Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Puzhehei—A Second Sani Homeland

                                                          by Jim Goodman

Yi village and Pearl Lake
       Landscapes in Wenshan Autonomous Zhuang and Miao Prefecture, southeastern Yunnan, jutting into Guangxi province on its eastern side and bordering Vietnam to the south, differ greatly from the rest of the province.  High mountains characteristic of most of the province don’t exist here.  Instead, small limestone hills of less than a thousand meters height speckle broad plains.  In some places they appear in scenic clusters and Puzhehei, in Qiubei County, where lakes, streams and ethnic minority villages flank the hills, is the most beautiful example.
       About 13 km north of Qiubei city a road bends west to a flat plain studded with small hills and scattered Miao, Han and Zhuang settlements.  It’s another two or three kilometers to the resort  at the edge of the lake, while villages in the immediate area here are Yi.  Puzhehei’s natural attractions made its development as a tourist resort inevitable, but on my first visit in 1999 the business hadn’t really taken off yet.  There were a few hotels and restaurants and a stadium where local Yi put on shows for the occasional tourist group.
farmland beside Pearl Lake
       Next to the resort a few dozen boats lay moored in the water, for the prime activity for most visitors is to take a boat ride on the watercourse that begins with Pearl Lake, at 530 hectares the largest of the district’s 70-odd lakes and ponds, most of them connected by streams to form a 20-km boat journey.  The ride includes stops at a few of the 80 large caves within some of the 300 hills in the area.  
       Having already been to the best of Yunnan’s caves, I passed up the boat ride option and spent my time on foot exploring the area, climbing the small hills to get better photo angles and wandering along the lakes and streams.  The hills come in a variety of shapes.  Some are like round skull caps, others look like thimbles, some like straight or leaning triangles, others long and low, one side higher than the other, resembling crouching animals.
Sani village, Puzhehei
 Puzhehei is a Chinese transcription of a Yi language word that means ’pond teeming with fish and shrimps.’   Gathering those fish and shrimps is part of the local Yi lifestyle.  A few families use cormorants to catch fish.  Most villagers take their canoes out onto the lake to cast nets, but also lay long, tubular, netted traps, held together by poles every meter or so, just under the surface along the shoreline for catching shrimps, small fish and a few crayfish.  After pulling in their catch, the people lay them out on the walkways to dry.
       The Yi in Puzhehei are the Sani sub-group, most of whom live in Shilin and Mile counties further north.  They migrated to Puzhehei several generations ago, though I did not get the story of how and why.  Their dialect is the same as that spoken around the Stone Forest and they dress in similar apparel. 
Sani buffalo cart
tourist boats at the resort
       While I did wander briefly through a couple of villages on my hike that time, on the second visit eight years later, I spent more time in the nearest Yi village than I did looking for angles to photograph the scenery.  While the resort area was only modestly built up in the interval, the biggest change, other than increased boat ride prices, was the apparent effort to turn the Yi village adjacent to the resort into a showcase of Sani culture.
laying out the netted traps
       Crossing the stream at the end of the resort area, a path leads through the trees, passes a life-sized recumbent stone tiger and comes to a stone statue of what looks like a sitting tiger cub behind a row of carved wooden figures beside the village entrance gate.  A couple of nice, big traditional buildings just inside the gate serve as restaurants.  A right turn on the path behind them leads to an area looking like the village ritual grounds.
       A tall stone pillar stands in the foreground, its surface carved with clumps of twisting vines topped by little demonic faces.  The area behind the pillar is studded with stone statues of the heads of rather fierce-looking creatures, with big eyes and wide, fanged mouths, obviously demons of some kind.  A few heads lie on the ground, others sit on small brick pedestals and some stick out of the ground two meters high.
submerged trap
       Behind this field of grotesquery a path leads to a stone staircase up the hill beside the village.  From the summit one has a broad view of the whole area, a vantage point to revel in the various configurations of water, hill and plain that change with every direction you point your eyes.  In addition, you can see rice fields of rich red soil flanking the ponds and streams.  Dikes by the shores enclose the lake water in small ponds for shrimp farms.
      The lakeside Yi village below this hill and opposite the field of sculptures mainly consists of traditional mud-brick, two-story houses with tiled roofs, in the same style as those in Sani villages around the Stone Forest.  A few whitewashed, three- or four-story concrete houses had been erected since my previous visit.  A few of these and the older houses offer home-stay services for visitors.  For this, at a quite moderate price, the boarders get a clean room with a comfortable bed and meals, which always include, whether ordered or not, a plate of deep-fried little shrimps.
enchanting landscape of Puzhehei
       The main village square is just a couple blocks from the entrance gate.  At one end of the square a stone tiger (or cub), similar to the one by the entrance gate but bigger, with a wide open snarling mouth, sits on a pedestal, the surface of which has an inscription in the Yi script.  Several houses in the vicinity have Yi mythological figures, generally demons with big eyes and fangs, painted on the exterior walls.  Other houses have carved wooden masks hanging on the outside wall.  Most consist of a single ferocious visage, but a few include a smaller demonic face or two on the head of the larger one.
       Such wooden masks are part of Yi culture elsewhere in the province.  The Yi Museum in Chuxiong has a display of some that are exactly the same style as those in Puzhehei.  The same masks are used by the Yi in Weining, Guizhou province, in a dance depicting the creation of the world.  They are also used by various Yi sub-groups to ward off evil, represent mythological creatures or in rites to propitiate spirits. 
stone Yi demon head
grotesque village sculptures
       In Puzhehei I didn’t learn to what use they were employed.  Many houses also mounted a small clay tiger image on their roofs, obviously a protective device and a custom shared by other ethnic groups in the province.  But besides the wooden masks, others, round, of clay or papier-maché, and not at all fierce-looking, adorned the walls of other houses.  Yi-style ‘moon guitars’ and the long-handled, bucket-shaped three-stringed instruments also were on display.  So perhaps the masks, like the other items, (except the rooftop tigers) were there simply to proclaim Sani ethnicity.   
       The main square, surrounded by shops and a few snack stands, is also the terminus for the various conveyances coming into the village.  Oxen and buffaloes pull one or two passengers in cabs or haul trailers loaded with bamboo or products of the fields or forests.  Pony-drawn coaches carry up to four passengers, residents and visitors, from the resort to the village and back.
Yi wooden mask
      Other than the paved way from the entrance gate to the square, all the other lanes in the village are unpaved.  Unless it’s raining, these are rather active on any normal day.  Village women tend to do a lot of their agricultural chores outside their houses:  sorting chilies, binding bundles of spices, stacking firewood, shelling maize and laying out their freshly harvested grain for drying.    
       In the traditional Sani division of labor, men do the heavy agricultural work like plowing and threshing.  They are also responsible for the fishing and take their boats out onto the lake from early to mid-morning and maybe again around an hour before sunset.  Usually they go out solo, but sometimes the wife comes along to pole the boat along the shoreline while the husband lays the traps.
       Women more or less do all the rest of the work, both in the fields and at home.  Deeply immersed in the behavioral codes and the work and social responsibilities of women in Yi society, they are more tradition-minded than the men.  They are more likely to be aware of what day in the lunar calendar or animal cycle it is, whether that is a propitious day or one to avoid certain kinds of activities.  They will worry about the influence of bad spirits that the men maybe don’t believe in anymore.  The men are more exposed to the outside world, its new ideas and very different concepts about everything.  The women adhere to the old ways.
working outside the house
       A consequence of this traditionalist mind-set is that Sani women prefer to dress in Sani garments, not just on special occasions but every day.  Over plain black trousers they wear a side-fastened, long-sleeved jacket, usually light blue, occasionally red.  A rectangular piece patched on vertically below the lapel and the sections of the sleeves from the biceps to the cuffs are in contrasting colors, usually black, sometimes embellished with embroidered flowers.  Around the waist they tie an apron, usually white, blue or black. 
       To top off the outfit women wear a round headdress, heavily embroidered on the sides with rows of embroidered flowers, the color red dominating.  Some of these headdresses have flaps protruding from the front sides.  Some women wear headscarves instead, while those donning the traditional headgear while working during the day may keep it protected by wrapping it in clear plastic.
       Unfortunately, I had already checked into a hotel in the resort area before discovering the possibility of staying in the village.  I did take my meals there, though, and learned that my visit coincided with that of provincial Party officials and the family running the restaurant invited me to observe the performances that night that the village would stage for the guests.
Sani village with its view
      The venue was the grounds opposite the village, around the tall, carved, stone pillar.  Three different troupes performed:  young women, young men and older women.   The young women wore trousers that matched the blue of their jackets, which were fancier than usual, with spangled trimmings.  The young men wore wide-legged trousers, plain black or blue with two bands of contrasting color above the cuffs, and were shirtless with open vests.
       Usually in ethnic minority clothing tradition the younger women wear the flashier, brighter, more eye-catching outfits and the older women dress in darker, duller colors with little or no embellishment.  Not this night.  The jacket of the older women was longer and over it they wore a covering bib-apron in many panels of color, with long thin tails hanging down from the waist in front.  The headdress was more elaborate, with embroidered, butterfly-shaped flaps added to the front.
       The program began with the young women dancing while embroidering cloth.  Then they did a number with the young men, playing moon guitars while the men played the long-necked, 3-string lute.  In another dance the boys didn’t play the instrument but instead waved it over their heads while they danced.  The choreography was quite vigorous and obviously well rehearsed.
the young men's troupe
       Even more impressive were the sets of the older women, who were just as energetic as the youth.  They included dances that mimed farming activities, with baskets or sickles as props.  They also danced playing moon guitars or the same Sani mouth-harp common in Shilin County.
       I can safely assume the audience of a couple dozen Party officials appreciated the show.  It was probably a normal experience for them, for entertaining important guests to make a good impression has long been a part of ethnic tradition in Yunnan.  I have experienced this myself in several remote parts of the province, when the ’important guest’ was defined as me, the first foreigner.
      My own appreciation was different.  I had just spent a day exploring the villagers’ environment, watching them work, eating their food and enjoying their company.  Now, unexpectedly, I had the bonus of observing how they entertained themselves with their traditional dances and music.  They did it for their guests this night, but in the same way they do it for themselves at festivals, weddings and other celebrations.  And they seemed to enjoy their performance even more than their audience.  
       Nine years later, following dramatic increases in tourism, the harmony and mutual appreciation that characterized the atmosphere then has reportedly been altered by the introduction of hassling and hustling.  But one first impression I had, reinforced with my return, will surely endure.  In deciding where to make their homes, whether among the pillars of Stone Forest County or the hills and lakes of Puzhehei, the Sani certainly choose enchanting landscapes.

older women's group playing the Sani mouth-harp
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