by Jim Goodman
From the opening of Yunnan to foreign tourists, an essential part of everyone’s itinerary was a trip to the Stone Forest. Lying just over 100 kilometers east of Kunming, a visitor could do it as a day trip. The excursion was a convenient combination of the province’s natural and cultural attractions—a unique landscape of eroded limestone pillars and a colorful ethnic minority, the Sani, a branch of the Yi nationality, who inhabit the vicinity.
|eroded pillars in the Stone Fores|
|"The Brothers" (left) at Naigu Shilin|
|"stone grove" near Suogeyi|
Actually, the Stone Forest is merely an 80-hectare concentration of a phenomenon that characterizes much of the county’s landscape. Another conglomeration of much darker rocks lies several kilometers north, called Naigu Shilin, after the Sani word for black. Clusters of similar stones jut up all over the pastures and rolling highland plains, while many Sani villages lie adjacent to “stone groves” of weird pillars equally as eye-catching as those of Shilin. A particularly interesting set stands next to Suogeyi, 15 km south of Lunan town, where I found myself ready to emulate the ancient Chinese poets and bestow names of my own on certain limestone formations: Buffalo Rampant, Drunken Sentry, Crooked Phallus, Tower of Pebbles, Easter Island Immigrant, etc.
These karst formations, as they are called, disappear when crossing the county’s boundary lines. They have become such a tourist attraction that in 1998 the government changed the county’s official name from Lunan to Shilin, though residents still refer to the county capital as Lunan. The name in Chinese means “south of the road,” but in the Sani pronunciation means “dark stone.” The tourist business at the Stone Forest Park, with its ever-increasing ticket prices, souvenir stalls, guides in ethnic clothing and variety of Sani entertainment shows, is the most important economic generator in Shilin County. But with the crowds, the Chinese characters painted on the pillars, the obvious commercialization and plethora of souvenir stalls, it can be somewhat overbearing.
|tobacco plants offshore at Yuehu (Moon Lake)|
In between these gems the land undulates gently, bounded by a horizon of distant hills and mottled by villages, patches of forest, flocks of sheep and goats and tilled fields of red earth, with crops of rice, maize or tobacco. Sani villages usually lie around one or two large ponds that serve as principal water source. Houses are of typical Yunnanese rural construction: rammed earth walls, timber posts, tiled roofs, the ground floor for living, the upstairs for storage. Back walls sometimes have built-in beehives for honey production. The wheels of carts and barrows, as well as the old-fashioned threshers, are often made of wood and stacked against the rear wall.
|typical Sani village|
A small number of villages, though, are Catholic, due to the efforts of a remarkable French priest named Paul Vial in the late 19th century. French missionaries had already had some success in the Nujiang and Lancangjiang canyons, but virtually no converts in cities like Lijiang and Dali. The Sociéié des Missions Étrangères, in charge of French Catholic work in the province, decided in 1888 to transfer Père Paul Vial from Dali, where he had had no success, to Lunan County.
Vial took an instant liking to the place and its people. He learned the language and delved deeply into the traditional culture. Distrusting individual conversions, for they might be subject to social pressure from traditional believers and lead to recantation, Vial preferred the conversion of whole extended families and villages at once. He did not demand a wholesale rejection of Sani customs in embracing Christianity, but sought to incorporate some of their traditions into the faith he was offering. For example, Sani children traditionally wore baby caps festooned with badges of protective spirit images. Upon conversion, mothers did not remove the caps, just replaced the “pagan” badges with little medals of Catholic saints.
In addition to his missionary work, Vial launched a side career as ethnologist and linguist. He composed reports on his mission work to the Société’s newsletter, while also writing scholarly volumes on the history, culture and customs of the Sani. He even compiled a Sani-French dictionary. He was an indefatigable defender of Sani interests, Christian or traditional, in any disputes with outsiders or the government, a reputation that endeared him to all Sani.
He only managed to convert a small number of villages during his time in Sani country. But these villages have remained Catholic to this day, with churches renovated and active. Once denounced as a Western imperialist agent, as all missionaries were, Vial nowadays is in official favor for his non-mission work. Sani intellectuals value him for his meticulous recording of Sani history and traditions, not to mention his linguistic achievements. Since the beginning of the Reform Era in the 1980s the Sani have been much more immersed in traditional culture. And with preferential treatment accorded to minority nationalities, even mixed families in Shilin County, Han husbands with Yi wives for example, have been registering in each census as Yi.
|young Sani women in Lunan town, Shilin County|
With access nowadays to modern markets selling finished bolts of cotton cloth, the use of hemp cloth has been reduced to shoulder bags, men’s vests and women’s capes, while items made from fireweed cloth have practically disappeared. The rest of the clothing uses mill-made cloth with parts, like shoulder bags and baby-carriers, hand-embroidered. Women wear a long-sleeved tunic, trousers, an apron with embroidered strap ends, and a round turban with an opening at the back, through which they hang their ponytails. Married women favor dark blue and black. Younger women prefer lighter and brighter hues, while their headgear, with stripes of contrasting colors around it, sports a pair of triangular tabs over the ears, to indicate their status as single women.
|unmarried Sani women|
Men are responsible for construction, quarrying, fishing and plowing. Women do most of the farming and domestic chores. They also gather herbs and edible roots and fungi from the forest to sell in the streets of old Lunan on the Wednesday and Saturday market days. Villagers journey to the city packed in tractor-trailers and trucks. The markets fill with rural merchandise, from animals, vegetables and goat cheese, a Sani specialty, to utilitarian items like carrying poles,
whisks and brooms.
|the old Lunan market, 1995|
|older woman in the Lunan market|
The bittersweet ballad
|Sani guides at Shilin Park|
Her brother Ahei hears of her distress, mounts his steed and gallops after her. The ogre and his son challenge Ahei to a singing-riddle contest, which Ahei wins to gain entry into the castle. Thereafter he must pass several more tests, with his sister playing warnings on the mosheen, until he triumphantly escorts Ashima out of the castle. But the double-crossing Rebubala conjures up a flood to thwart the pair just as they reach the Stone Forest. A wave sweeps away Ashima, leaving behind only her echo. Her spirit remains to inhabit a pillar in the park’s Little Stone Forest. Nowadays
|Ashima Rock, Little Shilin|