Monday, March 2, 2020

Through the Hills of Honghe County

                                   by Jim Goodman                       

terraced farms in rural Dayangjie district
       The hills of Honghe County are part of Ailaoshan, the chain of mountains that begins in central Yunnan and runs southeast into northern Vietnam.  The range flanks the right bank of the Red River and averages 2500 meters in height.  In Honghe County, like its neighbors Luchun County to the south and Yuanyang and jinping Counties to the east, ethnic minorities inhabit the highlands and the landscape features rows of irrigated rice terraces stepping down the slopes.
       On my first excursion I took the road west of Yuanyang City (ex-Nansha) along the Red River.  The valley is fairly broad and villages and farms line the way, interspersed with groves of tamarind, banana and lychee.  The people are the same animist Dai La branch in the valleys of Yuanyang County, and live in flat-roofed, mud-brick houses, drawing water from an adjacent stream to channel through the village.
the lower neighborhoods of Honghe City
       Several kilometers before the county capital the road begins ascending slowly past a rather barren, uncultivated slope until the lower end of Honghe City.  The buildings here were all modern, even back at the end of the 90s, and residents all Han.  But remnants of an old town, the main markets and administrative centers were further up the hill.
      Near the market by a small pond surrounded by old houses a walkway took me up to the top of the slope.  It ended in a park, dominated by a Qing Dynasty tower housing an even older bronze bell.  A view tower stood nearby, looking south across the hills.  But the hills beyond had no terraces, forests, villages, pastures or anything—just lumpy shapes against the sky.
old town remnants in Honghe City
       Somewhere over the crest of those visible hills, however, lived the Hani, the ethnic minority I had come to visit.  I was especially interested in the Yiche, from photos I’d seen of the women’s traditional clothing--short-sleeved black jackets over extremely short pants, with no leggings, plus a plain white peaked cap.   
       Especially when worn by the young women, it was altogether the sexiest outfit in Yunnan.  In meeting several Hani sub-groups already in neighboring counties, I found the females overwhelmingly preferring to dress in their traditional style.  I was hoping the same would hold true for the Yiche. 
       Told they lived somewhere near Langti, 67 km southwest, I took an early minibus there next morning.  After about half the distance we crossed over those barren hills and the landscape changed, with steeper hillside slopes, forests, terraced farms and villages.  Langti lies alongside one such slope, though the townsfolk themselves are mostly Han. 
bell tower at the top of Honghe City
       I arrived mid-morning on a market day.  Most of the villages in the vicinity are Hani, some Yi, and market day drew two Hani groups.  The majority belonged to the Rani sub-group.  Their women wore cotton, indigo-dyed, long-sleeved, side-fastened jackets with some trimming along the lapels, neck and hem.  Plain black trousers and a brightly colored hand towel-headscarf completed the outfit.
        Some of the young girls wore a hat shaped like a sitting chicken, like that of the Nisu Yi in Yuanyang County, but studded with little silver half-globes.  The ancient origin of the hat narrates how a voracious ogre was chasing Hani girls (or Yi girls, for the Nisu tell the same tale) through the hills very late at night.  Just before it caught up with them, a cock crowed to announce the coming sunrise.  Because the demon could only be active in darkness and was powerless in daylight, it stopped the pursuit and hurried back to its lair.  To honor the chicken and commemorate the event, the girls designed the hat and wear it as part of their tradition.
Hani child in Langti wearing the 'chicken hat'
Rani and Yiche Hani in the Langti market
       Yi women in Langti also wore side-fastened jackets, but in light, pastel colors, tied with a belt that hung down in the back, with flowery embroidery at the end of the tabs.  The other Hani group was the Yiche, from villages to the north.  But the only traditional clothing they wore was the plain white peaked cap.  The market ran along the main street in town and ended in a large square.  Stalls lined the way, selling cloth8ng, shoes, vegetables and fruits, chickens, snacks, herbs, etc.  A pony market was near the square and a few stalls sold turkeys or rabbits and one a couple of big snakes, which the seller probably caught himself.
terraces near Langti
       In the early evening two Chinese friends turned up, here for the same reason as me.   According to a Yunnan festivals book the next day was supposed to be Guniangjie, the Young Girls Festival of the Yiche Hani.  Surely we’d see the famous traditional short-shorts then.  Our Yi lodge manager knew nothing about it, but directed us how to get to the nearest Yiche village. 
       After about a 90-minute hike early next morning we reached a Yiche village of mud-brick, tiled houses in the central Yunnan style sprawled across a ridge.  We didn't spot any festival activity or anyone wearing traditional clothes, other than the cap.  Soon a man appeared on our path and invited us to his home.  Over a round of tea we told him of our intention to see the festival.  Well, they didn’t hold it in this village and anyway it was six days earlier, on a monkey day.  The book was wrong.
Yiche Hani village
       As for the clothing, he said the Yiche stopped wearing it in the Cultural Revolution.  Besides condemning it as a manifestation of  “little nation chauvinism” the Red Guards denounced it as immoral, provocative and looked stupid.  But after the Reform Era, unlike all other Hani groups, the Yiche did not revive wearing their traditional clothing, other than the cap.
       The outfit originated with the sub-group’s eponymous founder Yiche.  After escaping a fire in the mountains set by his enemies, most of his clothing tore or was burned away except enough to make himself this skimpy outfit.  But later, after the Yiche had safely settled in the area, women took up the costume as a fashion.  As for the white cap, it dates to their time of troubles.  It was designed to fool enemies when the Yiche retreated to their fields or forests to hide amongst the white camellia flowers.  The enemy would only see these caps and think they were flowers and not people’s headgear. 
Honghe County Yi
Yiche girls in the early 60s
       Our host didn’t think anyone in the village even had a full traditional costume.  Not the shorts, anyway.  He did introduce an older woman who had a traditional jacket.  Waist-length, deep indigo blue, it had seven layers with overlapping hems, symbolizing their rice terraces.  But the village didn’t have a complete traditional outfit to even photograph, with or without a model.  The festival had passed and so after buying a turkey from our host and enjoying an afternoon meal, we left.  My friends returned to Kunming and I stayed on in Langti another night.
Yiche bride and attendants, early 60s
       The following year I returned to Langti earlier in the calendar and after a night headed for Dayangjie, the center of Yiche land.  With its promontories, ridges, steep, terrace-filled slopes and pocket valleys, the district is much more scenic than around Langti.  It was goat day, market day in Dayangjie, and local folks were setting up their stalls as I arrived.  
       Most were Han or Yiche, though the market drew a few Yi, Hani from Langti and another sub-group from further south.  Their women wore wide black trousers and a short jacket, usually light blue or white, with appliquéd patches on the hems and corners, and a belt with long end tassels draped over the buttocks.  On their heads they wore headscarves or black turbans festooned with silver chains and pendants.  The Yiche wore their white caps and drab modern clothes.  The older ones donned deep blue caps and once in a while I saw a single-layer indigo jacket.  Never mind, the next day was Monkey Day, Guniangjie, and surely they’ll dress up for that. 
market day in Dayangjie
       No.  The only action resembling a festival involved a mixed group of youths hiking up to a small hill a few km distant and having a picnic beside three old trees.  Some market stalls stood next to them and an old man occasionally rang a gong.  By one o’clock it was over.  The presence of a gong hinted it was a vestige of a festival, now vanished like the adolescent dormitories of the past and the components of the traditional female attire.
       Later I learned that the last time the Yiche dressed up for a full rendition of Gunaiangjie was for a film company several years earlier.  The company brought the outfits themselves and didn’t leave them behind when finished filming.  So nobody had one anymore. 
       Back in Kunming, a Hani teacher I knew who had written a book about the Yiche insisted I had gone the wrong time.  It was two monkey days later.  He hadn’t witnessed it and didn’t know whether the girls dressed up for it.  I couldn’t stay that long, but the following year I made one more attempt.  Those in Dayangjie who knew anything about any festival thought something happened last month somewhere.  That corresponded to the time of my previous visit.
older Yiche woman, Dayangjie market
another Hani sub-group in Dayangjie
       Nevertheless, I didn’t mind coming again.  Walks out of town to admire the scenery and friendly encounters with the people made it worth it.  Instead of returning to Langti I took a minibus on a newly cut road west to Yuanjiang.  After keeping along the ridge for about forty minutes, the bus then slowly wound down to the Red River, passing the most desiccated hills I’d seen in the province. 
       Yunnan doesn’t have a true desert, but this area is the closest to one.  There must be a hole in the annual monsoon clouds overhead, for the slopes were barren of vegetation, fields or trees.  A couple of small hamlets lay on the hill, but I didn’t stop to find out how they made a living in such an environment.
Yiche Hani on the way to the fields
       Two winters later I made a fourth excursion to Honghe, this time going from Mojiang to Dima in the far west of the county.  Dima was reputedly the site of the oldest continuously inhabited Hani villages and the only Hani community with a record of violent conflicts with neighbors over land and water.  Dima town was just a small administrative center with a modest marketplace and a single guesthouse.  Villages lie on ridges in the vicinity, about 25-30 mud-brick tiled houses above their irrigated terraces.
       Dima’s past pugnacious attitude and suspicion of strangers had long ago disappeared and my reception in the area was quite positive, though I was probably the first foreigner they ever met.  The closest and biggest village was a short walk over to and up the nearest hill.  With a splendid view ahead, I passed men plowing with buffaloes in the terraces and women walking on the roads. 
       The traditional women’s outfit consists of indigo-dyed cotton jacket and slacks, trimmed in light blue at the cuffs and collar, with silver coin buttons.  They braid their hair and add colored yarn to lengthen it, wrap it atop their heads, and wind an embroidered band of cloth around the lower part.
Yiche Hani village and terraced farms
Dima Hani weaver at her loom
       When I arrived I saw a weaver at work on a loom just outside her house.  It resembled the stand-up Akha loom in Thailand, producing a strip about 25 cm wide.  Its reed featured many inscribed decorations and looked very old.  One of her neighbors invited me to her house for tea.  Besides my limited Chinese, we could converse a bit in Hani.  Unlike the Yiche dialect, the one here was closer to that spoken in Luchun and Yuanyang, where I had picked up a lot of common words and phrases.  That dialect in turn was similar to that of the Akha in Thailand, of whose language I already had a working knowledge. 
       About weaving and clothing and even farming I knew the vocabulary, so we talked about that.  My hostess invited me for dinner and then summoned neighbors to meet a foreigner who could speak Hani—a double phenomenon.  And when I ran out of Hani-Akha words I could fall back on my rudimentary Chinese.  For the hill people Chinese is a second language, too, so they were not likely to trip me up on unusual vocabulary or grammatical constructions.
Hani women chatting on the road near Dima
Dima Hani woman
The most memorable part of our conversation came after I had described the Akha in Thailand and how, except for the farming, much of their way of life and belief resembled theirs.  My hostess then commented that the Hani and the Akha were children of the same mother.  As their representative, so to speak, I was promoted from friend (yitso in Hani) to family (menum).  So here were the Dima Hani, with a past reputation for extreme isolationism, embracing the far away Akha people as family relations.  It left me with a very positive assessment of the Hani of Honghe County.  The ethnic revival in Yunnan had enhanced consciousness to embrace a wider tribal identity and solidarity.
rice terraces next to Langti
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                  For more on Honghe and the Hani, see my e-book The Terrace Builders.