The salient feature of Rukai society is a hierarchy system that dictates division of labor in marriage, politics, religion, ritual and art. Lily is the ‘Ethnic Flower of Rukai’. The core value of Rukai culture depends on the right to wear lily flowers as ornament. Lily flowers mean holiness, courage, bravery and honor. Rukai economic life is based on millet planting. Millet Harvest Ritual is the most important ritual. The current Rukai population is 13,002 (until March 2016).
The abbreviated form of Ngudradrekai is Rukai. The term has three different origins, and no conclusion has been reached yet. It is commonly assumed that ‘Rukai’ is how Rukai people call themselves, meaning ‘people living in the high and cold mountain’. Another theory maintains ‘Rukai’ is borrowed from the Paiwan language, which means the east, upperstream and deep mountains, and it refers to the place where Rukai people live. The third theory indicates ‘Rukai’ comes from a word from the Puyuma language, which means a village at the foothill.
Rukai people have three origin myths. One myth is popular in East Rukai. It goes that ancestors landed on the eastern coast from the ocean and settled on the eastern and western sides of the Central Mountain Range. The second myth is popular among western Rukai. They believe Rukai ancestors came from the sun, the ceramic pot or stones. The third origin myth refers to the oral history from the Three Lower Villages at Maolin District, Kaohsiung City. They believe Rukai ancestors originally came from the Big Ghost Lake and the Little Ghost Lake in Maolin District.
Rukai villages are spread on both sides of the Central Mountain Range in Kaohsiung City, Pingtung County and Taitung County. By geography and cultural identity, they are divided into three subgroups: East Rukai, West Rukai and Three Lower Villages. Differences between the three subgroups in language, social system and cultural features are of various degrees. Among them, the Three Lower Villages are the most different subgroup from East and West Rukai. Their vocabulary and accents differ greatly from village to village. East Rukai is located at the upperstream of Danan River at Beinan Township, Taitung County. There is a Dongxing New Village at the Beinan Township, Taitung County. West Rukai people live in the basin of Ailiao River of Wutai Township in Pingtung County. There are eight villages in Wutai Township: Haocha, Jilou, Wutai, Shenshan, Dawu, Jiamu and Guchuan. Some have moved to Qingye Village and Dewen Village in Sandimen Township, Pingtung County; Sanhe Village and Meiyuan Village in Majia Township; and Jinfeng Township in Taitung County. Three Lower Villages are located in the basin of Zhuokou River in Maolin District, Kaohsiung City; villages include Duona, Wanshan and Maolin.
In recent years, employment and education needs push half of Rukai people to leave their villages and move to urban areas, such as Pingtung County, Pingtung City, Kaohsiung City, Taichung City and New Taipei City. They build settlements based on kinship and geographic closeness.
1. Industry and Cuisine
Rukai economy sustains on farming and hunting. Important crops are millet, dry rice, sweet potato and taro. In hunting, wild boar is the main source of meat. Traditional staples are sweet potato and taro. Rukai people often roast taro for preservation. When they are going to eat dry taro, they usually make it into porridge with vegetables and meat. Besides, since peanuts are easy to grow and harvest, it becomes a common side dish. Hunting is exclusively for men. A man must catch a wild animal (life) so that he can become an adult in the eyes of the people. When a man catches consecutively six wild boars with long and sharp teeth (walisane) or five according to some villages, this man deserves to wear lily flowers as the symbol of his courage and bravery.
Millet plays an important role in the life of Rukai people. Annual rituals are centered on millet. In festivals and weddings, millet cake (abai) is made to share and celebrate. Like Paiwan people, Rukai people also make cinavu by wrapping dry taro powder and meat inside the leave of a plant called Khasya Trichodesma.
Rukai costumes are of the square clothes system, mainly made of cotton and hemp. Their preferred color is black, adorned by beautiful patterns embroidered with red, yellow and green threads.
Clothes for men are mainly leather. In the past, they wore leather hat, headscarf, shirt, shoulder belt, waist belt, deer hide clothes or legging in daily life. On important occasions, they put on headdresses. Women wore headscarf, long robe, skirt, legging and gloves in daily life. On formal occasions, they wore clothes adorned with cross-stitches and bead-stitch, wreath, necklace and shoulder ornaments. Nowadays, in grand events like rituals and weddings, Rukai people still wear full traditional attires to show they value tradition and to present the culture of Rukai.
In the traditional Rukai costume culture, hierarchy dictates limitation. Take the patterns on clothes for example. Patterns such as the hundred-pace snake, sun, human head and pot are exclusively for the chief. The nobility can use patterns of human figure and sun. For the clothes of common people, they may obtain rights to use more patterns by paying tributes. Currently, due to the influence of changing environment and developed technology, the patterns and themes on Rukai costumes diversify. Taboos and regulations around the use of traditional patters are also slowly lifted. The right to wear headdress, however, especially the right to wear the feather of male eagles (Mountain-hawk), remains exclusively with the great chief. Everyone follows the rule and will not wear the feather without permission.
Lily flowers resemble the ancestral origin of Rukai people, especially for those living in the area of West Rukai in the basin of Ailiao River. Traditionally, lily flowers represent courage and power for men. A Rukai man earns the right to wear lily flowers only after he catches six wild boars (or five in some villages) and is publicly presented and honored for such a brave act. Lily flowers are even more important for women than for men. For women, they represent virtue and chastity. A formal ‘lily ornament’ refers to the lily flowers with red buttercup flowers in the middle; this is the ornament only for the nobility. Women of common origin must go through ‘Flower Grant Ceremony’ (kialidrau) to earn the right to wear lily flowers.
Rukai Sculpture can be woodcarving, stone carving and leather carving. Woodcarving is the most well-known. Carved articles include large pillars, purlins, house beams, walls, and daily objects such as wood spoons, wood stools, linking-cups and combs. The hundred-pace snake is related to the story of ancestral spirits. It plays an important role in Rukai culture and has become a common totem. Traditionally, carving was an exclusive right for the chief’s family. The common people did not have the right to carve; nor could they sell or give away that right. Nowadays, this taboo and restriction is disappearing. There is a better chance to develop and pass on the art of carving.
Rukai people live at the low altitude of the southern part of the Central Mountain Range. The climate is warm and humid. Local stone slates are easy to fall and therefore are taken as the building materials for houses. West Rukai and Rukai of Three Lower Villages develop slate stone houses, where indoor temperature is warm in winter and cool in summer. Due to inaccessibility to slate stone, East Rukai people build houses with wood and bamboo. Influenced by neighboring cultures, they also develop the community house for young people.
In a Rukai house, only the pillars are made of wood. The rest part of the house, the front yard and the walls are all made of stone slates. The house is usually long and grows sidelong. There are two entrances. The interior of the house is divided into three parts: bedroom and living room in the middle, kitchen and storage on one side and hallway and place for tools on the other side.
Since stone slates are not easy to get and the building time is lengthy, Rukai slate stone houses have now been replaced with concrete and steel houses. A small number of people put a layer of slate stone on the outside of the cemented wall to maintain the traditional outlook of the house so that it has the appearance of a slate stone house.
The size of a slate stone house differs according to the rank of the residents. The house for the chief is the biggest. The beams are carved; the front yard is spacious and a large oblong stone pillar (sadrengedrenge) is installed there by the people to indicate this is the house of their leader. People also gather at the square. The square is called kalatadrane. In addition to a house, there is also a pavilion and a small working cottage made of slate stone, wood and thatch. People relax at the pavilion and the working cottage is for women to weave.
According to traditional social culture, the society is divided into four ranks: the chief, the nobility, the professionals and the common. Every rank is hereditary. The chief leads the village and each rank has different rights and obligations. Marriage can alter the rank of children.
1. Family and Marriage
Family is the most important kinship unit in Rukai society. Rukai people prefer inheritance by the first-born son. The first-born son inherits the house, the name of the house, while the other children move out after marriage. If there is no son in the house, the daughter will inherit and marry a husband who will move in with her.
Monogamy is the general standard. The choice of partners is dictated by equivalence in the family position and social status. The first consideration is the rank. The most accepted union is between people of ‘the same rank’.
2. Village and Chief
A village is a territorial organization, sometimes made of a single small village or of several small villages. It functions as the center for politics, economy, defense, education and social welfare. Leadership in the Rukai village is hereditary; elders and professionals with skills, such as the messenger (marudrange), a delegate of the clan, military strategist, craftsman, those who cut the meat and share (siabakale), those who have divine powers and bless (taraivigi), and a priest who performs duty of rituals (bariakalai) are all included in this rank. Everyone has a special skill to meet the various need of the village. Although the chief has a lot of power, public affairs are still to be decided and executed in public meetings.
Hierarchy in Rukai society is divided into four ranks: the chief, the nobility, the professionals and the common people. Each rank enjoys different rights. The chief and the nobility enjoy higher social status and own more land. They can also levy tax of land and forest upon villagers. Besides, they are entitled to wear tattoos, weaving patterns and the art of carving in the house.
The professions are between the nobility and the common class; they refer to villagers who have special merits and skills. They earn special rights granted by the chief, such as exemption and the right to wear wreath. Only the first-born son can inherit the professional class, while the other children of the family will become commoners. The commoners must pay tax to the chief before they do any work like logging, wedding, passing the road or brewing. After performing special rites and paying specific amount of tax, the commoners can also obtain special privileges to body tattoos, lily flower ornaments, clothes patterns and certain names.
Rukai people believe in the existence of all kinds of supernatural powers, like the sun, star, moon, rainbow, hundred-pace snake or cloud leopard in the nature. Besides, they also believe in the communication with and worship to ancestral spirits that have passed on from this life. During the Japanese Occupation Period, the development of traditional beliefs was stalled by policies. Some traditional culture and religious ceremonies stopped in this period. Since 1960s, Christianity and Catholic faiths were introduced to the villages, so now there are western style churches in every village. Western beliefs coexist with traditional belief. At present most Rukai people have converted to Christianity and become a new power that supports the village. In recent years, Rukai traditional cultures started to interact with churches. For example, in the Catholic Church at Wanshan Village, Wutai Township, Holy Maria is dressed in traditional Rukai costumes. It is a fusion between traditional culture and modern belief, which jointly rejuvenates the life of Rukai culture.
Traditional Rukai rituals center on millet. Millet Harvest Ritual takes place after the harvest. Duona Village of the Three Lower Villages practices the unique Black Rice Ritual. The swing is a place for men and women to socialize, and is installed at a wedding or an annual harvest. There are many exciting activities and they always create climax moments.
1. Millet Harvest Ritual
Millet is a major crop for Rukai farmers. Annual rituals center on millet. Among them, the Millet Harvest Ritual is the most important one. The Ritual is held to thank gods for abundant harvests. The Ritual takes place after the harvest of millet. In the Ritual, Rukai people prepare millet cake, millet rice and millet wine to offer to ancestral spirits and gods. Besides, villagers pay a symbolic tribute with crops to the chief. The chief provides part of the tributes to those in need and part of the tribute as offering to ancestral spirits. It functions both as taxing and sharing.
In the traditional Rukai society, the Annual Harvest Festival runs for about a month. Nowadays with the change of lifestyles, the Festival is held form one to three days and is set to take place on the 15th of August every year. (Currently, the authority makes every second Friday of July as the festival day for Rukai). In order to prevent conflicts between traditional belief practices and modern religions, certain rituals have been simplified and more emphasis has been placed on the reunion and gathering of the people. Sharing becomes the most important cultural spirit in the event.
2. The Swing
The swing is usually installed in weddings. Originally, only women of the chief’s family could ride the swing. However, at every annual festival, the chief will share the privilege with villagers to reward their hard work for the year and to provide opportunities for young people to meet and get to know each other.
Men are responsible for building the swing and inviting single and virtuous women to ride on the sing. Men will help to push the swing to the highest point, which is very exciting. No matter it is a wedding or annual festivals, the swing always creates the most joyous moments for the event.
3. Black Rice Ritual (tapakadrawane)
Rukai people believe that there are two types of black rice: the rice and the millet. These two seeds are taken from the depth of the pond by the gods and spirits. They give the seeds to the women working in the field. According to traditions, Rukai people hold Black Rice Ritual every November in order to thank gods and spirits for bringing the seeds to the people. Duona Village in Maolin District values the tradition the most.
4. Ancestral Spirit Ritual (molapangolai) at Wanshan Village
Ancestral Spirit Ritual (molapangolai) is the most original and characteristic event in Wanshan Village (Oponoho). It is held around springtime once in four years at a designated house for ancestral spirits (Lapangolai). Major events include worship to the sacred stone (doloi) and pray for the peace and health of people. Besides, the competition of taavala is held to test if young people are able to resist invasion and to protect the safety of the villagers.