Song of Wild Lilies

Auvini Kadresengan

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

Translator's Note: The following is an excerpt from Auvini Kadresengan's (b. 1945) ethnographic novel, Song of Wild Lilies 野百合之歌 (2001). The novel is a fictionalized account of the early life of Auvini's father, Cemelhesay, (referred to by his childhood name, Esai) who grew up as an "orphan" because he was born out of wedlock. This meant much hardship for him and his mother, and had a significant influence on the way in which he understood his position in society as well as his relationship to his ancestors. The excerpt translated here is from the latter part of the novel, at which point Esai has married and become an accomplished hunter. However, during the festival in which hunters and warriors in the tribe wear ceremonial wild lily headdresses, he declines this honour. Later in the novel we are told that this refusal is due to the fact that Esai's great grandfather never wore lilies, and Esai feels he is far from matching his ancestor's achievements.

Like much recent Indigenous writing in Taiwan, Song of Wild Lilies is intended to fulfill two major objectives. Firstly it gives voice to the subjectivity of a people who were denied such a voice through centuries of colonial rule. Secondly, as a tribal elder who spent his childhood and adolescence in a traditional Rukai village, Auvini Kadresengan is profoundly concerned that, as increasing numbers of young Rukai move to live and work in larger urban centres, they will lose all contact with the ways of their ancestors. The novel is thus intended not only to introduce Rukai culture and history to the mainstream population of Taiwan, but also to serve as a repository of traditions, values and language to be accessed by later generations.

Auvini is considered a father figure in Taiwan's community of Indigenous writers. He was one of the leaders of the "Return to the Villages" movement associated with Indigenous rights activism that developed after the lifting of martial law in 1987. In 1989, some ten years after the entire population of his natal village of Kochapongane (Jiu Haocha 舊好茶) was forcibly moved to a location closer to the plains, Auvini returned to the vacant town site. He hoped that he might find there the spirit of his people, a spirit that had been so desperately imperiled by the inundation of Taiwan's post-industrial society. Not long after he moved back to the village he began recording his childhood memories and gathering stories from the elders. Later, with the encouragement and assistance of friends sharing his concerns, he began writing down the material that he had gathered. He wrote in Chinese so that the material could be more easily published and made available to a wider audience. The writer Wu He was instrumental in this process, and remains one of Auvini's most trusted friends.

Auvini's first book was Descendants of the Cloud Leopard (Yunbao de chuanren 雲豹的傳人, 1996). It is a collection of Rukai legends and stories, including material on the geography, history and ritual traditions of Kochapongane. In Song of Wild Lilies, his second book, Auvini wove ethnographic material together with what he had learned about his own family history. As the story follows Auvini's father, Esai, through the course of his life as a Rukai man, we observe the elaborate rituals that mark the important stages as he grows from infancy to manhood. Esai is proud, stubborn and acutely conscious of the high standards set by his ancestors. He is also a responsible father and learns to be a skilled hunter. In the end, however, he undertakes the perilous journey across the Central Mountain Range alone. After encountering bad weather, he never returns to the village.

The device of focusing on one individual with whom the author is intimately familiar allows for considerably more emotional depth and historical detail than is evident in much Indigenous writing. Esai is a complex character, haunted by the inauspicious circumstances of his own life, and the burden of living up to the legendary prowess of his ancestors. His relations with family, and others in the village and beyond, are nuanced and complex rather than stereotyped. Neither do the protagonists live in a kind of social vacuum, they move in a world determined by age-old traditions, yet swept along in the currents of Taiwan's colonial history. The story thus recounts a time when the people of Kochapongane were still proudly independent, yet teetered on the verge of being drawn into the vortex of modern materialism and industrial production.

Today, if you are willing and able to make the arduous trek up the steep mountain trails to the old village, you will find only a single row of traditional slate slab houses still maintained intact. These provide shelter to the dedicated few determined not to allow Kochapongane and the spirit of its people to slide into total oblivion. Ironically, the newer village by the river below has been almost completely washed away by recent disastrous flooding. Most of the inhabitants have moved elsewhere to purchase modern houses, or to live in a housing complex built by the government and international relief agencies. Auvini has a residence in the latter complex, but whenever possible he goes "home" to Kochapongane. The spirits of the ancestors reside there still, ensconced the mountain forests. Unlike their descendants, they find no means to sustain themselves in the plains, and hope only that they, their lives and their accomplishments will not suffer the indignity of being forgotten.


—Terence Russell

11. Kai-sia-bengelhay: The Hunter Who Never Wore Lilies

A clan elder called for the villagers' attention "Everyone listen carefully!" The farmers of the village had just returned from their fields and a film of light from the setting sun shone faintly over the tall mountain peaks. In a few moments it would be gone. After he noted that a representative from each household had been sent out into their front yards to hear the news, he continued: "For families with hunters who are going to wear lily headdresses, the ritual will begin ten days from today. You must prepare what you need in those ten days." Most families hadn't had their dinners at that point.

In fact, families that were going to take part in the ritual had long before prepared the meat and wine they needed. The elder must be talking about the glutinous millet cakes and pastries..

It had been over two years since Esai started going along with Uncle Kalawan to learn what he knew about hunting. Just then they were hunting on the mountain. When Debolan heard the news she immediately went to ask her uncle, Lapagau, for instructions, "Uncle, please tell me what to do. What do I need to prepare for your child, Esai?"

"It should be alright for him to wear lilies, but he's still so young. Maybe there's no need to rush things," he explained.

"If you have enough millet, make a big vat of wine to show your gratitude for your clansmen's hard work!" he added.

That year the millet crop in the field that Esai and his wife Debolan worked was especially good, so they had plenty to make the millet cakes for the Lalabace (shoulder bag) ceremony for their year and a half old son. Taking a look at the millet in the storage barrel, Debolan calculated that, aside from having plenty to last them the year, there was probably enough extra to brew a vat of wine. She considered the difficulties uncle and nephew faced out on the hunt, and thought that even if the millet was a little short, brewing some wine was a good way to reward their efforts. Moreover, in the past two years they had shot a mountain boar and a black bear; that was enough to warrant wearing lilies. 

She said to herself, "Maybe uncle Kalawan will suggest that Esai should wear lilies this year."

The women of Kochapangane busied themselves husking the millet and pounding it to make wine. The men who had been out hunting and fishing returned to the village one after the other. Debolan had finished brewing her wine. All that mattered now was that she should see her husband return safely. Even though her uncle wasn't especially forceful about urging her husband to wear lilies, she felt that if he could wear lilies this year, his status in the tribe would be affirmed. At the same time it would confirm her friendship with Uncle Kalawan.

In the afternoon, four days after the hunters had hit the trail, they began to return to the village from all directions. Every time she heard the distant announcement that someone had shot a mountain boar, she listened carefully to see if it might be her husband's voice. But he never did return that day. With great care, she prepared special food for him, and kept it aside so they could enjoy dinner together. She fed her little boy, but didn't eat herself, despite being so hungry she felt faint. At night she tightly embraced her son, all the time listening intently. Every time she heard any sound of footsteps, she imagined that it was her husband returning. She fell asleep, then awoke again, tossing and turning. It was a long, hard night, but eventually the light of dawn broke. 

Still groggy from lack of sleep, she suffered through another day of waiting. Finally, just as dusk was about to fall, a joyful voice called out, "Woo...!" from the mountain slope opposite the village. It was a voice she knew so well, and it meant she could finally relax.

Esai returned carrying two prizes on his back, a big mountain boar and a serow doe. His wife stood watching from the front courtyard. She cried out in excitement: "I've been going crazy waiting for you. I was so afraid you might get hurt."

"Uncle and I were on the trail of a mountain goat, but we lost it at a cliff, that's what's been keeping us all this time."

"That's okay! You're still bringing something home. Fact is, all I really care about is that you come home safely."

"Well, I was worried about you and our boy. I can put up with just about anything for your sake. It's your safety I worry about."

Debolan brought out the taro rice and pigeon pea soup that she had made for him. Just then his mother and uncle came in. Later on, a procession of friends and neighbours came over to share in the joy of Esai's productive hunt. That's when Debolan decided to bring out the wine she had brewed. Esai had no idea that she'd been hiding wine in the house. It made him extremely happy to know that his wife cared enough to make wine for him.

That night, seeing that so many elders had gathered together to drink, Debolan asked them whether they thought Esai should wear lilies:

"The festive time when hunters wear lilies as tokens of their achievement is almost here. As a wife, I'm not sure what I should be doing. If I don't at least ask, other wives may say I simply don't love my husband."

She went on explaining herself. The village elder, Lidakh, just happened to be there and he said:

"The wearing of lilies is a tradition established by our people to honour hunters. It is also a custom that all men will take part in sometime in their lives. It's only a matter of when. The decision is up to you two." 

"According to what we understand about our son, it should be all right. But he still has such a long road to travel," Esai's uncle tried to clarify. Having laid all their doubts to rest, the elders abandoned themselves to drinking and exuberant song. As the night grew imperceptibly deeper they took their leave one after the other, until only one deeply intoxicated hunter remained. Before he knew it, the unbearably dark night had passed. When he awoke it was daylight.

That glorious day for wearing lilies had begun to unfold. Even before the brilliant sun had arisen, the hunters had donned their animal skin robes. They wore buckskin caps in which they stuck the lilies. As they waited for the sun to appear, people from all over the village came to drink and offer congratulations. Young girls wore their fancy dresses and crowns of lilies, with one lily in the middle of their headdress. They carried themselves with such innocence and purity; aside from the unconscious knowledge that they were much loved by their mothers and fathers, if they could see into the future they would know that they would always protect those symbols of "sanctity and purity." It was where the real meaning and value in their lives resided.

The glory of being a hunter was second only to the heroism of battle. The men's emotions soared like the flight of a crested eagle, winging through the blue sky amid the white clouds. It was as though they were proclaiming deep in their hearts:

"Those things that a man should accomplish, I have now accomplished." But was there anyone who dared claim: "The meaning and value of being a man is no more than to wear these lilies"?

Yet in his mind, Esai kept asking: "Is the meaning of a man's life no more than six large mountain boars?" He secretly persuaded his uncle not to hold the lily-wearing rite for him until he had found an answer to this question. As the glow of dawn began to spread, the footsteps of morning light slowly filled the village. Pairs of Scimitar Babbler birds called their lonely song: "Gai-gao, Gai-gao" ("Should report, should report!") Braves, hunters and nobility joined together in a crowd to go from door to door giving their blessings and singing praises. Finally, everyone gathered together in the largest courtyard of the village. All the families taking part in the lily-wearing celebration brought millet cakes, animals they had hunted, and millet wine, and placed everything in the area where the drinking was to take place.

A man of discernment and extensive experience was charged with pouring out the wine. He knew the tradition of sharing wine, as well as who should be served first and who last, not to mention the need to share with the ancestors. He stood in the middle of the crowd, first taking four single wooden cups and placing them in a line in the centre of the gathering. Taking an untouched jug of the best and sweetest wine, he judiciously filled one cup, then the next. Then, one after the other, the village elders came forward to pick up a cup, raise it, and proclaim to the crowd:

"This cup of wine is for the nobles! For they are our core, and ensure harmony for the entire village."

"This cup is for the youth! For they are our axes, our spears and our knives."

"This cup is for our adults! They lead us as we make our journey."

"This cup is for the young men and young women! They are our bright sun and our hope." After the elders had offered the four cups as a dedication this way, wine was poured for each of the four eldest members of the village, who duly drained them. It was only then that the real drinking began. The master of ceremonies poured wine for the nobles, the braves, the hunters and the elders, never once mistaking the status and honour of anyone. Each and every person called to drink expressed their respect, hardly able to contain their excitement. When they were called to drink they were also careful not to forget to dip their forefinger into the cup three times and sprinkle a few drops in memory of the ancestors. 

The young people could never hope to take part in this event, because the wine cups still didn't recognize them. But perhaps they had heard this story:

"To the east of the Central Mountain Range there was a Drekai (Rukai) village. The name of the village was Tarumake. Once they were celebrating the harvest festival. All the nobles, braves, hunters and elders were gathered in the courtyard of the village chief to offer their wishes for the millet ritual. There were two young cousins who were children of noble families. Despite their youth they had come to take part in the illustrious gathering. The person pouring out the wine passed the cups over their heads time and time again. They felt humiliated and became resentful. Just then an old grandmother named Danane came running from the village spring, shouting: "I saw a whole lot of strangers over by the spring. Their hair was golden yellow, their eyes looked like cats eyes and they had smoke coming out their noses." The two brothers heard this, and because they had just felt the sting of humiliation, they saw this as a chance of a lifetime. They hurriedly picked up their hunting knives and rushed off in the direction of the village spring. When they got there they killed every one of the fifty or so strangers as a way to purge their shame. The heads of the strangers lay all over the ground and their blood flowed in rivers, staining the entire ravine where the stream passed. To this day, the people of Tarumake call that ravine 'Harnaka' (Rusty Ravine)." 

If the wine pourer discovered people of the same class or description sitting together he would take a double cup and invite them saying:

"You are two brothers of the same name and rank. Your accomplishments are the same, thus I honour you together with this double cup!" That would be for the first round of drinks. After that they would just be poured an equal amount of wine. Naturally, Esai was not qualified to take part in this event. All he could do was work diligently in the blacksmith hut at his home, busily banging away, making metal tools, and listening to the hunters in the courtyard of the Chief singing their moving, melodious songs of bravery and hunting. All the while a kind of faith, and an ideal, swirled around in his mind: "What will it be like when I can finally wear the Ceeme (a wreath made of nightshade vines) and Adrisi (plumes of the hawk-eagle)?" 

12. Ka-Balhivane: The Eternal Resting Place

After bidding his uncle goodbye in Tatukulu (meaning Acacia) Village, he returned along the path. As he walked, every stone and stairway he trod upon told him: "Life is nothing but the shadows of drifting smoke. What comes anew today is never what it was the day before." The rest stop just before Kochapongane was a place under the shade of some trees where several large, smooth slabs of slate had been laid. On his way between Kochapongane and Tatukulu he had often lingered there, dreaming uncounted daydreams. And today, every heavy callous on the bottoms of his feet was telling him:

"No matter how much and how long you struggle, your life is not more than a drop of dew in the early dawn." As he sat there, he swept his keen bright eyes over the horizon, taking in the full panorama in a single glance. It wasn't long before he lay back, closed his eyes and cast his mind back to that heady time when he had shot a black bear. A cool, exhilarating breeze caressed him, as dry leaves and blossoms from the surrounding trees floated down to cover his body. On the rattan vines, a few purple morning glories blossomed. This entire scene, all of it, brought back memories of that time two years ago. No matter where he turned, the grasses and trees silently spoke in the minutest detail of his comings and goings in their midst. Along the path, the Tabalhilu birds (a variety of thrush) sang their songs of reluctant parting and blessing for him.

"I will come back and see you all," he always quietly replied.

"Oh, Ancestors! Reach forth your helping hands to bless us!" He quietly intoned. Not far from where he sat, Lalay and Masasiang birds responded to his prayer with their song. He firmly believed that it was the voices of the ancestors speaking to him, and that made all the hope and comfort in his heart flood into the depths of his being like a cool, gentle spring. He had gradually dozed off, slipping into a dream. There he found himself in an unknown and indistinct realm. A woman he did not know passed him a bundle of evenly trimmed bamboo, saying: "This is for you." As she spoke she suddenly disappeared. 

He awoke from his dream and gave his drowsy eyes a rub. Full of anxious, unsettled thoughts he got up and started down the path home, hurriedly gathering pieces of firewood as he went. In his mind he kept returning to the dream.

For some time now they had been working tirelessly to clear land in the Drekay (meaning high elevation) area. First it was the yam field, then they harvested the taro, and after that they cleared a field for next year's taro crop. Finally, they sowed the millet field, just as the tender shoots of the Dauku tree leaves began to appear. They had just finished this work, and the season for weeding was still some time off, so he decided to suggest to his wife:

"I'm going off east of Balhukuan to hunt, so I need some better equipment. I want to make a trip to Daramaku to buy the things I need." Then he added, "I've heard that there is a tribe of people from far away who have recently arrived there, and they have brought some very good things, especially better guns and iron goods."

"How long will it take?" his wife asked.

"The return trip should probably take about seven days."

"Is anyone going with you?" 

"I'm going with Chiamare. He's a good friend who lives below our next door neighbours."

"Don't worry. It doesn't rain in the winter." He then gathered several days of firewood for mother and son while his wife busied herself preparing the things he needed for the trip, including the food he would eat on the trail.
One morning, he shouldered his beloved Dutch rifle, Talhiki, the supplies that his wife had prepared for him, and received the blessings of his wife and son. With great difficulty the two good friends overcame their reluctance to leave and bid farewell to their families, then headed off in the direction of the rising sun. Esai had only gone a few paces when he went back again to kiss his son, Langepao, and tell him:

"I'm going to get your gun. It's a pretty nice gun, so you better be a good boy while I'm gone!" With these instructions he kissed him again, then took to the trail once more.

"Father! Father! Wait for me..." The sound of the child's voice echoed over and over behind them. Even as they went farther and farther, the blessings of their wives and children still rang in their ears.

They followed the ancient trail eastward, passing through the sacred place, Balhukuan, then bore right to head south along the ridgeline. In order to meet the old trail again they headed eastward down Katatipal Stream. It took them two and a half days to reach Katatipal Village. It was then another half a day before they arrived at Tamalakaw Village.

The first thing they did was to seek out the Village Chief. They explained the reason for their visit and presented him with gifts. The Chief greeted them with sweet Ikakes wine made from glutinous rice. That evening, through the excellent hospitality of the Chief and the seductive effects of the Ikakes wine, the travellers' weariness completely disappeared. Employing a barter system, Esai exchanged mountain deerskins for an American-made Kriss rifle with an especially fine, long barrel, and thus longer range and greater accuracy. He also traded his old Talhiki, along with some deer horn for a large shoulder bag and a roll of wire. The exchanges went extremely smoothly. Even as he fell asleep, he had an excited smile on his face, and in his dreams he sang joyful songs. That morning Esai and his friend had noticed that the Chief's mortar for pounding grain was almost pathetically small. So the two of them spent the best part of a day going up into the mountains, finding a suitable log, then fashioning a suitably-sized mortar for the Chief, as way of showing their appreciation of his assistance. The next day, they left Katatipal via a different route and headed back. What they did was follow Tabuali Stream upstream, ascending through the valley of the tributary stream that passes to the right of Vilaolaore Village. They passed Tulhitulhiki Village, bore right to cross a range of mountains, and then entered the ancient hunting ground of Kochapongane, the dry mesa of Madrekadrekare.

"This rough mesa is the world of the animals." Esai said.

"The hunting shack of our ancestors isn't far from here."

"If we cross Katatipal Stream here and walk for another half a day we'll come to another mesa called Dratane. That's the ancestral home of our 'hunting dog,' the cloud leopard Lhikulao. But because that place belongs to the sacred beings, maybe we'd better choose this place to hunt." Every few paces they stopped to point out animal tracks to each other, all the time carrying on a whispered conversation: 

"Pretty soon we're going to be hunting here"... "So what sort of hunting gear do we need to bring along?"

Esai was extremely satisfied with the results of this trip of theirs, especially being able to get a new gun. He had it in his mind that he should divine the 'luck' of this new gun by doing some hunting, but it was already almost dark and they were hurrying to make it to the hunting shack to put up for the night. That night he had another dream. The two good friends were together in a vast, almost endlessly broad settlement. Looking off into the distance, their homeland sparkled under the brilliant rays of sunlight. The people living in the settlement were all very friendly and warm to them. One man earnestly asked:

"Where is it that you are going?"

"We're just passing through, that's all," they replied.

"We're going back to Kochapongane." Suddenly someone gave them a bag, saying: "Here's some lunch for you. You might get hungry on the trail." As soon as he spoke, he turned to leave, then disappeared.

Esai got up bright and early and made a camp fire, all the while thinking about the dream he had that night.

"What could it mean?" He wondered as he boiled up some breakfast, then wolfed it down. After that, there was only enough food for one meal, so they couldn't stay and hunt. There was nothing for it but to head straight home. They had been away from home for altogether seven days and they missed their families [very much]. So, while they still had the energy and a little bit of food left, they gathered up their traveling gear and headed home as fast as they could, climbing the mountains, and crossing through the sacred regions of the Central Mountain Range. The ascent was hard going, but when they thought of the gifts they were bringing and how much they missed their families, their fatigue was completely forgotten. The Masasiange sang for them as they walked along. Then, off to their right, it was the turn of the Tukeke, (the Scimitar Babbler, a bird sacred to the Rukai, and also a bird that announces the time) to proclaim in their excited voices:

"Ger! Ger! Ger!" (Brothers! Brothers! Brothers!) Startled, the men said:

"We're on the road home, and this kind of bird song is extremely important for those out on the hunt."

"We're in the middle of the ancient hunting ground. You never know what we might come across," Esai ventured.

"This place is the world of our ancestors, it wouldn't be hard for them to give us something," he added.

After they had reached the top of the mountain they could happily and with a great sense of relief walk towards the eternal homeland of their ancestors---Balhukuan.


They were right in front of the gate of their ancestor's homeland. Not counting Mt. Wutou to their right, and North Mt. Dawu and Mt. Kochapongane to their left, they stood at the highest elevation in the area. From that height they looked down on the world of humans laid out before their eyes. A cold wind swooshed by them, transporting Esai momentarily into the Tunnel of Eternity. There, with his own eyes he could see the two brothers of ancient times, along with their adorable divine hunting dog, the cloud leopard, appearing out of the low grove of banyan trees, their sacred city, to look for a resting place. Far in the distance to the West he could gaze upon the vast emerald expanse of the ocean as it met the deep azure sky. With his own eyes he could also see how, five or six hundred years ago, his ancestors from Tarumake, fled from the harassment of other tribes and made the perilous journey to Kochapongane. He saw too how once the ancestors heard the news from their clansmen at Kochapongane that they had "suffered enough of the harassment of the Su-Ariva (enemies)," and their Chief issued the order to open the doors of the Palhakuan (the young men's clubhouse), and send all the able-bodied men to Kochapongane to assist the observation brigade there. He saw on another occasion how the braves Cegao-Druluane and Lafasusu-Kadrangilane, one after the other, married women in Kalatadrane Village (present day Jialan), and how they, standing where he stood now, looked back at their homeland, their eyes filled with reluctance and longing.

All the time Esai kept thinking, "My Ancestors! All my Ancestors who have lived in this place through the ages, what must they think when they come here and gaze down upon the people below, upon all of our children and grandchildren?"

"Wumu (Grandfather)! You must also be thinking of me." Suddenly, dense clouds moved in, bringing fine, misty rain and a chilling wind.

"Let's go!" called Esai. His friend had also drifted into dreamland, and only just returned to the land of the living from that eternal moment of dreams. As the dreamer rubbed his drowsy, blurry eyes, Esai had long ago disappeared down the winding mountain trail. He started to walk, but had not gone far when he heard a "Pow!" sound. Picking up his heels, he rushed to see what that sound meant. It was a mountain buck that he came upon, lying there trembling as it breathed its last.

"Hey! I just shot that buck!" proclaimed Esai.

"This must be the gift that you dreamed about. No wonder the birds have been singing the whole way down the trail."

"We went through so much trouble for this gun, but now its fate has already been revealed," Esai explained.

"Let's dress the buck as quickly as we can. We can still make it at least to Dumulane by sunset." And after busying themselves with dressing the animal, they returned to the trail with packs much heavier than before, but with irrepressible smiles on their faces. They tried as much as possible to get beyond Dumulane and make some of the descent. They thus made it as far as the sacred mount's Taravaravadrane Creek. As dusk fell, they prepared to bed down there for the night. Back in the village, their families all had their eyes trained in their direction, waiting for their return.

translated from the Chinese by Terence Russell