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.
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.
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
|pouring libations to the drum|
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|
* * *