When I first visited Yunnan in 1992, the province had already been partially open to foreigners for several years. They could visit established tourist destinations like Kunming, the Stone Forest, Dali, Lijiang and Jinghong, but little else. But by then, the open-door policy was proving successful and over the next few years the government allowed foreigners into several new counties every season.
Enough attractions existed in and around these popular sites to warrant extensive exploration and return excursions. But once I began to make my trips to Yunnan regularly — from then on as it turned out — I included at least one newly opened county every itinerary. To guide my choices I thumbed through the coffee-table picture books on the province I bought from Kunming's Foreign Language Bookstore.
Having already had encounters with some of the Yi minority sub-groups, I decided to visit very different Yi in Dayao County, in northwest Chuxiong Prefecture. Nobody went there because it was not en route to somewhere else. Except for Dayao city itself, it was an Yi-dominated county, with different related sub-groups, and that was sufficient to lure me. They would show up at the Sunday market and particularly dominated the hills north of the city.
After a couple visits to Tanhua (昙华), where most Yi women dressed in traditional style and both sexes wore goatskin jackets and everything seemed pretty old-fashioned, I decided to go further north, where other Yi sub-groups lived. Also motivating me was the fact that at the end of the road, such as it was, was a Dai minority district on the Upper Yangtze — in Yunnan called the River of Golden Sand, or Jinsha Jiang (金沙江).
Back then that was certainly an off-the-beaten-track adventure. The only public transportation was a weekly bus — still several days off — so I had to pay for a ride with a logging truck going north of Guihua (桂花乡), the next major settlement, with my final destination still 50 kilometers further on. A couple foreigners had briefly been to Tanhua, so I was told, but no one went beyond. I would be the first to visit remote ethnic minorities as well as rural provincial government officials. As it turned out, the latter were more interesting than the former.
Above Dayao the unpaved road zigzagged along the eastern slopes of Tanhua Mountain, at each turn providing views of mountains and distant villages perched on ridges or just below cliffs. To make parts of this road, workers had to carve or blast through sheer walls of rock, with 70-degree gradients on either side. Aside from the views, I also appreciated the skill of Chinese road engineers.
About an hour out of Tanhua the road crosses the last extension of Tanhua Mountains and the scenery changes abruptly. The mountains are steeper, less forested, heavily terraced and rather densely populated compared with the Tanhua area. The road slowly winds down to the river valley below Guihua, visible nearly an hour before arrival. The town sits on a ridge above the river, mainly comprising wide, mud-brick houses with wooden beams and tiled roofs. Typical rural Yunnan style.
The 'family history' coat
I checked into a cheap local lodge, but before I could settle in and finish my coffee, a representative of the local government arrived to invite me to stay in a private room in their quarters. He also introduced the local middle school English teacher, Li Hui, to accompany me on my tour of Guihua. That consisted of walking around looking for good photo angles, as this was the middle of the week and not much was happening anywhere, other than on the farms outside of town.
All that changes on Saturdays, when Guihua holds its market day and Yi from the hills stream into town. I couldn't stay that long, unfortunately, so couldn't assess how popular traditional clothing might still be in the district. Judging from how few Yi women wore it in Guihua and the villages nearby, and what Li Hui told me, it seemed to be less common than in other districts in the county, such as Tanhua and Santai (三台乡).
Two traditional Yi styles prevail in the district. The more common one resembles that of the Tanhua Yi, with the women wearing a side-fastened, long-sleeved jacket, embroidered apron, shoulder bag and plain black trousers. Older women's jackets are solid colors and plain, while the younger generation applies wide bands of colorful embroidery and appliqué on the sleeves and along the lapel. Both the apron and shoulder bag feature bright red embroidered flowers.
Very different is the outfit worn by the women of a small Yi sub-group north and west of Guihua. Over an ankle-length black skirt trimmed with bands of bright appliqué designs, they don long-tailed jacket with wide bands of different cutout designs on the sleeves, front and back. The patterns chosen for the back of the coat symbolically represent events in the wearer's family history. Thus, no two coats are identical and while they may only wear them on special occasions, every woman makes herself one because custom demands they be buried wearing it after they die.
The Yi 'chicken hat'
For headgear, Guihua Yi women inclined to dress traditionally may don a simple black turban or a colored headscarf. But a more common and striking choice in the area is the brightly embroidered 'chicken hat'. Shaped like a coxcomb and often worn sideways — with the head and tail above the ears — similar 'chicken hats' are popular with other Yi sub–groups in the province, including the Nisu in Yuanyang and Tuli in Weishan.
The origin of this hat is an ancient tale of two lovers pursued by the Prince of Devils. First he killed the young man, then tried to capture the young woman. She fled through the forest, with the Prince of Devils in hot pursuit, until she came to a village in a clearing. A cock crowed, which stopped the demon in his tracks. A witness to that, she guessed the demon was afraid of roosters, so she grabbed the bird and ran back into the forest to where her lover lay. The cock crowed again and the young man came back to life. Ever since then, Yi girls wear the hat in honor of the rooster, to symbolize good luck and happiness in love.
In my engagements with the Yi women I met in Guihua I persuaded a couple of them to sell me their shoulder bags. One featured the big embroidered flowers typical of the Guihua style. The other was cross-stitched, like the bags in Tanhua. Li Hui apparently mentioned this while we dined with local Party officials that evening. After a few rounds of corn liquor one of them proposed that I set up a factory in Guihua to produce Yi embroidered shoulder bags for export. They would allow me 70 percent ownership. I explained that traditional handicraft work was not something done in a factory, but at home and in the field whenever time was available. Besides, I was a petty trader at best, and in fact more of a collector, with no idea how to market Yi shoulder bags.
On the road north
Undaunted, perhaps ambitious to secure a business relationship with the first foreigner in Guihua, the official next proposed I build a paper factory. My first thought was the horrific effect that would have on the clean stream that ran below the town. But I didn't mention that. I told him the area didn't have the right trees. In fact, it didn't have hardly any trees at all, of any kind.
The conversation soon shifted to other topics and the evening turned out to be quite convivial. My hosts tried to arrange a jeep to take me to Wanbi (湾碧村). Unfortunately, the Party was having an important meeting in Beijing at that time and Party officials in districts throughout the country had to have their own meetings to discuss the meeting. The jeeps were busy fetching people from remote villages to attend the meetings, both Guihua's vehicles and those in Wanbi.
Wanbi lies 88 kilometers north of Guihua and the logging trucks only went to a depot about half way. So my hosts arranged the only available transportation — a Chinese-style tractor-truck (拖拉机). I had to pay 200 yuan and Li Hui would accompany me to smooth the way with the town officials. I was familiar with these vehicles, as I'd seen them bring people to market day in Dayao. But that was on paved city streets. The road ahead was unpaved all the way and had been pretty bumpy riding in the relative comfort of a pick-up truck up from Tanhua. Nevertheless, there was no other choice.
By Chinese tractor is probably the least comfortable way to travel. The driver sits on a small, three-wheel tractor in front and passengers sit or stand in the four-wheel trailer behind. It was too rough to sit and even standing we were continuously jolted. Moreover, though it was a fine spring day, the wind was fierce and blew the dust from the road all over our bodies, baggage and cameras. I often had to call for a pause, just to give my bones a chance to settle down.
The rough and rollicking journey took most of the day. The scenery was much the same as around Guihua, with farms, pastures and villages dominating the largely deforested lower mountain slopes. We crossed the last ridge, descended to Wanbi beside the river, and arrived in time to check in at the government lodge and have dinner with our gracious hosts, the local Dai government officials.
There was no shower in the building, but they arranged basins of hot water and towels for us to wash off the dirt from the ride. The Party was holding meetings here too, so they would be busy until Sunday, when it would be possible for me to cross the river. Li Hui and the driver returned to Guihua the next morning and I had two days to explore the vicinity on my own.
The Jinsha River near Wanbi
Wanbi has two parts. Upper Wanbi is the original Dai village, sited on a slope above its terraced fields, with a view of the Jinsha and other Dai villages. Its main street is lined with wooden shop houses, while the residential neighborhoods feature houses of wooden frames, rammed earth and tiled roofs, or occasionally thatched ones like those of the Yi villages south of the ridge. They harvest two crops a year — wheat in winter, rice in summer — and use water buffaloes as draft animals while also raising goats.
Wanbi Dai are animist, so no temples stand in the area. The old folks told me they think they came up from Xishuangbanna or Myanmar many centuries ago, but they also claimed that before Wanbi they lived north of the river. I tried out several Thai phrases, but the only similarity was kin khao, meaing "eat rice", which they pronounced jin khao. However, those who had been to Xishuangbanna said they could understand most of the Dai dialect they heard there.
Lower Wanbi is the administrative town, and full of drab concrete buildings. But it is on a knoll close to the river, which is the main attraction. Rice fields lay beside the town all the way to the riverbanks, but on the other side the steep hills are practically barren of any kind of vegetation. The river is in places turbulent, but at other sections placid enough for fishermen in small boats to cast nets. Huge boulders bank the river periodically, while in other places it laps along stretches of white sand. Colors on the river and the hills vary throughout the day and are richest in late sunny afternoons.
After breakfast noodles, the district chairman drove me to Binghai (炳海), ten kilometers upriver, where several small boats ferried people across the river that day to attend the weekly market on the other side. The crowd on both banks was mostly Dai, but also featured some Han and Yi, with some Lisu people from settlements high up in the hills on both sides of the river. Except for a few older women in dark, side-fastened jackets and black turbans, the Dai wore modern clothes. Older Lisu women dressed similarly to the older Dai women, but some of the younger women wore a distinctive, brightly colored jacket.
The regular ferry had engine trouble at the time, so people were taking rowboats instead. We wound up paddling across in a dinghy made from inflated tire tubes. Beside the marketplace several tractor were parked and I fretted I'd have to ride one of those to the nearest highway. But my host, who insisted on paying for everything, found a truck to take me instead. I departed thanking him for his hospitality and in particular for the final service of securing me a truck to take me to the highway. One tractor adventure was quite enough.
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.
Images: Jim Goodman© Copyright 2005-2023 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.
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