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 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

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

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