Seeds for Life

Conserving the Cultural Context of Traditional Crops

2019 / October

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

A seed is more than just the source of a single life; it is also an embodiment of culture. Culturally grounded seed conservation isn’t just about keeping plants alive; it also aims to pass down the legacy of related cultural systems, emotional memories and ecological wisdom. Jian Zilun has devoted his life to this alternative movement of cultural preservation.



The sky is just brightening at 5 a.m. when we meet Jian Zilun at the Hualien Train Station. We proceed to drive to the Bunun Aboriginal village of La­muan (Chinese name Nan’an) in Hua­lien County’s ­Zhuoxi Township, where Jian plans to film the millet harvest and the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new village hall. He also wants to interview those in the village with expertise in planting millet and Bunun beans. On the trip down, Jian Zilun explains how he has turned his focus from “arti­facts” to “grains” over the course of his career as a ­conservationist.

On a slow-moving tricycle

At university Jian Zilun studied art. The summer after he qualified for admission to the Graduate Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics and Museology at Tai­nan National University of the Arts, Jian became inter­ested in farming. He first learned how to be a farmer at the Nongfa Xuetang natural farming school, and he also worked as a driver for Big Wang’s Vegetable Shop. As he delivered vegetables of various kinds, he came to serve as a moving hub of information about agriculture. But when he was asked some tough questions (such as “Why should I buy new seeds when I can simply save some from this season’s crop?”), he discovered that commercialization and mass production had led to mono­cultures, with a gradual loss of seed diversity. 

Believing in the importance of seed conservation, he began to slowly travel the East Rift Valley on an electric tricycle vending cart, carrying seeds and books—his  Wild Seed Library. He exchanged seeds with the local residents and spread an ethos of conservation. “But in truth, seed exchange isn’t that simple,” he says. 

The cultural pulse behind conserving seeds

In 2013 he traveled to far-off India. That South Asian nation had just begun to introduce genetically modified strains, a trend that allowed multinationals to corner the seed market there. Farmers had to take out loans to buy seeds, and when they couldn’t pay those loans back, some small farmers went bankrupt and committed suicide. In response, many Indians came together to establish seed banks, helping farmers to keep their own seed stocks and thus reclaim power over their own seeds and crops.

The trip to India left Jian with a key realization: “If you don’t know how to protect both the seeds and the cultural milieu and emotionally resonant stories behind them, then engaging in seed conservation is devoid of meaning.”

By following Jian over the course of one day at work, we begin to gain a sense of the culture surrounding seeds here in Taiwan.

Early in the morning, we arrive at Lamuan to shoot an elderly Bunun woman—or tina—named Pan Zhuju harvesting millet. At 10 a.m. we move locations to shoot the groundbreaking ceremony for the village hall. The tribal chief blesses the spot, and there is a series of offer­ings and other ceremonies that are tightly connected to the culture of the village and daily life there.

In the afternoon, we go back to the tina’s house for an interview. Facing the camera, she picks up a handful of Bunun beans that she is saving as seeds and says: “You don’t want to dry these bainu mew [“eyebrow beans”]; they’re better cooked fresh. If they’re dried, you have to boil them for a long time to soften them again. But if you then steam them and crush them into a paste, they have a mouthfeel like mochi.”

“When I visited Puli for a Bunun sports event, I discovered they still had bainu mew so I brought some back with me.”

Looking carefully at the size, color, markings and textures of the beans in her hands, one can see that they include pigeon peas, speckled kidney beans, lima beans, hyacinth beans and pinto beans, among others. The biodiversity in the hands of this national treasure is quite impressive.

The nuances of the cultural context are difficult to understand in the abstract. What we can learn on a brief visit like this is limited, but we can at least gain a sense of what Jian means when he talks about “seed culture.” The tina’s feelings about the various crops, and her cooking knowledge and taste memories, are important legacies that need to be passed down. Understanding the background stories connected to seeds is a duty of those involved in seed conservation.

Family vegetable gardens maintain biodiversity

During his travels Jian began to see and hear about all kinds of traditional local crops. But he also discovered that the number of vegetable varieties used in rural cooking was falling. Beans have long been an excellent source of protein, and the Bunun still are accustomed to eating beans: “The passing down of these varieties involves emotional factors that are closely connected to culture,” says a worried Jian. “With such an outflow of young people, when children don’t grow up in the indigenous community and do not build these taste experiences and memories, the cultural and emotional connections to varieties can quickly be lost.”

Fortunately, there are still home gardens. “In the seed conservation movement, mothers in tribal villages or other locales are playing the strongest role in preserving biodiversity.”

Jian then brings us to visit “Big Sister” Song, who works at the Lamuan Visitor Center. In her home garden, she plants millet, alianthus prickly ash, beans and all manner of wild vegetables. At first glance, her garden looks disorderly, as if nature has reclaimed it, but as we follow Song’s footsteps, we see that there’s a clump of millet here and a clump of corn over there, and to the side there’s a tree on which hyacinth bean and lima bean vines are growing. She is not planting in large quantities and has chosen crops that aren’t fussy. Although she’s not bringing in big harvests, her crops are easy to care for.

Mothers are maintaining access to biodiversity for their kitchens with just the small plots of their home gardens. And they are continuing to plant and share their seeds.

Finding one’s own role in seed conservation

Jian also went to Japan to gain a better grasp of marketing. There he discovered that the Japanese really know their food. In Japan, research into traditional crop varieties has traced some of them back to the shogunate of Ieyasu Tokugawa in the late 16th century.

One conclusion from his experiences in Japan resonated strongly with him: “In terms of our duty to protect seeds, everyone has their own role.” In seeing the cooperative mechanisms in place in Japan, he came to under­stand that protecting seeds could never be a solitary pursuit: Seed conservation involves issues related to the entire production environment. As industry has brought division of labor to our working lives, so too do we have different roles to play in seed conservation. “Any variety that has been passed down to the present has made it here because our ancestors deliberately continued to eat it. Eating is thus an action to protect seeds.” Jian’s eyes sparkle as he says this.

For instance, the Bunun grandmas who plant gardens are also protectors of seed stocks.

Holding a camera and asking questions alongside them, Jian is a documentarian.

Playing the role of advocate is Lo Chi-yen, who invited Jian to document these events. Lo is a project research fellow with the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation, who assisted with the organic conversion of rice paddies in Lamuan, and the Bunun bean project.

The collected millet samples are to be prepared as botanical specimens by someone who is not on site: Lin Zhi­zhong, in the role of academic researcher.

Su Zhimin, who left Lamuan at a young age, now runs a restaurant in Pingtung called Kakanan Nua Qemuma-­Quma. He is planning new dishes for his menu by drawing on research into Bunun beans. His roles in seed conservation are those of culinarian and cultural inheritor.

The Forestry Bureau’s Hualien District Office has supported this project of cultural recording.

A tina named Buni, who sells Bunun beans from a stall in front of the Lamuan Visitor Center, is also a wholesale bean trader. She clearly understands the state of bean farming in the tribal villages. “She plays yet another role in seed conservation,” says Jian.

In the same field of seed conservation, we can see how different people fill different niches.

Calling for reconnection with nature

Drawing on his own strengths, Jian has thrown himself into various atypical forms of seed conservation. Early in his career, he curated an exhibit on traditional crops titled “People Conserve Dreams • Dreams Conserve Seeds • Seeds Conserve People.” His hope was that the general public would pay more attention to the importance of remembering and continuing to farm tradi­tional crops. At the Mipaliw Land Art Festival, held along Provincial Highway 11, he created the “Pahanhan No Sapaloma” (a “seed habitat house”). Its tradi­tional ariri granary highlighted connections between people, crops, and nature.

“I’ve gotten involved in such a range of activities because seed conservation requires us to take different approaches to bring it into people’s lives,” says Jian. “If seed conservation isn’t manifested in real life, it has no meaning. If it has no place in people’s lives, it will be forgotten.”

One day in 2016, an overworked Jian collapsed. By the time they got him to the hospital, his heart and breathing had stopped. He was in a coma for seven days, terrifying his family and friends.

After convalescing for a year, he once again found a place for himself in seed conservation work. He uses various different media to tell the story of seeds, so that more people will come to understand the importance of conserving them.

In his long quest on behalf of seeds, Jian has gradually come to adopt new approaches. At first, he pursued his seed conservation work as a lonely figure riding around on a three-wheeled electric vending cart. Today he has learned to pool his efforts with others who share his goals. 

“By helping everyone find their place in the seed conservation movement and by finding connections between everyone and seed conservation, we are perhaps at the beginning of real change.” He has remained true to his original ideals.

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文‧鄧慧純 圖‧林格立
















「這個bainu mew(部落暱稱八家將豆)不要曬乾,新鮮的來煮比較好吃,曬乾的話要煮很久才會一樣鬆軟」,蒸熟後打碎,(口感)就像麻糬一樣。」

「上回去埔里參加布農族運動會發現那邊還留有bainu(豆)mew (眉毛)的豆豆品種,才又找回來。」


文化脈絡這龐雜的體系著實過於抽象難以理解,細看簡子倫為拍攝紀錄片條列的採訪大綱,內容跨及夢的指引、農耕歲時、田間出現的物種、農作流程、農耕工具、煮食方式等面向,我們從採訪過程能窺見的實在有限,但從tina的話語中,約略體會到簡子倫所說種子的文化脈絡, tina對作物的情感,這些烹煮的知識與味覺的記憶,是保種任務中更需要傳承的,理解種子背後的故事,也是保種人的任務。















在南安遊客中心,遇見的tina Buni,她在遊客中心前擺攤賣布農豆豆,她向族人收購豆豆,最清楚部落裡種豆豆的情況,「這也是保種的一個角色,她是布農豆豆總經銷。」簡子倫說。



運用自己的專長,簡子倫投入許多非典型的保種,早些年的「種子野台」、「人藏夢‧夢藏種‧種藏人」傳統作物策展,希望大眾重視傳統作物的續存與記憶;在花東台11線上舉辦的森川里海濕地藝術季創作「有種棲息所pahanhan no sapaloma」,搭建一座意義轉化過的穀倉(阿美族語ariri),供人與種子共處以感受共同的生命時間,再牽續人與作物與自然的關係。他也拍攝紀錄片,還有為花蓮農改場80年場慶策展。






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