A System of Exchanges Between Kawas and Humans Among the Austronesian-Speaking Amis of Taiwan

Shu-Ling Yeh (National Taitung University)


This paper will deal with the Amis concepts of kawas and personhood. Kawas has a number of meanings for the Amis and is a key concept for understanding the traditional Amis socio-cultural system. Gods, souls and other spiritual beings are all generically designated as kawas. Following Fox’s research concerning the flow of life (1980) and the notions and processes of partible personhood and sociality developed in Melanesia (Mosko 1995, 1998, 2001; Strathern 1988; Wagner 1986, 1991), this paper will show that the close relations between the encompassing paternal fraternal house and the maternal-focused houses can be reconsidered in terms of the plural constitution of personhood as the Amis perceive it. I argue that living Amis persons incorporate the indispensable life essence which derives from the spiritual world in their bodies in the first place, and the continuity of their life depends upon the on-going transmission of the life essence of the ancestral deities through the periodic exchanges between the divine and human domains. The exchange relations between the human and the ancestral deities also animate the elicitory transactions among the humans in accordance with their customary social forms. Analysing the flow of the life essence between the divine and human worlds and its redistribution within the human world in terms of indigenous customary organisations and rituals will help us to capture indigenous understandings and meanings of kinship. In so doing, I try to dismantle previous interpretations of Amis kinship which assume biological essentialism and the dominance of ties derived from biological procreation (cf. Schneider 1984).

Keywords: personhood, house, kinship, Amis