Thursday, August 28, 2014

Buddhist Mountaineers—the Bulang of Xishuangbanna

                                                 by Jim Goodman

Bulangshan village, with its temple at the top of the slope
     The hills of Xishuangbanna are home to several non-Dai ethnic minorities, constituting one-third of the prefecture’s population.  For many centuries they lived with little interaction with the Dai in the plains, following a different material way of life and adhering to an animist view of the world scarcely influenced by the folks in the plains.  The sole exception was the Bulang nationality, one of the earliest migrants to the area, coming up from Myanmar beginning in the 7th century, who are Buddhist. 
     Around 38,000 Bulang, a little over 40% of Yunnan’s total, live in Xishuangbanna, accounting for about 3.6% of the prefecture’s population. Over 85% of them are in the western and southern parts of Menghai County, nearly always in villages high up in the mountains.  Bulang in parts of Pu’er, Baoshan and Lincang prefectures are animist, but those in Xishuangbanna have been Buddhist for centuries, perhaps even as long as the Dai.  According to their own mythology, the Bulang are elder brothers to the Dai and received the Buddhist doctrine at the same time, though only the Dai got the writing system. 
Bulang Buddhist temple compound
     Consequently, the Bulang use the Dai language for rituals and religious terminology and their monks read and write the Dai script.  Some of the older men can write the Bulang language using the Dai script, but this knowledge is not widespread, nor were any books or pamphlets ever published in Bulang employing the Dai alphabet.  The government did not devise a script for Bulang using English letters, either, as it did for Hani and some other minority nationality languages.
     Traditionally all Bulang males spent a few years in the village monastery, usually sited above or beyond the residential area, where they became familiar to one degree or another with the Dai script.  Such familiarity with religious manuscripts written in Dai did not, however, make them fluent in spoken Dai.  Their own language belongs to the Mon-Khmer linguistic group and is completely different from Dai.   Situated so high above the plains, the Bulang did not have much social intercourse with the Dai.  Because the Bulang practiced the same religion as the Dai, the latter considered them the most civilized of the hill people, but still grouped them together with the other hill folks in a rank lower than that of the Dai commoners in the prevailing social hierarchy in Banna.  Dai mythology did not identify the Bulang as their elder brothers.
monk resting on the steps ofa Bulang temple
     No Dai monks resided in Bulang villages and Bulang monks did not study in Dai monasteries before beginning their religious careers.  Bulang monks learned to read the Dai religious manuscripts from older Bulang monks.  Yet it was these manuscripts that were the major factor in insuring that the practice of Bulang Buddhism was a close replica to that of Dai Buddhism.  Even today young Bulang men still spend a few years at the monastery after middle school.  Villages still celebrate Buddhist festivals like the Water-Sprinkling Festival and the three-month Buddhist Lent, but with a few differences.
typical Bulang village
     Like the Dai, during these three months every fortnight a different neighborhood will conduct rites.  But the event lasts three days rather than one.  The richest family plays host and picks up two-thirds of the tab, while the rest of the neighborhood contributes the remainder.  The first day’s activities include the assembly of the gifts to the monastery and the preparation by the younger generation of a grand feast for the older generation, comprising lots of meat and chicken dishes and a special beef pudding for the occasion but, unlike the Dai, no alcohol now or for the entire three months.  (They will, however, serve alcohol at the feast to any non-Bulang guest.)  Before the elders begin eating though, younger Bulang go around to wash their seniors’ hands first.
assembling gift packets for the monks during the Buddhist Lent
     Following the feast monks come to the house to recite scriptures, repeating the session the next two days.  On the second morning people carry their gifts to the monastery and on the third day, with the conclusion of the recitations, the celebrants indulge in dancing, including one number in which men smear soot on their faces and wear “barbarian” clothes.
     Not every Bulang holiday is strictly a Buddhist one, though.  A few are vestiges of ancient, pre-Buddhist times.  For two days in the first lunar month families honor relatives who have died during the preceding year.  They take strips of palm leaf to the monks to have them inscribe on them the names of the deceased.  They take these and offerings of meat and leave them at the relatives’ graves, the temple, the village gate and the village center.  For all families, the end of the second lunar month signals three days of rites honoring their ancestors.
hillside chedi in Bulangshan
     In the past, the Bulang also held an annual festival honoring the bamboo rat.  Their mythology credits this animal with delivering grain seeds to their ancestors, thus introducing the Bulang to agriculture.  Villagers had to catch a bamboo rat that day, sacrifice it, cook it and divide the meat up among all the households so that everybody got a bite of it.
     For most of their history agriculture was the mainstay of their livelihood. Like their Aini and Lahu neighbors, they created farms by slash-and-burn and grew rice, maize, cotton and vegetables.  Their only major tea-growing area was Nanuoshan, until the Aini evicted them at the end of the Qing Dynasty.  But by then the tea business was beginning to expand and by mid-20th century far more Bulang villages were involved in tea cultivation than in growing food crops.
     The Bulang had been drinking tea before they cultivated it, but in those days they got the ingredients for it by picking up the used leaves of the Dai.  Now that they have their own tea they have developed their own distinctive pickling and souring preparations.  Tea with a sour to bitter taste is the Bulang favorite.  They also like to chew betel and both chew and smoke tobacco.
pounding rice in a wooden mortar
carrying home the wood
     Their preferred taste for food is hot and sour, especially with fish and chicken.  They also wrap spiced meat chunks and fish in banana leaves and bake them in the fire.  All this they wash down with cups of rice liquor and bitter tea.
     The tea boom enriched a good number of Bulang villages.  In some places, especially those close to main roads, families abandoned the traditional wood and bamboo, stilted houses with tile roofs for a two-story, modern-style, cement house.  Others were satisfied with replacing the tiled roof with one of corrugated iron, in bright blue.  Generally speaking, as soon as one family changed their house, everyone else rushed to follow.  
new houses in a Bulang village enriched by the tea trade
     Still, in more remote Bulang villages, while they might sport corrugated iron roofs, houses are still the elevated, traditional ones, if not on stilts then on brick piles.  Most women have not adopted contemporary style clothing, though the younger ones are more likely to dress in Dai sarongs and matching blouses, rather than the blue-black, striped sarong and side-fastened, waist-length jacket, slightly flared at the hem, still favored by the older women.  The latter also wear the dark turban, decorated with colored pom-poms and silver at festival time, which the youth have eschewed.
     In the old days the youths of both sexes used to dye their teeth black as teenagers, rather like a rite of passage.  Youth associations of people of the same age group organized the affair.  First the boys helped the girls dye their teeth, using burnt leaves of the chestnut tree, then the girls helped the boys.  Marriage was by choice, not arrangement, and still is.  After the marriage rite the groom sleeps with his wife at her natal house for three years, but returns to work at his own house all day.  After three years, if all has gone well between the couple, he takes her to his own village to set up house.  They even hold a second wedding.
     Nowadays blackening teeth has fallen into desuetude, perhaps because young people are more susceptible to modern toothpaste advertising, which stresses the beauty of clean, white teeth.  Bulang youth are also migrating more to the towns and cities for employment, only returning to the villages at festival time.  The older generation seems to prefer the mountains and most of them hardly ever leave the vicinity of the village.  Some of the more enterprising women do go down to market days in Mengman, Xiding and especially Menghun, generally dressed in their best ethnic style.
chedi and sacred tree in a field beside Bulangshan town
    Just south of Menghun a lateral road turns left and south, proceeds uphill through a thick forest of big, fat old trees, emerges near the summit and ends at Bulangshan Autonomous Bulang District.  Bulangshan itself is a nondescript, one-street town with a few shops, government buildings, modest restaurants and cheap lodges.  Just behind it, though, is a sizable Bulang village with its characteristic stilted wooden houses with tiled roofs and attached open-air balconies, its temple at the top of the knoll.  In the open field beside the town stand pagodas and shrines and a sacred tree.  Bulang villages lie along the road to the west and in various cleared areas in the forest, while to the east of Bulangshan are a couple Lahu villages.  Tea plantations dominate the area, with fewer rice fields than one would find in the plains.
     Bulang villages also dominate Bada, another Autonomous Bulang District in southwest Menghai County.  Other Bulang settlements are scattered in Mengman and Xiding districts and one of these, Zhanglang village, 10 km southwest of Xiding, became the site of the Bulang Nationality Ecological Museum.  With no direct bus there, tourists have to rent a car to go, which some groups do when first visiting Xiding on the Thursday market day. 
     Even if it had no museum Zhanglang is worth a visit on its own.  It is one of the very oldest and most attractive Bulang villages in the prefecture.  Residents claim its foundation was 1400 years ago and that the temple was originally built three generations later.  A thick forest, full of old trees with trunks over two meters wide, surrounds the village.  Over a hundred houses stand here, almost all traditional stilted houses.  A few use brick piles instead of wooden stilts, but retain the sloping tiled roof and open-air balcony.  Many have roof decorations at the corners and in the middle, usually stylized flames or buffalo horns, plus the occasional pair of birds.
ancient stone carving at Zhanglang village
     The road enters the village from the east.  Near the entrance is an old well, now dry and boarded up.  But a stone lion, a deity and other old carvings on the wall around the well are still intact.  Continuing along the road another 150 meters one passes the end of the old village, then a small patch of forest, then a new extension of Zhanglang of about fifteen houses.  At the edge of this neighborhood is the museum, with a view down the valley of Bulang villages on the lower slopes, a few Aini and one Han village higher up, and a white chedi on the summit.
     Within the museum are the tools and implements of everyday life, the baskets of split bamboo that are still being used, Bulang costumes and all the equipment for making their clothing, antique temple furnishings and wood-carved house decorations like plaques and a dragon staircase.  A case displays medicinal plants used in the area.  Another display features religious manuscripts on both palm-leaf and paper, and a manuscript of the village’s history, with drawings portraying the village founders.  In short, the museum gives visitors an excellent presentation of Bulang culture.  Combined with a visit to the ancient temple and a walk around the village observing daily chores, an excursion
Bulang woman, Zhanglang village
to Zhanglang offers the most complete introduction to the Bulang way of life.
     The inevitable question is how much of their traditions the Bulang will be able to retain in the future.  The major difference between them and other minorities in the hills suggests a positive outcome.  The animist world-view that characterized traditional thought among the other hill peoples is withering fast as people become more aware of the modern and scientific view of the world.  While they may maintain some old customs and celebrate a few festivals, the old spirituality underlining their traditions has eroded. 
     In contrast, the Bulang are still enthusiastic about their own, Buddhist world-view.  New roads have connected remote villages with plains markets, allowing them to become involved in the tea business and import goods that improve their domestic life.  But ideas that might compete with their religion don’t seem to travel to the hills, much less lodge themselves there.  For the Bulang, there is no real contradiction between the demands of 21st century life and the concepts of the religion that has served them well for 1500 years.  The Buddha still points the way.

Bulang-style Buddha, Bulangshan
                                                                        * * *                                                                                       for more on the Bulang and other hill people in Banna, see my e-book                                     Xishuangbanna:  the Tropics of Yunnan  

Monday, August 18, 2014

At the Top of the Nujiang Canyon: Life in Bingzhongluo

                                                       by Jim Goodman

the FIrst Turn of the Nu River
     The usual way to enter the Nujiang Canyon in western Yunnan is by road to Liuku, the prefecture capital.  Already the scenery typical of Nujiang is apparent.  High mountains topping 3000 meters flank both sides of the river.  Going north to the top end of the canyon, the mountains just keep getting higher and often stand very close to the river.  By Fugong they are over 4000 meters, peaks swathed in snow and by northern Gongshan County, visible from Bingzhongluo, even crest 5000 meters.  But it’s not only the mountains that make Bingzhongluo an officially designated Scenic Area.  The district is also blessed with some of the best river scenery in the province and home to an ethnic mix of Nu, Lisu and Tibetan communities, attractions that can be savored even when clouds obscure the snow-mantled peaks.
     From Gongshan Bingzhongluo is 43 km north.  The ticket booth for entry is just before Shuangla, about 7 km south.  From here the road rises gradually until it is about two hundred meters above the river, passing what is called the First Turn of the Nu River.  Here the river loops a plot of land backed by high cliffs that forms one of the “toes” of Biluoshan, the mountain range on the eastern side of the river.  The road opposite is an outstanding engineering feat, cut from steep mountain cliffs.  In the beginning of this century it was still a little hazardous drive, subject to sudden landslides, and passengers all had to disembark and walk a kilometer or so around the loop.  But after another kilometer we rounded the cliff and got our first glimpse of both Bingzhongluo and the other “toe” of Biluoshan.
Zanahong village, the other "toe" of Biluoshan
     Like the First Turn village, this one, slightly larger, lay on a spur of land backed by steep cliffs, but also connected to the other side by a suspension bridge.  The village, Zanahong, is Nu, the farms spread out in front of the houses, with walnut groves at the lower end.  It’s about a thirty-minute walk up a gradual slope past Lisu farms from here to the town.  Bingzhongluo lies on a long, plateau-like spur as high above the river as the road at the First Turn.  It’s basically a one-street town, with a couple hotels and a few restaurants, only lively on Tuesday market days.  Never mind the town, though.  The natural beauty of the place just demands exploration.
     To the northwest rises Kawagapu, 5173 meters high, the tallest peak in Nujiang.  The best view of this is from the top of the mountain beside the road entering Bingzhongluo.  A dirt road zigzags up the side, but I used goat path shortcuts to ascend in an hour.  From cabins at the end of the road it’s a short walk to the platform enabling a bird’s-eye view of the First Turn of the Nu River.  Returning to descend affords appreciation of Kawagapu and the Bingzhongluo setting, as well as other snow mountains of well over 4000 meters.
     From Bingzhongluo it’s a two-hour hike north to the Stone Gate, a pair of high boulders with sheer cliffs flanking the riverbanks.  A road was cut through the cliff on the western side, continuing another ten km to Qiunatong, just beyond Wuli, a Nu village on the Biluoshan side.  Cut off by a sheer cliff from Qiunatong, the people centuries ago hollowed out a trail in the cliff through which residents and caravans could pass.
ancient trail to Wuli
     When I first visited the area in the early 2000s caravans were still a part of life in Bingzhongluo, one of the last places in Yunnan, transporting goods from Yunnan to Tibet.  The journey back and forth took 15 days and could include up to forty animals.  A new paved road past Qiunatong opened a few years later, putting a virtual end to that tradition.  Caravans couldn’t compete with trucks.
     Depending on which season, the scenery on the Nu River will vary.  It’s always a swift river, full of rapids, moving at a rate of up to seven meters per second in some places, but the color and volume changes.  In the summer it is brown and full, though it never floods its banks.  In the winter it is blue-green, running at a lower level, sometimes exposing little beach-like slivers of white sand, such as on the “toes” of Biluoshan and villages just south of the First Turn.  Likewise, the land scenery will vary with the seasons.  Autumn features patches of red and gold in the forested hills and spring sees the blooming of umpteen kinds of wildflowers.
the Stone Gate
    The villages adjacent to Bingzhongluo are Lisu, but most settlements in the district are Nu, the aboriginals of the district, who migrated here a thousand years ago from the Lancangjiang Valley (Upper Mekong) over the Biluo Mountains to the east.  They settled near and above the river, built houses of wood with roofs of slate tiles, plowed fields with two bullocks yoked together and used heated stones as one of their cooking methods.  The other major community in the area is Tibetan, particularly in Puhua village, on the tableland just north of Bingzhongluo, across a gorge cut by a stream running past the Nu village of Jiasheng.  
Nu houses and a passing caravan behind them   
     The first Tibetan into the area was a monk of the Karmapa sect from eastern Tibet, whose mission was to convert the animist Nu to the Tibetan brand of Buddhism.  He made Puhua his base and was soon joined by Tibetan settlers.  The move was part of an expansionist campaign by lamas and officials in Diqing and Kangpu, on the Lancangjiang, to extend not only their religion but also political control over frontier areas beyond the direct reach of the Qing government.
     Both conversion and Tibetan immigration were slow but steady.  In 1782 a temple and monastery went up in Puhua, from where Tibetans administered the whole district.  But they were not very kind to the Nu converts, looked down on them as inferiors and forced them to pay land use tax under the claim all the district’s lands that the Nu had been cultivating for centuries actually belonged to the monastery.  Finding life as Buddhists was not improving their lives, the Nu began converting to Christianity when the first French Catholic priests began proselytizing in Gongshan County from the late 19th century.
Nu woman with Nujiang-style pipe 
young Nu woman in traditional style
     Finding the new religion encouraged Nu insubordination, the Puhua lamas organized attacks on the churches in the early 20th century.  This provoked Chinese military intervention, the destruction of the monastery (rebuilt afterwards) and the incorporation of Bingzhongluo district into the provincial administration.  A century later ethnic and religious animosities have long been extinct.  Nu and Tibetan intermarry.  Some Tibetans are now Christian, while some Nu are still Buddhist, including a few of the monks at Puhua.
     When the Tibetans first brought Buddhism to Bingzhongluo, the Nu discovered an interpretation of the world that was far more complex, organized and encompassing than their own simple animist concepts.  As a people who’d been beyond the perimeter of Chinese culture, the Nu also felt the Tibetan religion to be the product of a society more powerful, advanced, sophisticated and prestigious than anything hitherto encountered. 
TIbetan monastery at Puhua
     For the Nu, proof of Tibetan cultural superiority was in the latter’s ability to establish political control over people who greatly outnumbered them.  Besides Buddhism, the Tibetans also had a martial tradition.  The Nu did not.  Tibetans also used better tools and were better farmers, passing on their knowledge to local Nu, which enabled them to increase agricultural production.  Tibetan influence on the Nu persisted even after the Nu adopted Christianity.  Tibetan chortens stand in the fields of Christian Nu villages and strings of Buddhist prayer flags flutter across the canyon next to the Christian Nu village of Jiasheng.  Many Nu women dress in the Tibetan style, with long-sleeved blouses and the colorful, horizontally striped apron.
     The Nu have their own traditional style clothing, featuring a vertically striped wraparound long skirt with a distinctive, subtle arrangement of subdued colors.  Women weave the cloth on a back-strap loom, which can be hooked up to a house post, tree trunk, or even the back of a tractor-trailer.  The cloth is also used for blankets, headscarves, shoulder bags and vests worn by both men and women.
on the trail to A-rong's cave
     The unique colored stripe pattern Nu people attribute to their ancient culture-bearing heroine A-rong.  She created the design after watching a sunset.  The Nu also credit her with inventing the rope-bridge, supposedly because she was enamored by a young man on the other side of the river.  With a giant crossbow she fired a line fixed to an arrow to the other shore, fastened her end to a tree and scampered across.  She also introduced irrigation canals and other agricultural methods and was renowned for both her beauty and her intelligence.
     These qualities aroused the ardor of a local bandit chief who tried repeatedly to woo her.  Meeting constant rebuffs, he then seized her and sealed her in a cave near Bingzhongluo, where she died and turned into stone.  Time passed and eventually the Nu built a shrine to her in this cave and instituted an annual festival in her honor on the 15th day (full moon) of the 3rd lunar month.  Nowadays it is the biggest event of the year in the Bingzhongluo area, celebrated by the Nu from all the district’s villages.  The A-rong story is something every Nu knows, so whether they are Christian, Buddhist, animist or atheist, they will come to her cave-shrine this day because it’s kind of Nu National Day.
Tibetan hostesses welcome devotees
     The Nu call it Xiannujie, Heavenly Maiden Festival, but it is also known as the Festival of Fresh Flowers for the many wildflowers blooming at the time that are also part of the offerings at the shrine.  In its contemporary version the event includes a stage show of Nu, Tibetan, Lisu and Dulong dances in the town and a lively market scene with merchants hawking goods ranging from cheap manufactured items brought up from Gongshan to ethnic minority handicrafts, Tibetan antiques and paraphernalia, fruits, kebabs, snacks, rice spirits and beer.
     The main event, though, is the visit to A-rong’s cave shrine, where the host for the day is not Nu, but the Tibetan village of Puhua.  Devotees begin the one-hour hike there from Bingzhongluo from early morning.  The route bends around and behind Puhua, affording a fine view of that village and Stone Gate rising beyond it. Halfway to the cave, devotees pass through an entrance gate erected by the Puhua hosts, where four beautifully dressed young Tibetan women offer people welcoming cups of refreshment—water first, then rice beer, finally rice spirits.  From there it’s still a long walk to the cave, but the spot is soon visible thanks to the many lines of prayer flags strung from the trees above it.
     Inside the cave flower offerings, especially azaleas, ears of corn, representing the agricultural knowledge A-rong introduced, and votive lamps surround A-rong’s shrine.  Overhead droop two long stalactites said to be A-rong’s breasts.  Water slowly drips off the ends of these and some devotees collect these drops in glass jars, which takes several minutes to fill, and smear it on their heads and faces, drink it or take it home for private ritual use.  Others prostrate before the shrine or circumambulate it a few times and kowtow afterwards.
circumambulating A-rong's shrine
     On a slope below the cave devotees next stop at the tent erected for a group of Puhua lamas conducting prayers with the aid of old books and the occasional addition of flute, drum and viol accompaniment.  One monk offers rice-beer to anyone who comes inside to pray or to listen.  The scene around the cave stays active until late afternoon, for Han and Lisu from further down the canyon, as well as Nu from more distant villages, continue to arrive.           
     Back in Bingzhongluo the returning crowds explore the markets, sample the snacks, watch the dances, get drunk and hop buses going south.  By ten p.m. the shows are over and only the die-hard revelers remain around the few drink and food stalls still operating.  The next day city cleaners dismantle the stage and sweep the streets.  The Nu put away their ethnic clothing until the next excuse.  Color and excitement concluded, the town reverts to its usual level of minimal activity and all that’s left to enjoy on a normal day again in Bingzhongluo is, well, the utterly magnificent scenery.   
young Nu woman collects water from the"breast" of A-rong
                                                                 * * *


Saturday, August 9, 2014

The White Yi Bull Fights

                                                            by Jim Goodman

          Counties north of Yunnan’s capital that are part of Kunming Municipality Prefecture are among the least explored in the whole province.  Photographers might zip up for a quick excursion to take pictures of the red soil that is such a prominent landscape feature.  Though the area has its share of natural beauty and colorfully dressed ethnic minorities, little information is available, even now on the internet, so travelers tend to opt instead for better-known destinations.
White Yi family in Xundian County
          My own introduction to the area came about courtesy of a Kunming friend in the hemp cloth trade.  He had a business connection with White Yi villages in western Xundian County and we decided to pay them a visit on the day of the summer Torch Festival.  There wouldn’t be the usual bonfires associated with Torch Festival celebrations elsewhere in the province, though.  His contact had informed him the main event was a round of fights between the prize bulls of different villages.
           Xundian is a Yi and Hui Autonomous County.  The Hui live in and around the county administrative seat as well as around Liushao, to the west.  In between lies Qingshui Lake, locally renowned for its clean, clear water, atmospheric scenery and a species of trout bred there that tastes like salmon.  Some Miao villages lie south of Liushao, while in the rolling hills to the west and north the White Yi dominate.
White Yi village near Jijie
          The architecture of a typical White Yi village resembles that of rural Han settlements in the province—houses of mud-brick and wood with tiled roofs and stone foundations.  A few even have the carved wooden fish hanging from the apex of each roof corner, a symbol of water as protection against lightning or fire.  The villagers grow rice, maize and vegetables, but also hemp, for producing the cloth used to make their traditional garments. In modern times they have also been using cotton for their clothing, but hemp cloth clothing is still what tradition demands that a deceased White Yi must be wearing at his or her funeral and burial.
White Yi women
Whether it’s hemp or cotton, the Xundian White Yi traditional outfit is one of the more dazzling in the province.  The dominant component of White Yi women’s clothing is a red and white poncho-like garment worn over a wide-sleeved blouse and a long, bulky skirt.  It is about three meters long, with white cotton or hemp on the sides and hems and a bright red woolen body with a square hole in the center to slip the piece over the head.  The back of the cloth has blue patterns near the end and the women often tuck this section in a way that shows them better.
          The red part of this piece is a very bright hue, leaning to orange, covered in patterns, some a single repeating motif, others a conglomeration of many.  Each village has its own particular set of designs, so that at markets or inter-village events the women can recognize by the patterns from which village the wearer came.  When embroidering patterns the woman not only makes her own selections from the village repertoire, she may also add some of her own creation.  The result is that at a crowded multi-village event like this festival, no two outfits are exactly alike.
ethnic style of the White Yi women
traditional White Yi man's outfit

          The women’s lower garment is a three-part long cotton skirt.  The top part is white, the middle mostly red with thin stripes, while the bottom third is heavy blue cotton so finely pleated that at first glance it looks like corduroy.  Younger women and girls wear a long, voluminous, white pleated hemp skirt.  Neither type of skirt has a drawstring, so to wear it the woman puts it on over her head, drops it down to the waist and bunches it together under the end of the blouse and secures it with a cloth belt.
BlackYi women, Xundian County
           Not all the county’s Yi dress in such vibrant colors.  A smaller Black Yi group wears a wide-sleeved, black wraparound jacket with strips of embroidered flowers on the hems and lapels.  Another group wears very wide-sleeved silk blouses with broad stripes of contrasting colors.  Both groups’ women wear black trousers rather than skirts.  But a final item of attire for any of Xundian’s Yi women may be an elaborately embroidered shoulder bag.  And while a traditional broad-brimmed cap still exists, most women top the outfit with a rather incongruous Red Army cap.
          White Yi women still don their traditional clothing for everyday work, saving their choicest outfit for special events.  On those occasions a great number of the men dress in the ethnic style, too.  Most of the items are made of hemp cloth and, like the women’s skirts, the wide-legged, untailored trousers have to be bunched together at the waist and secured with a belt.  On the upper part of the body a long-sleeved shirt goes under a long-tailed, white vest, a black waistcoat with wide half-sleeves, and a short, white vest with narrow bands of colored trimmings along the hems, horizontally across the middle and vertically on the sides.  Like the women, too, they top off this imaginative set of layers with a Mao cap.
awaiting the start of the program
          The venue for the festival we came to see was in the western part of the county in a kind of natural amphitheater surrounded by forests near the km117 marker on the Kunming-Jijie route.  The bulls would fight on a small, flat basin just down the slope from the east side of the road, devoid of trees or bushes.  Behind it rose a slope where spectators could sit in the relatively bare section just below the trees.  A rocky knoll bound the north side of the basin and the south side slid away into a small valley. 
          There was no host village.  Yet by our arrival at mid-morning the slope beside the road was already full of food and drink stalls under tents or large umbrellas.  People began arriving in trucks and on motorbikes.  Most of those attending were White Yi, but the crowd also included Black Yi, Han, Hui and Miao.   Older Han women wore the traditional embroidered dark bib, including one octogenarian in tiny feet.  The Miao women wore ankle-length skirts of black and white or solid black and dark jackets with blue trimming, among the least colorful Miao women’s outfits I’d seen in Yunnan.  They were quite friendly, though, several of them twining hemp thread while they chatted and waited for the start of the show.
White Yi at the festival grounds
          The White Yi women, nearly all of them of all ages wore their traditional outfits, stood out in the crowd wherever they went.  They moved around in groups of three to seven or more in waves of fluttering red and white against a largely green background.  Some people watched a basketball tournament held about thee hundred meters from the arena, but most just milled around, drinking or snacking, playing games of skill or chance, until around 2:00, when the first pair of bulls were ready to square off.
          Attention now turned to the arena as men in their full traditional attire, the only thing deemed suitable for the role, the tails of their starched white vests flapping in the breeze, escorted their contending bulls from opposite ends of the field.  The handlers guided the pair into position against each other, prodded the two into combat and let go of the leashes when they began to fight.
          The first match, however, nearly ended in disaster.  The head-butting had barely begun when suddenly one bull panicked and wheeled around to flee, accidentally goring his handler in the process and charging into the crowd.  Other handlers quickly caught and subdued it while four men rushed in to rescue the injured man.  Two of them lifted him by his arms and the other two grabbed onto the cuffs of his trousers.  As they carried him away his trousers slipped down and his bare ass hung low over the ground all the way to the ambulance.  Fortunately, the wound was slight and he was soon back on his feet.
escorting the village champion to the arena
The next match was nearly a repeat.  The pair of bulls pushed and shoved each other for several minutes until one lifted his opponent and began shaking it.  That move frightened the losing bull, which abruptly turned around, knocked down and ran over one of its handlers and began running towards the slope beside the road, where I myself was standing.  Everyone scattered and I ducked behind one of the small refreshment tents, figuring the bull would get tangled in the tent canvas before it could reach and strike me.
Fortunately, the bull halted before reaching the tents, turned away and ambled quietly towards the valley.  For me and the other startled spectators it seemed we were in for an exciting day.  But none of the ensuing fights matched the drama and adrenalin rush of the first two.  In fact, they were so normal as to be, in view of what had happened already, kind of anti-climactic.
a handler watches his bull i combat
At each round first one handler led his leashed bull in a stately march from the valley to the center of the arena.  After he was in place another handler from the rocky knoll side of the arena brought in the opposing bull.  Once they had been positioned, the bulls would dig up a bit of the turf in front of them, as if to mark their territory.  The handlers, their bulls still on leashes, prodded the bulls to face each other and commence combat, and dropped the leashes when the bulls began to fight.
For the first two rounds the bulls went at it as soon as they faced each other.  But in the several matches that followed the bulls seemed reluctant to fight.  We amused ourselves speculating that maybe the bulls had witnessed what happened the first two matches, did not fantasize themselves as the mighty winner, but rather feared they might be the one that suffered the humiliating rout.
The Yi were prepared for any bullish recalcitrance.  Several Yi picadors jabbed at the beasts with long sticks to provoke their anger, under the assumption the bulls would take it out on each other and not turn around and attack the picadors.  Finally the bulls locked horns and began pushing and ramming each other, with pauses in between efforts, until one bull proved the stronger and the loser turned and fled.
In one match, however, one of the bulls simply refused to fight.  Whenever its handler prodded its head to face the other bull it turned in another direction.  And it was oblivious to the repeated picador jabs.  It just wanted to run away, but couldn’t because it was still on the leash.  After several fruitless minutes of trying to make this dumb animal be a good bull and fight like a bull, while the amused crowd laughed and heckled its handlers, the latter gave up and led the bull away.  Its opponent was declared winner by default.              
head-to-head and may the best bull win
The matches concluded in the late afternoon and the crowd vacated the area to return home for a big evening feast.  We did likewise at the home of our Yi host and probably, just like them, slowly consumed the meat and washed it down with several cups of strong rice liquor while we exchanged anecdotes of our individual adventures and encounters at the arena.  In our case, though, we also wondered about the reception given the competitors today when they returned home with their bulls.  What would be the reaction as the results became known to those who didn’t make it to the fights?  For the winners that was easy.  They brought pride to the village.  Everybody was happy.  For the panicky losers of the first two matches, well, at least they put up an initial fight and their handlers could argue that anyway the winners were just stronger bulls. 
          But the bull that refused to fight like a bull?  The bull that revealed the embarrassing fact it had the heart of a rabbit?  Their so-called village champion bull?  We figured the handlers probably just informed the disappointed villagers that this bull would no longer represent the village in any future tournament.  They would train a replacement, one with a bull’s true fighting spirit.  As for the bull that brought shame upon itself, its handlers and the village it represented, they would use it as raw material for the main ingredients of a big, happy, compensatory, collective village feast.  Cheers!
young Yi women on the way home after the festival
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