by Jim Goodman
Entering from Yuanyang County, after 15 km the traveler comes to Luchun city, the county capital, lying on a long, high, narrow, east-west ridge. Its modern buildings, largely whitewashed cement, line the ridge, with Hani villages and rice terraces immediately below on each side. The bus station, central market and public park are in a four-block stretch in the city center. From the park and from glimpses between the buildings are good views of the terraces and mountain scenery.
The main Hani sub-group call themselves Awo Hani. Females of all ages still prefer their traditional clothing, consisting of a very Chinese-style, long-sleeved jacket over trousers and a round decorated turban. Most jackets fasten on the right side, with a few buttoned down the front. The style is relatively uniform, but they could be any color. Some prefer black or dark blue, and not just the older women. Others choose a variety of soft pastel colors, often patterned, no two alike. The trousers are usually plain or else black with a blue stripe around the shins.
Every horse and rat day in the 12-day animal cycle Luchun stages its market day. Villagers swarm into the city bearing a variety of products to sell or empty pack-baskets to fill with goods to take home. They set up stalls to offer rice, various vegetables, spices, forest goods, medicinal herbs, baby frogs caught in the terraces, honeycombs, edible insects or clothing. Some may even just stand somewhere on the street holding a single item, like a cooked bird or a newly made traditional jacket.
Market day also attracts Hani from other parts of the county, mostly the south, like Sanmeng and areas closer to the Vietnam border. Some groups from the far south wear fancier turbans with decorative flaps and tassels and a jacket festooned with several triangles of silver studs. The crowd may also include a sprinkling of other minority nationalities in the county, like Yi, Dai and Yao.
The county’s indigenous Yi belong to another sub-group from four villages near Niukong, 37 km west of Luchun. The road winds down from the high ridge and runs along the Niukong River, passing many Hani villages, mostly on the south side, with mud-brick houses and thatched or more often tiled roofs—the typical rural Yunnan style, though not enclosed by compound walls. After passing a few bamboo bridges the road reaches Niukong town beside the river. Market day here takes place a day before Luchun, on snake and pig days, drawing local Yi as well as a few Hani sub-groups.
West of Niukong the road rises into the hills and away from the river to a turnoff about 15 km later that runs south for 65 km to Qimaba, a large Dai settlement of over 200 houses almost exactly in the center of the county. Hani villages sprinkle the hills in the beginning, but soon the environment is heavily forested until Qimaba, which lies on a gentle slope above its terraces. Irrigated by streams that also run through the residential area, reinforced by stone walls on their sides, the terraces stretch out like a fan in front of the village and end at the cliffs above the Chama River.
Most of the women prefer their traditional outfits: blue or black tubular skirt, side-fastened, long-sleeved top with embroidered front, hems and cuffs and sometimes the entire back of the jacket. They wear these basic components all day, even when working in the fields. For social occasions or going to the market they may also wear a tall, elaborate head piece lined with coins and silver studs above the brim, with a long black flap hanging down the back.
The turn-off south to Pinghe is just before entering Luchun County from the east. The road skirts the eastern side of the county for 47 km to Pinghe, overlooking valleys cut by tributary streams of the Mengman River. This is the most heavily populated part of Luchun County and Hani villages lie all along the slopes, with their water-filled terraces climbing up to cover over 80% of the hills flanking the streams.
Compared to the eastern and northern sectors of Luchun County, the rest of it is rather sparsely settled and very forested. Not many roads link the isolated villages with main thoroughfares. After the Qimaba turnoff the main highway continues to Dashuigou, a nondescript town itself, but interesting for the different sub-groups of Hani. The women of one dress in similar style as Hani around Luchun, but with a fancier head-covering, knee-length trousers and colored cloth wrappers around the calves. Another group wears long jackets and very tall black cloth headdresses with a rectangular top, along with big round silver earrings. Both sub-groups are spillovers from Mojiang County to the west.
The Hani language is a member of the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family. It is related to Yi, Lahu and Lisu, and like them has several dialects. The basic grammar and syntax for all Tibeto-Burman languages is the same, with a subject-object-verb word order. When the Chinese government decided to devise writing systems for those languages without them, the dialect spoken in Dazhai, just beyond the western outskirts of Luchun city, became the standard for the Hani language and the one used to make a Hani-English dictionary. It is the one spoken over most of Luchun County, as well as, with a few vocabulary differences, Jinping, Yuanyang, Honghe, Hekou and northwest Vietnam.
Revivalism has also meant an active role once again for the Hani ritual specialist. The Hani are animist and employ the specialist to perform the proper traditional rites to appease potentially troublesome spirits, protect the fields and the people’s health, and be able to read portents in the liver of the sacrificial animal.
Some villages have the traditional gates at the main entrance. Consisting of a wooden beam aid across two upright poles, it has carved swords or other warning symbols to keep evil spirits from visiting. When villagers sicken and no medicine seems to work they will call on a shaman to go into a trance to find out what the afflicting spirit demands in order to recuperate and then follow the shaman’s advice afterwards. They claim it always works.
For the Lunar New Year villages erect swings and teeter boards for the youth to enjoy. The swing consists of four long tree limbs lashed upright together with a pair of ropes suspended from the top and joined by a plank at the bottom. The teeter board is a long beam inserted into hole in a tree stump. A rider sits on each side, steering the board both up and down and around in a circle.
For adults, the main activity is family visits and banquets. And the Hani women will put on their fanciest traditional jacket and turban and whatever jewelry they have. New Year is always a time of hope and it’s better to dress in your finest to welcome it.
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For more on Hani culture, see my e-book The Terrace Builders