Sunday, January 24, 2016

Tuồng Theater: the Vietnamese Version of Chinese Opera

                                                               by Jim Goodman

tuồng actor, Hanoi theater
       In the thousand years before the 19th century French conquest, Vietnamese culture developed three separate theatrical traditions.  Chèo, the oldest, originated in the villages and featured dramas mixed with social commentary.  Chèo drama won royal patronage as early as the 10th century, when the capital was in Hoa Lư, and was just as popular at Court as in the countryside.  Its popularity and patronage continued through the Lỹ and Trần Dynasties.  The unique water-puppet tradition, also from the Red River Delta environment, developed soon after, with the first recorded performance in the 11th century.
       Unlike the other two traditions, tuồng, the third, was not an indigenous creation, but a local version of Chinese opera.  This is not surprising, considering the heavy influence Chinese culture had on Vietnam, due both to China’s long occupation and administration of northern Vietnam and its proximity as a big prestigious neighbor.  The Vietnamese gradually adopted many aspects of Chinese culture, particularly Confucian norms in society and government, but for centuries remained content with their own forms of entertainment.  The incorporation of a local kind of Chinese opera was not something gradually accepted, like the usual cultural influences, but the result of an incident of war.  
tuồng drama, Hanoi theater
       In 1285 the state of Đai Việt fought against the second of three Mongol invasions that century.  The Vietnamese had defeated the Mongols in 1258, would eventually expel them again this year and then annihilate them on the third Mongol attempt in 1288.  Though they are called the Mongol Wars, not all the invading forces were Mongol.  Most officers were, and probably the cavalry, but the ranks included hundreds of thousands of Chinese conscripted for the campaigns. 
       Among the Chinese foot soldiers captured in 1285 was Li Yuanji.  His interrogators discovered that back in Beijing he was a famous opera star.  They presented him to the Trần Court, whose officials persuaded him to stay and introduce the genre.  (Even in times of war the Vietnamese were not adverse to Chinese cultural influence; only to its political control.)  Under the new name of Lý Nguyên Cát, he trained the Court’s actors in the principles of Chinese opera, which became known as tuồng theater in Vietnam. 
tuồng warrior
       It was very different from chẻo.  For one thing, it was sung all the way through, whereas chèo then was a spoken drama.  From then on chèo dramas included both spoken and sung dialog, though the singing, based on rural folk melodies, differed from the style used in tuồng.  The stage settings for both were spare, but the costumes and make-up for tuồng were more elaborate and colorful.  The other major distinction between the two forms was tuồng’s narrative emphasis on heroics, loyalty to the throne and the primacy of Confucian precepts.  This genre offered no prospect for social satire, as chèo thrived on, but upheld the existing social order. 
       Therefore it became very popular with the ruling elite.  Though the Trần Dynasty patronized both forms throughout the 14th century, its successor the Lê Dynasty took a different attitude. In 1437 the strict Confucian King Lê Thánh Tông closed the royal theater and banned chèo as well as tuồng.  He relegated actors to the lowest rungs of the hierarchical order and forbade them and their offspring from entering the universities and trying to qualify for the mandarin class.  Popular entertainment had no place in the new Lê order.  Actors and playwrights were pariahs.
female protagonist in a Hanoi theater skit
       Chèo survived in the villages, but tuồng’s revival only came about with the 17th century division of the country into a Trịnh Lord’s regime in the north and a Nguyễn Lords regime in the south.  Tuồng theater became a favorite at both courts and later, in the Nguyễn Dynasty, was the special favorite at the court in Huế.  Mandarins in the service of the southern regime, and even some of the Nguyn lords and ladies themselves, wrote tung plays for the court’s theater. 
       One of the most enduringly popular of the plays from this period came from the writing brush of Đào Duy T, a minister and military strategist in the early 17th century.  He was himself the son of actors and was caught trying to sit for the civil examinations under an assumed name.  With nowhere to exploit his talents he later fled to the Nguyn Lords’ realm and became chief advisor to Nhuyn Phúc Nguyên, the second Nguyn Lord, who had no qualms about his ‘low status’ background.  In addition to his military talents, he also wrote plays.  His most famous work was called Sơn Hu (Behind the Mountain), set in the ancient state of Qi in China’s Zhou Dynasty.  It tells the story of an attempt by General T Thiên Lăng to usurp the throne after the King of Qi dies and leaves only an infant heir.  Loyalists led by Khương Linh Tá rescue the prince and spirit him away to the loyalist base behind the mountain.
festival performance at Đô Temple, Bắc Ninh
       One of the usurper’s co-conspirators, General Tá Ôn Đình, pursues the prince’s party, but Khương Linh Tá intervenes, while the rest of the party make their getaway.  Tá Ôn Đình beheads Khương Linh Tá.  But the latter picks up his head and runs off.  His soul becomes a light to lead the loyalists through a dark forest to their base, where they rouse their followers to attack the usurper in the citadel.  Khương Linh Tá’s spirit reappears in the battle and kills General Tá Ôn Đình.  Loyalists capture T Thiên Lăng and the play ends with the child prince on the throne, the royal lineage preserved, the villains foiled, loyalty to the throne triumphant.
tuồng actors in a festival procession
       A similar theme of self-sacrifice as the supreme act of loyalty to the throne dominates the tung drama Võ Hùng Vương, named for the rebel leader in the play.  It is also otherwise known as Ngoi t dâng đu (Grandfather Presents his Head).  In this story Võ Hùng Vương captures the prince he intends to displace, but the latter feigns madness, which confuses the conspirators.  Then one of the nastiest among them suggests a deal.  If Viên Hòa Ngn, the prince’s grandfather, presents his head to the rebels, the prince can go free.  Viên Hòa Ngn agrees.  But suspecting a double-cross he arranges for the loyalists to set up an ambush on the route the prince would take once he is free.
       The old man then calmly cuts off his own head and hands it to the rebels.  They duly set the prince at liberty, assemble a force to recapture him, but run into the loyalist ambush.  The latter escort the prince to their base, where he gathers his army, defeats Võ Hùng Vương’s forces and takes his legitimate place on the throne.
       Such themes resonated well with a court that had to establish its legitimacy by inculcating loyalty among its retainers, servants and subjects.  After the collapse of the Tây Sơn regime and the establishment of Nguyn supremacy throughout the country, tung once again became the court favorite at Huế.  Emperors Minh Mng and T Đc were both enthusiastic patrons.  They wanted to promote tuông as the “national art” and took an active interest in the actual staging of the plays.  T Đc himself was the “art director” of the most elaborate tung productions ever—Vb bo trình tường, with 108 acts, and Qun phương hiến thy, with 100.
the elaborate staging of tuồng drama in Huế
       These productions were notable for featuring Vietnamese heroes from indigenous history, instead of Chinese literary classics, while presented in the tung style.  Besides the upper strata of Vietnamese society, tung’s appeal extended to the commoners as well.  As a spectacle it had no rival other than the most elaborate religious processions.  They probably didn’t understand the lyrics, which were in the literary Sino-Vietnamese language, but were susceptible to the singing’s emotive power and anyway knew the stories. They could also appreciate the purely visual delights of the almost acrobatic martial arts scenes as resplendently garbed warriors leapt and twirled about the stage.
       Make-up in tung is always employed symbolically.  Noble, venerable and sympathetic characters wear pale make-up, their eyes slant upwards and they move with measured gestures.  Warriors paint their faces black, white and vermillion, wear long, dark, bristly beards and fierce expressions.  The bad guys—traitors and villains—have pasty faces, scanty beards and a shifty look.  In costumes, royalty and aristocrats wear gorgeous silks, the women decorating their hair with jewels and ornate headdresses.  The warriors wear multi-colored robes and elaborate headdresses and the generals are identified with flags attached to the back.  Villains wear simpler outfits, with little or no decoration.
female lead in the Huế Citadel show
male leads in the Huế tuồng drama
      When the Nguyn Dynasty fell into decline in the late 19th century, tung theater began modifying its style and its message, lest it be identified with a discredited system.   As part of its new look another form of the opera appeared, called tung đồ, where satire of the powerful and the venal directed the stories rather than heroics.  As the second half of the century progressed it became obvious that something was lacking in the neo-Confucian order of the realm, since it was not standing up very well against the colonial threat.
Hồ Nguyệt Cô
      The first classical tung drama to break with convention and challenge the system came in the late 19th century with Đào Tn’s Hoàng Phi H Crossing the Border. Like a typical tung play, it is a tale of political intrigue in ancient China, with the common theme of loyalty to the sovereign directing the conflicts in the story, told with all the usual pomp of elaborate make-up and splendid costumes.
       But instead of the customary message that loyalty to the ruler is the noblest of virtues, the play challenges that very idea.  The story is set in China’s Warring States era.  King Tr, to whom Hoàng Phi H has been loyal, is anything but a good Confucian ruler.  He is cruel, avaricious and lusty and even kills Hoàng’s wife.  After wandering disconsolate and stopping in a temple, he meets her spirit, who narrates the circumstances of her death.  His lingering sense of loyalty suddenly evaporates. “Loyalty to the king be damned!” he cries.
       Hoang decides to betray King Tr to the enemy and then surrender.  Then he passes through the border gate, where his own father is the guard, and persuades him to renounce his loyalty and attack King Tr as well.  Such sentiments were pretty revolutionary for the times, when the Nguyn regime still had nominal authority in the land.  But Đào Tn wrote the play to argue that blind loyalty can stand in the way of progress.
the transformation of Hồ Nguyệt Cô 
       Another turn in this period came with a work by Đào Nh Tuyên (Đào Tn’s son), taken from an old Chinese story, called H Nguyt Cô Transformed into a Fox.  The heroine is a beautiful woman who was born a fox, but after years of religious training allowed to become human, married a general but fell in love with an enemy officer named Tiết Giao. She throws herself at him and spills her big secret—she is only human so long as she keeps a certain gem in her mouth.  After they have become lovers Tiết Giao pretends to be sick and claims that only her gem can save his life.  She spits it out.  He swallows it and runs off, leaving her to face her fate—slowly changing from a human being back into a fox.
       The climax of the show is this transformation, with H’s pitiful laments commenting on the changes overcoming her, the itch on her skin as the fur grows back, the sight of her nails becoming claws, and the sound of her voice dissolving into the howl of a fox. Ttung actresses made their reputations on how imaginatively they played that scene.  With a good rendition the audience will see H Nguyt Cô as a tragic character, the victim of credulity and unrestrained sexual desire.
tuồng performer at Đền Đô
make-up and headdress of a tuồng character
       No royal courts subsidize tung theater anymore and with each passing generation in these modern times, fewer people feel inclined to undergo the rigorous training required for tung performances.   The potential audience has shrunken, too, with the proliferation of alternative entertainment offerings.  But it has not disappeared.  In Hanoi, the National Tung Theater, next to the Hàng Da market, stages skits from famous tung dramas, including H Nguyệt Cô’s transformation.  The theater inside the Huế Citadel hosts daily shows of tung opera scenes as well as other types of Nguyn Dynasty entertainment.
       Tourists are the main audience for these shows, but tung drama is still occasionally part of village festival programs, such as Đn Đô in Bc Ninh.  Actors in costume march in the morning procession and perform on an outdoor stage all afternoon.  For that portion of the Vietnamese population still fascinated by its ancient culture, tung remains relevant.  It’s had a long and fruitful run.

tuồng drama performance at the Đên Đô festival
                                                                     * * *


Saturday, January 9, 2016

Congratulations, Hani Farmers


                                 by Jim Goodman

Hani village, Yuanyang County
      Every year UNESCO announces new additions to the list of World Heritage Sites.  This year’s selections, revealed in June, included a rather unusual entry—the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces.  Ordinarily World Heritage Sites are spots of outstanding natural beauty, like mountains or canyons, or something manmade, like a magnificent building or an ancient city.   This is one of those rare occasions when contemporary farms made the list.   True, they are very ancient farms, perhaps as old as 1300 years or more, for they are mentioned in Tang Dynasty records.  That makes them older than the famous Inca terraces in the mountains of Peru.  But unlike the latter, long ago abandoned, the Honghe rice terraces have been in continuous use since they were first built.
       Honghe is the name of a prefecture in Yunnan, south of Kunming to the border of Vietnam, comprising several counties north and south of the Red River. Those south of the river are very mountainous and it is the rice terraces here, in the Ailao Mountains, that are so ancient, so beautiful, so amazing, and now becoming internationally recognized for the wonder that they are.  The designated Heritage Site area consists of a large part of southern Yuanyang County, including the stunning section around Panzihua village known as the Tiger’s Mouth.  Farmers here centuries ago cut as many as 3000 terraces into the mountain slopes, from just below the forested hilltops, at around 2000-2500 meters, all the way down to the rivers, lying at around 400 or 500 meters.
terrace irrigation
       While the terrace scenery is particularly impressive in southern Yuanyang County, the same kind of farming system exists throughout the other counties south of the Red River, as well as upriver west of the prefecture as far as Xinping County.  Plenty of other places in Yunnan feature terrace farming, for the province is full of hills and mountains and even the plateaus are more often undulating valleys rather than flat plains.  What makes the Honghe terraces so special is the complex irrigation system established with their initial foundation.  Water flows from terrace to terrace and remains in the fields all year round.
       Farmers only get one crop of rice each year from these farms.  After the conclusion of the harvest work the fields are left full of water until planting time around April.  This is the time the terraces are at their best visually, the water in them reflecting the colors of the sky.  During the dry season the terraces become the abode of ducks, frogs, eels, small fish and snails, which supplement the local diet.  The UNESCO citation takes note of the local “integrated farming system” and states, “The resilient land management system of the rice terraces demonstrates extraordinary harmony between people and their environment, both visually and ecologically, based on traditional and long-standing social and religious structures.”
Hani farmer girl
       They might have added the extraordinary harmony among the people themselves, as well.  And this is precisely because of their land management.  When the Hani ancestors first laid out a village they chose a site near a stream or spring, adjacent to a forest, built their houses there and their rice terraces below the settled area.   The main irrigation stream ran above the set of terraces, with dividers placed at intervals to allow water to spill into the terrace below through notches cut into its wall.  Notches cut in the walls of that terrace allowed water to flow into the one below and so on all the way down to the lowest terrace on the slope.
       Villages had a water guardian whose job it was to keep the main channel free of debris and oversee its renovation after the harvest and to check the dividers to ensure they had not been altered so that someone’s field got more water than what was allotted to them.  This would upset the balance, for the original system, including the position and notches of the dividers, guaranteed that every terrace plot would receive the proper amount of water for the crop.
       It is not clear how they divided up the land, who got the terraces nearest the village and who got the ones far away down the slope.  But all the terraces got the proper amount of water required.  Thus, the economy and society of a village started out on the basis of equality.  As time went on and generations passed this equality did not persist, for in some families more children, i.e. more workers, survived infancy and could contribute to a family’s income.  But the differences in wealth among the people in any given Ailaoshan village were never very great, nor ever resented because they were perceived as due to good luck and diligence and not exploitation, and so a strong sense of village solidarity has persisted over the centuries.
Hani terraces
       This solidarity extends to the entire ethnic group and sub-group and even beyond, as implied in the Hani saying that Yi and Hani are children of the same mother.  Several minority nationalities inhabit the Ailao Mountains—Hani, Yi, Miao, Yao, Zhuang and Dai—and all of them are terrace farmers.  They live in roughly the same manner, with different house types sometimes but with the same kind of material life.  No particular ethnic group ever had power over another and they all lived peacefully with each other, often meeting at the various market day venues.
       Even within the designated World Heritage Site boundaries Yi villages lie scattered over the slopes, with a Miao settlement here and there and Dai in the lower areas.  So it’s a bit inaccurate to make the award to the “Hani rice terraces,” even if they are the majority community in this particular part of the mountains.  The other ethnic minorities are also terrace builders and everything the UNESCO citation praises about the Hani is just as true of the other ethnic communities in Ailaoshan.
       They are all animist societies, venerating spirits associated with forces of nature, the land and their own ancestors, fearing and propitiating troublemaking spirits that could harm them.  They held regular rituals to honor the land spirit or the rice spirit so that nothing would interfere with the cultivation of the rice crop.  Their economy was one of self-sufficiency, though that was more of a goal than a reality, for in general the terraces did not produce enough rice to feed the family all year that tilled it.  In the last weeks before harvest cassavas took the place of rice as the main filler of the meal.
a part of the "Tiger's Mouth"
       The rituals, festivals, even the ethnic styles of clothing all came under sustained attack first in the late 50s and then throughout the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution.   After Deng Xiaoping consolidated power such policies ceased once and for all and ethnic culture was now not only tolerated, but also encouraged.  For the Hani and their neighbors, the family responsibility system basically meant a return to the old way of farming.  And since the old way of farming included festivals and rituals to the rice spirit, these revived, too. 
       The one major innovation in their material way of life was the introduction of high-yield rice seeds.  This improved production so much that families could not only grow enough rice to feed themselves the entire year, they very well might even have a little surplus to sell in the market.  Population had gone way up since, say, a century ago, and extra terraces had been made, but now these terraces were producing more rice than at any time in their history.  Traditional material culture had achieved an unprecedented success.
       Besides the magnificent scenery of sculpted mountains, the area’s other main attraction is its ethnic variety.  The Hani are the most numerous of the communities, split into several sub-groups, each with its own distinctive traditional-style women’s clothing.  All the other minorities have at least three sub-groups dressing very differently from each other.  Most of the regular market days in the area witness the presence of several ethnic groups and sub-groups, mainly women, just about all of whom dress in their traditional style clothing.
       These market venues will have stalls with ethnic minority women selling clothing components to other minority women.  There will be Miao stalls selling batik cloth, embroidery thread and Miao jewelry, Hani women hawking Hani women’s jackets, trousers, belts and bags, Yi women offering embroidery and appliqué patterns for blouses and belt ends, etc.  Their customers, of course, will be other Miao, Hani or Yi women who don’t have time to make the items themselves.    
transplanting the rice seedlings
       Now the ethnic revivalism that is so obviously apparent in Ailaoshan has been going on throughout Yunnan for the past generation.  Ethnic festivals have been revived, sometimes with lavish government subsidies, traditional religion has re-emerged and ethnic clothing is popular again, even if only for festivals and other special events.  Definitely ethnic pride has returned.  But nowhere has traditional culture made such a complete comeback as in Ailaoshan.  Elsewhere modern influences have seeped in to the extent that people may be proud of their traditions, but less likely to “revert” to living the traditional way with its antique mind-set.
       The modern influences that are slowly but surely undermining traditional culture elsewhere in Yunnan include basic changes in their material way of life.  A major Hani sub-group, the Aini (elsewhere known as the Akha) in Xishuangbanna and adjacent counties, practiced slash-and-burn agriculture as their traditional way of life.  Due to population pressures, this is no longer viable as a system and so they have largely switched from growing rice to growing tea, rubber or sugar cane, cash crops that they can trade for rice.  However, because they are not growing rice they don’t need to have all those festivals that marked critical points in the rice-growing cycle.  So a big part of their culture disappeared when they changed crops. 
       Other ethnic minorities employing the slash-and-burn method also went through the same changes.  In other areas, with permanent fields, the introduction of modern machinery and fertilizers altered relations between the people and their environment.  In one way or another, in nearly every place in Yunnan, traditional material culture has altered and this has modified other aspects of tradition as well, from religious beliefs to aesthetic views.
Hani on the way to market day
       But Ailaoshan is different.  The material culture has proven its value and so the non-material aspects of tradition have survived to a greater degree than elsewhere in the province.  Festivals have revived because the people still believe in them and the Hani hold several a year.  Villagers have televisions now and are aware of what, for example, people in the outside world wear.  But the women, even the teenaged girls, prefer their own ethnic style because they still retain their traditional aesthetic view.  The most beautiful clothes they can put on, they feel, are their best traditional ones.  They see lots of modern clothing in the markets, but the only items likely to attract their interest are shoes and umbrellas.
       Besides keeping their traditional aesthetic sense, the Hani and their neighbors also maintain the village altars and spiritual specialists who conduct rituals on behalf of the community.  In a grove at the edge of a Hani or Yi village a small area next to a large tree is fenced off and three upright stones stand in the rear.  The taller one in the center represents humans, the smaller two flanking ones represent crops and animals.  The arrangement exemplifies what the UNESCO citation referred to as the “symbiotic relationship” established between man and the animal and plant world.  Major annual rituals take place here.
Hani village altar
       Ailaoshan and the Hani world are not shielded from modern influences.  But the impact is not so heavy.  Villagers have televisions, but what do they watch?  News, sports, soap operas, comedies, police stories, action films?  Not at all.  They like the Hong Kong-style period piece stories, set in the Qing Dynasty or earlier, costume dramas with or without magical warriors.  Basically, the television has simply replaced the village storyteller.
       What about education and the general exposure to modern, secular ideas?  Well, from my own years doing research in the area for my book The Terrace Builders I witnessed several traditional rituals, both by ritual specialists acting on behalf of the entire village and private rites carried out by family heads on the rice terraces.  In every case the person carrying out the ritual was one of the more educated men in the village.  In other places in Yunnan, in similar circumstances, when I asked about the ritual I was told they carried it out because it was part of their tradition, not that they necessarily believed in it.  In Ailaoshan the reply centered on the efficacy of the rite, the meaning of whatever was used for it and the “good reasons” to perform it.  Part of the tradition, yes, but a part they obviously still believed in.
ritual offering to the rice spirit
       Well, why shouldn’t they?  Such acts have apparently worked for them for many centuries now and with the agricultural sector now stronger than ever they have definitely shown the value of their part in the procedure.  And it’s not likely to change.  It’s not really possible to “modernize” terrace farming.  Farmers can’t use tractors in the terraces.  They still have to use buffaloes to draw the plows and plant the seedlings by hand and cut the stalks with sickles at harvest time.  And they are never going to change the use of the terraces from growing rice to growing rubber trees or some other cash crop.
       The traditional material system will persist and so, more than likely, will other aspects of tradition, from clothing preferences and rice field rituals to domestic customs, taste in food and village social life.  Their self-confidence and geniality is also likely to persist, rooted as they are in their awareness of their traditional culture’s success.
       So congratulations, Hani farmers, on the world’s recognition of your achievement.  You and the Yi, Miao, Yao, Dai and Zhuang, not mentioned in the UNESCO citation, can be proud of the genius of your ancestors.  In this remote mountainous terrain they created a system of irrigated farms, and a lifestyle to go with it, that has survived intact for over 1300 years and is flourishing here now in the fast-evolving world of the 21st century.  In a time of shrinking natural resources you can give the world lessons in land and water management, as well as how to achieve harmony between man and his environment.  By its very name, a World Heritage Site is a place with a value relevant to the entire human race.  Congratulations, Hani farmers.  You deserve the award. 
Hani farmers going home 
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note:  For more information on the area and its people, see my newest book—The Terrace Builders:  the Hani and their Neighbors in Yunnan’s Ailao Mountains.  Published as an e-book, covering the area from Xinping to the far north of Vietnam, it has 300 photographs.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

By Tractor-Trailer to the River of Golden Sand

                                                      by Jim Goodman

on the road north of Tanhua
       When I first visited Yunnan in 1992, the province had already been partially open to foreigners for several years.  They could visit established tourist destinations like Kunming, the Stone Forest, Dali, Lijiang and Jinghong, but little else.  But by then, the open-door policy was proving successful and over the next few years the government allowed foreigners into several more counties every season.
       Enough attractions existed in and around these popular sites to warrant extensive exploration and return excursions.  But once I began to make my trips to Yunnan regular, from then on as it turned out, I included at least one newly opened county every itinerary.  To guide my choices I thumbed through the coffee-table picture books on the province I bought from Kunming’s Foreign Languages Bookstore.  
       Having already had encounters with some of the Yi minority sub-groups, I decided to visit very different Yi in Dayao County, in northwest Chuxiong Prefecture.  Nobody went there because it was not en route to somewhere else.  Except for Dayao city itself, it was a Yi-dominated county, with different related sub-groups, and that was sufficient to lure me. They would show up at the Sunday market and particularly dominated the hills north of the city.
the Yi style in Guihua
        After a couple visits to Tanhua, where most Yi women dressed in traditional style and both sexes wore goatskin jackets and everything seemed pretty old-fashioned, I decided to go further north, where other Yi sub-groups lived.  Also motivating me was the fact that at the end of the road, such as it was, was a Dai district on the Upper Yangzi, in Yunnan called the River of Golden Sand (Jinshajiang).
       Back then that was certainly an off-the-beaten-track adventure.  The only public transportation was a weekly bus, several days off, so I had to pay for a ride with a logging truck going north of Guihua, the next major settlement and my destination 50 km away.  A couple foreigners had briefly been to Tanhua, so I was told, but no one went beyond, so I would be the first to visit remote ethnic minorities as well as rural provincial government officials.  As it turned out, the latter were more interesting than the former.
       Above Dayao the unpaved road zigzagged along the eastern slopes of Tanhua Mountain, at each turn providing views of mountains and distant villages perched on the ridges and just below the cliffs.  To make parts of this road, workers had to carve or blast through sheer walls of rock, with 70 degrees gradients on either side.  Aside from the views, I also appreciated the skill of Chinese road engineers.
Guihua town, Dayao County
       About an hour out of Tanhua the road crosses the last extension of Tanhuashan and the scenery changes abruptly.  The mountains are steeper, less forested, heavily terraced and rather densely populated, compared with the Tanhua area.  The road slowly winds down to the river valley below Guihua, visible nearly an hour before arrival.  The town sits on a ridge above the river, mainly comprising wide, mud-brick houses with wooden beams and tiled roofs, typical rural Yunnan style.
       I checked into a local cheap lodge, but before I could settle in and finish my coffee a representative of the local government arrived to invite me to stay in a private room in their quarters.  He also introduced the local middle school English teacher Li Hui to accompany me on my tour of Guihua.   That consisted of walking around looking for good photo angles, as this was the middle of the week and not much was happening anywhere, other than on the farms outside of town.
the 'family history' coat
       All that changes on Saturdays, when Guihua holds its market day and Yi from the hills stream into town.  I couldn’t stay that long, unfortunately, so couldn’t assess how popular traditional clothing might still be in the district.  Judging from how few Yi women wore it in Guihua and the villages nearby, and what Li Hui told me, it seemed to be less common than in other districts in the county, such as Tanhua and Santai.
       Two traditional Yi styles prevail in the district.  The more common one resembles that of the Tanhua Yi, the women wearing a side-fastened, long-sleeved jacket, embroidered apron, shoulder bag and plain black trousers.  Older women’s jackets are solid color and plain while the younger generation applies wide bands of colorful embroidery and appliqué on the sleeves and along the lapel.  Both the apron and shoulder bag feature bright red embroidered flowers.
       Very different is the outfit worn by the women of a small Yi sub-group north and west of Guihua.  Over an ankle-length black skirt trimmed with bands of bright appliquéd designs, they don a long-tailed jacket with wide bands of different cutout designs on the sleeves, front and back.  The patterns chosen for the back of the coat symbolically represent events in the wearer’s family history.  Thus, no two coats are identical and while they may only wear them on special occasions, every woman makes herself one because custom demands they be buried wearing it after they die.
the Yi 'chicken hat'
       For headgear, Guihua Yi women inclined to dress traditionally may don a simple black turban or a colored headscarf.  But a more common and striking choice in the area is the brightly embroidered ‘chicken hat.’  Shaped like a coxcomb and often worn sideways, with the head and tail above the ears, similar ‘chicken hats’ are popular with other Yi sub–groups in the province (Nisu in Yuanyang, Tuli in Weishan). 
       The origin of this hat is an ancient tale of two lovers pursued by the Prince of Devils.  First he killed the young man, then tried to capture the young woman.  She fled through the forest, with the Prince of Devils in hot pursuit, until she came to a village in a clearing.  A cock crowed, which stopped the demon in his tracks.  A witness to that, she guessed the demon was afraid of roosters.  So she grabbed it and ran back into the forest to where her lover lay.  The cock crowed again and the young man came back to life.  Ever since then Yi girls wear the hat in honor of the rooster, to symbolize good luck and happiness in love.
Yi house in Guihua
       In my engagements with the Yi women I met in Guihua I persuaded a couple of them to sell me their shoulder bags.  One featured the big embroidered flowers typical of the Guihua style.  The other was cross-stitched, like the bags in Tanhua.  Li Hui apparently mentioned this while we dined with the Party officials that evening.  After a few rounds of corn liquor one of them proposed that I set up a factory in Guihua to produce Yi embroidered shoulder bags for export.  They would allow me 70% ownership.      
       I explained that traditional handicraft work was not something done in a factory, but at home and in the field whenever time was available.  Besides, I was a petty trader, at best, and in fact more of a collector, with no idea how to market Yi shoulder bags. 
Dacun village, on the road northi of Guihua
       Undaunted, perhaps ambitious to secure a business relationship with the first foreigner in Guihua, he next proposed I build a paper factory.  My first thought was the horrific effect that would have on the clean stream that ran below the town.  But I didn’t mention that.  I told him the area didn’t have the right trees.  In fact, it didn't have hardly any trees at all, of any kind.
        The conversation soon shifted to other topics and the evening was quite convivial.  My hosts tried to arrange a jeep to take me to Wanbi.  Unfortunately, the Party was having an important meeting in Beijing at that time and Party officials in districts throughout the country had to have their own meetings to discuss the Meeting.  The jeeps were busy fetching people from remote villages to attend the meetings, both Guihua’s vehicles and those of Wanbi.
the main street of Upper Wanbi
       Wanbi lies 88 km north of Guihua and the logging trucks only went to a depot about half way.  So my hosts arranged the only available transportation—a tractor-trailer (tuolache).  I had to pay 200 yuan and Li Hui would accompany me to smooth the way with the Wanbi officials.  I was familiar with these vehicles.  I’d seen them bring people to market day in Dayao, for example.  But that was on paved city streets.  The road ahead was unpaved all the way and had been pretty bumpy riding in the relative comfort of a truck up from Tanhua.  Nevertheless, there was no other choice.
       By tractor-trailer is probably the least comfortable way to travel.  The driver sits on a small, three-wheel tractor in front and passengers sit or stand in the four-wheel trailer behind.  It was too rough to sit and even standing we were continuously jolted.  Moreover, though it was a fine spring day, the wind was fierce and blew the dust from the road all over our bodies, baggage and camera.  I often had to call for a pause, just to give my bones a chance to settle down.
Lower Wanbi and the river in the morning
       The rough and rollicking journey took most of the day. The scenery was much the same as around Guihua, with farms, pastures and villages dominating the largely deforested lower mountain slopes.  We crossed the last ridge, descended to Wanbi on the river and arrived in time to check in at the government lodge and have dinner with our gracious hosts, the local Dai government officials.
       There was no shower in the building, but they arranged basins of hot water and towels for us to wash off the dirt from the ride.  The Party was holding meetings here, too, so they would be busy until Sunday, when it would be possible for me to cross the river.  Li Hui and the driver returned to Guihua next morning and I had two days to explore the vicinity on my own.
Dai woman in Wanbi
the Jinshajiang near Wanbi
       Wanbi has two parts.  Upper Wanbi is the original Dai village, sited on a slope above its terraced fields, with a view of the Jinshajiang and other Dai villages.  Its main street is lined with wooden shop houses, while the residential neighborhoods feature houses of wooden frames, rammed earth and tiled roofs, occasionally thatched, like those of the Yi villages south of the ridge.   They get two crops a year, wheat in winter, rice in summer, use water buffaloes as draft animals and raise goats.
Lisu girl at the Binghai ferry port
       Wanbi Dai are animist, so no temples stand in the area.  The old folks told me they think they came up from Xishuangbanna or Myanmar many centuries ago, but they also claimed that before Wanbi they lived north of the river.  I tried out several Thai phrases, but the only similarity was kin khao (“eat rice”), which they pronounced jin khao. However, those who had been to Banna said they could understand most of the Dai dialect they heard there.
       Lower Wanbi is the administrative town, full of drab concrete buildings.  But it is on a knoll close to the river, the main attraction.  Rice fields lay beside the town all the way to the riverbanks, but on the other side the steep hills are practically barren of any kind of vegetation.  The river is in places turbulent, but at other sections placid enough for fishermen in small boats to cast nets.  Huge boulders bank the river periodically, while in other places it laps along stretches of white sand.  Colors on the river and the hills vary throughout the day and are richest in late sunny afternoons.
crossing the river at Binghai
       After breakfast noodles the district chairman drove me to Binghai, 10 km upriver, where several small boats ferried people across the river that day to attend the weekly market on the other side.  The crowd on both banks was mostly Dai, but also Han and Yi, with some Lisu from settlements high up in the hills on both sides of the river.  Except for a few older women in dark, side-fastened jackets and black turbans, the Dai wore modern clothes.  Older Lisu women dressed similarly to older Dai women, but some of the younger women wore a distinctive, brightly colored jacket. 
          The regular ferry had engine trouble at the time, so people were taking rowboats instead.  We wound up paddled across in a dinghy made from inflated tire tubes.  Beside the marketplace several tractor-trailers were parked and I fretted I’d have to ride one of those to the nearest highway.  But my host, who insisted on paying for everything, found a truck to take me instead.  I departed thanking him for his hospitality and in particular for the final service of securing me a truck to take me to the highway.  One tractor-trailer adventure was quite enough.

Jinshajiang--the River of Golden Sand
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