Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Dai Ways in Yunnan’s Red River Counties

                                                             by Jim Goodman
Laomeng White Dai village, Jinping County
       Sprawling southeast of Kunming all the way to the Vietnam border, Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture comprises two distinct parts.  The landscape of the counties north of the Red River, high plateaus and rolling hills, resembles that of central Yunnan.  Famous old cities like Shiping, Jianshui and Mengzi lie in this part of the prefecture.  While there are districts here and there dominated by Yi and Miao, the Han make up the majority north of the Red River.
       The four counties south of the river—Honghe, Yuanyang, Luchun and Jinping—are famous for the irrigated terraces that line the slopes of the Ailao Mountains that dominate the land from the river to the Vietnam border.  Here the Han live only in the towns and cities.  Most of the population consists of minority nationalities, particularly the Hani, but also Yi, Yao, Miao, Zhuang and Dai.  All of them have sub-groups, too, including the Dai, with differences not only in traditional apparel, but in lifestyle as well.
Dai La, Huangmaoling
       The sub-group of Dai occupying the Red River valley in Honghe and Yuanyang Counties call themselves the (Dai) La.  Like their neighbors and cousins the Huayao Dai upriver in Yuxi Prefecture, they live in villages of 50-60 mud-brick, flat-roofed houses.  They are wet-rice cultivators, but the sugar cane stands that speckle the valley upriver are here replaced by fruit orchards, particularly banana groves, which lie in abundance all around the rice fields and up the lower slopes of the Ailaoshan foothills. 
       Dai La villages along the alluvial plain obtain two rice crops a year from their fields.  Those living higher up, above irrigated terraces, get only one crop annually, but supplement their income with, besides bananas, mango and litchi groves. They engineer water from the nearest mountain stream to flow through the village first and then into the terraces fanning out below the settled area.  They set traps in this stream to catch eels and small fish, part of their regular diet, and go fishing in the river with both traps and nets.  Women use the river to do their washing, farmers bathe their buffaloes there and beneath big leafy shade trees on the bank the children come to splash and play.
Dai La woman
ginning cotton in Huangmaoling
       Other people in the area often refer to them as the Black Dai, after the dominant color of the women’s traditional outfit.  It consists of a headscarf, a side-fastened, short-sleeved jacket, plain black, calf-length sarong and leggings.  The jacket fits loosely and hangs to just below the waist.  Basically black, it is trimmed with silver studs around the neck and in a broad strip along the lapel, bordered by bright, narrow bands of appliquéd silk or embroidery.  Color bands also go along the right side and the hem all around, while the sleeves consist of a broad strip of bright color, like red, pink or orange, and narrow bands of contrasting colors.  Beneath the black skirt they wear tight black leggings, lavishly cross-stitched with bright patterns, no two pair alike.  They also carry a shoulder bag with the same lush embroidery.
Dai La embroidered leggings
       Women tie their hair in a bun and wrap it with a narrow strip of black cloth.  The end, featuring a block of embroidered designs, is tucked into the scarf along the right ear and the decorative end left to dangle.  They do not wear much jewelry, but many still tattoo the backs of their hands with an auspicious symbol that looks like a cross with a V on each end.
       The preference for traditional fashion still dominates the daily dress of Dai La women.  Even the younger generation wears it, though they may opt for a shorter, knee-length sarong with a band of embroidery and appliqué around the hem.  In the slack time of the year, when agricultural activity is not so demanding, in Dai La village lanes girls may gather in a group while they embroider shoulder bags and leggings.  And in another house an older woman may be ginning cotton, spinning thread, or weaving cloth on a narrow loom.
Dai woman from Qimaba
       In the southern part of Yuanyang County the Dai La also inhabit the upper Tengtiao River valley down to Huangmaoling on the main Yuanyang-Laomeng route.  Dai La villages lie next to and around this township, which holds its market day on Saturdays.  But in Laomeng and the rest of Jinping County the Dai are the White Dai sub-group, while in Luchun County the only resident sub-group is the one in Qimaba, unrelated to any other Ailaoshan Dai.  This large township of over 200 houses lies in the center of Luchun County, 65 km southeast of the main Luchun-Jiangcheng route from the turn-off in the western corner of the county.
      All the county’s Dai live in Qimaba, an isolated township in the most forested and least populated section of the county.  Its residents migrated here in the late Qing Dynasty from their original homeland in Shiping County.  They call themselves Dai Neu-a, the same appellation as the Buddhist Dai in Lincang and Dehong, though they are animist like most other Ailaoshan Dai.
       The population lives in two-story houses of mud-brick, with tile roofs and an adjoining open balcony.  The roofs do not cover the entire house but leave an open space in the middle, directly above the sunken courtyard on the ground floor just inside the entrance.  This space, roughly 20 meters square, holds the household’s water tanks and has a drain in the center to convey the waste water outside into the channels that run through all parts of the town.  Here families do their washing and bathing.  The kitchen lies behind it and the dining area to the side.  Two bedrooms lie adjacent to this, while other sleeping and storage quarters are upstairs.  In back of the house are the sties for pigs and pens for ducks and chickens.
in the terraces of Qimaba
       The town lies above a broad fan of stone-reinforced terraces, on a gradual slope of around twenty degrees gradient, reaching all the way to the edge of the cliff above the river.  Water flows from one terrace into another.  But the Dai have also cut channels throughout Qimaba’s neighborhoods and directed the water to flow alongside almost every stone path.  No house is far from running water and for most households it is right outside their front doors.
       Most of the women in Qimaba, young and old, wear their distinctive Dai outfit, comprising a heavily embroidered bodice that reaches to the hips, worn under a waist-length, black long-sleeved jacket with colored sleeves, fully embroidered on the back, and over an ankle-length tubular skirt.   These components are the same for all ages, though younger women embroider the hem of the skirt as well.
White Dai house in Laomeng
       The headdress differs, though.  The younger women and girls wear a black cloth on the top of the head, the front trimmed with rows of silver studs and old silver coins.  Long tassels of pink woolen thread cascade down either side.  On older women the black cloth rises up over a frame at the back of the head, decorated with silver coins, triangles of studs and embroidery.
       Almost all the Dai of Jinping’s Tengtiao River valley and its tributaries, from Laomeng on downriver into Vietnam, belong to the sub-group called White Dai.  They live in medium-sized villages beside or just above the rivers, raising mainly rice and vegetables, supplemented by fruits and sugar cane.  In Laomeng, their first settlement in Yunnan, they also cultivate vegetables in the dry season on the sandy banks of the Tengtiao, which here changes its name to the Laomeng River.
White Dai woman, Mengla district
       Unlike the flat-roofed, mud-brick dwellings of the Dai La, White Dai houses resemble those in Xishuangbanna.  They are made of wood and bamboo, sit 1.5 to 2 meters above the ground on stout wooden stilts and have roofs of thatch.  An open balcony extends from the front entrance, used for drying crops, hanging laundry or strips of dyed cloth on the rails to dry, for spinning and winding thread, or just for sitting in the sunshine and fresh air.  Interiors are capacious and cool, with a central hearth and a couple of walled-off bedrooms in the far end.
       In the back yard may stand a small ancestral altar—a bamboo cubicle with a thatched roof about 1.5 meters off the ground.  Usually a large group of these stands together in one area of the village.  In addition, villages also have a large shed housing the ceremonial drums, which are beaten throughout the New Year festivities.
       The men dress in modern style, but most women prefer their traditional outfit of blouse and black sarong.  On special occasions the women also don a long-sleeved, front-fastened jacket in solid pastel colors, fastened with silver butterfly clasps.  They often wear these jackets on market day in Laomeng and further east in Jinping and the largely Dai district of Mengla in the south.
Dai Lu in Mengla, Jinping County
       Besides the White Dai, residents of three villages near the hot springs a few km south of Mengla are Dai Lu, immigrants from Xishuangbanna a few decades ago.  Their women dress like Banna women and they are the only Buddhist Dai in all of Ailaoshan.  Buddhist proselytizers never reached this area and all the rest of Honghe Prefecture’s Dai are animist.
      Dai villages all have a spiritual leader who conducts ceremonies on behalf of the community, mainly at annual festivals. Employed more often is the mogung, the specialist handling affairs of the unseen world, such as expelling evil influences, or calling back wandering souls and directing the souls of the deceased to the world of the afterlife.  The role is similar to that of ritual specialists among their neighbors in the hills.  The Dai also share the hill peoples’ taboos, domestic etiquette and life-cycle ceremonies, including most aspects of the all-important funeral ceremony.
       Where they differ is in the concept of the afterlife and in their attitude towards the faults, misdeeds and the darker side of the personality of the deceased.  For the Dai the afterlife is similar to the current life, in that people who were farmers or teachers or something else in their life will be doing the same work in the afterlife.  But a few differences exist.  Elders will become children again.  Children will take on the roles of adults.  Daily life and work will be characterized by complete harmony and happiness.  Those who have had a full life, meaning they created descendants to carry on the family line, will all enjoy this kind of afterlife.  Those without descendants will have to make do with another place, called Li in Dai, a sort of limbo, somewhat less comfortable.  But it is not an unpleasant place and the idea of Hell, so prominent among the Buddhist Dai, has no place in the animist Dai conception of the afterlife.
White Dai New Year
Dai Lu festival dance
       The unique part of the Dai funeral ceremony takes place just before the coffin is removed for burial.  Usually this is three days after death, but no one may be buried on a monkey day or on the animal day on which they were born.  After the lamenting, the visits of relatives and friends, the condolences and feasts, the last act is the Song for Sending Off the Dead.  A mogung, or anyone familiar enough with the deceased to want to do it, takes a seat beside the corpse and begins a long song that narrates the life of the deceased, his or her achievements, virtues and memorable good actions.  All faults, misdeeds, even crimes, are ignored, for once a person dies, everything is forgiven.
drumming for the White Dai New Year
       As for public events, each sub-group has its own festivals.  Places like Nansha, next to the county capital of Yuanyang, and Mengla stage a government-sponsored one-day Water-Sprinkling Festival.  The Dai Lu celebrate it with the performance of dances by the young women in each of the three villages for three nights. Near the end of the second lunar month the Dai in Zhemi host the Men’s Festival, commemorating a time in their history when the men were all off at war and missed New Year.  When they returned late the women staged a new festival to compensate them for missing the other one. 
       All Dai in the area mark the Lunar New Year with celebrations that begin the last morning of the old year and conclude three days later.  Ritual bathing, feasting, processions, rituals and noises expelling evil spirits and drumming are the festival features, details varying from valley to valley.  But whatever the event, it is done with gusto. The Dai know how to make their rituals enjoyable events.  These are people who perceive life as Heaven on Earth and the afterlife as Earth in Heaven.
young Dai women in Qimaba, Luchun County
                                                           * * *                                                                 
                    for more on the Ailaoshan Dai see my e-book The Terrace Builders

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