Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pleasures of the Black Lisu Homeland

                                                         by Jim Goodman

Fugong city
       In terms of scenery, western Yunnan’s Nujiang Canyon just keeps getting better the further north one goes from its bottom end in Liuku.  Culturally speaking, though, the most interesting stretch is that from between Fugong city, practically the center of the canyon, and the Gongshan County boundary.  This area is the Black Lisu heartland, who form the majority of the population, and while they also live north and south, in the northern part of this county lie most of the rope-bridges still in regular use, the most traditional type of houses, the most prevalent use of the crossbow, and the greatest proportion of people dressing in the ethnic style, both men and women.  Consequently, it was the part of Nujiang I enjoyed the most.  And in the early years of this century, when I conducted my research, I was usually the only foreigner around.
       The Black Lisu first crossed the Biluo Mountains, which flank the eastern side of the river, in the 16th century and settled in Fugong and Gongshan Counties.   They soon outnumbered the aboriginal Nu people and in the end so influenced them that nowadays Nu women in Fugong County dress like Lisu and use the Black Lisu dialect in the markets.  The Black Lisu women’s outfit comprises a long, bulky white, cotton or hemp skirt with gray pin-stripes or of black velvet, with some older women preferring blue, a long-sleeved blouse, side-fastened red or black vest, bead necklaces, a string of conch disks across one shoulder and a beaded cap lined with conch disks in the front.  On market days in northern Fugong County this is the outfit that dominates the crowds. 
Lisu gentleman, Lishadi
the Black Lisu ethnic style
       Unlike other traditional minority areas, though, here the men also dress Lisu-style, mainly with a long-sleeved white shirt, with the same gray pin-stripes as on the women’s skirts, the pockets and cuffs bordered in black velvet.  Both sexes carry the same shoulder bag, red with colored bands and a black strap
the "many-legged house"
       Until well into the 20th century the Lisu tended to site their villages high up on the slopes of the 4000 meters+ mountains flanking the river.  Where the ground was relatively level they built box-like, wooden houses of four meters per side.  But more often the houses were on slopes, elevated by 20 to 30 stilts and known as “many-legged houses” or even “thousand-legs houses.”  Nearly every family kept pigs and chickens.  Some owned cattle and ponies as well.
       This area beneath the house served as a place to store plows, troughs and other things.  The floor above was the living space, with a fireplace in the center and a bamboo tray suspended above it, where they kept household implements and the bamboo tubes and dried gourds used for carrying water. Smoke from the cooking fire permeated these items, which made them impervious to insects.
       Out of bamboo they also made cups, tumblers and mugs, chopsticks, bowls, ladles, pipe stems, crossbow bolts and cases, flutes and Jew’s harps.  After spitting the bamboo into strips, men plaited them into carrying baskets, fish traps, winnowing trays, floors and walls and the cradle-basket mothers use to carry their infants.  Women made the floor mats from straw on a primitive loom.
split-bamboo walls on a Lisu house near Fugong
       On their farms they cultivated maize, buckwheat, barley, yams and beans.  In the 20th century rice farming initiated and now it is the most important crop.  As a result, the former slash-and-burn way of farming has yielded to terrace cultivation.  Other 20th century innovations include the construction of roads and suspension bridges, replacing the rough caravan trails of old and many of the rope-bridges, which were formerly the only way to cross the river, and the introduction of electricity to even the highest villages, thanks partly to the harnessing of the river’s energy potential through many small-scale hydroelectric projects.  Traveling through the county now, one sees these almost as often as spectacular waterfalls.
the Stone Moon
       Throughout nearly the entire route along the Nu River, the highway runs just above the water, with the Gaoligong Mountains flanking the west side and the Biluo Range the east banks.  North of Fugong it makes one of its rare ascents high above the river, between Lumadeng and Lishadi, on the approach to the area’s most famous landmark—the Stone Moon. 
       Though not one of the highest Gaoligong Mountains, it is unique for the huge oval hole, 80 meters wide, near the top of one of its peaks.  Nujiang’s Lisu attribute its creation to the divine shepherd Adeng, who was the lover of the heavenly princess Ala.  She was the daughter of the Dragon King of the East Sea, who was opposed to their affair and put up obstacles to their union.  The lovers then eloped to Earth.  The Dragon King spotted them on Gaoligong Mountain and, commanding the seas, dispatched waves of water onto the area, attempting to drown the pair.  With his magic bow and arrows, Adeng shot a hole in one of the peaks.  The water passed through this hole and rushed elsewhere, leaving the lovers high, dry and safe.
Nujiang landscape, from the Biluoshan side

       The road descends past the Stone Moon, but continuing north the mountains keep rising, some with perpendicular, fluted cliffs near the summits or snow on the peaks.  As for the river, so much of it whitewater rapids, it was a big part of the scenery, too, changing from brown to green to blue, depending on the season, and in winter, when it ran at less volume, revealing patches of white sand beaches.  It was certainly a great landscape for any kind of research and I dragged my own out an extra year or more just for the pleasure of returning to revel in it.
       That wasn’t the only excuse, though. To climb slopes to get special photographs, to hike along the river just to hear its roar, or to ride another rope-bridge—these were physical thrills.  Equally enjoyable were my encounters with the Black Lisu residents, both in Fugong and vicinity and at the market days upriver in Maji (Mondays), Lishadi (Tuesdays) and Lumadeng (Wednesdays).  Fugong stages its own every five days and offers the greatest variety of products at stalls lining several streets. Besides the usual conglomeration of goods—modern and traditional clothing, shoes, umbrellas, tools and baskets, food and animals, seed packets and orchids galore, market day in Fugong features items generally not found elsewhere in the county.  Some layouts offer freshly slain wild game, like various birds, field rats and flying squirrels.  Handmade items of wood and bamboo are more available here, too, sold by men.  These include bamboo cups, flutes, Jew’s harps, tobacco pipes, crossbows, bolts and quivers.
jungle produce in the Fugong market
       Upriver market days offered less variety, but were crowded all the same, with even more people dressed in traditional clothing.  I always went early to seek appropriate spots to photograph villagers coming down the mountains or crossing the bridges on their way to the towns.  I would try out some of the Lisu language small talk I’d learned, which always drew a positive response and often led to invitations to tea, noodles or liquor in the markets or perhaps dinner at their house in a nearby village.  I’d have to revert to simple Chinese rather soon if the conversation continued very long.  But I had the satisfactory feeling of becoming part of their family history from then on.  ‘Yes, we met a foreigner once.  And he spoke Lisu!’
Lisu women on their way to Lumadeng market day
       At least half of the Black Lisu are Christian, yet just as friendly as the traditional animists.  The only real difference in their attitude to guests is that the Christians don’t drink or smoke, so the encounter is necessarily more subdued than sharing drinks at the hearth of a non-Christian host.  Traditional Lisu have a saying, “If the guest leaves the house sober, the family failed its hospitality responsibilities.”  But before I got too intoxicated in such situations, the host always made sure I returned to my hotel safely.  It could mean strapping me up to his cable hook to ride the rope-bridge over the river together, or accompanying me on my walk down the hill to make sure I didn’t stumble.  All part of the hospitality responsibilities, I assumed.
       The biggest public events of the Black Lisu calendar fall in late December.  For the Christians, of course, it’s Christmas Day.  For the traditional Lisu it’s Kuoshi, their New Year, which in recent decades has been fixed to start 21 December, the winter solstice, and run two or three days, depending on locality. Honoring the Lord of Heaven Baijani, asking his blessing for the coming months, as well as honoring the spirits of the village and the family ancestors make up the spiritual duties of Kuoshi.  The rest of the festival is devoted to making manifest that venerable Lisu adage, “None but the dead should be deprived of the mirth of life.”
climbing the greased pole at Kuoshi
playing the bamboo mouth-harp
       I attended the daytime activities at a hillside village 2 km south of the Fugong city limits, which were under way by 10 a.m.  Several men were competing in a crossbow competition in one field, while others struggled to climb a greased pole about eight meters high.  Early efforts provoked much laughter as those who tried just kept sliding down quickly.  After a while, enough dry spots appeared on the pole that finally one young man reached the top and plucked the flag.  Just as merry were the tug-of-war contests, pitting one village against another, or one neighborhood against another, or even boys against girls.  Spectators cheered their favorites, applauded the winners and derided the losers, who had been ingloriously yanked into the dirt.
the "one-heart drink"
       Meanwhile, ring dances commenced in another area, accompanied by women on bamboo mouth-harps, boys on flutes and three-stringed lutes and much drinking by both participants and spectators.  I was literally dragged into this scene, not so much to dance as to enjoy the local custom of the ”one-heart drink,” wherein one drinks cheek-to-cheek with the woman from a single large tumbler or bamboo mug.  After accepting several insistent invitations, being the only foreign male there, I was already quite drunk.
       The activities were winding down and folks heading home.  I hadn’t eaten yet, saw that it was two o’clock, and decided to stop at the first noodle shop on the way to the city.  My next conscious thought was of waking up sprawled out beside a partly demolished wall of a building two blocks past the turn-off to my hotel and one block from the main road, in a not particularly interesting residential neighborhood, oblivious as to how I got there.  A glance at my little clock informed me it was 4:30 p.m.  I still had my camera, money and other valuables and if any local people had passed me they probably just stepped over me, like they did with their own drunks who fell asleep on the street.  I later learned that Fugong had the lowest crime rate in all of China’s thousands of counties.  So if you are going to fall into a drunken stupor anywhere in the country, it’s safest to do so in Fugong.
rice-beer on sale in Lishadi
       Fortunately, I still had time to recover before the evening show.  The previous night marked the passage of the old year, with a stage show in a primary school courtyard of songs, comedy acts and dances, including a particularly lovely number by a Lishadi troupe, named after the Stone Moon, with girls periodically forming the famous oval with their arms.  This night’s show, welcoming the New Year, was held in a hillside field in the city’s northern suburbs.  But aside from getting the bonfire going, there was nothing organized about it.  No stage shows entertained the people. 
       Instead, they entertained each other, with music and dancing, spontaneous antiphonal singing, flirting and the free flow of rice-beer.  Pretty young women in their best traditional gear went around to all the guests to share “one-heart drinks.”  Because the crowd was larger than the one I had joined in the morning, I didn’t have to quaff as much beer this time and wound up in a state of inebriation I could handle.  I was a bit worried that I would overdo it again and not remember any details of the party.
       How the girls could consume so much I never did figure out.  Only some months later I learned that the Lisu ferment the brew for thirty days and thus it tastes like ordinary beer but it’s practically as strong as whiskey.  Until then I had never believed people who said they got so drunk they didn’t remember a thing.  But now it had happened to me.  I still cannot recall what happened those two and a half lost hours.  To this day I don’t know whether I ate noodles or not.  My Black Lisu hosts and hostesses had definitely carried out their hospitality responsibilities.

Black Lisu woman iLishadi for market day
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