“My tribal language is my window to see the world”—Interview with Indigenous Bunun poet Bukun Ismahasan Islituan—Curated by Ming Di

Bukun Ismahasan Islituan卜袞·伊斯瑪哈單·伊斯立端 (b. 1956) is an indigenous poet of Bunun. He writes poems in Bunun and translates them into Chinese. He has published several collections of poetry in bilingual versions. He has been one of the vital voices in Taiwan promoting indigenous languages and indigenous literatures. 

When I approached him on FB about doing an interview and recording his poetry recitation in Bunun, he responded friendly but refused to be included in the video anthology under the title of Indigenous-Minority Poets from China or even under the label of Taiwan. He considers himself a Bunun poet or an Austronesian poet. He prefers to be defined by language, not by country, which I respect and admire but I use country and region as geographical reference only and I’m interested in a much broader scope, working little by little connecting the dots from the east coast of China to the west coast of Americas through the Pacific and Oceanic islands, and from Africa-Eurasia to northwest China.

Ming Di: Hello Bukun. I read your poems online and have been very impressed by your bilingual writing. I have recently interviewed some poets from Sichuan and Yunnan who also write bilingual poetry in indigenous languages and Chinese. I think it’s a very effective way of reviving the endangered indigenous languages. What was the first language you learned to speak as a child? Did you learn to speak Chinese or Bunun first?

Bukun Ismahasan Islituan: Thank you. The first language I learned to speak was Bunun.

Ming: When did you start learning Chinese?

Bukun: I should have started learning Chinese in the first grade of elementary school. But I have an impression or memory that I spoke my indigenous language in school at first. I didn’t seriously speak Chinese until the third grade of elementary school.

Ming: Did you live in a homogenous or mixed area when you were young? Were you exposed to other languages?

Bukun: I lived in a monolingual tribe when I was in elementary school. Then I moved to the suburban area of Heluo before I was about to enter the fourth grade. I learned Chinese in school and Heluo dialect in the community at the same time.

Ming: When did you become aware of your ethnic identity? What does “indigenous identity” mean to you?

Bukun: I was taught about my ethnic identity and I accepted it from an early age. In a way, my awareness of my identity concurs and coincides with my view of the universe.

Ming: What prompted you to write poems in Bunun and recite them in Bunun? 

Bukun: I became aware of the crisis of Bunun language in 1984. It was severely endangered. In 1987 or 1988, I decided to use Bunun language for literary writing. Prior to that, in 1977, I wrote the first and only Bunun ballad in Bunun language.

Ming: When did you learn the phonetic way of writing Bunun language and how did you choose what writing system to adopt?

Bukun: In the early days, I studied the Roman alphabet in the Bunun edition of the Bible. It’s the missionary version. I used it in writing my first Bunun ballad in 1977.  I met Professor Lin Qingchun in 1991-1992, a Bunun native who participated in the Kuomintang-Communist War and was a teacher at the Beijing University of Nationalities. That’s how I learned the International Phonetic Alphabet system for Bunun language. After that, the government began to promote the indigenous languages and introduced a standard writing system, also in phonetic symbols, developed by the Ministry of Education. So I started using it in my poetry books. 

Ming: Which writing system is more convenient?

Bukun: The version implemented by the Ministry of Education is easier to learn and it’s closer to the pronunciations of Bunun.  It’s also easier to input on a computer keyboard, so it helps promote the indigenous writing. 

Ming: Since you are also fluent in Chinese, which language do you use to compose a poem in your mind?

Bukun: I think in Bunun and plan the structure and style of a poem in Bunun. As to the inspirations and subject matters, both languages are at work and interchangeable, each bringing different effects in terms of expressions and craftsmanship.

Ming: Do you think writing in Bunun can express your deepest and heartfelt meanings, emotions and intentions? 

Bukun: Writing in Bunun language allows me to have a newer dimension in my literary presentation through the cultural connotation of the language, the depth of the meanings, the way the language affects my thinking and a different mode of narratives. And at the same time, it gives me a newer perspective. My tribal language is my window to see the world.

Ming: Thank you for your prompt responses. Thank you for your time. 

Bukun: Thank you. I hope more people from more nationalities around the world will create more multi-dimensional literature in the indigenous languages.


A bird indigenous to my heart

by Bukun Ismahasan Islituan


gods of outer space planted a seed of love 

inside each of us

the aboriginal love is lonely

always in caring thoughts

the aboriginal love is in the tears

and smiles

the aboriginal love is longing

manifested as mountains and clouds

stars and moonlight

water streams and currents of air

passing through our hearts


the animal blood becomes a man

so as to

please the shy one

the last cry of the creature becomes the whisper

of a woman

when the earth is primevally still

your eyes are the fire 

that keeps me warm in the forest

like a deer

running happily in the afterglow of the setting sun

your hand is the manzanilla to cure my back pain

like Venus

that brings the first morning light to earth 

to dispel the darkness 

your tears transform into honey

as sweet 

as the water of mountain goats

your face turned into a lily

as if 

spring splits open the earth


my happiness is originally yours

my tears are originally yours

my smiles are originally yours

even my thoughts are originally yours

my dream was yours

you are what the gods planted in


the seed


Translated from Chinese by Ming Di

Listen to his reading of this poem in his native tongue:

Dialogue in Mother Tongues on World Poetry Day 2023 – YouTube