Sunday, July 31, 2022

Jinuo Villages in Xishuangbanna, Past and Present



                                  by Jim Goodman

       The Jinuo people were one of the earliest settlers in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, and nearly all of them still live there today, mostly around Jinuoshan in the center of the prefecture.  The area is very hilly and has become famous as of one of the six major mountain regions cultivating Pu’er tea.  Legends trace the Jinuo origin to a detachment of soldiers in Zhuge Liang’s army during the 3rd century Three Kingdoms Era.  The unit overslept one night and when it finally caught up with the army Zhuge Liang would not allow them to rejoin.  They were to stay and settle where they overslept.  But to make it easier for them, Zhuge Liang gave them seeds for tea bushes.

       This was supposed to have happened around Mojiang, but the Jinuo later migrated south to Xishuangbanna.  The Jinuo never developed a script for their language so never recorded these events.  It’s not possible to say precisely when they began living in Banna, but the best known and most popular Jinuo origin myth casts them as indigenous to Jinuoshan.  Accordingly, the first human, a giantess called Amo Yaobai, using clay models, created the Han, Dai and Jinuo people.  The Han and Dai occupied the plains, but the shy Jinuo opted for the hills.  When a great flood swept across the land Amo Yaobai bade one Jinuo couple to hide inside a sealed drum to keep them safe from drowning.  When the waters receded the drum landed at the foot of contemporary Bapo village in Jinuoshan district.  The couple who emerged from the drum became the Jinuo ancestors.   

       Only in recent decades have any Jinuo opted to take up residence in the plains.  Always a reclusive people, they have remained ensconced in the forested mountains around Jinuoshan throughout their existence.  At an elevation a few hundred meters higher than the plains, they enjoyed a cooler summer, while the winter was never very cold.  Establishing their villages within the tropical forests, they could take advantage of jungle resources like wood and bamboo for building materials, animal and plant food and natural medicines.

       When setting up a new village the Jinuo usually chose a site on a hill slope facing the morning sun.  After clearing the area they marked off the village boundary with tablets of stone or wood, decorated with carved spears and swords, presumably protection against nefarious spirits.  They built stilted houses of wood and bamboo, roofed with thatch or wooden tiles.  The political and spiritual leaders stayed in individual houses.  Everyone else lived in longhouses, usually ten to twelve families from a single clan, occasionally large enough to fit twenty families.  Residents shared one big room for meetings, socializing, cooking and dining.  Families lived in compartments on both sides of a central aisle, each with a separate fireplace.  When families got larger, to three generations, it became so crowded that people built another longhouse.

       In the longhouse tradition private life was mostly public, for every family was keenly aware of what other families were doing.  It’s hard to imagine growing up in such conditions with a strong sense of individualism or inclined to rebel against any cultural norms.  The family was an important institution, but the village as a whole was the main social unit.  They were farmers and the land and labor on it were collectively shared.

       They cultivated dry rice, corn, bananas, papaya, cotton and tea.  The latter they grew in gardens, which could begin yielding the right kind of leaves four years after planting.   Fruit trees were permanent, but the grains and cotton required fields cleared from the jungle.  In early spring farmers cut down the trees in a section of the forest and burnt them down to the layer of ashes that would soak into the soil when hit by the first rains and provide enough fertilization to grow crops for a year or two.  Then they would have to clear a new patch and leave the just used one fallow for ten years.  After that, with the land fully rejuvenated, they could clear and sow it again.

       The Jinuo were not the only ones to practice this ‘shifting cultivation’ (or ‘slash-and-burn’), it was common throughout the hills of the province.  So long as the population was small and stable the system worked.  The people rotated fields over the same route, re-using the fields and not extending further into the forest.  There was little strain on the overall ecology.

       Besides sharing the produce of the land, the collective ethic also characterized hunting.  Men formed parties and hunted together.  Whatever they caught was shared equally, though the one who shot the animal got to keep the pelt.  They also carried with them bamboo tubes of different lengths, each making a different sound when struck.  The way the party played these on their return informed the village how successful they were.

       Women were not part of these parties, nor were they allowed to do the butchering, because these were life-taking activities.  Jinuo women were the life-givers of the society, giving birth, nurturing babies, planting seeds after the men cut down (and killed) and burnt the trees.  But they were also subject to ritual restrictions, such as not being allowed to touch or beat the village drum.  This drum, intended as a replica of the one that saved the Jinuo progenitors in the great flood, was housed in its own building, beaten by the headman as a summons to a collective meeting, and put to use during important rituals and festivals. 

       The schedule for the preparation of their fields ran according to the annually predictable weather pattern.  At the end of the hot, dry season it was time to cut down and burn the trees and wait for the first rains to mix the ashes with the soil.  But the day to begin sowing the fields depended upon the spiritual leader’s decision and that was after conducting ritual animal sacrifices to appease the land spirits.  Beating the drum accompanied the ritual prayers.  Then the elders ceremonially planted a few seeds in their own fields and after that the rest of the village could start planting.

      Later in the year Jinuo villages also roll the drum out to the center of the settlement on the occasion of Temaoke, a festival honoring the blacksmith, a Jinuo cultural hero.  Before the blacksmith came into society Jinuo life was harsh.  Nearly everything they did was slow and laborious.  The blacksmith introduced tools and weapons that transformed their lives:  axes, machetes, hoes, spades and plows for the field work; knives, spears and swords for hunting and defense.  As a result the Jinuo work load became easier and life was more tenable and sustainable.

       The festival events include rituals by the men honoring the drum and a series of dances mimicking the successive activities of the rice-growing cycle.  The theme is unique to the Jinuo.  Other peoples have blacksmiths, too, but they do not accord them the same cultural prominence.  Temaoke thus represents a celebration of what’s special about being Jinuo and nowadays the people dress in their best traditional garments for it, even if they no longer wear them every day.

       Nowadays, too, the festival includes vigorous drum-beating while the dances transpire, especially by women, no longer forbidden to touch or play it.  In fact, the women’s drum dance is more attractive than the men’s.  Men beat it from a single position, standing in front of it and striking forward.  Women move around, hitting it forward, sideways and backwards, dancing while doing so, making for an energetic, more entertaining performance, especially when more than one woman is playing.

       Besides the taboo on touching the drum, the injunction against women being butchers has also lapsed.  They still do not take part in killing animals for sacrifices to the spirits, for the control of religion belongs to the men, but in recent decades a few Jinuo women have undertaken jobs as butchers.  Nowadays there is virtually no occupation off-limits to women and they hold a highly respected position in society.  Tradition says that in the past Jinuo society was divided into seven matriarchal and seven patriarchal clans, but that the matriarchal system was abandoned three centuries ago.

       Nevertheless, Jinuo villages have two recognized leaders:  the oldest male and the oldest female and the latter supervises women’s affairs.  Within the longhouse the younger generation engaged in fieldwork, while the elderly women stayed behind and looked after the children.  Thus grandmothers were of strong influence on a child’s upbringing.


      The Jinuo did not venture down to the plains very often and were a mystery to the Han and Dai, who called them Youle people, after a prominent mountain in Jinuoshan.  Governments classified them as a branch of the Dai nationality, though their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family, unrelated to Dai.  Familiarity with Jinuo culture and identity only began with the founding of New China in 1949.

       From 1954 Communist Party cadres began contacting isolated Jinuo communities to help them improve their lives.  The following year they set up cooperative work teams for agriculture and introduced wet-rice cultivation to replace the dry-rice farming that relied on the slash-and-burn method of field preparation.  Now the Jinuo built permanent fields in terraces, irrigated by water pumps.  Production increased and, thanks to health care improvements, so did the population, nowadays reaching 25,000.  The old way of shifting cultivation would not have been tenable much longer anyway.

       The government also established the town of Jinuoshan, an administrative seat for the Jinuo-inhabited area.  A network of roads came next, linking major villages within the district.  Hydroelectricity projects reached the villages and electric lights replaced the tiny oil lamps for internal illumination, while electric milling machines took over from mortar and pestle action.

       In 1979 the government finally recognized the Jinuo as a separate minority nationality.  They were no longer a branch of anyone.  They were their own people.  The year was the start of the Reform Era, the dismantling of the commune system and the revival of ethnic consciousness, long castigated as “little nation chauvinism”.  For the Jinuo this meant a new appreciation of their traditional clothing and subsidies for their festivals, as well as other cultural promotions appealing to ethnic pride.

       From 1979 many Jinuo families took the newly possible option now to leave the commune system altogether and started their own farms.  They also began building separate homes outside the longhouse.  In general they were stilted houses of wood and bamboo with roofs of wooden tiles.  Into the 21st century they began deviating in style, with roofs of corrugated iron, walls of brick or cement and directly on the ground.  This has been the fate even of the officially designated “cultural village” of Bapo, where the drum landed after the great flood.

       The village lies above a slope and lying across that slope is a massive stone sculpture of Amo Yaobai.  It was made by a Sichuanese sculptor after a design drawn up by the Sichuan Academy of Art.   She is lying on her back, limbs outstretched, face up and eyes open.  A walkway alongside right up to the village enables visitors to view the entire work up close.  Tour agencies bring groups here, usually arranging for ethnic dances as well.  Bapo, like all Jinuo villages, still has its drum house, though the village architecture has modernized so much it hardly justifies the enormous ticket price to enter.

      One of the government projects designed to promote ethnic consciousness in Jinuoshan was the opening of a Jinuo museum.  Unfortunately, it was not in Bapo cultural village, nor in or near Jinuoshan, where visitors might look for such a thing.  Instead it is in Baka, east towards Menglun, in a rather dilapidated state, converted from an abandoned longhouse.  Separate cubicles hold exhibits of hunting gear like crossbows, traps, snares and rifles, spinning and weaving material, ritual items and sets of local Jinuo clothing.  The museum has never been properly maintained and the glass cases are so encrusted with dirt the exhibits within them are only visible from the sides.

       Traditional clothing is similar throughout Jinuoshan except in Mengwang District in the northeast, where the government sponsored a sub-group recently to move from deforested hills to vacant land in the plains.  The women’s much longer peaked cap reaches to the waist in back, while the blouse, wraparound skirt and gaiters are similar they do not wear the same kind of colorful jacket, but plain blue or purple cotton or silk.  Men wear black jackets with red trimming and a red sun, with spokes like the drum, over the front pocket and the upper back.  Mengwang clothing differs from the Jinuo norm, but its components and style make it recognizably Jinuo.  And though the last longhouse residents in Jinuoshan moved out in 2002, the collective spirit survived and villages stage their own village feasts and celebrations in which all the residents participate.   It’s essential to being Jinuo.     

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For more on the Jinuo see my e-book Xishuangbanna:  the Tropics of Yunnan