Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Discoveries in Dayao County

                                                                            by Jim Goodman

the White Pagoda on a hill next to Dayao City

       Chuxiong, in between Kunming and Dal, is officially a Yi Autonomous Prefecture because the Yi minority nationality, though constituting only around a quarter of the population, resides on more than half the territory.  The Yi are the largest ethnic minority in the province, 11% of Yunnan’s residents, divided into a few dozen sub-groups and five major dialects.  But most travelers skip Chuxiong.  It doesn’t have the spectacular scenery of areas further west, like snow mountains, mighty rivers and picturesque lakes, so the only Yi the average visitor encounters in Yunnan are those in Lijiang and Dali prefectures, the Stone Forest near Kunming and maybe Yuanyang. 
8th century White Pagoda
      The Chuxiong government earlier this century tried to play up the Yi aspect of its territory with the construction of a Yi theme park on the northern side of the capital, exhibits in its fine new museum and promotion of the annual Torch Festival.  Still, that hasn’t resulted in a burst of Yi cultural tourism.  Chuxiong City is easy to access, but Yi villages are far away in the hills, requiring a little time and effort, and in many areas, especially the northwest quarter of the prefecture, quite unspoiled and solidly rooted in their traditional lifestyle.  
        Dayao County is a fine example.  Besides its several Yi sub-groups, who live relatively the same way but dress very differently, the county also features a couple famous religious monuments.  One is the White Pagoda, so named for its color, on top of a small hill next to Dayao city.  It is also known as the Bell Stick Pagoda, for its shape resembles the stick used to strike bells in a Buddhist temple.  Built in the Nanzhao Era in the 8th century, rising from an octagonal platform 18 meters high, it has stood erect through major earthquakes over the centuries, its only scar a meter-long crack near the top.
bronze Confucius in Shiyang
       The other religious monument of note is the huge, 2.5 meter-high bronze image of Confucius, housed in a temple in Shiyang, 36 km west of Dayao.   Made in the early 17th century, it took over nine years to cast.  Weighing around 1000 kg, this statue of the seated sage, crowned and holding a tablet, flanked by dragons, is the only extant bronze Confucius on the mainland of China.  Shiyang means Stone Ram, named after something like that found when digging a great salt well in the town many centuries ago.  The town lies along a narrow river with Buddhist and Daoist shrines on the slopes of the south bank hill, some in caves, with odd statues like a scowling, bearded man ripping open his abdomen to reveal a Buddha inside and a clean-shaven man splitting open his face to show another one underneath. 
Daoist sculpture, Shiyang
       Shiyang is actually more of a religious center than Dayao itself.  Aside from the temples around the White Pagoda, the only other religious monument is the late Qing Dynasty six-tiered pagoda on the hill at the south entrance to the elevated plain around Dayao.  The city still had a lot of old wooden, two and three-story tile-roofed wooden buildings when I first visited it over twenty years ago, friendly inhabitants, mostly Han, an active artistic scene of sculptors, painters and silk carpet-weavers, all yearning to attract foreign appreciation and business.  Bars and entertainment venues were few and social life revolved around private visits among friends. 
       On Sunday market day this all changed.  Han villagers from the plain and Yi from the hills swarmed into town.  They came on foot or bicycle, led or rode ponies, pulled carts, pushed wheelbarrows or took tractor-trailers.  They set up stalls in the main market area and along New Road, selling grain, fruits, walnuts (the county is famous for these, especially the soft-shelled variety from Tiesuo, northwest of the city), cloth, shoes, mountain herbs, silver ornaments, tools and crockery. 
Yi in Dayao for market day
Santai Yi girl
       Most sellers and shoppers were Han, but the Yi formed a sizable percentage and their traditionally dressed women brightened up the crowd scene.  Most of the Yi were from villages to the east and south of the city, the females dressed in long-sleeved, pastel-colored blouses, black vests, black turbans, plain trousers and a short, thick apron embroidered with big flowers.  Some may also wear a goatskin vest, a characteristic garment of Yi in Chuxiong prefecture.
       Both men and women wear these. They make them from the skins of two goats, expertly stitched together, that reach to the knees, hang open in the front and, though worn all year round, last for several years.  In the cooler months they tend to wear the fur side against the body and the leather side out.  When it rains they reverse the vest and wear the fur side out.
Santai on market day
       A few of the Yi will be from sub-groups north or west of the city.  The most colorful outfit belongs to the Yi women around Santai, to the west.  They wear the brightest blouses in the area, appliquéd with many rows and bands elaborately embroidered with flowers and arabesques.  They accent this with several long silk aprons in front, of graduated sizes, different hues and patterns.  This is worn over ordinary trousers and shoes and usually topped, incongruously, with an olive green army cap. 
       Santai lies along a junction of two streams west of Tanhua Mountain, surrounded by high hills.  On the 28th day of the 3rd lunar month Yi in this area celebrate Fuzhuangjie, the Dressing Up Festival, also known as the Yi Fashion Show.  On this occasion they show off the best traditional clothes they own, gather in Santai town for an all-day market scene, then go to nearby Guola village on the hill above at night for several hours of singing and dancing.
Tanhua market day
       Yi from Tanhua district, directly north of Dayao, may also be in Dayao for market day, but in fewer numbers, for Tanhua also holds its market day on Sunday.  And while there may be a few Han merchants from Dayao and Shiyang in attendance, here the crowd is overwhelmingly local Yi.  The village lies on the southern slope of a ridge, dappled with peach and pear trees.  Just beyond the lower part of the village are a small cave and a modest waterfall. 
       Tanhua houses are typical of rural Yunnan, made from mud-brick and wood, with tiled roofs, two stories, on stone foundations.  The interior walls are often stone, the floor earthen and the wooden doors and shutters might feature carvings.  The people raise wheat, maize, beans, buckwheat and potatoes and tend goats, the main meat dish in the area. 
Yi at his doorstep, Suimo village
       Higher than Dayao, the weather is always cooler and one local Yi custom I learned on a fairly cold, drizzly, pre-market morning when invited inside to “come sit by the fire a while.”  The Yi here always keep live coals in the hearth so that they can get a fire flaming quickly when they come back inside.   My gracious hostess served me tea and warm, unleavened wheat bread until the rain ceased and people had begun arriving for the market.
       Tanhua market day differs from those around Dali or in Ailaoshan, where the great majority of the people in attendance are women.  Here, as in other market day venues I witnessed in the county, as many men show up as women.  Trails lead out of Tanhua in several directions and a couple villages are visible from the upper end of Tanhua.  But many of those who come hail from places three or four hours away and leave home as soon as it’s light enough to see the path. 
       Unlike Tanhua, where the women seem to compete with each other to see who can wear the most gorgeous outfit, the Yi in Tanhua market were not quite so inclined.  They have a traditional ensemble that is at least as attractive as Santai’s, but most of them rarely wear more than a few elements of it for market day.  For sure this will include the goatskin vest, but also, like the vest used by both sexes, intricately embroidered, fringed and heavily tasseled shoulder bags.  They are fairly large and their bright colors contrast sharply against the dark goat fur of the vest over which they are draped.
Tanhua Yi shoulder bag 
       The embroidery on every shoulder bag is unique, and they can be of any color, but the overall design follows an ancient tradition, in which the patterns and their arrangement have symbolic, religious significance.  The central motif represents the sky god, the paramount deity in local Yi religion.  He is the first god worshiped in any ceremony and his permission must be sought before the Yi honor any other deity in their pantheon, which includes gods of the mountains, the forests, hunting, autumn, grain and marriage.
       The blocks and patterns around the central motif represent the yin-yang principle.  Lines that divide the inner patterns from the outer ones are known as tiger paths.  Various trees, stars and other motifs fill the area beyond the tiger paths.  Several tassels hang on each side where the strap meets the bag and a long fringe, of one or several colors, is attached to the bottom.  Great variation exists in the patterns, colors and motifs deployed and some women achieve a high degree of artistic talent making them.  Since the bags are always in public view, with people constantly comparing and evaluating them, reputations for fine embroidery get established.  One can ask who is the best embroiderer in the village and be given a name at once.
       To embroider their bags the women use the cross-stitch style, in which the motifs consist of tiny x’s.  For their long-sleeved, side-fastened, hip-length jackets the decorative strips use a more pictorial style, with rows of flowers, whorls and arabesques, similar to the Santai style.  They can be just as lavishly embellished as the latter, though the dominant background color is usually red or blue rather than golden yellow.
Yi woman in Tanhua
the Yi style in Tanhua
       The main stylistic difference from the Santai outfit is the combination bib-apron worn over the jacket, with large, fist-sized flowers embroidered on the lower part.  An ornamented silver chain holds the top part around the neck, while a belt, with several embroidered cloth tabs attached, fastens it in the back.  Rather than an army cap the women wear black turbans lined with rows of silver studs in front and the tail ends elaborately embroidered and fringed at the ends.  They tie it in a way that shows off the ends and add a few thread tassels above the right ear.  In the village environment of shades of brown and green, the traditional Tanhua outfit stands out in resplendent contrast.
       While the entire ensemble is not part of everyday wearing apparel, it is all but obligatory for major public events like weddings and festivals.  Besides important Han events like New Year and Qing Ming, Yi villages in the county also stage their own Torch Festival programs.  But one event—Chahuajie-- draws Yi from all over the area to Tanhuashan, the 3657-meter high mountain just above Tanhua village.  Held the 8th day of the 2nd lunar month, its name translates as Putting Up Flowers, honoring the ancient Yi heroine Miyilu and is also celebrated in other parts of the prefecture by other Yi sub-groups, albeit with a slightly different story behind it.
belt tabs at the back of the apron
       Long ago a powerful, wicked lord kept demanding young Yi women for his depraved pleasure until the brave Miyilu offered herself in marriage, intending to slay him in the process.  According to the Yi in the hills close to Chuxiong, Miyilu killed the tyrant on the wedding night and fled.  But his relatives caught up with her and murdered her beside a white camellia tree.  Her blood stained the roots and the camellia has been red ever since.  The Tanhua version has her offering to marry him while pinning a poisonous azalea flower to her hair.  She asks the lord to join him in a drink, secretly poisons the liquor with the azalea and when they imbibe they both die.
       In commemoration the Yi mount azaleas and camellias on their doorways and then assemble in a grove on the slope of Tanhuashan.  There they witness rites conducted by their bimaw (ritual specialist), watch a dramatic re-enactment of the tale, a different Tanhua girl playing the part of Miyilu every year, then make flower wreaths, break up into groups for feasting and in the evening indulge in singing and dancing, featuring boys playing the ‘moon guitar’ and girls singing in high-pitched, undulating voices, until long past midnight.  It’s a welcome break from their ordinary life of farming and herding and a proud re-affirmation of their Yi identity.

the traditional style in Tanhua
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Monday, April 13, 2015

When It’s Market Day in Yunnan

                                                           by Jim Goodman 

Hani villagers en route to Majie market day, Yuanyang County
       The problem with most towns in the southern half of Yunnan is that they are basically uninteresting in themselves, consisting primarily of drab, box-like, concrete buildings.  They may have an attractive park or temple, and perhaps an old-fashioned Dai neighborhood to wander through, but not much else to maintain interest. But on market day everything changes.  The otherwise boring town bubbles with excitement.
       Market day (gangai or ganji in the Yunnan dialect) is a periodic event common to most county seats, as well as many townships up in the hills.  Some places host them weekly, others every four, five or six days.  (Check the link to yunnanexplorer.com for a complete schedule.)  At such times not only does the central market fill with buyers and sellers, the commercial activity spills out into the adjacent streets and lanes.  In some small towns market day stalls fill the only road going through, resulting in an often incredible traffic jam all afternoon.
Miao examining batik cloth
Laomeng Sunday market
       Villagers from the surrounding plains and nearest mountain ranges swarm into town, some leaving their homes at sunrise in order to arrive at mid-morning, when everything's still fresh.  They carry their goods, perhaps including their afternoon rice, in baskets of split bamboo, suspended on a carrying pole, if Dai, or slung on the back, if from the hills.  Others lead ponies or mules laden with full saddle baskets.  Unless they rent space in the central marketplace, they will look for a convenient empty spot on a nearby lane, drop their loads and set up shop.  Most markets, though, do have designated areas for the poultry, the pigs, for keeping the ponies, etc.  The rest of the streets are open for any kind of business.
Wa women in Gengma
       The phenomenon is not restricted to the southern counties of the province.  Some in the north, such as the ones around Dali, have long been tourist attractions.  Generally speaking, though, market days in the northern counties attract only one, at most two, ethnic minorities.  Bai dominate around Dali Prefecture and further north, Yi in Chuxiong Prefecture, Lisu in upper Nujiang, Naxi in Lijiang and Weixi. 
       In contrast, the populations in the south, particularly along the international boundaries, are ethnically more mixed, thus making market day more interesting and colorful, for the crowds, mostly women, tend more often to wear their ethnic clothing.  Zhangfeng's market in Dehong, for instance, draws Dai, Jingpo, De'ang, Lisu and Burmese.  At the other end of Yunnan in Jinping, market day attracts Hani, two kinds of Yao, Miao, Dai and Yi, plus Vietnamese, Yao and Giay from over the border.
Dai woman embroidering in Gengma market 
Yunnan has long had the market day tradition.  19th century French explorers made use of it to replenish their provisions as they trekked across the province.  The practice fell into abeyance after 1949, but its revival was encouraged from the onset of the Reform Era in 1979.  Farmers now had the incentive to produce surpluses.  And as agricultural production has expanded in the time since, so has the rural transportation network.  Mountain roads are constantly being improved.  Minibuses add new shuttle routes every year.  And more farmers own tractor-trailers, used to haul people as well as goods to the market.
       Trade is the primary attraction.  People pile their garden produce, jungle herbs, grain, firewood, animal parts, costume components or whatever into their baskets and take the sometimes long and hilly trail to town, hoping to sell the contents and replace them with something unavailable or out of stock at home.  But that may not be their only activity.  If they sell out early they will take time looking around, checking what else is for sale, at what price, especially if it's something they might be able to grow, make or find themselves.  Some even walk all that way precisely to just look around, bearing no load of goods to sell and bringing no money to purchase anything.  They hadn't anything special to do back in the village, they can get some ideas for their future maybe, and anyway market day is always pleasantly diverting.
checking deerskins in Zhangfeng, Dehong
       Certainly socializing is part of the action. Relatives and old friends from outlying villages may meet, take a break from shopping, and dine together at one of the noodle stands.  Or they could make new friends by taking an empty seat at a table with other diners or joining the drinkers at one of the places selling liquor.  Neighbors make the journey in groups.  Young men scout the scene for attractive young women, for courtship in village societies often begins with an introduction at the market.
       Aware of this, the young women dress their best.  Dai girls pin flowers to their hair.  Miao girls wear newly embroidered clothes.  Yao girls don their heavy silver jewelry.  For most minority women in the southern counties aesthetic standards are still within the tribal parameters.  They feel the most attractive outfit they can wear is their finest traditional costume.  At many of these market venues ethnic minority women set up stalls selling traditional jewelry, materials for making ethnic apparel, components or even whole outfits, for those too busy to make their own.
medicinal herbs in Yuanyang
For the visitor this is a bonus and makes the day replete with color and beauty.  Yet it is also an indicator of the strength of local custom and conservatism in the particular minority concerned.  Nowadays one shouldn't expect too many men to dress in ethnic style.  Except for Tibetans in the northwest, some Hua or Black Lisu in the west, older Jingpo and Wa men in the southwest, Aini in Menglian and Yao in the southeast, men tend to favor urban styles or military surplus. 
       In traditional societies the men are more in contact with the outside world, more likely to be influenced by the opinions they hear as a result, and more likely to want to move anonymously in unfamiliar environments, not calling attention to themselves by, for instance, wearing ethnic clothing.  The women, by contrast, move out of their immediate environment far less often and so are more likely to retain their traditional esthetic sense.
Lahu girls in Menglian
Hani girl in Jinping
Clues to the strength of tradition then will come from the women.  In relatively old-fashioned villages the middle-aged and older women will dress ethnic style, as will perhaps a good portion of the younger married women.  Mothers carry their babies on their backs in cloth harnesses (sometimes elaborately embroidered), with the child in a traditional baby's cap.  But the true indicator is how young the females are who dress in the ethnic style.  The stronger the ethnic tradition is, the more teen-aged and primary school girls will put on their traditional costumes.  And the more local minorities prefer their ethnic style the more likely market day will feature tables and stalls run by minority women selling traditional costumes, components and jewelry.  If they are selling other kinds of goods they may engage in embroidery work or spinning thread while they tend their stalls.
Yi clothing stall in Yuanyang
       With this in mind, a traveler can choose which minority seems to be the most interesting, find out who they are and where they live.  In some cases you won’t learn by asking the minority women themselves, for they may not speak Chinese.  But the shopkeepers and minibus drivers probably know or can find out for you.  There may be mini-buses going to the places they come from and you can decide when to pay a call.  Or if they came to market day on foot they may live close enough to the town that you need but a short hike to visit them.  They may even invite you themselves (which has happened to me quite a lot) for your own personal encounter, particularly if you are alone, to enjoy the conviviality of a new friendship at their home.
       Much can be deduced about the area's economy by observing market day activity.  Urban vendors sell prepared food, ready-made clothing, metal containers, farm tools and other items not produced in the countryside.  What the rural folks bring to sell tells the visitor something of their lifestyle and their role in the local economy.  The vegetables mountain folk offer may differ from those grown in the valleys.  If only the hill people are hawking firewood, bamboo, jungle herbs, etc., that means valley people depend on them for such items.  If the hill folks are buying rice in autumn or winter, it means they don't cultivate it.  If they are selling rice, that means they’ve produced a surplus.  If they've walked all this way to sell something that costs but a few yuan for the entire contents of their baskets, they are obviously poor people.
Yao and Hani in the Jinping market
Ethnic diversity is the most attractive feature of market days for a visiting traveler.  In the south and southwest, besides the Han, the Dai populate the plains, while in the southeast the Zhuang replace the Dai.  Two or more sub-groups of colorful Miao and black-clad Yao, plus the nearest branch of Yi, attend the markets in Wenshan prefecture, mainly selling vegetables and jungle produce.  The Zhuang sell vegetables, grain, fish and fish traps.
       In the south and southwest the Dai are the grain merchants and run most food stalls.  Xishuangbanna has three weekly markets; Thursdays in Xiding, drawing mainly Aini and Bulang, and Sundays in Menghun, with local Dai joined by Aini, Ake (a colorful sub-branch), Bulang and Lahu from the hills, and Mengman in the west, with mainly Dai and Aini.  Menglian's market day attracts very traditional and colorful Lahu, Aini and Wa from the hills, while Menga's, on the Myanmar border two days later, draws the same folks, except Aini, from both sides.  In Gengma, one of the largest markets in the southwest, Dai and Han join Wa, Yi and Lahu, where all but the Han dress traditional style.  And in Mengding, Wa and De’ang join two kinds of Dai.
Hani in Yuanyang for market day
       In lower Ailaoshan, the four counties--Honghe, Luchun, Yuanyang and Jinping--between the Red River and the Vietnam border, the institution of market day is at its most developed.  Yuanyang hosts it every four days, the other three county seats every six days.  In addition, every major township holds its own market day and by now enjoys regular minibus service to and from the county seat. 
       The Hani are the dominant mountain people, with a dozen or more sub-groups.  Branches of the Yi, Miao and Yao are next most common, while the Zhuang and Dai here are largely terrace-farmers, too.  Ailaoshan Dai are animist, not Buddhist, except for a small group in Jinping County, and often travel from the plains up into the mountains for market day activities.  Successful surplus production and improved transportation links make market day in this area a real spectacle.  And at every venue several stalls will sell Hani or Yi jackets, trousers, embroidered belts, sashes, silver jewelry, Miao batik cloth, etc., for most Ailaoshan minority women own several traditional outfits.
Yi on guitar in Yuanyang
       Certain Ailaoshan residents, mostly men, have become professional market-goers.  Familiar with the buying and selling prices of commodities from one venue to another, they tour the townships every week, buying from one and selling for a profit at another a day or two later.  Others, often women, sell the same product moving from one market day venue to the next.  In Jinping County, for example, Hongtou Yao women start at Adebo’s market day, north of Jinping city, move next day to Jinping, the following day to Mengla and the fourth day to Nafa, on the Vietnam border.
       For the rural folks of southern Yunnan, market day gets better every year. No wonder it’s still a popular institution   It’s like a regular working holiday, with lots to see, much to learn, many items to trade, sometimes music to hear as stall-tenders bring along a flute or guitar to play while they are there, or a drunken lute-player wanders through the crowd.  There are old friends to meet and new friends and contacts to make.  Even the younger generation is enthusiastic and youth make up a large proportion of those in attendance.  For not only can they make a little money through their participation, they may even find a suitable marriage partner, one with whom to set up house and field, produce more than the family can consume, and take the surplus to town on market day, where their new life actually began.
going home after market day in Yuanyang

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            for more on Ailaoshan markets and people se my e-book The Terrace Builders

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Lạng Sơn, Vietnam’s Gateway to China

                                                               by Jim Goodman

the city of Lạng Sơn
       Of northeastern Vietnam’s three border provinces, Lng Sơn is the most easily accessible and least appreciated.  Just 154 km from Hanoi, on a good level road, the trip to Lạng Sơn city takes just over two hours.   The last hour or so the road flanks picturesque hills, but nowhere in the province do these hills rise to heights like its neighbor provinces Hà Giang and Cao Bằng.  Thus, guidebooks downplay Lạng Sơn, giving it little attention other than as a city on the way to the border crossing into China, which is just 18 km away near Đồng Đăng.  But the city and its environs offer enough attractions to make it worth a stopover or even a separate excursion out of Hanoi when you’re not crossing the border.
         Thanks to cross-border trade, Lạng Sơn has thrived since the normalization of relations between China and Vietnam.   Chinese goods dominate the markets and virtually all of its buildings date from after the 1979 conflict, which resulted in the destruction of nearly every building in the city.  Only the remnant of one of the old Nguyễn Dynasty city gates remains at the south end.  Lying along a bend of the Kỳ Cùng River, most of the commercial and residential quarters lie north of the bend, while administrative buildings are largely south.  The old French quarter used to lie here, but it was destroyed in 1979.   A couple of hills jut up from the flat land of the city while bigger hills dominate the surroundings.
phallic stalagmite in Tam Thanh Cave
altar to Quan Âm and other deities
       The city basically lies on a north-south axis, with its main market, Kỳ Lừa, lying in the northern quarter. In its northwest suburb, behind a fancy entrance gate, is the Tam Thanh cave, the biggest of three in the vicinity, with an elaborate altar to Quan Âm and other deities just inside the mouth.  Several paths from here lead to other small shrines inside niches of the cave walls.  One path leads to an opening with a view of the countryside, another to a pavilion on the slope of the mountain and all of them converge at an underground pool, featuring a very phallic stalagmite jutting up from the dark water.  Another cave, Nhị Thanh, lies just south and is even more impressive, featuring a 600-meter walk along a subterranean stream.  Stalactites force a lot of ducking and dodging along the route, which is also graced by a 20-meter high waterfall.
NàngTô Thị Waiting for Her Husband
Outside Tam Thanh cave a path leads to the top of Thô Thị Hill, affording a great view of the city and the red roofs of its buildings. The hill gets its name from the interesting rock formation called Nàng Thô Thị Waiting for her Husband, which resembles a woman carrying her baby, standing alone on the ridge.  Lạng Sơn residents venerate this rock by leaving offerings of flowers and incense.  Perhaps they identify with the theme suggested by the rock.  For devotees it symbolizes all the women who have waited for husbands to return from one of the many wars that have plagued the country’s history.
       On another section of the same hill lie the remnants of a 16th century Mạc Dynasty citadel, one of the few physical vestiges in the country of a little-known period of Vietnamese history.  In 1428, following final success in expelling Chinese forces after a twenty-year occupation of Vietnam, Lê Lợi, a Thanh Hoá landowner who led the insurrection, founded the Lê Dynasty.  Though it was to be the longest running dynasty in the country’s history, not officially ended until 1787, its kings were rarely in control.  Lê Lợi died five years after establishing it.  His successor was just ten years old at his accession and died in mysterious circumstances nine years later.  The next king was barely a year old when crowned and when he reached 17 his brother murdered him and usurped the throne.  He in turn lasted but eight months and then the last of Lê Lợi’s veterans overthrew him and installed Lê Thánh Tông as king.
remains of a Mạc Dynasty citadel above Lạng Sơn
       He proved to be the most successful monarch in the entire Lê Dynasty.  Taking over in 1460 at the age of 18, he led the conquest of the Chăm state of Vijaya, opening the way for Vietnamese migration to south central Vietnam.  A dedicated Confucian, he promulgated a law code that was to survive until the early Nguyễn Dynasty replaced it, held regular examinations aimed at recruiting government officials, promoted literature and commissioned national histories. 
       Unfortunately, kings in those times rarely lived to an advanced age.  Perhaps because he worked himself too hard, Lê Thánh Tông died in 1497 at the age of 57.  His very capable son Lê Hiến Tông ruled but six years and died when just 43.  After his demise the Dynasty basically ran out of good rulers, doomed by the fatal flaw underlying all dynastic successions—that the son is not always the equal of the father.  His own son and successor died after six months and the next four monarchs were depraved, capricious, murderous teenaged tyrants with, thanks to Lê Thánh Tông’s centralization, absolute power.  All of them suffered violent deaths as factions at Court, basically pitting the Red River Delta officials against the Thanh Hoá families that had supported Lê Lợi, worked behind the scenes to promote their favorites.
Thất Khê
One of these schemers was Mạc Đặng Dung, from a village in Hải Dương, who won appointment to the Royal Guards under one of these young kings and rose steadily in the hierarchy while remaining keenly aware of the scandals at Court and the subsequent deterioration of conditions in the countryside.  In 1527 he decided the country had had enough of Lê Court shenanigans, arrested the current king and founded his own dynasty.  Those Lê family members he could not capture escaped to Laos with their Thanh Hoá supporters, primarily the Trịnh and Nguyễn clans, to plot their return to power.
       The Mạc Dynasty ruled until 1592, when the Lê loyalists captured the capital and the reigning Mạc king.  Though the victors reinstated the Lê king’s legitimacy, they did not yet wipe out the Mạc.  The latter maintained its own claimants to the throne and remained strong in the east and northeast.  It was around this time that the Mạc regime constructed the citadel in Lạng Sơn.  Later in the 17th century they lost Lạng Sơn and retreated to Cao Bằng, where they survived until 1677.
gate to the Holy Mothers temple in Đồng Đăng
       Lạng Sơn residents are unlikely to know anything about the Mạc period of the city’s history, but are well aware of 20th century Lạng Sơn history.  The road to Cao Bằng is the famous Highway 4, site of the first significant Việt Minh advances against the French colonialists.   The French had built a fort at Đông Khê, south of Cao Bằng and north of the Lạng Sơn provincial border.  In September 1950 the Việt Minh captured it, prompting a French evacuation from Cao Bằng province.  Shortly afterwards they also captured Thất Khê, inside Lạng Sơn province and used it as a base of operations for expelling the French from this province as well.
Tày ethnic minority
       The first stop north of Lạng Sơn on Highway 4 is the border town of Đồng Đăng, a prosperous-looking place with new buildings in the Franco-Viet style and a large and lavishly decorated temple to the Holy Mothers.  It’s not the actual crossing point, which is eight km northeast at Tôn Thanh, a nondescript place with a big entry gate and the adjacent Friendship Village, basically rows of tents hawking Chinese goods like clothing, utensils, kitchen ware, appliances, cell phones, DVD players, radios, etc.
       Just at the northern edge of Đồng Đăng, though, a sign reading “Border Zone” points to a path between the hills flanking the road that leads to another post, hidden behind the promontories, with big warehouses and Chinese signs.  Vietnamese porters pick up large packages here and carry them down the rocky paths to the road, where motorcycles wait to take the goods into town. 
Nùng in the countryside
        The road north passes by steep limestone hills on its eastern side and the gently flowing Kỳ Cùng River on the western side, featuring a number of water wheels along the banks.  The towns and most of the roadside villages along this and other provincial highways are Vietnamese, but the province is also home to the Dao ethnic minority in the hills and Tày and Nùng in the valleys.  The Dao are rather exclusive, rarely venturing into the cities, even at festival time or market days.  The Tày and the Nùng are both members of the Tai-Kedai linguistic group and in China are considered sub-groups of the Zhuang. 
       Tày and Nùng dialects are similar, as are their lifestyles.  They differ in various domestic and religious customs and especially in appearance.  The Tày women dress in dark colors, mostly black, with little or no embellishments like embroidery or jewelry.  Nùng women wear black trousers, with a thin white strip along the sides, but their jackets are quite colorful, with checked and plaid patterns, side-fastened and long-sleeved, similar in style but no two jackets exactly alike.  The same is true of their headscarves:  tied in the same manner but always with individual cloth patterns.
Nùng in the city
       The jacket material they buy in the market and stitch together back home.  They live in single story houses on the ground of mud-brick walls and tiled roofs.  The interiors are full of split-bamboo storage baskets, spinning wheels, thread winders and a four-shaft loom.  Winter is the weaving season, when women make cloth for their trousers, bags, pillowcases and blankets.
       Nùng villages lie just several kilometers east of Lạng Sơn in Cao Lộc district, in valleys among the rolling hills.  Being so close, the Nùng are frequent visitors to the city, especially on market days, held every fifth day.  They comprise a noticeable percentage of both buyers and sellers, generally hawking crops grown on their farms and purchasing household goods and maybe grain.  And when they’re not shopping they’re window-shopping and exploring the city, not confining themselves to the immediate market areas.
bringing in baskets for sale at market day
Market day begins early and is not entirely confined to Kỳ Lừa, for the city has two other, smaller venues.  Kỳ Lừa is the most crowded, though, and the first stop for ethnic minorities in attendance.  The activity only begins to subside in late afternoon and the presence of so many Nùng women, often in groups of three to six, makes it a memorable day.  For a traveler, the only occasion more interesting is Lạng Sơn’s annual Kỳ Lừa Festival.
       Beginning the 22nd day of the first lunar month and running six days, the festival honors Thân Công Tài, the 17th century Lê military officer who founded Kỳ Lừa market.  The main venues are the Tả Phù Temple behind the market, dedicated to this man, and Kỳ Cùng Temple, sited at the bend in the river that divides the northern and southern sections of the city.  Devotees begin bringing offerings, like trays of glazed roast pig, to these temples the day before the festival starts.
food offering at Kỳ Cùng Temple 
       Besides religious activities, the festival’s highlights are the processions between Tả Phủ and Kỳ Cùng Temples and the costumed dances in the streets and squares along the route.  Elaborately carved red and gold sedan chairs carry the temple deities from one temple to another, borne by both Vietnamese and Nùng men, dressed in ceremonial silk garments.  Preceding them are lines of women holding the sacred guardian weapons that normally stand inside the temples in front of the altars.  Others hoist Buddhist flags.  And at the very front a band of musicians playing drums, gongs, cymbals, lutes and viols leads the line, their volume augmented by an amplifier and speakers mounted on a bike pushed alongside them.
Tày and Nùng performers at Kỳ Lừa market
       On the first day the gods of Tả Phủ go to visit Kỳ Cùng Temple, while on the last day the Kỳ Cùng deities return the call with a procession to Tả Phủ.  Near the temple before the processions begin, and at various places on the route, traditional dance performances entertain the crowds.  Nùng men put on a show with three dancers wearing fierce red demon masks. Tày men follow with lion dances and a Vietnamese troupe performs a dragon dance. 
       Besides the dances, the procession itself is entertainment, with participants dressed in utterly gorgeous clothes.  Proceeding normally in a stately manner, at major intersections the line breaks into a quick-time figure-8 loop and then resumes its ordinary pace.  All along the way shopkeepers have erected candlelit altars with burning incense, laden with offerings to the passing deities.  These are mainly liquor and food items, cooked, raw and packaged.  The gods bless these offerings, as they did the roast pigs, fruits and glutinous rice cakes presented at their altars, and return the offerings to the people.  And when the processions are over and the dance costumes put away the celebrants are then free to indulge in the last act of the festival program—enjoying the blessings of the deities in the form of a big feast and a fine round of drinks.
the annual Kỳ Lừa Festival procession

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