Monday, September 26, 2016

Non-Buddhist Dai in Xishuangbanna

                                                       by Jim Goodman

Huayao Dai in Mengyang market
       The usual assumption about the Dai ethnic minority in Xishuangbanna is that they are Buddhist.  After all, virtually every town and village inhabited by the Dai has a Buddhist temple.  I thought so myself on my first trip to Banna two dozen years ago.  What little information I had on the prefecture informed me that three main branches of the Dai lived here:  Shui Dai, Han Dai and Huayao Dai.  The Shui Dai lived near water (shui in Chinese), were the most numerous of the three and called themselves Dai Lu.  The other two lived away from streams and dressed differently and that’s all I knew at the time.
       At the end of that first trip, though, almost by accident, I learned that not all the Dai in Banna were Buddhist.  After visiting the tropical garden in Menglun, I opted to return to Jinghong via the northern route through Jinuoshan, intending to stop at Mengyang.  Nice route, much of it a nature reserve, but back then there was hardly any traffic.  I missed whatever bus was running and had to wait hours before I could flag down a truck.  I arrived in Mengyang quite late.
       I didn’t have much time in the morning, for I had a flight back to Kunming to catch late in the day.  The road back to Jinghong climbed over high hills just northeast of the city and took at least three hours.  I set out early to see the Mengyang attraction that inspired my stopover—the elephant tree.  This was a banyan tree in a grove at the edge of the town, whose roots thrust the tree trunk above the ground, with one part extending like an elephant’s trunk.  An eye had been painted on the part corresponding to the head, so that it did indeed resemble an elephant.
Huayao Dai woman carrying her load
Huyao Dai women in Mengyang
With a couple of hours left until the bus departed, I looked around for a temple to photograph.  Mengyang’s not a big town, even now, but I couldn't find one.  I did spot a couple beautifully dressed women in the market, carrying their loads in baskets suspended from each end of a balance pole.  Someone in the market identified them for me as Huayao Dai, non-Buddhists, which is why no temple stood in the area. 
the 'elephant tree' in 1992
the 'elephant tree' in 2006
       They were certainly more colorful than any Shui Dai I’d seen so far.  The outfit comprised a tubular skirt, a shorter skirt above that, long-sleeved jacket, shirt and silver turban.  The garments were black, but embellished with broad sections of colorful embroidery, especially around the midriff and hips.  It is this feature that gave then the name Huayao Dai—Flowery Waist Dai.
       It was several years before I could make a return trip to Xishuangbanna, but that included another, more extended visit to Mengyang.  A newly built road skirted the hills and the journey only took 45 minutes.  The town hadn’t grown much.  It still had just one main road running through the town, with one side, which contained the market, full of cement buildings and the other side basically the original Dai village, with houses of wood and brick. 
       The only real change was with the elephant tree.  Now the grove had a wall around it and a ticket booth at the entrance.  The elephant tree itself, maybe because it was in danger of sinking or toppling over, was now propped up by stilts and the ‘trunk’ was encased in wooden planks.  Now it looked like a crippled elephant on crutches with its fractured trunk in splints.
Huyao Dai village and fish pond
       But this time I came not for the tree but for the villages.  Mengyang is a few hundred meters higher than Jinghong and the altitude gradually increases further north.  No Shui Dai villages exist in the district.  Huayao Dai villages dominate, but there are also a few Han Dai villages, including the closest one to Mengyang.  The Han in Han Dai means ‘dry,’ to indicate that this Dai sub-group lives away from streams and rivers.
       So do the Huayao Dai.  And another characteristic they share with the Han Dai is housing.  They live in mud-brick houses with tiled roofs, generally set on the ground and not stilted like those of the Dai Lu.  They surround their compounds with bamboo fences to keep the animals out and keep old-fashioned handlooms to weave and embroider their clothing components.  
Mannazhuang ladies
       In the early 21st century the prefecture government chose one of the seven Huayao Dai villages in the district to be an official ‘cultural village.’  I was familiar with the concept.  Aini and Lahu ‘cultural villages’ used to lie beside the old road to Menghai.  But the new highway from Jinghong to Menghai ran right through the middle of these two villages, so as  ’cultural villages,’ replete with ticket booths and people ready to show you around, they ceased to exist.  The Jinuo had one, too, with a huge sculpture of the Jinuo goddess and a re-created traditional longhouse.  And of course, by then the Dai Park in Ganlanba had opened, with the highest ticket price.  But at least it had five villages to explore.
       Mannazhuang, the official Huayao Dai cultural village, was a pleasant surprise; no ticket booth and no handicraft/souvenir shop.   I was there in the company of a Dai resident of Mengyang who wanted to practice his English.  When we arrived, several Huayao Dai women, in full traditional outfits, were standing in the lane next to our drop-off point.  They were a bit shy, surprised to see us and were probably wondering whatever could they possibly talk about with us?
preparing the warps threads
       With my new friend interpreting for me, I told them I lived in northern Thailand and was involved in the ethnic textile business and wanted to know whether they made their beautiful garments themselves.  They did, of course, and used a loom similar to that of the Shui Dai, and if I wanted to see how it worked, women were dressing the loom—preparing the warp threads—right this very moment just two streets away.
       This is the first task in the weaving process, whether it’s for sheets, pillowcases or clothing components, the only one requiring a group effort.  When we arrived at the courtyard a dozen women were at work.  The older women dressed in traditional clothes; the younger ones did not.  But a young woman sat at the bench, rolling the threads around a drum, while the other women attended to the threads, wound around five pillars in a shed. 
Huayao Dai loom
       Just in front of her another woman inserted thin sticks in the line of threads at intervals to keep them straight.  In front of them, several women untangled, straightened and brushed the warp threads before they were wound on the drum.  This particular bolt of cloth was to be 120 meters long, and the women took over an hour to complete the work after we arrived.  That done, the women dispersed.  The next day they would assemble the loom and mount the warp threads on it.
       We left for other houses where weavers were at their looms.  The Huayao Dai loom is a simple wooden contraption with two heddles, which separate every other thread, attached to two foot treadles.  The weaver sits on a bench at the rear of the loom, depresses one treadle to open a shed in the warp threads, then tosses a shuttle with the weft thread through it and pulls the reed forward a few tines to knock the thread into place.
       This kind of loom can only produce plain weave.  Huayao Dai clothing components are full of embroidery and this is done by hand on the loom itself during the weaving process.  The weaver simply ties in yarn of different colors into places on the warp, without using extra heddles.  As the patterns are both different and repetitive, she has to remember exactly which colored thread goes in where and when.  It’s a laborious job, but certainly justified by the result. 
embroidering on the loom
       Men weave, too, but baskets, not cloth.  As in other traditional villages, they are responsible for the heavy agricultural work like plowing and house construction.  They are also in charge of the rituals, usually held at the village ancestral shrine, a simple altar in a grove at the edge of the settled area.  Being animist, the Huayao Dai do not celebrate the Buddhist festivals of the Dai Lu, but the Han Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival instead.  They do not celebrate Poshuije---the Water-Sprinkling Festival—either, at least in their villages.  But they are one of the contingents in the multi-ethic procession of Poshuijie’s first day.
       For this occasion the women wear the circular, slightly upturned bamboo hat worn by the Huayao Dai in Xinping and Yuanjiang counties, rather than their own round cap lined with silver chains.  The round bamboo cap is better known in Yunnan as a component of the Huyaao Dai women’s outfit, the procession showcases the prefecture’s ethnic clothing for outsiders, so perhaps the Jinghong authorities ordered the switch in headgear.  It’s hard to think that the Huayao Dai women themselves chose to make the change.  But Xinping and Yuanjiang counties are where they came from originally, migrating to Banna in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty.
Han Dai in Jingne
       The other animist Dai sub-group, the Han Dai, is not part of the Poshuijie procession.  Their women do not dress as colorfully as the Huayao Dai, but have a distinctive outfit.  They wear plain black turbans, pastel-colored blouses and a black tubular skirt with a long black apron in front, trimmed with blue and white stripes along the edges.  Besides a couple villages in Mengyang, they also live in Jingne district, northwest of Mengyang.
       All but unknown to tourists, Jingne is notable for the outstanding traditional Dai stilted houses in the three villages close to the town.  These Dai are Dai Lu and share a temple in nearby Dazhai.  Neighboring villages, though, are Han Dai, with houses on the ground.  Like the Huayao Dai they also immigrated to Xishuangbanna in the late 19th century, coming out of Jinggu County.  After I inquired about the Han Dai I’d seen in the town square, my hotel staff arranged a vehicle for me to visit the Han Dai village of Nafa, because there was wedding going on there. 
       I didn’t get to see any rituals, but did observe the wedding gifts—mostly household furniture-- piled up before the house where the feast was taking place.  As a guest, even an unexpected, uninvited one, I was immediately summoned to the feast.  The repast consisted of different pork dishes, sticky rice and several cups of rice liquor, accented by a spirited conversation about Dai in Yunnan and Thailand.  I had the distinct impression I was their first foreigner guest.
Nafa Han Dai village
       When a young woman came to refill my liquor cup, and I asked her, as I did in Mannazhuang, whether she made her own clothes, she at once offered to show me how.  The house loom was just a few meters away, so she sat at the bench, worked the heddles and treadles and demonstrated how cloth was made.  I was already quite familiar with this, but the important point was the pride she took in showing me her weaving.
       Besides the animist Dai, one other sub-group lives in Banna—the Paxitai.  They are Muslim by religion, but ethnically Dai.  Manlanhui is the main settlement, 8 km east of Menghai.  The community traces its origins to two Muslim missionaries from Weishan who came here in the mid-18th century seeking converts.  This site was on the tea caravan route and they set up a ferry on the river in front of the village, which was probably a lot bigger back then, and made a living from ferrying goods and people.  They married local Dai women and became the ancestors of the Paxitai.
Han Dai women in Nafa
Han Dai weaver
Manlanhui’s mosque exhibits both Arabian and Chinese features.  The onion-shaped minaret dome is clearly Middle Eastern style, but the tiled roofs and general layout are more characteristic of Chinese Hui mosques.  The villagers observe Ramadan and Friday prayers, but are not very strict.  Very few women wear headscarves and in general dress like their Buddhist neighbors.  The village has become wealthy thanks to the tea trade and modern cement houses have replaced their former dwellings, which were on the ground, not stilts.
       The other Paxitai village lies on the dirt road 5 km west.  Called Manzhanhui, it is newer, with residents who originated last century from Lancang County.  The mosque is totally Arabian style and not as attractive as that in Manlanhui.  Both Paxitai communities have been expanding their connections to the Hui minority—the Han Chinese Muslims.  Mostly this results in Hui-sponsored Islamic Studies programs. But the Dai Muslims still identify as Dai.  So do the Huayao Dai and Han Dai.  In Xishuangbanna, ethnic identity supersedes religion.  

Manlanhui in 2002  
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for more on the Dai in the area see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan


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