Monday, November 5, 2018

The Tropic of Cancer and the Hani in Mojiang

                                                           by Jim Goodman

view of Mojiang from the Tropic of Cancer Park
       The Tropic of Cancer, 23 degrees north of the equator, the line that forms the southern boundary of the earth’s temperate zone, runs right through the city of Mojiang, Yunnan.  The city is the capital of a county on the eastern side of Pu’er Prefecture, lying west of the Ailao Mountains that run along the right bank of the Red River.    What lured me to the area was not so much its geographical significance as the fact Mojiang is an Autonomous Hani County, the uppermost part of the Ailao Mountain range where they reside.
       Though it is the only strictly Hani autonomous county in the prefecture, the Hani are not the only minority nationality living in it.  I discovered this right away when I rode a bus to Mojiang from Mosha, on the Red River in Xinping County.  Upon departure the road climbed into the forested Ailao Mountains and after about 30 km swerves around Dajianshan, 2278 meters, and enters the county on the high plain around Malu village.
market day in Malu
       This is Yi territory, inhabited by a sub-group whose dwellings, of mud-brick walls and wooden posts on stone foundations with tiled roofs, and clothing resemble those of Yi in southern Chuxiong Prefecture.   The women dressed in a colorful jacket with an apron in front, the lapel, upper sleeves and apron borders heavily embroidered, with a sliver-studded stomacher across the waist, black trousers and turban.
       The men wore ordinary modern clothes, but both sexes might also don the goatskin coat.  Made from the skins of two goats, also popular in Chuxiong Prefecture, especially Dayao County, it hangs open in the front and reaches to the knees.  In the summer people wear the fur side out and in the winter the fur side in.
Yi woman in the Malu market
Haoni woman above Bixi
       It was market day when we passed through Malu, so progress was quite slow.  Stalls were up all along the main road and people wandered among them oblivious of the vehicle traffic.  Beyond Malu, the road begins a long and slow descent towards Mojiang.  It passes the attractive Buka Reservoir, a long and narrow body of water surrounded by forested hills, and then runs by Hani settlements perched on hillsides above their terraces.
Haoni woman on the road
older Haoni woman in Mojiang
       Different sub-groups of Hani live in the county but they all speak a similar dialect, which is quite unlike that spoken by Hani in Honghe, Yuanyang and other places further down the Ailao Mountains, which is close to that spoken by the Aini sub-group in Xishuangbanna.  The sub-group north of Mojiang, concentrated above Bixi, is called Haoni and their women wear a distinctive outfit. 
rural Mojiang County above Bixi
       They wear ordinary modern trousers and long-sleeved blouse.  Over this is a short-sleeved jacket, waist-length in the front and knee-length in the back, dark blue or black for older women and white for younger ones.  If white, it is heavily embroidered with red designs on the sleeves and back. On their heads they wear a tall turban, fastened with their braids across the front and with hair braids hanging far down the back.
       From Bixi the road descends further, through an area of Han villages, until it reaches Mojiang, about 12 km further.  Mojiang lies in a natural bowl with mountains all around and two small hills in the urban area.  It’s predominantly Han-inhabited, mostly full of modern buildings, but with an old-fashioned neighborhood left and a park with a pond and elegant pavilions.
astronomical observatory, Tropic of Cancer Park
       The southern hill is the site of the Tropic of Cancer Park.  Climbing the staircase I passed a niche of carved red sandstone pillars and, near the tip, a circle of white Stonehenge-like pillars about 1.5 meters high.  On the summit is a monument with a spiraling exterior staircase, evocative of the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria.  A row of red bricks marks the actual Tropic of Cancer line here and I could actually walk the line through this monument. 
       Near this stands a large stone sundial and behind it is the domed astronomical observatory with a large telescope inside.  With nothing to obscure the view, it’s a perfect place to observe the heavens as well as the city and its setting.
tower over the Tropic of Cancer line
pavilion in the Mojiang city park
       Mojiang is a small city.  Nearby gold mines gave it some prosperity in the past, but it was not a major stop on the main trade routes through the province.  Caravans on the Tea and Horses Road did not come here.  The French Mekong Expedition passed by in the late 1860s, during the Muslim Revolt that ravaged Yunnan for several years.  Mojiang appeared to have been spared the depredations suffered by other cities like Ning’er and Pu’er and the French were pleased to find the local inhabitants extremely hospitable.  The city officials even provided them an escort to their next destination.  This tradition seemed to have continued to today, for I found Mojiang people very friendly and helpful.
water wheels in the river near Nanwen
       Mojiang hosts market day every five days.  Besides the local residents and Han villagers from the valley, many Hani turn up; the Haoni and two other sub-groups.  One came from villages south of Mojiang, around Nanwen, on the Aomo River.   The women wore dark blue jackets, knee-length trousers, wrappers around the calves a belt with a brightly embroidered sash hanging down the back and a black turban festooned with lots of bright yarn.  Their villages are much lower than those of the other sub-groups and they also use water wheels for farms along the Aomo River.
       The other, Bukong Hani, I would meet on a return trip to Mojiang a couple years later.  I had a task to perform, to deliver some books by a Hani teacher friend to his colleague in the Mojiang Middle School.  After I introduced myself and mentioned my interest in Hani culture, he invited me to a local restaurant with a few of his fellow teachers, all Hani.  We had a leisurely meal, lots of rice wine and talked about the Hani I had met in other parts of Yunnan.
Bukong Hani house
       One of the teachers came from Longba, a town southeast of Mojiang.  He informed that a Hani village a little beyond Longba, called Dameido, would be celebrating Hani New Year the next day.  As in the mountains of Yuanjiang County, where I had just observed it, the Hani in Mojiang hold it in November, rather than at Lunar New Year, though on different days in different districts. 
       With a couple days to spare before I had to return to Kunming, I set out early morning on a bus to Longba, a ride about an hour and half through open countryside.  From here, continuing east, the road is rougher and soon amongst the hills and terraced farms.  The road ended at Zhaogaisu, with Xiaomeido village just across the stream.  At the latter settlement the first Hani I met were three men departing for Dameido, so I joined them.
terraced farms of Dameido village
       The landscape is not as dramatic as north of Bixi or further down the Ailao Mountains, like Yuanyang and Luchun Counties.  The hills are smaller, the terraces less steeply angled and not always irrigated.  Domestic architecture, however, is quite different from that of Hani villages elsewhere in Mojiang and next-door Honghe County.
       The Bukong Hani, the name of the area’s sub-group, live in block-like, mud-brick houses with flat roofs and a notched ladder connecting the lower floor roof with the upper roof.  They resemble those of the Huayao Dai in Xinping County and those of the Yi and Hani in Yuanyang and Jinping Counties, but with no shed on the roof.  No doubt they lay out crops here to dry, but my arrival didn’t coincide with any harvest.  Instead, I saw local residents sometimes ascending to the roofs just to sit in the sun or do some stitching. 
on the flat roofs of Dameido village houses
       Dameido lay on the other side of the ridge, about a twenty-minute walk.  I didn’t have a contact name to look up.  When I asked for one the evening before, my Hani hosts told me it wasn’t necessary.  Hani people are very hospitable.  Just show up and someone will invite you to stay with them. 
       And that’s how it went.  One of my walking companions took me to his uncle’s house in the upper part of the village.  The path was higher than the settled area, so we had to climb down a notched ladder to get to the lanes between the houses.   His uncle immediately invited me to stay the night.  New Year had just begun and folks were killing pigs and preparing dishes for the evening feast. 
       We had tea and jiu (rice liquor) inside on a hard mud floor, cabinets lining the walls, large jugs of rice wine in front of them and the kitchen to the right just inside the door.  A bedroom on this floor was graced with a wooden window frame with carved floral designs.  Upstairs were more bedrooms, one of which I would use, and from the roof I had a great view of the stars later that night.
Bukong Hani women on the first floor roof
My host Mr. Li claimed Dameido was a thousand years old.  Every house was in traditional Hani style, with the only exterior modern intrusion being a single rooftop satellite dish.  The men dressed in modern clothing, but most women and many girls still preferred the traditional look.  They wore indigo-dyed, hand-woven cotton jackets over trousers.  The jackets fastened in the front and were decorated with silver chains and coin buttons.  Around their heads they wrapped a turban with embroidered ends.  Young women and girls festoon the front of the turban with colored threads.
       After a late afternoon tour of the village it was time for the banquet.  Before it began an older woman went to several corners of the ground floor with a basket of seeds, scattering some in each spot as an offering to the spirits    We then commenced dining on several pork dishes, including the fat, blood soup, a few vegetables, rice and jiu.
       The special dish for the occasion was a sweet dumpling called tangyuan in Chinese.  When preparing these the Hani first cook three of them, each marked as representing people, animals and crops.  Whichever pops up first out of the bowl they’re cooked in indicates good luck in the coming year for whichever of the three the dumpling represents.
Bukong Hani girl
Bukong Hani woman
       Mr. Li had several guests, so it was a typically long and drawn out meal.  We talked about Yunnan and Thailand (they weren’t curious about America).  Nobody spoke English here, their Hani dialect was incomprehensible to me, so we conversed in basic Chinese, at a level I could more or less understand.
       After this first day of feasting, the second day was devoted to entertainment.  The previous evening the villagers had erected a sturdy swing in the center of the village near the middle school and next to the basketball court.  It had a strong crossbeam supported by two tripods, with two ropes hanging down and a board connecting them. 
Mr. Li entertaining his guest before a meal
riding the New Year swing in Dameido
       People rode it standing up, alone or in pairs, and doing knee bends to go higher.  By mid-morning the scene was crowded with youths eager to swing.  Such was the demand for a turn that each rider only got to execute three or four movements and thus didn’t get very high.  But everybody had a good time and no one tried to hog the time and swing longer than anyone else.
       After a couple hours the kids started drifting off to lunch, as did I.  I walked back to Mr. Li’s house and passed a shirtless man sitting on a stool and a Hani woman massaging his back with jiu as a treatment for a skin rash.  So they don’t just drink the stuff.  When I arrived, Mr. Li brought out his bow and two-stringed instrument and, while the women prepared the food, entertained me with a few tunes.
Hani woman in Dameido
       Then we had our meal, resembling that of the night before.  I reported what I saw around the swing and mentioned that only about a third of the girls wore Hani clothes.  He replied that the percentage would likely go up tonight for the dances.  Unfortunately, I had to return to Mojiang.  The third day involved visits to relatives, both within Dameido and to other villages.
       One of Mr. Li’s guests said dances would also take place in Zhaogaisu and there was a bus from there to Mojiang at 4 a.m.  Zhaogaisu was where I had to go first anyway, but when I got there folks told me no dances that night and no bus next morning.  Fortunately, a truck gave me a lift all the way to Mojang. 
       The following day I took a bus back to Kunming to keep my appointment.  Naturally, my recent experiences with the Hani of Dameido kept reverberating in my memory.  And I also recalled that dinner in Mojiang, when one of the teachers told me not to worry about not having a contact in Dameido  because “The Hani are very hospitable.”  Yes.  I’d just had proof.
the Hani village of Dameido
                                                                        * * *

for  more on Mojiang and the Hani see my e-book The Terrace Builders

Mojiang is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey from Kunming to Jinghong.  See the schedule at 


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