Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Early Excursions to Aini Villages in Yunnan


                                                by Jim Goodman


       When flights became available from Chiang Mai to Kunming in Yunnan I had already been living in Chiang Mai a few years and had been working with the Akha ethnic minority group in the northern hills.   We produced traditional clothing items, mainly shoulder bags and jackets in Western sizes, the colors from natural dyes, which was my own role in the project, a skill I picked up in Nepal before I moved to Chiang Mai.  There was a market for such things in the late 80s and early 90s and by living moderately the work basically paid for my research, having the ambition to write a book about them. Ever since I met them I had been curious about their original homeland.

       Only a small portion of the Akha lives in Thailand.  They are more numerous in Laos, Myanmar, and especially China, from where they originated, and where the greatest number of sub-groups lives.  Thailand has only three.  The majority are Ulo Akha, characterized by tall, tubular headdresses and intricate line-stitching embroidery.   The next largest are the Lomi Akha, whose women wear a silver-plated attachment behind a cap fully studded with silver half-globes and employ a lot of appliqué on the bags and clothing.  The third and smallest, concentrated at Pamee and other villages near Mae Sai, are noted for their cross-stitch embroidery and lavish use of silver on the women’s headdresses and clothing components.  I worked with all three.

       The Ulo and Lomi Akha came into Thailand from Myanmar, but the Pamee sub-group came from Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China.  On one of my regular visits I met a relative of my host family who was staying in Pamee a few months to make money in the litchi orchards.  Yunnan was opening to tourists and he invited me to come to his village in Xishuangbanna.  That provided my main excuse for going and I arranged a flight for the summer of 1992.

       After a few days taking an extended look at Kunming and the nearby Stone Forest, I flew to Jinghong, met Akhas on the street, greeted them in Chinese, then rattled off some sentences in Akha along the lines of—You are Akha people, are you not?  I’m an American person. I live in Thailand and work with the Akha people and can speak a little Thailand Akha language.  Can you help me?  In that way I learned that my friend’s village, called Paseu, was in Xiding district in Menghai County.  In those days there were many places in the province still off-limits to foreigners.  Beyond Jinghong, Mengla County was still closed and in Menghai County only the towns of Menghai and Menghun were open.  I needed a permit for Xiding district.  Thanks to a demonstrable ability to speak the Aini language (as the Akha are officially called in China) that was no problem.

       Because of the novelty of a foreigner at all in Xiding, and one who could speak their language, an Aini shopkeeper invited me to stay with her family that night.  It was raining anyway, so they wined and dined me, examining my Thailand Akha photos, until after midnight.  Next morning we met an old man who knew where Paseu village was, so my Xiding hostess told her son to take me there, along with his Chinese friends, who would all share the task of carrying my luggage.

       After quite a long hike, pausing for rain showers, we arrived at dusk and the boys turned to me.  Who did I know here?  Ajeu who worked in the litchi orchards in Thailand.  Someone took us to a house belonging to an Ajeu fitting that description, but we didn’t recognize one another.  Turned out he worked in Pahee, one of Pamee’s satellite villages.  But you’ve come a long way, he said, and must be hungry, so stay for dinner.  In the course of the meal the word about us spread through the village and before I could finish eating the other Ajeu, who’d worked in Pamee, came to the house and afterwards took me to his home.

       Ajeu was my host and companion the next several days as I explored the forest, nearby villages, the tea gardens where most of them worked, and the Xiding market on my way back to Jinghong.  Almost all the Akha here had never seen a Westerner before, but my use of the language, even though a different dialect, made the proper impression and at social gatherings I brought out my Dictaphone and played recordings of Akha dancing ground songs in Thailand.

       Most socializing with guests and neighbors takes place during an extended dinner.  First meat and vegetable dishes fill the tables, along with rice spirits, which must be quaffed in the beginning and frequently afterwards throughout the meal.  Cigarettes are also liberally distributed and the men even smoke while they eat.  For a while they only take bits of meat and vegetables as they smoke, talk, drink, joke and laugh.  It’s at least 40 minutes before the women serve the rice and soup.  Even then the pace of eating only picks up slightly as the atmosphere continues to evoke a celebratory experience of eating and drinking in human company.

      In this the Akha in China resembled their cousins in Thailand.  They also shared customs like the internal domestic wall separating the men’s side from the women’s side, the use of shamans and spiritual specialists, rituals of the December New Year, and the Swing Festival.  As tea cultivators they did not observe festivals and rites associated with growing rice nor maintain their village gates.  They did not grow cotton or indigo, so bought their clothing components from the markets.  Traditional clothing was not so common in the villages and when posing for family portraits the females had to do some borrowing for a traditional look.  The men dressed modern style and the only man around with a traditional Akha jacket was me.  In the Xiding market I did see some women dressed traditionally, wearing conical headdresses or ones like in Pamee, but often plain jackets without embroidery.  Younger ones did not dress in Akha clothing, but carried traditional shoulder bags, usually heavily embroidered.

       So I had much to relate to my Akha friends and workers back in Thailand, but on the next trips to Yunnan I concentrated on the northwest and its people, resulting in a book published later that decade, and didn’t visit Aini villages again until late 1997.  By then counties were opening to foreigners at an accelerated rate and I conceived a long-term research project that would take me to all parts of the province for a book that was eventually published in Kunming as The Exploration of Yunnan.  One of the first stops was Lancang County, where the largest ethnic group is the Lahu, most of whom are Christian and live in modern style.  However, the county also hosts sizable Aini communities, still traditional, as far north as Shangyun, but mostly south of Lancang city. 

      I was with a Chinese friend who was taking me to meet his Wa connections in Ximeng after Lancang and he had a friend in Lancang who used to be a police officer stationed in Jiujing, about 25 km south.  He arranged a car and driver to take us to a typical Aini village near the town.  It lay within the forest, several km down a dirt road turnoff from Jiujing.  The people were rice farmers, but their fields were not visible from the village.  The houses were similar to those in Thailand, made of bamboo and wood with roofs of thatch.  Some had roofs of wooden tiles and a few dwellings were brick houses in the contemporary style.

       By coincidence it was Aini New Year, celebrated here three 12-day calendar cycles earlier than in Thailand or Xishuangbanna, where it occurs in late December.  It was the third day, featuring the settling of accounts at the headman’s house, and the rice liquor flowed freely.  They even gave me a bottle once I was introduced to the scene and began conversing.  They celebrated other festivals like in Thailand and had the full range of traditional authorities:  the headman who mainly handles outside affairs, the dzoema who is the authority and ultimate arbiter on cultural matters, the pima who is the spiritual specialist and memorizes the oral  traditions and history, the blacksmith who is also chief architect and oversees house construction, and the shamans, to whom people go when medicine does not ease their afflictions.

       Perhaps because it was festival time more of the people, even males, dressed in traditional clothing, though women tended to wear red and white checkered headscarves instead of ornamented headdresses.  Their shoulder bags and the lower half of the vests and jackets were heavily embroidered but with colors restricted to pink, red, white and magenta.  The bags were also bigger than usual and the skirts longer and bulkier.  They wove and dyed their own cloth and strips of indigo cloth were hanging on some of the balconies, just like in winter in Thailand.

       Three months later, February 1998, my Yunnan exploration included sojourns to Xishuangbanna to visit the oldest Aini settlements in Menghai County and find out where they lived in Mengla County.  In Menghai County the biggest and oldest villages were in Gelanghe Autonomous Aini District.  With an adventurous young Chinese friend I headed there.  There was only a dirt road then, climbing quickly into the hills southeast of Menghai, that were speckled with forests and slash-and-burn farms, augmented by tea gardens and fields of sugarcane.  Halfway to the town, straddling the crest of a hill was the Aini village of Yakoulaozhai.  The previous year, to mark its 125th anniversary, backed by a grant of 5000 yuan from the county government, the village erected a magnificent entrance gate.  Based on the original traditional entry gates, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and not rebuilt since, it was bigger and more richly decorated with carvings of weapons and other symbols to repel demons from the protected sacred site of the village.

       Most houses were traditional style—stilted bamboo and wood structures with roofs of thatch or wooden tiles.  The people we saw were all dressed modern style.  We didn’t stay long, for our destination, 6 km south of Gelanghe, was Pasha, an even older and bigger village.  With over200 houses, all of them in traditional style, Pasha had already spawned two satellite settlements a short distance away.  It lies on a slope that’s not very steep and the highest neighborhood is on the crest of the ridge.  Up here stands the festival swing, next to two simple and ordinary size entry gates, with carved male and female figures beside them to remind spirits this is a human zone and not for them.  Pasha had these gates because three years earlier the current dzoema personally revived the tradition.  The other two villages didn’t have them. 

       One big difference between the Akha in Thailand and the Aini in China was ideological interference.  In Thailand outsider attempts to change the traditional Akha Way came from Christian missionaries and Buddhist proselytizers.  In China it was periodic government campaigns against ‘superstition’ that undermined tradition.  Another casualty of this was the absence of ancestral altars inside Aini houses, still very much part of Akha life in Thailand.  At least there was never a campaign against embroidery designs and the survival of this tradition was very evident in Pasha, especially among the older women, who still wore traditional garments and were currently busy stitching in their free time.  The younger ones rarely wore them, except for the shoulder bag, but all the babies had traditional caps, festooned with beads, cowry shells and coins.

       In Mengla no one could tell us where the Akha lived, but I assumed they must be near the Lao border province of Phong Saly, which was heavily Akha-inhabited.  I chose to look in the vicinity of Nankexing, a spot on the map next to the border.  There was a border check post at Manzhuang, but when my friend explained I was researching Akha/Aini in China for a book the police permitted us to proceed.  However, they couldn’t tell us where the Aini might live.  We got a ride part of the way, then hiked past thick forest on both sides of the road and after another hour came, not to Nankexing, but to a stone pillar marking the China-Laos border.

       Fortunately a woman turned up heading back to her village and informed us an Akha village lay 3 km ahead and the nearest Lao border check post was several km further on.  We hiked to this village, called Pakeu whose residents were the original inhabitants of Nankexing.  They fled to Laos to avoid the political campaigns of 1958.  They had moved down from the mountains a year ago, closer to their sugarcane fields, so their houses were a bit ramshackle, yet the interiors were in the same traditional style as in Thailand.  The men’s side and women’s side had separate hearths and a wall divided them.  The ancestral basket was stored in the far corner of the women’s side beside the dividing wall.  Water was carried and stored in bamboo tubes.

       This was the first Akha sub-group I met whose women wore, instead of skirts, black shin-length trousers.  On top they donned a black long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket that reached to below the knees.  Aside from the cuffs and a tab next to the left side of the neckline, it was all plain black.  On their heads they wore a close-fitting cap with a flat board rising up from the back, all swathed in black cloth.  A line of silver studs decorated the front brim and round silver pendants hung on chains on both sides of the face.  Unmarried younger women cropped their hair short and many wore no headgear.  For those who did, it was a skullcap decorated with coins, silver studs and the same round pendants hanging down each side, as well as long strings of beads and white seeds dangling from the back of the cap.  More of their sub-group lived north on both sides of the border and I met them again years later in Mengban district.

       Still, their attire was quite a contrast to the bright and colorful outfits of all the other Akha I’d encountered.  But with our final excursion it was back to the kind of Akha ensembles I was used to seeing.  We went to Mengman in the southwest corner of the county and at once met Akha girls in full traditional clothing similar to Thailand and Menghai County.  From them we learned of Akha villages west of the town past the rubber tree plantations.  These villages were well off thanks to the rubber business and all the houses were newly made brick in the local Dai style.  Only the big swing distinguished it as an Akha village.  When I commented on that, a villager suggested going to his sister’s village on the Lao side of the nearby border to see something more typically traditional.

       It was a 90-minute hike over a plain, a Lao army post visible to the south, to the edge of the forest and the site of the village.  Here, as promised, all the houses save the headman’s were in the classic Akha style.  (His was brick.)  All females dressed in traditional garments, though none wore the calf-wrappers common elsewhere.  And instead of a heavy beaded pouch holding down the skirt in front they wore loops of beads across the right hip, fastened to the waistline front and rear.  As it was already late afternoon the headman invited us to stay the night and attend the house-warming party of a neighbor.

       The males spent an hour slaughtering and cutting up a big pig and when the feast began ate separately from the women.  Young women kept replenishing the tables with freshly cooked pieces of pork, while the host made sure the rice liquor made regular rounds, and I passed around my photos of Akha in Thailand.  The meal was long, marked by much conversation about their culture, comparing aspects in each country.  They also had the same origin myth as that narrated to me in Pasha, Jiujing, Xiding and Thailand, memorized in full by the village pima.

       We returned to the headman’s house fairly late and a little drunk, but there was one more old-fashioned traditional experience coming up to enjoy—opium.  Behind the partition wall on the female side an older woman was lying on her side smoking her pipes.  She soon finished and turned over her place to a young man who proceeded to prepare a couple pipes for himself to smoke and then several each for both of us.  My friend had never smoked before but this was something still common at that time in northern Thailand, where until recently many Akha villages cultivated the plant.  At the end of the session our host only asked payment for what the Chinese smoked.  Mine was complimentary because I spoke their language.  Now I had a final anecdote to relate when I returned to Thailand’s Akha villages. 

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