Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Blending the Buddha and the Benzhu in Bai Religion

                                                        by Jim Goodman

Guan Yin Temple near Dsli
       If you ask anyone of the Bai ethnic minority around Dali, in western Yunnan, who is their most important deity, the answer will be Guan Yin.  Also known as Avalokitesvar, Guan Yin is the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion.  The Bai are nominally Mahayana Buddhist, and the cult of Guan Yin is an essential feature of this brand of Buddhism.  But the Bai also venerate Guan Yin because of an ancient legend that credits her with repelling a Han Dynasty invasion of the Dali plain two millennia ago.
       Accordingly, when the Han army arrived in Dali, Guan Yin disguised herself as a frail, old woman carrying a huge boulder strapped to her back.  Beholding this phenomenon, the Han soldiers worried that if this people’s old women were this strong, their male warriors, men the same age as that of the invader’s troops, must be something like super-human.  So they fled.
Guan Yin frightens the invaders
        In gratitude, the Bai erected a modest temple to Guan Yin over the boulder and originally called it the Huge Stone Temple.  Several buildings were added in the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  The compound lies at the foot of the Malong Peak of the Azure Mountains that rise above the western side of the Dali Plain, on the main Xiaguan-Dali road, five km south of the old city.  Two tall, seven-tiered iron pagodas flank the compound’s entrance gate.  Within the yard are temples, smaller pagodas, pavilions, recitation halls, corridors full of images, a small fish pond, a vaulted stone bridge and scores of potted flowers.
Bai villagers worship their benzhu
       While individual worshipers may come here at any time, on the 19th day of the 3rd, 6th and 9th lunar months the temple is especially active, for Bai villagers come in groups to pay homage to Guan Yin.  And on the 29th day of the second lunar month the temple hosts its annual grand festival, augmenting the rituals with dance programs and a holiday market.  The large crowds that attend this event clearly demonstrate Guan Yin’s enduring importance to the Bai people. 
       However, if you were to ask who is the most important deity in their own village, the answer will not be Guan Yin but someone else, a deity whose name will be different from village to village, for each Bai settlement has its own protector god.  Known by the Chinese term benzhu, this is the village patron, the guardian of its territory, who may be a deified ancestor, warrior or other leader from the past, around whom local legends and myths have differentiated it from the deities of every other village.
       The Bai adopted their tradition from the classic Chinese cult of the city god.  This was usually a local hero associated with the city, charged with advancing its fortunes, and if it failed in that respect, city officials might berate, chastise or even ‘punish’ the god for its failures.  The Bai didn’t adopt that part of the custom, but did transfer the city god to the village god, with the responsibility of insuring the continuity of the land and its inhabitants.  All major life cycle rituals take place in the temple of the village benzhu, further emphasizing the tie between the benzhu and its village devotees.  And the benzhu is the first deity appealed to for good fortune, bounteous harvests, expulsion of evil spirits and the hope of bearing children.   
buffalo-headed guardian
horse-headed guardian
        The cult resembles that of another Chinese-influenced civilization—the Vietnamese.  Villages in Vietnam also conscript a deceased hero as their protective deity, although in their case the guardian spirit is usually a warrior who fought Chinese invaders.  The Dali area was not the venue of so much warfare over the centuries as northern Vietnam, so martial heroes are not as prominent among the ranks of the Bai benzhu personalities, who are more likely to be famous ancestors from the time the village was founded, as well as noted officials, exceptionally filial sons and even virtuous women.  Warrior spirits serve as guardians to the installed benzhu image, but they could as easily be mythical animal-headed soldiers rather than historical figures associated with the village protector deity.
procession for the benzhu
       Every year Bai villages honor their benzhu with a festival.  The dates vary according to each village, but it generally takes place in the spring.  Villagers slaughter pigs and sheep and hold a collective feast.  Entertainment includes traditional dances and songs, perhaps a classical orchestra performance, plus lion and dragon dances. 
       The climax of the occasion is a long procession, the dance troupes part of it, with the image of the benzhu, either as a sculpture or a portrait, carried in a special palanquin.  In some cases, two or three villages with strong kinship relations may share the same benzhu.  Then the procession will proceed to one of the villages sharing the deity and spend the night there.  Villagers living close to a major town like Dali or Xichou may take their procession there and afterwards return home.  Or the procession route may be just all around the farms of the village and back to the temple.
carrying the benzhu's portrait
       Male elders wear Chinese-style silk jackets and caps.  Younger men may dress in the traditional Bai vest, jacket and turban.  Women dress in the Bai style, the older generation in blue and black, the younger ones in white-sleeved blouses with red or pastel-colored vests.  The women carry small percussion knockers that they beat rhythmically while they march.  The procession often stops for brief performances of the dancers and generally lasts several hours altogether.  More than just a religious festival, the event binds the villagers together in a shared, very localized identity.
       While benzhu celebrations are strictly village affairs, another major Bai festival, incorporating many of the same themes, features the participation of Bai people from all over the Dali Plain.  And for most of them it is the biggest social event in the year.  Called Raoshanling in Chinese, Gweusala in Bai, Visiting Three Spirits in English, it occurs every year from the 23rd to 25th days of the 4th lunar month.  Three different villages successively host the event and the most devout participants will spend a night in each of them.
traditional Bai dance in the procession
       Ordinarily, this is the period between the end of the wheat harvest and the transplanting of rice seedlings.  But the weather patterns are never entirely predictable and in some years there might be some of either activity going on when the festival falls due.  Having evolved from its original concept of honoring an ancient king who defended the land from Burmese invaders, the traditional purpose of the festival is to promote fertility, both in terms of the coming rice crop and the fertility of the women.
Bai dragon dance
       In the past, this was also a time for romantic liaisons in the woods, made easier by the custom of overnight stays in three different places.  Entertainment in the daytime programs, with openly suggestive dances and very risqué song lyrics, enhanced the atmosphere for sexual dalliance, not to mention the underlying fertility theme of the festival. 
       Because of these aspects, puritanical Chinese Nationalist officials tried to ban Raoshanling in the 1930s.  Though the festival was strictly a Bai affair that Han Chinese never attended, their view was doubtless influenced by their preconceptions of ’barbarian’ sexual mores.  The Bai ignored the edict and continued to celebrate it the old way until the Cultural Revolution.  Fanatical Red Guards then transformed it into a political event.  Visiting Three Spirits became a celebration of the Three Constantly Read Articles—Mao’s ‘Serve the People,’ ‘In Memory of Norman Bethune” and “The Foolish Old Man Who Tried to Move the Mountain.”  Red Guards organized mass rallies to recite one of the articles in turn at each of the three festival sites. 
to an from Qinglong for Raoshanling
       That aberration didn’t last long, though, and the festival has been back to normal since the early 80s.  While there may not be so many romantic escapades in the woods these days (plenty of other venues for that, anyway), some of the mildly licentious festival atmosphere persists in the disheveled clothing of the male dancers, feigned drunkenness, erotic dance gestures and suggestive singing.  And much like the benzhu celebrations, the program includes both rituals and entertainment.
        The opening day is above Qinglong village, at the foot of Wutai Peak.  In the past people came here the evening before, in processions that stopped briefly at various benzhu temples and shrines to nature deities like the Mountain God and the Dragon Deity of the Lake.  This is the biggest day and the path to the temple is lined with market stalls, food shops and vendors selling the paraphernalia of the festival--tassels of grains and flowers, cloth pendants of hearts and figurines and the round stickers of the Eight Trigrams that people affix to their brows.  Inside the temple devotees offer incense and prayers, bring trays of food to be blessed and form groups that chant sutras.
preparing messages to the gods
       At the entrance to the temple courtyard a few older men act as scribes to write prayers to the gods for the devotees.  These are done on yellow paper, with the donor's name and address at the bottom.  The prayer is placed into a rectangular paper box.  The devotee takes this to the courtyard and sets fire to it by lighting it from the top.  If the flames crackle while the box is burnt that indicates the god has already acknowledged receipt of the message.
       Inside the temple Bai women in rows chant prayers and beat clackers, punctuated by a woman drummer and a male horn player standing next to the altar.  Another group of women sit in the courtyard outside the temple entrance.  These sessions can last a couple hours, after which the women take a break and then resume.  They dress in their best and cleanest traditional jackets, ornamented with pendants hanging down the front and the back.
       Most visitors spend less time with the rituals and enjoy the fair.  They check out the numerous stalls in the markets, have a meal on the grounds, quaff a few drinks and watch the occasional traditional dance performances.  The crowd only starts thinning out in late afternoon, when most go home, though some may head for Xichou to spend the night and catch the next day’s event.
ornaments worn over the back
       The second day's venue is Hesichong, a small village below Xichou.  Market stalls line the street to the temple again, but of a more modest size and fewer in number. The activity within the temple is the same as the previous day's, but this day has one additional feature--a procession through the streets of Xichou.  Some participants wear funny masks, false noses and the like.  But the groups always include several women singing and dancing.  They periodically stop to perform, making a ring, some twirling batons, others rhythmically knocking their hips against each other.
       On the third day, smaller still, but perhaps the most enjoyable because of its intimacy, the host is Majiuyi, a pretty lakeside Bai village 6 km northeast of Dali.  Throughout the morning, while devotees from Majiuyi and nearby villages make offerings at the temple, an 18-member Bai orchestra plays classical dongjing music.  There is no vocal accompaniment, but a spoken prayer precedes each tune.
Bai musicians at Majiuyi
       At mid-morning a procession winds through the village and performs in the temple courtyard.  A troupe of middle-aged Bai women, wearing dark glasses with their traditional clothing, dances in loops or in pairs, wielding decorated staffs and bumping hips together.  After that they gather in front of the orchestra and a pair of older women, in high-pitched, quivering voices, sing call-and-response songs.  The smirks on their faces and the sniggers and smiles of the audience indicate the raunchy nature of the lyrics.  Following a couple more tunes by the orchestra, the show concludes and the last act of the program is the collective feast for the musicians and performers.
       In these modern times, the traditional Raoshanling retains its popularity.  While Chinese tourists may show up to watch the dances, it is essentially a festival for Bai participants, with special Bai characteristics that serve as a proud assertion of the Bai ethnic identity.  Religiously, too, it’s still relevant, adding the protective power of the Three Spirits to that bestowed by Guan Yin since her personal intervention on behalf of the Bai two millennia ago, the intercession of nature gods, Buddhist and Taoist deities residing in the area’s many temples, and the vigilance of their own village guardian benzhu.  That’s a lot of allies to help face any potential misfortune in life.  Spiritually speaking, the Bai feel secure.

rituals for Raoshanling
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