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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