Monday, June 2, 2014

Dance of the Swords—the Jingpo Munao Festival

                                                            by Jim Goodman

Jingpo girls at a Longchuan County fair
    Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture lies in the southwest corner of Yunnan Province, surrounded on three sides by Myanmar.  Besides the Dai who dominate the plains and the Jingpo,  Dehong is also home to Hua Lisu in the western hills and two smaller minority nationalities—the De’ang and the Achang.  Both of these peoples show heavy influence by their Dai neighbors in domestic architecture, agriculture and religion. The De’ang number close to 18,000, are dispersed in southern Dehong and reside in parts of Lincang Prefecture as well.  The Achang are more numerous, about 33,000, 90% of whom live in Lianghe and Longchuan Counties.  They have historically been more culturally important to Dehong because in Husa, their main cultural center, they produce the swords used by everybody in the prefecture.
    All but a few of Yunnan's 120,000 Jingpo live in the southwestern prefecture of Dehong, mostly in the mountains at 1500 meters or higher.  Across the border in Myanmar the Jingpo are the largest of six ethnic groups (including Lisu) that are classified as Kachin, a Burmese word.  They originated in the mountains along the eastern edge of the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau and migrated south to northern Myanmar and western Yunnan.  By the early 15th century they were numerous enough in Dehong that the Ming government created two autonomous Jingpo districts and appointed one Jingpo chieftain in each as hereditary headman (tusi).
elderly Jingpo wo
    The following century witnessed a great migration of Jingpo to Dehong's mountains.  They became the largest ethnic group in the hills and today comprise one-eighth of the prefecture's population.  Around that time they learned to use iron ploughs and grow rice, a major transition from their previous economy of hunting and gathering.  Living in the mountains where the soil is less fertile they generally resorted to the slash-and-burn style of farming.  Contemporary governments have been weaning them away from this form of agriculture by introducing terracing, fruit orchards and crop substitution--tea and sugarcane instead of rice.
     Most Jingpo settlements are ensconced in the forest or within bamboo groves and all but hidden from view.  Traditional houses were made of wood and bamboo with thatched roofs.  The walls were of plaited bamboo and a square hearth occupied the centre of the main room.  The house stood on stilts or had one end against the higher part of the slope.  This is still the norm in most areas, but brick housing, with tile roofs, like the Dai, are the current choice for any Jingpo family that can afford it.  These rest on the ground, while separate sheds house the animals.
    Jingpo men have a reputation as great drinkers, though not, it must be pointed out, as drunken revelers.  But alcohol is part of a social encounter and men often carry wine flasks and cups with them.  Both men and women chew tobacco, claiming it as an aid to digestion.  Women like to chew catechu and betel nut, too, which darkens their teeth.  In the old days this was considered a sign of beauty.  The younger generation prefers sparkling white teeth though, and that particular Jingpo custom seems destined for desuetude.
Jingpo female clothing style
decorative rattan hoops
    The Jingpo still like their ethnic style of clothing, even if most reserve it for special occasions. Women make or weave the components, though nowadays the woman's wraparound skirt is more likely to be made on a knitting machine, if woolen, or a power loom, if cotton or silk. In the past during dry season they sat in the yard or on the porch with a back-strap loom hooked on to a house post.  Older women usually wear dark sarongs and jackets, while younger women wear red, with yellow trim and inlaid patterns, or a multi-colored piece with many intricate, inlaid patterns.
    The side-fastened, long-sleeved velvet jacket is plain black, but on special occasions- a Jingpo woman wears one covered with silver ornaments:  three rows of big half-globes, stitched around the collar, shoulders and back.  At the bottom of these rows hang many thin, flat pendants on chains.  These drop down to the midriff in front and below the shoulder blades in back.  A few round, embossed discs may also be attached to the bottom of the front of the jacket.  To complete her outfit the Jingpo woman wears a red woolen tubular hat and a dozen or more lacquered rattan waist hoops.
Jingpo monument in Yingjiang
    The men don't dress up so colorfully, even on festival days.  The older men tend to wear the older styles of Han clothes, the younger ones contemporary urban fashions.  On special occasions they will don a black vest and a white turban, the ends colored with many small, attached pompoms.  They also carry the Jingpo shoulder bag, of red wool, black strap, and covered in front with silver bulbs and pendants on chains just like the woman's jacket.  A sword, with a straight edge and no pointed end, in a decorated scabbard (more than likely made in Husa) is the final item. Traditionally, Jingpo men carried the sword at all times, for use in defense (rarely necessary) and as a cutting tool for chopping everything from trees to sugar cane.
    Besides these uses, the sword was and still is an essential part of the men’s outfit during the annual Munao Festival.  Groups of men wield their swords in stylized, synchronized patterns as part of a ritual dance.  Because of this Jingpo custom the people of Dehong have a saying, “The Achang make the swords; the Lisu climb the swords; the Jingpo dance the swords.”  Munao is a celebration of being Jingpo and the sword’s very prominent visibility in the event reflects its importance to the Jingpo cultural identity.   
"dancing the swords"
    In Jingpo mythology Munao is something people staged in gratitude for some favor or another.  Its origin is as old as that of the people themselves.  When the divine parents of Ning Gawn Na, the mythical Jingpo progenitor, lay in their deathbed, they instructed their son to give them a good sending off ceremony for their souls.  Then they would metamorphose into Heaven and Earth and Ning Gawn Na would become fully human and father the Jingpo race.  A proper send-off could only be a Munao Zongge, Jingpo words for "let's dance together."  But Ning Gawn Na did not know the dance, for the only performers were the children in the Kingdom of the Sun.
    One day, however, Grandfather Sun invited a representative of the bird community to the dance.  A sparrow attended and when he returned home he taught the other birds.  The peacock took on the lead singing role and the hornbill organized the choreography.  Ning Gawn Na and his wife happened to be watching and they took the dance home and taught others.  A wild boar cleansed the corral for them and two Han brothers sent a dragon robe for the dance leader to wear.  The Munao performance made the Jingpo more united, courageous and intelligent and so they have continued to stage it ever since, for four days beginning the full moon of the first lunar month.
the Munao dance
     Munao symbolizes the solidarity of the Jingpo people, so many separate villages join to celebrate it at one of the major festival sites such as the hills of Laying township, near Zhangfeng, and the knoll beside the Yunyan Pagoda on the outskirts of Yingjiang.  The latter keeps the Munao poles up all year, plus a wooden hall with a buffalo skull mounted over the front door.  Nearby, a white statue of a Jingpo man using his crossbow stands on a tall pedestal beside the pond.  Since it is beyond the urban area, and even the adjacent Dai village, the Yingjiang Munao grounds has a very rural atmosphere.
    Because it is the prefecture capital, Luxi (also known as Mangshi) hosts Munao in a big way, converting the athletic stadium into the staging grounds.  A large corral is constructed, with gates at two sides and viewing platforms for the spirits at the other two sides.  In the center the Jingpo erect four tall poles, painted with designs symbolizing aspects of their history and economic life.  Small paintings at the top of mountains, for example, represent their mythical Himalayan origin.  The crossed swords separating the two middle pillars remind them of their past battles, both against wild animals and human enemies.
Jingpo type of woodwind
    At the base of the pillars in front stands a large drum, beaten during the dance to signal the pace and rhythm.  To either side of this are gongs mounted in racks.  Behind the pillars sits an orchestra, mostly of horns and woodwinds.  Its members dress in fancy white coats with epaulets, black trousers and Jingpo headscarves.  When the dance begins they play, sometimes with a singer accompanying them, sometimes without.  Occasionally they pause and let an a cappella singer take the microphone or allow a long solo performance.  Usually the soloist plays the flute or a specifically Jingpo instrument comprising a buffalo horn attached to a bamboo flute, which makes a sound similar to the woodwind instrument played in funeral processions.
    Munao lasts four days, with one 90-minute dance in the morning and one in mid-afternoon.  On the third night the bigger host venues like Luxi will present a stage show of songs and dances of both Jingpo and Dai, young troupes and middle-aged ones.  A Lisu dance and the Wa Hair Dance may be included for good
preparing refreshments
Munao dance leader
measure. A great number of Dai attend Munao, dressed in their best brocaded sarongs, their jackets pinned together with filigreed gold butterflies.  A few Dai and Jingpo women take advantage of the event to open stalls by the stadium entrance, selling sarongs, silver ornaments, shoulder bags and Husa swords.  Only a few Dai participate in the dance, though, preferring to watch from the grandstand or outside the corral.
    Explosions and strings of firecrackers announce the beginning of the dance.  The corral is empty, save for the orchestra, which strikes up its first tune.  Then, slowly rocking in a two-step as they advance, the long line of dancers enters through the gate, led by four men in red or gold silk "dragon robes," like the ones presented by the Han brothers at the first Munao.  They hold their swords upright in front of them.  On their heads they wear painted, split-bamboo helmets that symbolize the origin of Munao.  On the sides wild boar tusks are attached, to remind them that the boar cleansed the first festival corral.  Affixed to the top of the helmet is a hornbill beak, in honor of the organizer of the Birds' Munao, from which the Jingpo learned the dance.  As a plume, the helmet uses feathers of the peacock and the hornbill, the singer and emcee at the Birds' Munao.
Munao at Luxi, the prefecture capital
    The line keeps to the corral railing until it has gone all the way around, then begins a more sinuous route in the open space around the poles. Eventually this fills up, too, and near the end of the dance the robed priests simply march back and forth in front of the drum. 
    Hundreds of Jingpo are by now in line, a group of women, then a group of men, with women slightly more in number.  Every variation of the Jingpo sarong is on display, including the tight, red woolen miniskirt version.  Men hold their swords aloft and sling the silver-laden bag over their shoulders.  Women wave fans or kerchiefs as they dance.  Outside the line, women attendants pour cups of rice-beer from bamboo containers to refresh the dancers.  And when the dance concludes, much of the crowd stays in the corral, snapping photos of each other now that they're dressed in their Jingpo best.  This is, after all, a festival that glorifies their ethnic identity, that reminds them no matter how much or how little they have assimilated into the modern world, this is who they all really are.

posts and priests of the Jingpo Munao
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