Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pride in Embroidery—the Beautiful Huayao Yi

                                                       by Jim Goodman

    China’s southwestern province of Yunnan drips with colors:  deep blue high-altitude skies, green forests, red soil, turquoise streams and piebald cliffs.  Seasonal changes enhance these with spring and summer flowers and the brilliant yellows and crimsons of autumn.  This splendid environment has influenced the traditional taste in clothing.  Most of the costumes of the province’s 24 minority nationalities deploy bright, strong colors, with embroidery patterns inspired by nature.  Exemplifying the indigenous zest for color and imaginative stitch work is a little-known ethnic group called the Huayao Yi.
Huayao Yi girl, Shaochong district
    The Yi are one of China’s biggest minority nationalities, numbering roughly five million in Yunnan and nearly three million more in Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi.  Though all Yi share a common origin, as well as some social institutions and customs, they are divided into over 30 distinct sub-groups, living under a variety of ecological conditions.  Their Tibeto-Burman language has six major dialects.  As for clothing variety, researchers have identified over a hundred separate outfits. 
    Although the Yi are scattered across most of Yunnan, very few of them come into contact with either foreign or domestic tourists.   Yi villages are generally off the beaten track, in high mountain settings or on secluded plateaus only recently connected by roads to urban commercial areas.  The average traveler sees them at the Stone Forest, catches glimpses around Dali and spots them in Ninglang County en route to visiting the Mosuo of Lugu Lake.  Yet the Yi are as approachable as anyone else in the friendly province of Yunnan and it’s easy enough to find out which branch appeals to one’s taste.  Nowadays you can browse Yi photos on the internet, while in the past century you simply thumbed through the big pictorial books published in Kunming and decided from the photos.  That’s how I discovered the Huayao Yi.
    The Huayao Yi inhabit a rolling plateau, about 2000 meters high, in the northern part of Shiping County, off the road to Tonghai, around six or seven hours ride south of Kunming.  Ethnologists say they are a splinter group that broke off from a bigger Yi tribe further north.  But the Huayao Yi claim that they have lived in these hills for over 3000 years, descendants of people saved by the hero Ah Lu.  He appeared on the scene in the wake of a great natural disaster that ravaged the mountains, while overhead nine fierce suns burned up anything trying to grow.  Upon the advice of the elders, Ah Lu drank all the ”Righteous Spirit” waters of the mountain, then with his bow and arrow shot eight suns out of the sky.  The Yi revived and prospered.
the characteristic flat roofs of a Huayao Yi village
    Contemporary Huayao Yi still revere Ah Lu.  In every village they place a stone with a hole in it beneath a prominent banyan tree.  Ah Lu’s spirit resides in this ”cave” and protects the village from harm.  The story, common to all Yi groups, resembles the Chinese myth of Yi the Archer.  The Huayao Yi show other signs of Han influence, too, such as Chinese-style doors, simple domestic altars and the suspension of banners inscribed with Chinese characters wishing for wealth and prosperity.
    Yet a Huayao Yi village is easily distinguishable from a Han settlement, for the flat roofs of the houses identify it from a distance.  Yi houses are two-story, quadrangular compounds.  A small square courtyard lies behind the entrance, with the kitchen off to the right and storerooms on the left.  Sleeping quarters are above.  The open room behind the courtyard contains the family altar and is also used for dining and for receiving guests.  The flat roofs are for drying crops such as rice, wheat and maize, while tobacco—the area’s major cash crop—they cure in a tall square building separate from the compound.
    The Yis’ most extraordinary difference from the Han, however, is in their traditional apparel.  The Han people in this area historically favored dull shades of blue or grey.  Huayao Yi women present a scintillating contrast, with the accent on bold red.  Indeed, their very name reflects their taste in decoration.  Huayao in Chinese means “flowery waist,” for these Yi believe a woman’s hips and waist to be the most attractive zone on the body, and so pay much attention, especially at festivals, in adorning that area.

Yi of the"flowery waist"
Huayao girl embroidering
    But Huayao costume art is not restricted to the midriff alone.  Only the trousers—plain black with blue stripes at the ankles—are left unembellished.  Traditionally, even the shoes were fully embroidered.  The top consists of a sleeveless tunic over a long-sleeved coat, usually black, the tails of which feature thick rows of embroidery on the hem, hanging below the hips.  The tunic is appliquéd on the sides and down the front with embroidered strips and on the back with a lushly decorative rectangular patch.  It is enhanced by silver studs on the collar and fastened by Chinese coin-buttons.
Huayao girls en route to a festival
    In a land famous for strange headgear, the Huayao bonnet ranks as one of the most unusual.  Basically it’s a rectangular piece of cloth, with embroidered flower panels on one end and two long, narrow bands of cloth attached at the other end.  To wear it, the Yi woman tucks the cloth, puts it on her head, then wraps the long bands around it, looping them at the sides to hold it in place.  The bands in front are embroidered and ornamented with silver and with red wool tassels.  Those which stand up above the forehead are called “red bayberry flowers” while those hanging over the ears they call “flowers to drive away flies,” a task the tassels do indeed perform as the woman bends down over her crops in the field or her food in the kitchen.  Women wear this headgear at all times except when sleeping, and even those who have put away the rest of the costume still wear the bonnet. 
Huayao mother and child
    Embroiderers employ several styles.  The floral motifs on the tunic strips and waistbands resemble traditional Han-style silk patterns.  The cross-stitched designs are similar to Miao and Yao motifs.  But the execution of these techniques is strictly their own.  Likewise, the stylized birds, trees, butterflies, bees, flames, rainbows, the sun and the moon are uniquely Huayao.  According to the young women, whose outfit is more elaborate than that of their mothers, it takes a year to stitch all the components.  If they finish early they may make a plain black jacket with embroidered patch pockets, striped and tasseled leggings and a studded, flower-stitched belt for their brothers or boyfriends.
    The girls’ carefully crafted costumes are not worn often, being reserved for special occasions such as weddings and festivals, though some still dress up on market days.  Married women, however, as well as the older generation, still by and large favor traditional Yi clothing.  But one shouldn’t assume that the younger generation’s reluctance to dress their best for fieldwork indicates the erosion of traditional culture.  On the contrary the Huayao Yi, like most of Yunnan’s minorities, are enjoying a revival of traditional culture and ethnic pride.  Today’s teenage girls are better artisans than their mothers and know more old Yi songs than their grandmothers.  Prosperous families deck out their children in Huayao Yi clothing, which is far more expensive than the modern alternative, and tote their babies in large cloth carriers featuring an explosion of embroidery.  And Shaochong district’s Cultural Center actively promotes local music and dance, as well as inter-village festival participation.
departing from Shaochong on market day
    One trait which Huayao culture shares with neatly other Yi branches is the role of the bimaw (also spelled bimo), keeper of old books of rites, mythology and divination, in the Yi language and ancient Yi script.  He is not the village leader, for that job belongs to the local longtou, (literally “dragon head”), but the bimaw is the one the Yi call upon to expel evil spirits from their houses and fields, recall a soul lost because of a mysterious illness and, at funerals, direct the soul of the deceased to the realm of the ancestral spirits.  The average village has one or two of these specialists, who must study several years to be fully qualified.  The bimaws I met were relatively young men, clear evidence that the cultural revival extended beyond the externals of colorful costumes and dances.  
a Huayao Yi family at dinner
    Like their fellow Yi everywhere, too, the Huayao are extremely hospitable, responding especially well once one’s interest in them is clear.  They prepare excellent meals of pork dishes, chicken soup, spiced vegetables, mushrooms and liberal amounts of maize liquor, served on a layer of pine branches and punctuated with frequent toasts of “Daw fa!” (“Good Health!” in the Yi language).  For a highland people they are fairly well off, enjoying good yields in their well-watered fields and an active market every five days.  Crime is virtually non-existent and in my three years’ association with them, periodically employing embroiderers to make shoes and other traditional items, I found them honest and meticulous workers.  They took great pride in their work and enjoyed using the vegetable-dyed threads I supplied.
traditional shoes in vegetable-dyed colors
    Traits embedded in Huayao tradition become especially apparent at the big annual festivals—the Torch Festival (Huobajie) in mid-summer and the Dragon Festival (Jilongjie ) just after Lunar New Year.  As with other Yi, the Torch Festival features singing and dancing around a bonfire at night.  Jilongjie is more of a Huayao sub-group festival, including a procession, rituals at Ah Lu’s shrine, afternoon Yi dances and Chinese dances, with dragons, lions, oysters and several costumed men walking on tall stilts.   For me, of course, the high point came with the performance of about sixty young Huayao women, a riot of red in motion. 
advertising their traditional skill
     I had witnessed Huayao Yi dance performances already at the special Shiping Bean Curd Festival (Doufujie).   County authorities invited a Huayao Yi contingent, together with troupes from various other minorities in the county, to perform in the city stadium.  The Huayao Yi dazzled the crowd with fifty girls and a dozen drummer boys marching into the stadium behind a lead umbrella that read, in Chinese and English, “The Exquisite Embroidery of the Yi People.”   They took the field, started in a circle, then dashed in and out in patterns that resembled lines of fireworks bursting in the night sky.
    Chinese movie watchers have become a little familiar with the Huayao Yi this past decade thanks to the success of the film Huayao Bride, produced by a provincial company and shot in a traditional Huayao village near Shaochong. The plot revolved around the complications of a Yi custom that newlyweds must keep separated from each other for one full year.  The bride, a pretty and vivacious, spunky girl, wants to join a dragon dance team that will compete in Jilongjie, but the husband is also involved in the dances.  Since they are not supposed to associate with each other, problems arise.  Huayao Bride’s national success led to two sequels.

Huayao Yi singer Li Fenglin
Huayao dance performance
    While the dialogue was in Mandarin Chinese, though many in the cast were local Yi, the songs were all in the Huayao dialect of the Yi language.  Listening to these songs while I watched the film revived memories of my excursions to Shaochong.  Girls often sang for me as part of the hospitality offered when I visited their villages.  And once I arrived in Shaochong just as a quartet of singers, led by the most famous local vocalist, Li Fenglin, were rehearsing for an upcoming recording session with a Kunming music company. 
    I thought of her as “the Sad-eyed Lady of the Highlands” for her mournful, quivering voice, now soft, now strong, suggestive of the deepest feelings.  She sang in the Yi language, ballads of Yi ancestors, tunes of unrequited love and songs of her beloved homeland.  Even without knowing the words any listener would be haunted by Li’s voice, as it reverberates in the back of the mind, stirring a hundred sentiments, long after the performance ends.
                                               Fly, fly, fly, the bird flies
                                               What kind of bird is flying?
                                               A small, golden bird is flying
                                               Fly, fly, fly, the bird flies
                                               What kind of bird is flying?
                                               A small, silver bird is flying
                                               And the place where the golden bird
                                               And the silver bird are flying 
                                               Is my own beautiful, charming homeland
                                               My home—the Yi village

Huayao Yi girl in her best ethnic style
                                                                        * * *  

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