Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Akha Swing Festival, a.k.a. ‘Women’s New Year’

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

    The mountains of southern Yunnan, China and the northern parts of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos are home to several different ethnic minorities.  Their villages look similar, created by clearing a patch of the hillside forest and employing wood, bamboo and other jungle materials for the construction of their buildings.  The main difference among them is in the house type.  The Yao, Hmong and Lisu houses tend to sit directly on the ground.  The others—of the Akha, Lahu, Jinuo, Bulang and Wa—are stilted houses, with open-air attached balconies, modeled on the houses of the Shui Dai, Shan, Thai and Lao of the plains in the respective countries. 
    From a distant view, even before one can discern whether the village houses are stilted or not, it is still possible to identify a traditional Akha settlement.  It will feature one structure, clearly visible in an open area, usually at the high end of the residential area, which no other hill people have—the village swing.  Made of four long tree saplings lashed together near the top, it stands as a cultural symbol of the people, a proclamation that this is an Akha village.  It’s not the only distinctively Akha structure, for each traditional village has a pair of entry gates at opposite ends of the village.  But these are half hidden by trees and not as easy to see as the swing.
Akha women drawing water for ritual use
    After entering the village and going to look at the swing, though, one finds that actually it’s just a swing frame.  Nothing is hanging from the yoke.  Nobody can swing on it.  But nobody’s supposed to on an ordinary day.  The swing is not there for amusement in a villager’s leisure time. It is activated only during a major festival, an event so full of revelry and entertainment it can be more fun than New Year celebrations.
    The Akha call the Swing Festival Yekuja, which literally means “eating bitter rice,” but don’t seem to know its origin or why the event is called that.  The Akha have a large corpus of oral literature, passed down fifty generations, detailing their migrations, conflicts, mythology and the origins of various customs, beliefs, taboos and traditions.  But the origin of the Swing Festival is not mentioned.  In Thailand the festival falls sometime in September, nine twelve-day cycles after the
preparing the ancestral offerings
ceremonial first rice planting.  This is a month or two before harvest time, so some researchers assumed that the “bitter rice” referred to the low rice stocks people would have at this time of year, so long after the last harvest.  But in China the Akha stage it in July, around the time the Dai hold Guanmenjie, marking the Buddhist retreat season.
    No matter where or when it is held, the festival begins on a buffalo day in the twelve-day cycle.  Women draw water from a sacred spring, to be used in ancestral offerings that day, and must dress in their full traditional outfit for the task.  Families sacrifice a chicken or small pig that day and perform ancestral rites at the house shrine.
raising the new swing frame
    The following morning, under the direction of the dzoema, the traditional village leader, men tear down the swing frame and build a new one.  Strict rules are in order.  The new swing has to use two postholes of the old one and they must dig two new ones.  Everyone has to be shadow-conscious.  The swing must be in a spot where no house shadow falls across it.  The diggers cannot let their shadows cross the postholes.  The dzoema first makes offerings of bits of egg and silver to each of the postholes to appease the ground spirits and insure against any untoward accidents.
    Groups of men raise the four poles and get them to sort of lean against each other near the top.  Then a pair of men climbs up the poles to lash them together a couple of meters from the top ends.  In the space just below where they’ve roped the poles together they tie a wooden yoke at the junction.  From the middle of this a long rope hangs suspended, the bottom end of it looped and just above the ground.  When all is done the men descend and the
lashing the ends together
dzoema gives the swing a test ride.  He pulls the rope back as far as he can while standing, places one foot in the loop, leaps forward and uses the other leg to pump the swing and ride higher.  A short ride is enough for him to judge it safe for everyone else and for this and the following two days (though not at night) anyone can ride the swing. 
    This day in Thailand’s Akha villages young men dominate action on the swing.  They stick one foot in the looped end, take a running leap and pump so hard and well with the other leg they swing so high you expect them to loop the yoke.  Only an increasing sense of vertigo seems to persuade them to stop pumping to the stratosphere and commence the slow return to the ground.  Of course they invited me, as a guest, to
installing the yoke and the swing rope
have a ride.  But I could never get it right.  I wound up just spinning around.  How they got so high I still can’t figure out.  After all, this is the only time of the year the swing is in use, so they don’t practice ahead of the festival.
    The third day the women dominate the swing action.  The village men slay and butcher a buffalo and divide up the meat in portions for each household.  Since traditionally, men cooked the meat and women cooked the rice and vegetables, on this day the women have more time for the swing.  Women of all ages dress up in their best traditional outfits and jewelry.  Traditional female clothing comprises a halter blouse, jacket, belt, short pleated skirt, a sash-pouch over the skirt in front, leggings on the calves, a shoulder bag and ornamented headgear. 
    The Swing Festival is one of two occasions during the year, New Year’s the other, when changes can take place in the costume components.  Around puberty, the Akha girl changes her round children’s cap for a much fancier one, decorated with lots of silver, coins, beads, chicken feather tassels, gibbon fur and the like and begins wearing  the sash-pouch in front of her skirt.  She wears this girl’s cap through adolescence and then changes to the headdress worn by fully-grown adult women.
Aini man riding high in Xishuangbanna
Akha woman gets her friend started
    In the weeks preceding the Swing Festival some teenage girls might be busy making that headdress they will don at that time. Others will be embroidering or adding appliqué patterns to newly made jackets and shoulder bags.  So will their mothers and it is this aspect of the Swing Festival, the girls and women showing off their skill and beauty wearing their best, new, gorgeous hand-made traditional clothing, that has earned the event a second name—Women’s New Year.
    They and the children ride the swing differently from the men.  Women insert a plank into the looped end of the swing, carefully tuck their skirt in as they sit on the plank, while a companion draws them back as far as possible, by hand or with the aid of rope, and lets go.  The rider pumps with both legs, like on the two-rope swings we use in the west, yet can climb as high into the air as the most vigorous young man. 
Akha dèhâw scene at festival time
    Children ride the same way as the women and girls, though they don’t try to go very high.  The whole scene is completely spontaneous and unorganized.  There are periods when a large group of girls arrives and the action is constant for a while.  Then comes a lull, interrupted by a few children playing on the swing.  Then perhaps an old woman will sit on the plank, using her foot to push her back and forth to sway a little while she sings a slow, lugubrious old song about unrequited love or the sufferings of troubled migrations and natural calamities.
    At dusk the swing area empties as people return home to feast and afterwards watch or take part in the night activities.  The young people, still in their most resplendent clothing and as many ornaments as they own, gather at the dèhäw, the open space designated as the village dancing ground.  This is the spot where young people traditionally socialized after dinner, often singing and dancing together, especially during nights of the New Year and Swing Festivals, which could go on for a few hours and include both traditional Akha songs and dances as well as modern Thai tunes.  One troupe of young men and women go house to house everywhere in the village to chant and beat bamboo tubes on logs to chase off bad spirits.
drumming with bamboo tubes
    The fourth day features family visits to relatives in the village and another round of feasting.  Akha living in the plains might come up to the home village this day.  Those who have yet to ride the swing may have a last chance before dusk.  At that time men remove the swing from the yoke and put it away.  The frame, however, stays up until the next Swing Festival.
    Over the years the essential elements of the Swing Festival have remained unaltered, but it is not celebrated in Thailand as much as before, partly because so many villages have converted to Christianity and thus abandoned all traditional festivals.  Also, in those villages still resisting conversion, television and videos have undermined the dèhâw scene and even though it may fill up at festivals there are proportionately fewer young people electing to live in the villages.
China's Aini girls swing without a plank
    Knowing that the original Akha homeland was in Yunnan, I always wondered how different the festival might be there.  Finally, a few years ago, while doing research on Xishuangbanna, I got to witness the Swing Festival in Menghai County.  In China, the Akha identify themselves as Akha, but the Chinese government, because kha is the local Dai word for “slave”, renamed them as Aini.  In general, they are better off than their cousins in Thailand, Laos or Myanmar.  Many villages have become rich from tea and rubber plantations in the past decade or so.  They still live in stilted houses for the most part, though bricks or cement piles might substitute for wooden stilts. 
    The Aini have also had very different recent historical experiences, like forced collectivization and government campaigns against traditional beliefs and customs.  That was all over by the 1980s, with the new government of the Reform Era encouraging ethnic tradition now.  Ethnic pride returned to the Aini as well as other ethnic minorities.  But revivalism did not encompass everything traditional.  For one thing, most Aini had shifted from rice cultivation to cash crops, which thus obviated the necessity for rituals and festivals tied to the rice-growing
on the swing in XIshuangbanna
cycle.  The influence of secularism and the spread of education also handicapped a revival of the traditional animist mind-set.
    Nevertheless, the new ethnic pride demanded revival of something of traditional Aini significance.  New Year celebrations, yes, of course, but everybody has those.  Only the Aini/Akha had a Swing Festival.  It may not be exactly like the Swing Festival of olden times.  The dèhâw scene had disappeared here for much the same reasons as in Thailand and so there were no dances at night, nor a troupe of bamboo tube drummers chasing spirits away from the village houses.  But they still erect and use the swing in the old fashion and by the same rules as in Thailand.  Unlike their southern cousins, too, they will also reactivate it on 2 January, the fixed Aini New Year day.
    Admittedly, though, not so many Aini villagers come to use the swing or watch those who do.  Many of the girls dress to the hilt for the day, though, for it’s kind of Women’s New Year here, too, still.  The adults lay more stress on the family get-togethers and feasting.  That is the traditional festival requirement they enjoy the most.  But it’s more than the food and drink, for they could find excuses for that any time of year.  They partake of the feast as part of the Swing Festival they insist on maintaining, an occasion when they put their ethnic identity on display, to announce and to share.  As one Aini swing-maker told me, “We have to do it because it’s our Aini tradition.”  In the ethnic revivalist frame of mind that affects the consciousness of today’s Aini, many things they do are traditionally Aini, but the Swing Festival distinguishes them from everybody else.  Therefore, to be Aini in Banna, as it is to be a traditional Akha in Thailand, means having a Swing Festival.
Aini girl all dressed up for'Women's New Year"

                                                                      * * *
             for more about the Aini see my e-book Xishuangbanna: theTropics of Yunnan

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. It isn't easy to meet this festival in Thailand now. There are commercialised versions in some places and many Christianised villages have stopped all their culture. Perhaps remote villages in Laos or Myanmar would be the best place to find it in an original form.