additional information about visiting Taiwan, please contact the tourism hotline at 0800- 011-765, or go to the Tourism Bureau’s website.