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
                                                        * * *

         for more on Dai festivals, see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan

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