Saturday, May 7, 2016

At the End of the Burma Road: the Dai of Dehong

                                                     by Jim Goodman

Welcome to Dehong
       A few months after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 the Japanese Army had succeeded in occupying eastern China, forced the Nationalist government to relocate to Chongqing and began blockading all goods shipments to western China.  The government response was to quickly begin building a new road over the ancient Southwest Silk Road from Kunming to Burma, then still a British colony, to facilitate the supply of essentials and war equipment.  Hundreds of conscripted laborers lost their lives to landslides and accidents as the route crossed many mountains and rivers on its way to the terminus at the newly established border town of Wanding, in sw Dehong prefecture.
       So long as the British held Burma, every day a mass of vehicles coming up from Bhamo and Lashio crossed the bridge into Wanding bringing tons of supplies.  After the Japanese conquered northern Burma they closed the entry points into Yunnan and the Allied supply efforts shifted to delivery by air.  Traffic on the Burma Road didn’t reach the level of the first few years of its existence until the 1990s.  And it was still a two-lane, cobblestone road hosting every kind of local traffic—private cars, public buses, big, slow logging trucks, tractor-trailers and pony carts.    
Mangshi's mascots
       A new four-lane super highway opened in the 21st century that ran roughly along the same route, but tunneled through the mountains instead, reducing the travel time from Kunming by over half.  Wanding was still a border crossing, but the highway stretched all the way to Ruili, a city that became a more important border post as trade with Myanmar dramatically increased.  But for non-business travelers just coming for a look at Dehong, the usual first stop is Luxi, the prefecture capital and largest city.
       Luxi is the Chinese name for the city and it means ‘west of the Nu (River).’  People in this part of Yunnan pronounce an initial n as l, which is why it is Luxi and not Nuxi.  The Dai name for it is Mangshi.   The modern city of Luxi was built on the western side of Mangshi, historically an important Dai administrative center, with authority over the plains and hills to the north and south.  The northern and eastern quarters of the city are still Dai neighborhoods and all the temples and pagodas lie east of the main business avenue.
       The city is the capital of a Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, though, and so ethnic motifs influence the new city as well.  Many new buildings have Dai-style peaked roofs and Youyilu, the lane running from the main business street to the government guest house, features shop houses in individual Dai style, in various pastel colors.  The guest house itself is in a tasteful Dai style, in a quiet park near the Mangshi River. At the northern entrance to the city, on a tall, red pyramidal pedestal stand the golden sculptures of the Dai mascot peacocks.  One is crouching, the other raising its elongated neck into the sky; an unusual depiction for Dehong.
Mangshi's Dai quarters
       To publicize the multi-ethnic character of Dehong, the city removed its central market and built a park that features large stone statues of the men and women of the nationalities that reside in Dehong:  Dai, Jingpo, Achang, De’ang, Lisu and Han.  In the city’s southwest quarter is the Nationalities Park, with a garden, small zoo, a set of Jingpo painted Munao poles and a Dai village exhibition.  A few traditional Dai bamboo and thatch houses stand around a small pagoda and well and a staff of young men and women periodically practice or perform dances here.
shops on Youyilu
       Like their counterparts across the Myanmar border, the Dai in Dehong are Theravada Buddhists.  The oldest Buddhist monument in the city is Shubaota, the Tree-Wrapped Pagoda, in the compound of the No.1 Primary School in the southwest part of the old town.  Built in the mid-17th century, one of Dehong’s trees took root on the pagoda itself and over the centuries part of its trunk crawled over the surface of the monument, today almost completely covering it.
       Mangshi’s three historic temples lie northeast of Shubaota.  Puti Temple, on Guangnanlu, built in the late 17th century, is a red, wooden, wide, elevated structure with roofs of corrugated iron.  The entrance is circular, a feature common in Dehong temples.  Putisi is the most popular temple for local Dai Buddhists.  But just 150 meters down a side road the three-story, wooden Wu-in Temple, nearly as old, with tiled roofs, sits in a more attractive setting.  Towering tees flank the temple and an enshrined well lies in one corner of the large courtyard.  Within the temple the main image is of a crowned Buddha, in the style of a chakravartin (Universal Ruler).
dance rehearsal in Nationalities Park
the Tree-Wrapped Pagoda
       The third old temple in the vicinity is Foguangsi--Light of the Buddha Temple.  Erected in the 19th century, it looks a bit different, in a style closer to Han temples, with ornately carved struts and roof awnings.  This temple seems to attract Han devotees more than Dai, which is even truer of the new Guan Yin Temple in the city center, built recently at the turn of the century.
Puyi Temple
       The Dai in Dehong call themselves Dai Luang, or Dai Yai in their own language, the same appellation applied to their ethnic cousins in Myanmar and northwest Thailand.  To outsiders they are also known as Dai Neua and Dai Mao and more recently as Chinese Shans, closely related to the Shans across the border in Myanmar. They had an independent set of small states until the Ming Dynasty, becoming officially part of China in the 15th century, though remaining relatively autonomous under their own saopha rulers until the inauguration of New China in 1949.
       Dai sub-groups also live in other parts of Yunnan and those in the southern parts of Lincang and Pu’er Prefectures also call themselves Dai Neua, except in Menglian, home of the Dai Lem, and in Xishuangbanna, another Dai Autonomous Prefecture, who are mostly the Dai Lu, also Theravada Buddhist.  But the Dai dialects in Banna and Dehong are quite different, such that except for small talk, they are mutually unintelligible.  In fact, even the alphabets are different.
        Dehong Dai villages lie near streams, averaging 40-50 houses and one temple compound, with clumps of bamboo on their edges, but also magnificent peepul, banyan and other long-limbed shade trees.  Villagers take their rest breaks beneath their spreading branches.  Their houses sit on the ground and are made of drab-brown brick with tile roofs, sometimes enclosed by a walled compound.  Auxiliary buildings, and even the main houses of the less affluent, have walls of plaited bamboo and tin or thatched roofs.
Wu-in Temple
       Wells are housed in consecrated shrines, as in other Buddhist Dai areas, and the women carry water in buckets suspended at each end of a pole.  They use the same method to convey crops from the fields or goods from the markets, with woven baskets of split bamboo instead of buckets.
       Men dress like the Han, but are often shirtless in the fields.  Many tattoo their arms and chests.  In former times they completely tattooed their thighs as well.  Women wear the Dai sarong, usually black, with a long-sleeved, pale-colored, side-fastened jacket.  On special occasions they don a jacket of gold silk.  Girls and single women wear their hair loose, but married women tie their hair in a topknot and wrap it in a black silk, tubular turban or one of terry cloth in pastel colors.  Younger women may wear brighter colors and, like their counterparts across the border, apply thanaka powder, made from the soft outer bark of the tree of the same name, to their faces as a sunscreen and skin conditioner.  Some young women wear it all the time, streaking the edges of it at the cheekbones, giving a feline accent to their facial appearance.
Chakravartin Buddha
married Dai women
       The Dai are skillful farmers, blessed with good fertility, reliant and abundant rainfall every year.  They easily obtain two crops a year from their fields, in some places three, thanks to irrigation canals running alongside the fields.  The rice from the Zhefang area, about 40 km southwest, has a national reputation and used to be part of the tribute sent to the imperial court in Beijing.  The pineapples are the best tasting and most nutritious in the province.  Dai cuisine is similar to that in Banna, with the various dishes prepared in the restaurants in the morning and, when appropriate, reheated before being served.  Baked and sour foods are popular, spiced with chili, coriander, lemon grass, etc.
young Dai women in Mangshi
      Dehong was one of the first areas in Yunnan open to foreigners, but rarely received any, as most tourists preferred Dali and Lijiang and anyway, the road to Dehong was a long and rough ride in the 90s.  It seemed only people so fascinated with Yunnan that they wanted to see all of it, like myself, bothered to take the trouble.  In the trips I made there towards the end of the decade and beyond I never saw another foreigner.  I’m sure others came at other times and probably enjoyed it just as much, for Mangshi people seemed well prepared to make the foreign visitor’s stay a very pleasant one.
       Everyone everywhere was polite, smiling when greeting me, whether in a shop or a park.  At the Nationalities Park I arrived during a dance rehearsal and one of the staff members rushed a chair for me to sit and served me a cup of hot tea to enjoy while I observed the action.  When U visited temples the monks insisted I share tea and cigarettes.  If a ritual happened to take place when I was there, the devotees invited me to join them for a vegetarian picnic afterwards.  When I ate in Dai restaurants the owners brought me samples of other dishes than what I ordered, just to try.  Inevitably, of course, I wound up asking for a plate of one of these samples, either then or at the next meal.
traditional-style Dai village house
       Dehong Dai have tenaciously clung to their ethnic identity, even after government-sponsored Han immigration into the area in the 1950s, the depredations of the Cultural Revolution and the influence of rapid modernization in recent decades.  The preference among the women for traditional clothing, among all Dai for Dai-style cuisine, the maintenance of old customs and respectful social intercourse, the use of the Dai language at home and in the markets, as well as the continuation of religious practices all reflect this.
       The temples are most active on the 8th, 15th and 23rd days of the lunar month and especially at the annual festivals.  These include the Water-Sprinkling Festival in mid-April and activities associated with the opening and conclusion of the three-month Buddhist retreat season during the monsoon.  At any time of the year they may also be the venue for a poi, a local festival occurring at the dedication of a new image or the renovation of a temple.  In the past local rich patrons sponsored such events, partly for religion, partly for prestige.  Nowadays they are generally village communal affairs, everyone tithed for the costs.
ritual to the Land Spirit at Mukang village
       Buddhism came to Dehong only in the 17th century.  Some of the original animist beliefs are inevitably still part of local religious mentality.  This became apparent to me on a visit to Mukang, a Dai village 9 km north of Mangshi.  I arrived on a Buddhist holy day and peered through the round entrance while the congregation, divided by sex, recited sutras and kowtowed to the Buddha image.  Afterwards the women moved to the courtyard, carrying little bottles of water and rice liquor, crouched in ranks with their backs to the temple, and prayed while periodically pouring libations of water and rice liquor onto the ground to honor the Land Spirit.
       Dai culture in Dehong did not remain impervious to Han influence.  Weddings nowadays, with the bridal headdress, red candles and procession, are hardly distinguishable from Han weddings.  The Dai bury their dead, unlike most Buddhist Dai, who cremate the body.  Unlike other Dai, they have an opera tradition, too, like the Han, but though the singing style is similar, the Dai version eschews the elaborate make-up and the costumes are classic Dai style.  Yet in most other aspects the Dai continue to follow the cultural norms established centuries ago.  This includes mutual respect between the sexes, abstention from loud, boisterous, rude or impolite behavior and, good news for travelers, a warm and hospitable reception for guests.

rural landscape outside Mangshi
                                                                    * * *                         

No comments:

Post a Comment