by Jim Goodman
|Hani village surrounded by its irrigated terraces
|Hani rice terraces, Yuanyang County
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
|heavy drinking is part of a big meal
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
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.
|dressing for the festival in Huangcaoling
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
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
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