Monday, March 10, 2014

The Third Month Fair in Dali

                                                   by Jim Goodman

    Of all of Yunnan’s many annual festivals, the Third Month Fair in Dali ranks as the biggest.  In a good year around a half million people swarm into the city for the event, beginning on the full moon (15th day) of the third lunar month and running at least one week.  While the festival features a variety of entertainment—concerts, stage shows, songs, dances, horse races and equestrian shows—its main draw is the variety of goods, especially medicinal herbs, for sale in the special market created for the event at the foot of Zhonghe Peak of the Cangshan Mountains, just across the road from the old town’s West Gate.   A great number of the Bai and Yi minorities from Dali and surrounding counties come for the fair, but the crowd is dominated by Han from all over China, here not so much for the shows as for the opportunity to buy items like rare medicinal plants, for which the province and the Dali vicinity have long been famous.
northern entry gate to the fairgrounds
    The Third Month Fair is also one of the oldest festivals in Yunnan, having originated back in the 7th century during the reign of Xinuluo in the early days of the Nanzhao Kingdom.   The state was small then, basically just present-day Weishan and Midu Counties, and it would be another hundred years or so before Dali became its capital.  According to local legend, the plain beside Erhai Lake at that time was under the control of a monstrous demon named Luosha.  On the full moon day of the third month the goddess Guan Yin came to the area in disguise, tricked and imprisoned Luosha in a sealed cave and freed the local Bai people from his ravages.  In gratitude, every year on this day the people came to the foot of Zhonghe Peak, the site of Guan Yin’s triumph, to honor her and leave offerings.  As festivals imply crowds, and crowds draw merchants, eventually the event morphed into an annual trade fair that eclipsed its original religious significance.
    A more romantic account ascribes the origin of the Fair to a love affair between a fairy princess and a local fisherman.  She was the third daughter of Erhai’s resident Dragon King, who fell in love with and married a poor, but industrious and honest fisherman named Ashan.  Some months after their marriage, she invited him to accompany her to the Moon Festival, changed into a dragon and flew him there.  Changing back, she walked with him past a fantastic landscape, the likes of which he had never seen, to a pair of blue trees, 
    Suddenly people began arriving from the four corners of Heaven, riding lions and phoenixes and then setting up a fair.  Stalls offered coral, gemstones, pearls, clear liquor and rare elixirs and special food from the mountains and the seas.  After getting over his initial bedazzlement, though, Ashan noticed the market didn’t offer any farming tools or fishing gear, which disappointed him.
herbs and spices on sale at the Fair

    He mentioned that fact when narrating his adventures to his fellow villagers when the pair returned to earth.  He suggested the people set up their own fair for farmers and fishermen.  His princess wife seconded the idea and then proposed they simply move the Moon Festival to Earth.  Villagers then planted two trees at the foot of Zhonghe Peak and inaugurated a modified Moon Festival of their own.  Supplementing the rare and precious items from the market on the moon, the people added farm tools, livestock, fishing gear and medicinal herbs.
    Simply because people started coming from great distances to attend, the Fair grew in duration from a single commemorative day to a whole week.  And to keep the crowds in a good mood to stay longer and buy more goods, Fair organizers enhanced the event with various kinds of entertainment.  In recent times stages have gone up at each end of the market area and a stadium built north of the fairgrounds for the group dances, horse races, archery contests and equestrian shows. 
Dali West Gate, decorated for the event
    Nowadays the Fair is bigger than ever.  Thanks to airplanes, trains and buses people can reach Dali easily from all over the country.  Old town merchants this week hear the Chinese language spoken a hundred different ways.  Besides the chance to buy medicinal plants and animal parts that they cannot find in the places they live, they come for the attraction of Dali itself.  Lying at around 2000 meters altitude, backed by the Cangshan Mountains with 4000+ meter-high peaks, adjacent to the blue waters of Erhai Lake, a walled city with significant historic value, with its classic Chinese and Bai-style architecture, Dali is one of Yunnan’s premier tourist destinations.   And in April the weather is warm and balmy, hardly ever raining, when it’s still cold in most of China.
    The city gets all spruced up for the event and merchants start setting up a day or two earlier on the slope outside the western gate.  Just opposite this tower a smaller gate marks the entrance to the northern road to the fairgrounds, while four blocks south another gate marks the southern road up the hill.  Shops or stalls line the roads gong up to the fairgrounds, which is just below the wooded area.  But activity remains rather slight until after the official opening at the stadium on full moon morning.
    The stadium starts filling up by sunrise, but for those too late to get inside Dali TV films the event, so they can watch it on their hotel televisions for the next few nights.   After the speeches the show consists of several performances by large dance troupes of Bai or Yi in costumes that combine the elements of several sub-groups.  None of them are actually traditional, but instead modern creations, choreographed in forms of bursting stars, geometric patterns, etc, sometimes with three troupes at once.  The equestrian shows that follow are more interesting, with riders climbing on the shoulders of the jockey and each other, sometimes seven on a single horse.
Tibetan herbal medicine vendor
    The show concludes by noon and the crowd then swarms into the fairgrounds.  Besides medicinal herbs, concentrated at the southern end of the grounds, stalls offer various kinds of food like dried beef and mutton, sweets, pastries and pickled vegetables, as well as farm tools, nets and musical instruments, with a few restaurants set up at the north end.  While most of the crowd consists of Chinese Han visitors, ethnic minorities make up a large portion, mostly the prefecture’s Bai and Yi sub-groups, but also those from further away, like Naxi from Lijiang, Tibetans from Shangrila, Lisu and Miao.
Dali Bai girls running a stall
    Dali Bai women are the most recognizable, for their ethnic style of clothing-- white pants, long-sleeved, side-fastened red, blue or green tunic with matching apron and red and white headdress with a long white tassel--is one of the main images used in tourist literature advertising the place.  They tend to wander the fairgrounds in groups of three up to fifteen, often dressed in matching color tunics.  Bai women from Jianchuan wear a maroon vest over a blue blouse, a longer apron and a cap of several layers.  Those from Heqing are less colorful, maroon vest over white blouse and an army cap.
    The largest group of Yi is the still very traditional Tuli sub-group, from the hills south of Xiaguan and from Midu and Weishan Counties.  Their women dress in bright colors, green and red dominating, and wear tall turbans, plain black  or heavily embroidered and decorated.  Other Yi groups, such as the dance troupe, hail from Yangbi County, just over the Cangshan Mountains, notable for the lavishly embroidered aprons the women wear.
    The southern part of the fairgrounds is the busiest, a zone dominated by stalls hawking medicinal plants, spices, seeds, herbs and animal parts.  Tibetans run many stalls here, also
Bai women from Jianchuan
colorful Tuli Yi woman
selling, besides herbs and exotic animal parts like seahorses and starfish, butter churns, decorated yak and buffalo skulls, saddle carpets and animal pelts of fox, red panda and leopard cat.  Yi, Bai and Han also manage stalls here, their herbs packed in big bags with the tops open and the odors of their contents wafting into the air, making this area the most fragrant in the Fair. 
    While entertainment proceeds regularly throughout the week at several venues, the second morning features one-time only performances by local Bai and Yi.  The Bai put on a spectacular dragon dance, with two dragons, one black, one golden, with women carrying the dragons.  One woman baits the dragon, which moves around in
Bai Dragon Dance
Bai Fan Dance
various patterns, sometimes ducking its head under its writhing tail, or coiling under its raised head.  Other dances feature red lions and the use of props like riding whips or fans.  The Yi perform ring dances, women on the outside, men on drums and gourd-pipes in the middle.
      Both shows are over by noon, and the area doesn’t see any more, but a short distance away is the mini-stadium set up for performances by village orchestras from the vicinity playing traditional dongjing music.  The groups number about 25 and usually include at least one female musician, who may double as singer.  Each orchestra performs about an hour, two in the morning, three in the afternoon. 
    At the other end of the grounds, near the top of the southern entrance road,  are two more entertainment venues.  A huge tree stands near the edge of the medicine stalls and from a makeshift stage in front of it Bai and Yi singers, male and female, solo or in duets, take turns performing, with a small Bai troupe puts on dances in between the songs.  And about 70 meters down the slope other troupes and soloists perform on a regular stage, with curtain, flanking one of the market lanes.
    The staged dances are sometimes traditional, sometimes new, even if in ethnic dress.  Bai troupes of women dance with props like parasols, fans lutes and water jugs, each set choreographed differently but often ending with one lady hoisted high above the rest of the group clustered at her feet.  Miao girls perform wearing typically Miao pleated skirts and fancy silver headdresses from Guizhou province.  Yi troupes from Yangbi put on various shows, soloists perform on flute or gourd-pipe and a group of local Han girls do a modern dance in short, tight, slanted skirts and matching, off-the-shoulder halters—the sexiest stage costume of the week.
Non-ethnic dances are also part of the show.

    The stage shows take place in the afternoon and, after a short break, again in the early evening.  But nothing stays open very late in the fairgrounds and attendance is much smaller.  During the day, though, it can be difficult to move around on the main market lanes.  People are constantly stopping to examine goods or jamming up to watch the stage shows, putting their children on their shoulders to give them a better view.  This blocks the view of those behind them, of course, but other than that, in general the crowds are well-behaved.  Nobody is in a hurry, nobody pushes, and nobody tramples on the feet of others.
Dali Bai troupe on stage at the Fair
    It’s no wonder, then, that the Third Month Fair grows in popularity every year.   The physical setting alone is one of Yunnan’s most splendid and the area is replete with genuine attractions that bring in tourists year-round.  The abundant presence of ethnic minorities in their best traditional clothing during the Fair sprinkles the crowds with color and accents the already exotic atmosphere of the event.  The array of goods on sale and the variety of both merchants and customers makes a day’s wandering through the fairgrounds one of continuous fascination.  And as a bonus, a visitor might just find that special herb or plant that will treat or cure a long-standing ailment.  That alone would make the trip worth it.    

dongjing orchestra singer
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