Friday, November 29, 2013

A NEW KIND OF ELEPHANT EXPERIENCE


                                                                         by Jim Goodman

Thailand elephant
    Long before they became one of the chief lures to draw foreign visitors, elephants were already a deeply embedded part of Thailand’s image.  The kingdom was known to outsiders as the Land of Elephants, for both the animals themselves and the symbols and statues of them that seemed to be everywhere.  The biggest animal ever tamed by man, elephants were striking symbols of power.  They were part of royal processions and the ceremonies of princes and great lords, who also rode them into battle to deal with the rulers of the enemy, who were likewise on elephants.
elephant sculptures at Chedi Luang
    Perhaps because only the rich and powerful could afford to keep elephants, these animals became symbols of good luck and prosperity.  Statues of elephants are frequently part of temple compound decorations.  Devotees bring small wooden carvings of elephants and leave them as votive offerings.  Some adorn their domestic spirit houses with a carved elephant.  Where elephants were part of the rural environment, the villagers believed that if a pregnant woman passed beneath an elephant’s belly she would have an easy childbirth.    Economically speaking, elephants helped build the nation.  Without these pachyderms to haul the heavy teak logs out of the deep forests, the logging business would have required at least ten times the manpower.  Elephants in the thousands worked in the teak business, for this was the hardwood of choice for government bungalows and offices, the merchants’ shop-houses and the homes and elegant furniture of the rich and successful.
sculpted elephants in the old city
     With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that the industrious elephants worked their way out of a job and ended up endangering the species’ very existence.  As one patch of forest after another fell to the loggers, the wild elephants lost their stomping grounds and began to die off.  Not until logging was banned in 1989 and the last of the shrinking forests marked for preservation did the decline in wild elephants halt.  But by then there were less than a thousand of them left.
    Then it was the turn of the domesticated elephants.  Bereft of their regular employment, too expensive to keep otherwise, they began to die off, too.  When the logging ban went into effect 20,000 elephants still lived in Thailand.  A decade later the number was down to 4000, and that even included the last of the wild elephants.
    Yet for travelers from abroad, Thailand is still the Land of Elephants, a place where they can not only see them but also have their own personal encounter with them.  They can even feed them bananas right on the streets of downtown Bangkok.  They flock to Surin every November to see the great Elephant Round-up re-enactment.  In Chiang Mai they attend the elephant shows at Mae Rim or one of several jungle venues in the northern hills and line up for a short, leisurely ride through the forest on elephant back.
man's best friend (in Thailand)
    However commercialized they might judge the whole affair, however uncomfortable it might be sitting in the howdah on the elephant’s back as it lumbers along the trail, no one leaves disappointed.  For people who grew up in countries that don’t have elephants the fascination is natural.  To them the elephant is a living, moving symbol of Asian exotica.  And here in Thailand you can touch it, feed it, even ride it, to the envy of your friends when you talk about it back home.
    Moreover, you can learn how strong they are by watching the mahouts demonstrate how the elephants used to push and pull logs.  You can judge for yourselves whether blues bands should take notice of the tunes elephants play on their harmonicas, if the splash of paint strokes on a canvas they make holding a brush in the trunk represents some hidden elephant sense of artistic expression, or whether the music industry should send cameramen to capture their choreography for use in a rock and roll video.
    As an encounter with Asian exotica the experience comes out positive.  Most people think there is no other way to have an elephant experience, other than go to live in one of the remote villages where elephants are still kept.  As for the wild ones, you might spot them from a distance while in one of the wildlife sanctuaries, but you certainly can’t walk up to one with a smile on your face and a bunch of bananas in your hand.
Lek'selephant camp
    But there is one place in the North where anyone whose fascination with elephants goes beyond the possibilities offered by the tourist shows will find much to slake their thirst for elephant lore.  This place is Elephant Nature Park, in a remote part of Mae Taeng district, beyond the Ban Tammian ferry, owned and managed by a dedicated elephant enthusiast, a woman named Lek.  Her elephants are not trained to do anything, so there’s no show to watch.  Instead visitors can learn how to take care of elephants, feed them fruit and help them bathe in the river.  But these are very special elephants that you won’t find at the tourist shows.  These elephants are the wounded, the injured, the sick and evethe blind.  Lek doesn’t run an ordinary elephant camp.  It’s more like an elephant nursing home or sanctuary.
    It was certainly time to have such a place.  Working elephants, just like working people, get sick sometimes, have accidents, infections, diseases.  But as animals they don’t rate the same kind of attention as humans.  The animals still go to work when they are sick, their wounds fester and their ailments worsen.  Anyway, they are not as economically useful as in the past, so they often don’t bring in enough money to pay for their own medicine.  De-worming medicine costs 17,000 baht.  Antibiotics cost 3000 baht a shot, with a minimum full week’s injections necessary.  And it’s best to hire a specialist or a vet to make the injection.  It’s more problematic giving a shot to an elephant than to a human.  Wrong administration of the medicine could make the elephant worse or even, as one family in the area found out, drop dead in half an hour.  An unemployed sick elephant thus puts a tremendous financial burden on its owner, one that many cannot bear.
    Lek became acutely aware of such problems when she was working at a nearby elephant tourist camp in the early 90s.  She took a job there to be near elephants, being intensely fond of the animals since her childhood.  She grew up in a Khamu village, where her grandfather was one of the local shamans.  When she was just five years old, one of her grandfather’s successfully cured patients presented him with an elephant, named Tong Kham, as payment.  Lek took an instant liking to her—so big, yet so gentle.  She became her close friend and ever since has maintained and deepened that affection for elephants such that by now they are the main focus of her life.

playing
Mahouts ride without a howday at  Lek's camp
    She got a good education, possessed a strong natural curiosity and sense of diligence, learned to read and write English, got into the tourist trade and eventually set up her own company Gem Travels.  Blessed with an abundance of physical and intellectual energy she might have succeeded at anything she chose in life.  But she wouldn’t have been happy with anything that took her far from her beloved elephants.  The tourism industry at least kept her in touch with them.  But her heart couldn’t bear it when she saw how the elephants suffered in places she worked or areas she visited.
    Personally, she preferred that elephants not work at all, that they could all return to nature, free and unfettered.  Knowing that’s only a dream, on the practical side someone had to take care of the sick and the wounded.  So for that role she nominated herself.  She started by selling her house and car to buy a small plot of riverside land to be used as an elephant refuge.  And then she began taking in sick, wounded and crippled elephants and looking after them, first with just her assistant Pom and later with well-wishers from all over the world who answered the call on her website (www.elephantnaturefoundation.org).   
Come, it's time to bathe
    All this cost a lot more money than a village girl could raise on her own, even with a tour company’s assets.  A fully-grown elephant costs 350,000 baht on average.  Females in these post-logging days are worth more than males.  Lek managed to find international sponsors to help with the purchases of many of the rescued elephants at Elephant Nature Park, where 37 elephants now reside.  The youngest is just over two years old and the eldest is in her 70s.
    Her greatest financial break came in 2003 when Bert Von Roemer, a fellow elephant-lover from Texas, donated enough money for her to purchase land in the Mae Taeng Valley.  Here she has created her own private elephant preserve.  Some of the elephants have fully recuperated from their various ailments, infections and injuries, but others need daily attention and medical treatment.  The elephants wander freely, unchained, during the day, free to interact naturally and to form family groups and friendships.   
    Lek is at the park most days, though with her constant commuting back to her Chiang Mai office, most of the day-to-day care is handled by her staff, the mahouts, elephant fans from around the world on one or two-week volunteer programs and people hired from the local village.  Visitors, whether they are the volunteers, day-trippers or those who stay overnight in one of the comfortable stilted houses around the lot, will get to know some of the elephants at the park. 
    Two of the most lovable elephants are Faa Mai, a girl, and Chang Yim, a boy, both born in the park in 2009, who are often seen playing together in the field, in the river or in the mud pit.  Hope, a ten year-old male orphaned as a baby, is now of the most rambunctious and mischievous elephants in the park.  Jokia, the elephant blinded by her irate former owner when she wouldn’t work to his commands, was a terribly distressed creature when she was rescued in 1999.  Yet upon Jokia’s arrival in the camp another elephant, Mae Perm, began looking after her, steering her in the right direction when the elephants went out to bathe or feed.  After ten years together these two elephants are now best friends and Mae Perm continues to watch over Jokia with constant devotion.
cooling off
      Elephants are very social animals, family-conscious, loyal to their kin, sleep only four hours a day and eat most of the rest of the time.  All these facts visitors learn quickly after their arrival. They also learn that elephants communicate, that the trumpeting they hear is elephant conversation and that much of the talk is done with sounds they emit at a sub-sonic level that humans cannot hear.  The front part of the skull between the eyes vibrates whatever sound they make when they talk, but only fellow big-eared elephants can catch all of it.
     You can learn an intoxicating amount of facts about elephants at Lek’s park in just a day.  But even the two-week volunteers feel that they’ve only scratched the surface in their time in the park, for there is always something new to understand about these impressive animals.  Lek herself claims that in spite of her reading (she owns practically every book available on elephants in English or Thai) and her long years of experience with them, she is constantly discovering new things about them.  She does admire one particular characteristic.  “When an elephant loves you it is without conditions,” she says.  “Humans have many conditions for their love.  But not an elephant.  An elephant’s love is unconditional.  Pure.”
    After nine years Lek expanded the park’s facilities to accommodate short-term tourist stays as well as more volunteers.  Beyond helping to defray the costs of nursing elephants any profits she gets out of it she is likely to use for purchasing more land and rescuing more elephants.  Her main objective is to offer a new kind of elephant experience.  Until now people could only observe the tricks man has taught the elephant to perform.  At her park people have the opportunity to gain real insight into elephants as they become more intimate with the animals, learn about them and observe their natural behavior patterns, their communication with each other, their emotions and social life.  They and their favorite elephants will become mutually familiar and they will soon learn yet one more unexpected fact—that elephants, like people, all have different, distinctly individual personalities.

the daily bath
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Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Jinuo People Honor the Blacksmith


                                                                   by Jim Goodman

    Of China’s 55 recognized minority nationalities the Jinuo of Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna Prefecture were, in 1979, the last to be granted official status.  Never a very numerous people, today scarcely 22,000, before that they were considered a branch of the Dai nationality, though they had little in common with the Dai.  The Jinuo language is part of the Tibeto-Burman family, the people are animist, not Buddhist, and for the most part tea cultivators, not wet-rice growers.
Jinuo girl
    The Jinuo were among the earliest migrants to Xishuangbanna coming into the prefecture from the north.  Jinuo legends claim that the people originated from a group of soldiers attached to the army of Zhuge Liang during the 3rd century C.E. in the campaign against Meng Huo, a tribal leader controlling much of Yunnan at the time.  This particular detachment fell asleep at one point on the march and when the group woke up they discovered the main army had already moved out. 
    When they caught up they were not allowed back into the army.  But instead of having them executed for dereliction of duty, Zhuge Liang ordered them to settle down on the spot where they fell asleep.  The legends also say Zhuge Liang gave them seeds for tea trees as a compensation for their expulsion.  This was supposed to be somewhere between Pu’er and Mojiang, but it is doubtful Zhuge Liang’s forces marched that far south, so more likely the spot was further north.
Jinuo men
    At any rate, the group did not stay there long.  After the army had departed they moved south.  How soon afterwards they moved into Xishuangbanna is not certain, but nowadays, unlike the other major ethnic groups here, there are no Jinuo villages anywhere beyond Xishuangbanna.  Most settled around Jinuoshan, near Mengyang, with smaller numbers around Kongmingshan, west of Xingmeng, and in Mengwang district.
    Contemporary Jinuo are familiar with the Zhuge Liang story, but their own traditional mythology puts their origin right there in Jinuoshan.  And they have more than one version.  In the first, a great flood washed all the way up to the hills, drowning everyone as it rose.  The goddess Amo Yaobai instructed a young man and young woman to escape the deluge by enclosing themselves in a big drum.  The drum floated on the floodwaters while everyone else died.  When the waters receded the drum landed at the foot of what is now Bapo village.  The couple cut their way out of the drum and set foot on the land.  Amo Yaobai then gave then seeds for rice and for tea.  This couple, then, was the progenitor of the Jinuo people.
village in Jinuoshan
     Another myth credits the origin of the Jinuo to a widow with seven sons and seven girls.  These children married and as the original clan grew it divided into matriarchal and patriarchal villages.  Today Jinuo society is completely patriarchal, but that has apparently only been true for the last three centuries.
    Neighboring people called them Youle, after the mountain that dominates Jinuoshan district, where most of them lived.  They were mainly tea cultivators, which they traded for rice, though they did grow a little rice of their own, along with cotton, bananas and papayas, and supplemented their diet with wild game, fruits and vegetables from the adjacent jungles.
    Traditionally their villages were small, sited in isolated places in the mountains, only in contact with the lowlands when they went down to market their tea.   Most people lived collectively in longhouses.  Their leaders, and ultimate authorities in maters of ritual, custom and the arbitration of disputes, were the oldest male and the oldest female in the village.  People were poor and lived a harsh life of bare self-sufficiency.
    Like other hill peoples, they compensated for this with a rich cultural and community life.  Mutual aid was built into their environment.  When hunting parties went on a foray, while the choicest parts of the game they bagged went to the hunters who brought it down, the rest of the meat was distributed to all the families in the village.  Families helped each other at harvest time and banded together to fend off wild animals like elephants, boars and buffaloes threatening any of their fields.
    The unmarried youth belonged to male and female bachelor associations that sponsored collective rites of passage for new members, usually at age 15, when boys shaved their heads except for three tufts of hair and girls stopped braiding theirs and wore it in the adult style.  They also underwent tattooing.  Girls had simple tattoos, like geometric patterns, applied to their lower legs.  Boys favored more elaborate designs of animals, flowers, the sun, moon and stars, applied to both their arms and their legs.  Youths worked at their individual domestic or field tasks and met at night for informal song and dance sessions near the communal house.   They chose songs from a vast traditional repertoire and accompanied them with a three-string lute, bamboo flutes of two, four or six holes, bamboo Jew’s harps and upright bamboo xylophones, comprising seven tubes of different lengths and diameters. 
Jinuo girls all dressed up
      Marriage was by free choice and girls often initiated the romance.  Jinuo custom laid no restrictions on pre-marital sex, and in fact, some villages erected small huts for the privacy of this activity.  When they had a child the couple formally married, an event celebrated by the entire village. Then they moved into a separate cubicle in the communal longhouse and were expected to remain faithful after that.  Divorce, while theoretically possible, was very rare.
    1979 was a watershed year for the Jinuo.  Their recognition as a separate minority nationality coincided with the dismantling of the communes and the acceleration of changes wrought by economic development, like the extension of roads and electricity, the growth of markets and the boom in tea prices.  This process also brokered major cultural changes among this formerly isolated people.
Nowadays Jinuo families live in separate houses
    Now that they could earn more income by having been allowed to opt out of the communal farming system, they began to abandon their communal domestic system as well.  Slowly but surely, individual families left the longhouses and built their own individual dwellings.  These were stilted houses of wood and bamboo, in the standard general style of Xishuangbanna, though by the end of the century more often of brick or cement, with roofs of corrugated iron.  By the end of 2003 the longhouse was just a memory.  The last Jinuo families living in one moved out of it that year.
    The new villages were bigger than the old longhouse-based ones.  People were not as intimately involved with each other simply because there were perhaps three times as many now in a single settlement, in separate houses and neighborhoods, not all together in a single building.  The youth associations faded away and people sought entertainment from radios and televisions instead of traditional songs and dances.
weaving with a back-strap loom
    Nevertheless, Jinuo ethnic consciousness survived these changes.  The people still take pride in those peculiarly Jinuo characteristics that distinguish them from others.  The ethnic costume is one of the most obvious.  From bolls collected off the cotton trees on their farms, women spin thread and then turn it into bolts of cloth up to half a meter wide on a simple back-strap loom. Then they cut up the bolts and stitch the pieces together to make the costume components.
    The main men’s item is a short, long-sleeved jacket, basically white, with a few vertical and horizontal red pinstripes and a band of red on the lapels, hem and around the middle of the jacket.  Thicker bands are on the sleeves at the elbows and just below the shoulders.  A brightly embroidered disk representing the sun might grace the back of the jacket, just below the neckline.  They wear these with a pair of simple trousers, traditionally knee-length, a round embroidered cap or a black headscarf and a shoulder bag in a design similar to the jacket.
    The women’s jacket reaches to the hips.  The lower part only is white with red lines and bands, while the upper part is basically black with many horizontal bands of red, blue, green and yellow.  The sleeves are blue with red cuffs and a pair of embroidered sun disks enhances the back at the shoulder blades.  They were a breast-cloth under this, the top part heavily embroidered in cross-stitch designs.  The wraparound black skirt, with a band of bright color and embroidered flowers along the hems, drops to the knees.  Black or red and white leggings cover the legs from knee to ankle.  On their heads they wear a peaked, cowl-like cap, mostly white, with red and black lines and bands, falling to the shoulder blades.  They also carry shoulder bags of the same style as that worn by the men. 
woman's cap and ear ornaments
    Modern clothing has become more common for everyday wear in Jinuo villages, but a decent percentage of both men and women, young and old, still prefer to don part or all of their traditional outfits both at home and in the fields.  They may be more likely to wear it, or at least the jacket and shoulder bag, when going to the markets and attending village weddings.  And of course at festival time most Jinuo will dress fully traditional style, including the odd ear ornaments worn by both sexes, such as small tubes of bamboo, woolen thread or pompom balls, or even plucked flowers.
    While they no longer live communally in a single building, contemporary Jinuo villages are still tightly knit social units.  Each one houses a large village drum mounted on a stand. The drum symbolizes the sun and the spikes around its rim are the sunrays.  The Jinuo consider it sacred and only use it for special rituals and festivals.  The most important of these is the Temaoke Festival in winter, formerly in the twelfth lunar month, now fixed for 6-8 February by the solar calendar.  At this time villagers bring the drum on its big frame to the village square and place a table of offerings in front, holding chickens, egg, wine, tea and rice.
    While prayers to the sun, represented by the drum, constitute an important part of the festival, it is actually staged in honor of the blacksmith.  Temaoke in the Jinuo language means “iron-forging festival.”  In ancient times primitive societies always regarded the blacksmith as a kind of magician, able to harness nature’s powers to create tools and weapons that enabled people to obtain what they needed to live from nature’s resources.  The Jinuo trace their origin, and that of the festival as well, to ancient times and credit the blacksmith with playing the major transformative role in their history.  Thanks to the blacksmith, the Jinuo got the tools and implements needed to sustain their lives by hunting and farming.
village elders, who preside over the festival events
    The most important sacrifice takes place at the blacksmith’s home.  On the first morning of the festival he goes to the senior village woman’s house to recount the dream he had the previous night.  She then interprets the dream for what it will mean for the coming year’s harvest.  Dreams of swelling rivers and blossoming trees are good portents, for example, while deserts and barren trees are not.  A feast in her home follows this event.  Then the blacksmith, accompanied by his apprentices and one member of the senior lady’s family, returns to his workshop, kills a chicken and spreads its blood and feathers on his anvil, smithy and tools.  His family cooks the chicken and while dining the blacksmith mimics his work, shouting, “hammer out the old year, hammer in the new year.”
pouring libations to the drum
    The main public event takes place in the village square and includes ritual homage to the drum and a set of traditional dances.  A large crowd attends, dressed almost entirely in Jinuo style, with a few variations, such as girls with knee-high, heeled boots or in blue jeans instead of skirts, or men wearing neckties embroidered with Jinuo motifs.  One by one a few of the senior males, escorted by a young man and a young woman, approach the drum and pour a libation of rice spirits on the top of its rim.  The performance show that ensues portrays the history of the Jinuo people through the medium of dance.
blackface 
    The first act features a troupe of men in blackface and rags, some playing females, representing ancient, primitive Jinuo in the harsh times before they had a blacksmith.  A few carry a big drum suspended from two balance poles.  The others wield sticks, swords and pack-baskets and in the dance mime scraping and digging the earth, looking for something edible.  The blacksmith dance follows this one, with men swinging hammers as they move around an anvil and a tray of offerings.  The next act features men with plows, then ranks of women wielding hoes.
    After these skits, the elders wheel the drum on its stand into the center of the square.  Lines of men and women wave their tasseled drumsticks while they dance and a few men and women beat the big drum.  The show concludes with a big ring dance.  Action continues at the fairground, where traditional clothing items, shoulder bags, silver ornaments, tea and snacks are on sale until late afternoon, when the crowd returns to their homes to indulge in a grand feast of chicken, field crabs, ground pork cooked in bamboo tubes, fish baked in banana leaves and, naturally, plenty of liquor.
dancing with hoes

    Nowadays villages don’t actually need a resident blacksmith anymore.  People can get their tools, weapons, knives, axes and anything made of metal from the markets.  But Temaoke is not just a festival that honors the blacksmith.  Temaoke today celebrates the history of the Jinuo people and the maintenance of their strong sense of ethnic identity.
   

(for more on the Jinuo and other people of Xishuangbanna, hill and plain, see my e-book Xishuangbanna:  the Tropics of Yunnan)
 

dance depicting ancient, pre-blacksmith life

 
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Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Dai Stilted House


                                                          by Jim Goodman

    When the ancestors of Xishuangbanna’s Dai people first migrated to southern Yunnan over two millennia ago they discovered the lush valleys were suitable places to grow the kind of rice that was so important to their way of living.  So the new settlers selected sites near rivers or streams and set about building the kind of houses that they were accustomed to back in the original homeland in southeast China.  The model was the stilted house, with high, sloping roofs and adjoining open-air balcony, which is still the norm, in the 21st century, for most Dai villages in the prefecture.  Its structure is perfectly suited to the weather and environment.  The stilts keep the living quarters above the damp and flood-prone ground and away from snakes, scorpions and other wild creatures.  The high, sloping roofs protect the interior from rain and allow for plenty of ventilation.  And the overall shape, set against the undulating hills, is perfectly harmonious in its environment.
Dai house in Jingne
    The Dai, or their Baiyue ancestors, were not the only people in ancient times to use stilted houses.  In fact, the earliest archaeological evidence of them comes from Zhejiang Province, dating at least 6000 years ago.   They were also in use in central Yunnan about 3300 years ago, according to relics unearthed near Jianchuan.  So the Dai may not have been the original inventors.  But according to their own mythology they were, or at least their culture-bearing hero Pa Ya Shanmudi was.
    Dai legends vary, but Pa Ya Shanmudi was either the original leader of the Dai race or its chief priest.  The story begins in the aftermath of a great flood that wiped out life in the plains.  The Dai then were living in caves in the hills.  After the floodwaters receded the Dai population began to increase so fast there were not enough caves to shelter the people from the elements.  Pa Ya Shanmudi decided to lead his people to a new location on the plains. 
    After a long journey they finally came to what seemed like an appropriate site.  On a knoll just above the plain they rested beneath the canopy of an enormous tree and observed the rainstorm as it broke upon the plain.  Pa Ya Shanmudi noticed that the rain pummeled a patch of wild taro plants, but the raindrops kept splashing off the surface of the leaves.  When the storm ended he took four thin tree trunks, implanted them in the ground, then created a roof of interlaced branches, covered by a thatch of taro leaves.  This was the first Dai shelter. 
    His people copied the design and built their own structures.  No sooner had they settled beneath the roofs than a storm broke.  The taro leaf thatch kept them dry for a while, but eventually the roof began leaking and the people were soon thoroughly soaked.  Even after the rain had ceased, water kept dripping through the roofs.  Pa Ya Shanmudi angrily abandoned the project and led his people back to the hills.  But, knowing life was basically no longer tenable in the hills, he continued to ponder the problem of a proper shelter for his people.

simple "phoenix house" in Mengla County
    One day he happened to spot a dog sitting on the ground during a rain.  He observed that the dog’s body, seated on its haunches with its forelegs straight, formed a slope.  And the rainwater slid down its back while the ground beneath it remained dry.  So Pa Ya Shanmudi ordered a new structure built.  This time the two front poles were tall and the rear poles were short, with the same kind of roof, but now sloping.  This was the second Dai shelter.
    All went well when the first rains came, for the rain ran right down the side of the angled roof and did not leak inside.  Everybody remained dry.  But then the storm kicked up, the wind reversed and the rain began pouring in the front of the shelter and soaked the people through and through.  Well, that kind of shelter wasn’t going to work, either, so Pa Ya Shanmudi once more led his people back to the hills and resumed brooding over the problem.
    At this point in the story a Dai equivalent of a deus ex machina enters the narrative.  Having observed and admired Pa Ya Shanmudi’s sincere efforts to better the lot of his people, the gods in Heaven decided to help him with a lesson on how better to learn from Nature.  One of them transformed into a golden phoenix and, after summoning up a storm, flew down in the rain to Pa Ya Shanmudi.  The bird called out to him to observe how it stood tall on its long legs as its wings, slightly spread, resisted the winds from all directions and allowed for the run-off of the rains. 
    So here was the solution.  Like the legs of the phoenix, they built a structure on stilts.  Like the wings and tail of the phoenix, they used sloping roofs on all sides.  This withstood storms blowing from any direction, while the elevated living quarters would always remain dry.  This was the third Dai shelter, now more properly called a true Dai house.  In memory of the source of the inspiration for the house, the Dai still call it a “phoenix house,” hon hen in the Dai Lu language.
capacious interior of a traditional Dai house
    The original was no doubt a lot simpler than what we find today, with extra gables and sliding windows and open-air balcony.  Wooden roof tiles have largely replaced the original thatch, too.  Yet its suitability for the climate of Xishuangbanna is obvious by its continued use millennia after its introduction and by its basic adoption by most of the peoples who later on moved into the hills.
    Basically the Dai house is an elevated rectangle with roofs like the sides of a triangle.  Access is by a staircase at the front entrance, though in the past it was a notched log.  Attached to one end is an open-air balcony, with its own staircase or notched log.  People use this area to dry crops, laundry, dyed cloth or thread, or to just sit out in the sun for a while.  Within the one-story building, the cooking, sleeping, activities of daily life and the reception of guests all take place on this single floor.  There may be partitions for the kitchen, the sleeping quarters of the elders, or a small shrine.  Generally, at night the family spreads mattresses and pillows along the floor for all the family to sleep together.
    Besides the interior, the hosts might also invite guests, if the weather is good, to sit outside on small round stools on the balcony.  Nowadays, with piped water coming into every village, the family water tank might well be mounted on the balcony, and perhaps a solar heater, pigeon coop or satellite dish as well. 
Dai village near Daluo
    Below the living quarters the space below the house is high enough to stand up easily.  Here the people stored their plows and other agricultural tools, as well as their looms, spinning wheels and thread winders.  Nowadays the looms are mostly gone and the space occupied by motorbikes and tractor-trailers.  However, that’s a more recent development.
    Dai houses sit in separate compounds, originally delineated by bamboo fences or hedges.  More recently they have taken to brick walls.  Within the yard, part of which might be used as a vegetable garden, sits a small, elevated building that is the granary.  In the rear of the yard was the outhouse.  To clean themselves after defecation the people used rectangular bamboo chips, rounded off and angled at each end.  Since the 20th century introduction of paper, of course, they don’t do that anymore.  Yet in the old days a Dai village was assigned the production of such bamboo toilet chips for the royal household.
    By the late 20th century many Dai houses had installed modern toilets and the extension of electricity and piped water everywhere in the prefecture put an end to the need to bathe in the river or suffer the meager illumination of oil lamps at night.  But in just about all other respects domestic architecture and lifestyle resembled that of their ancestors centuries earlier. When Xishuangbanna began hosting tourists in the 1980s the classic stilted house was still the norm in every Dai village.
traditional house, Dai Park, Ganlanba
    That would change soon, not because of tourism so much as due to the sudden wealth generated by two suddenly booming businesses—rubber and tea.  Given the go-ahead by government reforms that allowed long-term leases on formerly state-owned and administered land, Dai families joined the rush to clear forests and plant rubber trees, even replacing the traditional village bamboo grove with a patch of rubber trees.  Prices peaked in the mid-90s, then fell by half by the end of the decade, only to begin rising steadily after the turn of the century.
    The rapid spread of rubber cultivation also upset Xishuangbanna’s ecological balance.  By 2010 rubber plantations covered 20% of the land and the prefecture’s natural forest cover had shrunk to 26%.  The voracious rubber trees eat up all the nutrients in the soil, so that virtually nothing else can grow on a rubber plantation.  The plantations need more water than other crops and the run-off is three times that of a natural forest.  This puts strains on the local water supplies and causes wells to dry up.  The government finally had to step in that decade and declare the rest of Banna’s forest protected reserves.
    Most rubber plantations lay in the central and eastern parts of the prefecture.  Menghai County, the western third of Xishuangbanna, lies on higher plateau and most of it is not conducive to rubber cultivation.  But Menghai County is perfect for tea, especially the Pu’er tea variety, which people grow both in the hills and in the plains.  At the beginning of the 21st century, newly rich Chinese speculators, looking for a suitable investment, suddenly took an interest in Pu’er tea.
     The mania took hold after a cabal of speculators cornered Banna’s tea market, bought everything available and drove up prices.  Cultivators planted more tea bushes and Dai farmers in the plains of Menghai County created tea gardens at the edges of their rice fields.  Ambitious investors from other parts of China arrived to contract for some of the expanded production and set up tea factories of their own.  By mid-decade there were 3000 tea merchants and manufacturers in Xishuangbanna, intensely competitive and suspicious of one another.
mixed architecture of a village in transition
    By 2007 the price of Pu’er tea had risen to ten times what it sold for at the start of the century.  But it wasn’t just the speculators who made money.  Pickers and growers could, at the peak of the frenzy, get 200 yuan per kilo for fresh leaves and 300 yuan per kilo for leaves sun-dried in one of the village squares for a few days.  The tea bubble burst in 2008, when prices fell by 90% by the end of the year.  Over a third of the new tea factories closed down and outside speculators took their money elsewhere.  But a lot of local people, including Dai farmers, got rich from the boom years.
    Like the rubber farmers the tea cultivators suddenly found themselves in possession of more cash than they dreamed they could have had twenty years earlier. And like the newly rich rubber planters they rushed to spend it on improvements in their material lives.  The first priority seemed to be to a new, “modern” house.  So they demolished their traditional stilted houses and erected cement and brick houses that sat on the ground, shaped like a box, with flat roof and no open-air balcony.  They basically copied the design of the immigrant Han houses around the state rubber plantations, a type actually inappropriate for the tropical climate. 
    In general, once a few families took the lead in making new-style houses the rest of the village households hurried to ape them and within a few years villages which formerly consisted of nothing but traditional stilted wooden houses were transformed into villages of nothing but virtually identical concrete boxes.  This was especially true in Menghai County, where the bulk of Pu’er tea was grown.  In some cases the transformation was not quite so drastic, as the new houses at least maintained the angled, Dai-style roofs and perhaps the open-air balcony.  These would likely have satellite dishes placed on them, for televisions, automobiles, motorbikes and designer label clothing were part of the spending spree as well.
Dai village near Menghai, 1998
the same Dai village, 2008
    In Jinghong and Mengla Counties the urge to abandon the traditional Dai style house has not been so strong.  Just downriver from Jinghong, next to Menghan in Ganlanba (the Olive Plain), traditional Dai architecture is the main feature of Dai Park, a collection of five old Dai villages, opened as a tourist attraction in 1999.  The houses are all in the traditional style and by law must be kept that way, though the park authorities also pay for repairs and renovations. 
    Traditional Dai architecture in Ganlanba is not restricted to Dai Park.  The outskirts of Menghan feature outstanding examples of Dai houses, festooned with peacock decorations under the apex of the roof ends or on the rooftop.  Villages along the road to Menglun are equally well endowed with classic Dai houses.  They are getting mixed with modern styles, though, for the deforestation of recent decades has led to a scarcity of timber.  As families expand and children wed and need their own houses, they often opt for the modern style because wood is so hard to acquire anyway.
    One outside observer, already alarmed by this trend, was Zhu Liangwen, himself an architect and author of a detailed study of traditional Dai architecture.   Zhu believed that the traditional house type, raised above the ground, with peaked, sloping roofs and open-air balcony, was still the most suitable type possible for the climate and blended with the environment in an esthetically pleasing way.  If the problem was the scarcity of traditional building materials, then the solution was simply to change the materials.
    Zhu designed a new Dai village, called Manjingfa, two km south of Jinghong, using the traditional layout and style of house, but substituted concrete, aluminum and plastered brick for wood and bamboo.  Houses stand on concrete pillars, with attached concrete balcony, also on concrete pillars, and have walls of brick covered with white plaster.  The sliding windows and screens are made of aluminum and the metal tiles on the roofs are medium blue, with upturned corners and ceramic figurines lining the roof edges.  While all the houses are white with blue roofs, no two are exactly alike, combining a general uniformity of style with individual variations in the details, just like Dai villages hundreds of years old.
    The main difference between these houses and traditional ones is in the interior.  Instead of one large room and one separate bedroom for the older folks, the big room is subdivided into several rooms for separate sleeping quarters for the family members.  This also reduces the air circulation, but Manjingfa folks tend to spend a lot of their daytime hours on the ground floor underneath the house, which is paved with cement and is altogether tidier than the area under their former houses.
Manjingfa houses
the area beneath a Manjingfa house
    The nearly forty houses radiate out from a walled central circular area, with a small chedi in the center, two ornate rest pavilions and some ornamental plants.  On the western edge of the village stands an old temple.  With its classic, clean and orderly layout and its angled rooftops rhyming with the hills behind them, Manjingfa was designed as a model and prototype for new Dai villages in Xishuangbanna, an exercise in demonstrating that one need not jettison traditional esthetic values in order to be modern.
    While Manjingfa-style villages did not start springing up elsewhere, in Dai villages that missed out on the tea and rubber booms residents changed their attitude about their traditional houses.  Instead of regretting they didn’t have the money to build a modern-style house they began appreciating what they already had.  The local government, anxious to promote what remained of traditional Dai culture, sponsored the recognition of “culture villages,” where the architecture was at least 75% traditional style.
    Two such villages lie near Jinghong:  Mandui, near the airport, and Manhefeng, near the new museum.  Busloads of Chinese tourists arrive daily to appreciate the traditional layout and houses and shop at the stalls selling fruits and snacks or typical Banna handicrafts, which may or may not be made in the villages.  But the Dai villagers themselves now benefit from their own appreciation of all things traditionally Dai, especially their stilted houses.  Perhaps this appreciation will spread and the traditional stilted house will survive the coming decades.  It is still the most appropriate, most comfortable possible house for living in the tropics.
Jingfa Dai village
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for more information on Dai culture, see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan