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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