Saturday, August 22, 2015

Beyond the Descending Dragon: Vietnam’s Northeast Coast

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

typical scenery of Bái Tử Long Bay 
       Of all of Vietnam’s scenic attractions, the World Heritage site of H Long Bay in Qung Ninh, the northeastern province bordering China, is the best known.  A boat ride through the bay, with views of its picturesque islets popping up from the sea in a thousand shapes and sizes, plus stops at island caverns, lagoons and floating villages, is practically obligatory for any first visit to Vietnam.  Even those travelers who don’t go there know what it looks like from the advertising posters at tourist agencies throughout the country.
one of the inhabited islands in Bái Tử Long bay
       Certainly H Long Bay deserves its reputation.  Even on sunless, drizzly days it can still be enchanting.  But it is not the only attraction in the province.  Just east of H Long lies Bái Tử Long Bay, studded with equally photogenic islets, pretty ports and larger islands with villages and beaches.  Beyond Bái Tử Long, more islands, generally larger, lie off the serrated coast.  And at the end is the long, thin island of Trà Cổ, with its unique fishing vessels, and the pleasant and prosperous border town of Móng Cái.
       Hạ Long in English means ‘Descending Dragon’ and refers to the mythical origin of the bay and its islands.  According to local belief, a celestial dragon descended to the earth at this bay and left many eggs.  These hatched to become the myriad islands off the Quảng Ninh coast.  Then the dragon said goodbye to her offspring and departed from the bay next to Hạ Long, called Bái Tử Long, which in English means ‘Dragon Parting from Offspring.’  Geologists, of course, have another explanation, attributing the formation of the islands to tectonic shifts that raised and lowered the seabed 300 million years ago.
limestone islets, Bái Tử Long Bay
       Bái Tử Long Bay’s boundaries begin halfway between Hạ Long city and Cẩm Phả, a port servicing the coal mining industry in the hills behind it.  While this town is not interesting to anyone not involved with the coal business, a few of the islands out in the bay from here, like Cống Đông, Ngọc Vừng and Quan Lạn are popular getaway destinations for Vietnamese tourists.  Quan Lạn Island holds a summer festival commemorating a famous naval victory at Hồn Gai, just east of Hạ Long city, in the third Mongol War in 1288, when the Vietnamese sank all the Mongol supply ships.  This forced the invaders to evacuate Vietnam and get annihilated on the way out.
island temple, Bái Tử Long Bay
       Temples to the Trần Dynasty heroes who beat the mighty Mongols abound in the area.  One at Cửa Ông, the next port east of Cẩm Phả, honors them ceremonially twice a year.  But the Mongol Wars are not the area’s only link to Vietnam’s history.  Just across the water from Cửa Ông is the large, wedge-shaped Cái Bầu Island, which takes up half the area of the Vân Đồn district archipelago.  Cái Rồng, 7 km from the bridge at Cửa is its largest port.  In 1149 the Lý Dynasty Court established Văn Đồn as the country’s center for international maritime commerce.
leaving Hòn Gai port
       Cái Rồng may have existed already back then, but it was just one of many wharves at numerous locations along the shores.  Ships also put in at docks on some of the other islands in the bay.  Most of the products traded here at that time were luxury items:  rhino horn, ivory, pearls, gold, silver, copper, celadon porcelain, silk and brocade fabrics.  Ships called at Vân Đồn from southern China and from as far south as Indonesia.
       In later centuries the Vân Đồn archipelago’s commercial importance declined with the shift of maritime trade to new ports like Phố Hiến and Hải Phòng.  In the late 18th century the area became infested with Chinese pirates, who found that the many islands provided natural shelters for their bases.  They operated all along the coast of Vietnam and in the 1780s forged alliances with the leaders of the Tây Sơn Revolt.  The Tây Sơn regime’s deal gave them a veneer of respectability for their job, which was basically raiding and plundering.  In return for official protection and titles like Marquis, Governor, Commander, King Who Pacifies the Waves and King of the Eastern Seas, pirate chiefs pledged loyalty to the regime and turned over their takings to government agents in exchange for a hefty percentage of the haul’s value.
Cái Rồng port
       They also comprised the bulk of Tây Sơn naval forces deployed against the rival Nguyễn forces.  Eventually the latter, aided by French advisors, built up a more formidable navy, helping them win final victory in 1802.  Most of the pirate chiefs stayed loyal to the Tây Sơn until the end, but afterwards left the area and the coast of Quảng Ninh remained free of pirates.
       Today the ancient wharves that punctuated the entire coast of Cái Bầu Island have disappeared, but Cái Rồng is still an active port.  The harbor is about 1.5 km from the business quarter, stretching a few hundred meters between hills at either end.  The oddly shaped limestone islets that characterize the scenery of both Hạ Long and Bái Tử Long Bays stand much closer to the shore than at Hạ Long city, providing a pretty backdrop for the array of boats anchored near the piers.
boats in the Cái Rồng harbor
       Some of these are passenger boats that take people to Hồn Gai or one of the islands in the bay.  Most are fishing vessels of one sort or another, some with sails and masts, others entirely motorized.  Some have a long pole attached to the front that swings out to one side, with a net attached to trawl the seas to catch the fish. Several serve as houseboats as well and a couple of big boats stay anchored in front of nearby islands and are floating restaurants.
       Throughout the harbor area sampans serve as taxi-ferries to and from the floating restaurants or take tourists on scenic runs through the immediate, islet-studded area.  Others take fresh produce and packaged goods to customers aboard the bigger boats.  A row of three or four-story buildings—shop houses and modest hotel-restaurants—lines the street along the piers, facing the bay.  A few places start offering bia hơi refreshments in the late afternoon, just as the setting sun begins enriching all the colors in the harbor and lights start appearing on the bigger boats. Seafood dominates the restaurant menus, especially Bái Tử Long specialties like sea worms, prawns, squid, sea snails and oysters.
taking goods to the people aboard the boats
       From Cái Rồng it is possible to arrange boat trips to some of the bigger islands in the bay, but regular ferry services link Hồn Gai with Quan Lạn, with possible stops at Cống Đông, famous for its Trần Dynasty architectural relics near the port of Thắng Lợi, or Ngọc Vừng, one of the rare, non-limestone. earthen islands in the area, and the site of ruined fortresses from the Mạc and Nguyễn Dynasties.  Pristine sand beaches mark long sections of the coastlines of these and of Quan Lạn Island further on.  Just off the northern tip of Quan Lạn lies Minh Châu Island, opposite Côn Trụi Island and its protected area for nesting sea turtles.  Further out to sea, past the boundaries of Bái Tử Long Bay, lies Cô Tô Island, famous for its coral reefs.  In short, options abound here for any traveler ready for leisurely, interesting island hopping.
the pier area at Ngọc Vừng Island
       Sea turtles make their nests and lay eggs every year from May to July on a steep sandy bank on Côn Trụi Island, 500 meters from the Minh Châu harbor.  They wait until midnight, preferring stormy nights when humans are unlikely to be around and the waves are strong enough to propel them to the highest, driest parts of the land.  Only here can the eggs they lay, safe from flooding or landslides, hatch into young turtles.
       Upon arriving on the bank, the mother turtle selects a spot and then begins using its front paws to dig a hole in the sand.  When the front half of its body is within the hole it then uses its back paws to compete digging a round hole 50-70 cm deep, into which the turtle then crawls and lays dozens of eggs.  When this is completed, the turtle covers the nest with sand and returns to the sea.
       The eggs normally hatch 45-60 days later.  After a few days the newborns leave the nest and try to make it to the sea.  Predators in wait, like sea birds, snakes and iguanas pick off a good number of them, while others fail to find food when in the sea.  Zoologists estimate only one in a thousand actually survive.  Those females that do manage to live to about twenty years of age subsequently return to the place of their birth to lay their own eggs. 
boats at Trà Cổ
       Further up the coast of Quảng Ninh to the Chinese border are several more islands, but the weirdly shaped limestone islets prominent in Hạ Long and Bái Tử Long Bays are rare.  At the very end of the province is Trà Cổ Island, long and thin, with a single road running parallel to the beach and wide brick pathways every couple hundred meters or so leading to the seaside.  The shadiest part of town is near the center, by the toad junction branching to Móng Cái.  The town’s hotels and bars are clustered here, though there are also restaurants on many of the brick paths going to the beach.  
       Trà Cổ is popular with both Vietnamese and Chinese tourists, who come for a splash in the sea and indulgence in tasty fresh seafood.  Westerners don’t seem to know about the place.  The beach is long and clean, but the views from it are admittedly rather ordinary compared to the scenery of Bại Tử Long; just a few distant islands with not very arresting shapes.  Surely those 18th century pirates didn’t find any suitable lairs around Trà Cổ.  They would have been too exposed to both the winds and the vessels of authorities hunting for them.
unusual hull of a Trà Cổ boat
taking home horseshoe crabs at Trà Cổ
       What makes Trà Cổ more than just another beach, and justifies the journey getting there, is the unique type of fishing boat here.  These boats are about five meters long and a meter and a half wide, with four or five bamboo poles per side and a hull consisting of big blocks of the kind of Styrofoam plastic used for packing appliances.  They do not have masts or sails.  Crews launch them by pushing them into the water, using oars to row them out to sea, then turn on their motors. 
river traffic at Móng Cái
     They fish with nets and often begin at dawn, so that the crews can be back with their catch in time for the morning market.  The nets trap various kinds of fish as well as sea snails, oysters, horseshoe crabs and other shellfish.  For the rest of the day the boats are parked along the beach, sometimes turned on their sides. 
       Several kilometers north of Trà Cổ is the friendly, bustling border town of Móng Cái, opposite Dongxing in Guangxi province, China.  Thanks to its lucrative cross-border trade, the 100,000+ residents of Móng Cái enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in all of Vietnam.  It’s hard to find a building here older than two decades, with new ones going up constantly. 
       The town straddles a river, the eastern portion partly residential, the western side a more recently developed commercial zone.  Chinese goods dominate the markets and department stores, many of them intended for distribution to other parts of Vietnam.  Good seafood is available at the restaurants at prices surprisingly much lower than at Trà Cổ or Cái Rồng.  But it’s at the wharves along the river by the bridge connecting the two parts of Móng Cái that the most interesting scenes take place.
cargo boat on Bái Từ Long Bay
       Here people load and unload goods and passengers from boats on their way to or from the border, a little ways upriver, or one of the riverside villages downstream towards the sea.  Some boats are moored beside the landing docks, while others are anchored in groups in the middle of the river.  Action on the river stays pretty constant all day long.
       Near where the river meets the sea is a small port for hydrofoil boats to take passengers to Hạ Long city.  Unless one is going on to China, this is a superior way to return to Hạ Long than the long bus journey that largely avoids views of the sea.  It gives the passengers another last look at the wonderful variety of little islands sticking up above the surface of the sea.  And it may also provoke final fantasies of 12th century junks full of exotic merchandise, 13th century naval battles, 18th century pirate hiding places and 21st century sea turtles, waiting for a proper stormy summer night.
sampan in the Hòn Gai harbor

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Assembly at Lion Mountain—The Mosuo Honor Goddess Ganmo

                                             by Jim Goodman

Lion Mountain towers over Lugu Lake
       Of all of Yunnan’s many lakes, the most beautiful is Lugu Lake, in northern Ninglang County.  Lying at an altitude of 2700 meters, shaped like a butterfly, its two wings divided by the long, thin Tubu Peninsula, covering an area of 52 square kilometers, its shoreline is home to several Mosuo and Pumi villages that have been here for centuries.  After Fuxianhu, it is the deepest lake in the province, at an average of 40 meters and a maximum of 90 meters.  The two major physical changes the area has experienced since its conquest by the Mongols in the 13th century have been the establishment of a Han immigrant village at Sanjiacun on the southern shore in the 19th century and the opening of a road in 1972 over the pass just below the summit of the mountain to Lugu’s south.
Lion Mountain viewed from Yongning
       This was done by blasting the previous way in over the mountain at Dog’s Passage Cave, so named because the tunnel through the cave at the pass was so small one had to crawl through it like a dog.  Now a road has replaced the cave and after crossing the pass, about three hours drive from Ninglang city, and continuing a little further past the obscuring forest, the traveler gets a first look at Lugu Lake.  Part of the eastern ‘wing’ of Lugu Lake lies within the boundaries of Sichuan province, but the larger, western ‘wing’, the Tubu Peninsula and four of the lake’s five small islands are under Yunnan’s jurisdiction. 
       That first magnificent glimpse of Lugu Lake includes its mountainous setting, with snow-capped peaks to the north, as well as of Lion Mountain, the steeply rising hill that stands another thousand meters above the northwest corner of the lake, behind Lige village.  The mountain gets its name from its resemblance to a reclining lion.  The head and chest face the lake from above Lige.  The rest of its body is visible from the plain past the lake on the way to Yongning, 18 km west.
Mosuo family monk
       Yongning district, which includes Lugu Lake, was the first part of Yunnan incorporated into the Mongol Empire.  Kubilai Khan’s forces crushed local resistance at a place called Snow Mountain Stone Gate above Yongning, then left some of his officers there to govern while he moved south against the Kingdom of Dali.  These men married women from the local Mosuo community and became the smallest of five Mosuo clans, but the one with authority over all the others, as well as everyone else in the district, down to the mid-20th century.  The ruling clan also retained the Mongol inheritance system, from father to son, differentiating it from the other clans, who were matrilineal.
Ganmo portrait at a Ninglang festival
       The Mosuo people are classified as a branch of the Naxi minority nationality, despite the fact the dialects of Yongning and Lijiang are mutually unintelligible, the Naxi are patrilineal and follow Mahayana Buddhism, laced with Tibetan and Taoist ideas, while the Mosuo have been Tibetan-style Buddhists since their 17th century conversion by a Gelukpa monk.  Traditionally, every family has its own monk, who performs rituals on their behalf in a separate room of the family compound.
       Though Tibetan Buddhism is the official religion, the most prominent deity in the Mosuo pantheon is their own Goddess Ganmo.  She oversees the livestock, crops and general prosperity of the people, especially the conjugal life and childbearing of the women.  Mosuo painters depict her as riding above the clouds astride a white stallion, her left hand gripping the reins, her right hand grasping a golden flute.  Sometimes she is shown riding a white deer, for this is how she returned to Heaven long ago after vanquishing a host of demons ravaging the earth.  The grateful Lord of Heaven bade her rest for three days, after which he would grant her whatever she requested.
Tubu Peninsula viewed from the cave
       Rather than rest, the goddess took off on a short tour of the earth, came to the valley where the lake is now sited and decided it was so lovely she would stay here forever.  As the Lord of Heaven had committed himself to meeting her demand, here Ganmo remained, metamorphosed into the mountain.  The clouds at the summit wreathe her hair.  The pine forests on the slopes make up her jacket, the low morning clouds her skirt and the verdant plain her mattress.  The lake became her mirror.  As the Supreme Goddess she attracted many suitors among the other local mountain gods and her favorite was Waru Bula, from Yanyuan County over the border in Sichuan.
worshiping Goddess Ganmo
He lived far away, though, so Ganmo also met with more accessible gods from the Yongning area.  She was entertaining one of these once when Waru Bula arrived for his scheduled date.  But Ganmo had forgotten about it and Waru Bula, discovering her occupied with his rival, stomped the earth in fury before he left forever, leaving big ditches in the land.  When Ganmo concluded her tryst and learned her favorite had come and gone, she cried copiously for days.  Her tears filled the depressions in the land left behind by Waru Bula’s anger and caused the formation of Lugu Lake.
Mosuo performing the Floating Offering
       As the Goddess incarnate, Lion Mountain has always been a protected area, so to speak, for the Mosuo traditionally banned hunting on the mountain.  Near the summit a cave exists, nowadays accessible by cable car from Niseh village on the northwest side of the lake.  Until that was installed the rare pilgrim or traveler who wished to go there had to ascend by a trail from Lige.  And it was not unusual to spot rabbits, pheasants, badgers, foxes, eagles and even bears along the way.
       The trail starts moderately steep, passes through a thick forest with twittering songbirds and mysterious rustling of leaves, crosses a wide stream of pebbles and ends at a wall of sheer perpendicular rock rising a hundred meters or so to the summit.  At the foot of this cliff, strings of prayer flags tied to trees announce the mouth of the cave.  It is said to contain Ganmo’s genitalia and one rock formation just inside the first cavern indeed bears resemblance to that part of the anatomy.
tsotah on the southern shore of Lugu Lake
       As the Divine Protector of the Mosuo people, Goddess Ganmo’s status survived the transition in Mosuo religion from shamanistic animism to Yellow Hat Buddhism.  Important Buddhist ceremonies begin with prayers to Ganmo.  White, breast-shaped mounds, called tsotah in Mosuo, dot the landscape around the lake, along the shore and high up on hills, and are shrines where people pay homage to Goddess Ganmo.
       The tsotah contains a niche where devotees place burning pine branches.  The white smoke curling up into the sky is pleasing to the sight of Ganmo.  Worshippers also burn incense sticks and toss an offering of barley flour and rice grains on the flames, and then kowtow in front of the mound.
riding ponies to the festival
       Occasionally the Mosuo honor Ganmo by organizing a Parade Around the Sea, an all-day hike around the lake.  The procession halts at every tsotah, where participants burn incense and offer grains, kowtow and press onto the next, chatting and joking as they walk.  Lamas in the entourage chant scriptural passages along the route.  The Parade Around the Sea is not a fixed festival with an annual observance.  Those who feel the urge can undertake it on any 5th, 15th or 25th days of any lunar month in the year.
       On any of these same lunar dates the Mosuo may also engage in another type of devotional act, called the Floating Offering.  Devotees place a bundle of pine branches at the rear end of one or more of their boats, set the bundle on fire and row the boat out onto the lake.  The smoke from the burning branches wafts into the air like that from the smoldering incense sticks at the mounds, visible, and pleasing, to the goddess before it dissipates.
Zhamei Monastery, Yongning
       The Mosuo celebrate several festivals during the year and at all of them they make offerings to Goddess Ganmo and seek her blessings.  One festival in particular, though, is dedicated entirely to honoring Ganmo.  This is Zhuanshanjie (Rounding the Mountain Festival), staged the 25th day of the 7th lunar month, the greatest collective social event of the year.  It brings together Mosuo from Lugu Lake and the villages of the Yongning basin, as well as their neighbors from several ethnic Pumi villages in the district.  Unlike the larger Pumi community in Lanping County, the Pumi of Yongning follow the customs of the matrilineal Mosuo—inheritance from mother to daughter, the ’walking marriage’ custom, etc.—and also venerate Ganmo.
       Despite the festival’s title, participants don’t actually go around the mountain.  The venue is a site on Lion Mountain’s slope corresponding to what would be the fold in the crouching lion’s right rear leg.  It’s quite a walk from Lugu Lake, but mostly over level ground.  Lugu villagers eat a hearty early morning breakfast and then start.  Those from villages on the northwest side walk, carrying food with them for a picnic later, while others from settlements further on ride ponies.  
monks on alpine horns at Zhuanshanjie
       Just past the northwest corner of the lake is a hill with a tsotah mound where festival-goers stop to burn pine branches for Ganmo and hang prayer flags on the trees.  From here they follow the road through the hamlet north of the marsh and beyond it across fields carpeted with yellow, white or magenta flowers.  At the next pass they stop and pray at another mound, then continue along the shore of another pond.  From a little beyond this pond the trail descends sharply to the hamlet below the festival site. 
       Upon their arrival the grounds will already be full of Mosuo and Pumi from the Yongning basin and monks from Zhamei Monastery at the northern end of Yongning town.  Sometime after the Mosuo conversion, a visiting lama from Tibet came to the site, liked its location, and inquired of its name.  A local Mosuo answered with the Mosuo word Jramigo, which in the Tibetan monk’s dialect meant ‘no need of an enemy”  This sounded like an auspicious place to build a monastery and for centuries it served as the training  ground for young Mosuo men sent to become qualified to be the family monk.
ritual at Ganmo's festival shrine
       Marauders burnt down the original during the Muslim Revolt in the mid-19th century.  It was rebuilt and in 1924 a wall was erected to protect it against Tibetan bandit gangs.  In the 1960s it suffered from a new marauder—bands of Red Guards.  Finally, in the mid-90s the entire main temple was rebuilt and restored, employing artisans from Sichuan.  Not a large number of monks reside here, whether permanently or just for the duration of their studies.  Nor does it receive many visitors.  Devout though they may be the Mosuo do not feel much compulsion to express such devotion before the images of Zhamei Monastery.
       For Zhuanshanjie, though, the Zhanei monks are honored guests.  The younger ones walk there, while the older ones ride ponies.  They set up a tent on the grounds below the slope to conduct rituals, reciting scriptural passages to the accompaniment of gongs, flageolets and monks outside blowing on long alpine horns.  Festival participants when they arrive stop in this area to kowtow several times to pay their respects.
       They don’t linger long, but next head for the Tibetan-style chorten high up on the slope.  Prayer banners of all colors hang from its walls.  At mounds just below it devotees burn pine branches and kowtow, then leave some pennants at the mound and attach others to the chorten’s walls.  With these acts their devotional duties for the day are completed.
tying prayer flags at Ganmo's shrine
       Having come so far, though, nobody is ready to leave just yet.  They now have a leisurely picnic on the slopes, consisting of pork or chicken and rice, graced with local specialties like small fish, slices of three-year-old ham, apples that have just ripened in time and beer brewed from barley.  For those who didn’t bring their food, plenty of drink and snack stalls line the lower part of the grounds.
       Unless there is a government-sponsored program of special events, like horse races or dances, the scene starts breaking up by mid-afternoon.  But given that everybody’s mood has been elevated by the event, it’s likely that Mosuo will break out into songs on the long hike home.  Exhausted as they might be by the length of the trek to and from the festival grounds, the youth still manage to summon the energy for a boisterous evening ring dance around a bonfire in one of the village compounds.  After all, it’s festival time.  We honored our goddess.  Ganmo is pleased.  The year will go well.

Ganmo's shrine at the festival grounds
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                         for more on Mosuo culture, see my e-book Living in Shangrila


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Flames on the Plains—the Torch Festival in Dali

                                                      by Jim Goodman

the Dali plains and Erhai Lake
       The Torch Festival is the best-known mid-summer event in Southwest China.  Several minority nationalities—the Yi, Naxi, Lisu, Bai and others—celebrate the festival on the 24th or 25th day of the 6th lunar month.  The programs may vary, depending both upon location and whether the occasion is backed by local government sponsorship.  In the latter case the program may include events like wrestling matches, musical performances, animal fights and dance shows by participating neighboring minorities.  The main features common to all observances of the festival, though, are the brandishing and parading of burning torches and ring dances around a bonfire.
Yi women hawking torches in Dali
       While they may all celebrate the occasion in similar fashion, the different minorities have separate origin stories as to why.  According to one Yi version, the hero Eqilaba was such an invincible wrestler he aroused the jealousy of a god in Heaven, who sent down his own wrestler to challenge him.  But Heaven’s champion suffered defeat and death.  The furious god then dispatched a swarm of insects to ravage the Yi people’s farms.  Eqilaba organized his people to cut clumps of bamboo and make torches to ward off the insects.  The festival marks this victory.
       In the Naxi story, the god Zilao Apu envied the happy life of people on earth and ordered his general to turn the world into ashes.  But in the general’s first contact with a man he was so impressed with his virtue that he instead told the people how to deceive the god.  They all lit torches in front of their houses, so when Zilao Apu looked down from Heaven and saw the fires blazing he was convinced his orders had been carried out and went to sleep, never to awaken.
Torch Festival tower in a Bai village
       The Lisu tie the festival to history, commemorating the arrival of Zhuge Liang’s army on the expedition into Yunnan during the 3rd century Three Kingdoms Era.  The Lisu say they welcomed the forces by waving torches to chase away the insects and animals in the troops’ way.
       The Bai in Dali also link the festival to history; in their case to the foundation of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the 8th century.  In 731 the area still comprised six separate zhao.  According to the Bai, Prince Piluoge of the zhao around today’s Weishan invited the other princes to an important ancestral ritual on the Dali plain a little northwest of what would eventually become the city of Dali.  The Prince of Dengchuan zhao was suspicious but agreed to attend.  His wife Queen Beijie was even more suspicious and bade him wear an iron bangle as an amulet against attacks by knife or sword.
       The ritual took place in Songming Tower, a pinewood enclosure erected especially for the occasion.  After concluding the ancestral rites Piluoge hosted a banquet for the princes and while they were getting drunk he slipped outside and his soldiers locked the exits and set fire to the tower.  Afterwards Piluoge informed the widows, who then came to collect the remains of their husbands.  But the corpses were nothing but ashes.  The wife of the Dengchuan prince, though, succeeded in locating the iron bangle around the remnant of an arm bone. 
erecting the tower in Xichou
       She returned to Dengchuan with this to make proper funeral services and resisted Piluoge’s attempts to make her his concubine.  Less than a month after the Songming Tower incident she died, by drowning herself, taking poison or starving, depending on the version.  As part of the activities traditionally part of the Torch Festival Bai women reddened their fingertips in memory of Queen Beijie, who burnt and scorched her fingers sifting through the ashes of Songming Tower.
       This is a well-known story, repeated in all the tour guidebooks, ethnologies and histories of the area, but it is not true.  Piluoge did indeed unite the separate zhao into one state with himself as king, but not by assassinating all his rivals at once.  It took several years actually, beginning with the annexation of neighboring zhao in Midu and Binchuan and only campaigning near and north of Erhai from 737.  And in the final stages he had help from Tang Dynasty forces, for the Tang Court viewed a unified Nanzhao state as a bulwark against Tibetan encroachment in the southwest.
decorations prepared for Xichou's tower
       Historical inaccuracies, however, are irrelevant to the Bai people celebrating in Dali.  The story is the excuse for the event, which is anyway infused with animist concepts about the purifying and cleansing power of fire, a vestige of the veneration of fire that was part of the culture of the most ancient human societies.  By parading fiery torches through the fields the people not only chase away the insects that are unhealthy for both man and his crops, they also ward off nefarious spirits, equally unhealthy for humans and farms.
       In Dali Prefecture, both the Bai and the Yi celebrate the Torch Festival on the 25th day of the 6th lunar month, one day after the event elsewhere in Yunnan.  In the days preceding the festival Yi women from the hills south of Dali bring bundles of pinewood staves, to be used for torches, to sell in the city.  On the day of the festival Bai villagers hold late afternoon family feasts and afterwards men gather in an open area away from the houses and build a wood and straw edifice, several meters high, to erect as a replica of the Songming Tower.
       In Xichou this will be at a square on the western outskirts of the town, next to a huge old tree that is the nesting area of dozens of egrets.  In Zhoucheng it will be in the market square at the lower end of the village, close to the main highway.  Elsewhere it will be just outside the villages.
Bai ring dance around the village tower
       Before standing the structure upright the Bai attach small pennants inscribed with Chinese characters signifying peace, good health, prosperity, long life, bumper harvests, increase in people and livestock and other such wishes, as well as seasonal fruits like apples and pomegranates.  To erect the tower requires the coordinated efforts of three or four  teams of men pulling on ropes fastened to the tower and another team to keep propping it up with long poles as it is lifted.
       While it is still part way up one man will climb along the length of it to install one final decoration near the top, a sort of scepter of attached pennants, paper lanterns and a flag.  According to local belief, when the tower is later ignited and the decorations begin falling off, whoever grabs the flag will, within a year, have a son as well as a financial windfall. Catching the pennants with Chinese characters on them is also good luck.  When it’s fully up folks place a small table next to it to leave offerings and burn incense.
the tower ablaze
child torch bearer
       Raising the tower is a tricky operation, however, and it may not always be initially successful.  On one of the occasions I witnessed the festival, in this instance in Xichou, a relatively prosperous town that used to be a major stop on the old Tea and Horses Road, the procedure failed.  After the one who inserted the last decoration in the tower had descended, the teams began pulling their ropes, but one side pulled too strongly.  The edifice wavered and finally toppled over and crashed on the ground.  Youths in the audience scrambled to snatch the decorations anyway, but the residents were now faced with the question of whether this was an ill omen that mitigated against the ordinary celebration of the festival or to take a pause and make another try.  With such a dejected atmosphere prevailing, I didn't linger to learn the final decision but left for dinner somewhere else.
lighting torches in Zhoucheng
       Ordinarily, with the final installation of the tower, just before dark when the sun has already descended below the crest of the Azure Mountains to the west, the villagers commence dancing around it.  Led by a male flautist, Bai girls in their best traditional outfits wave batons and perform energetic ring dances.  Meanwhile a man climbs up the tower, propped up on all sides by long poles, and lights the tower from the top, from where it will burn slowly, scattering the attachments for the crowd of onlookers to grab. 
       This carries on for a while until it’s completely dark.  Then from a nearby fire people light their bundles of pinewood staves and march along the fields brandishing their torches.   If you could take a balloon flight along the Dali plain at this time the long, flickering lines of lights would be pretty spectacular.  This is the last act of the program, while the tower slowly burns down completely.  But in Zhoucheng, advertised for tourists as the best venue to observe the Torch Festival, the events start and conclude a little later.
upper Zhoucheng street
lower Zhoucheng street
       Zhoucheng is a large and attractive Bai village of about 8000 inhabitants, lying on a slope of the Azure Mountains foothills next to the old highway north, about 23 km from Dali.  From here it’s a short walk to one of the most scenic portions of Erhai Lake.  Tour groups often make a sort stop here on their way to or from the popular Butterfly Spring, another kilometer up the road.  The town is famous for tie-dyed textiles in indigo and white and at any given time a visitor is likely to spot women, in the market square or in one of the lanes between the elegant stone houses that characterize the village architecture, tying up little portions of large white cloth to prepare the patterns for dyeing.   Zhoucheng women often wear headscarves and aprons of tie-dyed cloth, with a wide variety of patterns.
top of the Zhoucheng tower, with auspicious flag
       Zhoucheng Bai set up their tower, the tallest and sturdiest in the plains that night, in the market square at the bottom of the square-shaped village, beside the main north-south road.  The tower goes up around dusk, but the action pauses until well past dark and a good crowd has assembled in the square.  At a stage at one end a Bai orchestra plays classical music and provides backup for a troupe of middle-aged female dancers.  Younger women, dressed in their red and white traditional outfits and fancy headdresses, dance beside the tower.
       Eventually a man climbs up the tower with a flaming taper and sets the top of the tower on fire.  After his descent the activity picks up.  While the tower burns, youths dash around it in between the propping poles.  Ring dances form in one part of the square.  And over a small bonfire in another area near the tower people gather round and ignite their bundles of pinewood.  When their torches are ready they break away and run around the square waving them high and then dash down the streets adjacent to the market square.
resin powder igniting above a fire
       Around the tower a few women sell launching tubes for shooting little skyrockets at the burning tower and packets of resin to those wielding torches.  When the revelers toss this powder into their torches a myriad sparks fly up above the flames.  Those with torches do this everywhere this night, as often as possible.  There’s nothing hazardous about this, for the sparks burn out quickly and if they hit something the worse damage they can inflict is to singe a few leg hairs of the men wearing shorts. 
       Having started later than other villages, and with a tower that can take all night to burn down completely, Zhoucheng’s celebration can carry on past midnight, long after the rest of the plains has gone to sleep.  For most of the late-night revelers the Torch Festival is less a replay of history or an action to insure good health and bounteous harvests than it is a chance to enjoy a wild night playing with fire.  For the tradition-minded, however, a reminder comes the 23rd day of the following lunar month, when they perform rituals and hold a feast to honor Queen Beijie on the day of her death.  And probably they will be inspired to reminisce about what they did, just four weeks earlier, to mark the night the Songming Tower burnt to the ground.

Bai girls dancing in Zhoucheng's square
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