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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