Thursday, June 26, 2014

Châu Đốc--the Diamond of the Delta

                                          by Jim Goodman

the fish statue at Châu Đốc
    As a border town 244 km west of Hồ Chí Minh City, Châu Đốc is a convenient stopover for travel to and from Cambodia.  But in addition, from here to the sea, no other area offers so many facets of the life and culture of the Mekong Delta—its ethnic composition, typical river activities and scenic attractions, including a bird sanctuary.  Châu Đốc lies on the Hậu Giang River, one of the major components of the Delta’s system, a waterway busy with cargo boats, fishing pirogues and floating houses.  At a riverside park a tall sculpture of a fish marks local appreciation of the town’s most important resource.
fishing around the pie
    From the fish statue the tip of the long, narrow Con Tiên Island is visible.  Just downriver is a covered market.  Further on lie riverside restaurants, where one can observe the variety of boat traffic.  Small pirogues, some pulled with oars, others fitted with a motor at the back end, ferry passengers across to the island shore, lined with houses on tall stilts.  Seeing these in the dry season gives a hint of how much the river swells during the rains.  Other pirogues hold one or two fishermen, who cast nets into the river.  Some of them will row right up to the piers and riverside balconies to catch fish around the supporting posts.
early morning floating market
   Upriver from the fish statue is the scene for another distinctive feature of Mekong Delta life—the early morning floating market.  Like the one near Cần Thơ, activity starts at dawn, peaks an hour after sunrise and dies down by mid-morning.  From the top end of each boat’s mast hangs a sample of the merchandise—bananas, coconuts, etc.—for sale on board.  Smaller boats carrying customers ply around and in between the market boats, as do pirogues hawking cooked food and refreshments.
floating houses on the Hầu Giang Riv
    Individual fishermen can usually count on decent results from their nets and traps, but the bulk of Châu Đốc’s fish comes from catfish farms managed by families living in houses floating on empty oil drums just off the eastern shore of Con Tiên Island.  Some of these are small, comprising one big room and a porch, but they can be quite pretty, painted in bright colors and festooned with potted flowers.  Large dwellings have an attached open-air balcony, where the residents lay out the fish to dry, while they keep the live ones in cages underneath.  Small dugouts convey people around the area.  For the motorized vessels a floating petrol station lies just downriver.
Vietnamese students ferried across theriver
    Most of Châu Đốc’s inhabitants are Vietnamese, largely descendants of immigrants during the 18th century, with a few Chinese Hoa neighborhoods near the markets.  Khmer and Chăm people still make up part of the city’s population and have their own villages near the town as well as further out in An Giang province. 
    The Chăm also settled here rather recently, like the Vietnamese.  They migrated from the east after the annexation by Minh Mạng of Panduranga, the last Chăm state in south-central Vietnam, and an unsuccessful revolt in the mid-19th century. The towering minarets and domed roofs of mosques identify the Chăm villages that lie on both sides of the river.  Unlike
Chăm girl near Châu Đốc
most of the Muslim Chăm who remained in the original homeland, the Chăm who moved into the Mekong Delta, and further on into Cambodia, follow a more orthodox version of Islam, heavily influenced by Sunni Islamic practice in Malaysia and Indonesia.  But they are a matrilineal society and thus the women are not so secluded as in other conservative Sunni societies. They keep their hair covered, but do not wear veils and are quite active in local commercial life.
    The small boats moored near the fish statue that take visitors on tours to the floating houses usually continue to a riverside Chăm village a few kilometers further.  The houses near the river stand on stilts that are at least two meters in length and long, narrow bamboo walkways connect neighborhoods.  During the dry season the space beneath the house is usually occupied by weavers, who work on handlooms to produce the distinctive brocaded pillowcases, scarves, towels and bedcovers characteristic of the Chăm textile tradition.
    Most of the village straddles the main road to the town.  Wooden houses with tiled roofs stand on tall stilts.  New mosques in the Arabian style, one white, one light green, lie on the other side of the road.  No market places exist here, but vendors sell vegetables, fruits and spices out of curbside wagons and Chăm women make and sell snacks at roadside stalls.
Chăm weaver

    Besides its own variety of attractions, Châu Đốc is also the starting point for short excursions to other sites in An Giang province.  The nearest and most popular, particularly for religious-minded Vietnamese, is Núi Sam, a temple-studded, 300 meter-high hill just five km outside of town next to the village of Vĩnh Tế.  The road from Châu Đốc terminates at the foot of the hill and the entrance to the grandest temple at Núi Sam—Chùa Tây An.
    The main building blends Chinese and Indian architectural motifs, featuring both angled roofs with upturned corners, as well as minaret-like towers with a dome at the top.  A rich, dark orange color dominates the walls, columns and roofs, with green trimming around the roof edges.  Statues of a broad range of Buddhist deities and guardian gods stand or sit at several interior altars, all lavishly decorated.
Chùa Tây An, Nús Sam
    On the other side of the road, a little further down, stands the more austere temple to Bà Chúa Xứ, a recent structure with gray concrete walls, tiered roofs of green tile and little exterior decoration.  But more devotees come here to honor this goddess, said to be able to tell one’s fortune, who is dressed in a red gown and peacock feathers.  According to one local legend, the stone image, a Khmer sculpture from the pre-Angkor period, originally stood at the summit of Núi Sam until the late 18th century, when Thai invaders tried to take it away.  But the image is said to have grown heavier and heavier and the plunderers had to abandon their efforts halfway down the hill.
    After their retreat an apparition claiming to be the spirit of Bà Chúa Xứ appeared to villagers and told them to summon nine virgins to move the statue.  That they did, but when they reached the foot of the hill the image once again became too heavy to move.  So they built the temple on that spot and housed it there.
    The origin and even the ethnic identity of Bà Chúa Xứ are still somewhat unclear.  To some she is a form of the Chăm goddess Po Nagar.  To others she is an incarnation of the Chinese Mazu, Goddess of the Sea and protector of sailors and fishermen.  Still others claim she was originally the wife of a late 18th century Vietnamese general, or one of Nguyễn Ánh’s Thai supporters during his war with the Tây Sơn regime.  Her name means Lady of the Realm and she has been invoked as a guardian of the border since the early Nguyễn Dynasty.
temple to the popular Bà Chúa Xứ
    In the popular view she is a goddess of prosperity, health, business success, fertility, domestic harmony, scholastic achievement and the secrets of the future.  Bà Chúa Xứ is the most popular goddess in the western part of the Delta, especially among female entrepreneurs, who form a large portion of the devotees who make pilgrimages to her temple.  Beginning on the 20th day of the 4th lunar month, the temple hosts a week-long festival in her honor, featuring pig sacrifices, rituals, operas, martial arts demonstrations, magic acts and stage performances, drawing hundreds of thousands of devotees and spectators.
    From her temple, continuing past smaller, rather gaudy temples, at the end of the one km-long road lies the lovely communal house Đình Vĩnh Tế, a classic Vietnamese building, with wide, tiered and tiled roofs, yellow walls and columns.  A path from here leads to the summit, passing various small temples and cave shrines on the way.  Sculptures of deities riding one sort of winged beast or another seem to dominate the sites.  At various points on the summit one can have a broad view of the plains, as well as Cambodia to the west and Núi Cấm to the south.  The latter is one of the Seven Mountains of An Giang province, the only part of the Mekong Delta between the Cambodian border and the river’s mouth that is not completely flat.
Trà Sư Bird Sanctuary
    Road 948, turning south just past Nhà Bàn village, runs past Núi Cấm, which is much higher than Núi Sam and offers a broader view.  On the way, the Trà Sư Bird Sanctuary lies a few kilometers off to the east.  A large, rectangular swamp with neat rows of tall trees, the sanctuary is dominated by egrets that cluster on the trees near the park entrance and nest deep inside the forest.  It’s possible to take a boat ride through the swamp, to view the nests high up in the trees.  Early morning and dusk are the most active times of day.
    Khmer villages also lie along the road to Núi Cấm.  They were the aboriginal inhabitants of the province, whose settlement perhaps dates back to the Funan Period, from the 3rd to 6th centuries.  The area was sparsely populated, and Châu Đốc hardly more than a small fishing village, until Vietnamese migration commenced in the early 18th century.  Cambodia was that century continuously convulsed by succession struggles among the royal family members.  Contending princes were never strong enough to win on their own, so sought outside assistance from their Thai or Vietnamese neighbors.  In the course of one such struggle, the victorious Khmer prince, to reward his Vietnamese allies, ceded Châu Đốc in 1757.  Vietnamese migrants did not displace the Khmer, but simply cleared land and established new villages in places not occupied by them.  Eventually they became the majority community and now comprise over 90% of the province’s population.
Khmer Buddhist temple near Núi Cấ
   Châu Đốc’s importance rose from 1815, when the Nguyễn Emperor Gia Long ordered the construction of a fort in the city and placed Thoại Ngọc Hầu in charge.  He oversaw the construction of the Vĩnh Tế Canal, connecting Châu Đốc with Hà Tiên on the coast.  The work took six years, employed 80,000 workers in harsh, often deadly conditions.  Upon completion the canal ran 91 km, was 25 meters wide and three meters deep.  Still in use today, it also ran right along the Vietnam-Cambodia border, fixing the frontier boundaries here once and for all.
unusual Khmer temple carving

    While few Khmer live in Châu Đốc or other provincial towns, their villages dominate the area around the Seven Mountains.  Khmer houses do not differ from those of their Vietnamese neighbors, but occasionally the village entrance features a gate in the style of the Angkor Wat monuments.  Fancy gates also stand at the entrance to the village temples, built in the Cambodian style, but differing somewhat from Khmer Theravada Buddhist temples in the coastal provinces of Trà Vinh and Sóc Trăng, the home of 70% of Vietnam’s Khmer community.  They feature taller columns around the building, supporting angled roofs with cone-shaped brick towers mounted on the top. A few ornate chedis stand in the temple courtyard.  Carved nagas—the giant serpents of Buddhist mythology—and the occasional odd image, such as a headless man with his face on his chest, adorn the compound buildings.
    Thus, in just a few days in and around Châu Đốc, a traveler can appreciate just about every facet of the Mekong Delta’s material and cultural life.  Here are floating fish farms and centuries-old rice fields, traditional religions like Buddhism, both Mahayana and Theravada, as well as Islam and Christianity, esoteric sects (Hòa Hảo, for example, has many followers in the area) and popular divinities like Bà Chúa Xứ, mountain views and flocks of birds, Vietnamese rural and river life, Khmer, Châm and Chinese communities.  No other destination in the Delta offers so much.                      

casting a net on the Hầu Giang River
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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Learning to Use a Crossbow

                                                        by Jim Goodman

    I saw my first crossbow on the shoulder of a middle-aged Akha man in Saen Charoen Mai, northern Thailand, way back in 1988, as he sauntered down a trail into the thick jungle above the village.  I didn’t pay him much mind.  Everybody I knew there then used traps and long-barreled rifles to hunt, which was anyway already much less often than when they were all boys.  Many men still had crossbows, but mounted them on the interior walls and didn’t use them anymore.  And as I never again witnessed somebody carrying a crossbow into the forest, I lost interest.
    After a few years even the traps disappeared from the jungle, at least the ones for medium-sized mammals, which were also former crossbow targets.  Rare was the Akha hunter successful enough to bring home a wildcat, bamboo gopher, civet, pangolin or even squirrel, much less a boar or a barking deer.  The animals are now so rare that Akha men don’t even go looking for them anymore.  In fact, the hunting tradition everywhere has been largely reduced to trapping or shooting small birds and an occasional squirrel.
en route to the market, Lisu man with his crossbow
    But in Yunnan Province, China, from where most of Thailand’s hill people originated, the hunting tradition lasted until the government proscribed it in 1998.  Until then the Akha (in Yunnan called Aini) in Xishuangbanna and Pu’er Prefectures, as well as their neighbors the Lahu and Jinuo, were renowned hunters and crossbow users.  Now they’ve stopped.  But crossbows are still in use in Nujiang Prefecture in the far west.  Men carry them to the field and to the forests above their villages, make them at home and sell them in the markets.  Crossbows are still an integral part of life with the Lisu and Nu in the mountains along the river.
crossbow seller in Liuku making bolts
    I bought one myself in Liuku, the prefecture capital, on a trip in November 2001 with the assistance of a local Lisu friend.  Not knowing anything about them myself, I thought it better to have a native choose my first.  The bow part, or prod, was made from mulberry wood and the stock from mahogany.  My purchase included the bowstring, made of 4-ply hemp thread, 3 mm thick, plus an extra string, a small knife for sharpening the bolts, a bearskin quiver and about 60 bolts, in three bamboo tubes inside the quiver.  The bolts were 25 cm long, 6 mm thick and fletched near the end with a triangular piece of dried bamboo leaf. 
    Nujiang crossbows resemble those in other parts of Yunnan and work the same way, but the stock shape differs.  Those made by the Yi, Wa and Lahu have a bulge hanging down on the stock where the prod goes through.  Hani crossbows have a double bulge and the Jinuo model is straight, but has an angled section, like a rifle stock, at the end.  Nu and Lisu crossbow stocks are relatively straight, with only a slight bulge where the prod goes through the stock.
    The top of the crossbow stock had a groove 3 mm wide and 3 mm deep, about as long as the bolt.  The trigger, about halfway down the stock, was made of ivory (others are made of bone).  The user draws back the bowstring to a notch just above the trigger, then lays a bolt in the groove, aims and pulls the trigger.  This pushes up the bowstring and the force released propels the bolt.  I never did try it out while I was there that month and when it was time to return to Thailand I had a new focus.  I had to put up some sort of target
firing a bolt
in my yard, put the bowstring back on and try out my crossbow.  I had a specific reason for wanting to learn how to use it.  I intended to research Nujiang for the next few years for a book project, so it was good to become familiar with something so much a part of Nujiang culture.  I might even be invited on a hunting trip with my new friends in the mountains there.  But I didn’t really intend to become a skilled hunter and firing at targets in my yard has a limited run of excitement.  The real goal was to become proficient enough to one day take part in a certain crossbow demonstration during the Lisu Kuoshi Festival in late December.
    In the event, the young Lisu women, in their beaded headdresses and long skirts, stand in a row, each with a bowl of rice on her head.  A 15-cm bamboo tube inserted upright in the rice holds an egg perched on its top.  Their boyfriends stand opposite them about twenty meters away, level their crossbows and shoot the eggs off the girls’ heads.  I’d seen photos of this in books and quick shots of it in television documentaries about Nujiang, so I was well motivated to start becoming proficient.  My fantasy was to get so good at it that when Kuoshi came around and someone invited me to try firing his crossbow, I would fire it so accurately that a beautiful young Lisu woman would volunteer to be my partner in the local version of the William Tell act.
Lisu girl in her ethnic style
Lisu girl in Fugong  
     I should have gotten a lesson first while I was there in Nujiang, except I didn’t think my Chinese vocabulary was good enough to understand the instructions.  It’s easy enough to figure out how to fire it, but I had immediate problems, like how tautly should I twist the bowstring when I put it back on.  I had an old door in my shed, left behind by a previous tenant.  So I erected it in my yard, put some tape over the wood for something to aim at, cocked the crossbow, laid a bolt in the groove, aimed down the end of it like a shotgun and pulled the trigger.  In the blink of an eye the bolt shot forward and penetrated the door right up to the fletching at the end of the bolt.  It was quite wide of the tape, though, and when I tried a second shot I heard a loud twang, the bolt missed the whole door and the string flew off.
    So I re-tightened the bowstring, hooked the ends onto the bow, loaded up and tried again.  This time I hit the door, but still far from the target tape.  I continued to practice, sometimes getting close to the tape, usually not.  Neighbor children came to watch, to hand me a bolt after I had cocked the crossbow and help me fetch the bolts after I’d fired a few shots.  This got to be an almost regular 5 o’clock routine for the next couple weeks.  Eventually I hit the bulls-eye a few times, but several dozen tines I did not, nor did I ever get the bowstring taut enough not to fly off every now and then.  It was time to return to Nujiang for the Kuoshi Festival and I was nowhere near proficiency, but maybe I could meet someone at the crossbow event who could give me a proper lesson.
crossbow competition at the Lisu Kuoshi Festival
    Unfortunately, the Kuoshi schedule near Fugong, where I chose to see the festival, did not include the event that inspired me to take up the crossbow.  Rather than girls with eggs on top of their heads the men fired from about 50 meters at small, dangling, woven bamboo targets strung between two posts on the knoll.  And some of them weren’t much better than me.  As an experienced beginner, I knew what that loud twang meant, and whenever I heard it I didn’t look to see where the bolt had gone, but instead how far off the bowstring flew.  I asked folks where the traditional crossbow event took place, but no one seemed to know, though they all seemed pretty sure some place or other staged it.
    It was an enjoyable festival even without that particular show and I returned home feeling I had a whole year in which to both improve my skill and find out exactly where to go next Kuoshi.  But four days after I got back, when showing a friend how a crossbow works, I pulled the trigger and with an ear-splitting crack the stock broke, snapping apart right at the point where the prod goes through.  I then took out my magnifying glass to look at all the photos I had taken of crossbows in Nujiang to see what was different from mine.  I soon discovered why mine had broken.  The hole in the stock was too close to the top, with only a very thin bit of wood between the top of the hole and that of the stock.  That was precisely where it snapped.  Crossbows in my photographs had the same thickness of wood on either side of the hole.  Obviously my Lisu friend who had selected the crossbow was not a hinter himself.
hunters examining crossbows in Fugong
    Hoping to replace it with a local crossbow, I checked out the ones in the Night Bazaar, but they were not as well made, nor as long, nor were they sold with a set of bolts.  Like those in the villages themselves, these crossbows looked purely ornamental.  Until I could get back to Nujiang I had to satisfy my new passion by researching about crossbows instead of firing them.  I soon found out these Yunnanese crossbows were very different from those used in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  And very unsophisticated compared to modern pistol-crossbows.
    The old European ones were heavier and used a thick rope for the bowstring.  Unlike the Nujiang crossbows, they couldn’t be cocked easily by hand.  Men had to use a geared winding apparatus called a rannequin to draw the bowstring back to the notch.  The stocks were sometimes decorated with carved figures and symbols, while scenes of hunting with crossbows were sometimes engraved on furniture.  Even after the introduction of rifles some hunters preferred crossbows because they were silent, did not require extensive cleaning or maintenance to use and had reusable ammunition.
    The high-tech crossbows sold nowadays use metal bolts.  They can be particularly lethal-looking, like the pistol-crossbows, or the one modeled on a 15th century Venetian style and called “the assassin’s crossbow.”  Seems like a perfect terrorist weapon, with an effective range of 2000 meters, though the advertiser does issue the disclaimer “not to be used in re-enactment.”  Other pistol-crossbow dealers, however, seem less concerned about the customer’s intentions.  One states that with the purchase you get “a starter kit that includes everything you need to begin target practice, or whatever you have in mind.”  
crossbow quarries--flying squirrels in Gongshan
Lisu hunter takes aim
    What I had in mind, of course, didn’t require a pistol-crossbow but a good, local Nujiang crossbow.  On my next trip to Fugong I waited for market day, carefully examined the crossbows on offer, selected one with the prod hole exactly in the center of the stock, and a whole bunch of new bolts, plus a deerskin quiver. It came with one of those poisonous aconite roots that Nujiang people sometimes use on their bolts.  They cut grooves near the tip and rub the juice from the root into the grooves.  In the past they did this when hunting big game and going to war.
testing my crossbow in Bingzhongluo
    I took my new crossbow up to Bingzhongluo, 45 km north of Gongshan, where I intended to see a Nu festival.  Because it had been raining all the time I was in Fugong County, I still hadn’t tested my new purchase.  So I decided to look for a spot near the town and when anyone asked me where I was going I told them I was going to look for flying squirrels.  The real reason would be a little problematic for me to explain in Chinese.
    I found a big tree just behind the town, inserted a square piece of paper in a loose piece of the bark, stood 30 meters away, cocked, loaded and fired.  I hit the tree a little bit left of the paper.  I aimed again, fired and got closer.  I made one more adjustment in my aim, fired again and pierced the paper exactly in the center.  So my new crossbow worked, shot straighter than the old one, had better bolts and I fancied I could get good at using it.  Maybe no Lisu shoot eggs off their girlfriends’ heads anymore at Kuoshi, but I could still get invited on a hunt with Lisu friends.  Perhaps we’d spot a flying squirrel and all go for it.  It would be wonderful to see the expression on their faces if I turned out to be the one who shot it down.  And they all missed.

painting in a Gongshan park pavilion
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Monday, June 2, 2014

Dance of the Swords—the Jingpo Munao Festival

                                                            by Jim Goodman

Jingpo girls at a Longchuan County fair
    Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture lies in the southwest corner of Yunnan Province, surrounded on three sides by Myanmar.  Besides the Dai who dominate the plains and the Jingpo,  Dehong is also home to Hua Lisu in the western hills and two smaller minority nationalities—the De’ang and the Achang.  Both of these peoples show heavy influence by their Dai neighbors in domestic architecture, agriculture and religion. The De’ang number close to 18,000, are dispersed in southern Dehong and reside in parts of Lincang Prefecture as well.  The Achang are more numerous, about 33,000, 90% of whom live in Lianghe and Longchuan Counties.  They have historically been more culturally important to Dehong because in Husa, their main cultural center, they produce the swords used by everybody in the prefecture.
    All but a few of Yunnan's 120,000 Jingpo live in the southwestern prefecture of Dehong, mostly in the mountains at 1500 meters or higher.  Across the border in Myanmar the Jingpo are the largest of six ethnic groups (including Lisu) that are classified as Kachin, a Burmese word.  They originated in the mountains along the eastern edge of the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau and migrated south to northern Myanmar and western Yunnan.  By the early 15th century they were numerous enough in Dehong that the Ming government created two autonomous Jingpo districts and appointed one Jingpo chieftain in each as hereditary headman (tusi).
elderly Jingpo wo
    The following century witnessed a great migration of Jingpo to Dehong's mountains.  They became the largest ethnic group in the hills and today comprise one-eighth of the prefecture's population.  Around that time they learned to use iron ploughs and grow rice, a major transition from their previous economy of hunting and gathering.  Living in the mountains where the soil is less fertile they generally resorted to the slash-and-burn style of farming.  Contemporary governments have been weaning them away from this form of agriculture by introducing terracing, fruit orchards and crop substitution--tea and sugarcane instead of rice.
     Most Jingpo settlements are ensconced in the forest or within bamboo groves and all but hidden from view.  Traditional houses were made of wood and bamboo with thatched roofs.  The walls were of plaited bamboo and a square hearth occupied the centre of the main room.  The house stood on stilts or had one end against the higher part of the slope.  This is still the norm in most areas, but brick housing, with tile roofs, like the Dai, are the current choice for any Jingpo family that can afford it.  These rest on the ground, while separate sheds house the animals.
    Jingpo men have a reputation as great drinkers, though not, it must be pointed out, as drunken revelers.  But alcohol is part of a social encounter and men often carry wine flasks and cups with them.  Both men and women chew tobacco, claiming it as an aid to digestion.  Women like to chew catechu and betel nut, too, which darkens their teeth.  In the old days this was considered a sign of beauty.  The younger generation prefers sparkling white teeth though, and that particular Jingpo custom seems destined for desuetude.
Jingpo female clothing style
decorative rattan hoops
    The Jingpo still like their ethnic style of clothing, even if most reserve it for special occasions. Women make or weave the components, though nowadays the woman's wraparound skirt is more likely to be made on a knitting machine, if woolen, or a power loom, if cotton or silk. In the past during dry season they sat in the yard or on the porch with a back-strap loom hooked on to a house post.  Older women usually wear dark sarongs and jackets, while younger women wear red, with yellow trim and inlaid patterns, or a multi-colored piece with many intricate, inlaid patterns.
    The side-fastened, long-sleeved velvet jacket is plain black, but on special occasions- a Jingpo woman wears one covered with silver ornaments:  three rows of big half-globes, stitched around the collar, shoulders and back.  At the bottom of these rows hang many thin, flat pendants on chains.  These drop down to the midriff in front and below the shoulder blades in back.  A few round, embossed discs may also be attached to the bottom of the front of the jacket.  To complete her outfit the Jingpo woman wears a red woolen tubular hat and a dozen or more lacquered rattan waist hoops.
Jingpo monument in Yingjiang
    The men don't dress up so colorfully, even on festival days.  The older men tend to wear the older styles of Han clothes, the younger ones contemporary urban fashions.  On special occasions they will don a black vest and a white turban, the ends colored with many small, attached pompoms.  They also carry the Jingpo shoulder bag, of red wool, black strap, and covered in front with silver bulbs and pendants on chains just like the woman's jacket.  A sword, with a straight edge and no pointed end, in a decorated scabbard (more than likely made in Husa) is the final item. Traditionally, Jingpo men carried the sword at all times, for use in defense (rarely necessary) and as a cutting tool for chopping everything from trees to sugar cane.
    Besides these uses, the sword was and still is an essential part of the men’s outfit during the annual Munao Festival.  Groups of men wield their swords in stylized, synchronized patterns as part of a ritual dance.  Because of this Jingpo custom the people of Dehong have a saying, “The Achang make the swords; the Lisu climb the swords; the Jingpo dance the swords.”  Munao is a celebration of being Jingpo and the sword’s very prominent visibility in the event reflects its importance to the Jingpo cultural identity.   
"dancing the swords"
    In Jingpo mythology Munao is something people staged in gratitude for some favor or another.  Its origin is as old as that of the people themselves.  When the divine parents of Ning Gawn Na, the mythical Jingpo progenitor, lay in their deathbed, they instructed their son to give them a good sending off ceremony for their souls.  Then they would metamorphose into Heaven and Earth and Ning Gawn Na would become fully human and father the Jingpo race.  A proper send-off could only be a Munao Zongge, Jingpo words for "let's dance together."  But Ning Gawn Na did not know the dance, for the only performers were the children in the Kingdom of the Sun.
    One day, however, Grandfather Sun invited a representative of the bird community to the dance.  A sparrow attended and when he returned home he taught the other birds.  The peacock took on the lead singing role and the hornbill organized the choreography.  Ning Gawn Na and his wife happened to be watching and they took the dance home and taught others.  A wild boar cleansed the corral for them and two Han brothers sent a dragon robe for the dance leader to wear.  The Munao performance made the Jingpo more united, courageous and intelligent and so they have continued to stage it ever since, for four days beginning the full moon of the first lunar month.
the Munao dance
     Munao symbolizes the solidarity of the Jingpo people, so many separate villages join to celebrate it at one of the major festival sites such as the hills of Laying township, near Zhangfeng, and the knoll beside the Yunyan Pagoda on the outskirts of Yingjiang.  The latter keeps the Munao poles up all year, plus a wooden hall with a buffalo skull mounted over the front door.  Nearby, a white statue of a Jingpo man using his crossbow stands on a tall pedestal beside the pond.  Since it is beyond the urban area, and even the adjacent Dai village, the Yingjiang Munao grounds has a very rural atmosphere.
    Because it is the prefecture capital, Luxi (also known as Mangshi) hosts Munao in a big way, converting the athletic stadium into the staging grounds.  A large corral is constructed, with gates at two sides and viewing platforms for the spirits at the other two sides.  In the center the Jingpo erect four tall poles, painted with designs symbolizing aspects of their history and economic life.  Small paintings at the top of mountains, for example, represent their mythical Himalayan origin.  The crossed swords separating the two middle pillars remind them of their past battles, both against wild animals and human enemies.
Jingpo type of woodwind
    At the base of the pillars in front stands a large drum, beaten during the dance to signal the pace and rhythm.  To either side of this are gongs mounted in racks.  Behind the pillars sits an orchestra, mostly of horns and woodwinds.  Its members dress in fancy white coats with epaulets, black trousers and Jingpo headscarves.  When the dance begins they play, sometimes with a singer accompanying them, sometimes without.  Occasionally they pause and let an a cappella singer take the microphone or allow a long solo performance.  Usually the soloist plays the flute or a specifically Jingpo instrument comprising a buffalo horn attached to a bamboo flute, which makes a sound similar to the woodwind instrument played in funeral processions.
    Munao lasts four days, with one 90-minute dance in the morning and one in mid-afternoon.  On the third night the bigger host venues like Luxi will present a stage show of songs and dances of both Jingpo and Dai, young troupes and middle-aged ones.  A Lisu dance and the Wa Hair Dance may be included for good
preparing refreshments
Munao dance leader
measure. A great number of Dai attend Munao, dressed in their best brocaded sarongs, their jackets pinned together with filigreed gold butterflies.  A few Dai and Jingpo women take advantage of the event to open stalls by the stadium entrance, selling sarongs, silver ornaments, shoulder bags and Husa swords.  Only a few Dai participate in the dance, though, preferring to watch from the grandstand or outside the corral.
    Explosions and strings of firecrackers announce the beginning of the dance.  The corral is empty, save for the orchestra, which strikes up its first tune.  Then, slowly rocking in a two-step as they advance, the long line of dancers enters through the gate, led by four men in red or gold silk "dragon robes," like the ones presented by the Han brothers at the first Munao.  They hold their swords upright in front of them.  On their heads they wear painted, split-bamboo helmets that symbolize the origin of Munao.  On the sides wild boar tusks are attached, to remind them that the boar cleansed the first festival corral.  Affixed to the top of the helmet is a hornbill beak, in honor of the organizer of the Birds' Munao, from which the Jingpo learned the dance.  As a plume, the helmet uses feathers of the peacock and the hornbill, the singer and emcee at the Birds' Munao.
Munao at Luxi, the prefecture capital
    The line keeps to the corral railing until it has gone all the way around, then begins a more sinuous route in the open space around the poles. Eventually this fills up, too, and near the end of the dance the robed priests simply march back and forth in front of the drum. 
    Hundreds of Jingpo are by now in line, a group of women, then a group of men, with women slightly more in number.  Every variation of the Jingpo sarong is on display, including the tight, red woolen miniskirt version.  Men hold their swords aloft and sling the silver-laden bag over their shoulders.  Women wave fans or kerchiefs as they dance.  Outside the line, women attendants pour cups of rice-beer from bamboo containers to refresh the dancers.  And when the dance concludes, much of the crowd stays in the corral, snapping photos of each other now that they're dressed in their Jingpo best.  This is, after all, a festival that glorifies their ethnic identity, that reminds them no matter how much or how little they have assimilated into the modern world, this is who they all really are.

posts and priests of the Jingpo Munao
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