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The branch people: 'Minor' minorities of Xishuangbanna

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The population of Xishuangbanna Autonomous Dai Prefecture can be divided into three roughly equal parts — the Dai, the Han and the other twelve different recognized minority nationalities. Four of Xishuangbanna's ethnic groups — the Ake, Kunge, Kemu and Kucong — do not have sufficient numbers to qualify for official recognition as shaoshu minzu (少数民族). Instead, they are classified as "people who are branches of recognized nationalities".

The Ake people

The Ake — pronounced áh kéu — have been listed as a branch of the Hani minority, much like the Aini. Their Tibeto-Burman language is considered to be a dialect of Aini, but differs so much in vocabulary that it is unintelligible to Aini elsewhere in Xishuangbanna. Ake villages are clustered in two main areas in the prefecture — the hills south of Menghun (勐混), where their neighbors are Bulang nationality and Lahu, and the hills above Mengkuan (勐宽), east of Jinghong, where the people living closest are all Aini.

The Ake live in stilted wooden houses with an open-air balcony and peaked roof with wood tiles. Around Menghun they are indistinguishable from Bulang or Lahu houses. But in Mengkuan District they differ from Aini houses by the addition of two or three gables. According to their own mythology the Ake say there were originally three brothers — Ake, Aini and Han — who decided to divide up their family territory. Ake was the oldest and hardiest of the three, so he chose the mountains. The Aini got the lower hills and the Han took the plains.

The Ake say they adopted Aini culture twelve generations ago, though acculturation to the 'Aini Way' stopped short of being complete — so no Swing Festival, for example. Like the Aini, every year the Ake erect new boundary gates at the main entrances to their villages to mark the line between the human world and that of the spirits. The longbatou — or village spiritual leader — ritually consecrates the gates so that ghosts cannot pass through them.

The longbatou is also the village headman and the one who fixes the dates of the big festivals, in consultation with town elders. The major event of the year is the autumn New Year, held sometime in November. The longbatou relies on the another called the luchi to assist in the rituals. The other major office in Ake society, as with the Aini, is the pima, the one who memorizes oral traditions and is the ultimate authority on questions of custom. Like the Aini also, the Ake rely on their shamans to treat inexplicable illnesses that do not respond to medicine.

The still popular Ake woman's traditional outfit combines a black and red, calf-length Bulang-style sarong and Bulang-style black, a wraparound turban and a jacket that looks like that of an Aini sub-group, of blue-black cotton, with colored bands on the lower sleeves. From the breast to the lower hem, front and back, the Ake woman covers the surface with rows of embroidered patterns, a process often taking months. Bands of contrasting colors and embroidery also decorate the pair of leggings she wears below her sarong.

Ake ear ornaments are distinctly different from those worn by Aini or Bulang women. Like the Wa, Ake women enlarge the holes in their ear lobes as big as the thickness of a thumb to hold big plugs of plain ivory or, more commonly, embossed silver. Below these they wear pendant earrings, to which might be attached hoops, jewels, strings of beads and pompoms or long woolen threads.

The Ake men's jacket is rather sedate in comparison. Plain black, with a little color trimming at the end of the sleeves, its main feature is a thick strip of bright embroidery around the stand-up collar running all the way down the center in the front. The men generally save these for special occasions. The women however, despite their more frequent exposure to modern influences in town markets, are more attached to their ethnic style. They wear it in the villages and get especially dressed up when they go to the Menghun market, where they are easily the most exotic attraction in the crowd.

The Kunge people

An ethnic group a bit smaller than the Ake, and basically confined to Mengyang District (勐养镇), is the Kunge. The Kunge people are classified as a branch of the Bulang. They are not particularly happy with that classification because they are not Buddhist, live far from any Bulang villages and do not understand the Bulang language. This last detail despite both being from the same Mon-Khmer linguistic family.

The Kunge live in the hilly sub-district of Kungeshan (昆格山), about ten kilometers east of Mengyang Town, having migrated to the area from Sichuan over a century ago. Eight Kunge villages lie in little patches of woods near the streams in between the hills. Small rice fields lie in the immediate, relatively level vicinity of the village, while in the hills neat rows of cultivated tea bushes swathe the slopes, providing the Kunge with their primary source of income.

Kunge houses were originally simple, one-story structures of bamboo with thatched roofs. While Xishuanganna's tea boom lasted in the earlier part of this century, most Kunge families earned enough money to replace these with sturdy new homes of good quality timber. The new houses stand on strong wooden posts, with hardwood floors and walls, open-air balconies and angled, wood-tiled roofs — in short, the typical indigenous Xishuangbanna style.

An elderly Kunge woman with bound calves
An elderly Kunge woman with bound calves

Income from tea has also provided a cash reserve in case of disaster in their farms —

specifically, damages wrought by their old natural nemeses, marauding wild elephants. These beasts make almost one raid a year somewhere in Kungeshan, and in recent years have become more aggressive, even attacking houses. The only Kunge defense — for they would never shoot at animals like elephants that they consider sacred — is to frighten them off by blowing horns, lighting firecrackers and firing guns into the air.

Compared to their Jinuo and Huayao Dai neighbors, the Kunge woman's costume is rather simple. She wears a plain black sarong and a short-sleeved, pullover top, with a v-neck reaching to the hips. The upper two-thirds is dark blue, often with a rectangle of three bands —green, yellow and red — below the V. The lower third is bright red. She also carries a large white shoulder bag, with a bit of red trimming at the top.

Until the end of the last century, Kunge women also practiced the peculiar custom of calf-binding. They did this when fully grown, using a thick string, dyed black, to wrap around the calf from just below the knee to the ankle. With constant adjustment and tightening, this had the effect of pushing the calf muscles downwards and eliminating the curve of the lower legs. The result was lower legs shaped like perfect pipes.

Unlike foot-binding, the process did not alter the bones of the lower leg in any way, nor did it affect the way a woman walked. Kunge women have different aesthetic sensibilities nowadays, however, and the custom survives only among the very old. They do not wear their traditional clothing very often either, other than for special events like weddings and perhaps the occasional trip to the Mengyang market.

While the Kunge preference for the traditional look has abated, Kunge ethnic consciousness remains strong, even as they have become more linked to the modern world. When invited to join the Water Splashing Festival parade in Jinghong, the Kunge insisted on marching on their own as the Kunge people, not as part of a Bulang contingent.

The Kemu people

Also officially classified as a branch of the Bulang, though their language is only distantly related, is a small ethnic minority called the Kemu. Originally from Laos, most of them live in southern Mengla County (勐腊县). But Kemu villages also lie in the hills just northwest of Jinghong, surrounded by their rubber tree plantations.

Like the Bulang, though, most Kemu in Xishuangbanna practice Dai-style Theravada Buddhism and have their own Dai-style temples. They celebrate the same Buddhist festivals as the Dai and Bulang and keep a permanent rocket launcher in the courtyard for use during the mid-April New Year. They build their houses in the Dai style and dress the same way. For some years they were known as the Kemu Dai for their near-wholesale adoption of Dai culture, though they speak their own language among themselves.

Not all Kemu have adopted Buddhism. In fact, most of the more than half million Kemu in Laos are animist, and animist Kemu villages exist in southern Mengla County. Their beliefs resemble those of the other animist peoples in Xishuangbanna, with the house spirit accorded the most importance. Besides shamans to deal with illnesses, they have ritual specialists for propitiating spirits, who are publicly active at the New Rice Festival on the full moon of the eighth lunar month, and during Honghua Jie, the Red Flower Festival.

The Kucong people

Also living in southern Mengla County is Xishuangbanna's smallest ethnic minority—the Kucong. They are classified as a branch of the Lahu, share many Lahu traditions and the Lahu dialect spoken in Menghai County is more or less intelligible to a Kucong dialect speaker. Xishuangbanna's Kucong migrated here in the early twentieth century from their original homeland in Phong Saly Province, Laos.

But by then most of the Kucong had migrated further east, to their current concentrations in Zhemi Autonomous Lahu District, in western Jinping County (金平县), where they are the largest ethnic group, and over the border where several thousand live in the far northwest of Vietnam, around Mường Tè. As for the Kucong who remained in Phong Saly, the Lao government in the 80s relocated them to northern Luang Nam Tha Province.

For the first several decades of their existence in Xishuangbanna, the Kucong lived hidden away deep in the forest, subsisting on hunting and gathering and a small amount of slash-and-burn farming. Men with crossbows would sit on branches high up in big trees to patiently await the arrival of game birds in the trees and mammals on the ground. Women gathered wild edible plants and tubers.

The Kucong avoided contact with other communities and carried on barter trade indirectly by placing slain animals and other forest products on a major paths and then hiding themselves in the woods. Passers-by interested in the goods left in place an amount of salt, cloth or other commodities they deemed of equivalent value and departed. The Kucong then emerged from the jungle to collect what the buyer paid.

All this changed in the 1950s, when the new government of the People's Republic sent work teams into the remote areas of Xishuangbanna and cadres eventually persuaded the Kucong to move to the plains west of Mohan (磨憨) and take up a more sophisticated kind of agriculture. Kucong houses are not as big or as fine as those of their Dai neighbors or the new Kunge houses. Many of them are simple, rectangular buildings with corrugated iron roofs. The community has always been relatively poor and only got in on the tea business when the boom was nearly over.

They do keep traditional clothing on hand, though only wear it for very special occasions. The woman's outfit comprises a waist-length, slightly flared black jacket, sarong and turban. The V-necked jacket features colored bands on the lower third, embroidered strips enhancing the neckline and a row of embossed silver buckles running diagonally along the lapel.

The best and perhaps only time of year Kucong women are likely to dress in full ethnic style is during their Sun and Moon Festival, which marks the New Year on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month. The ritual activities take place in the village temple — a modest, one-room building at a quiet end of the settled area, its exterior decorated with paper streamers and cutouts. In the yard stands a table of split bamboo, flanked on two sides by a tall bamboo pole, the top festooned with paper streamers and cutouts. People leave offerings — spirits, rice and tea — on the table.

The village spiritual chief conducts rituals inside at an altar decorated with a fringed strip of white paper. Behind the altar hangs a poster of two white disks, one with a jagged edge representing the sun, one with a smooth edge representing the moon. These sit on a blue-green background, above and between vertical bands of color with cutout designs. The spiritual leader asks the gods to bless the people and give them good fortune in the coming year. With the rituals done the people can commence feasting, singing and dancing, for they know that since their gods are now happy, the Kucong can be too.

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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