Saturday, October 29, 2022

                  Lancangjiang:  The Mekong River in China

                                                      by Jim Goodman

            In Southeast Asia it is popularly known as the Mekong—Mother of Waters.  Its source lies high up on a bleak and barren slope of one of the Tangula Mountains in south central Qinghai Province, western China, a pool called Lasagongma Spring.  Water from this spring flows into nearby glacial streams that merge and become the Mekong River.  Called the Lancangjiang—the Winding River-- throughout its course in China, it flows 4350 kilometers through six countries and empties into the South China Sea.  It is Asia’s 7th and the world’s 12th longest river, draining a basin of 810,000 square kilometers. 
       From its source at Lasagongma Spring, 4900 meters high, the river carves its way across the eastern side of the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai and Tibet.  When it enters northwestern Yunnan Province it is running south, parallel to the Nu River (upper Salween) over the mountains on its west bank and the Jinshajiang--River of Golden Sand--(upper Yangzi) over the mountains on the east bank.  Yunnan maps circle and label the region Scenic Area of Three Parallel Rivers.  The Jinsha makes a dramatic turn north in Lijiang County, but the other two remain close until the Lancangjiang bends a little southeast after Baoshan.               
       The upper part of this river, down to the plains of Xishuangbanna, is largely flanked by high mountains.  Wherever there’s a break in the hills and enough flat land for farms, towns lie along the riverbanks.  The major cities, like the county capitals Deqin, Weixi, Lanping and Baoshan, are on high plateaus somewhat away from the Lancangjiang.  Deqin Prefecture in northwest Yunnan is geographically part of the southeast corner of the Tibetan Plateau and the site of the province’s highest mountains—Meili Snow Mountain, at 6740 meters and Taizi Snow Mountain, at 6054 meters. The high plains in Deqin and Shangrila Counties are over 3000 meters altitude, but the river itself is several hundred meters lower. 
       The mountainous terrain east of the river is often dry and barren, receiving less annual rain than west of the river, and with many slopes too steep to hold trees or already clear cut by loggers.  The government banned logging early this century, so some of the denuded areas are supporting new forest growth.  Around Meili Snow Mountain and especially the vast nature reserve of Baimashan south of Deqin city, the original forests remain.
       Tree species in these high-altitude forests include fir, pine, cypress, hemlock, walnut, poplar, birch, willow and maple.  Some of these turn color in autumn, providing an array of yellow, green, orange and red colors.  Others feature flowers that bloom at the end of winter, such as camellia, rhododendron, azalea, lilac, orchid and rough gentian.  The forests are home to numerous kinds of birds, including large ones like eagles and the silver, black and red-breasted pheasants.  Wild ass, takin, clouded leopard, tiger, civet, flying squirrel, binturong, gibbon, red panda, snub-nosed monkey and musk deer comprise the mammal population.

        In Weixi County the river is already beyond the Tibetan Plateau and the mountains on either side much lower.  A few perennially snow-capped peaks well over 4000 meters high are still visible here and there, but in general the mountains are not so steep, less forested and more human inhabited.  The river is narrow, full of rocks, with a swift current and not navigable for any great length.  Fishing is not much part of activity on the river, though it is common in tributary streams.       

       A few of the towns on the Upper Mekong played roles in the area’s history.  Deqin was the center of a violent uprising against the Qing Dynasty government in 1905.  Cizhong, in the southern part of Deqin County, is the site of a Catholic church established by French missionaries in the 19th century, rebuilt here in 1921 after its original further south at Cikou was destroyed in the 1905 rebellion.  At Xiaoweixi, further downriver in Weixi County, was the other French mission church and its original building still stands.  North of Xiaoweixi, above Kanpu, is Shuoguosi, the southernmost Tibetan monastery, erected in the 17th century during the reign of the Kang Xi Emperor, who often patronized Tibetan Buddhism. 

Lying north of the Tropic of Cancer line, and with its mountains, high plains and plateaus, the Upper Mekong enjoys a temperate zone climate.  Winters are cold but not bitterly so and except for occasional rain or snow generally dry and sunny.  Spring is balmy and full of fresh flowers.  The rainy season runs from around late May to October.  Autumns are mild with good weather, dominated by a landscape of ripening rice fields and, in the higher altitudes, forests speckled with a bright range of tree leaf colors.

       A mélange of different ethnic minorities has been living along the Lancangjiang for a couple thousand years, long before the Han even discovered the area.  From its source in eastern Qinghai down through Shangrila County in northwest Yunnan, Tibetans dominate the population.  They are part of the Khamba branch that inhabits eastern Tibet, historically famous for its resistance to governments both in China and in Lhasa.   

All that is just history now and in fact the Tibetans in Shangrila County have always gotten along well with the Han.  Large farms dominate the county’s high plains, requiring two or three families working together for two days to bring in the autumn harvest.  To the north, however, the land is rougher and rockier, the farms much smaller.  A single family can crop their own field in half a day.  Here animal husbandry is more important.  But in the past an epidemic could wipe out their animals and, faced with survival at stake, Deqin Tibetans raided the richer Shangrila farms, while Han and Naxi soldiers protected the Shangrila Tibetans from their wilder cousins up north:  hence, the good relations in Shangrila. 

       Continuing downstream, the Naxi are the next ethnic minority, with many settlements along the river in Weixi County.  In the past the Naxi rulers of Lijiang, further east, responsible for providing border security, stationed Naxi troops along the frontier.  Some of these Naxi soldiers retired and stayed in the region to found the ancestors of the riverside towns and villages of contemporary times.       

It was a frontier Naxi culture, without the dongba tradition or the sophistication of religious rites prominent in Lijiang.  Yet in essence it resembled the Naxi culture of villages beyond the immediate vicinity of Lijiang.   The brick houses on stone foundations with tiled roofs were the same.  So were the traditional garments, the way of farming and the Confucian norms regulating family and society.

In the hills above the Naxi settlements lives the Lisu ethnic minority.  They are predominantly a rural people, divided into three main groups:  the Black Lisu of Deqin and Nujiang, the White Lisu of lower Nujiang and upper Baoshan, and the Flowery Lisu of Baoshan, Myanmar and northern Thailand.  The latter are famous for their bright colorful garments and, in China, an annual festival wherein men climb a tall ladder of sharpened swords.      

       South of the Naxi settlements and east of the Lisu territory, the land is home to the Bai people, one of Yunnan’s largest and most important minorities.  They ruled the province from the early 10th century to the Mongol conquest in 1253.  Farming, fishing and trade made them the area’s most prosperous ethnic group.  Skills in handicrafts, metalware production and marble goods also contributed.

     In the hills beside the Bai-inhabited plains and south of Dali Prefecture are sub-groups of the Yi, Yunnan’s largest ethnic minority.  Historically, the Yi established the ancient Nanzhao Kingdom, contemporary to China’s Tang Dynasty, and today comprise over 25 sub-groups in Yunnan, as well as others in Sichuan, Guizhou and Vietnam.  The traditional dress of the women, still preferred by most, varies considerably, from the flashy, bright, highly embroidered garments of the Duli sub-group west of Dali to the nearly all black ensembles of the Limi sub-group in Lincang.  

        Continuing downriver, the next major ethnic group is the Lahu, nowadays resident in southwest Yunnan, northern Myanmar and northern Thailand.  A reclusive people, they established self-sufficient villages in the hills, relying on swidden agriculture, hunting and gathering.   They were so renowned at hunting that the Dai in the plains, and their relatives in Myanmar and Thailand, called them Museur, the word for ‘hunter’.  Originally a matrilineal society, the Lahu later evolved a dual inheritance system, while women continued to be held in high esteem.  Heads of female lineages lead group discussions in the villages and are the final arbiters on matters of tradition and custom.

The Wa ethnic minority also inhabits the hills west of the Lancangjiang next to Lahu territory and over the border in northern Myanmar.  Unlike most hill people in Yunnan, whose languages are from the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group, the Wa language is Mon-Khmer.  In the past they were notorious for their headhunting custom.  They believed the skull of a freshly decapitated head possessed a soul-force that would, when mounted in the fields, protect the crops for up to two years.  Spring was thus the season for organized headhunting raids, usually as far from the home village as possible.

       Always conscious of revenge, Wa village compounds were fortified, with secret entrances, containing two or three hundred houses.  The practice was eliminated in the 1950s and villagers began demolishing the fortifications.  Opium cultivation ceased then, too and now the Wa grow maize, buckwheat and rice, the latter mostly turned into alcohol.

A smaller minority in southwest Yunnan, the Bulang, also speak a Mon-Khmer language.  Like the Wa, they are considered the earliest inhabitants of this area.  They are also the only Buddhist hill people.  Buddhist Wa and Lahu villages do exist in the region, but all the Bulang are Theravada Buddhists and they claim they got the religion before the Dai.  Every village has a temple and it’s still the custom for boys to spend a short period as a novice in the temple.  The Bulang raise the usual hill crops, but in recent times have concentrated more on tea cultivation.

       By the time the Lancangjiang passes through southern Pu’er Prefecture and Xishuangbanna, the elevations of both plains and hills on either side are much lower.  Because they still rise a thousand meters or more above the plains, mountain settlements were historically remote and hill people’s culture developed relatively autonomously.  The Akha, prominent in these hill areas, are a good example.  Known as Aini in China and Akha among themselves and their counterparts in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, they are officially classified as a branch of the Hani nationality.  But besides clothing style differences, like the ornate women’s headdresses, the Akha differ from Hani in house types, agricultural methods and ritual celebrations, like the annual Swing Festival.

A smaller minority east of Jinghong, the Jinuo, remained isolated until last century.  In fact, they were the last people in Yunnan officially recognized as a minority nationality.  Originally families lived together in longhouses, but as modernization and development reached Jinuoshan, they began opting for individual dwellings.  Tea cultivation dominates their economy now, but old traditions persist, like the annual festival honoring the blacksmith, whose tools and metal products they credit with lifting them out of poverty and barbarity.

       Plains neighbors to all these hill folks along the lower Lancangjiang—the Yi, Wa, Lahu, Bulang, Akha, Jinuo—are the Dai.  For the most part they are wet-rice cultivators and followers of Theravada Buddhism, like their ethnic relatives in Southeast Asia—the Shan, Thai and Lao.  Most villages have monasteries and most males spend a period of their lives as a novice residing in the monastery.  The Dai have their own alphabet, used for both religious and secular purposes, which historically enhanced their prestige as a literate people.  Small animist Dai sub=groups still exist, their lifestyle only differing in religious practice.  These include the very colorful Huayao Dai near the Red River in Yunnan and the White and Black Thai of Laos and Vietnam.

Modernization is progressing all along the Lancangjiang basin, yet ethnic traditions have persisted.  Because of an environment of rough mountains and remote valleys, life among the people for many centuries carried on mostly autonomously.  They might suffer the interference of periodic tax and labor conscription campaigns by local princes, but were largely beyond the battlefields whenever war broke out in the region, even the Muslim Revolt that ravaged central Yunnan in the 19th century.

       Fundamental changes, from influences beyond their traditional horizons, began taking hold only about a century ago, principally with the construction of a vast road network that by now has extended to nearly every remote village.  Prior to this, communication in many places was by trail and on foot and the only contact people had with the outside world was from the caravans passing through, bringing both goods and news.

Greater transportation links promoted integration with the modern world, access to schools, clinics and markets, while advances in communication, like cell phones and the internet, have accelerated that process.  It has altered some aspects of traditional ethnic minority culture but has by no means undermined the whole of it.  Traditions and customs survive because the people do not see them as antithetical to modern times, but as part of their identity.   Ethnic pride among the peoples of the Lancangjiang has been a resilient characteristic and today makes the region as attractive as the wonderful scenery from which it sprang.

                                                  * * *

(adapted from the opening chapter of my latest book—Peoples of the Greater Mekong:  The Ethnic Minorities, to be published soon by World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore)


Sunday, July 31, 2022

Jinuo Villages in Xishuangbanna, Past and Present



                                  by Jim Goodman

       The Jinuo people were one of the earliest settlers in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, and nearly all of them still live there today, mostly around Jinuoshan in the center of the prefecture.  The area is very hilly and has become famous as of one of the six major mountain regions cultivating Pu’er tea.  Legends trace the Jinuo origin to a detachment of soldiers in Zhuge Liang’s army during the 3rd century Three Kingdoms Era.  The unit overslept one night and when it finally caught up with the army Zhuge Liang would not allow them to rejoin.  They were to stay and settle where they overslept.  But to make it easier for them, Zhuge Liang gave them seeds for tea bushes.

       This was supposed to have happened around Mojiang, but the Jinuo later migrated south to Xishuangbanna.  The Jinuo never developed a script for their language so never recorded these events.  It’s not possible to say precisely when they began living in Banna, but the best known and most popular Jinuo origin myth casts them as indigenous to Jinuoshan.  Accordingly, the first human, a giantess called Amo Yaobai, using clay models, created the Han, Dai and Jinuo people.  The Han and Dai occupied the plains, but the shy Jinuo opted for the hills.  When a great flood swept across the land Amo Yaobai bade one Jinuo couple to hide inside a sealed drum to keep them safe from drowning.  When the waters receded the drum landed at the foot of contemporary Bapo village in Jinuoshan district.  The couple who emerged from the drum became the Jinuo ancestors.   

       Only in recent decades have any Jinuo opted to take up residence in the plains.  Always a reclusive people, they have remained ensconced in the forested mountains around Jinuoshan throughout their existence.  At an elevation a few hundred meters higher than the plains, they enjoyed a cooler summer, while the winter was never very cold.  Establishing their villages within the tropical forests, they could take advantage of jungle resources like wood and bamboo for building materials, animal and plant food and natural medicines.

       When setting up a new village the Jinuo usually chose a site on a hill slope facing the morning sun.  After clearing the area they marked off the village boundary with tablets of stone or wood, decorated with carved spears and swords, presumably protection against nefarious spirits.  They built stilted houses of wood and bamboo, roofed with thatch or wooden tiles.  The political and spiritual leaders stayed in individual houses.  Everyone else lived in longhouses, usually ten to twelve families from a single clan, occasionally large enough to fit twenty families.  Residents shared one big room for meetings, socializing, cooking and dining.  Families lived in compartments on both sides of a central aisle, each with a separate fireplace.  When families got larger, to three generations, it became so crowded that people built another longhouse.

       In the longhouse tradition private life was mostly public, for every family was keenly aware of what other families were doing.  It’s hard to imagine growing up in such conditions with a strong sense of individualism or inclined to rebel against any cultural norms.  The family was an important institution, but the village as a whole was the main social unit.  They were farmers and the land and labor on it were collectively shared.

       They cultivated dry rice, corn, bananas, papaya, cotton and tea.  The latter they grew in gardens, which could begin yielding the right kind of leaves four years after planting.   Fruit trees were permanent, but the grains and cotton required fields cleared from the jungle.  In early spring farmers cut down the trees in a section of the forest and burnt them down to the layer of ashes that would soak into the soil when hit by the first rains and provide enough fertilization to grow crops for a year or two.  Then they would have to clear a new patch and leave the just used one fallow for ten years.  After that, with the land fully rejuvenated, they could clear and sow it again.

       The Jinuo were not the only ones to practice this ‘shifting cultivation’ (or ‘slash-and-burn’), it was common throughout the hills of the province.  So long as the population was small and stable the system worked.  The people rotated fields over the same route, re-using the fields and not extending further into the forest.  There was little strain on the overall ecology.

       Besides sharing the produce of the land, the collective ethic also characterized hunting.  Men formed parties and hunted together.  Whatever they caught was shared equally, though the one who shot the animal got to keep the pelt.  They also carried with them bamboo tubes of different lengths, each making a different sound when struck.  The way the party played these on their return informed the village how successful they were.

       Women were not part of these parties, nor were they allowed to do the butchering, because these were life-taking activities.  Jinuo women were the life-givers of the society, giving birth, nurturing babies, planting seeds after the men cut down (and killed) and burnt the trees.  But they were also subject to ritual restrictions, such as not being allowed to touch or beat the village drum.  This drum, intended as a replica of the one that saved the Jinuo progenitors in the great flood, was housed in its own building, beaten by the headman as a summons to a collective meeting, and put to use during important rituals and festivals. 

       The schedule for the preparation of their fields ran according to the annually predictable weather pattern.  At the end of the hot, dry season it was time to cut down and burn the trees and wait for the first rains to mix the ashes with the soil.  But the day to begin sowing the fields depended upon the spiritual leader’s decision and that was after conducting ritual animal sacrifices to appease the land spirits.  Beating the drum accompanied the ritual prayers.  Then the elders ceremonially planted a few seeds in their own fields and after that the rest of the village could start planting.

      Later in the year Jinuo villages also roll the drum out to the center of the settlement on the occasion of Temaoke, a festival honoring the blacksmith, a Jinuo cultural hero.  Before the blacksmith came into society Jinuo life was harsh.  Nearly everything they did was slow and laborious.  The blacksmith introduced tools and weapons that transformed their lives:  axes, machetes, hoes, spades and plows for the field work; knives, spears and swords for hunting and defense.  As a result the Jinuo work load became easier and life was more tenable and sustainable.

       The festival events include rituals by the men honoring the drum and a series of dances mimicking the successive activities of the rice-growing cycle.  The theme is unique to the Jinuo.  Other peoples have blacksmiths, too, but they do not accord them the same cultural prominence.  Temaoke thus represents a celebration of what’s special about being Jinuo and nowadays the people dress in their best traditional garments for it, even if they no longer wear them every day.

       Nowadays, too, the festival includes vigorous drum-beating while the dances transpire, especially by women, no longer forbidden to touch or play it.  In fact, the women’s drum dance is more attractive than the men’s.  Men beat it from a single position, standing in front of it and striking forward.  Women move around, hitting it forward, sideways and backwards, dancing while doing so, making for an energetic, more entertaining performance, especially when more than one woman is playing.

       Besides the taboo on touching the drum, the injunction against women being butchers has also lapsed.  They still do not take part in killing animals for sacrifices to the spirits, for the control of religion belongs to the men, but in recent decades a few Jinuo women have undertaken jobs as butchers.  Nowadays there is virtually no occupation off-limits to women and they hold a highly respected position in society.  Tradition says that in the past Jinuo society was divided into seven matriarchal and seven patriarchal clans, but that the matriarchal system was abandoned three centuries ago.

       Nevertheless, Jinuo villages have two recognized leaders:  the oldest male and the oldest female and the latter supervises women’s affairs.  Within the longhouse the younger generation engaged in fieldwork, while the elderly women stayed behind and looked after the children.  Thus grandmothers were of strong influence on a child’s upbringing.


      The Jinuo did not venture down to the plains very often and were a mystery to the Han and Dai, who called them Youle people, after a prominent mountain in Jinuoshan.  Governments classified them as a branch of the Dai nationality, though their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family, unrelated to Dai.  Familiarity with Jinuo culture and identity only began with the founding of New China in 1949.

       From 1954 Communist Party cadres began contacting isolated Jinuo communities to help them improve their lives.  The following year they set up cooperative work teams for agriculture and introduced wet-rice cultivation to replace the dry-rice farming that relied on the slash-and-burn method of field preparation.  Now the Jinuo built permanent fields in terraces, irrigated by water pumps.  Production increased and, thanks to health care improvements, so did the population, nowadays reaching 25,000.  The old way of shifting cultivation would not have been tenable much longer anyway.

       The government also established the town of Jinuoshan, an administrative seat for the Jinuo-inhabited area.  A network of roads came next, linking major villages within the district.  Hydroelectricity projects reached the villages and electric lights replaced the tiny oil lamps for internal illumination, while electric milling machines took over from mortar and pestle action.

       In 1979 the government finally recognized the Jinuo as a separate minority nationality.  They were no longer a branch of anyone.  They were their own people.  The year was the start of the Reform Era, the dismantling of the commune system and the revival of ethnic consciousness, long castigated as “little nation chauvinism”.  For the Jinuo this meant a new appreciation of their traditional clothing and subsidies for their festivals, as well as other cultural promotions appealing to ethnic pride.

       From 1979 many Jinuo families took the newly possible option now to leave the commune system altogether and started their own farms.  They also began building separate homes outside the longhouse.  In general they were stilted houses of wood and bamboo with roofs of wooden tiles.  Into the 21st century they began deviating in style, with roofs of corrugated iron, walls of brick or cement and directly on the ground.  This has been the fate even of the officially designated “cultural village” of Bapo, where the drum landed after the great flood.

       The village lies above a slope and lying across that slope is a massive stone sculpture of Amo Yaobai.  It was made by a Sichuanese sculptor after a design drawn up by the Sichuan Academy of Art.   She is lying on her back, limbs outstretched, face up and eyes open.  A walkway alongside right up to the village enables visitors to view the entire work up close.  Tour agencies bring groups here, usually arranging for ethnic dances as well.  Bapo, like all Jinuo villages, still has its drum house, though the village architecture has modernized so much it hardly justifies the enormous ticket price to enter.

      One of the government projects designed to promote ethnic consciousness in Jinuoshan was the opening of a Jinuo museum.  Unfortunately, it was not in Bapo cultural village, nor in or near Jinuoshan, where visitors might look for such a thing.  Instead it is in Baka, east towards Menglun, in a rather dilapidated state, converted from an abandoned longhouse.  Separate cubicles hold exhibits of hunting gear like crossbows, traps, snares and rifles, spinning and weaving material, ritual items and sets of local Jinuo clothing.  The museum has never been properly maintained and the glass cases are so encrusted with dirt the exhibits within them are only visible from the sides.

       Traditional clothing is similar throughout Jinuoshan except in Mengwang District in the northeast, where the government sponsored a sub-group recently to move from deforested hills to vacant land in the plains.  The women’s much longer peaked cap reaches to the waist in back, while the blouse, wraparound skirt and gaiters are similar they do not wear the same kind of colorful jacket, but plain blue or purple cotton or silk.  Men wear black jackets with red trimming and a red sun, with spokes like the drum, over the front pocket and the upper back.  Mengwang clothing differs from the Jinuo norm, but its components and style make it recognizably Jinuo.  And though the last longhouse residents in Jinuoshan moved out in 2002, the collective spirit survived and villages stage their own village feasts and celebrations in which all the residents participate.   It’s essential to being Jinuo.     

* * *

For more on the Jinuo see my e-book Xishuangbanna:  the Tropics of Yunnan


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Early Excursions to Aini Villages in Yunnan


                                                by Jim Goodman


       When flights became available from Chiang Mai to Kunming in Yunnan I had already been living in Chiang Mai a few years and had been working with the Akha ethnic minority group in the northern hills.   We produced traditional clothing items, mainly shoulder bags and jackets in Western sizes, the colors from natural dyes, which was my own role in the project, a skill I picked up in Nepal before I moved to Chiang Mai.  There was a market for such things in the late 80s and early 90s and by living moderately the work basically paid for my research, having the ambition to write a book about them. Ever since I met them I had been curious about their original homeland.

       Only a small portion of the Akha lives in Thailand.  They are more numerous in Laos, Myanmar, and especially China, from where they originated, and where the greatest number of sub-groups lives.  Thailand has only three.  The majority are Ulo Akha, characterized by tall, tubular headdresses and intricate line-stitching embroidery.   The next largest are the Lomi Akha, whose women wear a silver-plated attachment behind a cap fully studded with silver half-globes and employ a lot of appliqué on the bags and clothing.  The third and smallest, concentrated at Pamee and other villages near Mae Sai, are noted for their cross-stitch embroidery and lavish use of silver on the women’s headdresses and clothing components.  I worked with all three.

       The Ulo and Lomi Akha came into Thailand from Myanmar, but the Pamee sub-group came from Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China.  On one of my regular visits I met a relative of my host family who was staying in Pamee a few months to make money in the litchi orchards.  Yunnan was opening to tourists and he invited me to come to his village in Xishuangbanna.  That provided my main excuse for going and I arranged a flight for the summer of 1992.

       After a few days taking an extended look at Kunming and the nearby Stone Forest, I flew to Jinghong, met Akhas on the street, greeted them in Chinese, then rattled off some sentences in Akha along the lines of—You are Akha people, are you not?  I’m an American person. I live in Thailand and work with the Akha people and can speak a little Thailand Akha language.  Can you help me?  In that way I learned that my friend’s village, called Paseu, was in Xiding district in Menghai County.  In those days there were many places in the province still off-limits to foreigners.  Beyond Jinghong, Mengla County was still closed and in Menghai County only the towns of Menghai and Menghun were open.  I needed a permit for Xiding district.  Thanks to a demonstrable ability to speak the Aini language (as the Akha are officially called in China) that was no problem.

       Because of the novelty of a foreigner at all in Xiding, and one who could speak their language, an Aini shopkeeper invited me to stay with her family that night.  It was raining anyway, so they wined and dined me, examining my Thailand Akha photos, until after midnight.  Next morning we met an old man who knew where Paseu village was, so my Xiding hostess told her son to take me there, along with his Chinese friends, who would all share the task of carrying my luggage.

       After quite a long hike, pausing for rain showers, we arrived at dusk and the boys turned to me.  Who did I know here?  Ajeu who worked in the litchi orchards in Thailand.  Someone took us to a house belonging to an Ajeu fitting that description, but we didn’t recognize one another.  Turned out he worked in Pahee, one of Pamee’s satellite villages.  But you’ve come a long way, he said, and must be hungry, so stay for dinner.  In the course of the meal the word about us spread through the village and before I could finish eating the other Ajeu, who’d worked in Pamee, came to the house and afterwards took me to his home.

       Ajeu was my host and companion the next several days as I explored the forest, nearby villages, the tea gardens where most of them worked, and the Xiding market on my way back to Jinghong.  Almost all the Akha here had never seen a Westerner before, but my use of the language, even though a different dialect, made the proper impression and at social gatherings I brought out my Dictaphone and played recordings of Akha dancing ground songs in Thailand.

       Most socializing with guests and neighbors takes place during an extended dinner.  First meat and vegetable dishes fill the tables, along with rice spirits, which must be quaffed in the beginning and frequently afterwards throughout the meal.  Cigarettes are also liberally distributed and the men even smoke while they eat.  For a while they only take bits of meat and vegetables as they smoke, talk, drink, joke and laugh.  It’s at least 40 minutes before the women serve the rice and soup.  Even then the pace of eating only picks up slightly as the atmosphere continues to evoke a celebratory experience of eating and drinking in human company.

      In this the Akha in China resembled their cousins in Thailand.  They also shared customs like the internal domestic wall separating the men’s side from the women’s side, the use of shamans and spiritual specialists, rituals of the December New Year, and the Swing Festival.  As tea cultivators they did not observe festivals and rites associated with growing rice nor maintain their village gates.  They did not grow cotton or indigo, so bought their clothing components from the markets.  Traditional clothing was not so common in the villages and when posing for family portraits the females had to do some borrowing for a traditional look.  The men dressed modern style and the only man around with a traditional Akha jacket was me.  In the Xiding market I did see some women dressed traditionally, wearing conical headdresses or ones like in Pamee, but often plain jackets without embroidery.  Younger ones did not dress in Akha clothing, but carried traditional shoulder bags, usually heavily embroidered.

       So I had much to relate to my Akha friends and workers back in Thailand, but on the next trips to Yunnan I concentrated on the northwest and its people, resulting in a book published later that decade, and didn’t visit Aini villages again until late 1997.  By then counties were opening to foreigners at an accelerated rate and I conceived a long-term research project that would take me to all parts of the province for a book that was eventually published in Kunming as The Exploration of Yunnan.  One of the first stops was Lancang County, where the largest ethnic group is the Lahu, most of whom are Christian and live in modern style.  However, the county also hosts sizable Aini communities, still traditional, as far north as Shangyun, but mostly south of Lancang city. 

      I was with a Chinese friend who was taking me to meet his Wa connections in Ximeng after Lancang and he had a friend in Lancang who used to be a police officer stationed in Jiujing, about 25 km south.  He arranged a car and driver to take us to a typical Aini village near the town.  It lay within the forest, several km down a dirt road turnoff from Jiujing.  The people were rice farmers, but their fields were not visible from the village.  The houses were similar to those in Thailand, made of bamboo and wood with roofs of thatch.  Some had roofs of wooden tiles and a few dwellings were brick houses in the contemporary style.

       By coincidence it was Aini New Year, celebrated here three 12-day calendar cycles earlier than in Thailand or Xishuangbanna, where it occurs in late December.  It was the third day, featuring the settling of accounts at the headman’s house, and the rice liquor flowed freely.  They even gave me a bottle once I was introduced to the scene and began conversing.  They celebrated other festivals like in Thailand and had the full range of traditional authorities:  the headman who mainly handles outside affairs, the dzoema who is the authority and ultimate arbiter on cultural matters, the pima who is the spiritual specialist and memorizes the oral  traditions and history, the blacksmith who is also chief architect and oversees house construction, and the shamans, to whom people go when medicine does not ease their afflictions.

       Perhaps because it was festival time more of the people, even males, dressed in traditional clothing, though women tended to wear red and white checkered headscarves instead of ornamented headdresses.  Their shoulder bags and the lower half of the vests and jackets were heavily embroidered but with colors restricted to pink, red, white and magenta.  The bags were also bigger than usual and the skirts longer and bulkier.  They wove and dyed their own cloth and strips of indigo cloth were hanging on some of the balconies, just like in winter in Thailand.

       Three months later, February 1998, my Yunnan exploration included sojourns to Xishuangbanna to visit the oldest Aini settlements in Menghai County and find out where they lived in Mengla County.  In Menghai County the biggest and oldest villages were in Gelanghe Autonomous Aini District.  With an adventurous young Chinese friend I headed there.  There was only a dirt road then, climbing quickly into the hills southeast of Menghai, that were speckled with forests and slash-and-burn farms, augmented by tea gardens and fields of sugarcane.  Halfway to the town, straddling the crest of a hill was the Aini village of Yakoulaozhai.  The previous year, to mark its 125th anniversary, backed by a grant of 5000 yuan from the county government, the village erected a magnificent entrance gate.  Based on the original traditional entry gates, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and not rebuilt since, it was bigger and more richly decorated with carvings of weapons and other symbols to repel demons from the protected sacred site of the village.

       Most houses were traditional style—stilted bamboo and wood structures with roofs of thatch or wooden tiles.  The people we saw were all dressed modern style.  We didn’t stay long, for our destination, 6 km south of Gelanghe, was Pasha, an even older and bigger village.  With over200 houses, all of them in traditional style, Pasha had already spawned two satellite settlements a short distance away.  It lies on a slope that’s not very steep and the highest neighborhood is on the crest of the ridge.  Up here stands the festival swing, next to two simple and ordinary size entry gates, with carved male and female figures beside them to remind spirits this is a human zone and not for them.  Pasha had these gates because three years earlier the current dzoema personally revived the tradition.  The other two villages didn’t have them. 

       One big difference between the Akha in Thailand and the Aini in China was ideological interference.  In Thailand outsider attempts to change the traditional Akha Way came from Christian missionaries and Buddhist proselytizers.  In China it was periodic government campaigns against ‘superstition’ that undermined tradition.  Another casualty of this was the absence of ancestral altars inside Aini houses, still very much part of Akha life in Thailand.  At least there was never a campaign against embroidery designs and the survival of this tradition was very evident in Pasha, especially among the older women, who still wore traditional garments and were currently busy stitching in their free time.  The younger ones rarely wore them, except for the shoulder bag, but all the babies had traditional caps, festooned with beads, cowry shells and coins.

       In Mengla no one could tell us where the Akha lived, but I assumed they must be near the Lao border province of Phong Saly, which was heavily Akha-inhabited.  I chose to look in the vicinity of Nankexing, a spot on the map next to the border.  There was a border check post at Manzhuang, but when my friend explained I was researching Akha/Aini in China for a book the police permitted us to proceed.  However, they couldn’t tell us where the Aini might live.  We got a ride part of the way, then hiked past thick forest on both sides of the road and after another hour came, not to Nankexing, but to a stone pillar marking the China-Laos border.

       Fortunately a woman turned up heading back to her village and informed us an Akha village lay 3 km ahead and the nearest Lao border check post was several km further on.  We hiked to this village, called Pakeu whose residents were the original inhabitants of Nankexing.  They fled to Laos to avoid the political campaigns of 1958.  They had moved down from the mountains a year ago, closer to their sugarcane fields, so their houses were a bit ramshackle, yet the interiors were in the same traditional style as in Thailand.  The men’s side and women’s side had separate hearths and a wall divided them.  The ancestral basket was stored in the far corner of the women’s side beside the dividing wall.  Water was carried and stored in bamboo tubes.

       This was the first Akha sub-group I met whose women wore, instead of skirts, black shin-length trousers.  On top they donned a black long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket that reached to below the knees.  Aside from the cuffs and a tab next to the left side of the neckline, it was all plain black.  On their heads they wore a close-fitting cap with a flat board rising up from the back, all swathed in black cloth.  A line of silver studs decorated the front brim and round silver pendants hung on chains on both sides of the face.  Unmarried younger women cropped their hair short and many wore no headgear.  For those who did, it was a skullcap decorated with coins, silver studs and the same round pendants hanging down each side, as well as long strings of beads and white seeds dangling from the back of the cap.  More of their sub-group lived north on both sides of the border and I met them again years later in Mengban district.

       Still, their attire was quite a contrast to the bright and colorful outfits of all the other Akha I’d encountered.  But with our final excursion it was back to the kind of Akha ensembles I was used to seeing.  We went to Mengman in the southwest corner of the county and at once met Akha girls in full traditional clothing similar to Thailand and Menghai County.  From them we learned of Akha villages west of the town past the rubber tree plantations.  These villages were well off thanks to the rubber business and all the houses were newly made brick in the local Dai style.  Only the big swing distinguished it as an Akha village.  When I commented on that, a villager suggested going to his sister’s village on the Lao side of the nearby border to see something more typically traditional.

       It was a 90-minute hike over a plain, a Lao army post visible to the south, to the edge of the forest and the site of the village.  Here, as promised, all the houses save the headman’s were in the classic Akha style.  (His was brick.)  All females dressed in traditional garments, though none wore the calf-wrappers common elsewhere.  And instead of a heavy beaded pouch holding down the skirt in front they wore loops of beads across the right hip, fastened to the waistline front and rear.  As it was already late afternoon the headman invited us to stay the night and attend the house-warming party of a neighbor.

       The males spent an hour slaughtering and cutting up a big pig and when the feast began ate separately from the women.  Young women kept replenishing the tables with freshly cooked pieces of pork, while the host made sure the rice liquor made regular rounds, and I passed around my photos of Akha in Thailand.  The meal was long, marked by much conversation about their culture, comparing aspects in each country.  They also had the same origin myth as that narrated to me in Pasha, Jiujing, Xiding and Thailand, memorized in full by the village pima.

       We returned to the headman’s house fairly late and a little drunk, but there was one more old-fashioned traditional experience coming up to enjoy—opium.  Behind the partition wall on the female side an older woman was lying on her side smoking her pipes.  She soon finished and turned over her place to a young man who proceeded to prepare a couple pipes for himself to smoke and then several each for both of us.  My friend had never smoked before but this was something still common at that time in northern Thailand, where until recently many Akha villages cultivated the plant.  At the end of the session our host only asked payment for what the Chinese smoked.  Mine was complimentary because I spoke their language.  Now I had a final anecdote to relate when I returned to Thailand’s Akha villages. 

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