Monday, July 22, 2013

LOOKING PRETTY—TRIBAL STYLE


                                                                by Jim Goodman

Palong girls
       In Northern Thailand beauty takes on exotic new definitions, for traditional hill tribe females have a very different concept of what makes a girl pretty, even from tribe to tribe.  Some traits are common to all, such as the lack of make-up, the use of silver ornaments and the general preference for bold, bright colors.   But no style quite resembles any other, while within each style subtle variations express individuality.  In addition, hill tribe women in general have drawn on a staggering array of decorative devices from both the natural world and the modern.  The combinations startle the uninitiated visitors, but they soon find that their aesthetic sense, in the tribal environment, quickly accepts the local norms.  And they leave with the feeling that traditional dress makes even tribal plain Janes look fetching.
Pwo Karen girls
       When city women go shopping for clothes and jewelry they purchase ready-made items.  Hill women make their own outfits, so they only buy the components.  Some tribal women—the Akha, Hmong, Palong and Karen—weave their own cloth as well.   Karen weavers lay in decorative patterns while the cloth is still on the loom.  Lisu and Lahu sometimes weave belts and cloth for shoulder bags but buy the main costume parts in bolts of cloth of different colors.  Yao do not weave, but like the Akha and Hmong are meticulous embroiderers.
       The Akha, Karen and Palong grow their own cotton and spin their own thread.  The Hmong raised hemp for their cloth, though in recent years have been growing cotton.  Karen weavers dye the threads first, but the Akha and Hmong weave it white and dye it with indigo afterward, when the Hmong also apply designs by batik.  Akha and Karen cloth is used for all parts of the costume, while Hmong cloth is only for the skirts.  Once the cloth is dyed the next step is to assemble the costume parts.  The appliqué and patterned stitch-work comes at this point, which can take months for a fully embroidered pair of Yao trousers or an Akha girl’s jacket, leggings, skirt-guard and shoulder bag.
Ulo AKha family
       Girls of all tribes become adept with spindles, needles and thread at an early age, not from any formal training, but just by copying what their big sisters and mothers are doing.  In the most remote and cash-poor villages, where tribal people have to make their own clothes because they can’t afford to buy any, females of all ages spin thread whenever their hands are free and there’s enough light from the sun, the moon or an oil lamp.  And they learn to weave as soon as their legs are long enough to reach the treadles on the loom.
       The tribal exposure to various interpretations is much circumscribed.  No strong media influence exists in the traditional tribal girl’s world, which is instead heavily saturated with images of the immediate environment.   A tribal girl doesn’t want so many “looks.”  She wants to look like all the other women around her because that has been all that she has seen, except for maybe a few hurried glances at the town girls and other tribal girls in the plains markets.  The only beautiful women she’s ever had a good look at have been fellow tribal women. It’s no wonder they all wear such similar costumes.  To look beautiful in the Akha world is to dress in the most beautiful Akha costume it’s possible to make.  To be a beautiful Karen girl is to wear the most expertly woven Karen dress she is capable of making.
Lomi Akha girl
       As in the plains, tribal girls dress up more to impress other women than to attract a male.  The big holidays and weddings are times to show off one’s skill and compare one’s work with those of others.   Akha, Hmong and Yao girls will examine each other’s embroidery and if they see something new will at once try to figure our how it was done. They’ll observe what decorations were used and how they were deployed, inspiring ideas for their next great holiday fashion.   Lisu girls will count the shoulder stripes on the blouses of their rivals to see whether they have more or less than their own, which is the Lisu girl’s measure of appliqué skill.  The Karen may do the same with the brass bangles on the arms of fellow villagers.
ring dance at the Lisu New Year
       The city girl has a plethora of jewelry selections.  Tribal ornaments are of two kinds:  silver items and products of their natural environment.  Tribal silversmiths fashion the rings, discs, neck rings and chunky bracelets and bangles, generally from melted down British silver rupees, 92.5% pure.  These coins also serve as ornaments, especially for the Akha, who attach them to headdresses and stitch them onto jackets and bags.  The Hmong and the Yao do the same with French Indochinese piastres.  The Lisu are particularly fond of silver.  During festivals girls wear blouses covered front and back with silver studs and pendants, wile the occasional girl wears little silver fish in her headdress or suspends a larger one from a thick silver chain hanging down her spine.
Lisu girls with New Year headdresses
    Besides silver items, some of which are family heirlooms, tribal people fetch ornamental materials from their jungles.  Both the Akha and the Karen use Job’s tear seeds and the iridescent wings of green beetles as decorations.  The Karen make beads from coconut shell, while the range of Akha embellishments includes animal parts like gibbon fur and horsehair tassels, dyed red.  Also, the Akha are perhaps the only people to make a decorative device from chicken feathers.  Women twine the tail feathers around a two-string bow-loom, knock them in place with a bobby pin and tie off the tassel at the desired length.  They next dye them red and attach them to headdresses, shoulder bags and jackets.
    Town girls are familiar with a much broader range of beauty models.  They’ve been bombarded all through their formative years with the images of the world’s styles and instructed on the ingredients of attractiveness.  They are offered the ability to adopt one look for today, another for tomorrow, one for the office, a different one for the big night out, one for the sober presentation, another for the festive occasion.
making chicken feather tassels
    As for hair styles, most women in the hills cover their heads in turbans or headdresses and even those who don’t ordinarily, like the younger Lisu and Karen, put up their hair for festivals.  The simplest, and even strangest headgear is that worn by the Palong and the Lahu Shehleh.  It is nothing more than a bright hand towel, like the kind you see hanging in your suburban friend’s bathroom.  Most other headgear is one form or another of the turban. 
Akha women dressing up i Pamee
   The most elaborate headpiece, though, is that of the Akha, which varies according to sub-group.  The Ulo headdress consists of a bamboo cone, covered in beads, silver studs and seeds, edged in coins (silver rupees for the rich, Thai baht for the poor), topped by several dangling chicken feather tassels and maybe a woolen pompom.  The Pamee Akha wear a trapezoidal cloth cap covered in silver studs with coins and beads on the side flaps and long chains of linked silver rings hanging down each side.  The Lomi Akha wear a round cap covered in silver studs and framed by silver balls, coins and pendants.  Married women attach a trapezoidal inscribed plate at the back.  By the way, Akha women sleep with their headdresses on, though the Ulo women remove the top half.
    In traditional villages the style of the visitors is in a minority.  The burden of accepting the unfamiliar is on them more than on their hosts, who are, after all, on their own turf.  But just as the guests usually find it easy to behave respectfully once they discover their hosts doing so with them, they also have no real trouble adjusting to the strange new concept of beauty in the tribal world.  Some adjust so well they even fall in love. 
Lahu Shehleh New Year
                                                                       * * *

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hill Tribes vs. Nasty Spirits: The Endless Battle


                                                      by Jim Goodman


Akha rite for the Lord of the Land
       When first-time travelers to the hills of Northern Thailand hear that the tribe they are about to visit is ‘animist,’ their comprehension faculties often go on immediate pause.  Animist?  They don’t have gods?  They worship spirits?  No, not really.  Traditional religion among the hill tribes is animist, to be sure, but animism is a complete belief-system, just like that of the organized religions like Buddhism, Islam or Christianity.  In fact the two have many similarities.  Hill tribe animism is a regulated way of life, with a code of behavior and a sense of ethics in every way comparable to that of the organized religions of the region.    It has its religious specialists and its own set of time-honored rituals to deal with matters beyond the mundane aspects of daily life.  It has some concept of an afterlife, for which ritual funerals are a requisite preparation.
       The primary difference lies in its attitude to the unseen world of forces and influences.  Animism sees the many varieties of these as different kinds of spirits.  Some are good ones, like the various guardian spirits of the house or village and the benevolent ancestral spirits.  People invoke their blessings and call on them to deal with the bad spirits, the ones that seem to have a permanent grudge against humans.  These bad spirits are legion, most of them specializing in a particular type of affliction. 
'reading' portents from the sacrificial chicken bones
       Then there are the neutral spirits, in that they don’t normally interfere in the affairs of humans.  Most of them are nature sprits, governing the land, sky, water and weather phenomena.  But they can be provoked into causing trouble, which happens when they consider humans guilty of disrespect.  Then they can be just as nefarious as those bad sprits that make a career out of being nasty.
       According to the tribal mind, spirits have been around since the dawn of time.  Unlike humans they cannot reproduce, but their numbers are constantly augmented by the souls of people when they die.  If people die a “good death,” meaning one from natural causes, they become ancestral spirits with a tendency, so long as they are properly beseeched, to do what good they can for their progeny.  If people die a “bad death,” however, one from violence or accident, for examples, then they become wandering bad spirits, forever resentful of the way they left this world and eager to do harm to the living.
altar to the Lord of the Land
       As for the guardians and nature spirits, to keep them contented all the people have to do is periodically manifest their respect for them, generally in a ceremonial way.  These spirits rule the elements and like all rulers love flattering ceremonies.  The Karen, Akha and Hmong believe in a Lord of the Land and Water, who presides over the area in which they live and these people perform an elaborate annual ceremony honoring this Lord.  They make offerings of food and drinks, decorate the Lord’s shrine with ornaments of split bamboo and fire guns in salute.   The Lisu honor their village protective spirits several times a year by preparing a big feast for them at the main village altar on the edge of the settlement. 
       Equally important are the spirits in control of the land.  Hill people supplement what they obtain from agriculture with hunting and gathering, but agriculture is at the core of the culture.  Since it is the land that must provide them their basic sustenance, as well as the space they live upon, it is essential to be on good terms with land spirits.  They are quite numerous and people like the hill tribes, who practically every year farm different strips of the land, cannot be sure how far the jurisdiction, so to speak, of any one of them might extend. 
       So every year wherever they plant a new crop they precede the action with a small ceremony to the field spirit, asking its permission to use the land, apologizing for disfiguring it, presenting the field spirit with a small offering and acknowledging its authority.  Such attention pleases the field spirit, who refrains from causing any trouble.  Not to first honor the field spirit is to risk having a poor harvest or even worse things, like a landslide or a plague of voracious insects.
shrine to the rice spirit
      In the same way it is necessary to appease the ground spirits at whatever site one chooses to construct one’s house.  Such rituals always accompany house construction in the hills and indeed of any building, like the Akha swing frame and village boundary gates.  This usually involves the presentation of eggs or small sacrificial animals, along with a bit of liquor and some shavings of silver.  To neglect this courtesy is to risk having the house catch fire or mysteriously collapse one night while all the family is inside sleeping.
       Guardian spirits, land and field spirits, not to mention the Sky God, who is also the Creator to the Lahu and Akha, all have to be publicly given their due respect.  Then they will be pleased and do their part in maintaining the harmony of man and nature that makes for a successful existence in the hills.  But unfortunately, they are not omnipotent and lots of things can still go wrong in daily life, from minor aggravations to major crises, that have nothing to do with nature, the weather or the state of the crops.  Nothing upsetting happens without a cause, so the reasoning goes, and the culprit is always one kind of spirit or another.  Caution must always be at the forefront of one’s thoughts.
honoring the spirits at Lisu New Year
       Now the easiest way to avoid problems with these other spirits is not to do anything that might upset them.   That entails following the tribal code of behavior, for breaches of it cause disharmony and make opportunities for spirits to cause trouble.  But spirits are spiteful by nature and many of the minor ones, though not very powerful, can be nuisances all the same.   Ever have a sudden twitch in the face as you were walking through the forest?  The Akha would say a spirit slapped you.  Ever forget something important at a crucial moment?  Most hill folks would blame a spirit that, for some reason was jealous of you
       There’s really nothing you can do about pesky little spirits like these, any more than you can insure yourself against mosquito bites.  But more dangerous spirits lurk in the shadows, ones responsible for sickness, lassitude, disease and epidemics.  These have to be appeased before they can wreck too much havoc.  Fortunately, these cultures have long ago devised ways and means of handling such calamities.  Ritual specialists deal with the problem with prescribed rituals designed to mollify the angry spirits and persuade them to desist from causing harm. 
"hawk eye" signs to ward off bad spirits
       The particular affliction could be one affecting the entire village, such as an epidemic disease that kills off their domestic animals.  In that case the village spiritual leader will call for an animal sacrifice—a pig or a dog, for example—to mollify the spirit at fault.  The carcass, or at least the head, will subsequently be mounted on a special altar on a path just outside the village.  This will remind the perpetrating spirit, and any like it, that the village has paid its tribute and should be spared any further ravages.
       More frequent are the attacks spirits make on individual people, making them very sick.  Any illness that persists for any length of time is attributed to a nasty spirit.  To counteract its baleful influence the specialist, to augment his own prayers and magical acts, may order up an elaborate sacrifice, such as two or three small animals, with a feast prepared as well, the whole offered to the spirits causing the disease.  The spirits are invisible, so they only consume the invisible essence of the offering.  The people, especially the patient, consume this nourishing repast themselves.
       In recent years the animist outlook has come under great pressure.  Outsiders ranging from government servants and teachers, missionaries and NGO personnel have all been trying to persuade the hill folks to drop that interpretation of life.  There are no such things as ancestral spirits, they say, and those other ones are just germs, viruses or meteorological phenomena.  Hygienic living habits and modern medicine will deal with them, not rituals and animal sacrifices (never mind who eats the meat afterward). 
Akha village entry gates, old and new
       This argument has worked to a certain extent.  In the history of received ideas in the tribal world, though, it is relatively recent.  Just as modern is the end of tribal isolation, for rare is the village that does not have road links with a small town that has a drugstore and a hospital or clinic.  Hill folks nowadays go to the markets to buy pills, syrups and ointments to treat their ailments, gradually abandoning use of their own jungle drugs in the process. 
       But sometimes the modern medicine doesn’t work.  The sickness persists.  Even the traditional herbs have no effect.  In such circumstances the tribal mind is apt to attribute the problem to a bad spirit, who has perhaps captured the soul of the patient.  The solution is to call on the services of a shaman, the specialist who can communicate with such spirits, find out what’s bothering them and what it takes to persuade them to give back the captured soul. 
       The spirits also want an intermediary with the human world, if only lo arrange for their demands to be met.  They themselves select who that will be by afflicting their choices with ailments or sickness until he or she finally agrees to become a shaman.  They might get a meal and some refreshment from the family that employs them, but otherwise shamans are not paid for their services.  For them it is a burdensome role those nasty spirits have forced them to carry out. 
carved human figure next to the gate
       To communicate with them the shamans must go into a self-induced trance, without the aid of alcohol or any kind of drugs, and make the journey to the spirit realm.  There they locate precisely which spirit caused the problem, the nature of that spirit’s displeasure and what it takes to resolve the problem.  The shaman then returns to the normal world, narrates the details of his journey to the family of the patient and they then carry out the requirements of the remedy.  So powerful is the belief in the efficacy of the shaman against unexplainable, untreatable illness that even Christianized villages, that have otherwise abandoned all aspects of traditional spiritual culture, still, when the prayers aren’t working either, call on the services of the traditional shamans.
       Despite the abundance of nasty spirits in the tribal world the people do not live in constant fear of them.  The know that as long as they follow their own tribal codes, regularly honor the major spirits and take the usual precautions against the bad spirits life will proceed tolerably and smoothly.  It will be easiest within the perimeters of the village itself, for this is a ritually protected area.  Among the Akha this is announced by the erection of a pair of gates, annually rebuilt, at either end of the village, as a boundary between the world of spirits and that of the humans.  The gates are ritually endowed with the power to repel any spirits that try to sneak into the village by, for instance, riding in one of the pack baskets the farmers carry home.  Beside the gate they place carvings of a man and woman, genitals showing, to remind the spirits, who don’t have genitals since they don’t reproduce, that this is an area restricted to humans.
offerings at a Lisu spirit altar
       But these two trails are not the only way into the village and the Akha assume that during the year some spirits probably managed to make surreptitious entries.  So near the end of the rainy season, usually in October, they stage a festival, unique in the hills, specifically designed to chase out those sneaky evil spirits.  Although Ka-ye-ye, as they call it, includes rituals and ancestral offerings, the main actors in this event are the boys.  Wielding painted wooden swords they romp through the village, shouting and waving their weapons.  They charge into each house from the women’s entrance and go out the men’s entrance, stomping up and down on the balcony as well.  The household gives them a pumpkin or big cucumber, supposedly containing the hiding spirits, which the boys take outside, throw on the ground and then stab and slash it to pieces with their swords.
       After they have made the circuit and swept the demons out of every house the boys take their swords to one of the village boundary gates and insert them into the ground alongside the path.  Throughout the day villagers have set off firecrackers and homemade explosives in bamboo mortars to frighten the spirits.  At dusk the last major act in the festival is to stage a shooting match, the noise of which will scare away any spirits seeking to return to the village.
       Excessive worry about what all those nasty spirits might do can lead to a pretty gloomy existence, ruled by paranoia.  Elaborate rituals, rules of proper behavior and various sacrifices keep the human world relatively safe from spirit interference.  And a festival like Ka-ye-ye demonstrates one more aspect of the hill tribes’ continuous battle with the spirits--that a great victory over their nemeses can also be great fun.
Ka-ye-ye   
                                                                   * * *

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

THE ALPHABETS OF YUNNAN


                                                      by Jim Goodman

    The Chinese writing system has been used in Yunnan since the Han Dynasty, over a thousand years before Yunnan became integrated into the Chinese state polity.  The system, of course, is ideographic; that is to say, its characters represent ideas or words, not the sounds of vowels, consonants or syllables like the letters of an alphabet.  The advantage to ideographs is that people can still read them no matter which dialect of Chinese they may speak.  The disadvantage is that they are so complex and take so long to learn.  It wasn’t until relatively recently in history that the majority of the Chinese population could read and write ideographs.
    Yunnan was originally occupied by non-Chinese people, from many different ethnic groups and sub-groups.  Even today one-third of the population of the province is non-Han, living on two-thirds of the territory.  The government recognizes 24 minority nationalities and the larger ones all have several sub-groups and dialect differences.  Most of their languages have no written system, although many of these ethnic groups believe they used to have one, but it got eaten, lost, destroyed or whatever.   This was a tribal tragedy, for it made them ever since feel inferior to those who did have a writing system.
dongba pictographs
    However, four of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities—the Naxi, Shui, Yi and Dai—did have writing systems.  Granted, except for Dai, these systems were only known to the ritual specialists.  But in the case of the Naxi and Yi, these specialists produced thousands of books, a great number of which have survived, covering much more than rituals and religious injunctions.  They include myths, legends, fables, riddles, puzzles, romances, war stories, moral tales, philosophy—in short, they are like works of ancient ethnic literature.    
    The best known of these native writing systems is the Naxi dongba script.  Said to be the invention of Dongba Shilo, a Bön shaman in the Baishuitai area several centuries ago, dongba script is a pictographic system that uses simplified pictures of the area’s flora and fauna, such as just the head of animal, and stick figures of humans that when in motion signified verbs; altogether depicting about 3000 words.  Additionally, about 700 simplified glyphs represented sounds or grammatical elements, such as tense.
    The dongbas wrote their manuscripts on local paper, made into thin, rectangular books.  They were not complete manuscripts, however, but abridged versions or detailed summaries.  When using the book in a ceremony the dongba didn’t so much as read it but use it as a guide to the keywords of the ritual, story, etc. and fill in the rest of the text by memory, from having done the exercise so many times already. 
pictographs decorating a Naxi house
    The revolution in 1949 put an end to the dongba tradition, for the new regime saw it as backward and superstitious.  The practice survived in remote areas, but the production of manuscripts did not.  In the Reform Era of the 80s traditional ethnic culture was back in favor again, but the mind-set that prevailed when dongbas were active community members was not part of the revival.   The last surviving dongbas went to work not as ritual specialists again, but at a government office as translators of old manuscripts.  Nevertheless, with ethnic pride back in full swing, the dongba script has seen new use in modern painting, carpet weaving designs and city signboards, even if nobody can really read it. 
    The least known writing system in Yunnan is that of the Shui nationality.  They inhabit a few places in counties next to Guizhou Province, where over 90% of the community resides.  Called Shuishu, the system was known only to ritual specialists and its books dealt only with geomancy and divination.  Denoting some 500 words only, the characters are sometimes simple pictographs, other times similar to simple Chinese ideographs but backwards or upside down.  Shuishu books are very small, more like manuals, and the use of them has all but ceased.
    The most widely used ethnic writing system was the script used by the Yi.  They are the largest minority nationality in Yunnan, comprising about 11% of the province’s population.  They are divided into some two dozen sub-groups and speak five major dialects.  But they have a single writing system, used by nearly all sub-groups, and it is a true alphabet, albeit a syllabic one.  The Yi claim it developed in the Tang Dynasty, though the oldest inscriptions are 15th century.
Yi language book
    The use and knowledge of this script was also, like the Naxi and Shui, restricted to the ritual specialist, or bìmaw.   Actually, he was more important than the Naxi dongba.  In fact, he was the second most important person in the village, after the chief, for he was the reference, the authority, by virtue of the information contained in his books, on all matters of culture, custom and precedent.
    Originally the Yi script contained 1840 letters, but with a few thousand regional variants.  In the 1970s the government sponsored a project to standardize the script, based on that used by the Nosuo Yi in the Liangshan Mountains in Xichang, Sichuan and Ninglang County, Yunnan.  Besides the regional and dialect differences, there was also a problem with the Nosuo Yi books.  In this Yi stronghold feuding was traditionally part of Yi life.  The bìmaws sometimes tried to protect the information in their books, like the spells and magical formulas, which might fall into enemy hands, by writing it in code, making up their own variations of the traditional letters. 
   In the end, the project group came up with a system of 785 letters and produced a Yi-Chinese dictionary several inches thick.  A traditionally conservative people, (with the Nosuo Yi that’s almost fiercely so) the Yi revived the bìmaw tradition in the 80s, with even young men taking up the task of learning the script and, more importantly, using it to make new books.  
palm-leaf manuscripts, Xishuangbanna
   The writing system used by the broadest spectrum of society, and not restricted to the ritual specialists, was that used by the Dai; more specifically, since some of Yunnan’s Dai are animist, that used by the Buddhist Dai.  Two scripts, both true alphabets, came into use in the 13th-14th centuries, one for the Dai Neua of Lincang and Dehong and one for the Dai Lu of Xishuangbanna. 
   The Dai Neua script resembles the one used for the Thai language.  Originally it lacked tone indicators and letters for certain vowel sounds.  After the establishment of the People’s Republic the government backed a local committee that reformed the alphabet by introducing tonal marks and new letters to indicate vowel sounds not previously identified by a single letter.  The government officially introduced the new system in 1956.
   In Xishuangbanna, the Dai Lu adopted the alphabet introduced by invading armies from Lanna in northern Thailand in the 14th century.   It was based on the Pali alphabet of India, though somewhat more cursive, and resembles the one used in Burmese today.  As in other Buddhist Dai areas, boys in the villages entered the monastery at an early age and monks there taught them how to read and write.  The longer they stayed the more literate they became.  The Dai script was used for all religious manuscripts, most of which were Buddhist sutras.  But the manuscripts also covered folklore, history, mathematics, medical knowledge, astrology and farmers’ almanacs.
inscribing on a palm=leaf manuscript
   Monasteries kept this literature on palm leaf manuscripts.  Artisans making these used the long narrow leaves of the royal palm tree.  After cutting the leaves and shearing the ends to make them straight, they boiled them in a large wok, which took away the green color.  The next step was to flatten and dry them in the sun.  After that they were ready.  Another specialist used a stylus, shaped like a big, thick pencil, to inscribe the text, then rubbed ink into the lines of the letters.  When that process was concluded the final step was to rub a thin coat of oil over the leaf, to help preserve it. 
   When the Chinese government began devising or reforming writing systems for its ethnic minorities in the 50s it opted to ‘modernize’ the existing Dai script rather than introduce a new one based on English letters.  But in later years of political upheaval, like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, government cadres discouraged the use of either alphabet, old or new, and even the public use of the spoken language.  After the Reform Era and its more favorable attitude towards ethnic traditions, the use of the Dai alphabet returned, only it was the old, original script rather than the new one.  But that use remained restricted to the monasteries and once the monks or novices left they had no further need for it. 
   Elsewhere, with the non-literate minorities, the Chinese introduced alphabets based on English letters, using letters, rather than diacritical marks, to indicate tones.  They were not the first to do so.  Western missionaries like Pollard in the northeast and Fraser in the far west, had introduced alphabets for the Miao language of western Guizhou and northeast Yunnan and the Lisu language in Baoshan and Nujiang.  They also employed English letters, but differently than the Chinese did later on.
Fraser's Lisu alphabet on a Nujiang church
   In Pollard’s and Fraser’s systems, the sounds of the vowels a, e, i ,o, u are that of those vowels in Italian.  To represent vowel sounds that were different, as well as consonants not represented by a single letter in English, they used English letters printed backwards or upside down.   Basically these alphabets were devised to publish Christian literature and Bible translations, but they survive today, because the Miao and Lisu in those areas are still Christian and can read the lyrics to the hymns they sing at Sunday services.  For both languages the government devised scripts to replace the Pollard and Fraser ones, but these never caught on and were only ever used on bi-lingual government office signs.
   If Yunnan’s ethnic minority alphabets were going to be restricted, as customary, to religious specialists or religious works, they would be of only marginal interest in a contemporary world dominated by the Chinese and English writing systems.  But they are also part of Yunnan’s ethnic revivalism, a phenomenon shaping the province’s history for the past two decades.  And in some cases, the use of these alphabets has extended beyond their traditional class of users and been pushed in new directions.
Yi language class, Bainiuchang, Ninglang County
   In Ninglang County the local Yi government successfully lobbied for an “experimental” bi-lingual school, in which primary students the first few years could be taught in the Yi language, then gradually introduced to instruction in Chinese.  The chosen school was in Bainiuchang village, in the eastern mountains of the county, with over 200 students.  In addition to the bi-lingual primary grades instruction, about 25 of the students received daily classes in the written Yi language.  The school used books printed in Xichang in the Yi script, dealing not only with stories and history, but also science and mathematics.
   In Guangma village, Luchun County, the local school in 1994 began instruction in the Hani language up to the fifth grade.  Twice a week all the students took classes in reading and writing the Hani language, with the alphabet the government devised for them, which was actually based on the Luchun dialect.  So far, publications in the Hani language have been folk tales, mythology, stories about the origin of customs etc, mainly in the line of preservation rather than new, modern literature.  But that’s a task they feel must not be neglected.  The Hani-language  new literature can (and will) come later.
books in the Hani language
   Yunnan’s minorities have become highly conscious of their ethnic identities in recent decades.  They have revived, and have tried to maintain, much of the tradition that was officially attacked and undermined so many years.  Naturally indigenous writing systems would be part of this revival.  But beyond being an issue of cultural preservation is another aspect in examining why a people preserve an alphabet and make books that can only be read by a small number of people.
   When Samuel Pollard was preaching to the Miao they were suffering from the oppression of Yi landlords and Chinese officials, both of whom looked down on the Miao as less civilized human beings.  And both of them had writing systems—the Yi alphabet and the Chinese ideographs.  Then Pollard introduced his alphabet.  Quickly the Miao could read and write, too.  Theirs was now, like that of the Yi and Chinese, a literate culture.  Consequently, their status, in their own eyes, shot up to match that of the Yi and Chinese.  The Miao were now their civilized equals.  
   The lesson from this was clear.  There are two kinds of peoples in this world:  literate (with writing systems) and non-literate.   Doesn’t matter how many people can read and write the system.  Literate people look down on non-literate people.  It also doesn’t matter from where a people got their writing system, only whether or not they had one at all.  And if or when they did, well then, they were part of the upper classes of humanity.

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