After the annual millet harvest in August each year, the indigenous Paiwanese people in Taiwan gather for Masalut, their New Year’s Day. It is also in this season that men confess their feelings to their love interests through gifts of firewood, better known as the ritual of Papuljiva (pronounced pah-poo-lee-vah). For readers looking for a unique way to express your love, welcome to a quick guide on Papuljiva, and may the gods smile upon your romantic life in the coming year.
About a month before Masalut, Paiwanese men venture into the woods to harvest huge logs of firewood. They then store the wood discretely somewhere near the homes of their families and romantic interests to dry out. On the actual day of the festival, the men will then gift them to families, friends and most importantly their potential partners. Think of it as what we do on Valentine’s Day, but instead of a brown tablet of confectionary, we have brown pillars of solid fuel to last through winter.
What to give, how much to give and how to give the Papuljiva is an art in itself, as many oral traditions passed down imparts significant cultural and practical wisdom to the custom.
Barking up the right tree
Firstly, the type of wood chosen is of utmost importance: the wood should either be functional as firewood or pleasing to the eye, which is rated by how straight, how dense (and by extension how long it can burn for), and how beautiful the piece of wood is. By these metrics, the Paiwanese people came to prefer a few species, in particular, the zengela, or Negundo Chaste tree. The zengela has dense, sturdy timbre ideal for an enduring firewood. Its flowers resemble lavenders in shape and colour. Its tree barks and leaves also release an aromatic oil when pressed, resulting in a pleasing aroma while burning.
While the zengela remains the top choice in most villages, the djaqas, or the Pride-of-India, is quickly catching up in popularity. This comes as no surprise as the spots on djaqas’s timbre gives the tree its exquisite pattern reminiscent of the old-fashioned army camouflage. As heaters and modern apartments sprout across the villages, the practical benefits of the zengela gives way to the more ornate djaqas, with the latter quickly gaining favour among the newer generations.
Firewood are cut into approximately two-metre-long logs, tied together by dried vines. As with Valentine’s chocolates, the quantity given often conveys underlying messages.
About one to five pieces of firewood are given by older married men to male cousins in their youth as a way to encourage the latter to find a partner, while gifting to a female cousin signals to the rest of the village that there is a lady in the household that is of age and looking for suitors.
For young love, one does not want to come off as too eager without proper consideration, so five pieces is the standard when asking a girl for a date. This form of papuljiva is very special, and for many tribesmen an average of one to two recipients over their entire lifespan will be the norm.
But as with all things, if there is a way to overdo something, people are bound to do it. Recently a bold young man from another tribe of Paiwan proposed to the daughter of the chief of Kuljaljau tribe, using no less than a hundred and one logs of firewood, which might actually be the highest record thus far. A hundred pieces of wood being a definite declaration of eternal love, and the love of a hundred and one pieces would imply love that surpasses even that.
Neck of the woods
This leads us to the final factor in the perfect proposal: how do people gift the firewood? The actual customs of the method of gifting differs from tribe to tribe. Take, for instance, the Kuljaljau tribe that was mentioned. It is in their custom to embark on the journey in the thick of the night and reach the recipient’s house by dawn. The recipient’s family will prepare water and wine for the suitor and his companions to rest up and the party leaves before the girl rouses from her slumber. As a result, it is also common for girls in Kuljaljau to stay up during the night to peep through the windows and see who is gifting the firewood.
The beauty of this ritual lies in the communal effort behind the entire process. The elders, or vuvu, instructs the young men on what trees to pick, how to cut the wood down cleanly, and how to soften the Qami vines to tie the wood. The men of the tribe gather to help one another with the preparation of wood, quite literally shouldering one another’s burdens in this arduous journey. The women in the house prepares food and sing for the tired men. The cousins help to match-make other villagers… One can only imagine what it must be like to go through the entire month-long process of proposing. Not only will the couple-to-be find love in each other, but perhaps the greatest affirmation of love is the blessing that the tribe provides them through wordless labour.
Liking a person is a universal experience, and it can feel lonely sometimes in our individualistic world. Maybe we can all use some Papulijiva, some communal warmth in this journey of life.