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When Yunnan's Yi dress up as tigers

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Wudi Village (五地村) lies in the mountains of southeastern Chuxiong Prefecture (楚雄州), right in the center of Yunnan province. To get there requires taking a bus first to Chuxiong, another to Shuangbai (双柏), 60 kilometers south, then yet another one to Fabiao Township (法脿乡), 50 kilometers further southeast. Fabiao is pleasantly sited amidst rolling hills, with a good vantage point for sunrises. It's a Han town, as are the villages immediately south, towards the reservoir. From this body of water, a trail bends west to a long valley flanked by high hills, their slopes sprinkled with medium-sized villages sitting above terraced fields.

Wudi is among them, about an hour's walk from the junction at the reservoir. Like the other settlements in this part of Shuangbai County, its inhabitants are members of the Yi nationality — the largest ethnic minority in Yunnan — comprising five major dialect groups and thirty-odd separate sub-groups. Aside from hearing the language — a Tibeto-Burman tongue quite different from Chinese in both structure and sound — not much exists in the village to mark Wudi as Yi-inhabited. Unlike many other sub-groups, Wudi's Yi do not dress in traditional costume, not even the older women. Nor do they carry distinctive shoulder bags, like the more assimilated of their Yi cousins in other counties of Chuxiong.

About 60 to 70 houses stand in Wudi, sited just below the summit of a high ridge, buildings of rammed earth, timber and tiled roofs. It is the architecture typical of rural Yunnan, with nothing particularly Yi about it, in stark contrast to the Yi log cabins of the northwest or the flat-roofed Yi houses of Honghe Prefecture (红河州). Homes sit close together along cobbled streets and are sited around a pond next to the central square, which extends halfway up the slope behind.

Near the top of this back slope is the village altar, so to speak, with three stones standing in a small clearing. This certainly identifies the village as Yi, for the custom is common to nearly all Yi sub-groups. The stones represent the original Yi ancestors, and rituals taking place here are conducted by a bimaw, the tribal specialist in such matters and office existing in every traditional Yi society. So in spite of their apparent assimilation into the folds of Chinese culture, the Yi of Wudi do retain at least vestiges of their original traditions.

Once a year, though, they do much more than exhibit vestiges. A fortnight after Chinese Spring Festival — or Lunar New Year — Wudi village stages a peculiar festival of its own called laohuzhuan (老虎转), or 'Dressing Up as Tigers' — that in no way resembles anything culturally Chinese, unless it be the shamanistic dances of ancient, preliterate times. For this event, several young men don strange costumes, paint their bodies and masquerade as tigers. They are joined by other men, including the village bimaw dressed in long black gowns. Together they perform magic dances to invoke the gods' blessings for the coming rice crop.

Perhaps in the past villages besides Wudi used to stage this event as well, but in Wudi itself the festival was banned in 1952 by Communist cadres bent on eradicating 'superstitions'. Not magic and ritual, but hard work and discipline will make the crops grow, ran the new argument. The undermining of other Yi customs and beliefs continued, sometimes subtly, sometimes fiercely, until the Reform Era launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. The Party then reversed policy on minority nationalities, who were then allowed to revive, more or less, as much of their ethnic traditions as they wished. In Yunnan, home to 24 of China's 55 minority nationalities, the government encouraged the process by repairing and renovating religious buildings and subsidizing festivals.

But laohuzhuan in Wudi had not been performed for over a generation, and its revival did not immediately strike the minds of the villagers. Then in 1986, a Wudi Yi woman, related to one of today's performers in the dance, suggested its revival to the man in charge of Fabiao's cultural center. He assembled the village elders, organized costumes and props, and directed its reappearance as an annual event in February 1987.

The tiger costumes differ somewhat from the originals, which were a kind of striped cloak. Nowadays the performers put on felted, grey woolen capes, tucked at the upper corners like outsized cat ears, and bunched at the lower end and rolled into a thick tail. White, red and yellow stripes are painted on their bare legs, arms and faces. Throughout the performance the 'tigers' hold up their arms, bent at shoulder height, with their 'paws' dangling free.

Joining the eight tigers in the dance and on the procession are several men in black coats and trousers, plus one in blue. The bimaw and his assistant are among them, distinguished from the others by grey woolen capes, folded at the shoulders. Most carry gongs or a drum, the only musical accompaniment to the act.

A great feast precedes the show, with chicken, fish and several pork dishes, in a room laden with pine boughs. The performers eat heartily, for the procession and the vigorous dances will expend a lot of calories. They wash it down with strong corn liquor. Then they ascend the slope to the altar grounds and don their costumes. When all of them are dressed and painted, the bimaw begins the ritual, facing the three stones, pine boughs lying around their bases. The assistant inserts lighted incense sticks into the ground in front of the stones and places small cups of liquor between them.

After a few prayers, the bimaw, with sacrificial hen in hand, leads the group in paying obeisance to the four cardinal directions. Facing the stones, he then stabs the hen in the throat, while an assistant plucks three feathers to leave at the altar. The bimaw collects the hen's blood in a dish, while the meat will be consumed at an evening banquet. Then the bimaw and his assistant take a tray, a bottle of spirits and a small bowl, go around to each of the participants and the guests as well, and invite them to join in the ceremony by quaffing a small drink.

Now the group lines up for its march through the village. The leader is first, followed by the caped bimaw and his assistant — the man in blue, his face striped in yellow and holding a chunk of pig fat stuck in the end of a bamboo staff — five or six black-gowned men with gongs and a drum and one carrying the tray and the liquor. The eight tigers line up after him. They half-march, half-dance through the rocky, narrow lanes. Sometimes the tigers pair off, lock two feet together in the air and hop around in a circle. Other times they fall into groups for a quick jig.

The troupe stops once or twice at the house of one of the village leaders. Two of the tigers crouch on all fours at the doorway and the bimaw and his assistant straddle them while the recitation goes on, blessing the owner of the house. This short rite concludes with a cup of liquor for all in attendance.

Wudi is not a big village, so the procession is concluded within a half hour, and the troupe arrives at the village square beside the pond. The middle school sitting on one side and the square also allows more room to maneuver, and the dancers spread out, move back and forth in circles, pair off more frequently and finally halt for a short rest. After twenty minutes, the show resumes with the most fascinating, and to the Yi the most important, part of the performance. Gathering at the south end of the square, the tigers run through a series of dances that mimic the various tasks in the rice-growing cycle.

First comes a solo tiger carrying a basket, surveying the field. Next, three tigers advance with a plough, which one of them 'yokes' to the other two. In a very stylized manner, rife with gesticulations, they mime the ploughing. Another trio follows them to do the harrowing. A fourth dancer emerges next, wielding a hoe. He is followed by a tiger with a basket, who pretends to be sowing broadcast.

For the planting skit, all eight tigers participate. They conclude with a short rendition of weeding the field as well. After this four tigers come out with sickles to mime the cropping. For the final skit, three tigers bring out a huge threshing basket and they and the other five tigers together mimic the beating of sheaves against the basket sides.

When all the props are put away the group re-forms and dances in circles again. The whole act, excepting the march through the village, is repeated at the square at night, with practically the entire village in attendance. When the last skit concludes, the villagers form a line and commence their own communal dance. Led by flautists and men playing the typically Yi 'moon guitars' — round, wooden, dragon-headed, four-string instruments — they move slowly and sinuously throughout the square, in a three-steps-and-kick pattern like that of the tigers before them.

No one in Wudi can say just how ancient the festival is. Most of the Yi in Chuxiong share the same origin myth — that the first Yi was the son of a tiger and a woman — but no other Yi sub-group stages a tiger dance. The dances mimicking the rice cycle activities are obviously designed to magically insure a good coming crop and would have been the 'pagan' or 'superstitious' aspect that aroused the 'atheist' or 'scientific' opposition to it in 1952. So what would its revival imply?

The Wudi woman who suggested its return in 1986 is reticent about what prompted the notion. Were the rice harvests less than expected in recent years and did she, consciously or sub-consciously, believe a dose of the old magic would put things right again? It's hard to believe the village population as a whole believes the tiger dances insure the rice crop. Like the man who organized its revival, they instead wanted something ethnically and uniquely their own with which to identify. They may have assimilated in most other respects, but the staging of laohuzhuan is more than just a traditional splash of color in an otherwise humdrum lifestyle. It is the Wudi village celebration of being Yi.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published 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.

All images: Jim Goodman

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That is so cool. Will have to try and check it out next year

I should have included this in the editor's note, but the dance will be held this year on February 21, so there's still time to arrange a trip!

It would be possible to make 10 different doctoral thesises on the importance of the tiger to Yunnan. This is not only for the Yi, but just about every other minority too. As one example, take the Naxi, for whom the tiger is actually a monotheistic God. Old maps have abundant of tiger mountains, rivers, temples, even Kunming had a lot of locations with tigers names. You had to pass the tiger gate when entering Kunming from north, near the Jinma Shan. And so on...

Of course, a pessimist could also raise the question whether the shooting of the last tiger 2011, was just the last tiger shot, or something more than that.

Plenty of tigers in Yunnan a century ago, especially down around the borders with Laos & Myanmar.

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