by Jim Goodman
|Hua Lisu woman, Tengchong County
|Hua Lisu man
|action on the Sword Ladder
|going up and going down
|safety mudrss by the emcee
Wang Ji himself was a charismatic, fearless leader with great appeal to the Lisu. He led the campaigns personally and in the end laid down his life in defense of the frontier and the Lisu who lived on the Chinese side of it. Among his troops he had the reputation of being able to walk through fire and climb a ladder of swords in his bare feet. While this is a Chinese metaphor for exceptional bravery, the Hua Lisu took it literally. On the day of his death, the 8th day of the 2nd moon, they emulate Wang Ji by walking across hot coals the night before and climbing the sword ladder that day.
|picnic at the festival grounds
Unlike some other mountain people in the region, the Lisu do not ordinarily go barefoot. So the men's ability to run across the coals and climb the sword ladder does not come from a build-up of thick calluses on the soles of their feet, which are every bit as tender as a city dweller's.
|Hua Lisu elder
Yet they could not figure out the sword ladder climbing, which they witnessed close-up in broad daylight. The only explanation they could divine was the power of the Devil, coming to the aid of these pagan climbers. So, because the Devil's influence was so strong among this branch of the Lisu, as Mrs. Fraser wrote, the missionaries left Tengchong and moved north to proselytize among the Black Lisu of Nujiang. Today the Black Lisu are largely Christian, while the Hua Lisu to this day have resisted conversion and remain the largest sub-group of non-Christian Lisu.
The Hua Lisu way of life has not remained static since their migration to western Yunnan. They evolved from a mainly hunting and gathering society to one of agriculture and animal husbandry by the time of their encounter with the Frasers. Since then the Hua Lisu have largely abandoned slash-and-burn in favor of fixed field farming and were until this century involved in the logging business.
|stepping on the swords
|at the top
|dice game at the festival
|examining the feet after the climb
This is the last act of the festival. The ring breaks up and the crowd heads for home. The ladder remains standing until the following day, when the men gather to take it down, remove the swords, disassemble the components, and put them away until next year. And already those who considered it, but failed to muster sufficient courage to climb this year, have witnessed the new esteem bestowed on the climbers by their admirers. And already they have begun telling themselves that if their neighbors or rivals can succeed without any problems, why then next year they, too, will have what it takes for that tried and true way to social prominence--up the sword ladder.
|the last act--dancing around the Sword Pole