Saturday, October 28, 2017

Limi Yi Discoveries in Wumulong

                                             by Jim Goodman

Limi Yi girls in Wumulong on market day
     Numbering over five million, the Yi minority nationality is the largest in Yunnan.  They are not a homogenous ethnic group, however, for the designation of Yi includes 25 distinct sub-groups in Yunnan alone, speaking five different related, but not mutually intelligible dialects.  Travelers become familiar with some Yi groups when visiting popular destinations around the province, like the Sani of the Stone Forest area, the Nisu of Yuanyang County, the Tuli around Dali and the Nuosu of the northwest.  Yet autonomous Yi districts, where the Yi constitute the majority of the population, exist in almost every prefecture. 
       Several of these are in Lincang Prefecture, south of Dali and one of the least explored parts of the province.  I was traveling in Lincang around Lunar New Year one time, in company with my friend and fellow veteran Yunnan explorer Ludwig Brinckmann, when we unintentionally wound up in Wumulong, a Yi Autonomous District.   We’d been in Junzhai, on the Nanding River near Mengding, for the New Year festivities and intended to proceed upriver to Daxueshan, mainly because neither of us had ever been there. 
young Limi Yi woman
Limi mother and baby
       That mountain rose to 3504 meters just northwest of Daxueshan township.  According to the map the district was an autonomous Yi, Lahu and Dai one.  So there might be some traditional clothing photo-ops, though we had been only moderately successful in that respect in Junzhai.
Limi Yi women taking a rest in the market
       We were lucky to be able to depart Junzhai the day after New Year, for transportation is irregular for the holiday period.  But local folks claimed the road to Daxueshan was bad and we couldn’t even hire anyone to take us there.  However, a truck offered a lift to Yongkang, so we took that, intending to find a bus from there next day.  The journey afforded us lots of scenic views of terraced hills, flame trees in full bloom and De’ang mountain villages scattered across the slopes. 
       Yongkang itself was a boring town, its only attraction a magnificent old banyan tree in a special park in the northern part of town.  No bus went directly to Daxueshan though, so early next morning we got tickets to Wumulong instead, hoping to find a minibus or something to Daxueshan from that town.
young Limi girl
impromptu gourd-pipe duet
       The ride took three hours, passing flowering bushes on either side of the road as we left town, going northeast to Yalian, at 1400 meters altitude.  From there the bus turned east, climbing into the mountains to 2200 meters and passing steep hillside terraces.  Then it gradually descended to Wumulong, at 1900 meters.  By chance, it was market day when we arrived, held every chicken and rabbit days, according to the 12-day animal cycle.  The streets were already crowded with black-clad Yi people, and we opted to forego Daxueshan and stay here a couple nights.
Limi woman's black headdress
        These folks in black belonged to the Limi branch of the Yi, a small group numbering around 26,000, about 20,000 living in Wumulong district, the rest in Yalian and Daxueshan.  As usual on market days, women dominated the crowds, and virtually all females of all ages dressed in their traditional outfits.  What photographer, or even just ordinary curious traveler, could ask for more?
       The basic woman’s outfit comprised a thick-brimmed turban or headdress with the back end falling to the shoulders, a long black coat with its tail tucked up in the back of the waist, a black apron and black trousers.  The only part standing out for its color was the thin cloth belt around the waist.  But only among the oldest women was the ensemble completely black.  Middle-aged women stitched blue trimming onto the lapels of the coat and around the trouser cuffs.  Some also attached bright strings or other small ornamentation just above the brims of their headdresses.
Limi girl's checkered headdress
teenaged Limi Yi girls
       The younger the female, the more color embellishment the outfit featured.  Some of the unmarried youth wore no headdresses and festooned their collars and sleeves with strips of very colorful embroidery and lots of sequins.  Others embroidered colored lines on the lower front half of the apron and the wide cuffs of their jacket sleeves, as well as the lower back part of the jacket.
       While the teenagers tended to wear no head covering, many of the pre-pubescent girls wore headdresses as fulsome as those of their mothers, but instead of plain black, they were checkered black and white.  The even younger girls wore long black coats with lots of color trimming and embroidery.  They also wore caps, like those of the babies still carried by their mothers, only partially black, with colored appliqué patches all around and some silver half-globes stitched onto the front.
tree on the edge of Wumulong
       According to Limi Yi history, the black clothing originated over a thousand years ago, when they lived further north and escaped a wicked overlord.  Their tale of this does not mention whether they wore brighter, more colorful clothes before that, but the black clothing they date to this event.  Perhaps it was to conceal them better in the dark when they fled.
       We didn’t spot anything that might have been a traditional Limi Yi men’s outfit.  The overall percentage of male attendance at market day was anyway small and both Han and Yi men dressed in ordinary modern clothes.  Occasionally we could distinguish which men were Yi by overhearing them speak to each other in what was recognizably not Chinese.
       That’s true elsewhere in Yunnan.  Even in places where the women remain strongly attached to the traditional look, the men have abandoned it.  They have always been more connected to the outside world, where they are more conscious of being part of a minority group, and more inclined to avoid ethnic identification (and possible discrimination) by appearing to be part of the anonymous modern masses.
winter flowers at Wumulong
      On the other hand, they can be extremely conservative and tradition-minded in all other aspects of life.  They follow all the domestic customs and those involving relationships with both kin and non-kin.  Their ritual specialists know all the ancient rites, even though while performing them they dress in their daily apparel, with nothing particularly identifiable as Yi.
      Yi women, like other minority nationality women in Yunnan, spend most of their time at home or in the immediate village environment.  Their traditional culture orders their lives far more than those of the men.  They are also less likely to be conversant in Chinese and whatever disparaging remarks might be made about them by Han Chinese when in the towns will pass right past them without their comprehension.
       Another characteristic of traditional minority women is to generally travel outside their environment in small groups.  They may hike out to their fields and back alone, but to venture into a venue like market day in the nearest town, they prefer to have companions.  Occasionally it might just be one friend, but usually it’s a group of four to six.  Individuals might wander off from the group to examine something at a stall, but will rejoin them afterward.
elderly Limi woman with her pipe
       Such was the scene we witnessed at Wumulong.  Groups of women, or even young girls, roamed through the market together, stopped at stalls together, took breaks together and departed at the end of the day together.  Some of the groups were all of the same approximate age, but others were mixed, like two or three families, mothers with their children, that might include teenaged girls.
       Wumulong is basically one long street, part of the main highway, where lies the business district of shops, restaurants and hotels.  The residential neighborhoods are along the side streets that lead out to the fields.  For market day, some merchants set up stalls or street layouts on the main road from the center of town to the eastern end.  Most, however, were in the spacious market square near the eastern entrance to the urban zone.
       Mountains rose just behind the market area to provide a scenic backdrop.  Most of the stalls were lined up in rows in the center, but others set up around the edges.  They sold clothing hung on racks, shoes laid out on tarps, grain in bags, vegetables and other farm produce in bins or baskets.  Other stalls sold tobacco and water-pipes for smoking it, farm tools, hot noodle dishes and cold popsicles for the children.
       There were many cloth merchants, with both plain black cotton cloth on offer, as well as colored silks.  These seemed to draw some attention from the Yi, as did the shoe racks, to a lesser extent.  One shop sold gourd-pipes, which we noticed just as two Yi customers were trying then out with a little Impromptu duet that drew a quick crowd of listeners.
Limi woman making clothing
Limi village near Wumulong
       The activity began dying down by 4 p.m., so we strolled past the market square to the edge of town.  Flame trees were full of bright red flowers at this time of year and a few stood in Wumulong.  On the path beyond the market square were bushes with flowers just as bright as the flame trees.  Trees here divided from their trunks into several thick branches just above the ground.  With the mountains visible just beyond, it was a fitting climax to a lovely day, especially since it was so unexpected.
       Yalian staged market day the following day, so we returned there early next morning.  It was a beautiful drive, passing over the mountains with early sunshine bathing the villages on the slopes.  But market day was disappointing, with only very ordinary stalls and few Limi Yi in attendance.  We returned to Wumulong around noon and wandered out to a Yi village a few km from town.
village women embroidering together
       Nearly surrounded by a patch of forest, the village had houses of mud-brick, usually with gray with tiled roofs, a few with a roof of corrugated iron.  We also spotted some satellite dishes, which seemed pretty incongruous for an otherwise typical old-fashioned village.  The very first people we saw, from the knoll on the way to the entrance, were a pair of women in a yard behind a house.  One was seated on a stool embroidering cloth, while the other was weaving cloth.
       Weaving is a common winter activity, done outdoors on a simple loom of wood and bamboo that can be dismantled and taken inside if the weather turns bad.  It has two overhead heddles that separate every other thread and are connected to two treadles, operated by the feet.  The Yi woman we witnessed sat on a bench at the back of the loom and wove a strip of plain white cotton cloth about 25 cm wide. 
       It resembled the Akha loom in Thailand I am quite familiar with, except that the Akha weave standing up.  After a short conversation with these two women about the loom and their work, we wandered off to another courtyard, where several women were sitting together busy with their needlework.  We chatted quite easily with them, too, while they stitched appliqué patterns onto black cloth or embroidered sleeve cuffs and apron borders.
       Soon one of the men came to invite us inside his home to share a small bottle of maize liquor.  We sat beside the fireplace near the ancestral altar on a wooden plank mounted on the wall just below the ceiling.  It was decorated with flowers and small pine boughs and held offerings of rice cakes and small cups of liquor.  A polite but lively conversation ensued ad we stayed until it was getting dark and left while still sober enough to negotiate the trail back to town.
weaver at her loom
Limi woman at Yalian
       The biggest event of the year for the Limi Yi is Sangzhaoli, staged about 10 km from Wumulong.  The festival originated with their relocation to this area.  At that time two young men made some unspecified ‘great contributions to building up the town.’  The headman then invited them to choose the best Limi girls for their wives.  All the young women bathed in a nearby hot spring and dressed up for the event, which is what Sangzhaoli has commemorated annually ever since.
       Festival day begins with bathing in the hot spring and then dressing in t heir finest traditional apparel and jewelry.  Besides the display of ethnic fashions, the festival includes lots of dance performances on or in front of a wooden stage and contests among the men playing the gourd-pipe and shooting crossbows.  The evening is devoted to romance, with married couples this night permitted to date their former boyfriends or girlfriends.
       With its shows and its crowds of traditionally-garbed attendants, Songzhaoli is the most spectacular time to visit the Limi Yi.  Yet traditional ways are firmly embedded in everyday Limi life and not confined to one splendid annual festival.  That tradition also includes warm hospitality to guests, especially strangers, with the intent to leave a good impression of the hosts.  Consequently, anytime of year is a great time to visit the Limi Yi.
Limi Yi women in Wumulong
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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mai Châu to Lai Châu: Through the Thái Lands of Vietnam

                                                               by Jim Goodman

Black Thái woman in Sơn La
       From 1999-2002 I made three trips to Vietnam, focusing on the people and places of the northern border areas.  I had already been researching the minorities of southern Honghe Prefecture, just across the border in Yunnan, China and many of them lived on the Vietnam side.  These included the Thái, who were animist like their counterparts in the various Dai sub-groups in Honghe.  As I had been living in Thailand for twelve years before my first Vietnam excursion, the Thái in Vietnam were naturally of more than marginal interest for me.
       With over 1.5 million, the Thái are the third largest ethnic group in the country, behind the Kình (Vietnamese) and the Tày.  They inhabit the plains and river valleys of the provinces along the Lao border, from Ngh An to the northwest corner of Lai Châu.  Most travelers encounter them by taking the route throughout northwest Vietnam, beginning in Mai Châu in Hòa Bình Province, then west to Sơn La and Đin Bin Ph, north to Lai Châu and then east to Sapa. 
Thái house in Mai Châu district
White Thái woman
       Mai Châu, 160 km southwest of Hanoi, was already built up as a tourist attraction by then, featuring home stays with local villagers.  The town lies in a secluded, flat valley surrounded by high hills.  It is the administrative center for the district’s Thai and Hmông villages but back then was scarcely more than an urbanized village, with a school, a few government buildings, some three-story shop houses in the Hanoi urban style and a single hotel, usually empty.
weaver at her loom in Lác village
       Travelers don’t stay here, but continue to nearby Lác village.  A friend in Hanoi gave me the name of a family in Lác to stay with, which turned out to save me a lot of probable trouble trying to choose a house on my own.  Lác was well geared to the tourist trade and every house was a shop and guesthouse.  Woven textiles and sundry other items were on display in front of every house, along with cold drinks stands. 
       The hostess recommended to me was quite gracious and friendly, fed me well and conversed with me about Thailand and Vietnam.  She made no effort to press me to buy something, but as soon as I was outside I was confronted with the sheer commercialization of the village.   Prices for drinks were quite high, too, though because the village had many active weavers, operating looms under their stilted houses, at least some of the textiles on sale were locally produced.
the central pond in Sơn La
       Lác villagers, and those of the other settlements in the valley, are the White Thái sub-group.  They live in stilted houses of wood and bamboo, with thatched roofs.   Inside, the walled-off kitchen is at the far end.  The host family provides a mattress and mosquito net for the guest and when there are more than one, family members may sleep in the kitchen.
       The autumn harvest was completed by the time of my visit.  I hiked to the other nearby Thái villages, but though they were not yet full of handicraft sales displays like Lác, there was little field activity and after just two nights I departed Lác for Sơn La, another 165 km west.  It was a pleasant ride through rolling hills swathed in thick forests, interspersed by settlements of stilted houses, backed by jagged limestone peaks that got craggier closer to Sơn La. 
reconstructed watchtower at Sơn La prison
       The city was not very big, consisting of three main streets radiating from a pond in the center of town, two commercial and one residential.  A small hill stands within the city limits, with a broadcasting tower, illuminated at night, on its crest.  In front of it stands the ruins of the former French prison, Sơn La’s chief tourist attraction.
       Sơn La was an active theater of resistance to French rule and the prison was used to incarcerate anyone even suspected of political activities.  Famous Việt Minh cadres Trương Chinh and Lê Duan spent time here.  The French themselves bombed the prison in 1952 and Việt Minh troops further ravaged it when they took control of the city.  Now it’s the city museum, with its original entrance intact and parts, like the watchtower and kitchen, reconstructed.  The rest is heavily damaged, but in the display room behind the kitchen is a scale model of the original, where one can see just how small the cells were and where the punishment dungeons lay.
Sơn La Prison gate
Black Thái woman on her way to the Sơn La market
       The site also includes an ethnic museum devoted to the province’s minorities.  The Black Thái dominate the province, but there are also villages of the Mường, Tày and Hòa (Chinese) in the city’s vicinity.  The hills are home to Hmôing, Dao, Si La and Khơ Mú, while elsewhere lie villages of the small minorities Xinh Mun, Kháng and La Ha.  The latter three, and to a great extent the Khơ Mú, dress and live like the Black Thái. 
harvesting rice near Sơn La
       Black Thái women still prefer their traditional clothing. The outfit comprises a long-sleeved pastel-colored blouse, fastened by rows of silver, butterfly-shaped clasps down the front, over a black silk sarong, with a simple cloth belt around the waist.  They wrap their hair in a bun and cover it with a highly embroidered scarf, which dangles over the neck.  The ensemble is almost like an ethnic uniform, but individuality is in the headscarf designs, no two of which are the same.  No distinction in dress exists for marital status or age.
Thái women in the 1920s
       Old photos show no basic change in the outfit for at least a century.  But there are variations.  For weddings the bride dons a long black cloak with colored vertical panels in the front.  For funerals they wear an extra jacket, usually a bright maroon red color embellished with lots of embroidery and appliqué, presenting a far more colorful ensemble than on ordinary days (or even weddings).  The Thái believe that death is not just a termination of life in this world, but also a transition to the next life.  So people mourn the passing of the deceased, but also celebrate the soul’s rebirth. 
       Vietnam’s Thái are animist and besides venerating their own pantheon of spirit-deities they also pay particular attention to the care of the individual soul.  Several rituals are designed to repair a damaged soul, call it back from wandering, insure its health, etc. Some may involve the participation of a female shaman.  She will dress in the standard outfit of blouse and sarong, but with two additions: a special four-cornered hat and a wide belt, appliquéd with little arabesques and fringed with triangular cloth pendants.
Black Thại woman at her stall in Sơn La
White Hmông woman, Điện Biện Phủ 
       The Black Thái began migrating into the area from southern China from the 9th century, continuing to settle around Sơn La throughout the first centuries of Vietnamese independence.  The Vietnamese did not directly administer the province and did not officially annex the northwest until 1337.  They then assigned it as a fief to the White Thái Đèo family in Mường Lay.  They were not very loyal vassals, however, and supported the Chinese invasion and occupation of northern Vietnam from 1408.  But when Lê Lợi drove out the Chinese and established a new Lê Dynasty in 1428, the Thái were more autonomous than the new emperor found acceptable.  So he campaigned for two years against them, until their submission in 1432.  
Black Thái houses near Điện Biện Phủ 
       Today Vietnamese form the majority in Sơn La city, but many Thái have also taken up residence there, running market stalls, restaurants and other businesses.  Their villages are a short walk from town and their women frequent the city markets.  They carry their goods in trays or baskets suspended from each end of a balance pole.
       Men leave the market activities to the women, but women also take part in house construction, though only the men do any required climbing.  In fieldwork, women do the weeding, but at planting and harvest time there is no real division of labor.  It was harvest time during my visit and both sexes did the same work of reaping and threshing and women as well as men handled the buffaloes that drove the plows over the newly cleared plots.
White Thái village near Mường Tè
       The only morning bus to Điện Biện Phủ left Sưn La at 4 a.m.  We were still in pre-dawn darkness when we approached the first town Thuận Châu, yet already many Black Thái women were walking single-file along the road, carrying their shoulder poles with baskets at either end, heading for the Thuận Châu market.  Seems to be an early riser culture, at least in the rural areas.
       Continuing past Thuận Châu the road rises gradually into a rather barren, Hmông-inhabited area to the Pha Đin Pass, which also marks the boundary between Sơn La and Điện Biện provinces.  We arrived here just after sunrise and on the descent into the Tuần Giáo valley I could see the Thái were already busy harvesting rice in their fields.  From Tuần Giáo southwest to Điện Biện Phủ is Black Thái territory, though the city itself, famous as the place the Việt Minh inflicted a crushing defeat on the French Army in 1954, is mostly Vietnamese-inhabited.
White Thại village along the Black River near Mường Tè
       Smaller than Sơn La, it is a major tourist attraction for Vietnamese more than for foreigners, with war relics scattered throughout the vicinity and an informative museum next to the cemetery.  The town market attracts two branches of the Hmông from the hills and Black Thái from nearby villages.  The Black Thái also dominate the valley north of Điện Biện Phủ, but then the road climbs into the hills, passing settlements of the Red Hmông, until descending to Mường Lay and the border of Lai Châu province. Formerly known as Lai Châu city, a branch road here leads northwest to Mường Tè district, home to White Thái in the valleys, La Hù, Hà Nhì and small minorities like the Cộng, Mảng and Si La in the hills.
       Near the junction is the ruined palace of the last autonomous ruler of the area—Đèo Văn Long.  Following Lê Lợi’s campaign the Đèo family still remained in power and Vietnamese authority in the Thái areas was tenuous at best.  In the 16th century White and Black Thái chieftains formed a loosed confederation called Sipsong Chutai, after the twelve (Sipsong) mường (Chutai) of its members.  From then on, northwest history is the struggle for power between the Đèo of Mường Lay and Black Thái chieftains to the south. 
White Thái house near Mường Lay
       In the late 19th century the Đèo family led forces to expel a renegade Chinese army from Sơn La and won the support of Black Thái chieftains.  Initially, Đèo Văn Trị led the resistance to the French forces, but was forced to surrender n 1890.  Afterwards the French appointed his family as governors of Sipsong Chutai.  The last of them, Đèo Văn Long, appointed 1940, was a notorious despot who worked closely with the French to insure the supply of opium.  He backed the French against the Việt Minh until forced to flee the country in 1953.
       The road past the Đèo mansion to Mường Tè is one of the least maintained in the northwest.  Because of the security restrictions, limiting a traveler’s exploration, and the fact the route doesn't continue to another destination, foreigners skip it.  I went there to meet the Hà Nhì, whom I’d been researching in Yunnan.  I met them in the town, but was not allowed to hike up to their villages in the hills.  Instead, I wound up spending much of my time in the large traditional White Thái village next to the town.
Thái water-wheel on the Black RIver
       It was more authentic than Lác, since there was no tourist trade to cater to, and all houses were traditional ones on stilts, with baskets of split bamboo stacked on the open-air balconies.  They had water-wheels in the river to convey water to their fields and an animist shrine at the edge of the village.  People were friendly and hospitable, if a little surprised by a foreigner there.
       After a few days I returned to Mường Lay and later proceeded to Phong Thổ for its Sunday market day. Both are White Thái areas, though the markets are more dominated by sub-groups of Hmông and Dao.  Lai Châu/Mường Lay was set up as the French colonial headquarters for the northwest and was later heavily damaged during the 1979 war with China.  A White Thái village lay beside the town, with water-wheels in the river and typical stilted houses on the banks. 
        With the construction of the Sơn La dam on the Black River, 50 km north of  Sơn La city, which opened in 2012, the village and most of the town were submerged.  No doubt the villagers relocated in a similar environment and carried on as before.  Vietnam’s Thái are a very conservative people. Ancient traditions still govern their lives, for these have always served them well in the past and people expect them to continue to do so far into the future.   
White Thái women carrying firewood home to Mường Tè

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