Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Xishuangbanna Craft Villages, Past and Present

                                                             by Jim Goodman

ceramic figurines on a temple roof
       In the classic period of its history, from the late 12th to the early 19th centuries, Xishuangbanna was a virtually autonomous state.  Its ruler acknowledged the Chinese Emperor as his suzerain and in return ruled his domain without imperial interference.  He also paid tribute to the Chinese Court, but sometimes he also, just to be safe, paid tribute to the much closer Burmese Court.  The state’s population was mainly Dai, inhabiting the plains towns and valleys.  Non-Dai minorities lived in the hills, but interacted little with the Dai, while their administration was left to village headmen.
       Dai society then was strictly hierarchical.  At the top were the ruler—chao phaendin—and his extended family.  Just below them were his relatives.  They formed the Dai aristocracy, the classes that didn’t have to indulge in any manual labor.  That responsibility fell on the much more numerous commoner classes of indigenous settlers, servants and slaves, in the form of taxes, requisitions or services.  
       Villages were basically self-sufficient.  Hence, commercial trade did not play nearly as important a role as it does now.  District towns had shops, of course, for farmers couldn't produce everything they required.  They also had periodic market days, when people from the vicinity came to exchange goods.  A few of these have persisted to contemporary times, such as the Menghai County towns of Menghun, Menga, Xiding and Mengman.
Dai potter at work
making paper in Manzhao
       Besides their ordinary agricultural production, some villages specialized in particular crafts.  Sometimes these were for contracted customers, such as the ceramic figurines for decorating temples, palaces and the homes of aristocrats, or the paper and palm-leaf manuscripts used by temples and government offices.  Other times they worked under contract to supply the aristocracy with its needs.
       Certain craft items were produced for the market and the public at large, such as pottery, drums, jewelry, umbrellas and cloth.  Some of these villages, mostly in Menghai County, have maintained their craft traditions down to the present day, even if fewer families are engaged in such production.
traditional paper umbrella
Dai drums
       Jingzhen village, home to the Octagonal Pavilion, has long been associated with the production of the little ceramic figurines that decorate the roofs of temples and houses.  They are made from a certain kind of white clay peculiar to the area.  Workers pound and knead this clay and then shape it into figures of roosters, peacocks, nagas, stylized flames, etc. and paint them different colors.  When these are dry the workers put them in a small kiln to bake them.
making a drum in Mandan
       Manzha village, in Menghun district, still produces the kind of ceramics for general use—bowls, vases, pots, jars and basins.  Nowadays much of the production is of bricks and tiles, which were not used so much in the past.  But pottery for domestic use still accounts for a good percentage of the output, made in the same manner as it was hundreds of years ago, without the use of a kiln.
       Potters use a small, thick wooden wheel mounted on a swivel.  Seated on a stool beside it, the potter drops a lump of clay onto the wheel, spreading it up to a few centimeters from the circumference edge.  Giving the wheel a spin, the potter shapes it from the inside, adding more clay as required to make it taller, using a thin, flat stick to make the inside surface smooth and a thicker, flat board for smoothing the exterior.  After the piece has been put into its desired final shape, the worker takes it to an open field, stands it on its rim, covers it with straw and burns the straw.  When the piece has been completely fired it is darker, hard and ready for use.
sample of inlaid patterns on Dai textiles
       In former times the village production of everyday ceramics served many villages in the area. But these are in competition now with containers made from synthetic materials like rubber-plastic.  As the Dai have become more prosperous though, they have often replaced their wooden houses with ones made of brick, like in the Dai neighborhoods of Menghun.  This is why production in the village shifted more towards bricks and tiles. 
       The production of palm-leaf manuscript pages, formerly the specialty of Mangui village, east of Jinghong, has all but died out.  Paper long ago had already been replacing palm leaf for religious manuscripts and the Red Guards destroyed nearly the entire stock in the village in the late 60s.  Mangui lies opposite a strange, abandoned park called The Art Garden of Banna Dreams.  It contains a number of dilapidated buildings in the Dai style and weird statues of a bearded Indra and various good and evil creatures from local mythology.  Supposedly the statues took their appearance from descriptions in the palm-leaf manuscripts of Mangui.  Nowadays the village reprints the old manuscripts on paper.  They are used to guide the selection of auspicious days for weddings, funerals, building a house, etc.
Dai weaver in Manluangdian
Traditional paper-making, however, is still carried on in a few places, such as Manzhao, about five kilometers north of Menghun.  Workers begin by boiling bark from the mulberry tree for a long time, then beating it to pulp on flat rocks.  Then they spread the pulp in a long tray, add a little water, and mix it to make the solution relatively even.   The worker then carefully lays a rectangular, framed screen into the solution just below its surface, spreads the pulp evenly across the surface of the screen, lifts it out, removes any twigs or debris and leans it against a tree or wall to dry.  On a sunny day the sheet is dry in one afternoon.  Besides official documents and religious manuscripts, the paper also found use for wrapping bricks of tea.
       A thicker version of the same paper is used for making umbrellas, still a tradition in Manxing village, south of Mengzhe.  Families involved in the trade produce their own paper, treat it with sesame oil and color bands of it black, brown and pale yellow.  The frame and handle are from bamboo.  Local farmers use them and traditional umbrellas are one of the gifts devotees donate to the temple monks.
making a basket--men's work
plaiting split bamboo
       Temples also needed drums, especially big ones, though they were not the only customers.  Traditional orchestras, village dance troupes and martial arts groups also used drums.  One of the last places still pursuing this trade is Mandan village, about 15 km east of Mengla, involved for over three hundred years.  It also enjoys a reputation for its martial arts tradition.
       The wood comes from various hardwoods in the nearby forest.  After cutting the wood to the appropriate sizes, the worker leaves it in the house to dry for over a year.  Then he uses chisels, knives and other tools to hollow it out and shape the outside.  When that is done he paints it with lacquer colors, usually red, white and black.  After the paint dries the last step is to stretch a square strip of rawhide over the drumhead and secure it with fasteners of split bamboo. With changes in temperature and humidity the drumhead tends to slacken and must be tightened by pulling on or twisting the fasteners tied down on the upper side of the drum.
Dai-style jewelry, from a Menghun workshop
As for cloth production, weaving was much more widespread in the past, for virtually every Dai family had a loom and mothers trained their daughters in ginning, spinning and weaving at an early age.  Women used a wooden frame loom with two treadles and sat at a bench at the end of the loom to weave.  Heddles separated the warp threads and by stepping on a treadle every other thread was lifted, creating a shed through which to throw the shuttle with the weft thread.  After moving the reed forward to beat the weft into place, the weaver stepped on the other treadle to make the next shed.  The interlocking warp and weft threads created a strip of plain-weave cloth, with no surface adornment or complex pattern.
       To add the embroidered designs onto the cloth required making extra heddles for supplementary weft thread.  This they did by inserting thin bamboo sticks particular ways into the warp to separate different sections of thread.  Complex surface patterns needed at least a couple dozen of these extra heddle sticks.  Besides cloth for making clothing items, weavers produced sheets and bedspreads, pillowcases, towels and, when feeling religious, wall hangings (tung) for the temples.  In classic times the palace and various aristocratic families, whose women didn’t weave, contracted certain villages to produce their clothing, brocades and other fancy textiles.
Dai-style gold ornaments
leaf-style silver hair ornament
       In contemporary times looms have practically disappeared from ordinary village households.  But a few, such as Manhuomeng, near Menghun, and Manluangdian, just west of Jinghong, maintain the weaving tradition.  Most of their production is in specialty items, such as fancy brocaded bedspreads for wealthy locals and tapestries for tourist customers taken there by tour operators.
       Weaving cloth was always women’s work, but weaving split bamboo baskets and other containers was men’s work.  After cutting the bamboo into strips, men plaited the strips and shaped them into various containers.   They could be woven very loosely, with spaces between the joints, as in baskets for carrying firewood or bags of grain and other produce, or very tightly, like the large ones for carrying grain or the small tobacco cases. No particular village specialized in split-bamboo products, for they all produced them.  If they made more than they needed they sold the surplus in the markets. 
silver hair bun ornament
       In Banna today there are more men still weaving with split bamboo than women weaving with handlooms.  Factory-made cloth of all kinds is readily available in any town market, and while cheap synthetic substitutes for split-bamboo baskets and containers are also available, it takes far less time to weave a basket than a bolt of cloth.  Some men keep it up because it gives them something useful to do.  The synthetic stuff might be cheap, but that made from bamboo is free.
      A craft that was not so universal, nor the specialty of a certain village, but rather that of select families in towns like Menghun, where it still carries on, is that of making jewelry.  Dai women have always loved ornaments.  They wore rings on their fingers, bangles around their wrists, rings and studs through the earlobes, necklaces and fancy pendants, silver belts, sometimes with attached pendants, to hold the sarong around the waist, and various pins and brooches.
       They also decorated their hair with flowers, ribbons and jewelry.  Women tied their hair in a bun and embellished that with a special pin, affixed silver leaves to it, or wrapped it in an open-work silver cone, with dangling pendants.  The upper classes referred gold, while the commoners used silver.  Nowadays, with the classes abolished and prosperity reaching all Dai villages, traditional jewelry is still popular.  On market days particularly, Dai women like to show it off. 
      In those families still involved in the production, young women do most of the work.  Their tools comprise an awl, clamps, pliers, a small, bellows-operated, acetylene torch, a perforated plate for sizing wire and a roller to make silver plate super-thin.   They use the little torch to weld together chain links, using a copper-silver alloy, though the rest of the item is pure silver.  For filigree work they make careful use of the pliers.
making a silver chain in Menghun
rubber seed necklaces in Manhefang
       Traditional jewelry is still popular in Banna because the Dai people, though not immune to modern influences, have retained a strong sense of tradition.  They often prefer using split-bamboo baskets and containers and ceramic pots over substitutes in the market just because they are traditional.  In recent years some villages that have kept their traditional stilted houses have applied for recognition as a “culture village.” 
       One of these, Manhefeng, south of Jinghong near the prefecture museum, invented a new handicraft—the making of rubber seed necklaces to sell to tourists.  The village didn’t have enough land to turn over to rubber plantations and so the people never benefited enough from their small rubber patch to afford new houses.  But with the prefecture government promoting all things traditional, Manhefeng saw a chance to turn their small rubber production into a new income.   
       Because of its traditional architecture and its location near the museum, Manhefang became a regular tourist stop.  A couple of silver workshops are on the itinerary, along with stalls selling Dai clothing, but the main souvenir item is the rubber seed necklace.  Villagers use on an old-fashioned wooden punching device to make holes in the seeds.  Business has been good since Manhefang became a “culture village” and its residents have monetary incentive to keep their tradition.  One can only hope that other Dai villages, not yet wealthy enough to have the option to discard their traditions for a modern look and lifestyle, will be inspired to do something similar.

Dai-style silver sarong belt with pendants
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