Seeds for Life：Conserving the Cultural Context of Traditional Crops
Cathy Teng /photo byJimmy Lin /tr. byJonathan Barnard
millet harvest (photo by Jimmy Lin)
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.
At the close of “People Conserve Dreams • Dreams Conserve Seeds • Seeds Conserve People,” the organizers “brought the fight to the street” by moving some of the exhibition materials to a traditional market, as well as by holding workshops on recipes that use traditional crops. (courtesy of Wild Seed Library)
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.
Jian Zilun doesn’t just want to replant heirloom seeds in the soil: He wants to replant them in our lives.
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.
Pan Zhuju, a tina (elderly Bunun woman), harvests millet. She has a strong attachment to traditional crops.
Pan Zhuju saves and plants all manner of Bunun beans. Bainu mew (“eyebrow beans”), with their distinctive surface patterns, are known as “Eight Generals” beans for their resemblance to the face paint of the “Eight Generals” in temple performance troupes.
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.
The Pahanhan No Sapaloma—or “seed habitat house”—was a granary installation invested with transformational meaning, where people could coexist with seeds and reflect upon their relationship with crops and nature. (courtesy of Wild Seed Library)
Amid assembled tribespeople, the chief offers blessings at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new village hall while Jian records the event. The scene captures the different roles that people play in the seed conservation movement.
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.
The seed conservation movement seeks both to pass down stories about seeds to the next generation and to bring seed conservation into daily life.
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.
Helping people find their place in the seed conservation movement, Jian Zilun has never wavered from his original goals. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama