Sunday, August 18, 2019

Colors and Crowds in Yuanyang County

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

Yi coming to Niujiaozhai on market day
       Variety is the hallmark of every characteristic of Yunnan Province.  This applies to its landscapes, climate, food, lifestyles, languages and especially its people.  One third of the population, occupying two thirds of the territory, consists of 24 different ethnic minorities.  And among the larger ones are numerous sub-groups that dress in different outfits.  For anyone into ethnic fashions, Yunnan is a treasure trove.
       The greatest ethnic diversity in the province is in the four counties of the Lower Ailao Mountains, between the Red River and the Vietnam border:  Honghe, Luchun, Jinping and Yuanyang.  In these counties the Han are a minority, only 12% in Yuanyang, basically confined to cities and towns.  The ethnic minorities have been living here more than a thousand years, cultivating in the same irrigated rice terraces that form such a dramatic backdrop to the area.  And for its landscapes, vibrant market days and ethnic variety, Yuanyang County is the best.
Yuanyang County terraces on a winter morning
       The usual way into Yuanyang County is via Jianshui, from where Highway S214 runs south to the Red River and crosses into the county seat before ascending into the hilly heartland.  About 20 km before it reaches the river, a long village on a flat top ridge with steep sides lined with terraces is visible across a valley to the west.  It is a foretaste of what’s to come.
       Yuanyang city is only about thirty years old, the result of shifting the county’s capital from the old Yuanyang in the hills, now called Xinjie, to the riverside Dai La village of Nansha.  At this location the government had more room to expand.  The original village still exists, though obscured from view by the new buildings. 
Yi village next to Xinjie
       From here the road passes a lot of banana groves and begins climbing.  It’s about 30 km to Xinjie and before long the traveler can see the famous rice terraces cut into the slopes of the hills.  During the dry season they are filled with water and reflect the colors in the sky.  After the planting in April they turn green until September when the crop ripens to yellow.  By November the harvest has emptied the terraces and they once again fill with water.
Nisu Yi belt ends
       In the late 90s, having completed my research of the northwest, I chose Ailaoshan as my next project.  This involved journeys to all its counties, but I spent more time in Yuanyang than anywhere else.  Inexpensive hotels were available.  The terraces and villages were a short walk beyond the urban zones.  Xinjie had several Yi and Hani-run restaurants and a daily presence of many minorities, well augmented on market days, which were every four days.  And frequent minibuses plied the routes back and forth to other village market venues or places to view the terraces.
Nisu Yi gitls wearing the"chicken hat"
       Yuanyang didn’t get much traveler attention then and I was usually the only foreigner in town or, if with a friend, we were the only two foreigners in town.  In winter some Chinese photographers showed up, aiming to take the ultimate terraces photo, when fog covered the lower parts of the hills and left terraces above them to catch the first sunlight.  I often did the same and in constant search of better angles got used to walking along the terrace walls with my knees lightly bent so as not to slip and fall into the water.
       During dry season visits, in late afternoon I liked to take hikes south of the city, heading straight where the main city road turned left at the southern bus station, and out in the rural area towards the terraces and villages, hoping for a dramatic sunset that splashed the water-filled terraces with golden hues.  Once in a while the sun slid behind thick clouds and I didn’t take any photos at all except of people on the trail walking home.  But sometimes, besides friendly greetings, they invited me to their homes for a drink or a meal.  And that always made my day.
Laló Hani mother and daughter
Laló Hani woman
       Hani and Yi villages dominated the Xinjie vicinity, with houses of mud-brick, usually two stories.  Most had flat roofs, sometimes with a small shed on top, but some Hani villages had angled thatched roofs and were called ‘mushroom houses’.  Some villages lay on slopes above their terraces.  Others were on more level ground, surrounded by their fields.  
Laló Hani heading home from the Xinjie market day
      Nearly all the county’s Yi belong to the Nisu sub-group.  As with the county’s other ethnic minorities, nearly all the women dressed in traditional style.  They wore a long-sleeved jacket, fastened on the right side, bright colors for the young and dark for the older women, over plain slacks.  The jacket featured broad bands of embroidered patterns around the shoulders, lapel and sleeves.  Sometimes silver studs covered the entire front.  They fastened it with a belt with large quadrilateral embroidered ends that hung over the buttocks, the most distinctive feature of the outfit.
Hani village just south of Xinjie
       The usual women’s headgear was a long strip of black cloth with a panel of embroidery at each end.  They wrapped it around their hair and tucked one end into the top and left the other dangling over the side.  The favorite of the girls, and even young married women, was the “chicken hat” (wúbi túmaw in Yi).  So named because of its intended resemblance to a cockscomb, it was a colored piece of hard cloth, cut to shape and covered on both sides with inlaid silver or nickel bulbs, cultured pearls or white pile embroidery, with spaces left open to form arabesques and spirals.
Hani in tie-dyed imdigo
Hani woman in Huangcaoling
       Nisu myth attributes the origin of the wúbi túmaw to a story of two young lovers caught in the forest by the Prince of Devils.  First he killed the young man, then tried to capture the young woman.  She fled through the forest, with the Prince of Devils in hot pursuit, until she came to a village in a clearing.  A cock crowed, which stopped the demon in his tracks.  A witness to that, she guessed the demon was afraid of roosters.  So she grabbed it, chased off the demon and ran back into the forest to where her lover lay.  The cock crowed again and the young man came back to life.  Ever since then Yi girls wear the hat in honor of the rooster, to symbolize good luck and happiness in love.
Hani women in Majie district
       To make the floral, spiral, arabesque and other patterns on the jacket, belt ends and headgear, the Yi used paper stencils cut by specialists and sold at market days.  Xinjie’s market day always had tables selling the stencils, while at several other stalls women sold Nisu jackets, headgear and belts.  Hani women also ran stalls with Hani jackets, headgear, vests and bolts of cloth.  And a couple stalls sold silver ornaments, mostly those used to decorate jackets and hats—rings, buckles, coin buttons, chains and pendants.
Hani girls in Niujiaozhai
       Several subgroups of Hani live in the county.  Around Xinjie and south as far as Panzihua live the Laló Hani, whose women wear dark blue or black jackets, fastened on the right side, over blue or black trousers.  Bands of appliquéd designs in light, contrasting colors go around the cuffs, upper sleeves, neck, shoulders and calves.  Married women don a heavily fringed headscarf, held by a silver clasp in back, under which hangs a long, silver studded tail, 5 cm wide.  Unmarrried girls dress in brighter colors and wear no headgear.
       A slightly different style prevails among the Goho Hani of Huangcaoling district, southwest of Xinjie.  Goho jackets feature embroidered and silver-studded lower sleeves and are tied with a belt with big tabs hanging over the buttocks, similar to that of the Nisu, usually with spiral designs.  And the cap is a round one, with silver studs in the front and pendants on the side.
Niujiaozhai Hani in the Xinjie market
Dai woman and red sticky rice
       In the western part of Yuanyang County, around Shalatuo and Niujiaozhai, the Hani women’s jacket resembles that of their Nisu Yi neighbors, but hangs in the back over a separate cloth underneath.  The lower end and corners of this piece are heavily embroidered, as are the lower parts of the trousers.  It’s also tied with a belt with the ends draped over the buttocks, though these are either triangular or 10 cm-wide embroidered strips.
Xinjie on market day
       Just west of Yuanyang city, in Majie district the Hani wear similar bright jackets, but some attach a tie-dyed indigo section to the front.  A subgroup closer to Xinjie favors the tie-dyed cloth for the entire jacket.  Nisu Yi in Majie dress like those in Xinjie, but the ‘chicken hat’ is always studded with silver.  And in the eastern districts, besides Laló Hani, one can meet the Black Hani, who also dominate northern Jinping County and tie their artificially lengthened braids in a coil on top of the head.
       On market days, all these costume variations and embellishments made the moving crowds a constant swirl of color.  And with the fancy Yi and Hani belt ends, headgear tails and embroidered baby-carrriers, the women could be just as attractive from the back as from the front.  Around 80% of those attending were women and probably 95%, young and old, would dress in traditional style.
Landian Yao women in Xinjie
Nisu mother and child
       In the south, Huangcaoling held its market day on Friday and the Dai La town of Huangmaoling on Saturday.  Depending on the12-day animal cycle, Majie, Panzihua and Galiang hosted market day every six days, while Niuzhaozhai, Shalatuo, Xingcun and Xinjie staged it every four days.  They were always crowded, even in the rain.  Though the activity at each resembled that of every other venue, it was worth the journey just to see the ethnic variety and ever more views of a spectacular landscape, especially Panzihua, with a great view of the vast valley known as the Tiger’s Mouth.
Nisu Yi pattern stencils on sale in Xinjie
       My own favorite was Xinjie’s, every dragon, rat and monkey day and attracting the largest and most ethnically diverse crowds.  Starting from the center of town near the bus station and stadium, stalls and layouts spread down the steps and all along the long ridge forming the lower part of the city.  Besides the Nisu and Laló Hani, three or four other Hani subgroups would turn up, as well as Dai La and Zhuang from villages lower down on the road back to the Red River. 
       The Dai wore short-sleeved black jackets, fastened on the right side and trimmed along the lapel. sleeves and hem with bright color bands.  The plain black skirt reached to the calves, which were bound with embroidered wrappers.  The Zhuang dressed much like the Nisu, but with ruffled trimming to the jacket collar and different headgear.  Usually some Landian Yao turned up, too, standing out from the colorful crowd by their all black garments—tight trousers, loose jackets, headdress cover.  The only color component was a skein of magenta thread hanging from the collar down the front of the jacket.
Xinjie on market day
Zhuang mother and daughter
       Farm crops, fruits, vegetables and household goods comprised most of the merchandise on sale.  Yet there were always busy Yi and Hani stalls selling traditional clothes and cloth for making them.  Some odd traditional medicine plants and woods were also available and for snacks one could try steamed buns, the grilled bee larva or sticky red rice.  And wash it down with a cup of rice liquor.
Hani clothing stall in Xinjie
       Around three p.m. the crowds began to thin, as those living far away began to pack up and go.  Local Yi and Hani might hang around another couple hours.  And I would head for the rural road south of the town to get photos of them walking home towards the setting sun.  Sometimes I even got a photogenic sunset,
       After the turn of the century the scene began changing, particularly in Xinjie.  In 2002 the very scenic terraced fields around Panzihua, the Tiger’s Mouth, won the national government’s support for its bid for UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage Site (eventually awarded 2013).  That prompted the city government in Xinjie to make some drastic changes.  It ordered the leveling of the central bus station and the stadium, to be replaced by a three-story Cultural Center.  The place where all the minibuses parked now had a stone model of the terraces, with life-sized bronze sculptures of farmers and buffalos in them. 
       The main streets into the city were widened and the market venue altered.  Instead of the continuous line of stalls from the center down through the ridge in the lower section of the city, now the market day areas were scattered in separate, disconnected spots.  Attendance on the day I witnessed was only about a quarter of that in the so recent past.  But other market days were as full and lively as ever.  And the wonderful rice terraces flanking the city were untouched.  Yuanyang was still a county replete with color, in the landscapes and in the amazing diversity of its peoples, colors that would never fade.

sunset on the terraces south of Xinjie
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               For more on Ailaoshan and its people, see my e-book  The Terrace Builders

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