Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Xishuangbanna Craft Villages, Past and Present

                                                             by Jim Goodman

ceramic figurines on a temple roof
       In the classic period of its history, from the late 12th to the early 19th centuries, Xishuangbanna was a virtually autonomous state.  Its ruler acknowledged the Chinese Emperor as his suzerain and in return ruled his domain without imperial interference.  He also paid tribute to the Chinese Court, but sometimes he also, just to be safe, paid tribute to the much closer Burmese Court.  The state’s population was mainly Dai, inhabiting the plains towns and valleys.  Non-Dai minorities lived in the hills, but interacted little with the Dai, while their administration was left to village headmen.
       Dai society then was strictly hierarchical.  At the top were the ruler—chao phaendin—and his extended family.  Just below them were his relatives.  They formed the Dai aristocracy, the classes that didn’t have to indulge in any manual labor.  That responsibility fell on the much more numerous commoner classes of indigenous settlers, servants and slaves, in the form of taxes, requisitions or services.  
       Villages were basically self-sufficient.  Hence, commercial trade did not play nearly as important a role as it does now.  District towns had shops, of course, for farmers couldn't produce everything they required.  They also had periodic market days, when people from the vicinity came to exchange goods.  A few of these have persisted to contemporary times, such as the Menghai County towns of Menghun, Menga, Xiding and Mengman.
Dai potter at work
making paper in Manzhao
       Besides their ordinary agricultural production, some villages specialized in particular crafts.  Sometimes these were for contracted customers, such as the ceramic figurines for decorating temples, palaces and the homes of aristocrats, or the paper and palm-leaf manuscripts used by temples and government offices.  Other times they worked under contract to supply the aristocracy with its needs.
       Certain craft items were produced for the market and the public at large, such as pottery, drums, jewelry, umbrellas and cloth.  Some of these villages, mostly in Menghai County, have maintained their craft traditions down to the present day, even if fewer families are engaged in such production.
traditional paper umbrella
Dai drums
       Jingzhen village, home to the Octagonal Pavilion, has long been associated with the production of the little ceramic figurines that decorate the roofs of temples and houses.  They are made from a certain kind of white clay peculiar to the area.  Workers pound and knead this clay and then shape it into figures of roosters, peacocks, nagas, stylized flames, etc. and paint them different colors.  When these are dry the workers put them in a small kiln to bake them.
making a drum in Mandan
       Manzha village, in Menghun district, still produces the kind of ceramics for general use—bowls, vases, pots, jars and basins.  Nowadays much of the production is of bricks and tiles, which were not used so much in the past.  But pottery for domestic use still accounts for a good percentage of the output, made in the same manner as it was hundreds of years ago, without the use of a kiln.
       Potters use a small, thick wooden wheel mounted on a swivel.  Seated on a stool beside it, the potter drops a lump of clay onto the wheel, spreading it up to a few centimeters from the circumference edge.  Giving the wheel a spin, the potter shapes it from the inside, adding more clay as required to make it taller, using a thin, flat stick to make the inside surface smooth and a thicker, flat board for smoothing the exterior.  After the piece has been put into its desired final shape, the worker takes it to an open field, stands it on its rim, covers it with straw and burns the straw.  When the piece has been completely fired it is darker, hard and ready for use.
sample of inlaid patterns on Dai textiles
       In former times the village production of everyday ceramics served many villages in the area. But these are in competition now with containers made from synthetic materials like rubber-plastic.  As the Dai have become more prosperous though, they have often replaced their wooden houses with ones made of brick, like in the Dai neighborhoods of Menghun.  This is why production in the village shifted more towards bricks and tiles. 
       The production of palm-leaf manuscript pages, formerly the specialty of Mangui village, east of Jinghong, has all but died out.  Paper long ago had already been replacing palm leaf for religious manuscripts and the Red Guards destroyed nearly the entire stock in the village in the late 60s.  Mangui lies opposite a strange, abandoned park called The Art Garden of Banna Dreams.  It contains a number of dilapidated buildings in the Dai style and weird statues of a bearded Indra and various good and evil creatures from local mythology.  Supposedly the statues took their appearance from descriptions in the palm-leaf manuscripts of Mangui.  Nowadays the village reprints the old manuscripts on paper.  They are used to guide the selection of auspicious days for weddings, funerals, building a house, etc.
Dai weaver in Manluangdian
Traditional paper-making, however, is still carried on in a few places, such as Manzhao, about five kilometers north of Menghun.  Workers begin by boiling bark from the mulberry tree for a long time, then beating it to pulp on flat rocks.  Then they spread the pulp in a long tray, add a little water, and mix it to make the solution relatively even.   The worker then carefully lays a rectangular, framed screen into the solution just below its surface, spreads the pulp evenly across the surface of the screen, lifts it out, removes any twigs or debris and leans it against a tree or wall to dry.  On a sunny day the sheet is dry in one afternoon.  Besides official documents and religious manuscripts, the paper also found use for wrapping bricks of tea.
       A thicker version of the same paper is used for making umbrellas, still a tradition in Manxing village, south of Mengzhe.  Families involved in the trade produce their own paper, treat it with sesame oil and color bands of it black, brown and pale yellow.  The frame and handle are from bamboo.  Local farmers use them and traditional umbrellas are one of the gifts devotees donate to the temple monks.
making a basket--men's work
plaiting split bamboo
       Temples also needed drums, especially big ones, though they were not the only customers.  Traditional orchestras, village dance troupes and martial arts groups also used drums.  One of the last places still pursuing this trade is Mandan village, about 15 km east of Mengla, involved for over three hundred years.  It also enjoys a reputation for its martial arts tradition.
       The wood comes from various hardwoods in the nearby forest.  After cutting the wood to the appropriate sizes, the worker leaves it in the house to dry for over a year.  Then he uses chisels, knives and other tools to hollow it out and shape the outside.  When that is done he paints it with lacquer colors, usually red, white and black.  After the paint dries the last step is to stretch a square strip of rawhide over the drumhead and secure it with fasteners of split bamboo. With changes in temperature and humidity the drumhead tends to slacken and must be tightened by pulling on or twisting the fasteners tied down on the upper side of the drum.
Dai-style jewelry, from a Menghun workshop
As for cloth production, weaving was much more widespread in the past, for virtually every Dai family had a loom and mothers trained their daughters in ginning, spinning and weaving at an early age.  Women used a wooden frame loom with two treadles and sat at a bench at the end of the loom to weave.  Heddles separated the warp threads and by stepping on a treadle every other thread was lifted, creating a shed through which to throw the shuttle with the weft thread.  After moving the reed forward to beat the weft into place, the weaver stepped on the other treadle to make the next shed.  The interlocking warp and weft threads created a strip of plain-weave cloth, with no surface adornment or complex pattern.
       To add the embroidered designs onto the cloth required making extra heddles for supplementary weft thread.  This they did by inserting thin bamboo sticks particular ways into the warp to separate different sections of thread.  Complex surface patterns needed at least a couple dozen of these extra heddle sticks.  Besides cloth for making clothing items, weavers produced sheets and bedspreads, pillowcases, towels and, when feeling religious, wall hangings (tung) for the temples.  In classic times the palace and various aristocratic families, whose women didn’t weave, contracted certain villages to produce their clothing, brocades and other fancy textiles.
Dai-style gold ornaments
leaf-style silver hair ornament
       In contemporary times looms have practically disappeared from ordinary village households.  But a few, such as Manhuomeng, near Menghun, and Manluangdian, just west of Jinghong, maintain the weaving tradition.  Most of their production is in specialty items, such as fancy brocaded bedspreads for wealthy locals and tapestries for tourist customers taken there by tour operators.
       Weaving cloth was always women’s work, but weaving split bamboo baskets and other containers was men’s work.  After cutting the bamboo into strips, men plaited the strips and shaped them into various containers.   They could be woven very loosely, with spaces between the joints, as in baskets for carrying firewood or bags of grain and other produce, or very tightly, like the large ones for carrying grain or the small tobacco cases. No particular village specialized in split-bamboo products, for they all produced them.  If they made more than they needed they sold the surplus in the markets. 
silver hair bun ornament
       In Banna today there are more men still weaving with split bamboo than women weaving with handlooms.  Factory-made cloth of all kinds is readily available in any town market, and while cheap synthetic substitutes for split-bamboo baskets and containers are also available, it takes far less time to weave a basket than a bolt of cloth.  Some men keep it up because it gives them something useful to do.  The synthetic stuff might be cheap, but that made from bamboo is free.
      A craft that was not so universal, nor the specialty of a certain village, but rather that of select families in towns like Menghun, where it still carries on, is that of making jewelry.  Dai women have always loved ornaments.  They wore rings on their fingers, bangles around their wrists, rings and studs through the earlobes, necklaces and fancy pendants, silver belts, sometimes with attached pendants, to hold the sarong around the waist, and various pins and brooches.
       They also decorated their hair with flowers, ribbons and jewelry.  Women tied their hair in a bun and embellished that with a special pin, affixed silver leaves to it, or wrapped it in an open-work silver cone, with dangling pendants.  The upper classes referred gold, while the commoners used silver.  Nowadays, with the classes abolished and prosperity reaching all Dai villages, traditional jewelry is still popular.  On market days particularly, Dai women like to show it off. 
      In those families still involved in the production, young women do most of the work.  Their tools comprise an awl, clamps, pliers, a small, bellows-operated, acetylene torch, a perforated plate for sizing wire and a roller to make silver plate super-thin.   They use the little torch to weld together chain links, using a copper-silver alloy, though the rest of the item is pure silver.  For filigree work they make careful use of the pliers.
making a silver chain in Menghun
rubber seed necklaces in Manhefang
       Traditional jewelry is still popular in Banna because the Dai people, though not immune to modern influences, have retained a strong sense of tradition.  They often prefer using split-bamboo baskets and containers and ceramic pots over substitutes in the market just because they are traditional.  In recent years some villages that have kept their traditional stilted houses have applied for recognition as a “culture village.” 
       One of these, Manhefeng, south of Jinghong near the prefecture museum, invented a new handicraft—the making of rubber seed necklaces to sell to tourists.  The village didn’t have enough land to turn over to rubber plantations and so the people never benefited enough from their small rubber patch to afford new houses.  But with the prefecture government promoting all things traditional, Manhefeng saw a chance to turn their small rubber production into a new income.   
       Because of its traditional architecture and its location near the museum, Manhefang became a regular tourist stop.  A couple of silver workshops are on the itinerary, along with stalls selling Dai clothing, but the main souvenir item is the rubber seed necklace.  Villagers use on an old-fashioned wooden punching device to make holes in the seeds.  Business has been good since Manhefang became a “culture village” and its residents have monetary incentive to keep their tradition.  One can only hope that other Dai villages, not yet wealthy enough to have the option to discard their traditions for a modern look and lifestyle, will be inspired to do something similar.

Dai-style silver sarong belt with pendants
                                                                      * * *

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Bridging Gaps, Gorges, Streams and Rivers in Yunnan

                          by Jim Goodman

crossing a river at Pula, Gongshan County
        With much of its topography characterized by steep mountains, deep valleys and swift flowing rivers, Yunnan has always been a difficult place to get around.  That’s not so obvious today, for paved roads have penetrated the most remote areas, tunneling through the mountains when necessary, and modern bridges span many points on the rivers.  Such things didn’t exist in ancient times, though, when fissures in the rocky landscapes and streams that were too dangerous to cross on foot or swim through and migrants or even hunters had to devise a way to get to the other side or be restricted to a limited environment.
       If it were a very narrow defile, and climbing down the cliff to cross the stream, even if one could wade through it, was just too much trouble, one could solve the problem by felling a tree on one side to reach the other side.  If it were to be on a permanent route, then folks would anchor it more securely on each side.  Or they might substitute a few sturdy bamboo poles lashed together, wide enough to walk upon, with a cable of some kind on each side to hang on to and not fall.
bamboo plank bridge above Gongshan
riding a rope-bridge in Nujiang
       Another primitive kind of bridge was a rope made of vine, tied to tree trunks on each side, over which people crossed by hand.  These couldn’t have been very long, but the concept evolved into a more sophisticated kind of rope-bridge, especially employed in the canyons of the Three Rivers region (Nujiang, Lancangjiang and Jinshajiang) of northwest Yunnan.
Lisu women crossing the Nu River near Lumadeng
       These usually came in pairs, with the starting point higher on each side than the landing point on the opposite bank.  Hence, they were called ‘tilting ropeways.’  The ropes were made of plaited split bamboo, the same kind used to haul boats at the ports on the Yangzi.  To make them people stripped off the outer layer of the bamboo, 3 mm wide, planed the strips to make them smooth and then plaited them. 
       Bamboo is a very special and strong plant.  These split bamboo ropes had a tensile strength nearly equal to that of steel.  They never broke.  To ride one across the canyon, one sat in a rope harness attached by hooks to the cable rope and hold one hand on a slider on the rope, to keep the hand from getting singed holding onto the cable.  The passage proceeded at a moderate speed, but sometimes the momentum would give out before reaching the other side.  Then riders had to haul themselves by hand the remaining distance.
suspension bridge at Dulongjiang
early 20th c. Nujiang trail (from the Morse family archives)
     Another quality of the bamboo ropes, valued by the boat-haulers on the Yangzi river, was that, instead of deteriorating under water for prolonged periods, the immersion actually strengthened them.  While the rope-bridges in Yunnan were never under water, they were certainly subjected to monsoon rains.  Though they never broke, under long heavy stress, like the passage of a caravan, they began to sag and had to be replaced.  (The government replaced split bamboo ropes with wound steel cables in the 1950s.)
Duoyi RIver bridge, Luoping County
       Nujiang Canyon, in western Yunnan’s borderlands with Myanmar, experienced many of these caravans in the old days.  With no suspension bridges in place, they had to cross the river by rope-bridge, with all their cargo and animals.   This could be very time-consuming, especially for a large caravan, and might require two or three days.  Also, the rope-bridges would probably begin to sag partway through the crossing, when animals would be stuck on them before they reached the end.  Then men had to slide down and pull the frantic animal the remaining distance.  Inevitably, a major caravan crossing required replacing the ropes at least once.
bamboo bridge, Menglian County
       According to the Nu minority nationality in the northern part of the canyon, their goddess Areng created the rope-bridge.  She was pining for a lover on the other side of the river and to get to him she fired a rope from a giant crossbow to land on the opposite bank and then scampered across the rope.  That’s the mythological explanation, but it’s still a mystery how people installed the rope-bridges in the first place.  Most of them crossed rapids, so people couldn’t block off the flow of the river to cross on foot, take the rope with them and then secure it on the other side.
       For smaller, less turbulent streams, folks could temporarily dam up the water flow and transport the building materials.  Bamboo served the purpose in most cases.  Some would consist of bamboo poles lashed together for the part to walk across, with long bamboo poles on either side to hold on to.  Long bamboo poles on each side could intersect in an arc over the center, to contribute to the stability of the bridge.
bamboo bridge, Luchun County
       Bridge-builders could also cut the bamboo into planks or plaited strips and lay them horizontally over the walking part, or deck, supported by long cables that were anchored firmly to each side.  Such bridges would sway a little bit when people crossed them, especially carrying heavy loads or leading animals, but they always had poles or, later, iron cables on each side to grasp and keep one’s balance.  Quite sturdy and durable, they are still in use in various parts of Yunnan.
       With the introduction of iron as a construction element, suspension bridges grew more sophisticated.  Iron chains lay under the wooden or bamboo planks of the bridge and were fastened to iron anchors at each end that were encased in stone.  In some cases there were no planks at all and people crossed by walking carefully on one of the chain links, hanging onto the guardrails on the side.  This called for some balancing skills, and animals never used such chain link bridges, but apparently people preferred this to negotiating on foot through the boulders and torrents below.
Yunlong Bridge,Yangbi
modern suspension bridge in Jinghong
       Iron-reinforced suspension bridges could bear a heavier load, so these were built along the main trade routes—the Southern Silk Road and the Tea and Horses Road.  These could support the passage of a hundred baggage-laden animals and their handlers and the crossing could be done in several minutes, rather than the two or three days required in Nujiang, which didn’t have any suspension bridges over the Nu River until after the mid-20th century.  Moreover, the iron cables didn’t sag from continual use, so didn’t have to be replaced.
Belt Bridge, Black Dragon Pool Park, Lijiang
      Highways have replaced the ancient trails and trucks have taken over from caravans.  But a few of the old bridges remain.  The most accessible is the Yunlong Bridge in Yangbi, on the other side of the Cangshan Mountains, west of Dali.  Yangbi was a stop on the old Bonan Road north to Shaxi and Jianchuan and west to Yongping and Baoshan. 
       Built in the Ming Dynasty, 53 meters long, 2.3 meters wide and 12.9 meters above the Yangbi River, it consists of nine iron cables, with wooden planks over them, cables on the sides and blockhouses at each end.  The bridge is still in regular use by local villagers, who bring their animals when coming to Yangbi for market day.  Caravans ceased using it decades ago.  The new commercial highway passes south of Yangbi and does not run over the old Bonan Road.  This probably spared the Yunlong Bridge from being replaced by a more modern suspension bridge, like the kind constructed al over the province in recent decades, both for vehicles and for pedestrians only, supported by iron cables sling between towers over pillars below the deck. 
the Old Stone Bridge in Dayan, Lijiang
       Such suspension bridges are common throughout the world and in some cases are tourist attractions (Golden Gate in San Francisco, for example).  But another kind of bridge, made of stone, with arches and a rounded walkway, was also associated with China.  When the French Mekong Expedition in the 1860s crossed into China in Xishuangbanna, they didn’t really feel they were in China proper until they left Xishuangbanna, went north to Simao (now renamed Pu’er) and saw an arched stone bridge.  Ah, that was an image of China they were familiar with, expected to see, and confirmed that they were now in the China of their imagination.
       The Expedition’s chroniclers didn’t comment on any other arched bridges, but the phenomenon existed throughout the province.  Besides spanning rivers, they were also used to connect to pavilions or shrines in temple ponds.  In the latter case, with the round arches reflected in the water, the viewer sees an aesthetically pleasing row of circular images.  The pathway on the bridge could be straight or slightly higher in the center, with the biggest arch in the center and arches of diminishing size on either side.  A good example is the Belt Bridge in Lijiang’s Black Dragon Pool Park.
arched stone bridge in Shaxi
       Lijiang’s other famous bridge, also arched, spans one of the streams running through the Dayan old town.  Called the Old Stone Bridge, and one of the very few original structures left in the old town, it dates to the early Ming Dynasty.  Kubilai Khan is supposed to have pitched his camp here when he arrived after his army crossed the Jinshajiang on Naxi-supplied goatskin rafts.  Naxi communities then lived further north in the plain and Dayan grew up beside the Old Stone Bridge only after the Khan’s departure.
       Folks in the towns and countryside also built arched stone bridges over their streams.  Usually they had but a single large arch that made the center of the bridge two or three meters higher than the entrances on each side.  Supposedly, this was to allow small boats with sails, or more likely rafts with people standing up in them, to pass under the bridge.  Some of the highly arched bridges had a kind of staircase to use.  The stone bridges were generally wider than suspension bridges, often with stone guardrails on the sides and animal sculptures at the ends.
Double Dragon Bridge, Jiamshui County
       Such bridges are still in use throughout the province.  Where they exist in or near towns they are especially active on market days.  People carry their goods and lead their animals across them and because of the high arched middle, vehicles like cars, motorbikes and even tractor-trailers usually avoid them.
       Multiple-arch bridges also used odd numbers, like three, five or seven.  This was especially necessary, aesthetically speaking, if the middle of the bridge rose higher than the ends.  Then the largest arch was directly in the center and an even number of arches had to flank on each side to give it overall visual balance.  The bridges were, after all, a kind of art form, and had to be guided by principles of harmony.
covered bridge over the Yongchun River, Weixi County
       Of all of Yunnan’s classic stone bridges, Shuanglongqiao (Double Dragon Bridge) in Jianshui County, has the most arches.  Originally constructed in the late 18th century with just three arches and a three-story central tower, because the river started getting wider and the bridge couldn’t cross all of it, the local governor had it expanded to seventeen arches, with an additional, smaller tower at one end.
       Today it’s difficult to imagine why the extension was necessary.  Except after the heaviest monsoon rains, the river is so narrow and shallow it only passes under a few of the arches.  Under most arches the land is dry and local people walk under the bridge more often than over it.  While the location is not far from Jianshui, it is not near a heavily populated rural area and seems to have been of limited commercial value.  Nevertheless, it is one of the most beautiful bridges in the province.
covered bridge near Chongxin, Yunlong County
       Other arched stone bridges featured a tower over the center, a place to shelter in a sudden storm, a feature that may have inspired another type of Chinese bridge:  the Wind and Rain Bridge (fengyuqiao).  This had a roof over the entire span of the bridge and wooden walls along the sides.  They were so named because they provided protection against wind and rain, not just for people who happened to be traveling that way, but undoubtedly for farmers who were in nearby fields.  They even had benches installed inside and racks to put loads or baggage.
       Centuries after their construction, many of these are still in use, especially in the west.  Weixi, Yunlong and Tengchong Counties have several along some of the main routes.  Sometimes the covered bridge spans such a small stream, where there are alternative routes to get to the main paths, that one wonders why they even built it.  Maybe they just wanted something beautiful in their environment, a landmark that reflected their pride and aesthetic taste.
       Covered bridges service communities that are remote, off the beaten track, not part of important commercial networks and not in areas targeted for development.  Therefore, they won’t need to be replaced by something bigger, sturdier and more modern looking.  They will remain standing in the countryside as a testimony to the ingenuity of Chinese engineers, with their special aesthetic touch.

coming out of the covered bridge at Baoluo,Yunlong County
                                                                     * * *