Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Yi Torch Festival—Urban Celebrations

                                     by Jim Goodman

Yi from Fuheng district in Yangbi for the festival
       The summertime Torch Festival is the best-known annual event in the Yi people’s calendar.  With 11% of the population, the Yi are the largest minority nationality in Yunnan, with about 25 sub-groups and five dialects, living all over the province except the southwest borderlands.  Not all the sub-groups celebrate it, and the Bai and Naxi have a Torch Festival of their own, but most visitors think of it as a Yi festival, partly because of the massive publicity given to the extravagant celebrations of it in the Stone Forest.
       Several origin stories exist, but the one most common to Yi in central and western Yunnan attributes it to a hero’s successful defense against the wrath of a jealous god.  Accordingly, once upon an ancient time lived a famous Yi wrestler named Eqilaba, with a reputation for being invincible.  A jealous god in Heaven, determined to undermine his fame, dispatched a champion of his own to challenge Eqilaba.  The challenger lost his life in the attempt.
bridge in Longjiang Park, Chuxiong
       Furious, the god sent a swarm of insects to attack the Yi people’s crops.  Eqilaba organized the people and ordered them to light torches to drive away the insects.  It worked.  The people repelled the attack.  And ever since then, on the 24th day of the 6th lunar month, the Yi stage the Torch Festival to commemorate their victory.  Village or city programs may include wrestling matches, bull fights and horse races to enliven the day, and then conclude in the evening by lighting torches and dancing around a bonfire.
       I witnessed the Torch Festival of the Nuosu Yi in Ninglang city in the northwest on my first trip to Yunnan in 1992.   The following summer I attended a multi-village celebration of it in the mountains northeast of the city.  Some years later, when my research took me to other parts of Yunnan, I tried to see it with the Huayao Yi in Shiping County.  But just when all the participants, dressed in their finest, turned up at the venue it began to rain heavily and didn’t stop until morning.    
dinosaur display, Chuxiong Museum
       That was unlucky, but not unusual.  The 6th lunar month is in the middle of the rainy season.  A few years later I scheduled another attempt, this time near Damedi, in Shuangbai County in Chuxiong Prefecture.  But a landslide had just recently cut off the village.  So I opted to take the earliest minibus to Chuxiong city and try to see it there.  Chuxiong is a Yi Minority Nationality Autonomous Prefecture, which means the folks in charge of the government are Yi.  They would be sure to sponsor something.  And the closer I got to the city the more the skies cleared, though they remained dark to the south.
the stage at the Yi nationality theme park in Chuxiong
       Chuxiong was never a popular tourist destination.  Most travelers in the 90s only knew it from a lunch break stop on the bus route from Kunming to Dali.  And by the end of the decade buses used the new highway and didn’t even stop in the city.  The city had little of interest; a couple nice parks, a single Buddhist temple, and a plethora of new, unimaginative, concrete buildings.  A statue of Miyilu, the heroine of the Yi Flower Festival in spring, was the only visible Yi motif in this capital of a Yi Autonomous Prefecture.
       By 2000 that had changed.  The city now had a new prefectural museum, one of the finest in the province, much of it—four floors in the central part of the complex--devoted to various aspects of local culture, predominantly Yi.  The ground floor displays all the items used in traditional daily life—tools and implements, baskets and containers, hunting and fishing gear and musical instruments.  There are also house models of the Yi and Chuxiong’s other minorities the Miao, Lisu and Dai.
selling Yi guitars in Longjiang Park
Yi bimaws in ceremonial clothes
       The second floor exhibits over fifty traditional clothing outfits, mostly women’s, from the prefecture’s Yi sub-groups, other parts of Yunnan and sub-groups from Guizhou and Sichuan.  The exhibit includes spinners, winders, looms and accessories like jewelry and embroidered shoulder bags.  The third floor features the books in the Yi alphabet used by the bimaw, or religious specialist, as well as grotesque wooden masks, painted gourds, lacquered bowls and other antiques.  The fourth floor contains books on Chuxiong and the Yi.
Yi women with torches ready to light
lighting their torches
       It is not just an ethnic museum, though.  Rooms around the center are devoted to other topics.  One features the prefecture’s fauna, its reptiles, amphibians, birds, insects and mammals and another the extinct creatures of the past, such as the dinosaur skeletons found in Lufeng County and the remains of ancient man.  There’s a calligraphy room, exhibiting elegant brushwork as well as thin pieces of wood shaped into Chinese characters.  Another hall features ceramic and bronze artifacts from the Zhou Dynasty, with paintings beside them that show how they were used.
Yi singing group performing in Chuxiong
       The other major change in the city was the recently completed construction of an elaborate park northwest of the city on the other side of the Longchuan River.  With the wordy name of The Park of the Ten Month Calendar Culture of the Yi Nationality in China, this was the new venue for the Torch Festival.  Previously, the celebrations were held in the roundabout with the Miyilu statue.  But this was now covered by an overpass complex and the statue removed. 
       The park’s name refers to the pre-modern Yi calendar that divided the year into ten, 36-day months.  The month contained three ‘weeks’ of twelve days, each named after an animal in the Yi zodiac.  The Chinese also have a twelve-day cycle with each day named after an animal, but the two zodiacs are slightly different; the Yi pangolin day being one example.  The Torch Festival back then was Yi New Year Day.
Yi dancers at the Torch Festival
      It seems everything in this park was intended to be big and impressive.  Enormous blocks of carved stone stand at the entrance, depicting dance scenes from the Yi Laofuzhuan (Dressing Up as Tigers) festival in Shuangbai County, flanked by a huge bronze drum replica.  Dominating the rear of the park is a tall, carved column, surrounded by smaller ones, on top of a monumental edifice of walls and stairs. 
       The city’s Han, who form at least 90% of the population, also enjoy the Torch Festival as a holiday of their own   On this day red lanterns and vertical banners decorated shops and offices.  Stages went up in Longjiang Park for performances by singers, jugglers and magicians, street vendors were everywhere and some Yi men set up stalls selling ‘moon guitars’, gourd-pipes and flutes.  Since the government-sponsored program would not begin until after dark, early arrivals from the Yi contingents in the prefecture, dressed in their finest traditional clothing and ornaments, wandered the urban streets and parks.
the festival bonfire at Chuxiong
       At sunset people began heading for the park.  The program was scheduled to start at 8 p.m. but got delayed until after 10, when the fireworks launched from tall buildings in the city center had already been illuminating the sky.  Then a group of Yi girls, in red jackets and turbans, climbed onto the stage in front of the columns and lit their torches.  They strode offstage to a central bundle of faggots in a big iron cauldron in the plaza as other Yi contingents followed them, including a few bimaws dressed in fancy ritual garments and miters.
       The bimaws seemed to be there just for show, for they didn’t actually do anything.  (In traditional village celebrations, aside from morning ancestral rites performed by the senior lady of the household, the Torch Festival never involved any ceremonies.  It was a secular event, full of games, songs and dances.)  The young women tossed their torches into the pile of faggots and soon a bonfire was blazing.
Yi visitors in the Yangbi park
       Performers still occupied the stage for a while—solo singers, duets, comedy skits and groups of traditional Yi singers and musicians.  Finally the stage action concluded and the Yi sub-group contingents in the square commenced ring dances around the fire.  The activity continued past one a.m., both here and in the city.
       Most Yi-inhabited areas hold the Torch Festival on the 24th day of the 6th lunar month.  The exception is Dali Bai Nationality Autonomous Prefecture, where the Yi follow the Bai custom of marking it on the 25th day.  This gave me the chance to see it again the day after the Chuxiong affair.  I left in the morning for Yangbi, 38 km from Xiaguan, the nearest Yi-administered county in Dali Prefecture.  Thanks to detours because of road repairs and construction of a new road from Xiaguan to Yangbi, it took most of the day to get there.
torches in a Yangbi street
Yangbi statue of Miyilu
       Yangbi is a much smaller city than Chuxiong, notable for its old bridge, traditional Hui quarter and indigenous-style mosque.  The rest of it is a rather run-down modern city with the only Yi symbol being its own Miyilu statue.  It is a Yi-run county, though, so its local government sponsored the celebrations, meaning sub-groups from all the county districts would be paid to come to the city for the event.
Nuosu Yi group in Yangbi
       Rather than the bundles of long wooden sticks of Chuxiong, the torches here were mostly structures of colored paper in several tiers, with pennants on each side, like the Bai torches, and stood at intervals in the streets.  Dark clouds were already filling the sky when I arrived, making the torches’ bright colors stand out.  By the time I got my hotel room night was beginning to fall and the procession to the central stadium was about to begin.
       Four different sub-groups participated, wearing distinctly different outfits.  The least colorful of them dressed mainly in black and white with sparse embellishment.  The men wore long-sleeved white shirts over dark pants and an open black vest.  The women wore the same shirts with sleeveless, knee-length black tunics trimmed in blue over black trousers, with a wide white belt.  Women of another sub-group wore knee-length, side-fastened tunics, blue on top and black on the bottom, with thick, multi-colored, appliquéd bands around the collar, hems and lower sleeves. 
       The female contingent from the western district of Fuheng wore brighter, flashier tunics and aprons, covered with appliquéd strips and embroidery.  Complementing this were their round black caps with a silver band along the bottom and colored pompoms sticking up from them.  Their men wore plain white shirts and black pants.
Nuosu Yi girl
Nuosu Yi man
       Finally, the cast included the Nuosu Yi from the northern part of the county.  I knew and had written about them in Ninglang County, but didn’t know they also lived this far south.  The women dressed in long, tri-colored skirts, vests and long-sleeved blouses and the same very wide-brimmed hats as in Ninglang, or the flat cloth head cover with a front brim that is more common in Xichang, Sichuan.  The men wore black turbans, embroidered vests and black woolen capes.
another Yi contingent in Yangbi
       When all those in processions had filed into the stadium and taken up positions around the central torch, two Nuosu Yi youths, shirtless and in wide-legged trousers, beat drums and cavorted around the torch.  Then two of their women came out to give a bowl of rice-liquor to each of the men charged with lighting the torch.  Because it had been doused with paraffin already, the torch caught fire easily.  One of the Yi groups then commenced dancing around the burning torch.
       Soon it began raining, though that didn’t dampen the dancers’ spirits, especially the lead male wielding a long curved sword.  But when it got heavier the audience fled for shelter and the dancers stopped.  After 40 minutes the rain was just a slight drizzle, so the dancers and crowd returned and all the contingents got their turn.  The torch had continued burning and folks added more paraffin-soaked rags to keep it going.  In spite of the rain, the dances were quite vigorous and no one slipped on the wet pavement.
taking rice liquor before lighting the  torch
lighting the torch in the Yangbi stadium
       From the top of the bleachers men set off a series of fireworks.  While not as plentiful as in Chuxiong, they were quite spectacular and closer to the audience.  The dance groups occupied other areas of the stadium besides around the main torch and continued for another couple of hours.  Out in the city streets, the torches that had been standing all day were now piles of cinders, while youths with mini-torches prowled the streets with resin in one hand to toss onto the torches to make them flare up whenever they met anyone in their path.
       Around midnight the activity began slowing.  The stadium emptied of dancers and observers.  The last shops still open shuttered their doors.  The kids with the flare-up torches ran out of resin powder.  Reveling was over.  It was time to retire, review memories of the day and sleep secure in the knowledge that, being Yi, they will be able to enjoy it all again next year.

Yi waiting to add their bundles of sticks to the Chuxiong bonfire

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