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Bullfighting culture in rural China

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Counties north of Yunnan's capital that are part of Kunming Municipality are among the least explored in the entire province. Photographers might zip up for a quick excursion to take pictures of the red soil that is such a prominent landscape feature, but then see little else. Though the area has its share of natural beauty and colorfully dressed ethnic minorities, little information is available, even now online, so travelers tend to opt instead for better-known destinations.

My own introduction to the area came about courtesy of a Kunming friend in the hemp cloth trade. He had a business connection with White Yi villages in western Xundian County (寻甸县) and we decided to pay them a visit on the day of the summer Torch Festival. There wouldn't be the usual bonfires associated with Torch Festival celebrations elsewhere in the province, though. His contact had informed him the main event was a round of fights between the the prize bulls of different villages.

Xundian is an Yi and Hui Autonomous County, but many Hui live in and around the county administrative seat as well as around Liushao (六哨), to the west. In between lies Qingshui Lake (清水海), locally renowned for its clean, clear water, atmospheric scenery and a species of trout bred there that tastes like salmon. Some Miao villages lie south of Liushao, while in the rolling hills to the west and north the White Yi (白彝) dominate.

Notes on White Yi traditions

The architecture of a typical Yi village resembles that of rural Han settlements in the province — houses of mud-brick and wood with tiled roofs and stone foundations. A few even have carved wooden fish hanging from the apex of each roof corner, a symbol of water as protection against lightning or fire. The villagers grow rice, maize and vegetables, but also hemp, for producing the cloth used to make their traditional garments. In modern times they have also been using cotton for their clothing, but hemp cloth is still what tradition demands that a deceased White Yi must be wearing at his or her funeral.

Whether it's hemp or cotton, the Xundian Yi traditional outfit is one of the more dazzling in the province. The dominant component of White Yi women's clothing is a red and white poncho-like garment worn over a wide-sleeved blouse and a long, bulky skirt. It is about three meters long, with white fabric on the sides and hems and a bright red woolen bodice with a square hole in the center to slip a length over the head. The back of the cloth has blue patterns near the end and the women often tuck this section in a way that showcases them.

The red part of this piece is a very bright hue — leaning toward orange and covered in patterns — often with a single repeating motif, sometimes a conglomeration of many. Each village has its own particular set of designs, so that at markets or inter-village events the women can recognize by the patterns from which hamlet the wearer came. When embroidering patterns, the woman not only makes her own selections from the village repertoire, but may also add some of her own creation. The result at a crowded multi-village event like this festival is that no two outfits are exactly alike.

Not all the county's Yi dress in such vibrant colors. A smaller Black Yi (黑彝) group wear wide-sleeved, black wraparound jackets with strips of embroidered flowers on the hems and lapels. Yet another group wears very wide-sleeved silk blouses with broad stripes of contrasting colors. Both groups' women don black trousers rather than skirts. But a final item of attire for any of Xundian's Yi women may be an elaborately embroidered shoulder bag. And while a traditional broad-brimmed hat still exists, most women top the outfit with a rather incongruous Red Army cap.

White Yi women still don their traditional clothing for everyday work, saving their choicest outfits only for special events. On those occasions, a great number of the men dress in the ethnic style, too. Most of the items are made of hemp cloth and, like the women's skirts, the wide-legged, untailored trousers have to be bunched together at the waist and secured with a belt. On the upper part of the body, a long-sleeved shirt goes under a long-tailed white vest. Over that, a black waistcoat with half-sleeves trimmed with flowery flourishes. Like the women, men too often top off this imaginative set of layers with a Mao cap.

Attending the bullfights

The venue for the festival we came to see sits in the western part of the county in a kind of natural amphitheater surrounded by forest. The bulls fight on a small, flat basin just downslope from the road and is devoid of trees or bushes. Behind it rises a slope where spectators sit in a relatively bare section just below the trees. A rocky knoll bounds the north side of the basin and the south side slides away into a small valley.

There was no host village. Yet by the time of our arrival at mid-morning, the slope beside the road was already full of food and drink stalls under tents or large umbrellas. People began arriving in trucks and on motorbikes. Most of those attending were White Yi, but the crowd also included Black Yi, Han, Hui (回族) and Miao (苗族). Older Han women wore the traditional embroidered dark bib, including one octogenarian with tiny feet. The Miao women wore ankle-length skirts of black and white or solid black and dark jackets with blue trimming, among the least colorful Miao women's outfits I'd seen in Yunnan. Everyone was quite friendly, and several women sat twining hemp thread while they chatted and waited for the start of the show.

The White Yi women, nearly all of whom wore traditional outfits, stood out in the crowd wherever they went. They moved around in groups or chatted in waves of fluttering red and white against the largely green background. Some people watched a basketball tournament held about thee hundred meters from the arena, but most just milled around, drinking or snacking and playing games of chance. Around 2pm, the first pair of bulls were ready to square off.

Attention now turned to the arena as men in their full traditional attire — the only thing deemed suitable for the occaision — with the tails of their starched white vests flapping in the breeze, escorted their contending bulls from opposite ends of the field. The handlers guided the pair into position against each other, prodded the two into combat and letting go of the leashes when the fight began.

The first match, however, nearly ended in disaster. The head-butting had barely begun when suddenly one bull panicked and wheeled around to flee, accidentally goring his handler in the process and charging into the crowd. Other handlers quickly caught and subdued it while four men rushed in to rescue the injured man. Two of them lifted him by his arms and the other two grabbed onto the cuffs of his trousers. As they carried him away, his trousers slipped down and his bare ass hung low over the ground all the way to the ambulance. Fortunately, the wound was slight and he was soon back on his feet.

The next match was nearly a repeat. The pair of bulls pushed and shoved each other for several minutes until one lifted his opponent and began shaking it. That move frightened the losing bull, which abruptly turned around, knocked down and ran over one of its handlers, and began running towards the slope beside the road, where I was standing. Everyone scattered and I ducked behind one of the small refreshment tents, figuring the bull would get tangled in the tent canvas before it could reach me.

Fortunately, the bull halted before reaching the tents, turned away and ambled quietly towards the valley. For me and the other startled spectators, it seemed we were in for an exciting day. But none of the ensuing fights matched the drama and adrenalin rush of the first two. In fact, they were so normal as to be, in view of what had happened already, kind of anti-climactic.

At each round, first one handler led his leashed bull in a stately march from the valley to the center of the arena. After he was in place another handler from the rocky knoll side of the arena brought in the opposing bull. Once they had been positioned, the bulls would dig up a bit of the turf in front of them, as if to mark their territory. The handlers, their bulls still on leashes, prodded the bulls to face each other and commence combat, and dropped the leashes when the bulls began to fight.

For the first two rounds the bulls went at it as soon as they faced each other. But in the several matches that followed the bulls seemed reluctant to fight. We amused ourselves speculating that maybe the bulls had witnessed what happened the first two matches, did not fancy themselves mighty winners, but rather feared they might be the one to suffer a humiliating rout.

The Yi were prepared for any bullish recalcitrance. Several picadors jabbed at the beasts with long sticks to provoke their anger, under the assumption the bulls would take it out on each other and not turn around and attack those doing the prodding. Finally, the bulls locked horns and began pushing and ramming each other, with pauses in between efforts, until one bull proved the stronger and the loser turned and fled.

In one match, however, one of the bulls simply refused to fight. Whenever its handler prodded its head to face the other bull, it turned in another direction. And it was oblivious to the repeated picador jabs. It just wanted to run away, but couldn't because it was still on the leash. During several fruitless minutes of trying to make this dumb animal be a good bull and fight, the amused crowd laughed and heckled its handlers. Eventually the owner gave up and led the bull away. Its opponent was declared winner by default.

The matches concluded in the late afternoon and the crowd vacated the area to return home for a big evening feast. We did likewise at the home of our Yi host and probably, just like them, slowly consumed our meal and washed it down with several cups of strong rice liquor while we exchanged anecdotes of our individual adventures and encounters at the arena. In our case, though, we also wondered about the reception given the competitors when they returned home with their bulls. What would be the reaction as the results became known to those who didn't make it to the fights? For the winners, that was easy. They brought pride to the village. Everybody was happy. For the panicky losers of the first two matches, well, at least they put up an initial fight and their handlers could argue that anyway the winners were just stronger bulls.

But the bull that refused to fight like a bull? The bull that revealed the embarrassing fact it had the heart of a rabbit? The so-called village champion bull? We figured the handlers probably just informed the disappointed villagers that this bull would no longer appear in any future tournaments. They would train a replacement, one with a bull's true fighting spirit. As for the animal that brought shame upon itself, its handlers and the village it represented, they would use it for the main ingredients of a big, happy, compensatory village feast.

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 40 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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I helped out covering some big bullfights over Torch Festival in Luliang for the Wall Street Journal. Very similar experience. Thanks Jim for all the extra background on all the fascinating minority dresses and garments.

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I have seen bullfights in Japan but still have not seen any in China. Must put it into my itinerary.

Great article Jim. I saw some impressive Miao minority inter-village bullfights south of Kaili in Guizhou circa 2004. They held them in the broad rocky river beds mid-way between villages, turning our solitary road hanging off the mountain above in to natural makeshift amphitheatre stand. All traffic stopped for the duration of the bout, in which villagers surrounded the two beasts in a human circle in an attempt to cajole them toward one another.

I saw a bullfight last Monday in Qiubei. Thought it was pretty entertaining and I'd recommend you watch a fight if you ever have the chance. Before the bullfight they had Horse fighting which was also very watchable. Never even considered the concept before.

Walter, you deserve a big thanks for having had Goullarts - Forgotten Kingdom - on that pratyeka website - which is your website I assume. I dont know if you still got it there somewhere, but it was there several years ago already and it was great to pick up chapters from it there.

Thanks Peter. Yes, that's my website. Lots of people have used it over the years, in fact I even saw a book published in France which had the same tattered cover reproduced from my scan! Another good read is the Khazak Exodus book which is also at pratyeka.org/books/

Nice pics Walter. I've seen that riverbed and road. Miao villages there are scenic without a bullfight even.

Nobody else think bull fighting is an animal welfare problem such as other issues like dog eating festivals? Or is it because it's all steeped in nice looking traditional practices then it's OK?

Yeah, I'm not a great fan of the ethics. Then again, at least they tend to survive rather than be mauled to death, like some of the cockfighting participants, and if you eat meat having any negative opinion on the matter is largely hypocritical.

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