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Atayal copper bell shirt

Tags: aborigine | Atayal | clothing

The copper bell shirt was considered a type of formal wear among the Atayal tribe. It was deemed of high value, similar to the shell bead shirt, and was worn during important ceremonies, especially during the dancing to celebrate the successful completion of a headhunting expedition. It can be said that this was one of the pieces of clothing that expressed a person’s position and achievement.

Among the Taroko (Truku) tribe only men with headhunting experience were allowed to possess this type of shirt. It was worn during a dance to mark the triumphant return from a headhunting expedition. As soon as the family members of a successful headhunting warrior were notified of his return, they would bring this copper bell shirt and welcome him outside the village. In addition to warriors who have brought back a severed head, the chieftain, the spiritual leaders (those in charge of upholding the gaga or rules and lessons handed down from the ancestors) and women especially adept at making these kinds of shirts could possess this type of clothing. It was buried with its owner following death to be worn in the afterlife.

The special features on the front of this shirt include three intersecting lines in red and dark blue beginning from the arm openings. Over them are stitched two horizontal rows of copper bells. Also, above and below the woven lines are buttons. The row to the upper right has 10 buttons and the one to the lower left has 13 buttons, while the one to the lower right has 15 buttons and the one to the lower left has 13 buttons. Every horizontal row has 6 to 7 bells and every copper bell has 5 to 7 black beads. Added to this are 3.5cm to 5 cm white shell beads and another 5 to 7 black beads. In addition, at the ends are stitched on a copper bell and every three strands are connected to form a single strand of copper bells. On both sides of the front of the shirt red yarn was used at the edges.

Along the lower hem that runs along the front of the shirt are three intersecting lines in red and dark blue. Stitched on are two horizontal rows of copper bells. Above and below this pattern are buttons; 17 along the upper right part, 14 among the upper left part, 13 along the lower right part and 14 along the lower left part. Every horizontal row has 4 to 6 strands of copper bells. Along the lower part are 14 strands and 42 copper bells. Along the lower hem, shell beads are used to keep the margins in place and to prevent fraying.

The back part of the shirt can be divided into the upper part and lower part. There is an area of white ramie of 4 to 5cm separating these parts. The upper part has six red and blue intersecting lines. Above and below these lines are buttons. Above there are 29 buttons and below there are 31 buttons. Every horizontal row has 16 strands of copper bells and there are six horizontal rows. There are a total of 96 strands and 228 copper bells. On the lower part, there are 10 intersecting red and dark blue lines. Above and below are flat bells. Above there are 31 copper bells and below there are 34 buttons. Every horizontal row has 16 to 18 strands of copper bells for a total of 170 strands and 510 copper bells. Altogether, this shirt possesses 294 strands of copper bells and 947 individual copper bells.

On the front part of this shirt there is one tie in black and red on the right side and two black and red ties on the left side. The colors and material are different from the original, thus these closures must have been mended sometime after the shirt was made.

From the sheer number of copper bells and other characteristics, it is easy to see that the copper bell shirt was a symbol of high social status among the Atayal.

To make this shirt, the cloth was first woven then ramie fibers were used to sew on the copper bells. During ceremonies, the sound of the bells complemented the musical instruments beckoning the spirits to join in. The severed heads were placed on a special shelf next to the fire. The warriors in their copper bell shirts would dance for the fallen enemies and invite them to join in. To the headhunter, the antagonistic relationship had ended and it was hoped that the severed head would become a benevolent deity even going so far as to bless him with future headhunting victories.

Respect to the severed head was paid not only through dance but also through drinking and smoking customs. When it was time to drink alcohol, alcohol was poured from the top of the skull and allowed to flow down where the warrior would drink. When smoking a pipe, the warrior would take a few puffs then place the pipe between the teeth of the skull. It was believed that by dancing, drinking and smoking together that enemies could come to develop a more friendly and harmonious relationship. It was hoped that the severed head would bestow on the warrior greater courage to more easily meet the next expedition or battle.


Department of Graphic Communications and Digital Publishing, Shih Hsin University Digital archiving project of the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines