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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