Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Last Mongols in Yunnan

                                                                by Jim Goodman

    Tonghai County in central Yunnan has a number of attractions that make it worthy of an excursion from Kunming, just 130 kilometers away.  The county seat, Tonghai city, lies at the base of a wooded hill a few kilometers southwest of Qilu Lake.  It still has an old quarter next to the hill, featuring a three-tiered Qing Dynasty tower and narrow streets of old-fashioned shop-houses, door gods at the compound gates and caged songbirds suspended from the roof corners.
Tonghai old quarter

    From the old town a walkway leads up the hill.  Called Xiushan (Beautiful Mountain), the hill has for centuries been a Buddhist sanctuary.  The walkway winds through the thick forest to several secluded temples, dating back to the Tang Dynasty, and passes open vantage points.  These afford a view north of the broad plain from the modern part of Tonghai sprawling below the old quarter to the distant minarets of the Hui town of Najiaying on the north side of Qilu Lake.  Around the hill the view south encompasses the hills of the Yi district of Lishan.  One of these, a few km southeast of Tonghai, contains a limestone cavern called Fairy Cave.
    Ancient temples, caves, traditional urban quarters, even Yi villages are not unique to Tonghai, but common to many places in the province.  What makes Tonghai special is the existence of three villages at the base of Peacock Mountain, a large hill several kilometers west of the city.  This is Xingmeng Autonomous Mongolian District, the only place in the whole province that is home to the descendants of the Mongol conquerors of China. Their presence here, a very long way from Mongolia, Outer or Inner, is a living historical vestige of an important story in Yunnan’s long history—how it became part of China.
Qilu Lake and the Tonghai plain
    In the 13th century the territory of what is now Yunnan belonged to the Kingdom of Dali.  It was the successor to the Kingdom of Nanzhao, which used to battle Tibet and Tang Dynasty China for supremacy in the southwest.  It fell to internal coups shortly after the Tang Dynasty collapsed.  The Song Dynasty that eventually won out in the post-Tang succession struggle, decided to adopt a non-aggressive attitude towards Dali in order to maintain trade links.  The item prized by the Song Court was the Yunnan pony.
    The state’s greatest security threat was on its northern frontier, where the enemy comprised mounted nomadic forces.  Song China needed horses for its defense and therefore required good relations with Dali so that nothing interrupted trade on the traditional Tea and Horses Road from Yunnan to Tibet.   Not threatened on any of its frontiers, nor ambitious to extend them, the Kingdom of Dali enjoyed a long period of peace, even after Genghis Khan’s Mongols conquered the northern part of China.
Kubilai Khan statue, Sansheng Temple
    The Song Dynasty held off the Mongols for another century, so the Mongols decided to attack China from its weak, southwestern flank. This entailed subduing the Kingdom of Dali on the way.  In 1253 Kubilai Khan led a massive expedition through Sichuan’s mountains and crossed into Yunnan at Yongning in the northwest.  Easily subduing the local Mosuo and Pumi, he left Mongol officers in charge of the district and headed south towards the Lijiang plain, home to the Naxi minority.
    The Naxi, confronting a force many times bigger than their own, opted to help the Mongols cross the Yangzi River on inflated goatskin rafts and joined the campaign against Dali   Kubilai pitched his tent near the old stone bridge in what later became Lijiang’s old town and prepared his next campaign.
    Dali put up a spirited but futile resistance, but Kubilai left the dethroned king in charge of the area as his local official.  He left a small occupation force and then moved on to take control of the rest of the erstwhile kingdom.  Leaving a Central Asian Muslim ally in charge of the province, now incorporated into the Mongol Empire, Kubilai Khan then returned to the Mongol capital to get involved in a succession struggle for several years before he came out on top.  Following that he conquered the rest of Song China, from the north rather than the southwest, and in 1279 set up the Yuan Dynasty in Beijing.
houses along a canal near Xingmeng
    Yunnan remained under the control of Central Asian Muslim governors, backed by Mongol army units, throughout the Yuan Dynasty.  When it fell in 1368 Yunnan remained the last Mongol stronghold south of the Yangzi River for another thirteen years while the new Ming Dynasty consolidated its control in the rest of the country and plunged into a succession struggle.  But when that was settled the Ming Emperor dispatched an army to expel the Mongols from Yunnan.  Ming forces crushed Mongol forces at the Baisha River near Qujing in 1381, then hunted down remnants all over the province until they were confident they had killed or expelled every last member of the race.  From then on Yunnan was part of the Chinese Empire.
Mongol woman planting rice
    One small group managed to evade the Ming army, escape to the hills, change their way of life, live in disguise and wait until the political climate improved for them to admit that they were Mongols.  This is the small, tightly knit community that settled in Xingmeng.  Over the centuries it survived on fishing, then farming, and finally, in modern times, on both agriculture and the construction business.  Despite these lifestyle changes, they maintained the social customs and traditions they brought with them from the northern steppes.  Most women still wear the traditional jackets, vests and caps, often adorning them with silver clasps, buttons and pendants.  They live in sturdy houses with high, thick walls, separated from each other by narrow cobbled lanes.  They worship at the Guan Yin Temple but also, in Xingmeng village, have their own Sansheng Temple, honoring, and housing large sculptures of, three of the great empire builders of their past--Genghis Khan, Menggu Khan and Kubilai Khan.
    Local legends incorporate supernatural elements into the community's historic shifts in lifestyle.  When the Ming troops all but eradicated their presence the last seven fugitives sat on the shore of Qilu Lake pondering their future.  Suddenly an old man emerged from the waters, standing on a rhinoceros skin.  Inviting them on to the skin he pointed to a huge fish supporting a temple.  Back on shore the men realized that because the words for "food " and "temple" were similar the old man had been telling them that fish could be food.  And so they began drawing on the fish and eels of Qilu Lake for their sustenance.
     Settling at Xingmeng at the base of Peacock Mountainl the last Mongolian men had to marry Yi women and inculcate them into their language and customs.  Their community began to multiply and then years later the Goddess Achala arrived at Qilu Lake, subdued a dragon responsible for flooding the plains, and dug a hole at the lakeside.  Excess water dropped through this hole and emptied into the South China Sea.  Hence the county's name pf Tonghai--"connecting the sea."  Achala then subdued more dragons and removed them to the hills to "dragon pools"--springs--to irrigate the new fields.
    Since then the Mongolians have been farmers, though they still trap eels and small fish in the canals that connect Xingmeng with the lake.  In recent decades, the men have worked much of the year in the construction business, enjoying a high reputation as carpenters, stonemasons and bricklayers.  Consequently they are out of the area most of the time and Xingmeng's residents, except for the busiest times in the agricultural cycle, are mostly women and children.
    To get there from Tonghai visitors take a short minibus ride of six kilometers to Hexi, a small town that holds a weekly market attended by many Xingmeng residents.  From there a turn towards the north leads the next two kilometers to Xingmeng, at the base of Peacock Mountain.  Along the road are several restaurants offering the local specialties—Taichi eel and Beijing-style roast duck.  Tour groups from the capital sometimes make a one-day excursion from Kunming to Xingmeng just to eat the roast duck and see if it really is Beijing-style, generally agreeing that it is just like what they eat back home in the north.
street scene in Xingmeng
   threshing grain
    Since the turn of the century Xingmeng has been gaining attention as one of the more unusual tourist destinations in Yunnan, drawing over 10,000 visitors annually.  Near the entrance to Xingmeng a new, Mongolian-style building houses the Ethnic Culture Garden and the number of restaurants has grown.  The glitzy additions are all near the village entrance, though, and a leisurely walk through the narrow lanes is still an exposure to a rural atmosphere that hasn’t changed much, other than the introduction of electricity, for centuries.  Men are usually out on construction assignments, while women perform some of the household chores, as well as farming activities like threshing the grain, in the open yards next to their compounds.  Appreciative of the interest in them, they are polite and friendly to outsiders and ready to engage in conversation.
threshing in eh villa
    Only in 1979 were Xingmeng's people officially recognized as part of the Mongolian nationality.  The male leaders of Xingmeng at once dispatched a delegation to Inner Mongolia to invite Mongolian teachers to come instruct their children in the written and spoken language and the customs of the steppes.  Bi-lingual signs, in Chinese characters and Mongolian script, began going up over the shops and public buildings.  Young men took up traditional sports like wrestling and archery.  Women proudly wore their ethnic clothing again, so long suppressed during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution.  It was a great time to be openly Mongolian once more.
    Yunnan's Mongolians have their own locally evolved customs as well as those they retained over the centuries, and speak a dialect that is closer to the local Yi dialect than to anything heard in Inner Mongolia.  Their greatest cultural event is the Nadam Festival held every three years in December.  (The next one is in 2014.)   Modeled on the Nadam held in the Mongol homeland, it celebrates their recognition as one of Yunnan’s minority nationalities and honors Kubilai Khan.  Xingmeng’s Mongolians dress up in their best ethnic clothing, as well as in costumes from the northern steppes.  The district and county governments subsidize the expenses, guaranteeing a grand show.  They stage wrestling tournaments, archery contests and equestrian performances, all the kinds of events that entertained their ancestors before and after they conquered China.  From the enthusiasm and ethnic pride on display, it’s as if the Yuan Dynasty had never really fallen.
to the fields near Xingmeng
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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Imperialist Vestige in Yunnan—the French Railway

                                                           by Jim Goodman
    In the last decades of the 19th century the tottering Qing Dynasty regime in China found itself under increasing pressure from Western encroachment.  This was the heyday of imperialism and by a series of military actions and the imposition of the Unequal Treaties, as the Chinese were to call them, Western nations had established themselves with impunity in Macao, Hong Kong, the Shandong Peninsula and portions of Shanghai.  In the late 1880s the country faced threats on a new front—the southwestern province of Yunnan. 
    The most aggressive imperialist powers had just seized the territories of China’s southern neighbors.  The British had grabbed northern Burma and the French had occupied northern Laos and northern Vietnam.  That put the Western powers right next to the ill-defined borders of Yunnan.  The Qing Court first rushed to make boundary agreements with the two powers.  That may have stopped the imperialist appetite for territory, but not their economic ambitions.  The British and French both viewed Yunnan as the gateway to China’s riches and soon began devising ways to penetrate the markets across the border.
French Consulate in Mengzi
    They began by pressing the Qing government to establish trade relations and in 1887 succeeded in securing permission to open consulates in Yunnan.  The British opened theirs in Tengchong in the southwest, the French chose Mengzi, halfway to Kunming from their border.  It was a small but prosperous city, close to tin mines, lying in a broad plain of 1500 meters altitude.  The city’s central attraction was South Lake, featuring many Ming and Qing Dynasty temples and pavilions, to where scholars would retreat in order to prepare for the state’s examinations.
    The French built a consulate near the lake and a small customs house beside the water.  Their presence was rather small in the beginning.  And the city was hard to get to when coming from Vietnam.  In 1895 an expedition led by the Prince D’Orléans stopped in Mengzi on its way through Yunnan to the sources of the Irrawadddy in Upper Burma.  They had to take a boat from Hekou to Manhao up the Red River, then hike over 80 km up to Mengzi.  And this was just a small group of explorers, not a big trading expedition.  Clearly, communication lines into Yunnan had to improve dramatically for commerce to succeed.   A railroad seemed to be the answer.
French customs house, Mengzi
    The French plan was for a line from the port of Haiphong through Hanoi all the way to Kunming.  The French completed the line to Lào Cai in 1906, spanned the Nanxi River with a bridge to Hekou on the Chinese side and commenced constructing the track to Kunming.  This section of the line proved to be far more difficult to build than the relatively flat route along the Red River in Vietnam.  The 464 km-long route rises from Hekou, at 78 meters above sea level, to Kunming, at 1900 meters.  It required 107 viaducts and 155 tunnels.
    The route ran alongside the west bank of the Nanxi River, crossing it at the end of the county’s boundaries and running on the east bank through Pingbian County.  Workers had to cut through thick jungle in the mostly uninhabited, malaria-infested lowlands of Hekou County, then blast tunnels through the mountains of Pingbian County and further on and haul heavy steel beams, made in France, to the sites requiring bridges or viaducts. Between kilometers 104 and 127 in Pingbian County the track gradient rises from 500 to 1100 meters and the line passes through 59 tunnels.
Renzi Bridge, the "bridge over the crossbowmen"
     railway work in Pingbian County
    Altogether it was quite an engineering feat, particularly the two famous spectacular bridges—the curved bridge on pyramidal piers at kilometer 83, called “le pont en dentelles”  (bridge in lace) and “le pont sur arbalètriers” (the bridge on the crossbowmen) at kilometer 111, between the tunnels of two sheer cliffs 100 meters above the river.  Besides the railway line, workers also had to construct buildings for the 34 stations from Hekou to Kunming.
railway work in Mengzi County
    Financially, the Hekou-Kunming line cost France 167 million francs, but the human costs were even more staggering.  Of the 60,000 “coolies” hired or impressed through corvée labor to work on the project at least 12,000 died, mostly in the Nanxi River Valley, while around 80 French and Italian contractors also died.  Malaria was the biggest killer.  Other causes included landslides, accidents and various diseases.  French overseers became notorious for their brutality towards the workers and their haughty attitude towards the native population, treating them like the subjects of a conquered country.
    In 1910 workers laid the last railroad tracks to Kunming, then called Yunnanfu, and train service all the way to Haiphong opened at the end of the year.  For all the violence, misery, deaths and extra taxes associated with its construction, though, it was not an outstanding commercial success.  Trade between Yunnan and Vietnam largely consisted of opium and tin sent down to Vietnam and cotton textiles and tobacco sent up to Yunnan.  Anticipating an expansion of trade, hoping the railroad link to China’s interior would draw business away from Shanghai and go through Haiphong instead, the French built a bigger consulate and customs post near Green Lake in Kunming.
French Consulate in Kunming
    In 1915 the French constructed a branch line from near Mengzi to the tin mines near Gejiu.  Eventually this line was extended west all the way to Shiping.  Until the end of the last century this line was a kind of market train.  It made stops at every big village on the route and people brought farm products and animals on board to sell, got off several stops down the line and later boarded the return trip home.
    The volume of goods traveling by train remained modest though, until the Sino-Japanese War broke out and the Chinese government moved to Chongqing.  Now the French railway was a main supply route to the Chinese and suffered heavy Japanese bombing.   When the war concluded international service had halted and in 1951 the new government in Beijing closed down the French Consulate in Kunming and expelled its officials.
    The line eventually re-opened on the Chinese side, though only as far as Hekou.  The Vietnam side suffered extensive bombing during the war with the United States and in the border war with China in 1979 the bridge over the Nanxi was destroyed.  A decade later relations between the two sides were normalized and people could buy a ticket from Hanoi to Kunming again.  The bridge had been rebuilt, and until the end of the century was the only crossing point between Lào Cai and Hekou, but ticket-holders had to disembark at Lào Cai, walk over the bridge and hop the train to Kunming at the Hekou station.
railway bridge connecting Hekou with Lào Cai
    The train was still primarily a cargo train, but as in pre-war days it had several passenger compartments.  Tourists began taking the ride in the 90s as both Yunnan and Vietnam opened their doors to foreigners.  The line was narrow-gauge, one meter wide, which meant compartments that were rather cramped compared with those of more modern trains on wide-gauge tracks.   Hot meals were available on the journey and the train had sleepers for the ride from Kunming to Hekou, which departed in the evening and arrived next morning. 
    The best way to see the scenery, though, was to board the morning train at Hekou, leaving at 7:30 a.m. and arriving in Kunming early evening.  For the first couple of hours the train moves through dense jungle on the west bank of the Nanxi River.  At the southwest tip of Pingbian County it begins a slow ascent into the hills, hugging slopes high above the river, riding over the “bridge in lace’ and passing through many tunnels.  Eight of these lie between Baihe and Wankang and from there, for the next hour, too many to count.
the "bridge on lace"
entering a tunnel
   The scenery on this stretch, roughly five hours from the starting point at Hekou, is the best on the route—Miao villages on the gentler, lower slopes, their terraced fields sprawling below them, backed by steep, craggy limestone peaks.  With all the tunnel passages, though, the traveler gets only quick glimpses of these landscapes before entering darkness again.   North of Wankang the tunnels become more frequent, especially after the track suddenly veers northeast along the Sicha River for a spell, crosses it over the “bridge on the crossbowmen” and turns southeast along that river until just before its confluence with the Nanxi.  Then it turns northwest in the direction of Mengzi. 
    A quick glimpse of this bridge is all a passenger could get.  To get a full and dramatic view of it one has to proceed there by road from Heping further north, or by the longer route from Wankang, and then take a back country road that turns off the main road to the Sicha River.  The view is amazing, the bridge spanning the gap between two tall cliffs, the left one slanting 70 degrees, the right one nearly perpendicular to the river way down below.  About bridges and viaducts the French knew what they were doing.  Sometimes they picked the wrong places to lay the track on the slopes, leading to landslides in the rainy season that halted traffic for various lengths of time.  But no bridge or viaduct ever suffered damage.
French clock at a station near Mengzi
    After turning northwest again, the line continues through rugged hills with their lower slopes covered in terraces, though the peaks are less jagged.   By the time the train enters Mengzi County the hills become rounder, bereft of farms or villages, and gradually smaller and so freckled with big boulders that scarcely any grass can grow on them.  The track gradually descends to the Mengzi plain, though it does not actually pass through the city itself, the nearest station being several kilometers away. 
    Mengzi became the Honghe Prefecture capital several years ago and has a whole new section of fancy apartment blocks, wide avenues and government buildings.  The old city is still a rather sleepy place, its main attractions being beautiful South Lake and the surviving French buildings, including the prison they built in the early 20th century.  The city hosts market day on Sundays, when the streets are filled with ethnic minority women in colorful, handmade clothing.  Many are Miao, related to those who live along the tracks in Pingbian County.  An even larger portion are Yi and various sub-groups of Yi will dominate the ethnic minority populations in the vicinity of the railway line from Mengzi to Kunming.
South Lake, Mengzi
    After Mengzi the scenery is pleasant, though less rugged, consisting of rolling hills and open pastures.  The line passes through Kaiyuan and then veers almost due north along the Nanpan River until it reaches Yiliang, just west of the Stone Forest and famous for its roast duck.  From here the line turns west to its final terminus in Kunming. 
    The train ride was a pleasant traveling experience.  Besides the scenery, foreigners could observe activities at the numerous stations, see Miao women in their distinctive clothing, and chat with Chinese villagers making short journeys of one or two stops.  The only problem was landslides, which could cause long delays.  By 2003 such incidents happened so frequently the government closed the line for passenger services.  After renovation of the tracks the line reopened, but only for cargo.  And if landslides still happened and delayed the delivery of cargo, that was less of a problem than stranded passengers.
    Nowadays a railway museum in Kunming occupies the site of the former northern station.  Yunnan has other railway lines now and the stories of these are part of the museum’s display, too.  But such lines were all Chinese government-sponsored and part of the propaganda of the nation’s progress.  The attitude towards the French railway is different.  It may grudgingly acknowledge the technological achievement, but more apt to focus on the horrific human cost of the project, something that never bothered the French in their manic attempt to “open up” the interior of China and get rich. 
    They didn’t accomplish that.  The railway line never generated enough commerce to justify the expenditure.  Even today, though the line is still open for cargo, most goods moving between Kunming and Hekou go by truck on new super-highways.  So even the cargo service is probably on its way out.  The last cars will go into the museum, along with other paraphernalia from the 34 stations, and farmers will rip up the track to use as fences for their fields and pastures.
French postcard of the train at the station in Kunming (Yunnanfu)
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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Weishan, Yunnan—Birthplace of an Ancient Native Kingdom

                                                             by Jim Goodman                    

    Lying in a broad and fertile plain 50 km south of Dali Prefecture’s Xiaguan in western Yunnan, boasting many Ming and Qing Dynasty structures and a preserved old quarter of traditional shop houses, Weishan is a charming, old-fashioned Chinese town that gets surprisingly little tourist traffic.  The few visitors are mainly Chinese families or couples from other parts of Yunnan.  Dali, just 18 km north of Xiaguan, is the main attraction for travelers in the area.  Tourists from all over China and beyond jam the old town streets, lined with overpriced souvenir, tea and jewelry shops, complain about the crowds, the prices and the commercialization of local culture but never venture to Weishan, an hour and a half away.  Yet in Weishan’s old town the shops on the streets sell items for the local population, merchants are laid back and friendly, it’s never crowded, always leisurely and the atmosphere of traditional urban China far more authentic than anywhere in Dali.
street in Weishan's old town
    Dali is more famous because it was long the capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom, Tang Dynasty China’s rival in the southwest, and its successor the Kingdom of Dali, which remained independent until overwhelmed by Kubilai Khan’s Mongols in 1253.  It is also near scenic Erhai Lake and mountains of 4000+ meters, which made it a prime destination from the very dawn of modern tourism.  Weishan is less well endowed physically and topographically, but did not undergo the commercial transformation of Dali, where now virtually every building caters to the tourist industry.  Weishan is still a slice of Old China, unique in western Yunnan.
    Moreover, it has its historical importance as well, for the Nanzhao Kingdom had its start right here, in the 7th century, when the town was known as Mengshe, the capital of one of the six native chiefdoms, or zhao, roughly in the area that is now Dali Prefecture.  Being in the most southern location of the six, the area around Mengshe was the Southern zhao—Nanzhao.  In 649 its ruler Xinuluo conquered a neighboring tribe in Midu and shortly after, when Tang Court officials were looking for an ally to secure their southwest frontier they chose Xinuluo’s state.
a Nanzhao king, from a Weibaoshan mural
    Four generations later Mengshe’s ruler Piluoge conquered the other five zhao.  In 738 the Tang conferred a royal title on him and recognized Nanzhao as a vassal state.  Piluoge’s own opinion, and that of his successors, was that Nanzhao was independent on a par with Tang China.  Until it fell in the early 10th century, shortly after the Tang regime’s own demise, Nanzhao fought both Tibet and China for control of the region, periodically launching invasions into Sichuan, defeating any invasion into its own realm.  But now that Piluoge’s success had made Nanzhao a bigger state, the capital shifted closer to Erhai Lake; first at Taihe, then Dali.
    Mengshe lost its political importance and had no impact on the history of the next several centuries.  Nanzhao expanded, contracted and imploded.  Its successor Dali lived in peace with Song Dynasty China until the Mongol conquest.  With the rise of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, the Mongols evacuated and the Ming Court began sending immigrants from eastern China into Yunnan to give it a more Chinese identity.  In the Dali area, from 1382 the Ming Court dispatched soldiers to both establish military garrisons and clear land to settle down on farms.
    At that time the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Yunnan were not Han Chinese but a mixture of many ethnic minorities.  In Dali Prefecture the dominant groups are the Bai and Yi.  Nanzhao’s ruling class was Yi or proto-Yi, while Dali’s kings were Bai.  Today the Bai constitute the largest ethnic minority in the prefecture and dominate the plains areas, while the hills are mostly inhabited by Yi. 
Bai shopkeepe in Weishan
    Because they are the largest community Dali is an Autonomous Bai Prefecture, where the top officials are Bai.  But the Yi and Hui outnumber the Bai in Weishan, so the latter is an Autonomous Yi and Hui County.   Some of the Hui are descendants of Kubilai Khan’s Central Asian Muslim allies, who stayed on to administer and garrison the province in the Yuan Dynasty.  Others came in after the Ming Dynasty evicted the Mongols and sponsored immigration.
    In the late 14th century the city underwent a major transformation, beginning with a name change from Mengshe to Weishan, apparently a contraction of Weibaoshan, a sacred mountain 18 km south of the city that would become home to many temples, mostly Taoist, over the next four centuries.  The mountain is swathed in thick forests of pine and cypress, the shrines and temples sited at intervals along roads and paths that ascend to the summit.
    The entrance to the area is about halfway up the mountain.  The first compound inside is dedicated to the Nanzhao kings.  Paintings or statues of them line the hallway on the upper level, with basic information about each posted on a signboard in Chinese, Yi and English.  The information is a bit biased, though, in the sense that an uninformed visitor would never get the idea that Nanzhao was actually an independent state, not just a vassal existing with imperial permission, but one that completely annihilated two large invading Tang armies. 
    The walls flanking the lower courtyard feature low-relief sculptures of life in Nanzhao times.   Vignettes depict soldiers marching to war, kings at the palace and scenes of daily life, as well as a Nanzhao-style standing Buddha with a seated Buddha on his head.
Nanzhao-style Buddha
    From here to the summit, up two separate roads, are fourteen temples in the classic Chinese style, surrounded by trees, built with brick and tile, embellished with courtyard gardens and ponds.  The most interesting of these is Wenyong Temple, in particular for the Dragon Pond in the upper courtyard.  An elegant pavilion stands in the middle of the pond, connected by a stone bridge to the courtyard walkway.  On its base just above the water is a famous mural of a circle of Yi dancing around a bonfire celebrating the Torch Festival.  Painted in the 18th century, reproduced in hotels and restaurants in Weishan, the top half is still sharp and vibrant, though the rest is faint and has lost most of its color.
Dragon Pond mural, Weibaoshan
    On the ride back down the mountain to the city are several spots with a broad view of the plain, its farms and villages and distant hills.  The modestly sized city of Weishan does not resemble a fast-growing modern metropolis, for very few tall buildings mark its skyline.  The city was not on the Tea and Horses Road and its prosperity basically derived from its fertile and fruitful land.  Even today, while connected by a good road to Xiaguan, it is not on the major provincial highways from Kunming to southwest Yunnan.
    As a result, development and expansion proceed much more slowly in Weishan than in those cities on the main commercial routes.  The atmosphere is never hectic, traffic jams unknown, the people relaxed and friendly.  At the edge of the city, on the way to the bus station, a large park serves as an outdoor tea center, where patrons sit in small stools at tables of woven split bamboo.  A short walk from this is a quiet park with several nice Qing Dynasty buildings.  A couple of blocks further up is the old town, where cars are banned.
    Dominating the preserved old quarter, erected by the first Ming administrators in 1397, is the very wide and imposing, 23.5 meter-high Gongchen Tower, which used to serve as the northern gate when Weishan was a walled city.   Urban planners at that time laid out the city in a chessboard grid, resembling the nearly square shape of an official seal.  Gongchen Tower was considered the handle.  Standing beside a large plaza, its rose-pink stone walls are topped by a two-tiered, red hardwood building with tiled roofs and upturned corners.  From its upper tiers observers can view the straight stone streets radiating in the four cardinal directions.
Xinggong Tower
    Originally, when it was a walled city, gates stood at the end of each street.  Today only one such street ends with a gate, called Xinggong Tower.  It was built around the same time as Gongchen Tower, rebuilt at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, but it is narrower, only as wide as the street, with two tiers rising above the neighboring houses.  Both towers are illuminated at night, as are the main streets of the old town, or at least the sections closest to Gongchen Tower.
    The street running from Gongchen Tower to Xinggong Tower is lined on both sides with red wooden shop houses with tiled roofs and has the most traditional look and feel of any street in the city.  They are all modest buildings, with the goods stored in the room facing the street, which may also serve as a workshop, and the living quarters in the rear and in the attics.  There are a few shops selling antiques, plus one or two with ethnic clothing, though their customers are not tourists so much as local ethnic minority people who buy the items to wear.
old town street
    Other shops cater to the needs of local residents.  There are shops selling furniture and ornate bird cages, bolts of cloth, sandals made of cloth or straw, noodles, footwear, tie-dyed clothing, sitting stools and sundry other items.  Customers take their time examining the goods.  The patient shopkeeper never pesters, never urges them to buy this or that item, in fact never says anything until the customer is ready to ask a question.  The rule seems to be politeness before profit.
    Shops on the street continuing on the other side of Gongchen Tower are less oriented towards traditional items and more towards things like modern clothing, medicines, shoes, children’s toys, stationery etc., but the buildings are in the same classic traditional style.   Lanterns hang from the roofs of these and from the compound gates of houses on the side streets.  On some of the narrow lanes branching off one street or another farmers set up stalls to sell mushrooms, edible fungi, walnuts and fruits and, during festival times, decorations and items used in the events.
old-style sandals for sale
old town noodle factory
    Many more will join them during Weishan’s regular market days, held the 10th, 20th and 30th every month.  At that time the city fills with minorities from the vicinity—the Yi, Bai and Hui—dressed in their traditional clothing.  The Yi women, from the Tuli branch of the Yi minority, are particularly colorful, in bright shades of red and green and fancy headgear.   
Tuli Yi women, Dacan
    local Hui girls, Dacang
    While Weishan’s market day draws a good proportion of Yi women, they come in even greater numbers to Dacang, a small, largely Hui town 35 km north.  Full of nondescript modern buildings, but with one small and attractive Buddhist temple, Dacang holds its market day the same dates as Weishan, as do a couple other villages in between Dacang and Weishan.   At the northern end of the Weishan valley, Dacang draws more Yi to its markets because it is closer to the hills where they live.
While minibuses ply the route from Weishan to Dacang and beyond, many people prefer the more leisurely journey by pony cart.  They can hold up to 12 people or so.  Weishan County is one of the very few places in the province where pony carts are still widely used.  As in Weishan, market day in Dacang is not confined to a single area or neighborhood, as country folk set up stalls in several separate venues. 
    Once in a while some folks might set up some entertainment spot at a market day, playing music or just singing songs.  Weishan itself has little in the way of entertainment at night.  Not many restaurants exist, although the number is steadily growing.  In an old house next to Gongchen Tower is a bar, but for socializing local folks take to one of the side alley grills for kebabs and cold beer with their friends.  The real entertainment in Weishan is not in the form of music and dance, not even ethnic music and dance (other than on big holidays).  It lies in appreciating the slower rhythms of traditional everyday life in a city with bilingual signboards that announce, “All of us are living images of Weishan.  Every household is a window into the culture of Weishan.”
Gongchen Tower

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Friday, November 29, 2013


                                                                         by Jim Goodman

Thailand elephant
    Long before they became one of the chief lures to draw foreign visitors, elephants were already a deeply embedded part of Thailand’s image.  The kingdom was known to outsiders as the Land of Elephants, for both the animals themselves and the symbols and statues of them that seemed to be everywhere.  The biggest animal ever tamed by man, elephants were striking symbols of power.  They were part of royal processions and the ceremonies of princes and great lords, who also rode them into battle to deal with the rulers of the enemy, who were likewise on elephants.
elephant sculptures at Chedi Luang
    Perhaps because only the rich and powerful could afford to keep elephants, these animals became symbols of good luck and prosperity.  Statues of elephants are frequently part of temple compound decorations.  Devotees bring small wooden carvings of elephants and leave them as votive offerings.  Some adorn their domestic spirit houses with a carved elephant.  Where elephants were part of the rural environment, the villagers believed that if a pregnant woman passed beneath an elephant’s belly she would have an easy childbirth.    Economically speaking, elephants helped build the nation.  Without these pachyderms to haul the heavy teak logs out of the deep forests, the logging business would have required at least ten times the manpower.  Elephants in the thousands worked in the teak business, for this was the hardwood of choice for government bungalows and offices, the merchants’ shop-houses and the homes and elegant furniture of the rich and successful.
sculpted elephants in the old city
     With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that the industrious elephants worked their way out of a job and ended up endangering the species’ very existence.  As one patch of forest after another fell to the loggers, the wild elephants lost their stomping grounds and began to die off.  Not until logging was banned in 1989 and the last of the shrinking forests marked for preservation did the decline in wild elephants halt.  But by then there were less than a thousand of them left.
    Then it was the turn of the domesticated elephants.  Bereft of their regular employment, too expensive to keep otherwise, they began to die off, too.  When the logging ban went into effect 20,000 elephants still lived in Thailand.  A decade later the number was down to 4000, and that even included the last of the wild elephants.
    Yet for travelers from abroad, Thailand is still the Land of Elephants, a place where they can not only see them but also have their own personal encounter with them.  They can even feed them bananas right on the streets of downtown Bangkok.  They flock to Surin every November to see the great Elephant Round-up re-enactment.  In Chiang Mai they attend the elephant shows at Mae Rim or one of several jungle venues in the northern hills and line up for a short, leisurely ride through the forest on elephant back.
man's best friend (in Thailand)
    However commercialized they might judge the whole affair, however uncomfortable it might be sitting in the howdah on the elephant’s back as it lumbers along the trail, no one leaves disappointed.  For people who grew up in countries that don’t have elephants the fascination is natural.  To them the elephant is a living, moving symbol of Asian exotica.  And here in Thailand you can touch it, feed it, even ride it, to the envy of your friends when you talk about it back home.
    Moreover, you can learn how strong they are by watching the mahouts demonstrate how the elephants used to push and pull logs.  You can judge for yourselves whether blues bands should take notice of the tunes elephants play on their harmonicas, if the splash of paint strokes on a canvas they make holding a brush in the trunk represents some hidden elephant sense of artistic expression, or whether the music industry should send cameramen to capture their choreography for use in a rock and roll video.
    As an encounter with Asian exotica the experience comes out positive.  Most people think there is no other way to have an elephant experience, other than go to live in one of the remote villages where elephants are still kept.  As for the wild ones, you might spot them from a distance while in one of the wildlife sanctuaries, but you certainly can’t walk up to one with a smile on your face and a bunch of bananas in your hand.
Lek'selephant camp
    But there is one place in the North where anyone whose fascination with elephants goes beyond the possibilities offered by the tourist shows will find much to slake their thirst for elephant lore.  This place is Elephant Nature Park, in a remote part of Mae Taeng district, beyond the Ban Tammian ferry, owned and managed by a dedicated elephant enthusiast, a woman named Lek.  Her elephants are not trained to do anything, so there’s no show to watch.  Instead visitors can learn how to take care of elephants, feed them fruit and help them bathe in the river.  But these are very special elephants that you won’t find at the tourist shows.  These elephants are the wounded, the injured, the sick and evethe blind.  Lek doesn’t run an ordinary elephant camp.  It’s more like an elephant nursing home or sanctuary.
    It was certainly time to have such a place.  Working elephants, just like working people, get sick sometimes, have accidents, infections, diseases.  But as animals they don’t rate the same kind of attention as humans.  The animals still go to work when they are sick, their wounds fester and their ailments worsen.  Anyway, they are not as economically useful as in the past, so they often don’t bring in enough money to pay for their own medicine.  De-worming medicine costs 17,000 baht.  Antibiotics cost 3000 baht a shot, with a minimum full week’s injections necessary.  And it’s best to hire a specialist or a vet to make the injection.  It’s more problematic giving a shot to an elephant than to a human.  Wrong administration of the medicine could make the elephant worse or even, as one family in the area found out, drop dead in half an hour.  An unemployed sick elephant thus puts a tremendous financial burden on its owner, one that many cannot bear.
    Lek became acutely aware of such problems when she was working at a nearby elephant tourist camp in the early 90s.  She took a job there to be near elephants, being intensely fond of the animals since her childhood.  She grew up in a Khamu village, where her grandfather was one of the local shamans.  When she was just five years old, one of her grandfather’s successfully cured patients presented him with an elephant, named Tong Kham, as payment.  Lek took an instant liking to her—so big, yet so gentle.  She became her close friend and ever since has maintained and deepened that affection for elephants such that by now they are the main focus of her life.

Mahouts ride without a howday at  Lek's camp
    She got a good education, possessed a strong natural curiosity and sense of diligence, learned to read and write English, got into the tourist trade and eventually set up her own company Gem Travels.  Blessed with an abundance of physical and intellectual energy she might have succeeded at anything she chose in life.  But she wouldn’t have been happy with anything that took her far from her beloved elephants.  The tourism industry at least kept her in touch with them.  But her heart couldn’t bear it when she saw how the elephants suffered in places she worked or areas she visited.
    Personally, she preferred that elephants not work at all, that they could all return to nature, free and unfettered.  Knowing that’s only a dream, on the practical side someone had to take care of the sick and the wounded.  So for that role she nominated herself.  She started by selling her house and car to buy a small plot of riverside land to be used as an elephant refuge.  And then she began taking in sick, wounded and crippled elephants and looking after them, first with just her assistant Pom and later with well-wishers from all over the world who answered the call on her website (   
Come, it's time to bathe
    All this cost a lot more money than a village girl could raise on her own, even with a tour company’s assets.  A fully-grown elephant costs 350,000 baht on average.  Females in these post-logging days are worth more than males.  Lek managed to find international sponsors to help with the purchases of many of the rescued elephants at Elephant Nature Park, where 37 elephants now reside.  The youngest is just over two years old and the eldest is in her 70s.
    Her greatest financial break came in 2003 when Bert Von Roemer, a fellow elephant-lover from Texas, donated enough money for her to purchase land in the Mae Taeng Valley.  Here she has created her own private elephant preserve.  Some of the elephants have fully recuperated from their various ailments, infections and injuries, but others need daily attention and medical treatment.  The elephants wander freely, unchained, during the day, free to interact naturally and to form family groups and friendships.   
    Lek is at the park most days, though with her constant commuting back to her Chiang Mai office, most of the day-to-day care is handled by her staff, the mahouts, elephant fans from around the world on one or two-week volunteer programs and people hired from the local village.  Visitors, whether they are the volunteers, day-trippers or those who stay overnight in one of the comfortable stilted houses around the lot, will get to know some of the elephants at the park. 
    Two of the most lovable elephants are Faa Mai, a girl, and Chang Yim, a boy, both born in the park in 2009, who are often seen playing together in the field, in the river or in the mud pit.  Hope, a ten year-old male orphaned as a baby, is now of the most rambunctious and mischievous elephants in the park.  Jokia, the elephant blinded by her irate former owner when she wouldn’t work to his commands, was a terribly distressed creature when she was rescued in 1999.  Yet upon Jokia’s arrival in the camp another elephant, Mae Perm, began looking after her, steering her in the right direction when the elephants went out to bathe or feed.  After ten years together these two elephants are now best friends and Mae Perm continues to watch over Jokia with constant devotion.
cooling off
      Elephants are very social animals, family-conscious, loyal to their kin, sleep only four hours a day and eat most of the rest of the time.  All these facts visitors learn quickly after their arrival. They also learn that elephants communicate, that the trumpeting they hear is elephant conversation and that much of the talk is done with sounds they emit at a sub-sonic level that humans cannot hear.  The front part of the skull between the eyes vibrates whatever sound they make when they talk, but only fellow big-eared elephants can catch all of it.
     You can learn an intoxicating amount of facts about elephants at Lek’s park in just a day.  But even the two-week volunteers feel that they’ve only scratched the surface in their time in the park, for there is always something new to understand about these impressive animals.  Lek herself claims that in spite of her reading (she owns practically every book available on elephants in English or Thai) and her long years of experience with them, she is constantly discovering new things about them.  She does admire one particular characteristic.  “When an elephant loves you it is without conditions,” she says.  “Humans have many conditions for their love.  But not an elephant.  An elephant’s love is unconditional.  Pure.”
    After nine years Lek expanded the park’s facilities to accommodate short-term tourist stays as well as more volunteers.  Beyond helping to defray the costs of nursing elephants any profits she gets out of it she is likely to use for purchasing more land and rescuing more elephants.  Her main objective is to offer a new kind of elephant experience.  Until now people could only observe the tricks man has taught the elephant to perform.  At her park people have the opportunity to gain real insight into elephants as they become more intimate with the animals, learn about them and observe their natural behavior patterns, their communication with each other, their emotions and social life.  They and their favorite elephants will become mutually familiar and they will soon learn yet one more unexpected fact—that elephants, like people, all have different, distinctly individual personalities.

the daily bath
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Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Jinuo People Honor the Blacksmith

                                                            by Jim Goodman

Jinuo girl
    Of China’s 55 recognized minority nationalities the Jinuo of Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna Prefecture were, in 1979, the last to be granted official status.  Never a very numerous people, today scarcely 22,000, before that they were considered a branch of the Dai nationality, though they had little in common with the Dai.  The Jinuo language is part of the Tibeto-Burman family, the people are animist, not Buddhist, and for the most part tea cultivators, not wet-rice growers.
    The Jinuo were among the earliest migrants to Xishuangbanna coming into the prefecture from the north.  Jinuo legends claim that the people originated from a group of soldiers attached to the army of Zhuge Liang during the 3rd century C.E. in the campaign against Meng Huo, a tribal leader controlling much of Yunnan at the time.  This particular detachment fell asleep at one point on the march and when the group woke up they discovered the main army had already moved out. 
    When they caught up they were not allowed back into the army.  But instead of having them executed for dereliction of duty, Zhuge Liang ordered them to settle down on the spot where they fell asleep.  The legends also say Zhuge Liang gave them seeds for tea trees as a compensation for their expulsion.  This was supposed to be somewhere between Pu’er and Mojiang, but it is doubtful Zhuge Liang’s forces marched that far south, so more likely the spot was further north.
Jinuo men
    At any rate, the group did not stay there long.  After the army had departed they moved south.  How soon afterwards they moved into Xishuangbanna is not certain, but nowadays, unlike the other major ethnic groups here, there are no Jinuo villages anywhere beyond Xishuangbanna.  Most settled around Jinuoshan, near Mengyang, with smaller numbers around Kongmingshan, west of Xingmeng, and in Mengwang district.
    Contemporary Jinuo are familiar with the Zhuge Liang story, but their own traditional mythology puts their origin right there in Jinuoshan.  And they have more than one version.  In the first, a great flood washed all the way up to the hills, drowning everyone as it rose.  The goddess Amo Yaobai instructed a young man and young woman to escape the deluge by enclosing themselves in a big drum.  The drum floated on the floodwaters while everyone else died.  When the waters receded the drum landed at the foot of what is now Bapo village.  The couple cut their way out of the drum and set foot on the land.  Amo Yaobai then gave then seeds for rice and for tea.  This couple, then, was the progenitor of the Jinuo people.
village in Jinuoshan
     Another myth credits the origin of the Jinuo to a widow with seven sons and seven girls.  These children married and as the original clan grew it divided into matriarchal and patriarchal villages.  Today Jinuo society is completely patriarchal, but that has apparently only been true for the last three centuries.
    Neighboring people called them Youle, after the mountain that dominates Jinuoshan district, where most of them lived.  They were mainly tea cultivators, which they traded for rice, though they did grow a little rice of their own, along with cotton, bananas and papayas, and supplemented their diet with wild game, fruits and vegetables from the adjacent jungles.
    Traditionally their villages were small, sited in isolated places in the mountains, only in contact with the lowlands when they went down to market their tea.   Most people lived collectively in longhouses.  Their leaders, and ultimate authorities in maters of ritual, custom and the arbitration of disputes, were the oldest male and the oldest female in the village.  People were poor and lived a harsh life of bare self-sufficiency.
    Like other hill peoples, they compensated for this with a rich cultural and community life.  Mutual aid was built into their environment.  When hunting parties went on a foray, while the choicest parts of the game they bagged went to the hunters who brought it down, the rest of the meat was distributed to all the families in the village.  Families helped each other at harvest time and banded together to fend off wild animals like elephants, boars and buffaloes threatening any of their fields.
Jinuo girls all dressed up
    The unmarried youth belonged to male and female bachelor associations that sponsored collective rites of passage for new members, usually at age 15, when boys shaved their heads except for three tufts of hair and girls stopped braiding theirs and wore it in the adult style.  They also underwent tattooing.  Girls had simple tattoos, like geometric patterns, applied to their lower legs.  Boys favored more elaborate designs of animals, flowers, the sun, moon and stars, applied to both their arms and their legs.  Youths worked at their individual domestic or field tasks and met at night for informal song and dance sessions near the communal house.   They chose songs from a vast traditional repertoire and accompanied them with a three-string lute, bamboo flutes of two, four or six holes, bamboo Jew’s harps and upright bamboo xylophones, comprising seven tubes of different lengths and diameters. 
      Marriage was by free choice and girls often initiated the romance.  Jinuo custom laid no restrictions on pre-marital sex, and in fact, some villages erected small huts for the privacy of this activity.  When they had a child the couple formally married, an event celebrated by the entire village. Then they moved into a separate cubicle in the communal longhouse and were expected to remain faithful after that.  Divorce, while theoretically possible, was very rare.
Nowadays Jinuo families live in separate houses
    1979 was a watershed year for the Jinuo.  Their recognition as a separate minority nationality coincided with the dismantling of the communes and the acceleration of changes wrought by economic development, like the extension of roads and electricity, the growth of markets and the boom in tea prices.  This process also brokered major cultural changes among this formerly isolated people.
    Now that they could earn more income by having been allowed to opt out of the communal farming system, they began to abandon their communal domestic system as well.  Slowly but surely, individual families left the longhouses and built their own individual dwellings.  These were stilted houses of wood and bamboo, in the standard general style of Xishuangbanna, though by the end of the century more often of brick or cement, with roofs of corrugated iron.  By the end of 2003 the longhouse was just a memory.  The last Jinuo families living in one moved out of it that year.
    The new villages were bigger than the old longhouse-based ones.  People were not as intimately involved with each other simply because there were perhaps three times as many now in a single settlement, in separate houses and neighborhoods, not all together in a single building.  The youth associations faded away and people sought entertainment from radios and televisions instead of traditional songs and dances.
weaving with a back-strap loom
    Nevertheless, Jinuo ethnic consciousness survived these changes.  The people still take pride in those peculiarly Jinuo characteristics that distinguish them from others.  The ethnic costume is one of the most obvious.  From bolls collected off the cotton trees on their farms, women spin thread and then turn it into bolts of cloth up to half a meter wide on a simple back-strap loom. Then they cut up the bolts and stitch the pieces together to make the costume components.
    The main men’s item is a short, long-sleeved jacket, basically white, with a few vertical and horizontal red pinstripes and a band of red on the lapels, hem and around the middle of the jacket.  Thicker bands are on the sleeves at the elbows and just below the shoulders.  A brightly embroidered disk representing the sun might grace the back of the jacket, just below the neckline.  They wear these with a pair of simple trousers, traditionally knee-length, a round embroidered cap or a black headscarf and a shoulder bag in a design similar to the jacket.
    The women’s jacket reaches to the hips.  The lower part only is white with red lines and bands, while the upper part is basically black with many horizontal bands of red, blue, green and yellow.  The sleeves are blue with red cuffs and a pair of embroidered sun disks enhances the back at the shoulder blades.  They were a breast-cloth under this, the top part heavily embroidered in cross-stitch designs.  The wraparound black skirt, with a band of bright color and embroidered flowers along the hems, drops to the knees.  Black or red and white leggings cover the legs from knee to ankle.  On their heads they wear a peaked, cowl-like cap, mostly white, with red and black lines and bands, falling to the shoulder blades.  They also carry shoulder bags of the same style as that worn by the men. 
woman's cap and ear ornaments
    Modern clothing has become more common for everyday wear in Jinuo villages, but a decent percentage of both men and women, young and old, still prefer to don part or all of their traditional outfits both at home and in the fields.  They may be more likely to wear it, or at least the jacket and shoulder bag, when going to the markets and attending village weddings.  And of course at festival time most Jinuo will dress fully traditional style, including the odd ear ornaments worn by both sexes, such as small tubes of bamboo, woolen thread or pompom balls, or even plucked flowers.
    While they no longer live communally in a single building, contemporary Jinuo villages are still tightly knit social units.  Each one houses a large village drum mounted on a stand. The drum symbolizes the sun and the spikes around its rim are the sunrays.  The Jinuo consider it sacred and only use it for special rituals and festivals.  The most important of these is the Temaoke Festival in winter, formerly in the twelfth lunar month, now fixed for 6-8 February by the solar calendar.  At this time villagers bring the drum on its big frame to the village square and place a table of offerings in front, holding chickens, egg, wine, tea and rice.
village elders, who preside over the festival events
    While prayers to the sun, represented by the drum, constitute an important part of the festival, it is actually staged in honor of the blacksmith.  Temaoke in the Jinuo language means “iron-forging festival.”  In ancient times primitive societies always regarded the blacksmith as a kind of magician, able to harness nature’s powers to create tools and weapons that enabled people to obtain what they needed to live from nature’s resources.  The Jinuo trace their origin, and that of the festival as well, to ancient times and credit the blacksmith with playing the major transformative role in their history.  Thanks to the blacksmith, the Jinuo got the tools and implements needed to sustain their lives by hunting and farming.
pouring libations to the drum
    The most important sacrifice takes place at the blacksmith’s home.  On the first morning of the festival he goes to the senior village woman’s house to recount the dream he had the previous night.  She then interprets the dream for what it will mean for the coming year’s harvest.  Dreams of swelling rivers and blossoming trees are good portents, for example, while deserts and barren trees are not.  A feast in her home follows this event.  Then the blacksmith, accompanied by his apprentices and one member of the senior lady’s family, returns to his workshop, kills a chicken and spreads its blood and feathers on his anvil, smithy and tools.  His family cooks the chicken and while dining the blacksmith mimics his work, shouting, “hammer out the old year, hammer in the new year.”
    The main public event takes place in the village square and includes ritual homage to the drum and a set of traditional dances.  A large crowd attends, dressed almost entirely in Jinuo style, with a few variations, such as girls with knee-high, heeled boots or in blue jeans instead of skirts, or men wearing neckties embroidered with Jinuo motifs.  One by one a few of the senior males, escorted by a young man and a young woman, approach the drum and pour a libation of rice spirits on the top of its rim.  The performance show that ensues portrays the history of the Jinuo people through the medium of dance.
    The first act features a troupe of men in blackface and rags, some playing females, representing ancient, primitive Jinuo in the harsh times before they had a blacksmith.  A few carry a big drum suspended from two balance poles.  The others wield sticks, swords and pack-baskets and in the dance mime scraping and digging the earth, looking for something edible.  The blacksmith dance follows this one, with men swinging hammers as they move around an anvil and a tray of offerings.  The next act features men with plows, then ranks of women wielding hoes.
dancing with hoes
    After these skits, the elders wheel the drum on its stand into the center of the square.  Lines of men and women wave their tasseled drumsticks while they dance and a few men and women beat the big drum.  The show concludes with a big ring dance.  Action continues at the fairground, where traditional clothing items, shoulder bags, silver ornaments, tea and snacks are on sale until late afternoon, when the crowd returns to their homes to indulge in a grand feast of chicken, field crabs, ground pork cooked in bamboo tubes, fish baked in banana leaves and, naturally, plenty of liquor.
    Nowadays villages don’t actually need a resident blacksmith anymore.  People can get their tools, weapons, knives, axes and anything made of metal from the markets.  But Temaoke is not just a festival that honors the blacksmith.  Temaoke today celebrates the history of the Jinuo people and the maintenance of their strong sense of ethnic identity.  

(for more on the Jinuo and other people of Xishuangbanna, hill and plain, see my e-book Xishuangbanna:  the Tropics of Yunnan)

dance depicting ancient, pre-blacksmith life

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