Friday, July 22, 2016

The Reclusive Alu of Laojizhai

                                       by Jim Goodman

Alu woman, Laojizhai district
       Yunnan is famous for its great variety of ethnic minorities.  Altogether the province is home to 25 different minority nationalities, but the larger ones are divided into many sub-groups.  Even when they live in the same physical environments, these sub-groups may dress very differently from each other.  Nowhere is this ethnic diversity more obvious than in Lower Ailaoshan, below the Red River in Honghe Prefecture, especially Yuanyang and Jinping Counties.
       Officially, it’s Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture and the Hani and Yi are the majority of Yuanyang and Jinping County’s population, divided into several sub-groups each.  The area is also home to Dai and Zhuang in the valleys and Yao and Miao in the hills, all of them with at least three sub-groups each.  For the traveler, a big part of the enchantment of the two counties, besides the scenery of irrigated rice terraces climbing up the mountains, is the fact that nearly all the females dress in traditional ethnic clothing. 
       This makes the many market day venues in the towns particularly colorful, but also a way of finding out who lives in the vicinity.  The greatest variety is at the Sunday Laomeng market, my own favorite, south of Xinjie, just inside Jinping County.  It was here that I first spotted women in black garments, with lots of color embellishments, silver studs and multi-colored woven belts.  People in the market identified them as Alu but didn’t now if they were Yi or Hani or something else.
Duoni Hani gitls
Laowo Yi girl
       They were from Laojizhai district, up the mountain south of Laomeng.  In the company of my Hani friend from Huangcaoling, with a couple days left in my time in the area, we headed for Laojizhai in search of the Alu.  It was also market day there, but we arrived when the action had already shut down.  The last Alu family was packing up and only a couple dozen Hani were still around. 
       The remaining Hani included the headman of the nearest village, 3 km away, so we accepted his invitation and had our evening meal there.  The women of this Hani sub-group, the Duoni, dress like those of the Doko Hani of Huangcaoling, except that the girls wore the silver-studded ‘chicken hat’ worn by the Nisu Yi of Yuanyang. 
Alu Yi family
foggy morning in an Alu village
       Their dialect also differed considerably from that spoken around Huangcaoling or Xinjie, such that the headman and my Hani friend found it easier to converse in Chinese than in Hani.  The headman also remarked that night that according to their history, the Duoni are Hani.  But their customs are mostly Yi.  He didn’t elaborate, but I recalled a Hani adage I was already familiar with—“Hani and Yi are children of the same mother.” 
Alu weaver at work
Knowing the headman of the nearest Alu village, 5 km out of Laojizhai, he arranged to take us there by tractor-trailer in the morning.  Unfortunately, thick fog covered the area the entire excursion.  We couldn’t see past ten meters, so I had no idea of the landscape or the view.  But once the foreigner and his entourage got to the village, I at least got to see what the people looked like.  Within minutes folks of all ages came to get a glimpse of me, well within my ten meters of visibility range.
       Black is the basic color for practically all of their clothing components: jacket, loose trousers and headdress.  Yet it also serves as a background to accentuate all the colorful additions.  These include bands of colored strips around the calves of the trousers, piping on the sleeves, a short blue apron, appliquéd patches on the jacket sides, sleeve cuffs and the top flap of the headdress.  The women’s jackets also feature vertical sections on the front lapels comprising many rows of little silver studs.  The front of the headdress may also be studded in a similar way, while from the flaps on each side hang little red pompoms. 
       As with most ethnic fashions, variations exist in the general style.  Older women may use less color embellishment.  Younger women may wear a round cap, studded widely across the front and topped with flowers on each side.  The men’s outfits are less colorful—plain black for the older men, but for the younger generation color on the jacket cuffs, hems and pockets.
      Alu women purchase from the market most of the materials used to make their clothing.  The one item they make themselves is the multi-colored belt, 10-15 cm wide, that ties around the jacket at the waist.  They weave this on a simple bamboo-frame loom, leaning against an outside wall of the house at a 70 degrees angle. The weaver sits on a stool at the bottom of the loom and passes the weft shuttle through the warp threads at shoulder level.
young Alu woman
Alu mother and child
       It was November, long past harvest, a season when women make clothing and men build houses.  Several looms were in operation the morning of my visit.  After observing the weaving we were invited inside the headman’s house for tea and learned that the main events in the Alu calendar were the Torch Festival in mid-summer and Rhamatu, held the third day after Lunar New Year.  Rhamatu was the same name of the most important annual Hani festival, and the Alu version included the same rituals to the three stones at the village altar, representing humans, animals and crops, and involved a collective village feast.  However, it would also feature dances, in which the girls picked their boy partners.  Our host encouraged us to return for either event.
       We didn’t stay much longer, for our Duoni Hani friend had to return to Laojizhai and the heavy fog precluded any possibility of exploration.  However, my interest in the Alu already aroused, in February I was back in the area at Lunar New Year time.  Once again in the company of my Hani friend from Huangcaoling, on the third day of the year, the first day any vehicles were running again, we left Huangcaoling early for Laomeng.  Unfortunately, no bus was going to Laojizhai until early afternoon.
Alu Yi village
       However, by coincidence the Miao were celebrating their Caihuashan festival 10 km east and the fellow who informed us of it gave us a ride there in his truck.  Hundreds of colorfully dressed Miao females certainly provided plenty of photo-ops and eyeball enchantment.  Besides traditional and modern Miao dances, the program also included performances by the Laowo Yi, a sub-group also in the Laojizhai area.
       We made it back to Laomeng in time to catch the bus, but arrived in Laojizhai too late to find out anything about the Alu Rhamatu.  Our Duoni Hani contact didn’t know.  Too late to hike all the way to the Alu village, we stayed the night in Laojizhai hoping that, as the next day was a tiger day, and several Yi sub-groups held important Lunar New Year festivals on the first tiger day, maybe we weren’t too late.
       We set out early for the fog-bound village we had visited before, but the headman there regretfully informed us we missed it.  They held it on buffalo day, the day before.  The rites at the three stones took place early morning, so we would have missed that anyway.  Then came the procession of each household delivering meat, rice and alcohol to the headman’s house to make a collective feast.  After that were the dances.
young Alu Yi woman
little girl in full Alu clothing
       Anyway, he had a lot of food left over, so he invited us to a sumptuous meal.  Afterwards he speculated that since today was a no-work day in Alu tradition, dances might be continuing at the biggest of the thirteen Alu villages, 5 km away.  It was courtship season, after all.  And Alu youths are free to choose their own spouses.
       It was still early and the weather lovely so off we went on a high but relatively level road, with fine views of distant villages, tea gardens and rice terraces.  The only traffic was pedestrian, mostly young couples or pairs of couples in full Alu traditional clothing.  Our destination lay on a slope just below the summit of a hill, with a view across the valley to the west.  Except for a school and a couple government offices, all the houses were box-like, one-story, mud-brick and timber structures with flat roofs.  No utility poles stood anywhere, for the village still had no electricity.
Alu Rhamatu dance
       As the first foreigner to ever visit, I found crowds forming everywhere I went. Everyone was polite, though, and not many ducked the camera like in the first village.  My presence soon drew the attention of the local Party official, who invited us to his office.  Yes, we had missed the festival and the dances.  But he could arrange dances tonight if I would pay the same 300 yuan the local government had given them to sponsor the Rhamatu dances for neighboring villages.  My Hani friend argued that the local government had much more money than me and that I only carried enough to cover my trip in Yunnan.  He settled for 200, including meals and lodging. 
       The meal, shared with eight others, comprised the still tasty leftovers from the feast the day before.  It included a large green leaf vegetable that is an Alu specialty, one I’d see them hawking in the markets in Laojizhai and Zhemi.  Besides this, they grow rice, maize and other vegetables and a high-quality green tea, that was selling then for 200 yuan a kilo.
       After dark our host got busy making arrangements for Rhamatu Dances Part Two.  A couple tables went up, laden with alcohol, beer and cups, in front of a row of stools for the elders and the two special guests.  Masses of villagers surrounded us on all sides, full of curiosity, but not pressing on us.  Hardly any of them had ever ventured beyond Laojizhai district and had no idea what a foreigner might look like.  As for me, I totally enjoyed being stared at by people wearing such attractive apparel.
Alu women in the Laojizhai market
       Speeches preceded the start and even I had to give one, in my limited Mandarin, which probably hardly anyone in the crowd past my table understood.  Then the dances began, led by a young man playing a gourd-pipe, followed by a line of other young men.  But no girls.  Another dance, same result.  Our host then claimed it was difficult to persuade the girls to dance.  Perhaps if I gave another 100 yuan they would.  I replied that if the girls were too shy, it didn't matter. 
       But the young men were tired of dancing alone.  So they somehow persuaded eight girls to join the line and from then on it became more authentic and participation grew.  The show continued for well over an hour, climaxing with a ring dance.  We were pleased.  Next morning as we were about to depart, our host claimed I owed him another 100 yuan just because the girls had finally danced.  Not wanting to leave in a mood of acrimony, or prejudice the visit of the next foreigner, I gave it to him.
       It was Sunday now, so we were back in Laojizhai in time for the peak of market day activity.  Groups of Alu women stood behind baskets of the green leaf vegetable we’d enjoyed the night before.  Others sold maize or bean sprouts.  Duoni Hani women wore their Huangcaoling-style, side-fastened, black-bordered blue jackets and many, young and old, donned the ‘chicken hat’ as well. 
       Several Laowo Yi women were there, too, easily recognized by the bright jackets of pink and blue and their long hair braided with a woolen thread extension and coiled on top of the head, rather like the Hani in Jinping.  Altogether, it was a typically colorful Ailaoshan market day.
Laowo Yi woman in Laojizhai
Alu selling maize in the market
       I did not return to Laojizhai again but I did happen to see an Alu dance performance once more in, of all places, the newly designated Hani Cultural Village in Yuanyang County.  I was there wandering around taking photos when a Chinese tour group turned up.  After their walk through the streets full of traditional Hani houses, a stop at the village altar grounds with the three stones and a look at the Hani swing, the climax was to watch a dance performance.
       The Laló Hani living in this village have no dance tradition.  So the government hired an Alu troupe from Laojizhai to perform instead, for Chinese tourist groups expect some kind of ethnic entertainment on their program.  So there they were again for me, Alu girls in their gorgeous outfits dancing like they did the night of Rhamatu, Part Two.  Probably none of the tourists knew they were Yi, not Hani.  But were the Hani bothered by a Hani cultural tour concluding with a Yi dance performance?  Probably not.  After all, these are the people who coined the phrase “Hani and Yi are children of the same mother.”

Alu dance troupe in the Hani Cultural Village
                                                                        * * *   
                 for more on the Yi of Ailaoshan see my e-book The Terrace Builders


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