by Jim Goodman
Wherever they constitute a majority of the population or inhabit over 50% of the territory of a district, county or prefecture, they are in charge of the local government. Chuxiong, for example, lying between Kunming and Dali, is a Yi Autonomous Prefecture. Han Chinese dominate the urban areas and some of the rural zones and make up around 80% of the population. But the Yi sit on over half the land.
They are divided into many sub-groups, all dressed differently but basically following the same lifestyle. A good example of this diversity is Dayao County, in the northwest part of the prefecture, where I started exploring in the mid-90s. It was a small, old-fashioned city, with a lot of traditional wooden shophouses, almost entirely Han-populated, just several minutes walk from the surrounding countryside.
Erected in the 8th century Nanzhao Era, it has withstood several earthquakes since then, suffering only a small crack on one side, hardly noticeable until you get close to it. A village straddles one side of the hill and a walk around the hill, looking at farms along the way, and up to the pagoda to see the mountains on the horizons, is the most attractive excursion around the city.
Sunday is Dayao’s market day, when the city fills with Yi people coming down from the nearest of those mountains and Han people from the immediate rural area. Most of the Yi the day I attended were from the southeast hills and not particularly colorful. A few from north of Dayao wore the Yi goatskin vest over modern clothes. But a couple girls were dressed in bright and colorful jackets, fully covered with multi-colored strips of appliqué and embroidery, aprons in front and, incongruously, an army cap on their heads.
But an acquaintance later suggested maybe Tanhua, a hill town north of the city, mostly inhabited by Yi. On my next trip to the county I visited Tanhua, timing it for market day, where the crowd was 90% Yi. The women dressed more colorfully with side-fastened blouses in bright reds, pinks, blues and greens, appliqué strips around the sleeves and cuffs and along the lapel and neck, with an embroidered bib and a black turban. Not all of them dressed in the full outfit, but they all carried embroidered shoulder bags and most wore the goatskin vest.
It can be worn either way, but when it rains they wear it with the fur on the outside. It has no sleeves, does not fasten, and reaches to the knees. I bought one on sale at a stall. The vendor asked for 300 yuan and when I agreed she threw in dinner as a bonus—a hearty meal of grilled goat, soup and rice liquor. Friends in Dayao afterwards assured me that was a fair price.A couple Yi dressed like the two who caught my attention in Dayao showed up in Tanhua and this time I learned they were from Santai, another town in the county west of Tanhua. So on my next trip to Dayao that was my destination. Santai district is famous for its walnuts and I timed my visit for October, the harvest time Unfortunately, that year experienced a prolonged monsoon and it rained heavily most of my excursion.
A landslide caused me to spend a night in Sanchahe but the next morning the road had been cleared and I arrived in Santai in a light drizzle. The town lies at the junction of two streams with hills rising all around it, higher in the north, marked by villages of mud-brick and wood houses and tiled roofs and patches of forest or walnut groves in between. Terraced fields lie below the settlements, nearly all Yi-inhabited. In the Ming Dynasty the district was a source of copper, silver and other minerals. Platforms for blast furnaces were set up on three sites, giving the town its name. San tai in Chinese means three platforms.
The women wore their splendid blouses and aprons, but these were barely visible under their raincoats. Instead of a plastic raincoat I wore the goatskins I bought in Tanhua, which proved to be a social success, as most men were also wearing them, and got me invitations to drink and chat and come visit their village. But the skies looked threatening and I declined. They left and in fact a downpour commenced an hour later. It was not enough to prevent my departure next morning and I left with a memory of friendly people and a desire to come back for their festival next year. It would be dry season then and all the women will be incredibly photogenic.
The Santai-style long-sleeved blouse, more heavily festooned with decorative strips than that of the Tanhua Yi, was the star of the event, worn by virtually every Yi woman, young and old. For the festival they put on their newest ones and several aprons in front in contrasting colors, some garnished with sequins, each apron about five cm smaller on three sides than the one underneath, making bands of color alongside the front apron. Their belts were tied at the back with the embroidered end tabs draped over the buttocks. Some tied silk scarves around the waist, with the ends left dangling.
The plain black trousers and green army caps actually accentuated the brilliance of the garments on the upper body. Some of the girls wrapped bright silk scarves around the cap. Those wearing the army cap were all from the younger generation. Perhaps it was the current fashion, like their preference for running shoes. Older women wore black turbans lined with rows of small white buttons and cowry shells. Some also attached small loops of colored wool tassels or an embroidered flat cap fringed on all sides with pairs of loops of woolen thread in alternating colors. Except for earrings and silver pendants on a few of the turbans, jewelry wasn’t part of the ensemble.
Aside from the goatskins, which many men wore in spite of the warm weather, and an occasional black turban, that was their only traditional clothing item. The shoulder bags were like those in Tanhua, fully embroidered cross-stitch style—little x’s sewn into floral and geometric patterns—with long fringes at the bottom. Some of the girls and older women carried white fringed deerskin bags. None of the women wore goatskins that day, for that would cover up part of the blouse they were showing off.
The festival was originally called Fuzhuangsai—Dressing Up/Fashion Competition. There were apparently judges who awarded winners. The name had changed some years earlier and now there are no judges. I guess that was because it was just too difficult to decide, among all the gloriously dressed females, exactly which one to recognize as being even slightly more splendid than any of the others. Never mind. The competition carries on as before, though with each other for esteem and admiration rather than aimed at a prize.
Local people began setting up stalls in the morning around 9:00. Most people wouldn’t arrive until a couple hours later, so I hiked on the trail along the stream heading to the hills, as this was a main entrance to the town for Yi villages in that area. I picked a spot where I could take nice photos of them as they approached.
They came in separate small groups, the men leading the ponies, the women all dressed to the hilt. A few men took a break to join me for a chat and a smoke and I learned a few Yi words and phrases I could use for the day. Two girls stopped in their tracks when they spotted me and after some moments turned and walked away so as not to encounter the strange foreigner. Santai hardly ever hosted foreigners in those days. So as to not keep them in a state of fright that prevented them from coming to the market, I returned to the town. It was getting crowded there already anyway, with lots more photo opportunities.
Men haggled over prices of horse trappings, ropes, straps and tools. Women browsed the stalls hawking beads and ornaments, spangled silk pieces, aprons, scarves and other clothing accessories, traditional and modern. Some stalls sold bedding and blankets, others shoes and sandals. Besides grains, vegetables and fruits sold in the market area, cooked food was also available. Rows of tables on the upper street offered bean gelatin and noodle dishes. Restaurants prepared goat meat soup, a favorite with their mainly Yi customers.
The market action began winding down after six p.m. Stall owners packed up their merchandise to load on ponies or tractor-trailers and the crowd gradually dispersed. Some headed for their villages, while a large number, including myself, walked up to the nearest Yi village, called Guola, on a hill slope above Santai, to observe the festival program. The venue was the village basketball court, but people meandered around the square for a while, for the first part of the program was a basketball tournament.Then half a dozen Yi musicians on flutes and lutes entered the court. The youth, mostly girls in their gorgeous outfits, lined up in groups along the sides, extending beyond its limits. Spectators sat in bleachers behind the court. The musicians, some in goatskins, circulated in the center of the rectangle, moving from one group to another. The musicians played the same tune over and over as about 20-30 dancers responded each time. Dancers moved to their right, but whenever the musicians got close to a group, the dancers added kicks to their steps. I was the only one with a camera on the scene and whenever I took a flash photograph a collective “Ahh!” ensued from the dancers, yet they never missed a step.
I didn’t witness much of that, however. Most of the boys stood behind the girls and just gawked. The few that joined the dance were at the end of the line and never in between girls. I didn’t notice any boy-girl conversations in the market, either, as they all wandered around in small groups of the same sex. Perhaps they were shy in public or more conservative than other Yi I’d met. The girls were reluctant to pose, but didn’t mind me taking candid shots. This was before digital cameras were available, so I couldn’t show them instant results, which would undoubtedly have made the day much more engaging.
The men were the opposite, greeting me as they passed by, exchanging remarks about the festival and inviting me to join them in the restaurants for goat soup, rice and cold beer. With the women I could only look, exchange smiles or make but a single comment, like “beautiful” in Yi or Chinese. Their reaction could be surprised, friendly or neutral, but never negative or hostile. The crowd’s general attitude was yes, it’s a wonderful festival, glad you could see and enjoy it. I certainly did, even though the late night dance was the only real action to watch. Most festivals celebrate religious, agricultural, historical or mythical events. The Santai Yi Fashion Show theme is different. It celebrates the beauty of being a Santai Yi woman.
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