Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Ethnic Territory—the Honghe Borderlands

                                    by Jim Goodman

Flowery Miao stall in Mengla
       Yunnan can boast of a great range of scenic wonders, but its unique ethnic diversity inspired my own extensive exploration.  The province is home to 24 ethnic minorities, comprising one-third of the population and occupying two-thirds of the land.  Some of then consist of two dozen or more separate sub-groups, with their own distinctive clothing and customs.  An aspiring ethnologist in Yunnan could never run out of places to go, people to meet and cultures to record.
       The fact that many of the ethnic minorities live in areas of great natural beauty was just a bonus.  The appreciation of scenery depends on weather conditions, with sunny skies critically important; not so when the focus is on ethnic minority encounters.  One can have a memorable time among them even when clouds obscure the mountains, fog envelops the valleys and sunlight fails to illuminate the landscape.  This is especially true where ethnic traditions remain strong and the women still dress in their traditional clothing.
Hai  with shoulder board, Jinshuihe
Sha Yao in the Jinshuihe market 
       The greatest ethnic variety is in Honghe, a Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture.  Yi sub-groups are present all over the prefecture, while numerous Hani sub-groups mainly reside in the southern counties.  Honghe’s minorities also include different kinds of Miao, Yao, Dai, Zhuang and Lahu.  Together they dominate the mountainous counties south of the Red River—Honghe, Luchun, Yuanyang and Jinping.  Here the Han are the minority, basically restricted to urban centers, along with some Hui.
       Of the southern counties, Jinping is a Miao, Yao and Dai Autonomous County.  Together they outnumber the Hani and Yi, though Jinping has plenty of Hani and Yi villages as well.  On market day in Jinping city the local Hani are as numerous as the Yao.  The women wear loose, side-fastened dark jackets over trousers and coil their hair on their heads in a braid that is lengthened by the addition of black woolen yarn.  They also show up at market day in Adebo, north of Jinping, but rarely at markets south of Jinping,
Flowery Miao girl in Jinshuihe
White Miao girl, Jinshuihe
       Market days in the county are fixed according to the 12-day animal cycle, held every sic days.  Ethnic minorities form the overwhelming majority of participants and so to observe, photograph and meet them the easiest program is to follow the market day schedule.  Having witnessed the action in Jinping, which holds it on horse and rat days, the next day, sheep or ox day, the venue was Jinshuihe, 25 km south of Jinping.   Mengla holds it the following days—monkey and tiger days.  Next, on rabbit and chicken days, it is the turn of Sanguocun, about halfway between Mengla and Zhemi, while the latter stages it dragon and dog days.
Guozuo Hani in the Mengla market
Dai Lu young women in Mengla
       Jinshuihe, which local people more often refer to as Nafa, is a small border town of basically two long streets.  Tropical shade trees—banyans and royal palms—line the upper street, which starts at a riverbank and ends by meeting the lower street at a roundabout with lotus-shaped street lamps.  A street branches here to the bridge on the Laomeng River and the international boundary.  Only a border post stands on the Vietnamese side, backed by hills, with villages barely visible in the distance.
bathing pool at the Xinmeng hot springs
       Not much cross-border trade happens here, so Jinshuihe is ordinarily a sleepy and boring town.  But on market days the lower street and the plaza at the western end fill with stalls and ethnic minorities from the district and even from Vietnam.  When I witnessed it, Yao, Miao and Hani sub-groups made up the bulk of those in attendance, most of them women and all the females, young and old, dressed in traditional attire.
       Among the Yao, some were from the Hongtou (Red Head) Yao prominent in Jingping, selling cloth as they did the day before in jinping’s market day.  Their name comes from the pointed red cap married women wear. They also wear long-tailed coats and shin-length trousers that they heavily embroider with cross-stitched patterns.   A few others were Landian Yao, who dress mainly in plain black, with a skein of magenta woolen thread suspended vertically along the front of the jacket.
Guozuo Hani  village above Xinmeng
The largest contingent was the Sha Yao sub-group, who live in villages in the hills between Jinping and Jinshuihe and over the border in Vietnam.  Their women wear black jackets and trousers and a skein of pink woolen thread down the front, but also long white aprons and a bulky cap with a bill and pink trimming.  Silver neck rings and arrow earrings, like those of the other Yao, were the most popular ornaments.  Unlike the Miao and Hani, who often wandered the market alone, the Sha Yao walked around in groups of four to eight. 
       Two Miao sub-groups turned up.  Flowery Miao women dressed in bulky, pleated, indigo-dyed skirts, the lower half covered in bright red or orange embroidery and appliqué and V-neck black jackets.  The White Miao wore nothing white, but long black coats and black trousers.  The coat lapels were heavily embroidered, as were their caps.  Besides the vegetable displays, the Miao took most interest in stalls selling thread and Miao clothing components.  Miao men also wore their traditional black jackets and blue trousers
Hani woman spinning thread in Sanguocun
Laowo  Yi woman in Sanguocun
       A few Hani from Jinping came down to run stalls, but most were from the Guozuo sub-group prominent around Jinshuihe and Mengla.  The women and girls wore long blue-black coats, fastened on the right side, shin-length trousers and leg wrappers.  Patches of embroidery and silver studs decorated the jacket along the lapel and above the left breast.  The headgear consisted of three red rattan strips across the front, pink tassels dangling on each side, colored cloth strips across the top and a black flap over the back, festooned with buttons or silver threads.  Many of them carried pack-baskets attached to a wooden shoulder board to more evenly distribute the weight.
Hani women in Sanguocun
       The crowds began dissipating after one p.m. and I headed west for Mengla, a much larger town of mainly White Dai, on the north side of the Laomeng River, in a broad plain with several Dai villages around it.  Market day began early next morning, attended by Hongtou and Sha Yao, White and Flowery Miao, Guozuo Hani and a few down for the day from Jinping and, of course, the Dai.
       Most of the latter around Mengla are White Dai and animist.  Their women wear plain black sarongs and long-sleeved blouses, in dark colors for the older women and bright ones for the younger, with twin rows of silver clasps down the front.  They live in villages of stilted wood and bamboo houses with thatched roofs with one area reserved for their simple ancestral altars.
Landian Yao woman, Saguocun
Kucong woman in the Zhemi market
       They are not the only Dai in the area, though, for a few km across the river, around the hot springs near Xinmeng, lie a few villages of Dai Lu, immigrants from Xishuangbanna.  They live in the same kind of houses, though many had been replaced by concrete modern structures when I visited, and are Buddhist.  Young Dai Lu girls in matching blouses and sarongs, in bright colors, wearing flower wreaths in their hair, stood out as an extra, unexpected attraction of Mengla’s market day. 
Kucong village near Zhei
       Following the market activity I opted for a night at the hot springs in a ramshackle guesthouse, close to the main bathing pool.  “Come here in mid-afternoon,” the proprietor told me, ‘and you’ll see women bathing without any tops.’  The pool measures about 60 m circumference, surrounded by concrete walkways.  The hot spring sits just above it, enclosed by a stone wall, its water bubbling over it into the meter-deep pool, rendering the water comfortably warm, never too hot.
       It began filling up with bathers right on schedule and yes, many females bathed topless—those over 60 and under 6.  This was the most popular pool, though other smaller ones existed in the vicinity, as well as brick bathhouses.  The main Dai village lay a short walk away from the biggest pool and a trail from there ascended into the hills, passing water-filled terraces, to reach the Guozuo Hani village of Tawmazhai.  Stilted houses of wood and bamboo prevailed, very similar to those of the Dai in the plains and very unlike the ‘mushroom houses’ of the Hani in Yuanyang County, though their dialect, lifestyle, customs and festival schedule were the same.
       Early next morning I caught a minibus headed west for Zhemi, which would hold its market the following day.  About halfway there, at a village called Sanguo, the vehicle had to stop for a couple hours to offload a passenger’s merchandise, probably for what turned out to be market day in Sanguo.  I found this scene just as colorful as other county market days.  The Yao here were of the black-clad Landian sub-group and the Flowery Miao of the same branch I saw in Mengla.  They differed from those in Nafa by their side-fastened black jackets with wide rows of embroidered strips along the lapel and around the upper arms and neck, plus the plain black tubular turbans.
White Dai village near Zhemi
Alu Yi girl in Zhemi
       The Hani were of a different sub-group.  The women wore a shorter, side-fastened, indigo-dyed cotton jacket over plain trousers and leg warmers, with two Yao-style silver buckles.  The lapel was lined with colored strips and coin-pendants and most women also sewed a large silver French colonial piaster over the left breast.  Many Hani women spun thread while they roamed the market or ran stalls.  Hani houses on the edge of the village had dyed yarn hanging out to dry in their yards.
       The Laowo branch of the Yi were also present.  Their women wore long black coats trimmed with colored strips and a big black turban embellished with very large colored pompoms on either side.  This sub-group also lives in Laomeng district to the northwest, where they dress in brighter colors.
Shangpinghe Yao village
       As a town, my next stop Zhemi, was not very pretty, for all the buildings were newly made concrete structures.  But the area was attractive, surrounded by hills and old-fashioned White Dai villages nearby.  Zhemi is a Lahu Autonomous District, for the main community here is the Kucong branch of the Lahu.  Looking south from a hill above Zhemi I could spot Kucong villages, lying in cleared areas of forested knolls, about 40-50 houses per settlement, single story, mud-brick, with corrugated iron roofs.  Houses lined up almost like military barracks, in neat rows, spaced evenly apart.
       Though they are the most numerous ethnic minority in the district, they were the smallest group coming for market day.  The women wore long black, shin-length, right side-fastened coats, usually with multi-colored striped sleeves, over plain trousers and a tight cap liberally festooned with colored pompoms.  The outfit closely resembled that worn by Lahu women over the border in Mường Tè, Vietnam though very different from that of the Kucong in Xishuangbanna or Laos.
       Others in town for the affair included local White Dai, the Alu Yi from the mountains northeast, the Goho Hani, the same sub-group living around Huangcaoling, directly north in Yuanyang County, and the Landian Yao.  The Alu, running layouts selling vegetables jungle herbs and edible insects, were quite shy, as they were in Laojizhai, their main concentration.  The Hani, managing cloth stalls and selling bundles of split bamboo and palm fiber, were more ready to engage with the stranger and seemed to be the most self-assured people in the market.  In the end, it was another memorably colorful day in an otherwise nondescript town.
sunrise near Pinghe
      The last stop on my borderlands run was Pinghe about 25 km west, inside Luchun County.  The road follows the river alongside Zhemi until it crosses the county boundary and veers into the mountains.  The small town of Pinghe lies on the western end of a long ridge, not very attractive itself and offering only the most basic accommodations.  The original Hani village is adjacent to its northeast side and the women wear the same outfits as the Hani in Zhemi or Huangcaoling.  The immediate area, and especially the mountains to the north, features the spectacular ancient irrigated terraces sculpted all along the sides of the mountain slopes, equally impressive as the area around Panzihua in Yuanyang County that was recently declared a World Heritage Site.
       Above a picturesque set of terraces 4 km west is the Landian Yao village of Shangpinghe.  Unlike the simpler mud-brick, thatched homes of the Landian Yao elsewhere, the homes here were sturdy, two story hillside buildings with flat roofs.  Male and female Yao were both dressed in traditional style when I visited and as they rarely saw foreigners, if ever, they proved to be quite hospitable and cooperative.  Invited for a meal, I sat with the household head, while the others ate separately, the usual Yao custom.  They were easy to photograph, even volunteered to pose, and the day is still lodged in my memory as another typically interesting and congenial adventure in the borderlands of Honghe Prefecture.
Landian Yao men at Shangpinghe
                                                                              * * *                     
Jinping is a major stop; on Delta Tours Vietnam’s cultural-historical tour of Yunnan’s Honghe Prefecture.  See the itinerary at      



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