Saturday, February 18, 2017

History All Around—The Monuments of Dali

                                                        by Jim Goodman

looking across the Dali Plain to Erhai Lake
       When Yunnan opened its doors to international tourism some three decades ago, the ancient city of Dali quickly became one of the most popular destinations.  Lying in the middle of a long, north-south plain at around 2000 meters altitude, flanked on the west by the peaks of the Cangshan mountain range, some of them over 4000 meters high, on the east by sprawling Erhai Lake, the city enjoyed a superb physical location.  Moreover, it was small, more like a town, full of old buildings, with little traffic and easy to explore on foot.
       It was a long haul to get there until the mid-90s and the construction of a multi-lane highway linking Kunming with Xiaguan, at the southern end of the plain, with tunnels cutting through the last mountains.  An airport and railway soon followed.  Only a two-lane road connected the cities in the beginning, clogged with big, heavy logging trucks and other ponderous vehicles, making the journey at least twelve hours. 
western wall and the Three Pagodas
       After finally arriving at this undeniably atmospheric old city, with the added attraction of the colorfully dressed Bai minority prevalent in the area, it all seemed worth the ordeal.  Bai houses and pavilions, though similar to classic Chinese styles, featured specifically Bai characteristics, like the decorations beneath the roof apes, the dominant use of stone and elaborately carved compound gates, and thus embellished the travelers’ impression that they were in a very different part of China.
       Actually, Dali was not even part of China until the 13th century.  At their greatest extents, the Qin, Han, Tang and Song Dynasties did not incorporate the area into the Chinese empire.  In fact, from the mid-8th century to its conquest by Kubilai Khan in 1253, the area was the heartland of two successive states:  Nanzhao until the beginning of the 10th century and the Kingdom of Dali afterwards.
General Li Mi
Nanzhao king
       The buildings, gates and walls of Dali Old Town today date from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, but monuments prior to the Mongol conquest still stand.  The most famous are the Three Pagodas just north of the city, the Lone Pagoda near the South Gate and the Skeleton Python Pagoda just north of Xiaguan.  All of these date from the Nanzhao era, but these are not the only Nanzhao relics.
       The long campaign to unite the area’s principalities began in the 7th century, led by Xinuluo, the ruler of what is now Weishan, 50 km south of Xiaguan.  His descendant Piluoge finally quashed all his rivals and founded Nanzhao in 737.  Seeing the strategic defense capabilities of the Dali Plain, he moved his capital here, at first to Taihe, between Xiaguan and Dali.  It remained the capital until 779, when Dali assumed the role.
Nnnzhso-era illustrated manuscript
       The high mountain just east of Xiaguan prevented attacks from the east.  Sentries posted at the top could easily spot an approaching force.   Another post on the mountain slopes north at Shangguan kept watch on the northern end of the plain.  The lake protected the plain from the east and the Cangshan peaks from the west.
       Taihe still exists, though only remnants of the original city wall are left.  Today it’s just an ordinary village of stone houses, but at the top is the historic Dehua Stele.  King Piluoge erected this near the end of his reign to list the state’s achievements and to give his side of the story of how and why Nanzhao vanquished two Chinese invading armies.
       The Tang Court considered Nanzhao its vassal and an ally against Tibet, which was a strong military state back then and a perennial threat to Sichuan.  Nanzhao saw itself as fully independent and its astute kings played one state off against the other to further its own interests and security.   As it grew in size and strength, Nanzhao aroused Chinese suspicion and the Tang Court launched punitive expeditions in the mid-8th century, all of which failed miserably.
wax sculptures of the Nanzhao Court
       Nanzhao’s army repulsed the first before it could even approach the Dali Plain.  The second expedition crossed the Cangshan Mountains, but Nanzhao forces simply retreated to Taihe and stayed comfortably ensconced within its walls while their enemies succumbed to malaria and starvation.  The third and biggest attempt, said to consist of 200,000 troops led by General Li Mi, suffered a horrific defeat at Dengchuan, just north of Erhai, trapped between the warriors of Nanzhao on one side and Tibetans on the other.
       These became known as the Tianbao Wars, after the after the name of the Tang reigning era.  A mound preserved in one of the back streets of Xiaguan is supposed to contain the remains of the 200,000 Chinese killed in the last invasion.  The mound is too small for that, or even for just the heads, so perhaps it just contains the ashes.  
the recreated palace at Nanzhao Culture City
       The other vestige of the Tianbao Wars is the General’s Temple, dedicated to Li Mi, on the side of a hill in Xiaguan’s southwest suburbs.  Following an unusual custom, pious Bai worshippers make daily offerings to him here.  It’s as if they were apologizing for wiping out the general’s entire army, propitiating his spirit to avoid any spiritual revenge on his part.
       The victories confirmed Nanzhao’s independence, even though Tang China still considered it a vassal state.  The kingdom continued to grow until the late 9th century before, overextended, it began a rapid decline.  Meanwhile, it also developed culturally and the 8th and 9th centuries witnessed the construction of several temples and pagodas that are today among the area’s top attractions.
the Snake Bone Pagoda 
       These include two temples—Gantong and Shenyuan—high up on the slopes of the western mountains.  More accessible is the Chongsheng Temple, just north of the old city, in front of which stand the iconic Three Pagodas.  The tallest one, with 16 closely spaced tiers, stands in the center nearly 70 meters high.  Smaller, ten-story pagodas, in a different style, rise 43 meters on either side.  The complex dates its construction to the early 9th century.  The temple there now is a late 20th century reconstruction, for the original was completely destroyed during the Muslim Rebellion in the 19th century.
       The Three Pagodas survived unscathed, as they had during wars in the past.  They have also withstood several serious earthquakes.  The Lone Pagoda, outside the southwest corner of the walled city, replicates the style of the central pagoda at Chongsheng Temple, as does the Snake Bone Pagoda, four km north of central Xiaguan and today all but hidden behind new roadside apartment blocks.
shop houses in the old city
       At just over 30 meters height, the Snake Bone Pagoda is the smallest of the Nanzhao-era pagodas, but has the most interesting origin myth.  Accordingly, in the past a demon snake from the lake was causing floods all over the plain and the king promised a big reward to anyone who could kill it.  A local hero answered the call, wrapped his body with knives and jumped into Erhai Lake. 
       The demon snake swallowed him whole.  The hero then rolled around inside the snake’s body, mortally wounding it with the knives until both were dead.  The king ordered the snake’s body opened, the hero’s removed and his body given a magnificent funeral.  Then he ordered the Snake Bone Pagoda to be built in his honor.  Like the other ancient pagodas, it has also survived wars and earthquakes.
       Other Nanzhao relics lie further afield, like the late 9th century Iron Pillar in Midu County and the shrines and sculptures of Shibaoshan in Jianchuan County.  Dali still reveres its Nanzhao legacy and in the mkd-90s created the Nanzhao Culture City in the southern suburbs.  The main building is a recreation of the ancient palace and the compound includes exhibition rooms of costumed wax figures in scenes of Court rituals, the Tianbao Wars, receiving envoys, etc. 
South Gate, 1993, before renovattion
       The Nanzhao Kingdom fell when a usurper massacred the entire royal family to seize power.  Internecine warfare followed, kings rose and fell and finally in 937 Duan Siping, a Bai lord from Yuanbang village, at the foot of Wutai Mountain, where a statue of him stands in the Sanling Temple, assembled allies, took control, founded a new dynasty and gave the state a new name—the Kingdom of Dali.  Shortly afterwards, in 960 China also had a new ruling dynasty—the Song. 
       But this regime did not make any trouble for its southwestern neighbor.  The Song Dynasty’s main security concern was its northern frontiers and the menace of mounted nomads.  China needed horses for its own forces to deal with this enemy and the Kingdom of Dali was a prime source.  For the Song Court it was better to keep the peace with Dali so as not to upset the trade in horses.
South Gate at night
       Thus the Kingdom of Dali enjoyed over three centuries of peace.  It did not, like Nanzhao, seek to enlarge itself and was never as big a state.  Areas to the east and south were relatively autonomous and Dali’s direct administration only applied to what is now Dali Prefecture.  Part of the consequence was an emphasis on religion.  The state patronized temples, renovated old ones and built new ones.  Nine of its 22 kings retired to become monks.
       The kingdom’s peace came to an end in 1244, when a Mongol army advanced against its northern frontier.  Dali’s king dispatched a strong force that defeated the invaders at Jiuhe, a little north of Jianchuan County.  Eight years later a much bigger Mongol army, personally commanded by Kubilai Khan, swept down from recently conquered Lijiang and besieged Dali.  King Duan Xingzhi’s troops put up a good fight, temporarily halted the Mongol advance, but only held out until the beginning of 1253.  Dali’s king fled to Kunming, but pursuing troops captured him.
Fuzinglu viewed from South Gate
the Tower of Five Glories
       Contrary to ordinary Mongol practice upon taking a city, Kubilai Khan forbade plunder and massacre.  He brought Duan Xingzhi back to Dali and installed him as the Mongols’ administrator of the area.  He also left a stone inscription of his achievement on a stele mounted on a slope just west of the old city, which is still in place.  Together with the Dali troops, he went on to subdue the rest of Yunnan and annexed it to the Mongol Empire.  In 1279, when Kubilai Khan inaugurated the Yuan Dynasty, Yunnan then became part of China.  The following century the Ming Dynasty overthrew the Yuan, but Mongol forces remained in Yunnan until finally driven out in 1382.
Qing Dynasty buildings in the old city
       To fully incorporate Yunnan into China, the Ming Court sponsored large-scale immigration into the province and stationed garrisons of soldier-farmers, many of them Muslims, all over the western part.  Dali was rebuilt, with surrounding walls and massive gates at the four cardinal directions.  The remnants of this layout became prime attractions when Dali became a tourist destination.  The East and West Gates were only reconstructed in recent decades, while some remains of the old wall were extended.  The North and South Gates are still the original buildings, though the stone lions in front of the South Gate disappeared during renovation in the mid-90a.   
       Inside the walls, shop-houses and other buildings went up in the Ming style, dominated by the Tower of Five Glories on the main north-south street.  The original looked like a rectangular block, taller than it was wide, with an arched passageway at its base, and a wide, tiled roof with upturned corners, similar to those on the four city gates. 
Dali's Catholic Church
       During the Second World War, city authorities demolished the Tower because it feared Japanese air forces could use it as a landmark to bomb other targets in the vicinity.  When it was rebuilt, it was in a totally different style, taller, with three tiers, a standard Qing Dynasty building.  In recent decades smaller pavilions have been added to the area and today it is one of the most popular spots in the city. 
       The shop houses on the southern half of Fuxinglu, the street between the North and South Gates, now sell marble ware, jewelry, Bai handicrafts and other souvenirs, but those on the northern side still cater to the local population.  A Protestant church on this street as well as a Catholic church on a lane around the corner from the center of town, attest to the efforts of Christian missionaries in the early 20th century.  They didn’t win many converts, but the churches, in the style of local architecture, are still intact and among the sites tourists visit. 
       The natural beauty of its setting alone would suffice to draw travelers to spend time in Dali, even if it had no relics of its past.  But it does, and these are unique assets.  Dali’s monumental legacy stretches back fourteen centuries, covering each successive stage of its history.  No other city in Yunnan can make the same claim.
watchtower at Shangguan, from where sentries saw the Mongol armies pour into the plain 
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Friday, February 10, 2017

More Than Just Entertainment: Myanmar’s Marionettes

                                             by Jim Goodman

Mandalay puppeteers in action
       Mandalay was the last capital of the Kingdom of Burma, from 1861-1885, when it was also the center of Burmese culture and its fine arts traditions. When the British swept into Mandalay, they abolished the monarchy and annexed the rest of the state. The country’s arts and crafts, bereft of royal patronage, suffered precipitous decline, particularly its puppet theater.  Even after independence in 1948 the tradition remained weak and its future bleak.  But in recent decades, with a change in both patrons and audience, the puppets are back.  And the most appropriate place to witness this is the Mandalay Marionettes and Culture Show, in the city where they once flourished.
       About an hour long, the show includes performances of classical musical instruments, Burmese and ethnic minority dances and, most of all, skits with stringed puppets—marionettes.  It was to preserve this latter tradition that two women, Ma Ma Naing and Naing Yei Mar, founded this theater in 1986, just over a century after the British takeover eliminated its primary patron.  Finding a couple of surviving puppeteers, they brought them out of retirement to train new ones and supervise the making of the marionettes.
the marionette show's orchestra
       The theater contains a small, elevated stage where the show-opening harp soloist, dancers and marionettes perform.  Between the audience and the stage sits the orchestra.  This comprises mostly percussion instruments, with men on drums and gongs, a xylophone and one on a high-pitched oboe.  To an uninitiated ear this can sound cacophonous, though in the opening puppet skit, depicting the creation of the world, this is intentional.  The percussion also serves to accentuate moods in the different puppet scenes. 
       Traditionally, prior to the show, the puppeteers make a food offering to the Goddess of Performance, which they believe enables their marionettes ‘to breathe.’  Then they spend time grooming and talking to their puppets and invite their spirits into their own bodies for the duration of the performance.
playing the Burmese harp
       The puppeteers stand on stage behind a waist-high painted backdrop and a curtain conceals their upper bodies.  Periodically the curtain rises to reveal their deft manipulation of the marionettes.  In one hand the puppeteer grasps a handle holding at least eleven strings connected to various parts of the marionette’s body.  With the other hand he or she pulls on separate strings to make the body parts move and the marionette walk, turn, crouch, bow, sit, dance or fly through the air.  They also, when the skit requires, sing or speak the dialog of the puppets.
       The first skit always depicts a pair of puppets representing nats--Burmese nature spirits—witnessing the creation of the world out of primeval chaos.  Usually the next scene shows the introduction of animals to the world, especially the white horse, believed to be the first animal ever created.  It concludes with the dance of the magician, wearing red robes and waving a wand.
Ayutthaya-style candle dance
manipulating the magician puppet 
       With this we are now in the world of the humans and the rest of the skits narrate stories from history and mythology, especially the Jataka Tales of previous incarnations of the Buddha and the Indian epic Ramayana.  Kings, queens, gods, ogres, ministers, pages, commoners and clowns dance through these scenes, the crowd favorite usually the duet between the prince and princess.  Often just one to three appear on stage at any given time, but some scenes can involve as many as eight puppets at once, with the curtain lifting and showing the same number of puppeteers visible above them.
nat dance at the Creation of the World
       Because the marionettes are preceded by a harp player and interrupted by solo dance performances and one by an ethnic minority group, usually Karen, they are only on stage about two-thirds of the show.  The lilting music of the harp certainly helps create an atmosphere of bygone times, as do the individual classical dances, but as a result spectators only see a small fraction of the traditional puppet repertoire. 
       According to rules laid down by royal courts in the past, the marionette troupe consisted of 28 characters and the Mandalay show has insufficient time to use them all.  The puppeteers are familiar with all of the characters, though, and anyway don’t run the same skits each night, so find regular opportunities for their use.  Sometimes the troupe performs at festivals in the countryside, when performances start, as in the old days, at sunset and continue until sunrise.  The entire set of 28 classic marionettes, plus maybe a few modern additions, see action then.
scene from the Ramayana epic
       The first historical evidence of the puppet tradition is the recording of a performance on a slab in a 15th century temple in Sagaing.  It’s not clear how popular it was back then, or how widespread, but from the foundation of the Konbaung Dynasty in 1752 the puppet tradition entered its golden age.  Following their destruction of the Siamese capital Ayutthaya in 1767, the victorious Burmese abducted members of the Siamese elite and its artisans, actors, musicians and the entire royal dance troupe and removed them to their own country.   
        This sudden influx of Siamese artistic influence sparked the blossoming of Burmese fine arts, impacting its sculpture, painting, poetry and especially its drama.  Besides the royal court, provincial governors also patronized the Siamese artisans and performers, who were so much more accomplished and polished than their own.  But eventually they recruited natives to fill their places, prompting more Burmese modifications to the arts and the substitution of Burmese for Thai as the stage language for dramas.
Rama puppet
Hanuman puppet
       Several years after the fall of Ayutthaya the Konbaung Court set up a Ministry of Theater to control and regulate the growing, ever more popular dramatic profession.  Rules formulated for the two kinds of theater—that played by human actors and that staged by marionettes—differed.  The prudery of the times limited how much could be said or acted in love duets.  The Ministry also tabooed costumes of royal regalia, monks’ robes or depiction of the Buddha, as well as any dialog or song containing criticism of the royal court.
Jataka Tales skit
      The marionettes had much more leeway.  Some of them were royal characters and dressed in specifically royal costumes.  The most appreciated skit in the repertoire is a duet of a prince and princess, both regally garbed and bejeweled, while other marionettes are of monks, the Buddha and the Hindu god Rama.  The marionettes could also speak or sing about corruption and abuses of authority without fear of subsequent retaliation or arrest for their manipulators.  They were, after all, ‘possessed’ by the spirits of their puppets and thus not responsible for offending words.
       The general populace couldn’t do that and this was one aspect of the puppet theater that helped its burgeoning popularity.  On the other hand, sometimes government ministers arranged for a royal marionette performance precisely because the puppet characters would be able to work lines of dialog somewhere in the skits to bring a certain scandal to the attention of the king.
the comic character U Sheay Yoe and villagers
       Except for the rainy season, puppet troupes did a lot of traveling, staging shows in places far from the capital.  For their hosts, they were the prime source of information on the capital, its politics and intrigues, scandals and shenanigans.  At the same time, their members became aware of local situations, complaints and grievances, which they might very well work into their own skits, to be highlighted next performance back at the Court.  No popular press existed at that time to air such topics, so the marionettes filled the gap.
       Politics was never a dominant concern of the puppet tradition, however.  Its main function was entertainment, but of a sort leaning towards edification as well.  Most skits had religious themes, emphasizing a specific moral precept.  In fact, sometimes a patron would request a performance to include a certain Jataka Tale skit that imparted a moral lesson he wanted conveyed to someone he had invited to watch the show. 
page boy puppet
       The audience for marionette performances in the old days was not the polite, quiet and attentive crowd that watches today.  Since the shows ran for several hours late at night, those attending might take a nap, eat, smoke and converse during the performance, applaud skits they liked and boo those they didn’t.  They could even get carried away and attack a puppet representing a character whose actions aroused their disapproval.
       While the rural masses enjoyed the marionette show for its stories and spectacle, the Burmese elite appreciated it for its combination of different aspects of traditional art.  Aspiring puppeteers spent many years learning these, beginning with making the puppets themselves.  The typical marionette consisted of 18 separate carved wooden parts:  one for the head, one for the neck, two for the torso, six for the arms and eight for the legs, with wires joining the pieces together. Strings connected most, but not all, of these pieces to the puppeteer’s handle, but separate strings might also operate the jaw and eyes. 
       The makers also implanted genuine human hair to the heads for their coiffures, mustaches and beards and strove to make lifelike faces.  With a few exceptions (Rama and other Ramayana characters) the marionettes had white faces, black brows and eyes and red lips.  While the arms of the puppets were abnormally long, the rest of the body they modeled on human bodies, including the sexual organs, though these were concealed by the garments.  When completed, the puppets averaged 65 cm in height.       
duet of puppet and human
       Puppet-makers dressed their marionettes in a variety of costumes.  A few characters wore ordinary traditional outfits of shirts and lungyis or sarongs and the males had turbans with a loose end tucked up behind the head or dangling over the right temple.   The male puppeteers wear these during the show.
       Most characters were royalty, ministers or other members of the elite and wore much fancier garments.  The coats, sashes, vests and dresses, of brocaded silk or cotton, were bright colors, liberally festooned with sequins and little glass jewels.  The puppets also wore elaborate crowns or headdresses and altogether their ensembles replicated those worn at the royal court.  And because commoners rarely, if ever, saw such clothing in those days, the costumes displayed in a marionette show were one of its greatest attractions.
       In the puppet theater’s 19th century heyday, puppeteers, singers and musicians won high public esteem and the profession attracted a steady supply of talent.  It was even more popular than the dance dramas with human actors.  Audiences also rated human dancers according to how closely they could mimic the movements of the marionettes.  One of the skits in the Mandalay show features a duet of a marionette and a human dancer, while the puppeteer above her pretends to manipulate her with invisible strings.
group scene of puppets and puppeteers
       A very conservative tradition in its days of glory, unlike live drama quite resistant to innovation, the puppet theater had to make changes in the colonial period.  Having lost the prime source of financing for this relatively expensive art form, in terms of training and performance preparation, it now competed for paying customers with the shows staged by live performers. 
       The singers left for its rival theater and so the puppeteers themselves had to take on the singing and speaking parts.  They allowed women to be puppeteers for the first time.  They introduced new skits with lots more action and replaced the plain white backdrops with painted scenery.  Finally, when financing became even more difficult, they dropped the orchestra in favor of gramophone recordings.
       In spite of these adaptations interest continued to wane.  By the time the British left only a few dozen troupes remained in the whole country.  The military government in the 1960s, as part of promoting all things Burmese, tried to revive it, but also wanted to use it for propaganda messages.  Experienced puppeteers began dying and the whole tradition was on the way to extinction with their passing.
Jataka Tales scene
       So it was in the nick of time that Ma Ma Naing and Naing Yei Mar conceived their passion for its revival.  Several old masters were still around and proved ready to impart their skills and knowledge.  After the inauguration of the Mandalay Marionettes Culture Show in 1986 other places in prominent tourist destinations, like Bagan and Yangon, began opening puppet theaters.  High-end restaurants included puppet performances as part of the dinner show. 
       It’s a different audience this time around; not local villagers or a royal court, but foreigners.  They don’t know the stories or recognize the characters.  For most it’s just exotic entertainment, though appreciated at least for its skill and spectacle.  With the growth in this foreign audience, especially with the tourist boom in recent decades, more puppet theaters have opened in Myanmar.  More young people are finding jobs making puppets, playing classical instruments and becoming puppeteers. 
       Whether the puppet theater will again achieve in the countryside the popularity it enjoyed in the Konbaung Dynasty remains to be seen.  Yet the tradition has definitely made its comeback and its future looks positive.  For now it has a new and perhaps permanent patron—the tourist.

a royal duet
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