Friday, May 10, 2013

The Longest Dinner in Yunnan

                                           by Jim Goodman

Hani village surrounded by its irrigated terraces
       One of the great unpublicized pleasures of Yunnan is hiking in the Ailao Mountains.  This is the range running along the right bank of the Red River, from central Yunnan southeast to Hekou, and on into northern Vietnam.  No snow peaks in this part of the province and the summits rarely rise above 2500 meters.  Deep valleys sometimes, but no outstanding gorges or major waterfalls.  But throughout Ailaoshan the slopes of the mountains are wonderfully terraced and usually irrigated, so that they remain flooded all year.  The swirling lines of the terrace walls follow every conceivable contour and the eye never tires of them. Villages speckle the mountains, home to several colorfully dressed minorities, of whom the Hani are the most numerous and among the most hospitable people in the region.
Hani rice terraces, Yuanyang County
      Lower Ailaoshan, the four counties between the Red River and the Vietnam border--Honghe, Luchun, Yuanyang and Jinping--is the Hani heartland.  Six sub-groups live in Yuanyang alone, differing in costumes and minor cultural aspects.  But all of them share the same material lifestyle, growing rice in irrigated terraced fields, said to be the prototypes for the entire region.  Some terraces are still in use since being described by chroniclers of the early Song Dynasty.  And in recent decades, thanks to fertilizers and new strains of rice, their annual yield is greater than ever.  Collectively, the Hani have advanced from mere self-sufficiency to a small measure of prosperity.
       Though one may prefer to simply wander all day along paths through the fields, and marvel at the engineering skills it took to create this special landscape, one cannot get very far in Hani areas if there around anyone's meal time.  Often the first encounter in a remote Hani village leads to an invitation to drink and dine.  The Hani of Ailaoshan see the arrival of a visitor as a welcome interruption of the daily routine and strive to make the most of the event.  Hospitality is second nature to these people, an indication of a basically friendly, honest and outgoing character, brimming with self-confidence.
traditional Hani houses
        This innately gregarious people will turn the dinner invitation into a social event.  Many are those in Yunnan who advise their guests to "eat slowly," but the Hani take that as an order.  Without guests the meal might not take too long, but having guests is considered a better way to dine.  And when guests are on hand, male guests in particular, then the meal will be augmented by lots of alcohol, tobacco and conversation.  Women and children, who don't drink, finish soon, while the men may drag it out for up to two hours.
       The table will hold several dishes.  Meat, fish, chicken, bean curd, leaf vegetables, beans and radishes might comprise the fare, perhaps seasonally supplemented by edible fungi and insects, small fish, snails or baby frogs netted in their flooded terraces, and cassavas, which used to be the main filler when the previous year's rice ran out.  Rice itself, as well as soup, is only served to the women and children in the beginning.  The Hani follow the general Yunnanese style of dining, in which those who are going to take alcohol with their meal, whether it's beer or distilled spirits, first conclude their drinking before having rice or soup.
heavy drinking is part of a big meal
       Thus the men, all of whom must drink, for it's a social affair after all, nibble at the several dishes in between repeated toasts with cups of strong liquor.  Every fifteen minutes or so one of the men passes out cigarettes and hands the water pipe to one of the diners as all the men pause for a tobacco break.  Hani men consider eating, drinking and smoking as related pleasures and so partake of them all at the same time.
       Several of Yunnan's minority groups are fond of tobacco.  Among the Wa, for example, the women smoke constantly in long, ornate silver pipes.  But others rarely smoke during meals, while for the Hani it is normal procedure.  When calling on a Hani house the guest is first given a clean, freshly filled bamboo water pipe, a pinch of Yunnanese blonde tobacco and a lighter.  Then the host will prepare tea.  In other societies the tea precedes the smoke.
       And at funerals, though Hani women in general don't smoke, whether the deceased is male or female a tobacco bong is placed at the side of the corpse and its spirit is invited to have a smoke.  When the body is buried a few tools and implements used by the person when living--knife and crossbow for a male, for example, and spindle and cooking pot for a female--go on top of the grave.  A tobacco bong is included for both.
three stones: for humans, animals and crops
       As the dinner drags on the water pipe needs cleaning and refilling and the dishes get cold.  The women, who have finished much earlier, keep watch over the meal.  When one man has finished smoking a woman takes the pipe away to ready it for the next.  As the contents of one or more dishes become half-consumed a woman comes to refill them.  If they turn cold she takes them back to the kitchen to reheat them.  When the bottle of spirits has been emptied she is there with a fresh one.
       Men's work in this strongly patriarchal society consists of heavy labor like terrace-building and repair, plowing, construction and long-distance trade.  But minibuses have replaced the old caravans and Hani men only work steadily part of the year.  In contrast, the women work all the time, in addition to their domestic chores.  In the fields they do the planting, weeding and harvesting, and together with the men the threshing.  They also do all the gardening, make the family's clothing, and do the bulk of he buying and selling at the periodic market days in their vicinity.  Besides trade, Hani women come to socialize, quite freely without the men around.  Perhaps because so much of their daily life depends on the women, Hani men accord them a great deal of respect and freedom of choice in matters of the women's own interests; marriage partners, for example.
Rhamatu rituals
       Among the items for sale at these markets are the components of Hani women's costume, as well as those of their neighbors the Yi, Miao, Dai and Yao.  Hani women of all ages wear traditional clothing every day and most are well off enough to afford three or four sets.  Silver jewelry in the Hani style may also be on offer, though the women save this for special occasions.  Women of other ethnic groups in the four counties also prefer their own traditional costumes.  Even the teenagers working temporarily in urban shops and restaurants usually dress in ethnic style, for their aesthetic sense is still within the tribal parameters.  Lower Ailaoshan, dominated by proud and self-assured ethnic minorities, may well be the most colorful part of the entire province.
dressing for the festival in Huangcaoling
       Because their material culture--terraced fields-works so well, and there is no way to mechanize that kind of farming, their mode of agriculture is likely to endure. Hence, the non-material aspects of their culture are also strong.  The women's preference for ethnic clothing is one example.  Use of the language in the urban areas is another, as is the maintenance of food preferences and domestic manners.  But, after costumes, the most public aspect is the continuation of traditional annual festivals.  Among the Hani, programs for events like the Swing Festival, Installing the Village Gate and New Rice will automatically include, besides the ceremonies, a leisurely banquet.
       The grandest feast of the year, however, is reserved for Rhamatu, the most important of the annual Hani festivals.  The event honors the dragon-spirit guardian of the sacred grove, a patch of woods at the edge of the traditional Hani village.  The spirit is incarnated in one of the trees and its deputy, the rhama-abaw, chosen at the outset of the festival, emcees the rites and activities.  Beyond its esoteric religious value, however, Rhamatu celebrates the unity and solidarity of the Hani village, for its main feature is a collective dinner held outdoors on the main street of the village.
reading the liver
      Rhamatu is a dry-season event, but different Hani sub-groups stage it at different times.  In Yuanyang County, for example, northern villages near the hill town of Xinjie hold it in late November, but around the southern township of Huangcaoling another sub-group begins it on the first tiger day following the Lunar New Year.  In Jinping and over the border in Vietnam it comes a month later.  Besides separate dates, the various sub-groups also differ in the ritual details.  Elaborate feasting is the main feature common to Rhamatu no matter which Hani sub-group.
   The first day mainly involves preparation for the second day.  The women are especially busy preparing food for the great feast.  A smaller dinner, requiring the presence of one man from each household, transpires the first evening in front of the dragon-spirit's tree, which has a modest fence installed around it.  Within this sits the rhama-abaw, beside an altar holding offerings like tiny cups of liquor, pieces of the sacrificial pig, painted eggs in bowls of colored glutinous rice, silver coins and a balance-stick.  A resident specialist comes to read the pig's liver and make prognostications.  Soon darkness falls and the men take their meal, and their liquor and tobacco, on the grounds in front of the tree.
Rhamatu feast,Huangcaoling
     Next day, though they are about to partake of a meal lasting the entire afternoon, that does not stop Hani men from having their ordinary mid-morning repast, along with the usual accompaniment of liquor and tobacco, consumed in the customary leisurely manner.  By the time they have finished it's nearly time to bring out the food for the public meal.  Just after mid-day members of each individual household carry tables laden with dishes from their homes to the main village street, setting them side by side in a long line occasionally broken by a space to allow men to pass to the other side of the tables and sit.
       Before taking seats the men stand in line at the far end to donate gifts to the rhama-abaw, consisting of a small amount of liquor and two cigarettes, one for the rhama-abaw and one for the dragon-spirit.  Then they choose a place to sit, pour a cup of liquor, pick up their chopsticks and start eating...slowly.  As every household must contribute one table's worth of food the quantity and variety is enormous.  It looks as though the village is displaying its wealth in the form of food. Every part of the pig, cooked in sundry different manners, will dominate the dinner, but chicken, beef, half a dozen or more species of fish, three or four kinds of edible insects, usually deep-fried in oil, green vegetables and cassavas, eggs and fruit are also part of the feast.
       The nibbling at the bowls of food, like the sipping of alcohol, is slow but steady, only interrupted (often!) by turns on the tobacco bong or the smoking of cigarettes.  About midway through the afternoon the men at one end of the line of tables call out to those at the other end, standing up and toasting their health.
       Meanwhile, in the open ground next to the rhama-abaw's end of the line the young women and children perform dances.  Though it's only the men taking part in the feast, the women dress in their newest and nicest traditional costumes and this is definitely the day to put on silver ornaments and accessories.  Not many of the dances are truly traditional, however, for in larger villages and townships a dance leader, usually a slightly older young woman, will create choreography just for this festival, often to Chinese tunes or even pop songs.          
Hani dancer at Rhamatu
Hani drummer girl
      Not until after five o'clock do the people begin to remove the tables back to their homes.  Guests, fully sated and quite as inebriated as their hosts, then have to find excuses to decline persistent invitations, now that the feast is over, to their new friends' houses for dinner and drinks!  This is, though, the chance for the women to enjoy some of the food they have so lovingly prepared.  An evening song and dance show rounds out the festival, a mixture of traditional dances and contemporary acts, also created for the occasion.
       The next day all is back to normal.  The traveler moves on to another section of Ailaoshan for another walk among the terraces, hoping for a splendid sunset to bounce colors off the water-filled terraces.  Failing that, one can hope for the next best alternative--an invitation to a Hani dinner.

one family's contribution to the collective feast
                                                                         * * *
                for more on Ailaoshan and the Hani, see my e-book The Terrace Builders

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