Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Cangyuan to Mengding: the Dai and Wa of the Border Lands


                                                                   by Jim Goodman


       For a long time the precise border between China and Burma remained undefined.  This was especially true for the southern part of Yunnan’s Lincang Prefecture, a long way from the capitals of both China and Burma.  Small autonomous Dai states, run by hereditary sawbas, lay in the plains on both sides of what is today’s boundary, while the Wa resided in the hills.  With their reputation as fierce warriors and headhunters, Wa villages were de facto autonomous as well, both from plains authority and each other.  No government made any effort to subjugate them

       The British conquest of Mandalay and northern Burma suddenly riveted Beijing’s attention to the border issue.  The government sent armed forces into Lancang County 1887-92 to establish its authority, while the British began advancing towards Yunnan to fix its own delineation of the international boundary.  There was no question about Dehong, which had long been on the Southern Silk Road into Burma and was always a recognized part of China, even though the ethnic groups who lived there also lived on the Burmese side.  Burma had claims on Xishuangbanna, but the British renounced them.  The main problem was who would rule over southern Lincang.

       While they did not claim the right of jurisdiction over all Dai/Shan populations on both sides of the border they did insist that Wa-inhabited area should not be similarly divided but must all be administered by Britain.  Resisting this demand, the Qing government eventually broke off negotiations, which were not revived when the dynasty fell and China became a republic.  The British did not send any military forces to assert their ambitions and the border stayed peaceful and basically ignored until after the British left Burma.  Even then, it was not until the mid-1960s that the two countries took the step of physically demarcating the boundaries.

       It was still a remote area when I visited before the turn of the century.  Cangyuan County, encompassing most of the once disputed zones, was only accessible by road via Gengma to its north, entering the county at Mengsheng.  A new airport and a highway from Gengma city directly to Cangyuan city early this century has brought more outside influences, but back then modernization was mostly only in the urban areas.   The countryside was hardly affected, especially in the hills, higher and steeper than those in Gengma County, dominated by old-fashioned Wa villages of thatched bamboo and wood houses

      Cangyuan is an Autonomous Wa County, so designated where an ethnic minority occupies over 50% of the land and/or comprises over 50% of the population.  In this county the Wa are virtually the only people living in the hills, other than a few Lahu and Yi around Mengjiao.  And they were the first inhabitants, long, long ago.  The rock paintings on the cliffs of Ai Hua, just beyond Menglai, about 30 km north of the county capital, depicting hunting and other scenes, are believed to be the work of ancient Wa artists.

       Traditional Wa culture included, and was much influenced by, the practice of headhunting. The Wa were farmers, of the slash-and-burn type, and fretted over threats to their crops. They believed that a human’s soul-force resided in the head.  It could be used to protect the crops.  So every spring, prior to planting, they went on expeditions to secure one or two heads to mount on tall poles overlooking the fields.  The further away they went the better, for then the soul-force couldn’t find its way back home.  Its power only lasted two years, usually the time when the field had to be changed, and another expedition would go out.

       Of course the family of the victim of a headhunting raid was not likely to pass it off as part of traditional culture, therefore OK.  They would want revenge, another reason why the expeditions traveled so far from their homes.  But just in case the revenge parties took the trouble to come, or closer villages opted to make raids in their vicinity, Wa villages built fortifications.  They surrounded the residential area, usually a hundred houses or more, with sharpened bamboo stakes and thick thorn bushes.  There was only one entrance, concealed by thorn bushes like the rest of the perimeter, but those who lived there knew where it was.

       With the establishment of the People’s Republic change came to the Wa Hills.  The government announced the banning of headhunting, slavery and the killing of twins, but gave the affected societies (Wa, Jingpo and Hani) until 1956 to phase such customs out. As for headhunting, it had been in abeyance for some time already.  Expeditions had ceased many years ago and the last recorded incident was one motivated by revenge, not protection for the rice crop.  The main effect of the decree was that Wa villages dismantled their fortifications. 

       Many of the larger villages broke up into smaller ones, but in the late 90s, when I visited the area, big old Wa villages still existed, like Nanpie near Nuoliang and Wengding near Mengjiao, the latter unfortunately consumed by fire this year.  Bamboo and wood was the main building material.  Houses stood on low stilts, with very steep sides, the roof thatch hanging nearly to the ground, with a small entry niche in the front.  Inside one small window allowed the smoke to escape.  The hearth was in the center and a tray suspended over the fire place held gourds, bamboo tubes and other items that the smoke would cover and make them impenetrable to insects.

     Cangyuan town, formerly called Mengtung, lies in a broad plain and is just ten km from the border.  Mountains rise just three km past the urban zone.  It’s not very large.  One can walk from end to end in half an hour.  The original Dai town lies along a small knoll just above the main market street.  As in Gengma, also once an autonomous Dai mini-state, each neighborhood has a posted name.  Some Wa have resettled in the town and, now that malaria has been eradicated, some Han have immigrated here to set up shops.  But the majority of Cangyuan town’s residents are Dai.

      Most of the Dai are farmers and on market day, held every five days, lay out vegetables for sale in the city streets.  Dai men and younger women tend to wear modern clothing, but the older women still prefer traditional clothing.  This consists of a sarong, long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket and a white turban.  The colors are usually subdued; dark blue, dark gray or black for the sarong, lighter shades for the jacket. 

       By contrast, the Wa women dress somewhat more colorfully.  They may be wearing a modern blouse or jacket, but usually don wraparound skirts with colored bands, woven ny themselves on a back-strap loom.  They are also distinguished by their long silver pipes, which practically every woman brings with her to the market.  The Wa have the greatest percentage of female smokers among all of Yunnan’s nationalities.  The Cangyuan Wa are not as colorful as their counterparts in Menglian, but they are just as friendly and very polite and hospitable to any surprise Western visitor.

       The same could be said about the Dai here.  Visiting temples and Dai neighborhoods I was frequently greeted with huanying—“welcome” in Chinese.  Their dialect differs from that spoken in Dehong or Xishuangbanna, but they share the same religion—the Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia.  Introduced by missionaries from Sri Lanka, where it originated, it took hold in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and in southern Yunnan among the Dai south and west of the Red River, the De’ang and Bulang.   

       The earliest Theravada temple in Cangyuan County, the Jinlong Temple, was erected in Mengjjiao, north of Cangyuan town, in 1380.  It remained the most prestigious temple in the area, but was leveled by Red Guard fanatics during the Cultural Revolution.  Reconstructed in 1980, an earthquake flattened it eight years later.

       In Cangyuan town, the Guangyunmian Temple dates its construction to 1828, sponsored by the Yunnan government.  Its style is a mixture of Burmese and Chinese, with gilded rising dragons flanking the entrance and a three-tiered separate building in the courtyard.  Murals of the Buddha’s life and contemporary social activities adorn the interior walls.  It had a few resident monks and about twenty novices when I visited, evidence that at least some Dai families were still following the Theravada custom of enrolling their sons for a temporary stay at the monastery.

       After 1956, when headhunting was officially abolished, Dai Buddhist monks began proselytizing among the Wa.  While most Wa held onto their animist beliefs, a significant proportion adopted Buddhism, especially around Ban Hong in the western part of the county.  The temple resembles an ordinary thatched Wa house on the exterior, but the interior is just like a Dai temple.   Like rural Dai, Buddhist Wa villages construct a special house for the sacred village pillar.  Besides adopting the Dai religion, Buddhist Wa also took other features of Dai culture, such as the garments of the women.  Buddhist Wa women still smoke, though.

       The road west from Banhong runs through hilly territory until it reaches the checkpoint at Mengkaba next to the Nanding River.  From here the road turns northeast and runs about a hundred meters above the river through a narrow gorge before descending back to the plain and passing several Dai villages on the way to Mengding.  Once a little Dai state with its own sawba, today it is scarcely more than a business center, only really active on market days, held every five days. 

       The scenic and very fertile plain along the Nanding River is home to two kinds of Dai.  The Han Dai, the original inhabitants, live away from the river, in houses sited on the ground, mostly north of the town and east of the highway.  Their women dress like those in Cangyuan County, usually in black sarongs and pale jackets, though with a very tight bodice that seems designed to flatten the breasts. They may also wear a conical cap of split bamboo over, or instead of, their turbans.  Their main temple in Mengding, of stone, wood and tiles in the Burmese style, has long been a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists in the area.

       The Shui Dai immigrated here from Xishuangbanna in the Qing Dynasty and established villages along the river south of Mengding.   Their women choose brighter colors for their outfits, often donning the same color sarong and jacket.  They live in houses above the ground, though they may use brick piles rather than wooden stilts, and usually have adjoining balconies.  Besides rice, sugar cane and vegetables, some of them have rubber tree plantations at the edge of the settled area.


      Nongmu, one of the largest Shui Dai villages, lies within walking distance south of Mengding, very near a bamboo plank suspension bridge over the river.  About a hundred meters long and three or four meters above the river, the bridge sways a bit when crossed and is used not only by people on foot or bicycle, but also three-wheeled taxis and loaded tractor-trailers.  Unlike some of the smaller villages, Nongmu has its own temple, an odd-looking building of gray stone with arched columns and a multi-gabled wooden roof.

       Besides the local Dai, Mengding’s market day also draws those from across the border. Many of the women smear tanaka wood paste on their cheeks, a common practice in Myanmar, that is supposed to keep their cheeks soft and smooth.  They often inscribe patterns on the paste, resembling the tattoos of the Dai men.  Wa and De’ang also turn up for market day, both to run stalls and to shop for themselves.

       Both the Wa and De’ang around Mengding are Buddhists.  Villages of both are small to medium size, with traditional stilted houses of wood, bamboo and thatch.  Not many have their own temples, yet they do have their sacred village pillar like the Dai.     

      The De’ang are one of the smallest minorities in Yunnan and have been Buddhist as long as the Dai.  In Myanmar and Thailand  they are known as Palong and distinctive for the women’s wide silver belt.  Such an item is rare among Yunnan’s De’ang, but they often wear rattan rings around the waist instead.  The sarong is usually black with thin red stripes, worn with a front-fastened, long-sleeved jacket of light green or blue, with broad red panels down the front.  Several De’ang villages lie around Qinshui, beyond Mangmei, a Wa and Lahu area, north of Mengding, and Junzhai, across the river.

       In a couple short trips I could not explore everything of interest on the Cangyuan to Mengding route.  Nature parks, remote villages, unobserved market days and attending Dai and Wa festivals still remain on my list of things to do on a future excursion.  And that would include more encounters with friendly, hospitable Dai, Wa and De’ang in their attractive, sometimes gorgeous, natural settings.

*  *  *



1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.