Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Appreciating the Huayao Dai

                                                  by Jim Goodman

Huayao Dai on the Red River near Mosha
       The most common picture of Yunnan’s Dai minority originates from the prefectures of Xishuangbanna and Dehong.  Tropical, palm-strewn plains, monks and temples, young women in matching blouses and sarongs, with flowers decorating their hair buns, and the Water-Sprinkling Festival of mid-April are the dominant images of the Dai.  Indeed, most of the province’s million-plus Dai are followers of Theravada Buddhism, like their cousins in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.
Dai Sa snack seller on market day
       But a significant portion is not and that includes virtually all the Dai of the Red River valley, which begins in central Yunnan and runs into Vietnam.  These Dai still follow the animism that all Dai followed before any of them converted.  Theravada Buddhism began penetrating southern Yunnan perhaps as early as the 10th century.  By the 12th century important Buddhist temples and communities were already established in Xishuangbanna,  Lincang and Dehong.  Missionaries carried the faith as far north as Jinggu, in central Pu-er Prefecture.  But they never crossed into the Red River valley, where Dai communities had taken up residence many centuries earlier.
       Upper Ailaoshan, however, namely the mountains and valleys of the Red River in Xinping and Yuanjiang Counties, is home to several related sub-groups known collectively as the Huayao Dai.  Huayao means Flowery Waist in English.  Han Chinese coined the term to identify the Dai whose women dressed in highly colorful costumes, with the most resplendent section being that around the waist.
       The Huayao Dai of Xinping County, Upper Ailaoshan comprise three sub-groups—Dai Ya, Dai Sa and Dai Kat—who inhabit the alluvial plains and adjacent mountain slopes.  Where the Red River valley is fairly broad, like around Mosha, the Huayao Dai live on the plain.  Where it is too narrow, like at Manbong further upriver, they built their villages on the slopes, 200 or more meters above the river, constructed hillside terraces and engineered the water from the mountain streams to run through them and their villages as well.  The Ailao Mountains are famous for their ancient irrigated rice terraces and the Huayao Dai, as the oldest residents in the region, were the people who introduced them.
Huayao Dai village, Xinping County         
       Huayao Dai houses are flat-roofed, like cubes on blocks.  They are bunched together with cobblestone lanes between them.  Their rice terraces lie below and beside the settled area.  Usually a bamboo grove stands off to one side of the village and the area between is planted with a variety of vegetable crops and some sugar cane.  With sugar factories at Mosha and Donge this is a popular cash crop and small stands of sugar cane often take up the end zone of a paddy otherwise used for growing rice.
       Besides rice and vegetables and the meat of such domestic animals as pig, duck and chicken, the Huayao Dai also supplement their meals with aquatic animals caught in the rivers, streams and flooded paddies.  Every house has a collection of fishing traps of various shapes and sizes, made from split bamboo.  They don’t often catch big fish, but small eels are abundant and these, usually deep-fried in oil, are a frequent dish at their meals.  A common filler is steamed glutinous rice, eaten with the hand, while chopsticks are used for the other dishes. 
Dai Ya woman in the field
       Compared to the Buddhist Dai, or even the Dai of Lower Ailaoshan, Huayao Dai women are not as attached to their traditional clothing.  Only the older generation still wears it every day.  The younger women, married or not, prefer ordinary Western clothing, dressing up Huayao style only for weddings and big festivals.  The traditional women’s outfit is made from hand-woven cotton, dyed indigo or black, and cut and assembled into several components.  These comprise a shin-length tubular skirt, apron, leggings, bodice, jacket, wide sash-belt and headgear.  Women fold and tuck the skirt in a way that leaves the hem on the left side slightly higher than on the right.  With the Dai Ya and Dai Sa it is black at the top, red in the middle and embroidered all over the lower third, reaches mid-calf and is worn over black leggings.  The black apron hangs down only to the knees, with a wide border of multi-colored, embroidered bands. 
       On the upper part of her body the Dai Ya woman wears a sleeveless bodice, the front embroidered or decorated with silver studs and pendants.  Over this goes a long-sleeved black jacket, open in the front, reaching only to the breasts.  The collar, lapel and bottom third of the jacket are trimmed in colored strips or embroidery.  Around her waist she ties a wide, multi-striped belt, with a small, decorated basket attached to the back. 
typical Huayao Dai mud-brick house
       The Dai Sa women dress in a similar style.  They use basically the same items with a few color variations.  The most readily apparent difference from the Dai Ya outfit is the headgear.  Dai Sa women wrap their hair in a headscarf, the lower part embroidered like the jacket, the ends tasseled and tucked so as to fall loosely over the left ear.  Dai Ya women also wrap their hair buns in scarves, but attach a saucer-shaped, bamboo sun-rain hat.  Its wide brim keeps their faces shaded from the sun.
       On festivals and other special days the Huayao Dai girl loads herself with silver ornaments.  She wears a band of small silver plaques or studs around the base of her headscarf, with three rows of pendants dangling over her forehead.  Her bodice and jacket both will be trimmed with silver studs sewn on in triangular patterns and more rows of the same pendants will hang from the top and bottom of the bodice and the lower half of the jacket.  She nay also don thick silver bangles and enameled silver finger rings.
Dai Ya in the rice fields
Dai Sa in the garden
       Even more flamboyant than these two Huayao styles is that of the young women of the Dai Kat.  Black is the color of the body of the skirt and apron, but the material is usually silk, the border trim augmented with tiny pompoms or rows of sequins.  The leggings are bright patterned silk, striped at the ankles.  The top half of the side-fastened bodice is covered with silver half-globes, while the lower half is covered with dangling silver pendants.  Dai Kat women also wear an open-fronted, long-sleeved jacket, reaching just to the breasts, in two contrasting colors: red and blue, green and orange, red and green, orange and purple, or blue and gold.
baskets worn at the back
       Dai Kat women tie their long hair into a bun that sits on the crown of the head and wrap around it a cloth band with seven or eight rows of silver half-globes.  From all around the bottom edge of this band hang the typical Huayao pendants, same as those on the jacket and bodice.  On top of the hair bun goes the bamboo sun-rain hat.  Differing from the Dai Ya hat, the Dai Kat hat is like a wide cone, similar to the Vietnamese nón lá, but with a broad orange stripe around the edge.
       Perhaps one reason why Dai Kat women like silk and flashy colors is that they only dress in their ethnic style on special occasions.  Getting dressed Huayao style is a complicated procedure even for ordinary everyday clothes, and the simpler outfits of modern times—trousers, blouse and/or jacket—seem to be the choice of the younger Huayao women.
jewelry for the hand of a Huayao Dai
       Yet once a year, during the Street of Flowers Festival in Mosha township, Huayao Dai women of all three sub-groups assemble in a single village, dressed to the hilt in what is one of the most attractive ethnic outfits in all of Yunnan.  The festival—Huajiejie in Chinese—is staged the 13th day of the first lunar month in the typically Dai Ya village of Longhe, about a half hour walk north of Lower Mosha, close to the river. The Street of Flowers is not a traditional Huayao festival.  It was created and sponsored by the Xinping Yi and Dai Autonomous County government, with its debut in 1991.  Besides the host Dai Ya and the Dai Sa and Dai Kat, other ethnic groups in Xinping County—Lahu, Yi and Hani-- participate in the day’s program.
       The stage show doesn’t begin until after lunch, to allow time for government officials and their guests to make the journey from Xinping, which takes over three hours.  Spectators fill the field in front of the stage.  Many are local Dai Ya but the great majority are Han villagers, some of whom make a journey, mostly on foot, of a few hours just to see this spectacle.
       All three Huayao Dai put on shows.  Most of the dancers are young women in their splendid apparel, with one group of little Dai Ya girls and a couple troupes of young men, generally clad all in black, who join the girls for the courtship sets.  The young women perform in groups of five to ten, no solo acts, with traditional Dai percussion accompaniment—drum, gong and cymbals.  Their props are farming and household implements like fishing traps, clay water jugs, spindles, thread winders, whisks, baskets and the Dai Ya sun-rain hat.
Dai Sa dance troupe
       Some stage acts are vignettes of traditional courtship.  In one a group of Dai Kat girls meets a group of boys and they establish a line, attached to listening tubes at each end, between their groups and pretend to communicate over this line.  In the Dai Ya skit girls sit on stools hiding their faces behind their tilted sun-rain hats.  The boys pretend to be looking for them and then, when they spot them on the stools, shine flashlights into their faces to find out who they are.
       Dai Sa girls demonstrate another Huayao courtship custom, feeding their boyfriends a lunch of sticky rice, deep-fried eel, sliced pork and boiled egg in a private picnic for two in a secluded spot in the woods.  The boy does not use his hands, as the girl uses hers to place the food into his mouth. 
Dai Ya courtship custom
       After the stage performances conclude the various ethnic troupes move to the nearby lot and dance there, soon surrounded by spectators. In another neighborhood visitors can observe the re-creation of a Huayao Dai wedding ceremony.  The Xinping County government also arranges for gorgeously dressed Huayao girls to take their male guests to spots in the woods to experience for themselves the private picnic that is a feature of Huayao Dai courtship and was just demonstrated on stage.  After lunch the hostess also takes the guest for a walk to the riverbank and perhaps a stop at one of the other culture stalls, where traditional skills like Dai-style cooking, spinning and weaving, dyeing, tattooing and teeth-blackening are demonstrated.
       With its emphasis on music and dance, the participation of the hill people, and its lack of any authentic ritual or connection with Huayao tradition, the Street of Flowers Festival (the Flowers are the young Dai women) has the essential markings of a government-organized event.  It is less a festival than an Exposition of Huayao Dai Culture.  This accounts for the wedding re-enactment, the picnic for two arrangements with the official guests and the booths where one can learn how to cook eel or blacken one’s teeth.
Dai Kat dance
       Yet this kind of festival has its merits.  Traditional skills, from dancing to tattooing, are recognized for their value, publicized, promoted and perhaps therefore more likely to be preserved.  Public admiration of traditional clothing makes the women proud to wear it and be photographed in it, so more liable to at least hang onto it and even look forward to other occasions to put it on, even if they don’t re-adopt it as everyday clothing.
\Dai Kat girl
                 Beyond the hope that a positive public reaction will help the preservation of traditional culture, this kind of festival has a beneficial effect on both the audience and the performers.  It was, after all, an ethnic minority-led county government that conceived it in the first place.  And one can be pretty sure individual Huayao Dai officials had much to do with the creation of the festival agenda.  Huayao Dai culture is put on free public display and Han villagers come from all around Mosha to view and appreciate it.  They can’t help but go home with a better impression of their ethnic minority neighbors.  As for the Huayao Dai, the stars of the show, they go home knowing their customs and traditions are now better understood by outsiders, with their ethnic pride enhanced and the feeling that their Han neighbors don’t look down on them, but appreciate and respect them.  In the Street of Flowers Festival everybody gains.

young Huayao Dai woman
 for more on the Huayao Dai and Upper Ailaoshan, see my e-book The Terrace Builders

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