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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