Sunday, September 15, 2013

Calling on the Wa in China

                                                        by Jim Goodman

    The easiest place to meet China’s fascinating Wa minority is the southwestern Yunnan county of Menglian, just west of Xishuangbanna.  The county capital itself, pleasantly sited astride the Bin River, hosts its regular open market every five days.  Wa villagers, mostly women, from hills in all directions stream into town with baskets of mountain herbs and vegetables to sell, joining their hill neighbors the Lahu and Aini, as well as local Dai and Han.  If they haven’t rented one of the stalls in the official market square they simply set up shop under a shady tree somewhere between the river and the market square, or anywhere along a street, if it’s not raining.  They still prefer their traditional hand-woven wraparound, striped cotton skirt, heavy on the red and black, along with chunky silver jewelry, shoulder bags studded with Job’s tear seeds, and peaked cotton caps held down by multiple strands of silver.  Aini and Lahu women also don colorful traditional outfits and ornaments for market day.
Wa woman,Menglian County
Wa in Menglian on market day
     For eye-catching jewelry, though, it’s hard to beat the Wa earplugs, intricately designed silver crowns on tubes about 3 cm in diameter, inserted through enlarged holes in the ear lobes.  It takes over a month to gradually expand the original hole by inserting another toothpick-sized bamboo splinter every two or three days.  Women also wear inscribed silver disc-pendants, strings of beads, several bangles each wrist, and wide bead belts.  Long-stemmed silver pipes, which women of all ages seem to favor, serve as ornaments when not in use, as they are then tucked in the cap or belt.
Wa jewelry in Menglian
Wa smoker in Gengma
    Townships to the north and west, mostly Wa-inhabited, can be reached by regular mini-vans out of Menglian town.  The Wa traditionally live in houses of bamboo and wood, on stilts, with roofs of thatch and an adjoining open balcony.  Women often hook up their looms on this balcony, especially in the dry season, and are oblivious to the stranger’s fascination with the process of weaving.
    Menglian’s Wa are quick to welcome the rare foreigner who wanders into their villages.  I could hardly walk a hundred paces without hearing friendly greetings, sometimes even in English, nor be more than five minutes into my exploration without someone inviting me inside for tea.  In one village my excursion coincided with a wedding.
Ximeng County Wa girl
    Between the harvest and Lunar New Year is the Wa wedding season.  In a large village marriages occur almost daily and, buoyed by the joy of the occasion, the people are especially hospitable.  No grand ceremony or dance takes place, just a bit of divination with the thighbones of the sacrificial chicken.  But as Wa youth choose their own partners, Wa custom is not to allow a negative prognosis to overrule affairs of the heart.  They just slay another chicken (or more, if need be!) until the thighbone reading is favorable.  Following this comes a grand celebratory feast, with lots of pork and rice-liquor.  And the stranger is the guest of honor, with whom everybody wants to share a personal, bottoms-up toast.
    The first words I learn to say in Wa were nyu bre—drink liquor.  Now, inspired by the alcohol, I asked my hosts for more words and phrases, jotted them down, and soon had enough to try speaking with the nearest unmarried Wa girl in her own language.  “How are you?  Are you enjoying yourself today?  What’s your name?  Don’t be shy.  I love you.”  My hosts, and the girl as well, found this uproariously amusing.  When shortly afterwards it was time to return to Menglian, half the village came out to see me off.
     Yes, a foreigner wanders alone freely and safely through remote Wa villages nowadays.  Two or three generations ago, travelers needed armed escorts.  The villages were very large, stockaded settlements, fortified all around, with a single entry passage via a tunnel through thick thorn bushes, which ended at a heavy gate.  The Wa were notorious head-hunters until the mid-1950’s, when the government finally launched a campaign to eradicate the practice.
    Spring was the prime head-hunting season, for the Wa believed the head contained the human soul-force needed to provide spiritual protection for the rice crop about to be planted.  One or two fresh skulls were required every year or two, mounted on tall poles on the village perimeter, replaced and buried when their soul-force was considered depleted.  Wa warriors generally took heads from relatively distant villages, so that the soul-force within the skull would not wander off, trying to find its way back home.  Non-Wa strangers were thus also vulnerable, and in general steered clear of the Wa-inhabited areas.
old village in Awashan
    Life wasn’t much more secure for the Wa themselves, as the system inherently generated blood feuds among villages.  Hence, villages were huge, containing sometimes over 300 households, for it was safer to live in big, defensible settlements.  The whole area, loosely called Awashan, or the Wa Hills, was so insecure for so long in its history that the border between Burma and China was not fully demarcated until the 1960’s.
    Most of Yunnans’ 350,000+ Wa live in one or another mountain range along the Burmese border in Pu’er and Lincang Prefectures.  In Ximeng and Cangyuan they are the majority ethnic group, far outnumbering the Dai and Han.  How long they have resided in Yunnan is unknown, for the Wa have no written history.  But cliff paintings of typically Wa activities like hunting, festival dances and buffalo sacrifices, which contemporary Wa claim to be the work of their ancestors, adorn a cliff face at Ai Hua, near Menglai township in Cangyuan County.  They are said to be 2000 years old.
    Not all Wa in the old days were headhunters.  Outsiders used to classify them as Wild Wa and Tame Wa, both in China and Burma.  The former were the true warrior societies, who took heads regularly and were much feared by people in the plains.  The Tame Wa either purchased heads from Wild Wa warriors or substituted wild animal or buffalo skulls instead.
    A turning point in Wa history came with the British annexation of Upper Burma in 1881.  British expeditions into the hills close to China were taken to establish administrative control and pacify as much of the area as could render ordinary commerce possible.  The proportion of Tame Wa began to grow, especially in those areas close to major routes.  Christian missionaries, mainly Baptist, penetrated the Wild Wa domain in Ximeng and Lancang Counties in the first decades of the 20th century, as I was to discover exploring the Wa area around Ankang district, in Lancang County.
Ai Hua rock paintings
   Ankang proper is disappointing:  all buildings concrete, nobody in Wa clothing and the only sign of a typically Wa connection with nature was a huge moth mounted on the door of an apartment.  Everyone there was Christian.  One of the villagers invited me to see their church, in a slightly more picturesque village halfway down the mountain. It was a simple, long wooden building on stilts, with virtually no interior decorations, other than a picture of Jesus, remarkably similar to those one might find in Tennessee or Kentucky.  I arrived just before their late afternoon services. 
    Perhaps as many as half the adults in the village started streaming into the church.  I was not the first foreigner they had ever met, just the first non-missionary.  The village was converted about 80 years ago and had resident foreign missionaries until 1949.  Besides a new religion, they also introduced Ankang’s Wa to another Western tradition—shaking hands upon making acquaintance.
    As soon as villagers saw me in the church they came up to shake my hand.  This was interrupted by the services, but resumed afterwards, continuing until the moment our tractor-trailer left at dusk.  The services themselves were short, comprising a brief sermon by one of the men, followed by the singing of two hymns.  As many men as women attended, the latter mostly dressed in Wa costume, here mainly black garments and big turbans.  Both used hymnals with the lyrics translated into Wa, using a Romanized script devised by missionaries in Burma during its colonial days.
Christian Wa services
    Christian Wa had already been the tamest of the Tame Wa before the Chinese government in 1956 established authority in the last of the Wild Wa areas and decided it was time to tame them as well.  The last recorded headhunting incident occurred in 1958, motivated by a feud and not a desire to protect the rice crop.  It was resolved in the traditional Wa way—by compensation rather than incarceration.  But the system, even the belief that sponsored it, was dead, and as a result Wa villages dismantled their fortifications.
    In some villages in southern Gengma and western Cangyuan counties, the Wa became Buddhist.  Getting off the bus at Ban Hong, 45 km northwest of Cangyuan town, I discovered monks walking around, and young Wa novices in yellow robes playing in the courtyard of a temple in the Wa style, with two roofs like Dai village temples, but covered in thatch.  Near the center of the village stood a small shed housing the sacred village pillar, modeled on those in Buddhist Dai villages in the plains.
Buddhist Wa temple in Ban Hong district
    Stopping at the village temple to chat with the head monk, I was importuned to have lunch.  As one might expect, it was a vegetarian meal, served with tea and not rice-beer, consumed inside the temple proper.  When the monks learned I lived in Thailand they nodded, yes, a Buddhist country.  Their own quarters were in a single-roofed adjoining building.  The Wa of western Cangyuan and southern Gengma Counties became Buddhist after the eradication of headhunting.  Dai monks then campaigned in the hills and quickly converted scores of villages.
    In the hills east of Gengma, as well as east of Cangyuan and south along the border to Menglian County, Wa villages gave up head-hunting, but retained other aspects of their culture and animist religion. Wa traditions, minus the bloodthirsty ones, still animate the lives of a good portion of the Wa population.  Many of the old festivals survive, or in some cases were revived.  But no general rule exists on such a phenomenon.  What survived in one area lapsed in another.  What was revived in one county was ignored in the next.  Only in recent years, influenced by the revivalism affecting most Yunnan ethnic minorities, have the Wa begun relating more to each other, seeking common cultural denominators among the Wa sub-groups or, in the case of the traditional and exuberant Hair Dance, adopting new ones.  Other affinities will be found in the domestic lifestyle and village architecture.
    From various vantage points on the road from Mengsheng south to Cangyuan one can easily see traditional Wa villages on slopes of the nearest hills, their antiquity evident by their great size—like rural metropolises.  Very few modern buildings mar the otherwise uniform pattern of peaked, thatched roofs that reach nearly to the ground.  A niche-like opening cut into the thatch enables one to ascend the small staircase in front and enter.  Interiors are dark, with a central hearth.  Houses in the western part of Wa-inhabited areas do not have the adjoining balcony, though some have a crude raised porch in the yard.
Wa woman in Zuodou
    Looking for a typical traditional Wa village near Xuelin, in northwestern Lancang County, I was advised to go to Zuodou, 17 km by winding road, but only half that by a short-cut, w-like trail.  Zuodou lies high in the hills.  Its few modern buildings—school and administrative offices—stand on flat land beside the road, several Wa homes to their side.  But walk past these and the old and (relatively) new parts of Zuodou sprawl across the hilly terrain.  Perhaps 300 or more households make up Zuodou: houses close together, elevated slightly, with steeply-sided roofs, a few in corrugated iron or asbestos, all the rest in thatch.  Villagers grow rice, maize and vegetables on dry terraces, supplementing this by hunting with crossbows and long-barreled rifles, trapping, and the gathering of wild edibles and medicinal plants. 
    Cotton is another local crop, used for spinning thread to weave their wraparound skirts and the cloth for their jackets and turbans.  In the dry season women are often at work in cloth production, by spinning, dyeing or winding thread and by weaving on simple back-strap looms that can be hooked up anywhere.  Unlike Xuelin, where modern styles are the rule, Zuodou women mostly prefer their traditional clothes.  Whether walking around in the thatched neighborhoods or sitting outside at the loom, they give Zuodou an almost timeless atmosphere.   
    I arrived with a Chinese friend on what I expected to be an ordinary winter morning. Instead, with the first invitation to come inside and have a drink, I became acquainted with a Wa custom I didn’t know existed, as well as the proper way to quaff rice-beer.  My host family was in the process of celebrating the castration of their buffalo that morning.
    The Wa here castrate the buffalo when it has reached 14 years of age, though on no particular day in the lunar calendar.  The deed is done to render the animal gentler and easier to handle, as its prime reproductive days are over.  Yet it’s an important occasion, for the family that carries it out then must invite the heads of all families in the same clan to a feast featuring several pork dishes and an abundance of rice-beer.
older woman in Zuodou
    The castration took place shortly after sunrise.  As the other guests arrived and the women prepared the food, the men gathered around the hearth inside the house and commenced drinking rice-beer.  Now this is not a particularly potent drink but the men began drinking quite early this day and by the mid-morning meal a degree of intoxication was affecting every one of them.  Some were singing old Wa songs, but independently of each other, while those next to them paid no attention and just upped the volume of their conversations.
    Meanwhile, as fresh guests we were given a few preliminary, pre-dinner drinks and then, after the meal, most of the beer in the single communal mug was served to us, as if they wanted us to catch up to their level of inebriation.  The rice-beer is stored in a large ceramic pot and the host ladles it into a large bamboo mug, without handles, and, holding the mug with both hands, gives it to the guest.  Taking it with both hands, the guest drinks a little bit of the brew then, again, always, with two hands, passes it back to the host.  He takes it, with both hands, has a small drink and gives it back to the guest.  This custom is designed for the guest to show respect to the host.  After receiving the mug again the guest may drink the rest of the contents, or just a portion and offer the mug to another guest.
    This is a slow but steady way to get drunk.  The cacophony of the party hardly abated the next hour or more while our host served us mug after mug.  We toasted everyone and everything that came to mind and finally persuaded them to cease serving us beer so that I could photograph them.  So we finally made it outside, took portraits, wrote down their address to post them the results, and departed for other quarters of Zuodou.  And while I have my photos, as well as a couple of nice Wa shoulder bags, my favorite souvenir of the Wa Hills will be my memory of the Wa way of drinking.

Wa village, Cangyuan County
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  1. Hi Jim, thanks for the wonderful article! I would love to visit Zuodo however am having trouble figuring out what the best way to get there would be. Since my time will be limited any advice would be greatly apprciated!

  2. Wonderful writing Jim! Glad to see you were enjoy the locals. I am from Pu'er and residing in New Zealand atm.I am also conducting a study among the Wa people's community and their architectural revival, would like to hear your thoughts on this topic, if you are interesting on this!