Saturday, March 22, 2014

Marketing Dai Culture in Xishuangbanna

                                                       by Jim Goodman

    For some three decades now Xishuangbanna has been one of Yunnan’s top tourist attractions.  The prefecture opened its doors to foreign visitors in 1985, but it was already becoming a popular destination for Chinese tourists.  Bordering Myanmar and Laos, with a climate, ecology, population
royal palms lining Xuanwei Dadao, downtown Jinghong
 make-up and culture more akin to that of its southern neighbors, it was like a slice of Southeast Asia, but still within China.  Other than Hainan Island, it was the only truly tropical part of the country, not only very different from the rest of China, but with sights, smells, sounds and tastes even different from pretty much the rest of Yunnan province.
    Advertising geared to the tourist market stressed these features, highlighting images of tropical fruits and flowers, forests and rivers, displays of local food, tea plantations and colorfully dressed ethnic minorities.  Promoters hailed its tropical landscape and atmosphere as well as its exotic ethnic cultural environment.  And for any visitor arriving in Jinghong, with its  
Dai girls i Jinghong
downtown streets lined with royal palms and local Dai women in their blouses and sarongs, flowers pinned to their hair buns, the tourist brochures seemed to be quite accurate.
    To arrange for visitors to appreciate the physical attractions of Xishuangbanna was relatively easy.  Tour operators simply took them to places like the Tropical Flowers and Plants Garden right there in Jinghong and the bigger and more impressive Tropical Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences next to Menglun.  Other popular excursion were to the oldest cultivated tea tree above Nannuoshan, near Menghai, the Single Tree That Makes a Forest--a multi-rooted banyan tree near Daluo, and the Mengyang Nature Reserve, with its Wild Elephant Valley Park.
    Promoting local Dai culture as a tourist experience, however, was a little more difficult.  Visitors were aware that the Dai practiced a type of Buddhism different from that elsewhere in China—Theravada rather than Mahayana.  They were not likely to know anything more about them, other than they lived in stilted houses, which they could observe while passing villages on their excursions.  They could appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the Buddhist temples and monuments, but the most impressive experience they were likely to enjoy that had anything to do with local culture was the Dai dinner and dance show.
Dai-style banquet
    The dinner, usually served on a round, split-bamboo table, with the guests seated on small stools, comprised a dozen or more Dai special dishes, some spicy, some not, fish both grilled and steamed, pork baked in banana leaves, local vegetables, some of them from the jungle, semi-dried beef, etc.  In the center of the table sat the filler—sticky rice steamed in pineapple.  Diners washed it all down with tea, beer or spirits.
    After this repast came the dance show.  The performances generally featured a troupe of several girls, the choreography consisting of slow, graceful movements of the arms and legs, with props such as water jugs, umbrellas, lamps or candles.  For one dance they would twirl the little stringed purses used in the traditional courting ritual and at the conclusion toss them to the males in the crowd.  Some shows also included vigorous, high-stepping young male dancers beating elephant-leg drums.  There might also be a soloist on flute or the gourd-pipe called hulusi.
the lovely Peacock Dance
    The highlight of the show was the Dai Peacock Dance, easily the most beautiful in the native repertoire.  The dancer wore a long, sleeveless, flowing dress, usually yellow or white, mottled with the “eyes” of the male peacock’s tail.  Besides swirling around showing off the dress design, the dancer also makes the peacock form with her fingers and quivers her neck and shoulders to mimic the bird’s movements.  First created in the early 60s, the Peacock Dance is now famous nationwide and a standard image advertising Xishuangbanna.  
    Dance shows, without the banquet, also took place on the stage inside Manting Park.  They comprised much the same set as in the dinner show, though the bigger stage allowed for a greater number of performers at once.  Because the audience sat in seats a little ways from the stage, the set also included a sample of the action of Poshuijie—the Water-Sprinkling Festival.  No one got very wet, of course.
     Entertainment was not the only interesting aspect of minority culture in Banna, just the easiest to present.  It was something tourists could watch and listen to without having to really understand it.   Most tourists, there for a short time only, were anyway not keen on acquiring a deeper knowledge of the ethnic minorities, their way of life, customs and cultural outlook.  The dinner and dance show was quite enough exotica.  Other than repeated temple visits, not much else was set up for tourists to appreciate, culturally speaking.
traditional house in Dai Park
    To fill this gap and encourage visitors to stay longer, spend more and have a more direct experience of Dai culture, at the end of the century the Dai Nationality Park opened.   Encompassing five traditional villages at the eastern end of Menghan, in Ganlanba, the Olive Plain, 23 km from Jinghong,  it was originally the brainchild of a Guangdong businessman who sold it to the Ganlanba State Farm, a government-owned rubber company.  Dai Park opened in 1999, the same year as the International Horticultural Exhibition in Kunming.  The park management organized a range of activities and exhibits for the tourists, including a display of tools,
roof decorations, Dai Park
containers, machines and implements used in the traditional material culture, the thread-tying custom, cock-fighting, songs and dances and, inevitably, a daily Water-Sprinkling Festival.  Visitors also took in the pagodas and temples, like the beautiful and ancient Manchunman Temple, and had the option to stay overnight in a Dai house.
Manchunman Temple
    After a slow start and inadequate advertising, from its third year Dai Park began getting more publicity and it became part of the itinerary for over 80% of the tourists who came to Xishuangbanna.  Five years after its opening, 1.8 million tourists had visited Dai Park.  A good portion of them had stayed overnight, for the park management had made arrangements for villagers to offer such accommodations.  Tourists would eat with the family, on stools around a split-bamboo table, and sleep like the family, on thick mattresses on the floor.  Such houses had modern toilets, but other than that consideration, overnight visitors could enjoy a true cultural experience in the same way that trekkers did in remote areas.  And they didn’t have to make a grueling hike to do so, for Dai Park was but a half hour’s drive from Jinghong.
    If tourists knew anything about Dai culture before arriving they were familiar with the annual Water-Sprinkling Festival—Poshuijie in Chinese.   After the turn of the century this festival just got bigger and grander, but not entirely because of tourism, for the local government sponsored it and paid for the participation of minority contingents from all over the prefecture to march in the opening day’s procession and to perform in the evening stage shows.
the Umbrella Dance for Poshuijie
    In recent years the tourist industry has promoted a new slogan—Tian tian huandu Poshuijie (Every day enjoy the Water-Sprinkling Festival).  This became a daily feature at the Dai Park in Ganlanba, where tourists rented traditional Dai costumes for 50 yuan and a basin for 30 yuan and jumped into the pool in the park’s central square and splashed each other for about 20 minutes.
water-splashing at Dai Park
    Between Ganlanba and Menglun two other villages became Poshuijie villages for busloads of Chinese tourists.  The notion behind Tian tian huandu Poshuijie was that tourists cannot always come at festival time in April and by staging that part of the festival daily tourists, no matter when they came, would be able to enjoy something integrally part of Dai culture.  The same argument, however, was not used to make the Lantern Festival, an integral part of Chinese culture, a daily affair in Beijing or any other city.
    Besides Dai Park in Ganlanba, another venue opened in Jinghong designed to promote Dai culture as a tourist attraction.  This was the new Mengle Temple, lying at the foot of a small hill south of the city, featuring the fanciest Dai-style temple in Banna, well endowed with decorative figures on the roofs, sculptures and woodcarvings, huge images, mural paintings and other embellishments.   But Mengle Temple is not entirely a temple.  It is more of a Dai religious theme park, designed to make money for the non-Yunnanese company that built it—Shengyang Longsheng Real Estate Development Co. Ltd., from Liaoning Province.  Visitors pay 120 yuan admission fee to the compound.  They get to marvel at the furnishings, admire the big Buddha image, pay another 100 yuan if they want to light a votive lamp, buy and light incense at five times the normal price and climb up to the Buddha statue for a view of the city.  The climax of the visit takes place at the pool in the compound, where first five or six monks recite prayers from palm-leaf manuscripts and then, when they retire, visitors jump into the pool to throw water on each other, an act they could not indulge in within any other Theravada Buddhist temple compound in Southeast Asia. 
local dancers at Dai Park
    As a “Dai experience,” though, a visit to Mengle Temple was still much less rewarding than a trip to the Dai Park in Ganlanba.  By 2010 the park was drawing a half million visitors per year.  At 120 yuan per entrance ticket, Dai Park was big business and residents of the five villages complained that they were receiving too little a portion of the receipts.  The company in charge mollified them somewhat by agreeing to pay an extra 20% in rental fees.  Still, the managers, clerical workers and even the guides were almost all Han outsiders.  The Dai villagers wound up with the menial jobs like dancers, handicraft workers and tourist welcoming groups, such as the row of young men beating gongs and young women standing up to wave their arms in ramwong dance movements as tour groups walked past them to visit the handicrafts display.
    The nature of the “Dai experience” also changed.  Han tourists, who made up the overwhelming majority of visitors, came in larger groups and fewer of them stayed the night.  And when they did they preferred to sleep in bedrooms separate from the host family, on raised beds instead of floor mattresses.  For the richer breed of Han tourists now coming to Xishuangbanna, anything else was “too primitive” and uncomfortable.  With the highly organized group tours, with their time limit of less than a full day, some places in the park got more attention than others.  Manchunman, close to the center and endowed with the most beautiful temple, got the lion’s share, while Menga, furthest from the center, was all but ignored.  Thus the money generated by tourism was not evenly distributed, leading to jealousies and animosities among the villagers that did not exist before they were all grouped together in Dai Park.
    At least the architecture and the traditional lifestyle of the Dai Park villages remained intact, while such features disappeared in other Dai villages, especially in Menghai County, as people got rich from the tea or rubber business and replaced their stilted houses with concrete boxes in the modern Han style.  But with official promotion of Dai culture, some villages that had not grown rich from rubber or tea and still had most houses in the traditional style applied for official recognition as “culture villages,” such as Manhefeng, near the new prefecture museum, and Mandui, on the way to the airport   Tour operators then steered their clients to these places to buy locally made handicrafts or items in the local market. 
    So now there is an economic motive for Xishuangbanna’s Dai people to hang on to their traditions.  Whether this will stem the inevitable erosion of traditional values that ordinarily comes with modernization remains to be seen.  But it encourages the thought that not maybe everything traditional is bound to disappear.
traditional Dai village in Xishuangbanna
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                   for more on the Dai see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Third Month Fair in Dali

                                                   by Jim Goodman

    Of all of Yunnan’s many annual festivals, the Third Month Fair in Dali ranks as the biggest.  In a good year around a half million people swarm into the city for the event, beginning on the full moon (15th day) of the third lunar month and running at least one week.  While the festival features a variety of entertainment—concerts, stage shows, songs, dances, horse races and equestrian shows—its main draw is the variety of goods, especially medicinal herbs, for sale in the special market created for the event at the foot of Zhonghe Peak of the Cangshan Mountains, just across the road from the old town’s West Gate.   A great number of the Bai and Yi minorities from Dali and surrounding counties come for the fair, but the crowd is dominated by Han from all over China, here not so much for the shows as for the opportunity to buy items like rare medicinal plants, for which the province and the Dali vicinity have long been famous.
northern entry gate to the fairgrounds
    The Third Month Fair is also one of the oldest festivals in Yunnan, having originated back in the 7th century during the reign of Xinuluo in the early days of the Nanzhao Kingdom.   The state was small then, basically just present-day Weishan and Midu Counties, and it would be another hundred years or so before Dali became its capital.  According to local legend, the plain beside Erhai Lake at that time was under the control of a monstrous demon named Luosha.  On the full moon day of the third month the goddess Guan Yin came to the area in disguise, tricked and imprisoned Luosha in a sealed cave and freed the local Bai people from his ravages.  In gratitude, every year on this day the people came to the foot of Zhonghe Peak, the site of Guan Yin’s triumph, to honor her and leave offerings.  As festivals imply crowds, and crowds draw merchants, eventually the event morphed into an annual trade fair that eclipsed its original religious significance.
    A more romantic account ascribes the origin of the Fair to a love affair between a fairy princess and a local fisherman.  She was the third daughter of Erhai’s resident Dragon King, who fell in love with and married a poor, but industrious and honest fisherman named Ashan.  Some months after their marriage, she invited him to accompany her to the Moon Festival, changed into a dragon and flew him there.  Changing back, she walked with him past a fantastic landscape, the likes of which he had never seen, to a pair of blue trees, 
    Suddenly people began arriving from the four corners of Heaven, riding lions and phoenixes and then setting up a fair.  Stalls offered coral, gemstones, pearls, clear liquor and rare elixirs and special food from the mountains and the seas.  After getting over his initial bedazzlement, though, Ashan noticed the market didn’t offer any farming tools or fishing gear, which disappointed him.
herbs and spices on sale at the Fair

    He mentioned that fact when narrating his adventures to his fellow villagers when the pair returned to earth.  He suggested the people set up their own fair for farmers and fishermen.  His princess wife seconded the idea and then proposed they simply move the Moon Festival to Earth.  Villagers then planted two trees at the foot of Zhonghe Peak and inaugurated a modified Moon Festival of their own.  Supplementing the rare and precious items from the market on the moon, the people added farm tools, livestock, fishing gear and medicinal herbs.
    Simply because people started coming from great distances to attend, the Fair grew in duration from a single commemorative day to a whole week.  And to keep the crowds in a good mood to stay longer and buy more goods, Fair organizers enhanced the event with various kinds of entertainment.  In recent times stages have gone up at each end of the market area and a stadium built north of the fairgrounds for the group dances, horse races, archery contests and equestrian shows. 
Dali West Gate, decorated for the event
    Nowadays the Fair is bigger than ever.  Thanks to airplanes, trains and buses people can reach Dali easily from all over the country.  Old town merchants this week hear the Chinese language spoken a hundred different ways.  Besides the chance to buy medicinal plants and animal parts that they cannot find in the places they live, they come for the attraction of Dali itself.  Lying at around 2000 meters altitude, backed by the Cangshan Mountains with 4000+ meter-high peaks, adjacent to the blue waters of Erhai Lake, a walled city with significant historic value, with its classic Chinese and Bai-style architecture, Dali is one of Yunnan’s premier tourist destinations.   And in April the weather is warm and balmy, hardly ever raining, when it’s still cold in most of China.
    The city gets all spruced up for the event and merchants start setting up a day or two earlier on the slope outside the western gate.  Just opposite this tower a smaller gate marks the entrance to the northern road to the fairgrounds, while four blocks south another gate marks the southern road up the hill.  Shops or stalls line the roads gong up to the fairgrounds, which is just below the wooded area.  But activity remains rather slight until after the official opening at the stadium on full moon morning.
    The stadium starts filling up by sunrise, but for those too late to get inside Dali TV films the event, so they can watch it on their hotel televisions for the next few nights.   After the speeches the show consists of several performances by large dance troupes of Bai or Yi in costumes that combine the elements of several sub-groups.  None of them are actually traditional, but instead modern creations, choreographed in forms of bursting stars, geometric patterns, etc, sometimes with three troupes at once.  The equestrian shows that follow are more interesting, with riders climbing on the shoulders of the jockey and each other, sometimes seven on a single horse.
Tibetan herbal medicine vendor
    The show concludes by noon and the crowd then swarms into the fairgrounds.  Besides medicinal herbs, concentrated at the southern end of the grounds, stalls offer various kinds of food like dried beef and mutton, sweets, pastries and pickled vegetables, as well as farm tools, nets and musical instruments, with a few restaurants set up at the north end.  While most of the crowd consists of Chinese Han visitors, ethnic minorities make up a large portion, mostly the prefecture’s Bai and Yi sub-groups, but also those from further away, like Naxi from Lijiang, Tibetans from Shangrila, Lisu and Miao.
Dali Bai girls running a stall
    Dali Bai women are the most recognizable, for their ethnic style of clothing-- white pants, long-sleeved, side-fastened red, blue or green tunic with matching apron and red and white headdress with a long white tassel--is one of the main images used in tourist literature advertising the place.  They tend to wander the fairgrounds in groups of three up to fifteen, often dressed in matching color tunics.  Bai women from Jianchuan wear a maroon vest over a blue blouse, a longer apron and a cap of several layers.  Those from Heqing are less colorful, maroon vest over white blouse and an army cap.
    The largest group of Yi is the still very traditional Tuli sub-group, from the hills south of Xiaguan and from Midu and Weishan Counties.  Their women dress in bright colors, green and red dominating, and wear tall turbans, plain black  or heavily embroidered and decorated.  Other Yi groups, such as the dance troupe, hail from Yangbi County, just over the Cangshan Mountains, notable for the lavishly embroidered aprons the women wear.
    The southern part of the fairgrounds is the busiest, a zone dominated by stalls hawking medicinal plants, spices, seeds, herbs and animal parts.  Tibetans run many stalls here, also
Bai women from Jianchuan
colorful Tuli Yi woman
selling, besides herbs and exotic animal parts like seahorses and starfish, butter churns, decorated yak and buffalo skulls, saddle carpets and animal pelts of fox, red panda and leopard cat.  Yi, Bai and Han also manage stalls here, their herbs packed in big bags with the tops open and the odors of their contents wafting into the air, making this area the most fragrant in the Fair. 
    While entertainment proceeds regularly throughout the week at several venues, the second morning features one-time only performances by local Bai and Yi.  The Bai put on a spectacular dragon dance, with two dragons, one black, one golden, with women carrying the dragons.  One woman baits the dragon, which moves around in
Bai Dragon Dance
Bai Fan Dance
various patterns, sometimes ducking its head under its writhing tail, or coiling under its raised head.  Other dances feature red lions and the use of props like riding whips or fans.  The Yi perform ring dances, women on the outside, men on drums and gourd-pipes in the middle.
      Both shows are over by noon, and the area doesn’t see any more, but a short distance away is the mini-stadium set up for performances by village orchestras from the vicinity playing traditional dongjing music.  The groups number about 25 and usually include at least one female musician, who may double as singer.  Each orchestra performs about an hour, two in the morning, three in the afternoon. 
    At the other end of the grounds, near the top of the southern entrance road,  are two more entertainment venues.  A huge tree stands near the edge of the medicine stalls and from a makeshift stage in front of it Bai and Yi singers, male and female, solo or in duets, take turns performing, with a small Bai troupe puts on dances in between the songs.  And about 70 meters down the slope other troupes and soloists perform on a regular stage, with curtain, flanking one of the market lanes.
    The staged dances are sometimes traditional, sometimes new, even if in ethnic dress.  Bai troupes of women dance with props like parasols, fans lutes and water jugs, each set choreographed differently but often ending with one lady hoisted high above the rest of the group clustered at her feet.  Miao girls perform wearing typically Miao pleated skirts and fancy silver headdresses from Guizhou province.  Yi troupes from Yangbi put on various shows, soloists perform on flute or gourd-pipe and a group of local Han girls do a modern dance in short, tight, slanted skirts and matching, off-the-shoulder halters—the sexiest stage costume of the week.
Non-ethnic dances are also part of the show.

    The stage shows take place in the afternoon and, after a short break, again in the early evening.  But nothing stays open very late in the fairgrounds and attendance is much smaller.  During the day, though, it can be difficult to move around on the main market lanes.  People are constantly stopping to examine goods or jamming up to watch the stage shows, putting their children on their shoulders to give them a better view.  This blocks the view of those behind them, of course, but other than that, in general the crowds are well-behaved.  Nobody is in a hurry, nobody pushes, and nobody tramples on the feet of others.
Dali Bai troupe on stage at the Fair
    It’s no wonder, then, that the Third Month Fair grows in popularity every year.   The physical setting alone is one of Yunnan’s most splendid and the area is replete with genuine attractions that bring in tourists year-round.  The abundant presence of ethnic minorities in their best traditional clothing during the Fair sprinkles the crowds with color and accents the already exotic atmosphere of the event.  The array of goods on sale and the variety of both merchants and customers makes a day’s wandering through the fairgrounds one of continuous fascination.  And as a bonus, a visitor might just find that special herb or plant that will treat or cure a long-standing ailment.  That alone would make the trip worth it.    

dongjing orchestra singer
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