Sunday, April 27, 2014

Duoyi River Waterwheels

                                                         by Jim Goodman

    Around three million people in southwest China identify themselves as members of the Buyi minority nationality, the tenth largest non-Han ethnic group in the country.  Most of the Buyi (sometimes spelt Bouyei or Buyei) live in the southern half of Guizhou province, where they are considered the aboriginal people of the province, supposedly resident there since the Stone Age.  They are descendants of the ancient Yue people from southeast China, related to the Zhuang and Dai and, like them, speak a language of the Tai-Kedai linguistic group, but without a written form.  (The government in the 1950s introduced a system based on Latin letters, but it did not catch on among the people.)
Buyi woman, Luoping County, Yunnan
    In Guizhou the Buyi established settlements along river valleys in the lower altitudes of the southern and western portions of the province.  In the Tang Dynasty the Chinese set up an indirect form of administration by giving local feudal lords appointments as governors.  In return for keeping the peace and meeting the state’s tax and service demands the Buyi officials were allowed to own the land and pass it on as inheritance.  Chinese administration was not particularly oppressive.  The land was fertile, favoring the cultivation of a variety of crops.  The semi-tropical climate was relatively comfortable, with neither droughts nor extreme cold and Buyi people became quite ensconced in their homeland, rarely motivated to look further on for something better.  A couple late 18th century revolts against local landlords did force a few small communities to seek refuge in other provinces and even as far away as Vietnam, but with one major exception, the Buyi remained in Guizhou.
    The one exception was the sub-group that moved over the southwest border into Yunnan around a thousand years ago; in fact, just barely over the border, in southeast Luoping County, near the junction of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou.  Thus the Buyi became one of Yunnan’s 25 minority nationalities.  With a population of around 55,000 they rank 16th in the province’s roster of ethnic minorities.   Having found in the valleys of the Duoyi and Nanpang Rivers an environment similar to that they left behind, and a beautiful one as well, they settled in permanently and did not make any further moves westward.
Buyi villagers on the Duoyi River
    To get to this Buyi enclave in Yunnan the easiest way is by road southeast from Luoping city in southern Qujing prefecture to the Duoyi River.  Like most of the county, Luoping lies on a broad elevated plain, so the route to the Duoyi River valley involves a descent of over a thousand meters.  In the late 90s, when I made my first excursions, this was a rough, mostly unpaved road through a sparsely inhabited area with a few stray Miao and Han villages.  About halfway down, though, one could see in the distance the magnificent cluster of densely packed limestone mountains, making multiple jagged lines on the eastern horizon.  Called Wanfenglinhai—the Sea of Ten Thousand Forested Peaks, these mountains soon pass out of view as the road continues its descent to the river. But along the river similar limestone hills rise high over the Buyi villages like near-perfect cones of earth, rock and trees.
Duoyi village
    At the Duoyi River junction the main road continues south to Badahe and eventually Guangxi, while a turn to the east enters Duoyi village, the largest Buyi settlement in the area, and goes on several kilometers to the reservoir at Lubuge gorge, passing several Buyi villages both in the valley and on the hillsides.  The Buyi are successful at farming both flat lands and hill slopes and are universally healthy-looking, with strong, well-proportioned limbs and clean complexions.  They are an industrious people, but have a temperament as pleasant as the scenery.  A polite and friendly manner, to outsiders as well as to themselves, is the norm.  Their language is very musical and spoken softly. 
    They live in wide stone and wood houses, usually two stories, with tiled roofs and sometimes tigers or dragons painted on the upper exterior wall or window shutters.  Every house is likely to have a loom, of the four-shaft, treadle-operated, bench type, like that used by the Dai and Zhuang, and all the other ingredients used in textile production.  Girls start learning from the age of seven how to fluff the raw cotton, use spinning wheels, dye vats, looms and embroidery frames.  Much of a girl's youth will be spent "saving up for the dowry," which basically means weaving cloth and making shoes.
    Female relatives must assist in this task, for between 20 and 100 sets of clothes must be made and a dozen pairs of shoes.  Buyi footwear has upturned tips and embroidery on the upper parts around
young Buyi women in the market
the ankles.  A single pair takes a fortnight to produce.  It is the last touch to a modest sort of outfit of side-fastened jacket and plain trousers.  The jacket, usually in a shade of blue, sometimes dyed a deep hue with natural indigo, reaches to the waist and is long- or short-sleeved, with perhaps  a band of black along the lapel and strips of bright colors attached to the lower half of the sleeves.  A long-sleeved blouse is worn underneath, silver chains around the neck and a white terry-cloth turban on the head.
    There will be some variation in the women’s style.  Older women might prefer gray or pale violet as the jacket color.  Younger women add more color.  But the basic cut, shape and components of the clothing will be the same.  Women of all ages still overwhelmingly prefer their ethnic style, most evident in the weekly market days in Duoyi village, as most stalls are run by women and most customers are women.  A sprinkling of Miao also turn up, but for the local Buyi market day is as much of a social event as a commercial one.  Rafting on the river is as popular as ambling around the market area, especially with groups of youth.
market day in Duoyi village
    Still a relatively isolated people who rarely venture out of their bailiwick, the Buyi have a strong sense of their own ethnic traditions.  They revere their ancestors, like the Han, and mark the major Chinese festivals, but they also maintain their ancient animist belief-system and celebrate their own festivals with greater enthusiasm.  The biggest falls on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month, honoring the spirit of the community.  It comprises animist rituals, water-sprinkling, eating sticky rice dyed different colors and antiphonal singing.   Young people especially get into this last activity, pairing off for song-and-response duets, with the underlying possibility of also pairing off for a new romance.
Rafting on the river is popular on market days.
    Other festivals honor spirits of the land and forest, as well as their own ancestors, and often mark important junctures in the agricultural work cycle, particularly planting and harvesting.  Besides rice and vegetables, they also grow tea and raise goats and cattle.  Women do most of the agricultural work, while men are responsible for plowing, fishing and maintaining the waterwheels along the rivers.
    House construction involves both sexes, as it is a collective effort usually undertaken at the beginning of the dry season.  This could involve upwards of forty people.  Men lead ponies laden with timber, bamboo or loads of stone to the construction site, where laborers are already busy laying the foundation.  Off to one side a few women prepare meals for the work crew and, of course, when the house is finally completed the owners throw a feast for everyone who helped.
House construction is a collective effort.
    Back in the late 90s Duoyi village didn’t have a place to stay.  My excursions began as early in the morning as I could get out of Luoping.  The village didn’t have a restaurant, either, but local residents invited me to dine with them in the afternoon.  Then I would take the last minibus back to Luoping.  A decade later that had changed.  The tourist industry was set to launch Duoyi River as the next “hotspot.”  So there was a new, attractive, relatively inexpensive wooden guesthouse right next to the river.  A couple restaurants had gone up, too, and a group of stalls hawking souvenirs like miniature waterwheels.  But otherwise the only change in the village was that, thanks to the abundance of bamboo in the vicinity, the local Buyi were now producing chopsticks for places beyond their community.  Villagers brought cartloads of chopsticks to the villager square to lay them out in the sun to dry and harden.
drying chopsticks in the village square
    But while the villages in the area were still more or less the same and the Buyi as friendly, soft-spoken and hospitable as before, development had transformed the river.  It was now a park.  Well, it was kind of a park before, for then I took a hike along its banks for a few kilometers to the largest of the many waterfalls that punctuated the way.  It was a very pleasant walk, for the river originates from five underground springs, is very clean and swift, with sprawling trees along its banks, a rock formation resembling an elephant and, along its 12-km course until it meets the Nanpang River at the junction of the three provinces, it has around 40 waterfalls.  These cataracts range in height from several centimeters to several meters, which limits how far one can go by raft from Duoyi village.
traditional waterwheel on the Duoyi River
    At several points along the river waterwheels stood by the sides.  Some of these were used to pump water into adjacent fields, but some seemed to be purely ornamental.  The Buyi use them for irrigation as well as to operate grain-pounders, but except for the Dai around Daluo in Xishuangbanna, hardly anyone in Yunnan employs waterwheels anymore.  They are even scarcer than pony-carts.  So they became one of the main attractions of the area.  Now, in line with promoting cultural tourism in the Duoyi River valley, the river park features displays of waterwheels.
waterfall on the Duoy i River
    Right past the ticket booth a five-meter high ornamental waterwheel announces the theme.  This waterwheel is a lot fancier than the traditional Buyi waterwheel, but it’s basically a larger version of the same style.  When walking down the river one comes to more samples, such as a group of several waterwheels and how they are used to operate mortars and pestles for pounding grain.
    Continuing downstream one discovers, after a quiet stretch of smooth stream and ripples of cataracts, yet more waterwheel exhibits.  These include an example of a 3rd century Roman waterwheel, one from the Eastern Han Dynasty and an experimental, special-use, 19th century waterwheel with ladles shaped like half gourds, designed to power small machinery.  Signs posted in both Chinese and English explain the nature and significance of each exhibit and it’s a very educational hike for anyone with even a passing interest in waterwheels.
19th century waterwheel
    It’s possible to ride an electric cart from Duoyi village all the way to the river’s confluence with the Nanpang, but the walk is so quiet and pleasant I declined.  Besides, it was also more interesting to cross one of the bridges and hike up the path to hillside Buyi villages, observe the women winding thread in the yards and the men gathering seeds from the bushes to feed the fish in the river before they cast their nets to catch them.  From the village center the broadest, most treaded path inevitably leads back to Duoyi village.
    This is an ideal location for hiking.  Mountains all around provide a scenic backdrop, yet no path is particularly steep or strenuous.  The people are relatively prosperous, friendly,
contented and still maintain their Buyi customs and ethnic consciousness, while the popularity of the traditional style among the women gives the place an exotic atmosphere.  The Duoyi River is one of the cleanest and prettiest in the region, featuring dozens of attractive waterfalls, big and small.  And last, but certainly not least, the river and its tributaries are home to the greatest, most interesting collection of waterwheels in all of Yunnan.                    
recreation of a Han Dynasty waterwheel

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Friday, April 4, 2014

Water-Splashing Time Again

                                                      by Jim Goodman

     April has come, replete with the usual torrid heat, hazy, sultry skies and windless, enervating weather that makes this month one of the most uncomfortable of the year in Southeast Asia.  Yet tourists are about to swarm into places like Thailand and its immediate neighbors to observe and participate in the liveliest festival in the annual cycle.  Called Songkran in Thailand, it marks the traditional Thai New Year on 13 April with three days of parades, temple ceremonies, stage shows and people everywhere all day long throwing water on everyone else in sight.
      It’s a great tourist attraction, of course, an opportunity for fun-loving foreigners to indulge in a mild form of culturally sanctioned mayhem.  It also means lots of tourist money for the countries that host the event.  So this year Singapore decided to get in on the act by announcing it would stage a Songkran of its own.  A couple Thai government officials denounced this as denigrating Thailand’s Songkran, which Singapore rebutted by pointing out that Songkran, albeit under a different name, was also celebrated in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, parts of Vietnam and parts of India.
Poshuijie in Jinghong
      This is true, for 13 April is the day the sun enters the constellation Aries, marking New Year for many peoples in the region even before they became Buddhist.  In fact, it is also New Year for non-Buddhist peoples like the Assamese of Northeast India and the Punjabis in the west.  Moreover, the Singaporeans forgot to add China to the list.   In the southwestern province of Yunnan the festival is called Poshuijie—the Water-Sprinkling (or Splashing) Festival—and celebrated by the Buddhist Dai, Bulang, Achang and De’ang ethnic minorities, with particular gusto in Jinghong, capital of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.
      Pictures of beautiful, happy, traditionally dressed Dai girls splashing each other with water is the most dominant image advertising Xishuangbanna in promoting tourism to the prefecture.  If tourists know anything at all about XIshuangbanna before arrival they know about Poshuijie.  And nowadays they can indulge in Poshuijie’s water-throwing activity at several venues in and around Jinghong any day of the year.  For Banna residents, though, it is still an April affair, highlighted by the grand government-sponsored show in Jinghong 13-15 April.    
preliminary procession 11 April
      But it is not the wild and raucous event that characterizes Songkran in its neighbors Myanmar or Laos, not to mention northern Thailand, where water-throwing in the rural areas can start several days in advance of the festival.  In fact, water-throwing in Jinghong takes place only on the final day.  The other days and nights feature processions, Buddhist rituals, boat races, dances and stage shows.
      Buddhist activities in the festival have been grafted onto the original celebration, which honored seven heroines of a mythic tale that had nothing to do with religion.  Accordingly, in ancient times an oppressive and apparently invincible demon lorded it over the Dai people, making endless, inordinate demands on them.  He even forced the seven most beautiful women to be his wives.  Then one night, very inebriated and in a mood for boasting about his powers, he inadvertently revealed that he did have one vulnerable part on his body after all.  That was his neck, and even that could not be cut with a knife or sword, but only with a strand of his own hair.  Having let out the secret, the demon then fell into a drunken sleep.  Having heard the secret, the seven wives plucked a hair from the demon’s head, wrapped it around his neck and beheaded him.
a festival for both man and beast
      However, trouble wasn’t over yet.  The severed head burst into flames and began rolling around on the ground, scorching everything in its path.  One of the wives seized it and squelched the flames.  Then they buried the head, but the land suddenly became barren.  So they dug it up and threw it into the river, which immediately began to flood.  Then they retrieved it and each wife took a turn holding it in her lap and guarding it for one year, after which the next wife took a turn, first sprinkling water on her predecessor to wash off the filth and dirt that had accumulated during her tenure.  When all seven had had their turns the head finally died.
      In another version the burning head even dried up the river.  The wives then retrieved the head and sprinkled water on it for 999 days to at last quench the flames.  The water-sprinkling of the festival commemorates the action of the tale’s seven heroines.  Traditionally, this was done using a small bunch of twigs and leaves to flick the water from a small bowl or pitcher, and still is when the one being sprinkled is one of the family elders.  But nowadays, and perhaps in the distant past as well, the sprinkling has evolved into throwing a bigger quantity of water at a time from a big ladle, basin or bucket.  Besides the enjoyment of splashing one another on one of the hottest days of the year, the act symbolizes washing away the impurities accrued in the old year and starting the new one fresh and clean.
Peacock dance
Lahu dance
      The festival program begins the 11th, with an afternoon procession of ponies laden with baskets of gifts for the temples.  Dai men in colorful costumes, beating gongs and elephant-leg drums, lead the way through the heart of the city.  On the other side of the pony line, men brandish red banners emblazoned with Chinese characters and the Dai script.
      The first stage show commences the following night in Culture Square, a large open space on Mengle Dadao, decorated with bronze sculptures depicting various aspects of Dai life, such as weaving, drawing water, carrying goods on a balance pole, riding in a longboat, etc.  On a stage erected for the occasion Dai troupes and those from the minorities in the mountains perform a variety of songs and dances.  It begins with an energetic number by a quartet of high-kicking Dai men beating and waving the long elephant-leg drums.      
    The Peacock Dance follows.  First created in the 1960’s, it has become the most widely known of all Dai dances, probably because it is simply beautiful to watch.  While it was originally a solo number, for the festival a contingent of more than a dozen young Dai women perform it together.  Wearing sleeveless long dresses with peacock feather “eyes” sewn all over the surface, they glide across the stage, imitate the bird’s movements, flutter and twirl and display their voluminous gowns.
a modern dance for Poshuijie
      A series of dances or songs from other ethnic minorities comes next—Aini, Jinuo, Yi and Lahu.  The songs are not always traditional ones and may even be sung in Chinese.  The costumes are based on the authentic ones, but with imaginative new embellishments.  Thus the Jinuo girls wear feathered headdresses, which they never ordinarily do, and the Aini girls wear heavily ornamented skirts, which are normally plain.  But hardly anyone in the audience is likely to know, it’s all a delight for the eyes, and only the rare ethnographer might frown upon all this.
      The next day, 13 April, is the Dai New Year, and it features the grandest procession of all.  It kicks off at 10 a.m. at the ornamental gate at the intersection of Mengle Dadao and Jingde Lu, led by a flower-bedecked float, lovely Dai girls mounted on top and followed by various Dai and other ethnic contingents, more floats, a wagonload of peacocks, a walking black bear and even a python, carried by a pair of Jinuo men.  The procession continues up Mengle Dadao past the Culture Park, turns towards Peacock Lake, then down towards the river and up to the northern end of the city.
Dai drummers im procession
festival parade contingent of Dai women
      Dai contingents comprise more than half of all participants.  They include young women carrying upright bamboo poles with tung banners suspended from them, young men in yellow beating drums, a group of monks in their robes, a group of colorful Huayao Dai women, Dai women in strange turquoise outfits, and Dai women in outrageous costumes representing various tropical fruits.  Among the other minorities contingents of Aini, Lahu, Jinuo, Yi, Yao and Wa participate.  The Jinuo bring their big drums, mounted on wheeled stands.  The Wa are led by a fire-eater who stops every several minutes to spit flames into the air.  At Peacock Lake two teenage girls take his place and spit fire for the rest of the route.
      The procession concludes around 1 p.m., by which time most spectators have shifted to the riverside north of the new bridge, where a stage has been set up for the afternoon entertainment.  The whole walking route is lined with stalls selling umbrellas, flowers, bowls and water pistols, sundry snacks, cosmetics and model animals made from leaves or split bamboo.
    Simultaneously, on the river itself, dragon boat races commence.  First the entire
Miss Mango
roster of competitors sails downstream, then pair off for races from one bank to the other.  Winners then pair off until a champion emerges at the end.  
On stage, local groups perform a variety of dances, including another round of the Peacock Dance.  But modern numbers are also part of the show, which the year I attended included a troupe of prepubescent Dai girls in tutus and spangled vests dancing to a Chinese rendition of “Frosty the Snowman.”  This in 40-degree heat! 
            The next day the main venue shifts to Manting Park, where the price of admission drops from the usual 30 yuan to only 10.  At the temple at the top of the park’s hill monks sit on a stage in the courtyard bedecked with ornamental tung banners and chant scriptures.  In front of the temple novice monks take turns pouring water down long tubes to bathe the Buddha image.  After they have concluded the devotees and tourists do it, too.  After the monks have retired Dai contingents lead ramwong dances.
In the evening the last stage act takes place in Culture Park once again.  After Dai and other minorities have performed, ethnic minorities in the audience lead a ring dance in front of the 
Wa fire-eater
stage, while the final act includes all stage performers together.  This is intended to symbolize the unity of Banna’s many ethnic minorities.  With the show’s conclusion the only part of the festival left is that which made it famous in the first place—throwing water.
For 15 April this is the only activity scheduled for the day.  Yet it follows strict rules:  10 a.m. to 5 p.m. only, no throwing water back into houses or apartments (though people inside could safely douse those outside), no throwing water in the courtyards of hotels off the main streets or in shops along the roads.  And people follow these rules.  Mothers even prevent their children from squirting anyone before 10 or after 5.  The hordes of Chinese tourist revelers follow the rules, too.
They have plenty of scope for fun, though.  They hire trucks to take them on the procession route, loaded with tanks of water, splashing each other and everyone in range.   Gangs of burly, thick-necked, flat-topped
bathing Buddha images
 Chinese men carrying water pistols shaped like submachine guns roam the streets playing out their Mafia hit man fantasies.  Still, scarcely 2 or 3 percent seem to be seeing how much damage they can inflict on total strangers since no cops are around to arrest them.  That seems a far lower percentage than what is nowadays the rule in neighboring countries.
Poshuijie in Jinghong is therefore a less rowdy, more “civilized” affair than Songkran in Thailand or its neighbors.  Perhaps it is a bit over-organized and glitzier than ever intended.  But it does include the traditional rituals, as well as the water-splashing, even if restricted, and whatever else it may lack in genuine authenticity, it is definitely entertaining.  Observers and participants go home afterwards with a sense of enjoyment and an enhanced positive feeling about Xishuangbanna.  And the value of the festival, even in this form, is thus well vindicated.
the ramwong dance of the Dai
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         for more on Dai festivals, see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan