Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Upper Ailaoshan—Xinping and Yuanjiang Counties

                                                               by Jim Goodman

       Ailaoshan—the Ailao Mountain Range—begins in central Yunnan and runs along the south side of the Red River all the way into northern Vietnam.  Ailao Mountain, at the top end, stands at 3166 meters, while its second highest peak, Phansipan in Sapa, Vietnam, rises to 3143 meters.  But most peaks range from 1500-2500 meters.  Lower Ailaoshan—Honghe, Yuanyang, Luchun and Jinping  Counties—garners  more traveler attention, especially Yuanyang, for its ethnic diversity and its spectacular, water-filled rice terraces.  Yet similar landscapes and branches of the same minorities characterize the lesser known counties of Xinping and Yuanjiang. 
The third highest Ailaoshan peak is in western Xinping County, called Guo Snow Mountain, at 3137 meters.  Xinping is a Yi and Dai Autonomous County, which means over half the county’s territory is inhabited by these two ethnic minorities.  The Yi live in the hills of the western and southern districts, along with a few Lahu villages in the southwest and Hani in the south, while the Dai inhabit the lowlands of the river valleys
       Xinping  City, the county capital, lies in a broad valley flanked by hills, 205 km southwest of Kunming and its population is almost entirely Han.  Even before the end of the century it was thoroughly modernized, with concrete skyscrapers and luxury hotels.  No traditional buildings existed except for the city’s one surviving  attraction, Dragon Spring, which doubles as Xinping’s wenhuazhan (cultural center).  Within the grounds are Chinese-style pavilions and roofed walkways, a winding “dragon bridge” to the center of the pond, with lotuses in the water and a pagoda on the side.  At the other end of the park are the wenhuazhan facilities for recreation, such as snooker tables and card tables with stools. 
The main component of the women’s costume is a long, side-fastened, half-sleeved coat, usually dark blue or dark green.  They add bands of appliqué and embroidery to the borders of the neck, sleeves, lapel and hems, including the inside border of the right front part of the coat.  When donning the coat they fold this end over to expose the decorations and tuck it in a belt, with tasseled and embroidered ends, that ties in the back.  They may also add an embroidered strip of cloth over the stomach.  The coat is worn over a long-sleeved blouse, also with decorated cuffs, and trousers.  A blue turban and a pair of embroidered shoes complete the outfit. 
The other minority is an animist branch of the Dai, divided into three groups—Dai Ya, Dai Sa and Dai Kat.  Collectively they are known as Huayao Dai, Flowery Waist Dai, after the splash of red and yellow colors around the midriff of their traditional clothing.  Basically black cotton with colored trimmings, lapels, cuffs and waistband, the full outfit comprises a tubular skirt, jacket, vest, apron and headgear.  Designs of all three sub-groups are different, but the components are the same.  The wide saucer-shaped bamboo hat with a pointed top is specific to the Dai Ya.  The Dai Sa wear a black turban and the Dai Kat a conical bamboo cap.
       They live mainly along the Red River, in villages containing 20-40 houses of unbaked brick on stone foundations, two stories high, with flat roofs; like cubes on blocks.   Bigger animals live on the ground floor, people above.  Residents reach the living quarters by ladders or iron staircases.  Bunches of fishing baskets hang on the walls or from posts on the roof.  Pigs have their own sties, usually concrete, grouped together at the edge of the village.  Ducks, geese and turkeys are the domestic fowl.
Because stretches of low-lying flat land are rare along this section of the river, Huayao Dai made farms on the lower slopes of the hills by cutting terraces into them, usually reinforced with stone, irrigated by streams engineered to direct water through all the terraces and then through  the village below.  It’s the same system employed so famously in Lower Ailaoshan.  And as the Dai are the oldest inhabitants of the Red River lands, they may have been the ones who originated it.  The Yi, Hani and others were later migrants to Ailaoshan  and the irrigated titian (step terraces) are not part of their mythology or traditional history prior to their arrival.
       The Huayao Dai house type was another cultural export downriver, now common to many Yi, Dai, Hani and Zhuang villages in Honghe, Yuanyang and Jinping.  They use the flat roofs to dry crops as well as sit outside to do some embroidery or just relax in good weather.    
The main town along the river is Mosha, which holds a market day every Sunday.  The town’s residents are mainly Han, but all the nearby villages are Dai and market day also draws Yi and Hani from the hills.  The older generations of ethnic minority women still like to dress in traditional style, adding color to the market.  The youth are not so inclined.
However, when Huayao Dai culture is on special display, like the Street of Flowers Festival 13th day of the 1st lunar month, their attitude changes.  Held in Longhe village near Mosha, the event highlights everything traditional, especially the women’s clothing and ornaments of all three sub-groups.  Young women dressed in their best dominate the dances, with props from their daily life like balance poles, fishing nets, baskets and pots.  The skits include traditional courtship routines and booths on the grounds demonstrate various aspects of Dai customs—spinning and weaving, embroidery, making sticky rice, blackening teeth, tattooing, etc—and even invite male guests to participate in a courting tradition wherein the gorgeously dressed girl feeds the boy without him using his hands.

Besides the Dai, the Yi, Hani and Lahu participants also perform on stage.  The Lahu dance is quite unusual.  Half-naked males dance wildly around in a circle, blacken the faces of the girls nearest to them and then engage them in a mock free-for-all.
       From Mosha a main road climbs south into the highlands to eventually reach Malu, the last town before the border witj Yuojiang County.   This is largely a Yi town, on a plain surrounded by steep, forested, largely uncultivated mountains.  In dress, dialect and lifestyle they are close to the Yi of Chuxiong Prefecture.  They even wear the goatskin jackets popular among Yi further north.  It’s made from two goatskins stitched together, sleeveless and open in the front, 
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Aside from the goatskins, the men dress in modern clothing, but most women retain the traditional look.  This outfit features a black vest over a long-sleeved blouse, apron, silver-studded stomacher, black trousers and black turban with colored ends tucked into the top.  The vest hangs open in the front, with brightly embroidered lapels, fastened by a long row of silver coin-buttons.
       The other main road out of Mosha runs southeast along the Red River into Yuanjiang County and the capital itself.  The scenery is pleasant and the valley wider.  Halfway to Donge inside Yuanjiang County the road passes some eroded bluffs sculpted by the wind into tall pillars.  It’s designated the Mosha Earth Forest, though nowhere near as big or spectacular as the Earth Forest in Yuanmou County.  From Donge the scenery is drab and marred by the smoke of small factories along the way.
Yuanjiang City lies at one of the lowest elevations—520 meters—in the province, making it one of the warmest.  Low mountains across the river are devoid of forests or any vegetation, but the plain around the city is richly irrigated and agriculturally productive.  Because of its open location far from the hills the city and vicinity can be subjected to brisk winds, especially in spring, gusting In the afternoon and howling all night.
       In a drab town of utilitarian concrete buildings only one traditional structure still stands--.  —an ornate, two-tiered hall at the edge of a pond in the city center.  Pavilions with tiled roofs with upturned corners stand in the winding walkway from the land to the hall, which itself serves as a public reading room.
Yuanjiang is the administrative seat of a Hani, Yi and Dai Autonomous County.  Several Hani groups live in the mountains to the south, the Yi in the eastern hills and the Dai along the river.  Two sub-groups of Dai reside in the county:  the Dai Ya branch of the Huayao Dai and the Dai La, a differently-dressed group more common downriver in Honghe and Yuanyang.  The women wear side-fastened jackets with lots of color across the lapel and sleeves, worn over black tubular skirts with brightly embroidered leg-wrappers.  They live in the same kind of houses, but as the riverside plains are wider here they mostly avoid hillside terraces and raise fruits, sugarcane and vegetables in addition to rice.      
       Yi women dress like the Yi in Honghe County, wearing simply a side-fastened jacket of pastel color, moderately embellished along the lapel, plain trousers and wraparound headscarf.  Besides the older Dai Ya women, they are the next likely minority group to visit the city.  The Yuanjiang market may also have a few stalls or street displays run by Bai minority women from Yinyuan district, 40 km south.
       The town itself is a nondescript boring place only interesting on its weekly market day, when Hani come in from the hills.  But in the Yinyuan plain are eight Bai villages, descendants of Bai who fled Dali during the wars that engulfed the crumbling of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the early 10th century.  They speak a Bai dialect similar to Dali’s and live in houses with open courtyards behind the compound wall, Bai-style garden at one end with ornamental and medicinal plants, murals on the walls and an open-fronted main receiving room, very much like the Dali area.

       On a small hill near one of the villages stands a thousand-year-old tree.  Its trunk is so wide it takes eight men clasping hands with their outstretched arms to encircle it.  Red Guards destroyed the temple that was once next to it, but at least spared the tree.  Nowadays every year in the 3rd lunar month Bai villagers organize a procession to the tree and perform rituals in front of it.   

       From Yuanjiang a good road runs east about ten km to a Dai village next to a reservoir and then turns south and zigzags up the hills, which rise at  least a thousand meters above the plains.  After reaching Yangjie the road somewhat straightens out and remains high on the slopes.  From here to Nanuo, another 35 km southeast, the landscape begins to exemplify typical Ailaoshan  terrain, with steep slopes covered with water-filled terraces, speckled with tightly clustered Hani villages.  The land just east of Nanuo is the most spectacular section and has been officially designated a Scenic Area.

       The Hani live in mud-brick houses with tile roofs, usually, but not always, two stories and without a compound wall.  The kitchen and dining-reception room are right inside the front door.  Sleeping quarters are upstairs.  Some houses also have small balconies, where family members and guests may sit and relax.

       While the youth and men ordinarily dress in modern clothes, most married women prefer the Hani traditional outfit.  They wear black cotton trousers, fastened by a belt with long embroidered or tasseled ends hanging over the buttocks, long-sleeved blouse and short-sleeved jacket, black around Yangjie and more often white around Nanuo, with some embroidered red stitch lines.. Coin buttons run down the jacket front, with silver clasps at the collar, but it’s usually worn open.

       When the French Mekong Expedition passed this way in 1868 they enjoyed a wonderful reception from Yuanjiang’s mandarins.  These were the first foreigners Yuanjiang folks had ever seen.  When the French party reached the plains near Yuanjiang the city officials marched to greet them at the head of a party that included two hundred soldiers and porters to escort them to Yuanjiang.  Some carried banners, others big character posters welcoming the members of the expedition.  When they reached the city cannon boomed and an orchestra played.

       A century and a half later, foreigners are traveling everywhere in Yunnan and nearly every city has had experience with them.  In many highlands areas, though, a foreign arrival is still a special event.  There won’t be any marching band or procession to meet them, but the traveler will find the people friendly and eager to make the encounter a memorably good one.  For Ailaoshan people, hospitality is part of their nature.

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                For more information on all of Ailaoshan, see my e-book TheTerrace Builders   

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