Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Buddhist Yi and Other Gengma County Surprises

                                                            by Jim Goodman

White Pagoda in Gengma
  Back in the late 90s, when I developed the ambition to explore all parts of Yunnan, Lincang was practically an unknown prefecture.  I hadn’t met anyone from there and didn’t know any travelers who’d been there, either.  It wasn’t part of any guidebooks, even Chinese ones, and all I could find in the bookstores was a single thin booklet, mostly about its industry, border trade and development.  While some Yi and Lahu lived in scattered areas in the north, most of the minority-inhabited areas were in the southern counties.   For my first venture into the prefecture I chose Gengma, because it was a Dai and Wa Autonomous County.
       Coming from Baoshan into the northern part of Lincang Prefecture, the scenery was a drab landscape of largely denuded hills and concrete towns.  The road was not very good and it took all day to reach Yunxian.  But halfway from there down to Gengma, on yet another slow road in dire need of improvement, the landscape changes.  The hills are more forested, the higher mountains closer, villages further apart and mostly Dai instead of Han, with pagodas gracing small hills next to the settlements.    Sugarcane is the dominant crop in the fields, supplying the sugar mill in Gengma city, mustard and rice also grown.
Dai women in Gengma
       Gengma sits on a small knoll in one of the shallow valleys amongst the low, surrounding hills.  Ethnic Dai dominate the city’s population.  Each neighborhood has its own name and these are signposted at all the intersections in the residential zone.  A large painted stone sculpture of a peacock, the Dai mascot, stands in front of an old and sprawling banyan tree in the middle of the city and two Han-style ornamental gates mark both ends of the commercial district.
       Dai women, from adolescence up, both in Gengma and the rural villages, dress in old-fashioned Dai style.  The traditional everyday outfit consists of a black sarong, usually velvet but sometimes cotton or silk, a white terry cloth turban and a side-fastened, long-sleeved jacket with rounded hems front and rear.  Jewelry they generally save for special occasions, but most wear small gold, barrel-shaped ear plugs about one cm diameter.  Many wear shoes that are embroidered with cross stitch designs or appliquéd with cutouts coincidentally resembling Sani Yi patterns east of Kunming.
lessons at Mangkang Temple
       Buildings within the city are uninspired concrete structures, but Gengma does have two outstanding old Buddhist monuments.  One is the lone white pagoda on a slope above the middle school, built in 1472.  It is in a style similar to those in Dehong, a tall central spire surrounded by smaller spires on two levels.  The other is the Zongfo Buddhist temple next to the pond in the city park.  First constructed a year later, it is a long and attractive building with prayer banners hanging down from the rafters at the entrance and scenes from Journey to the West carved on its doors.
       With its wide, slightly sloping, tiered roofs with upturned corners, the temple reflects the Mahayana Buddhist style of its Han neighbors rather than that of Dai temples in Xishuangbanna, with their tall, steeply sloping roofs.  Gengma’s Dai are Theravada Buddhists, though, as in Banna and Dehong.  Their monks and novices dress in orange robes and the lay folk follow the same ritual Buddhist calendar as their counterparts in Southeast Asia.
Zongfo Temple
       Not every Dai village has a temple, though.  A few might have a pagoda in the vicinity, but usually the village has a central sacred spot, marked by a specially carved post and altar.   The nearest temple beyond Gengma was at Mangkang, about seven km south, in a similar style as at Zongfo Temple.  About a dozen monks and novices resided there when I visited, arriving at a moment when an older monk, prayers tattooed on his arms, was instructing the boy novices on reading and reciting the Dai language prayer books.  He used a long pointer to indicate which words the boys mispronounced (though not to hit them with when they did so).  In another corner of the hall boys were studying texts, while outside the teenage novices were at leisure, whittling or riding roller skates.
monk at leisure, Mangkang Temple
Since they serve communities outside that don’t have their own temples, both Meangkang Temple and Zongfo Temple are quite active at Guanmenjie and Kaimenjie, the opening and closing festivals of the Buddhist retreat season.  As for the city, ordinarily Gengma is a rather quiet and unhurried place.  But every five days it hosts an open market day, when villagers from both hill and valley swarm into town and its commercial area hums with activity.
       For a city of such modest size (you could walk from one end to the other in less than an hour) the market day area was quite large, comprising three large adjoining squares in the city center and a number of lanes branching out to the main street, Gengmadajie, between the entry gates.  The squares and adjoining lanes, even Gengmadajie, fill up with so many stands and stalls that there is just barely enough room for the customers and passers-by. 
       Every sort of local product is on sale:  straw for roofing, ropes, jungle herbs, all kinds of edibles both raw and prepared, spices and seasonings, stools, cloth, wood, thread, brooms, tools, sugarcane, tea, molasses and even rabbits.   Local Dai dominate the food markets, hawking noodles, fruits, hot and sour salads, pickled delicacies and bean gelatin.  In slacker moments some of them work on embroidering or appliqué for their next pair of shoes.
market day iGengma
       One of the squares is allotted to animals, mainly pigs and buffaloes.  While it doesn’t take long for a buyer to decide whether a pig is worth buying, those purchasing buffaloes were more particular and closely examined both the feet and the teeth before making up their minds.
       As I expected, many Wa women came down to Gengma from hills to the east and south.   They were easy to recognize with their darker skin tone, red and black sarongs, ear studs three times bigger than those worn by the Dai women, sometimes augmented by diamond-shaped silver pendants.  And they all seemed to be addicted to tobacco, smoking ii constantly in long silver pipes.  As elsewhere in Yunnan, the Wa women in Gengma for market day were quite friendly and I wanted to visit one of their villages on any return trip to Gengma.
examining a buffalo
       Of course, since Gengma was a Dai and Wa Autonomous County I expected Wa to show up on market day.  But they were not the only non-Dai minority in the market.  Two kinds of Lahu showed up in their traditional outfits, as well as Lisu from the same sub-group as western Dehong and a few Jingpo, in modern clothes but recognizable by the silver-studded Jingpo shoulder bag common in Dehong.  None of the maps I had on ethnic distribution in Yunnan indicated there were any Lisu or Lahu at all anywhere near Gengma, so there were discoveries to pursue someday in the county.
Dai food stalls o market day
       Women of one Lahu group wore a long, side-fastened black jacket, with thin, multi-colored strips lining the lapel and in bands around the sleeves and cuffs, and plain black trousers.  They carried shoulder bags of bright, thin, horizontal stripes in many colors and on their heads wore a round red cap. 
       The other Lahu group wore side-fastened jackets of medium blue and heavily embroidered or appliquéd in the front.  This they combined with blue, knee-length shorts, embroidered around the hems, like the outfit worn in Nanmei, over in Lincang County, where they were probably from.
       Market days are essential for a traveler to know who lives in the vicinity and might be worth a visit.  I didn’t learn where all the Lahu and Lisu lived, but found out that traditional Wa villages lay on the way east to the snow mountain Daxueshan and Buddhist Wa lived past Mangkang.  On my return to Gengma a year ad a half later I planned a Wa village excursion in between market days in Mengsheng to the south (smaller, less interesting) and Gengma two days later (as lively and colorful as the first time).
Lahu woman in Gengma
Wa woman in the market
       Unfortunately, landslides had just blocked the way to Daxueshan and heavy rains made the route out of Mangkang all but impassable.  Forced to turn back, my driver suggested we go instead to a Tu minority village called Mangyou.  Tu minority?  Never heard of them.  Let’s go.
Lisu and Dai
       The road was just as muddy as the route to the Wa villages, but we could get to Mangyou because the villagers had covered the last stretch with a bed of bamboo sticks.  Rice, maize and sugarcane fields surrounded the village and the hills were largely deforested to make room for farms.  Most houses were stilted, with angled, thatched roofs and adjoining open balcony, like those of the Wa.  A few had corrugated iron roofs and some were brick, but with an elevated attached balcony. 
       The women wore a side-fastened, plain blue jacket for everyday use, over a black, calf-length sarong over black leggings and on their heads a black turban with the fringed end hanging over one side.  For special occasions they don a jacket trimmed with color bands around the cuffs and rows of solver studs along the lapel.  Younger girls dressed in Dai-style blouses and sarongs, sometimes matching, and many tied their hair up like Dai girls in Gengma.  The men, of course, dressed in ordinary modern clothes.
       Villagers were shy upon our arrival, but soon a local family invited us inside for a chat and a glass of local rice liquor.   And that brought a small crowd along.  We entered a sparsely furnished room, with a bed along one wall, and crouched on the floor beside the fireplace in a slightly sunken square in the center.  An iron cooking tripod held a kettle above the coals and a split bamboo tray hung above the hearth, to hold bamboo utensils and containers and such to be hardened by the smoke.
Mangyou Yi village
       It resembled the hearths of Wa , Lahu or Aini houses I’d visited elsewhere in Yunnan.  But the large stove-oven in the kitchen reminded me of Hani houses in Ailaoshan.  Wooden buckets and mortars and half-gourd water pitchers lay along the wall beside it.  There were no tables, chairs or stools.  Family and guests crouched together around the hearth, guaranteeing automatic intimacy.
       While we conversed I showed them pictures I took of people in the Gengma market my first trip.  After looking through them they asked me if I had any photos of Yi people.  I replied I didn’t know what they looked like.  Well, they were Yi, as it turned out, though Gengma folks called them Tu, their sub-group name.  This was the only Yi village in the county, though they said another Tu/Yi village was near Mengjiao in Cangyuan County.
Yi woman in Mangyou
       Already familiar with Yi culture elsewhere in Yunnan, I asked them if they had a bìmaw, the Yi ritual specialist, and celebrated the Torch Festival.  No, they celebrated Guanmenjie and Kaimenjie, because they were Buddhist.  They migrated here sometime in the Qing Dynasty and adopted the religion of their Dai neighbors.  They didn’t have their own temple, just the sacred village center pillar like Buddhist villages, Dai or Wa.  For festivals and important religious events they went to Mangkang Temple. 
       I didn’t ask whether any of their boys went down to the temple to be novices for a while, but their claim they followed Buddhist precepts in guiding their lives seemed genuine.  They were certainly as polite and mild-mannered as the Dai households I’d visited around Gengma. 
sacred village post and altar
       Much of the conversation had to be translated through one of the men who could speak Chinese.  The younger generation knew more Chinese than their elders, but it was the elders with whom I talked the most.  The women knew some Dai language from their market experience, but basically conversation among the villagers was all in Yi.
       Mangyou villagers are Buddhist, like the Dai, and live in houses like those of the Wa, yet still proudly identify themselves as Yi, even though they cut themselves off from other Yi centuries ago.  Within their own community they have tenaciously retained their Yi language for everyday usage.  By now it must be practically a separate dialect from that spoken by Yi in Dali Prefecture.  They keep it alive because it is their link with their past, exemplifying how language alone can define ethnic identity.

Mangyou Yi  woman dressed up for market day
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