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Buddhist mountaineers: The Bulang of Xishuangbanna

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The hills of Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) are home to several non-Dai ethnic minorities, and constitute one-third of the prefecture's population. For many centuries they lived with little interaction with the Dai people (傣族) on the plains, following a different material way of life and adhering to an animist view of the world scarcely influenced by the folks living at lower elevations. The sole exception were the Bulang (布朗), one of the earliest Buddhist migrants to the area, who came up from Myanmar beginning in the seventh century.

Around 38,000 Bulang — a little over 40 percent of Yunnan's total — live in Xishuangbanna. Over 85 percent of them are in the western and southern parts of Menghai County (勐海县), nearly always in villages high up in the mountains. Bulang in parts of Pu'er (普洱), Baoshan (保山) and Lincang (临沧) prefectures are animist, but those in Xishuangbanna have been Buddhist for centuries, perhaps even as long as the Dai. According to their own mythology, the Bulang are elder brothers of the Dai and received the Buddhist doctrine at the same time, though only the Dai got a writing system.

Consequently, the Bulang use the Dai language for rituals and religious terminology, and their monks read and write in Dai. Some of the older men can write the Bulang language using Dai, but this knowledge is not widespread, nor were any books or pamphlets ever published in Bulang employing the Dai alphabet. The government did not devise a script for Bulang using English letters either, as it did for the Hani (哈尼) and some other minority languages.

Traditionally, all Bulang males spent a few years in the village monastery, which are usually situated above or beyond the residential area. There they became familiar to one degree or another with the Dai script. Such familiarity with religious manuscripts written in Dai did not, however, make them fluent in spoken Dai. Their own language belongs to the Mon-Khmer linguistic group and is completely different from Dai.

Situated so high above the plains, the Bulang did not have much social intercourse with the Dai. Because the Bulang practiced the same religion as the Dai, the latter considered them the most civilized of all the hill people, but still grouped them together with the other mountain folk in a rank lower than that of Dai commoners in the prevailing social hierarchy of 'Banna. Dai mythology certainly did not identify the Bulang as their elder brothers.

No Dai monks resided in Bulang villages and Bulang monks did not study in Dai monasteries before beginning their religious careers. Bulang monks learned to read Dai religious manuscripts from older Bulang monks. Yet it was these manuscripts that were the major factor in insuring the practice of Bulang Buddhism was a close replica to that of the Dai. Even today, young Bulang men still spend a few years at the monastery after middle school. Villages still celebrate Buddhist festivals like Water-Splashing Festival and the three-month Buddhist Lent. There are of course a few key differences.

Assembling gift packets for the monks during the Buddhist Lent
Assembling gift packets for the monks during the Buddhist Lent

Like the Dai, during these three months, every fortnight a different neighborhood will conduct rites. But the Bulang event lasts three days rather than one. The richest family plays host and picks up two-thirds of the tab, while the rest of the neighborhood contributes the remainder. The first day's activities include the assembly of gifts destined for the monastery and the preparation by village youngsters of a grand feast for the older generation.

This meal is comprised of several meat and chicken dishes and a special beef pudding for the occasion. Unlike the Dai, no alcohol now or for the entire three months is served. They will, however, serve booze at the feast to any non-Bulang guests. Before the elders begin eating, younger Bulang first go around to wash their seniors' hands.

Following the feast monks come to the house to recite scriptures, repeating the session the next two days. On the second morning people carry their gifts to the monastery and on the third day, with the conclusion of the recitations, the celebrants indulge in dancing, including one number in which men smear soot on their faces and wear "barbarian" clothes.

Not every Bulang holiday is strictly a Buddhist one, though. A few are vestiges of ancient, pre-Buddhist times. For two days in the first lunar month families honor relatives who died during the preceding year. They take strips of palm leaves to the monks and have them inscribed with the names of the deceased. They then take these and offerings of meat, depositing them at the relatives' graves, the temple, the village gate and the village center. For all families, the end of the second lunar month signals three days of rites honoring their other ancestors.

In the past, the Bulang also held an annual festival honoring the bamboo rat. Their mythology credits this animal with delivering seeds to their ancestors, thus introducing the Bulang to agriculture. Villagers traditionally had to catch a bamboo rat on a specific day, sacrifice it, cook it and divide the meat up equally among all of the town households so that everybody got a bite.

For most of their history agriculture was the only economic mainstay. Like their Aini (爱伲) and Lahu (拉祜) neighbors, the Bulang created farms using Swidden methods and grew rice, maize, cotton and vegetables. Their only major tea-growing area was Nannuo Mountain (南糯山), until the Aini evicted them at the end of the Qing Dynasty. But by then the tea business was beginning to expand and by the mid-twentieth century far more Bulang villages were involved in tea cultivation than in growing food crops.

The Bulang had been drinking tea before they cultivated it, but in those days they got the ingredients for it by picking up the used leaves of the Dai. Now that they have their own tea they have developed their own distinctive pickling and souring preparations. Tea with a sour to bitter taste is the Bulang favorite, and they also like to chew betel nut and tobacco. Their preferred taste for food is hot and sour, especially with fish and chicken. They also wrap spiced meat chunks and fish in banana leaves and bake them in the fire. All this they wash down with cups of rice liquor and bitter tea.

The tea boom enriched a good number of Bulang villages. In some places — especially those close to main roads — families abandoned the traditional wood and bamboo stilted houses for two-story, modern-style, cement homes. Others were satisfied with replacing their tiled roofs with corrugated iron, often in bright blue. Generally speaking, as soon as one family changed their house, everyone else rushed to follow.

Still, in more remote Bulang villages, while they might sport corrugated iron roofs, houses are still the elevated, traditional ones — if not on stilts then on brick piles. Most women have not adopted contemporary clothing. The younger people are more likely to dress in Dai sarongs and matching blouses, rather than the blue-black, striped sarong and side-fastening waist-length jackets, slightly flared at the hem, still favored by the older women. The latter also wear dark turbans, decorated with colored pom-poms and silver at festival time, which the youth have also eschewed.

In the old days young men and women used to dye their teeth black as teenagers, rather like a rite of passage. Youth associations organized the affair. First the boys helped the girls dye their teeth using burnt leaves from chestnut trees, then the girls helped the boys. Marriage was by choice, not arrangement, and still is. After marriage rites are administered, the groom sleeps with his wife at her natal house for three years, but returns to work at his own home all day. After three years, if all has gone well between the couple, he takes her to his village to set up house. They even hold a second wedding.

Nowadays blackening teeth has fallen into desuetude, perhaps because young people are more susceptible to modern toothpaste advertising. Bulang youth are also migrating more to towns and cities for employment, only returning to their villages at festival time. The older generation seems to prefer the mountains and most of them hardly ever leave the vicinity of their villages. Some of the more enterprising women do go down to market days in Mengman (勐满), Xiding (西丁) and especially Menghun (勐混), generally dressed in their best ethnic style.

Just south of Menghun a lateral road turns left and south, proceeds uphill through a thick forest of big, fat old trees, emerges near the summit and ends at Bulangshan Autonomous Bulang District. Bulangshan itself is a nondescript, one-street town with a few shops, government buildings, modest restaurants and cheap lodging. Just behind it, though, sits a sizable Bulang village with its characteristic stilted wooden houses with tiled roofs and attached open-air balconies. Its temple occupies the top of the knoll. In the open field beside the town stand pagodas and shrines and a sacred tree. Bulang villages lie along the road to the west and in various cleared areas in the forest, while to the east of Bulangshan are a few Lahu villages. Tea plantations dominate the area, with fewer rice fields than one would find in the plains.

Bulang villages also dominate Bada (巴达), another Autonomous Bulang District in southwest Menghai County. Other Bulang settlements are scattered in Mengman and Xiding districts and one of these, Zhanglang Village (章朗村), ten kilometers southwest of Xiding, became the site of the Bulang Nationality Ecological Museum. With no direct bus there, tourists have to rent a car to go, which some groups do when first visiting Xiding on Thursdays, which are market days.

Even if it had no museum, Zhanglang is worth a visit on its own. It is one of the very oldest and most attractive Bulang villages in the prefecture. Residents claim its foundation was 1,400 years ago and that the temple was originally built three generations later. A thick forest, full of old trees with trunks over two meters wide, surrounds the village. Over a hundred houses stand here, almost all traditional and stilted. A few use brick piles instead of wooden stilts, but retain the sloping tiled roof and open-air balconies. Many have roof decorations at the corners and in the middle, usually stylized flames or buffalo horns, plus the occasional pair of birds.

The road enters the village from the east. Near the entrance is an old well, now dry and boarded up. But a stone lion, a deity and other old carvings on the wall around the well are still intact. Continuing along the road another 150 meters, one passes the end of the old village, then a small patch of forest, then a new extension of Zhanglang of about fifteen houses. At the edge of this neighborhood is the museum, with a view down the valley of Bulang villages on the lower slopes, a few Aini and one Han village higher up, with a white chedi on the summit.

Within the museum are the tools and implements of everyday life, the baskets of split bamboo that are still used, Bulang costumes and all the equipment for making their clothing, antique temple furnishings and wood-carved house decorations like plaques and a dragon staircase. A case displays medicinal plants used in the area.

Another display features religious manuscripts on both palm-leaf and paper, and a manuscript of the village's history, with drawings portraying the village founders. In short, the museum gives visitors an excellent presentation of Bulang culture. Combined with a visit to the ancient temple and a walk around the village observing daily chores, an excursion to Zhanglang offers the most complete introduction to the Bulang way of life.

The inevitable question is how much of their traditions the Bulang will be able to retain in the future. The major difference between them and other minorities in the hills suggests a positive outcome. The animist world-view that characterized traditional thought among the other hill peoples is withering fast as people become more aware of the modern scientific view of the world. While they may maintain some old customs and celebrate a few festivals, the old spirituality underlining their traditions has eroded.

In contrast, the Bulang are still enthusiastic about their own, Buddhist world-view. New roads have connected remote villages with plains markets, allowing them to become involved in the tea business and import goods that improve their daily lives. But ideas that might compete with their religion don't seem to travel to the hills, much less lodge there. For the Bulang, there is no real contradiction between the demands of twenty-first century life and the concepts of the religion that has served them well for 1,500 years. The Buddha still points the way.

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

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In the final image of the woman pounding rice, her saring looks very much like what was traditionally worn by the Khmu people of Luang Namtha in Laos. According to Wikipedia, China does not recognize the Khmu as a separate minority nationality, but lumps them together with the Bulang. However, few Khmu are Buddhist, and the language, while is also in the Mon-Khmer group, is distinct.

Lot of lumping went on to create the 56 official 'nationalities' (minzu) of China back in the early-mid 50s.

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