Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Luchun: the Hani Majority County


                                                               by Jim Goodman


       Southern Yunnan’s Honghe is a Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, wherein the Hani and Yi minority nationalities comprise a majority of the population or occupy over 50% of the land.  Usually the latter is the case, especially north of the Red River, where Han immigrants have long been settled in both rural and urban areas.  South of the Red River the land is much hillier, farmed by using the ancient and famous water-filled terraces, and Han residence is confined to the cities.  Even there, employed by the government bureaucracy or as shopkeepers or involved in other urban services, they are in competition with local minorities.

       Luchun County, in the southwest and bordering northwest Vietnam, attracted but a handful of Han immigrants after 1949.  Much of its territory is mountainous and still heavily forested and it has always been relatively isolated, off the main trade routes and mainly accessible via Yuanyang County to its east.  As a result, Luchun County’s population is 80% Hani, nearly all of whom can trace their residence back many generations.

       Entering from Yuanyang County, after 15 km the traveler comes to Luchun city, the county capital, lying on a long, high, narrow, east-west ridge.  Its modern buildings, largely whitewashed cement, line the ridge, with Hani villages and rice terraces immediately below on each side.  The bus station, central market and public park are in a four-block stretch in the city center.  From the park and from glimpses between the buildings are good views of the terraces and mountain scenery.

       Most urban residents are Hani.  Most shop signboards are bilingual—in Chinese characters and the English letters used to write the Hani language.  The Hani call the city Donya and their language is used more often here than Chinese. 

       The main Hani sub-group call themselves Awo Hani.  Females of all ages still prefer their traditional clothing, consisting of a very Chinese-style, long-sleeved jacket over trousers and a round decorated turban.  Most jackets fasten on the right side, with a few buttoned down the front.  The style is relatively uniform, but they could be any color.  Some prefer black or dark blue, and not just the older women.  Others choose a variety of soft pastel colors, often patterned, no two alike.  The trousers are usually plain or else black with a blue stripe around the shins.     

       On their heads they wear a round cloth turban shaped like a pillbox hat with a tassel hanging over the side.  Women from Sanmeng to the south can be identified by the huge woolen tassel draping over the right ear.  The turban could be plain or decorated with silver studs or cultured pearls.

       Every horse and rat day in the 12-day animal cycle Luchun stages its market day.  Villagers swarm into the city bearing a variety of products to sell or empty pack-baskets to fill with goods to take home.  They set up stalls to offer rice, various vegetables, spices, forest goods, medicinal herbs, baby frogs caught in the terraces, honeycombs, edible insects or clothing.  Some may even just stand somewhere on the street holding a single item, like a cooked bird or a newly made traditional jacket. 

       Market day also attracts Hani from other parts of the county, mostly the south, like Sanmeng and areas closer to the Vietnam border.  Some groups from the far south wear fancier turbans with decorative flaps and tassels and a jacket festooned with several triangles of silver studs.  The crowd may also include a sprinkling of other minority nationalities in the county, like Yi, Dai and Yao.

       A few Yi are migrants from the Nisu sub-group in Yuanyang County, who run small shops and businesses.  Their women wear brightly colored, side-fastened jackets with bands of appliqué on the hems, sides and cuffs, and a belt with long, wide, decorated ends hanging over the buttocks.  Younger Nisu girls may also wear a silver-studded, chicken-shaped hat.

       The county’s indigenous Yi belong to another sub-group from four villages near Niukong, 37 km west of Luchun.  The road winds down from the high ridge and runs along the Niukong River, passing many Hani villages, mostly on the south side, with mud-brick houses and thatched or more often tiled roofs—the typical rural Yunnan style, though not enclosed by compound walls.  After passing a few bamboo bridges the road reaches Niukong town beside the river.  Market day here takes place a day before Luchun, on snake and pig days, drawing local Yi as well as a few Hani sub-groups.

       The Yi villages are up above the town and consist of houses similar to those of the Hani.  Yi women here wear a long-tailed coat, sometimes shorter in the front, side-fastened, over plain black trousers.  Older women wear white, younger ones prefer indigo or black with red, light blue or magenta sleeves and shoulders.  They appliqué stylized patterns of dragons, phoenixes, fish, butterflies, birds and peonies below the neck, front and back, around the shoulders and on the cuffs and elbows.  Most wrap their hair in a simple kerchief, but some don a silver-studded “chicken hat” and tie a hair braid over it to keep it in place.   

       West of Niukong the road rises into the hills and away from the river to a turnoff about 15 km later that runs south for 65 km to Qimaba, a large Dai settlement of over 200 houses almost exactly in the center of the county.  Hani villages sprinkle the hills in the beginning, but soon the environment is heavily forested until Qimaba, which lies on a gentle slope above its terraces. Irrigated by streams that also run through the residential area, reinforced by stone walls on their sides, the terraces stretch out like a fan in front of the village and end at the cliffs above the Chama River. 

       The Dai inhabitants belong to an animist sub-group that migrated from Shiping County to this isolated venue in the 19th century.   They have the same mud-brick, tile-roofed, two-story houses as elsewhere in the county, but with an open section in the center without roof, over a slightly sunken square pit next to a water tank, where they do their washing, while a drain carries the waste water into the stream along the path outside.  Thus, in Qimaba, water engineering is not just for their agriculture; it extends to the settled area as well.

       Most of the women prefer their traditional outfits:  blue or black tubular skirt, side-fastened, long-sleeved top with embroidered front, hems and cuffs and sometimes the entire back of the jacket.  They wear these basic components all day, even when working in the fields.  For social occasions or going to the market they may also wear a tall, elaborate head piece lined with coins and silver studs above the brim, with a long black flap hanging down the back.

       Most of the area north of Qimaba is part of the Huanglianshan Reserved Forest, a mountainous wooded zone around the Huanglian Mountain peak of 2637 meters.  A few stray Hani and Yao villages lie tucked away in the forest, but the Yao are more accessible in Shangpinghe, a large village just west of Pinghe in the southeast.  The houses are mud-brick or whitewashed concrete, closely placed in rows on a slope above their rice terraces.

       The Yao here are members of the Landian sub-group, also found in Yuanyang and Jinping Counties.  Both sexes usually dress in their traditional plain black clothing, the women in bulky, side-fastened jackets with tails in the back, the men in knee-length jackets buttoning vertically in front.  Women also wear a skein of magenta woolen threads draping across the jacket front and don a tall black headdress over a coil of black braids.  Men wear a round cap with silver disks around the bottom.

       The turn-off south to Pinghe is just before entering Luchun County from the east.  The road skirts the eastern side of the county for 47 km to Pinghe, overlooking valleys cut by tributary streams of the Mengman River.  This is the most heavily populated part of Luchun County and Hani villages lie all along the slopes, with their water-filled terraces climbing up to cover over 80% of the hills flanking the streams.  

       A branch road just after the Pinghe turnoff winds for 37 km up and down hills to Sanmeng, a Hani town directly south of Luchun geographically.  The bus stops at the bottom of the hill, from which it is a steep hike to the village itself.  The reward is the splendid scenery visible all around, accented in winter by low-lying, wispy morning cloudlets.   

       Compared to the eastern and northern sectors of Luchun County, the rest of it is rather sparsely settled and very forested.  Not many roads link the isolated villages with main thoroughfares.  After the Qimaba turnoff the main highway continues to Dashuigou, a nondescript town itself, but interesting for the different sub-groups of Hani.  The women of one dress in similar style as Hani around Luchun, but with a fancier head-covering, knee-length trousers and colored cloth wrappers around the calves.  Another group wears long jackets and very tall black cloth headdresses with a rectangular top, along with big round silver earrings.  Both sub-groups are spillovers from Mojiang County to the west.

       From Dashuigou the main road runs through the hills south to Daheishan, a town about the same size and look.  Then it turns southwest and soon enters Jiangcheng County.  The Hani in this part of the county dress more like those in Luchun, but their dialect differs considerably, being more like the Hani dialect of Pu’er Prefecture.

       The Hani language is a member of the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family.  It is related to Yi, Lahu and Lisu, and like them has several dialects.  The basic grammar and syntax for all Tibeto-Burman languages is the same, with a subject-object-verb word order.  When the Chinese government decided to devise writing systems for those languages without them, the dialect spoken in Dazhai, just beyond the western outskirts of Luchun city, became the standard for the Hani language and the one used to make a Hani-English dictionary.  It is the one spoken over most of Luchun County, as well as, with a few vocabulary differences, Jinping, Yuanyang, Honghe, Hekou and northwest Vietnam. 


After long campaigns to Sinicize minority nationalities and eradicate traditional culture, after the Reform Era began the government reversed that policy and encouraged ethnic identity.  Not every old custom was revived, but certainly ethnic pride returned.  As part of that manifestation, in 1994 the primary school in Guangma village, on the slope across the stream on the south side of Luchun, began instructing in the Hani language and teaching students how to read and write in Hani, using English letters.


   For the first three years instruction is given in both Hani and Chinese and afterwards mainly in Chinese.  Up through the fifth grade students also have twice weekly Hani language lessons.  The Honghe Prefecture government sponsored the publishing of books in Hani, generally folk tales, Hani proverbs and seasonal work songs. 

       Revivalism has also meant an active role once again for the Hani ritual specialist.  The Hani are animist and employ the specialist to perform the proper traditional rites to appease potentially troublesome spirits, protect the fields and the people’s health, and be able to read portents in the liver of the sacrificial animal. 

       Hani festivals like the Long Table Feast are back in vogue.  For this one all the village men dine together with all the tables lined up on a single village lane and crammed with a great variety of dishes, from meat cooked myriad ways to different edible insects, with each family’s women bringing a tray full for the collective feast.  Liberally punctuated by toasting and drinking, the meal takes all afternoon.  The men then retire and it’s the women’s turn, though not including the drinks.

       Some villages have the traditional gates at the main entrance.  Consisting of a wooden beam aid across two upright poles, it has carved swords or other warning symbols to keep evil spirits from visiting.  When villagers sicken and no medicine seems to work they will call on a shaman to go into a trance to find out what the afflicting spirit demands in order to recuperate and then follow the shaman’s advice afterwards.  They claim it always works.

       For the Lunar New Year villages erect swings and teeter boards for the youth to enjoy.  The swing consists of four long tree limbs lashed upright together with a pair of ropes suspended from the top and joined by a plank at the bottom.  The teeter board is a long beam inserted into hole in a tree stump.  A rider sits on each side, steering the board both up and down and around in a circle.

       For adults, the main activity is family visits and banquets.  And the Hani women will put on their fanciest traditional jacket and turban and whatever jewelry they have.  New Year is always a time of hope and it’s better to dress in your finest to welcome it.  

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               For more on Hani culture, see my e-book The Terrace Builders