Paiwan Qeluz

A Carved Slate Pillar from Taiwan

By: Bien D. Chiang

Originally Published in 1986

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Standing outside in the Sharpe Circle of The University Museum is a 9- foot slate pillar from the Paiwan peoples of Taiwan, Republic of China (Fig. 2). It is a house post, called qeluz, from an aristocrat’s house. The date of its manufacture is uncertain, but it is most likely late 19th century. Among the nine different aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, only the Paiwan carve such pieces. This stunning sculpture was lent to The University Museum in 1964 by Mr. Martin J. Forman.

The Paiwan are one of the Austronesian-speaking aboriginal groups on the island of Formosa (Taiwan). The population  of ca. 50,000 occupies the southern part of the central mountain range of the island, living in villages of from 100 to 1,000 souls. Paiwan genesis has it that the tribe origi­nated in Mt. Djakalaus, a mountain in the north of the tribal territory (Fig. 1). Places around Mt. Djaka­laus are therefore known as paumaumaq (homeland). Areas to the south and the east are correspondingly called pavuavua (new territories), with the river Likiliki and the moun­tain ridge as a vague division (see map, Fig. 3). Documents recording village surveys conducted by the Dutch in the mid 17th century show that this eastward and southward migration had been largely accom­plished before the time of Dutch colonization from 1624 to 1861 (Mabuchi 1953).

One of the principal features of traditional Paiwan society is a strati­fication system consisting of aristo­cratic landlords and landless com­moners. The old subsistence econo­my of the Paiwan was a combination of slash-and-burn agriculture and casual hunting. Their diet consisted mainly of taro, sweet potato, millet, and the meat of game animals such as boar and deer. Theoretically the land resources—farm land, hunting fields and building plots—of a village belong to a few chiefly fami­lies. Usually an independent village has a paramount chiefly family (Fig. 4) and a number of minor ones, which may or may not be related by kinship to each other and to the paramount chief. Commoners ally themselves as clients and tenants to chiefly families. As landlords, the chiefs collect rent from their tenants. As patrons, they also host religious ceremonies and settle disputes for their clients. And on the whole, as a class of aristocrats, they enjoy the privilege of employing fine works of art as family emblems.

Along with tattooing and the use of certain beaded and embroidered designs, carving is one of the privi­leged crafts that Paiwan aristocrats utilize to distinguish their houses, household objects, and personal be­longings from those of commoners. Among all carved objects, house-related carvings are the most spec­tacular, and they have special socio­logical significance. A Paiwan house is more than a dwelling on a plot of land. It represents a perpetual social entity that is separate from the people who dwell there. For exam­ple, in Parilaiyan village, the house named Darimalao was the residence of the paramount chief. About 1968 the chief, a woman whose personal name is Erlen, vacated the house and went to live in another village. Tribute to the paramount chief, however, has continued to be deli­vered to Darimalao. A relative who lives next door commenced consum­ing the tribute, mostly food, but he is always careful to do so in the Darimalao house, not in his own house, because the tribute is consi­dered to belong to that house. The Paiwan house, then, is an embodi­ment of the social status, the authori­ty, the privileges, and the very social existence of a fundamental social unit of the society. And this applies to the commoner as well as the aristocratic class.

In every Paiwan village, several houses represent genealogical lines that reach far back into the mythical past. These may be regarded as principal houses, and one of them is the residence of the paramount chief (Figs. 6, 7). All other houses are seen as having hived off from principal houses. As regards the people living in each house, the household group, each has a designated head called vusam. The word vusam also means “seed millet,” thus it connotes the possibility that from each existing house and household, others may grow.

Usually, a head of household is succeeded by the eldest child, either male or female; however, contro­versy over, and political manipula­tions of, succession, particularly for the paramount chief’s household, are common. It is possible, for example, for an ambitious person who is not in a direct line of succes­sion to usurp the paramount chief­tainship by demonstrating that he or she can enhance the dignity of the chiefly line. One of the means by which this enhancement is achieved is by improving the condi­tion of their house (Fig. 8). It is therefore not difficult to understand the strong social motivation behind the concern that Paiwan people have about the appearance of their houses and the surrounding land­scape. The highly developed crafts of carving and sculpture can, thus, be related to this motivation.

The traditional Paiwan house is an asymmetrical, gabled building made of slate and wood (Figs. 9, 10). Slate slabs are used for walls, roofs, sleeping platform, benches, and all pavements inside and out. Wooden parts include posts, beams, ridge pole, rafters, and doors. The most luxurious residences of chiefly households have carvings on the wooden eave-beams, doors, screens, main posts (ancestor posts), and even walls. The usual or standard aristocratic house, however, is dis­tinguished only by its carved eave­beams and main post, or qeluz.

Most qeluz are made of wood, but slate qeluz are also found in areas where that material is abun­dant. Some houses of paramount chiefs of the northern and the eastern Paiwan have carved slate pillars called saulaolai (Fig. 5), which are placed in their front courts where tenants and clients gather for sacred as well as secular events, such as settling disputes, discussing village affairs, or simply social chatting. Literally, qeluz means “the main house post which supports the ridge pole,” and saulaolai means “a stone back-rest on the stone platform in front of house.” However, the carv­ing designs of the two are basically the same within the same area.

Whether the functional difference between the qeluz and the saulaolai implies a more basic symbolic dif­ference will be an interesting ques­tion for further pursuit.

Usually a qeluz is carved with one entire human figure and figures of snakes or other animals. The human figure is either known by a personal name and remembered as the founder of the house or is known as an heroic ancestor of the house­hold. The hundred-pacer snake (Agkistrodon acutus) is one of the major characters in Paiwan mytho­logy, and it is generally considered to be the procreator of the nobles and, in some episodes, of the com­moners as well. With local variations in details, the focal theme of the procreation myths is that a female human accepted a marriage propos­al from a snake, but not without strong dissent from her family. Jars with snake designs were given to the woman’s family by the snake as brideprice, along with the privilege of using the snake design. These jars later became heirlooms of the family line that descended from this reptile-human union. It is curious to note that, contrary to another popular theme—the conjugation between two human ancestors, which some­times leads not to prosperity but to tragedy in Paiwan mythology—unions between women and snakes always foretell prosperity and abun­dance for the descendants.

In some areas the snake design becomes highly conventionalized. Chen distinguishes nine styles of qeluz carving design, more or less corresponding to geographical dis­tribution (1961, 1968). According to his classification, the piece from the collections of The University Muse­um belongs to the Chalaabus style (Figs. 11, 19). Chen characterizes this style as having “a human figure with hands raised in front of the chest, both legs straight, feet point­ing outwards, parallel lines on arms indicating armlets. This differs from [other styles] because it has a narrow waist and a headdress which looks like a head ornament made of leo­pard-cat or wild boar’s teeth” (1968: 293; my translation). Another feature of the Chalaabus style as compared to other styles is the absence of a realistic snake motif. In the Pulci and Kulalus styles, the hundred-pacer snake is depicted either by an outlined form alone, an outlined form with rhombuses, or as a belt with rhombuses or circles (Figs. 13, 14). A row of rhombuses is the most stylized symbol of the snake (Fig. 11), and such rows are present in belts and headdresses that are parts of ceremonial attire. In the Budai and Tamali styles the snake motif is attached to or a substitute for a part of the body (Figs. 15,16), and in the Kulalus style the human head is in the shape of a snake’s head, which suggests the merging or conjunction of snakes with humans as expressed in the Paiwan myth mentioned above (Fig. 14).

Compared to other areas, the qeluz carvings in the Chalaabus area—including villages named Chalaabus, Kulalao, and Bongarid —show a high degree of uniformity in their design. The same designs are also found on slate house walls (Fig. 19). Chen noted that in the 1950s there were fifteen Chalaabus slate pillars still in use and located in that area (1961).

According to the research of Jen Shien-Min, most Paiwan craftsmen, including the sculptors (Fig. 20), are minor aristocrats. They either own land and have tenants or they are exempt from paying rent to a land­lord. Sometimes, but not always, the status of craftsman becomes hereditary along a family line. In a few cases, talented commoners be­come renowned craftsmen, and as a consequence they, along with sha­mans and skilled warriors, are given special recognition by their patrons. For example, the patron may share with them part of the tribute paid to him by other clients. On the whole, Paiwan craftsmen do not form a special social stratum. They do re­ceive payments for their work, but those are more ceremonial than sub­stantive.

The full significance of Paiwan architectural carving cannot be grasped by a single pillar standing in the Sharpe Circle of The Universi­ty Museum. The carved eave-beams, posts, and back-rests are compo­nents only of finely decorated houses, and it is these houses stand­ing in contrast to the more numerous undecorated dwellings in each com­munity that express concretely and uniquely the important aspects of social life in each village: the social relationships of nobles to common­ers, of patrons to clients, and of landlords to tenants.

Cite This Article

Chiang, Bien D.. "Paiwan Qeluz." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 3 (November, 1986): -. Accessed February 28, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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