Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Terraces of Baishuitai—Divine Prototypes

                                                      by Jim Goodman

first view coming from Shangrila
    The southwest Chinese province of Yunnan can boast of a greater geographical variety than anywhere else in the country.  Ecological zones range from the tropics of Xishuangbanna in the south to the slopes of the snow-clad mountains in the northwest and everything in between except a true desert and a seaside.  Even so, it has a few rain-shadow areas that all but qualify as a desert, with hills and cliffs carved by erosion into various fascinating shapes, as well as Fuxian Lake, the northern part of which has a beach just like southernmost China.  Other physical attractions of the province include mountains, rock formations, waterfalls, lakes, gorges, caves, geysers and hot springs that, of course, a traveler also finds in other parts of the country.
Milefo rock
    The sole phenomenon that is unique to China in Yunnan, and exists nowhere else in the world except for a spot in Turkey, is Yunnan’s Baishuitai, a set of natural white stone terraces in Shangrila County, in the northwest part of the province.  The county is known for its Tibetan villages, temples and architecture, but around Baishuitai the people are Naxi, the same minority nationality living across the Jinshajiang  (the Upper Yangzi River) in Lijiang County.
    Though it’s possible to walk there from Daju, in Lijiang County, in about two days, most journeys begin from Shangrila, from where a bus makes the 5-6 hours journey to Sanba, the largest of the Naxi villages. The road runs southeast, passing out of the Tibetan area after an hour or so and entering an area of heavily forested hills and scattered Yi villages. Haba Snow Mountain is barely visible from the pass over the last ridge before the descent to Sanba. Baishuitai (Chinese for White Water Platform) is first espied after winding down the hill several kilometers, looking like a great white blob of a rock, roughly 150 meters wide, lying on the slope of a hill a few hundred meters above the road. About one kilometer before this hill is the first of the villages, with Sanba five kilometers further on.
Baiushuitai terraces
    A closer inspection of Baishuitai reveals that the rock is full of terraces, pools and a shallow but constant flow of water. The local Naxis claim that the terraces were built by their gods as replicas of the rice terraces in Heaven. The Naxis thus learned to make terraced fields themselves for their own rice, wheat, corn and barley. The basic white color, as well as the terrace formations, are due to the deposits left by the waters of the spring above them, which punches through the soil at a cluster of holes above the rock, just below the forest line. As the water flowed over the slope it left behind carbonate of lime, which gradually built up and created little walled basins that trapped the water. Everything on the ground is swathed in lime, even plants and the trunks of bushes and trees.
Baishuitai terraces
    Although from a distance the creamy white base color stands out, particularly against the dark green of the forests, on closer inspection it is rather the streaks and runnels and the differences of hues over various sections of the rock that catch the eye. At the top the water flows into a large pond with inkblot-shaped islands.
    Then it spills out over a spacious flat section while the flow on the upper right section passes through several shallow turquoise pools with gray and white walls. This latter water flows down the entire right side of the rock, where the terraces are usually a pale shade of green. On the left side of the rock they are bluer, with streaks of yellow.
Sanba Valley from the edge of Baishuitai
    From the flat top one can see the whole valley, even past Sanba, to villages perched on the hills on the other side of the Jinshajiang. Terraced farms surround the settlements, some of which cling to the slopes, others lying on the top of small hills. Looking down on the rock itself one sees lines of mauve, green, purple and ocher wiggling across the surface. Except for the pools the ever-flowing water is only a couple of centimeters deep.
    It's very easy to walk across Baishuitai. Never is the surface of the rock so smooth as to be slippery, for time has left little encrustations everywhere. Besides the pleasure of being able to walk anywhere on the rock and examine its subtle colors, there is the added sensual awareness of the gentle sound of flowing water. Sometimes it falls 2-3 meters over a terrace wall into a waiting pool. The largest of these bulging rocks even has a name—Milefo, after the fat-bellied Chinese god of wealth.
dongba dance for Saimamie in Shangrila
    Naxis have captured this endless source of running water by digging a trench at the foot of the rock and channelling the water to other villages. A small stone shrine stands at the end, similar to those found around Lugu Lake. No Chinese or Tibetan-style temples exist here, for Baishuitai's Naxis, utterly isolated from outside religious influences, have retained the aboriginal faith. The dongbas still play an active role and old rituals abandoned elsewhere continue to be performed in the Sanba area.
    The most famous aspect of Naxi culture was its dongba tradition.  The dongba was the village ritual specialist, carrying out his duties with the aid of pictographic manuscripts.  These contained the instructions for several dozen complex rites dealing with a wide variety of spiritual problems, as well as Naxi history, mythology, folk tales, medical advice and other subjects.  Naxi tradition ascribes the creation of both the pictographic script and the rituals to a Naxi resident of the Sanba area named Dongba Shilo.  He is supposed to have lived in a cave near Baishuitai, where he meditated and conceived his system. 
Sanba Naxi woman in Shangrila
    Living in a cave for spiritual edification was also an ancient tradition of the Naxi people.  Until 1949 devotees would live in a hole in the ground near Wufeng Temple, near the summit of a mountain just south of Lijiang, for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours before emerging.  Fed by the faithful, but otherwise engaged in meditation or sleep, success in this endeavor was supposed to enable them to fly. 
    No written evidence exists as to whether anyone actually achieved this, and the claim is not made for Dongba Shilo.  His chosen cave was actually more of a sub-surface grotto, accessible through a hole in the ceiling.  Until recent times dongbas from other Naxi-inhabited areas would visit this spot, lower themselves inside and take away one of the rocks, believing them sacred.  The dongba tradition was pretty much suppressed in the Lijiang Plain after 1949, but survived in outlying areas like Sanba.  Active dongbas from here perform at Shangrila’s Horse Races Festival and continue doing the traditional rites in their communities.  But no more pictographic manuscripts are left to guide them, for they were all destroyed by Tibetan marauders even before 1949.
         Sanba Naxi troupe at the Horse Races in Shangrila
    While the Baishuitai phenomenon is the primary reason to visit the area, the local Naxi are also worth getting to know.  Physically, the people strongly resemble the Naxi of Lijiang, especially in contrast with the predominant Tibetan and Han faces in Shangrila. Their dialect differs enough in vocabulary, though, that they have difficulty understanding the Lijiang dialect. The women wear a different kind of cape—a rectangular woven cloth, one meter by two meters, of wool or cotton, in no particular style or color. They also wear a sheepskin of about the same size and at festivals the boys wear white tunics and trousers, the women long black coats and sheepskins, braiding their hair with coloured yarn like Tibetan girls. The villagers are poor but self-sufficient for all their necessities. They are not often visited but are polite and reciprocate any interest in them. And they are the contemporary bearers of the original Naxi tradition.

natural models for Naxi terraces
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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Calling on the Wa in China

                                                        by Jim Goodman

    The easiest place to meet China’s fascinating Wa minority is the southwestern Yunnan county of Menglian, just west of Xishuangbanna.  The county capital itself, pleasantly sited astride the Bin River, hosts its regular open market every five days.  Wa villagers, mostly women, from hills in all directions stream into town with baskets of mountain herbs and vegetables to sell, joining their hill neighbors the Lahu and Aini, as well as local Dai and Han.  If they haven’t rented one of the stalls in the official market square they simply set up shop under a shady tree somewhere between the river and the market square, or anywhere along a street, if it’s not raining.  They still prefer their traditional hand-woven wraparound, striped cotton skirt, heavy on the red and black, along with chunky silver jewelry, shoulder bags studded with Job’s tear seeds, and peaked cotton caps held down by multiple strands of silver.  Aini and Lahu women also don colorful traditional outfits and ornaments for market day.
Wa woman,Menglian County
Wa in Menglian on market day
     For eye-catching jewelry, though, it’s hard to beat the Wa earplugs, intricately designed silver crowns on tubes about 3 cm in diameter, inserted through enlarged holes in the ear lobes.  It takes over a month to gradually expand the original hole by inserting another toothpick-sized bamboo splinter every two or three days.  Women also wear inscribed silver disc-pendants, strings of beads, several bangles each wrist, and wide bead belts.  Long-stemmed silver pipes, which women of all ages seem to favor, serve as ornaments when not in use, as they are then tucked in the cap or belt.
Wa jewelry in Menglian
Wa smoker in Gengma
    Townships to the north and west, mostly Wa-inhabited, can be reached by regular mini-vans out of Menglian town.  The Wa traditionally live in houses of bamboo and wood, on stilts, with roofs of thatch and an adjoining open balcony.  Women often hook up their looms on this balcony, especially in the dry season, and are oblivious to the stranger’s fascination with the process of weaving.
    Menglian’s Wa are quick to welcome the rare foreigner who wanders into their villages.  I could hardly walk a hundred paces without hearing friendly greetings, sometimes even in English, nor be more than five minutes into my exploration without someone inviting me inside for tea.  In one village my excursion coincided with a wedding.
Ximeng County Wa girl
    Between the harvest and Lunar New Year is the Wa wedding season.  In a large village marriages occur almost daily and, buoyed by the joy of the occasion, the people are especially hospitable.  No grand ceremony or dance takes place, just a bit of divination with the thighbones of the sacrificial chicken.  But as Wa youth choose their own partners, Wa custom is not to allow a negative prognosis to overrule affairs of the heart.  They just slay another chicken (or more, if need be!) until the thighbone reading is favorable.  Following this comes a grand celebratory feast, with lots of pork and rice-liquor.  And the stranger is the guest of honor, with whom everybody wants to share a personal, bottoms-up toast.
    The first words I learn to say in Wa were nyu bre—drink liquor.  Now, inspired by the alcohol, I asked my hosts for more words and phrases, jotted them down, and soon had enough to try speaking with the nearest unmarried Wa girl in her own language.  “How are you?  Are you enjoying yourself today?  What’s your name?  Don’t be shy.  I love you.”  My hosts, and the girl as well, found this uproariously amusing.  When shortly afterwards it was time to return to Menglian, half the village came out to see me off.
     Yes, a foreigner wanders alone freely and safely through remote Wa villages nowadays.  Two or three generations ago, travelers needed armed escorts.  The villages were very large, stockaded settlements, fortified all around, with a single entry passage via a tunnel through thick thorn bushes, which ended at a heavy gate.  The Wa were notorious head-hunters until the mid-1950’s, when the government finally launched a campaign to eradicate the practice.
    Spring was the prime head-hunting season, for the Wa believed the head contained the human soul-force needed to provide spiritual protection for the rice crop about to be planted.  One or two fresh skulls were required every year or two, mounted on tall poles on the village perimeter, replaced and buried when their soul-force was considered depleted.  Wa warriors generally took heads from relatively distant villages, so that the soul-force within the skull would not wander off, trying to find its way back home.  Non-Wa strangers were thus also vulnerable, and in general steered clear of the Wa-inhabited areas.
old village in Awashan
    Life wasn’t much more secure for the Wa themselves, as the system inherently generated blood feuds among villages.  Hence, villages were huge, containing sometimes over 300 households, for it was safer to live in big, defensible settlements.  The whole area, loosely called Awashan, or the Wa Hills, was so insecure for so long in its history that the border between Burma and China was not fully demarcated until the 1960’s.
    Most of Yunnans’ 350,000+ Wa live in one or another mountain range along the Burmese border in Pu’er and Lincang Prefectures.  In Ximeng and Cangyuan they are the majority ethnic group, far outnumbering the Dai and Han.  How long they have resided in Yunnan is unknown, for the Wa have no written history.  But cliff paintings of typically Wa activities like hunting, festival dances and buffalo sacrifices, which contemporary Wa claim to be the work of their ancestors, adorn a cliff face at Ai Hua, near Menglai township in Cangyuan County.  They are said to be 2000 years old.
    Not all Wa in the old days were headhunters.  Outsiders used to classify them as Wild Wa and Tame Wa, both in China and Burma.  The former were the true warrior societies, who took heads regularly and were much feared by people in the plains.  The Tame Wa either purchased heads from Wild Wa warriors or substituted wild animal or buffalo skulls instead.
    A turning point in Wa history came with the British annexation of Upper Burma in 1881.  British expeditions into the hills close to China were taken to establish administrative control and pacify as much of the area as could render ordinary commerce possible.  The proportion of Tame Wa began to grow, especially in those areas close to major routes.  Christian missionaries, mainly Baptist, penetrated the Wild Wa domain in Ximeng and Lancang Counties in the first decades of the 20th century, as I was to discover exploring the Wa area around Ankang district, in Lancang County.
Ai Hua rock paintings
   Ankang proper is disappointing:  all buildings concrete, nobody in Wa clothing and the only sign of a typically Wa connection with nature was a huge moth mounted on the door of an apartment.  Everyone there was Christian.  One of the villagers invited me to see their church, in a slightly more picturesque village halfway down the mountain. It was a simple, long wooden building on stilts, with virtually no interior decorations, other than a picture of Jesus, remarkably similar to those one might find in Tennessee or Kentucky.  I arrived just before their late afternoon services. 
    Perhaps as many as half the adults in the village started streaming into the church.  I was not the first foreigner they had ever met, just the first non-missionary.  The village was converted about 80 years ago and had resident foreign missionaries until 1949.  Besides a new religion, they also introduced Ankang’s Wa to another Western tradition—shaking hands upon making acquaintance.
    As soon as villagers saw me in the church they came up to shake my hand.  This was interrupted by the services, but resumed afterwards, continuing until the moment our tractor-trailer left at dusk.  The services themselves were short, comprising a brief sermon by one of the men, followed by the singing of two hymns.  As many men as women attended, the latter mostly dressed in Wa costume, here mainly black garments and big turbans.  Both used hymnals with the lyrics translated into Wa, using a Romanized script devised by missionaries in Burma during its colonial days.
Christian Wa services
    Christian Wa had already been the tamest of the Tame Wa before the Chinese government in 1956 established authority in the last of the Wild Wa areas and decided it was time to tame them as well.  The last recorded headhunting incident occurred in 1958, motivated by a feud and not a desire to protect the rice crop.  It was resolved in the traditional Wa way—by compensation rather than incarceration.  But the system, even the belief that sponsored it, was dead, and as a result Wa villages dismantled their fortifications.
    In some villages in southern Gengma and western Cangyuan counties, the Wa became Buddhist.  Getting off the bus at Ban Hong, 45 km northwest of Cangyuan town, I discovered monks walking around, and young Wa novices in yellow robes playing in the courtyard of a temple in the Wa style, with two roofs like Dai village temples, but covered in thatch.  Near the center of the village stood a small shed housing the sacred village pillar, modeled on those in Buddhist Dai villages in the plains.
Buddhist Wa temple in Ban Hong district
    Stopping at the village temple to chat with the head monk, I was importuned to have lunch.  As one might expect, it was a vegetarian meal, served with tea and not rice-beer, consumed inside the temple proper.  When the monks learned I lived in Thailand they nodded, yes, a Buddhist country.  Their own quarters were in a single-roofed adjoining building.  The Wa of western Cangyuan and southern Gengma Counties became Buddhist after the eradication of headhunting.  Dai monks then campaigned in the hills and quickly converted scores of villages.
    In the hills east of Gengma, as well as east of Cangyuan and south along the border to Menglian County, Wa villages gave up head-hunting, but retained other aspects of their culture and animist religion. Wa traditions, minus the bloodthirsty ones, still animate the lives of a good portion of the Wa population.  Many of the old festivals survive, or in some cases were revived.  But no general rule exists on such a phenomenon.  What survived in one area lapsed in another.  What was revived in one county was ignored in the next.  Only in recent years, influenced by the revivalism affecting most Yunnan ethnic minorities, have the Wa begun relating more to each other, seeking common cultural denominators among the Wa sub-groups or, in the case of the traditional and exuberant Hair Dance, adopting new ones.  Other affinities will be found in the domestic lifestyle and village architecture.
    From various vantage points on the road from Mengsheng south to Cangyuan one can easily see traditional Wa villages on slopes of the nearest hills, their antiquity evident by their great size—like rural metropolises.  Very few modern buildings mar the otherwise uniform pattern of peaked, thatched roofs that reach nearly to the ground.  A niche-like opening cut into the thatch enables one to ascend the small staircase in front and enter.  Interiors are dark, with a central hearth.  Houses in the western part of Wa-inhabited areas do not have the adjoining balcony, though some have a crude raised porch in the yard.
Wa woman in Zuodou
    Looking for a typical traditional Wa village near Xuelin, in northwestern Lancang County, I was advised to go to Zuodou, 17 km by winding road, but only half that by a short-cut, w-like trail.  Zuodou lies high in the hills.  Its few modern buildings—school and administrative offices—stand on flat land beside the road, several Wa homes to their side.  But walk past these and the old and (relatively) new parts of Zuodou sprawl across the hilly terrain.  Perhaps 300 or more households make up Zuodou: houses close together, elevated slightly, with steeply-sided roofs, a few in corrugated iron or asbestos, all the rest in thatch.  Villagers grow rice, maize and vegetables on dry terraces, supplementing this by hunting with crossbows and long-barreled rifles, trapping, and the gathering of wild edibles and medicinal plants. 
    Cotton is another local crop, used for spinning thread to weave their wraparound skirts and the cloth for their jackets and turbans.  In the dry season women are often at work in cloth production, by spinning, dyeing or winding thread and by weaving on simple back-strap looms that can be hooked up anywhere.  Unlike Xuelin, where modern styles are the rule, Zuodou women mostly prefer their traditional clothes.  Whether walking around in the thatched neighborhoods or sitting outside at the loom, they give Zuodou an almost timeless atmosphere.   
    I arrived with a Chinese friend on what I expected to be an ordinary winter morning. Instead, with the first invitation to come inside and have a drink, I became acquainted with a Wa custom I didn’t know existed, as well as the proper way to quaff rice-beer.  My host family was in the process of celebrating the castration of their buffalo that morning.
    The Wa here castrate the buffalo when it has reached 14 years of age, though on no particular day in the lunar calendar.  The deed is done to render the animal gentler and easier to handle, as its prime reproductive days are over.  Yet it’s an important occasion, for the family that carries it out then must invite the heads of all families in the same clan to a feast featuring several pork dishes and an abundance of rice-beer.
older woman in Zuodou
    The castration took place shortly after sunrise.  As the other guests arrived and the women prepared the food, the men gathered around the hearth inside the house and commenced drinking rice-beer.  Now this is not a particularly potent drink but the men began drinking quite early this day and by the mid-morning meal a degree of intoxication was affecting every one of them.  Some were singing old Wa songs, but independently of each other, while those next to them paid no attention and just upped the volume of their conversations.
    Meanwhile, as fresh guests we were given a few preliminary, pre-dinner drinks and then, after the meal, most of the beer in the single communal mug was served to us, as if they wanted us to catch up to their level of inebriation.  The rice-beer is stored in a large ceramic pot and the host ladles it into a large bamboo mug, without handles, and, holding the mug with both hands, gives it to the guest.  Taking it with both hands, the guest drinks a little bit of the brew then, again, always, with two hands, passes it back to the host.  He takes it, with both hands, has a small drink and gives it back to the guest.  This custom is designed for the guest to show respect to the host.  After receiving the mug again the guest may drink the rest of the contents, or just a portion and offer the mug to another guest.
    This is a slow but steady way to get drunk.  The cacophony of the party hardly abated the next hour or more while our host served us mug after mug.  We toasted everyone and everything that came to mind and finally persuaded them to cease serving us beer so that I could photograph them.  So we finally made it outside, took portraits, wrote down their address to post them the results, and departed for other quarters of Zuodou.  And while I have my photos, as well as a couple of nice Wa shoulder bags, my favorite souvenir of the Wa Hills will be my memory of the Wa way of drinking.

Wa village, Cangyuan County
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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan

 by Jim Goodman

     For most of its history Xishuangbanna existed as an autonomous state on the remote southern periphery of China, run by the same Dai family since the 12th century. Lying in the tropical zone, on the northern rim of Southeast Asia, with flora and fauna not only unlike the rest of China, but even unique in Yunnan province, it has had close ethnic and cultural relations with its neighbors in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

     The valleys are home to the Dai nationality, while several ethnic minorities inhabit the hills. Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan narrates the history and development of the Dai people, their culture, society and religion, from ancient times through the period of incorporation into the Chinese state. It also covers the characteristics of the lifestyle, culture and celebrations of the peoples of the mountains, as well as the economic and political changes of recent times and their effects on both hill and plain. The book contains over 280 photographs.
Link to LULU