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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