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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