Friday, May 3, 2013

Up the Sword Ladder

                                                                  by Jim Goodman
Hua Lisu woman, Tengchong County
       Imagine that you're a young Hua Lisu man in western Yunnan in the isolated mountains of Tengchong, Lianghe and Yingjiang Counties, who wants to powerfully impress a certain eligible young Lisu lady.  Like her mother and sisters she is a very old-fashioned Lisu and prefers the colorful traditional costume of a long-tailed blue jacket, with extra flaps around the shoulders and trimmings in red, yellow, white and green.  (The eye-catching jacket alone justifies their name, for Hua Lisu means Flowery Lisu in Chinese.)  This she wears over trousers that fall just past the knees and bright puttees wrapped in lacquered black rattan rings.  She looks especially charming when she puts on her collar-ring with silver pendants dangling from it down her chest, and dons the round turban embellished with white discs cut from shells.  She is certainly worth impressing and in traditional Hua Lisu culture there's a sure way for you to gain prestige, in her eyes and in the eyes of your rivals, a way to win a reputation as one of the boldest, most outstanding young men in the village--up the sword ladder.
Hua Lisu man
       Or picture yourself as an older, middle-aged man, raising a family, with teenaged children inclined to challenge your authority on the broader issues of life.  You need to enhance your prestige so they will heed your guidelines on proper Lisu behavior.  You also must participate in discussions with other household heads over issues like contracts with the logging companies, how much of the forest to cut, where to graze the animals and so on.  You would like to add more weight to your opinion, to have it listened to with greater respect.  To elevate your prestige so to achieve this, as well as to enhance your authority at home, the route is the same one taken by the aspiring lover--up the sword ladder.
       The opportunity for this takes place once a year, the 8th day of the 2nd lunar month.  On this day the Hua Lisu erect a tall ladder, with as many as 60 or 70 machetes for the rungs, sharp side up.  The ladder must be scaled barefoot and bare-handed and the entire effort can be totally wasted if the climber suffers so much as a single small cut on the soles of his feet.  It's an imposing task and would be difficult even with gloves and boots, certainly for anyone afflicted with a more than normal amount of acrophobia.
the ascent
action on the Sword Ladder
       No one is compelled to climb.  No draftees from selected families.  No casting lots to determine who goes up.  It's entirely voluntary.  And because it's a fairly dangerous thing to do only the most eager, or most inveterate, status-seekers make the try.  About a dozen men on average attempt the climb in any given year.  Half of them will be old enough to be the fathers of the other half.
       The Sword Ladder Festival dates back to the time the Lisu migrated to western Yunnan from their original homeland near the banks of the Jinshajiang (Upper Yangzi) in southwest Sichuan.  Midway through the Ming Dynasty, in the early 16th century, they began moving to the Nujiang Valley (Upper Salween) and the western hills of present-day Baoshan and Dehong Prefectures.  Some continued into Burma and today the same sub-groups live on both sides of the border.
going up and going down
safety mudrss by the emcee
       The Ming Dynasty only took full control of Yunnan at the end of the 14th century.  The western frontier remained a security problem all through the following century and in the early 16th century the Ming minister Wang Ji arrived intending to pacify the area.  The newly-arrived Lisu at that time were subject to regular harassment by bandit incursions and many of their men joined Wang Ji's forces.
       Wang Ji himself was a charismatic, fearless leader with great appeal to the Lisu.  He led the campaigns personally and in the end laid down his life in defense of the frontier and the Lisu who lived on the Chinese side of it.  Among his troops he had the reputation of being able to walk through fire and climb a ladder of swords in his bare feet.  While this is a Chinese metaphor for exceptional bravery, the Hua Lisu took it literally.  On the day of his death, the 8th day of the 2nd moon, they emulate Wang Ji by walking across hot coals the night before and climbing the sword ladder that day.
picnic at the festival grounds
       As night falls on the day prior villagers set fires at the edge of the settled area.  When the fires have burned down to a layer of glowing coals the boldest of the village men dash barefoot across the "sea of fire," as they call it.  Like the climbing exercise the next day, the soles of their feet must emerge from the ordeal unscorched and unblemished.  And they do.
       Unlike some other mountain people in the region, the Lisu do not ordinarily go barefoot.  So the men's ability to run across the coals and climb the sword ladder does not come from a build-up of thick calluses on the soles of their feet, which are every bit as tender as a city dweller's.
Hua Lisu elder
       The swords are not razor sharp, but honed enough to cut bamboo and sugar cane and swords that are obviously dull or nicked are rejected as rungs for the ladder.  The inexplicability of this feat, repeated annually since Wang Ji's death three centuries ago, has even helped preserve Hua Lisu traditions in general, for it was the reason why the Christian missionaries gave up their conversion campaign.
       It began in the 1920's when the Frasers, husband and wife, entered Tengchong County from Burma and headed for Hua Lisu settlements in the hills northwest of the county seat.  They happened to arrive the same week as the festival.  Mrs. Fraser, who later authored the memoir of their missionary work, was sure there was some kind of trick involved in the "sea of fire" exercise and poo-poohed the accomplishment of those few who did it.  It was dark, after all.
       Yet they could not figure out the sword ladder climbing, which they witnessed close-up in broad daylight.  The only explanation they could divine was the power of the Devil, coming to the aid of these pagan climbers.  So, because the Devil's influence was so strong among this branch of the Lisu, as Mrs. Fraser wrote, the missionaries left Tengchong and moved north to proselytize among the Black Lisu of Nujiang.  Today the Black Lisu are largely Christian, while the Hua Lisu to this day have resisted conversion and remain the largest sub-group of non-Christian Lisu.
       The Hua Lisu way of life has not remained static since their migration to western Yunnan.  They evolved from a mainly hunting and gathering society to one of agriculture and animal husbandry by the time of their encounter with the Frasers.  Since then the Hua Lisu have largely abandoned slash-and-burn in favor of fixed field farming and were until this century involved in the logging business.
stepping on the swords
at the top
       Yet the Sword Ladder Festival has endured with no major modifications since its beginning.  It remains the highlight of the Lisu year, combined with a carnival in the adjacent field, where Lisu villagers amuse themselves at various stalls until the actual climbing commences.  Some of the stalls offer small market items, others noodles and drinks and still others the dice game popular in western Yunnan.
dice game at the festival
       In this one three large dice are mounted on a bar at the top of a slightly slanted tray.  When the game master yanks the cord to pull away the bar the three dice tumble into the lower tray lying flat just below.  At the far end of this tray people place their bets.  Usually the dice fall together, but sometimes they drop one by one.  When two have landed a player may anticipate being a winner, only to see the third one finally fall and knock over one of the other two, thus changing the final configuration.
       Around noon is the erection of the ladder.  Long lines of men pull the ropes attached to the ladder's top and hoist it upright.  After the ropes have been secured to stakes three men begin fixing the swords in place, from the bottom up.  As they get higher up the swords are delivered by pulley rope.  This operation takes over an hour, followed by a break of around two hours to wait for the auspicious moment to begin climbing.  Meanwhile, those in attendance hold picnics, play the dice game and wander about the carnival grounds.
examining the feet after the climb
       On this day the women don their best costumes and all their beads and jewelry.  But Lisu men for the most part also dress in the traditional style, one of the few minorities in which the men do so.  They wear a long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket, usually blue, a wide belt, knee-length trousers and striped leggings.  On special occasions like this they will also don a turban, embroidered shoulder bags and a bandoleer or two of silver dollar-sized discs cut from shells.  Those going up the ladder are the most resplendent.
       Without fanfare or announcement the start of the climbing is signaled by a man placing a bundle of burning incense sticks at each of the stakes holding the ropes attached to the ladder.  Then an older man removes his shoes and commences his steady climb to the platform full of pennants at the top.  He removes a few of these, hurls them to the ground and sets off several strings of firecrackers.  Then as he descends another begins to climb.  About halfway up the ladder is a narrow platform.  The one ascending halts here until the previous climber has passed him on the way down.
       When the descending climber reaches the last rung he steps onto short bamboo poles and lifts his feet for inspection by the emcee.  Observing that no cuts or blood mar the soles of the feet, the emcee rubs them with ashes and gives the performer a small cup of liquor.  No one applauds the success, lest that distract the others on the ladder.  While awaiting the next to descend the emcee, gazing intently at the climbers, makes magical gestures to insure no mishap occurs.
festival dance
       After all this year's climbers have completed their turns, a loudspeaker begins broadcasting traditional Lisu songs.  The climbers and their wives then join hands for a ring dance around the base of the ladder, with alcohol served them as refreshment partway through the performance.
       This is the last act of the festival.  The ring breaks up and the crowd heads for home.  The ladder remains standing until the following day, when the men gather to take it down, remove the swords, disassemble the components, and put them away until next year.  And already those who considered it, but failed to muster sufficient courage to climb this year, have witnessed the new esteem bestowed on the climbers by their admirers.  And already they have begun telling themselves that if their neighbors or rivals can succeed without any problems, why then next year they, too, will have what it takes for that tried and true way to social prominence--up the sword ladder.

the last act--dancing around the Sword Pole
                                                                         * * *

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