by Jim Goodman
Its position marked it as a major stop on the ancient caravan route to Myanmar, the old Burma Road, and the city is probably just as old as Kunming and Dali. It was long known as Lucheng, the Deer City in Chinese, or Elu in the local Yi language, after the myth of its founding. Accordingly, in ancient times a spotted deer descended from Heaven, ran in a specific circumference, then vanished. The local people observing this considered it an auspicious sign and built a wall along that line, enclosing what became the city of Lucheng. The best view of the city is from Elu Park, on a nearby mountain to the west, which also features high cliffs, strange rock formations, and groves of camellia trees that blossom in February.
However, nowadays a multi-building provincial museum on a knoll in the western part of Chuxiong is well worth a visit. The different halls feature well-labeled displays of the prefecture’s flora and fauna, minerals, minority nationalities’ clothing and artifacts, ancient tools and weapons, plus a room full of dinosaur skeletons.
Several tall carved stone pillars dominate the park, supposedly in the style of the area’s ancient Yi inhabitants. The annual Yi Torch Festival in July is staged here with great fanfare. Although the Yi comprise only about 18% of the prefecture’s population, divided into several sub-groups, they reside on over half the territory. This qualifies Chuxiong to be an Autonomous Yi Prefecture, where the top figures in the government are Yi.
The Yi minority nationality is the largest in the province, comprising 11% of the population. Yi sub-groups inhabit every part of Yunnan except Dehong in the southwest. On my first two trips to Yunnan in 1992 I visited Sani Yi in Shilin County and Nuosu Yi in Ninglang, observed Duli Yi in the Xiaguan and Dali markets, the Nisu Yi on a brief trip to Yuanyang, and bought photo books featuring other Yi sub-groups to whet my appetite for more encounters with them.
The event also takes place in a big way in Dayao County, in the mountains northwest of Chuxiong, but when we learned of a closer venue at Zixishan, a protected forest about 10 km west and then south 30 km into the mountains, we opted for that. The museum and park weren’t built until the end of the decade, so we had no reason to spend time in the city.
Zixishan is home to the Camellia Research Center, which also had a small guesthouse with comfortable rooms and electric blankets. We arrived in late afternoon and stayed the night. Next morning our Yi hosts took us down the mountain to their home village. After a hike through the forest we came to a more open hill area, a reservoir and terraced farms filled with ripening yellow mustard flowers. The village lay on a nearby promontory overlooking the pond and the terraces, with a view of a Miao village in the distance.
Sheds in the yard housed the animals, mainly buffaloes, used for traction and milk, pigs, chickens and goats. Besides food, they raise goats for their skins, which are made into sleeveless jackets, worn with the fur on the inside in cold weather and on the outside when it’s rainy.
Fortunately we didn’t get too drunk to climb back up the mountain afterward., Though it was slow going, we could choose good sites to take breaks and stare at the hills, valleys, trees and waterfalls.. Back at the lodge we had a similar meal and after several more rounds of drinks went to sleep easily. The temperature dropped considerably, but we had electric blankets.
There are variations on this tale. The Dayao version has Miyilu volunteering to marry the tyrant and when he happily agrees she offers to share wine with him as a toast to their betrothal. Miyilu is wearing a poisonous azalea in her hair and secretly dips it into the wine, rendering it lethal. When the couple drinks the wine they both die. She is buried beneath a camellia tree. Her brother comes to look for her, learns what happened and cries so much over her grave his tears turn to blood, which stains the roots of the camellia tree and turns the flowers red.
In Dayao County the festival’s greatest activities take place in Tanhua. Besides dressing their best for the dances, the Yi here pin red camellias to their hair, house door, compound entrance and even the buffaloes. We didn’t witness any of that in Zixishan, but the dancing and carousing was probably just as vigorous. At the ceremonial entrance gate to the festival grounds a row of Yi girls stood bearing small cups that they handed to the emcee, the bimo—spiritual leader of the Yi, wearing feathered turban and fancy woolen cloak, who filled them with rice liquor to offer the guests, three cups each, as they arrived.
After we quaffed our cups we proceeded to a lane flanked on each side by Yi girls dressed in gorgeous traditional clothing and Yi boys playing trumpets, long-necked lutes, guitars, flutes and gourd pipes. When we reached the beginning of the lane the boys in front raised their long trumpets and blared out a welcome. The boys commenced playing their instruments and the girls began singing old melodies in their high-pitched voices. When we had completely passed through this ‘Yi gauntlet’ (as we nicknamed it) the music and singing stopped, but resumed as soon as the trumpets announced the next set of guests.
Some Bai and Miao were also present, the women of the former dressed Dali-style, the latter in bulky skirts. Rural Han from nearby villages also attended. The non-Yi guests were Han government officials from Chuxiong and the two Americans and their Han driver. Everybody else was Yi. Most of the men wore modern clothes, augmented here and there by goatskin jackets. Others wore the traditional blue cotton jacket, long-sleeved with wide white fasteners running down the front. Lots of Yi, male and female, carried fully hand-embroidered shoulder bags, a craft specialty around here.
The Yi at the festival comprised three sub-groups. The men’s clothing was the same for all of them, but among the women the outfits of each of the three was distinctly different, especially what they wore on the head. With the first group we saw it was a round black cap with several pompoms in different bright colors inserted on top. These women wore a black vest over long-sleeved shirts, usually red or pink, and a scarf which held a kind of bell-shaped bib of thick cotton. The bib widened below the breasts, reached to the waist and was embroidered with red camellias. A wide, brightly embroidered belt across the bottom of the bib and plain black trousers completed the outfit.
With the second group we encountered the women wore a long-sleeved, hip-length jacket, fastened on the right side. It was black, with wide bands of embroidery, of camellias and other motifs, along the hems, cuffs, collar and sleeves. Over it, suspended by silver chains around the neck, was a bib similar in shape, but longer, down to the hips, and tied with straps around the back. It also featured embroidered camellias. Instead of caps or turbans, they wore their hair in buns with a wide ornamented silver band around it and chains and clasps holding the bun in back. The hair jewelry was often very antique, handed down by females from one generation to the next, only worn on special occasions and never sold, for that would break the line of continuity the jewelry symbolizes.
Jackets worn by the third Yi sub-group were also long-sleeved, side-fastened and reached to below the hip. A wide black band was across the waist, setting off the bright colors and lavish embroidery strips of all parts of the jacket. Even more eye-catching was the headdress, a round turban festooned with rows of cowry shells stitched like crosses around the brim and beaded tassels in between.
After all the guests were in place the program began with a dragon dance, followed by several speeches and then recessed until dusk. Folks wandered off and prepared meals on campfires. We joined one Yi group for a rough-and-ready repast of pork, chicken, vegetables and several toasts of rice liquor. Around dusk the music show commenced, to go on for hours.
It was certainly a color spectacle. Even the instruments were ornamented, with thin strips of embroidered cloth tied to the ends of the guitars and lutes. The guitars were often made by the players themselves, or perhaps their fathers, as some had an old patina. They were of wood, with low-relief painted floral designs on the front of the body and a carved dragon head at the end of the neck.
Lads on their instruments started each group, playing and dancing energetically in a circle. Girls joined in and began singing to the melodies with their distinctive high pitch voices and quivering extended notes. Girls of all three sub-groups joined the circles together. The dancing grew ever more vigorous, for these were youth, after all, and this was what they came to do. By the time it was fully dark there were many such circles, competing in frenetic cacophony, dancing until they just couldn’t go on any longer.
Several small fires around the grounds provided warmth for the spectators. A few stalls sold snacks and rice liquor was passed around among the men, though not the musicians and dancers. The performers continued until very late. Finally exhausted, they joined the groups around the fires to relax and socialize. Around midnight those still around could enjoy the screening, on a huge sheet draped between two big trees, of a Yi movie.
We were back in the comfortable Camellia Research Center’s guest house by then, to enjoy a last drink with our hosts and an easy sleep under the electric blankets. In the morning we took a last invigorating hike around the area, passing creeks and waterfalls, spotting a fox in the woods, enjoying the mountain air and scents. But we were off to Dali that day. Other attractions in the vicinity, like a venerated 600-year-old camellia tree and a 500-year-old temple compound, we had no time to see.
Zixishan also has nurseries for camellia, rhododendron and cherry trees. A new hotel was going up at the time next to one of the more accessible reservoirs and work was in progress daily to upgrade the road from the highway. Perhaps Zixishan would become a tourist destination for nature lover travelers. As an officially preserved forest, it will always have its trees, its camellias, creeks, animals and, hopefully, will always play annual host to the spectacular Yi Flower Festival.
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