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Discoveries in Yunnan's Dayao County

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Santai on market day
Santai on market day

Chuxiong, in between Kunming and Dali, is officially an Yi autonomous prefecture because the Yi minority, though constituting only around a quarter of the population, reside on more than half the territory. The Yi are the largest ethnic minority in the province — comprising 11 percent of Yunnan's residents — and are divided into a few dozen sub-groups speaking five major dialects. But most travelers skip Chuxiong. It doesn't have the spectacular scenery of areas further west, like snow mountains, mighty rivers and picturesque lakes, so the only Yi the average visitor encounters in Yunnan are those in Lijiang and Dali prefectures, the Stone Forest near Kunming and maybe Yuanyang.

The Chuxiong government earlier this century tried to play up the Yi aspect of its territory with the construction of a theme park on the northern side of the capital, exhibits in its fine new museum and promotion of the annual Torch Festival. Still, that hasn't resulted in a burst of Yi cultural tourism. Chuxiong City is easy to access, but Yi villages are far away in the hills, requiring a little time and effort. But in many areas, especially the northwest quarter of the prefecture, they are quite unspoiled and solidly rooted in their traditions.

The White Pagoda on a hill next to Dayao City
The White Pagoda on a hill next to Dayao City

Dayao County (大姚县) is a fine example. Besides its several Yi sub-groups — who live relatively the same way but dress very differently — the county also features a couple of famous religious monuments. One is the White Pagoda, so named for its color, which sits on top of a small hill next to the city of Dayao. It is also known as the Bell Stick Pagoda, because its shape resembles the stick used to strike bells in Buddhist temples. Built in the Nanzhao Era in the eighth century, it rises from an octagonal platform 18 meters high and has stood erect through major earthquakes over the centuries, its only scar a meter-long crack near the top.

The other religious monument of note is the huge, 2.5 meter bronze statue of Confucius, housed in a temple in Shiyang (石羊), 36 kilometers west of Dayao. Made in the early seventeenth century, it took over nine years to cast. Weighing around 1,000 kilograms, this statue of the seated sage, crowned and holding a tablet and flanked by dragons, is the only extant bronze Confucius on the mainland.

Bronze Confucius in Shiyang
Bronze Confucius in Shiyang

Shiyang means 'Stone Ram" and is named after one such statue unearthed when people were digging a great salt well in the area many centuries ago. The town lies along a narrow river with Buddhist and Daoist shrines on the slopes of the south bank — some in caves, with odd statues such as a scowling, bearded man ripping open his abdomen to reveal a Buddha inside and a clean-shaven man splitting open his face to show another one underneath.

Shiyang is actually more of a religious center than Dayao itself. Aside from the temples around the White Pagoda, the only other religious monument is the late Qing Dynasty six-tiered pagoda on the hill at the south entrance to the elevated plain around Dayao. The city still had a lot of old wooden, two and three-story tile-roofed wooden buildings when I first visited it over twenty years ago. It was also home to friendly inhabitants, mostly Han, and an active artistic scene of sculptors, painters and silk carpet-weavers, all yearning to attract foreign appreciation and business. Bars and entertainment venues were few and social life revolved around private visits among friends.

Daoist sculpture, Shiyang
Daoist sculpture, Shiyang

On Sunday market day this all changed. Han villagers from the plain and Yi from the hills swarmed into town. They came on foot or bicycle, led or rode ponies, pulled carts, pushed wheelbarrows or took tractor-trailers. They set up stalls in the main market area and along New Road, selling grain, fruits, cloth, shoes, mountain herbs, silver ornaments, tools, crockery and walnuts — for which the county is famous, especially for the soft-shelled variety from Tiesuo (铁锁), northwest of the city.

Most sellers and shoppers were Han, but the Yi formed a sizable percentage and their traditionally dressed women brightened up the crowd scene. Most of the Yi were from villages to the east and south of the city, and the women dressed in long-sleeved, pastel-colored blouses, black vests, black turbans, plain trousers and short, thick aprons embroidered with big flowers. Some may also wear a goatskin vest, a characteristic garment of Yi in Chuxiong Prefecture.

Both men and women wear these and they make them from the skins of two goats, expertly stitched together, that reach to the knees, hang open in the front and, though worn all year round, last for several years. In the cooler months they tend to wear the fur side against the body and the leather side out. When it rains they reverse the vest and wear the fur side out.

A few of the Yi will be from sub-groups north or west of the city. The most colorful outfit belongs to the Yi women around Santai (三台), to the west. They wear the brightest blouses in the area, appliquéd with many rows and bands elaborately embroidered with flowers and arabesques. They accent this with long silk aprons in front, of graduated sizes using different hues and patterns. This is worn over ordinary trousers and shoes and usually topped, incongruously, with an olive green army cap.

Santai lies along a junction of two streams west of Tanhua Mountain (昙华山), surrounded by high hills. On the twenty-eighth day of the third lunar month, Yi in this area celebrate Fuzhuang Jie (服装节), the Dressing Up Festival, also known as the Yi Fashion Show. On this occasion they show off the best traditional clothes they own, gather in Santai for an all-day market, then in the evening go to nearby Guola Village (过拉村) on the hill above for several hours of singing and dancing.

Santai Yi woman
Santai Yi woman

Yi from Tanhua district, directly north of Dayao, may also be in town for market day, but in fewer numbers, for Tanhua also holds its market day on Sunday. And while there may be a few Han merchants from Dayao and Shiyang in attendance, here the crowd is overwhelmingly local Yi. The village lies on the southern slope of a ridge, dappled with peach and pear trees. Just beyond the lower part of the village are a small cave and a modest waterfall.

Tanhua houses are typical of rural Yunnan, made from mud-brick and wood, with tiled roofs over two stories sitting on stone foundations. The interior walls are often stone, the floor earthen with wooden doors and shutters featuring intricate carvings. The people raise wheat, maize, beans, buckwheat and potatoes and tend goats, the main meat available in the area.

Tanhua market day
Tanhua market day

Higher than Dayao, the weather is always cooler and one local Yi custom I learned on a fairly cold, drizzly, pre-market morning when invited inside to "come sit by the fire awhile." The Yi here always keep live coals in the hearth so that they can get a fire flaming quickly when they come back inside. My gracious hostess served me tea and warm, unleavened wheat bread until the rain ceased and people began arriving for the market.

Tanhua market day differs from those around Dali or in Ailaoshan, where the great majority of the people in attendance are women. Here, as in other market day venues I witnessed in the county, as many men show up as women. Trails lead out of Tanhua in several directions and a couple villages are visible from the upper end of Tanhua. But many of those who come hail from places three or four hours away and leave home as soon as it's light enough to see the path.

Unlike at Santai, where the women seem to compete with each other to see who can wear the most gorgeous outfit, the Yi attending the Tanhua market were not quite so inclined. They have a traditional ensemble that is at least as attractive as those seen in Santai, but most of them rarely wear more than a few elements of it for market day. For sure this will include the goatskin vest, but also shoulder bags worn by both men and women that are intricately embroidered, fringed and heavily tasseled. They are fairly large and their bright colors contrast sharply against the dark goat fur of the vest over which they are draped.

The embroidery on every shoulder bag is unique, and they can be of any color. But the overall design follows an ancient tradition, in which the patterns and their arrangement have symbolic, religious significance. The central motif represents the sky god, the paramount deity in local Yi religion. He is the first god worshiped in any ceremony and his permission must be sought before the Yi honor any other deity in their pantheon, which includes gods of the mountains, the forests, of hunting, autumn, grain and marriage.

The blocks and patterns around the central motif represent the principle of yin-yang. Lines that divide the inner patterns from the outer ones are known as tiger paths. Various trees, stars and other motifs fill the area beyond the tiger paths. Several tassels hang on each side where the strap meets the bag and a long fringe, of one or several colors, is attached to the bottom. Great variation exists in the patterns, colors and motifs deployed and some women achieve a high degree of artistic creativity making them. Since the bags are always in public view, with people constantly comparing and evaluating them, reputations for fine embroidery get established. One can ask who is the best embroiderer in the village and be given a specific name at once.

To embroider their bags the women use the cross-stitch style, in which the motifs consist of tiny x's. For their long-sleeved, side-fastened, hip-length jackets the decorative strips use a more pictorial style, with rows of flowers, whorls and arabesques, similar to the Santai style. They can be just as lavishly embellished as the latter, though the dominant background color is usually red or blue rather than golden yellow.

Belt tabs at the back of an apron
Belt tabs at the back of an apron

The main stylistic difference from the Santai outfit is the combination bib-apron worn over the jacket, with large, fist-sized flowers embroidered on the lower part. An ornamented silver chain holds the top part around the neck, while a belt, with several embroidered cloth tabs attached, fastens it in the back. Rather than an army cap the women wear black turbans lined with rows of silver studs in front and the tail ends elaborately embroidered and fringed at the ends. They tie it in a way that shows off the ends and add a few thread tassels above the right ear. In the village environment of shades of brown and green, the traditional Tanhua outfit stands out in resplendent contrast.

While the entire ensemble is not part of everyday apparel, it is all but obligatory for major public events such as weddings and festivals. Besides important Han events like New Year and Qingming Festival, Yi in the county villages also stage their own Torch Festival programs. But one event — Chahua Jie (插花节) — draws Yi from all over the area to Tanhua Mountain, the 3,657-meter mountain just above the village that shares its name. Held the eighth day of the second lunar month, its name translates loosely as the 'Arranging Flowers Festivel', honoring the ancient Yi heroine Miyilu and is also celebrated in other parts of the prefecture by other Yi sub-groups, albeit with a slightly different story behind it.

The Yi style in Tanhua
The Yi style in Tanhua

Long ago a powerful, wicked lord kept demanding young Yi women for his depraved pleasure until the brave Miyilu offered herself in marriage, intending to slay him in the process. According to the Yi in the hills close to Chuxiong, Miyilu killed the tyrant on their wedding night and fled. But his relatives caught up with her and murdered her beside a white camellia tree. Her blood stained the roots and the camellia has been red ever since. The Tanhua version has her offering to marry him while pinning a poisonous azalea flower to her hair. She asks the lord to join her for in a drink, secretly poisons the liquor with the azalea and when they imbibe they both die.

In commemoration, the Yi mount azaleas and camellias on their doorways and then assemble in a grove on the slopes of Tanhua Mountain. There they witness rites conducted by their bimaw — a ritual specialist — and watch a dramatic re-enactment of the tale. A different Tanhua girl plays the part of Miyilu every year, then people make flower wreaths, break up into groups for feasting and in the evening indulge in singing and dancing, which features boys playing the 'moon guitar' and girls singing in high-pitched, undulating voices. All of this lasts until long past midnight. It's a welcome break from their ordinary life of farming and herding and a proud re-affirmation of their Yi identity.

The traditional style in Tanhua
The traditional style in Tanhua

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally posted on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 30 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.

Images: Jim Goodman

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Another excellent article from the dean of modern Yunnan ethnographic travel writers.

May the subject matter not be ruined by cheapening development of the travel industry.

Excellent article indeed.

Aren't those figures in the caves splitting open their faces and abdomens Arhat statues?

Hey Jim, great piece!

I think the 'clean shaven man peeling off his face' is Baozhi (418-528), a monk said to have been a Chan ( - the Chinese Mahayana tradition that gave rise to Japanese Zen) master, and to have peeled off his face in front of Emperor Gao of Qi dynasty and later Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (reigned 502–549, noted for his patronage of Buddhism in Chinese history, sometimes known as 'the Chinese Ashoka', co-author of the famous scripture 'Emperor Liang Jeweled Repentance' (梁皇寶懺) that is often recited at Qingming Jie and Guijie (Ghost Festival), and who considered Baozhi his favourite monk) and revealed himself to be the Twelve-faced Avalokitesvara (ie. Guanyin / 觀音 or 观音 in simplified).

Apart from Baozhi's status as a Chan master, the story is associated with the esoteric Buddhist tradition (meaning either Indian/Tibetan Vajrayana, such as that potentially transmitted directly from India via the Pala Kingdo in Nanzhao times, or earlier 漢傳密宗 / 'China-transmitted Esoteric Buddhism', China's indigenous Vajrayana) cult of Avalokitesvara. Esoteric Buddhism is thought to have spread in China (surviving amongst other and established Buddhist traditions) through popular cults around "divine" monks just such as this one.

Sources allegedly describe Baozhi's early life as follows.

Born in Jincheng (晉城), Shanxi (山西) province under the Liu Song Dynasty (劉宋朝; also known as the Former Song Dynasty / 前宋), his original surname was Zhu (). He left home and entered the Daolin Temple (道林) located in the dynastic capital of Jiankang (建康) or modern Nanjing (南京).

Around 465-471 (when Baozhi would have been approximately aged 47-53) he stopped eating or sleeping, let his hair grow, and began walking the streets barefoot, holding a staff decorated with either a pair of scissors, a mirror, or bits of cloth.

Later, around 479-482 (when Baozhi would have been approximately aged 61-64; cue "when I'm 64...") he began to tell the future both verbally and through prophetic poems. Due to his growing influence, Emperor Wu had him imprisoned, during which time he was seen walking about the town despite being in prison. During the same prison term he predicted with accuracy being sent alms on a golden alms-bown by a noble. Hearing of this the emperor had Baozhi removed from prison and invited him to the palace.

Various stories of miracles are thereafter attributed during which he wins the Emperor's respect and goes on traveling about the country. One such story involves him being gifted a robe by Faxian, one of the few famous monks who made it from China to India and returned via the Southern Silk Route (ie. by water). Finally, Baozhi predicted his own death.

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