Friday, November 17, 2017

Illuminated Nights--the Loy Krathong Festival

                                            by Jim Goodman

Big Krathong pr9cession 1993
       Most of the festivals in the Chiang Mai calendar year are primarily religious affairs.  They celebrate important Buddhist events like the Buddha’s first sermon, his birthday, the enrollment of boys in the monastery, the opening and closing of the retreat season.  The night before Buddha’s birthday devotees ascend on foot to Doi Suthep Mountain to be at the temple there to honor the Buddha when dawn arrives.  Otherwise the activity is mostly restricted to prayers and offerings at the temples.  Some stalls will offer food instead of flowers, candles and incense, and there may be traditional musicians playing a while in the compound.  In general, though, the atmosphere is reverent and sedate.
       The one festival in which the opposite mood rules is Songkran, held in mid-April at the peak of the hot season.  While the program has some religious elements, the general activity consists of three full riotous days of people throwing water on each other.  There are stage shows after dark, when the water-throwing is supposed to cease, though a lot of foreign tourists don’t seem to know that.
        In contrast to all the other annual events, the Loy Krathong Festival combines the religious and the secular, accented by spectacular evenings of lamps, lanterns, fireworks, stage shows and processions.  Held for three days and nights around the full moon in November, when the rains have practically ceased and evenings are refreshingly cool and everybody seems to be I a good mood.
making a krathoin
krathongs in the river
       A krathong is a little leaf boat, about 20 cm long, made by wrapping folded banana leaves around a section of the tree’s stalk.  As the festival arrives Chiang Mai people start making bunches of them for sale to participants.  When they have gotten all the leaves in place they add flowers, incense sticks and a candle.  Beginning the night before full moon and continuing through the night after full moon, people take the krathongs to the riverside, light the incense and candles and place them carefully in the water to join the succession of other krathongs floating down the Ping River
Loy Krathong nights on the river
       Thais believe that by doing this they send away all bad luck and disappointment of the year.  In Chiang Mai, Loy Krathong coincides with the city’s own Yi Peng Festival, which honors the river goddess.  Part of the motive in sending pretty little krathongs down the river is to beautify it and impress the river goddess.  At the same time they implore her to take the waters back, reduce their level, make the rains stop, it’s time for our harvest.  The krathongs, lanterns and the illuminated shore and sky are meant to be a proper send-off to the river goddess.
       Placating the river goddess is not a Buddhist concept, of course, but an animist one.  Yet Buddhism has never succeeded in eradicating superstitions or animist notions from the Thai psyche.  But more properly Buddhist activities are also part of the Loy Kratong program.  Some of these are part of every full moon day, which is a particularly auspicious day in the Buddhist year, along with new moon and the 8th day of the lunar month. 
       For Loy Krathong, however, the sermon for the occasion is one from the Jataka Tales, which narrates the lives of previous incarnations of the Buddha.  This one is about Prince Vessantara, who gradually gave away all of his possessions to the poor, exemplifying the virtue of selfless charity.  Thais know the story well.  It is also depicted on the wall murals of the viharn at Wat Bupharam.  Yet these Loy Krathong sermons are still well attended and the sermon, the krathongs on the river and the grand procession of decorated floats are the three parts of the festival program that have remained unchanged for the thirty years that I have been in Chiang Mai.
Loy Krathong boat races, 1990
       Every year city authorities publish the festival schedule of events.  In recent years, other than the Vessantara sermon in the temples, the activities are all at night.  When I first observed it in 1988 longboat races were held in the daytime, between the Nakorn Ping and Nawarat Bridges over the Ping River.  The long, narrow boats, with dragon-headed prows, held 23 rowers and another on the rudder.  After some rowing practice the crews paired off for a race that terminated north of the second bridge.  Winners paired off afterwards until a champion finally emerged.
       The other daytime event was the krathong contest held the first two days in the compound of the city’s Municipal Office, on the river next to the Muang Mai market and the American Consulate.  These krathongs were much bigger and more elaborate than the simple ones people bought to float on the river.  The awards were given the second afternoon because many of them would be carried as part of the second night’s Little Krathong procession.
women in the first night's procession
men in the first night's procession
       The boat races disappeared from the program in the late 90s, but the krathong contest continued longer.  The city scheduled one this year, but either it was canceled or nobody entered, for the Municipal Office lot was empty each day. 
       The festival always begins with an official ceremony and speeches and a classical Thai dance performance.  In the past this was held at Tha Pae Gate, though in recent years it has shifted to the square in front of the Three Kings monument.  Various kinds of lanterns, big and small, fill the area, in the shape of stars, begging bowls, baskets and wheels. 
women with krathoings, first night's procession
       Made of paper, but usually around a bamboo cylinder to protect them from igniting from the heat of the candle mounted within, they are also hung from posts along the procession route and strung across temple courtyards.  One type spins around from the generated heat, revealing portraits on its sides of the twelve zodiac animals or other pictures.
       In past years, the first night’s procession was on foot.  Participants dressed in classic Lanna clothing and some in each contingent carried tall poles with long, thin, woven cotton banners called tung in Thai, or brandished big lanterns.  The second night was the Little Krathong procession.  Back then it was hand-carried, even if it was so big several people were required to carry it.  The third night was the float procession, with men and women in traditional clothing and jewelry riding on spectacularly decorated floats on flatbed trucks.
lantern procession
       Participants in these processions marched in contingents representing various companies, banks, schools and other city organizations.  Most dressed in old-style Lanna clothing, the women wearing classic northern textile designs, like a parade of traditional fashions.  Their hair tied up in buns and decorated with jewelry, they carried krathongs or lanterns, while the men filed along hoisting the poles with the dangling tung banners.  A large, wheeled drum accompanied some groups, with shirtless men taking turns pounding it.
       Throughout the 90s the processions all began at Wat Phra Singh in the western part of the old town, advanced along Ratchadamnoen Road, passed through Tha Pae Gate and proceeded down Tha Pae Road to just before the bridge.  Here they turned left, passed along the river and terminated at the Municipal Office.  Nowadays they begin in front of Tha Pae Gate, but otherwise follow the same route.
Big Krathong rider, 1993
Big Krathong rider, 1990
       The first night’s procession did not involve any vehicles other than the drums on wheels.  Each contingent consisted of at least twenty men and women, all dressed their best for the occasion.  On the second night’s Little Krathong procession folks carried krathongs much bigger and more complex than the small ones sold by the riverbanks.  Some of these later wound up placed in the river.  As the years went on, though, people no longer carried them, but placed them in trucks.
       The grandest procession was, and still is, that of the Big Krathongs, of huge, fanciful krathong displays mounted on long, flat truck trailers.  Both the men and women riding these dress in the most ornate costumes of all.  Some wear the garments of centuries ago, their hair buns adorned with crowns and tiaras, plus lots of rings, necklaces and bangles.  The floats feature sculptures of lotuses, nagas and other mythical creatures, demons, birds and elephants, sometimes with three heads.
Big Krathong procession, 2017
       This procession, usually of a couple dozen floats, could take hours to complete.  In the past, at the terminus of the route, people lifted two or three of these floats into the river.  They floated downstream, with the riders still aboard, only as far as the first bridge before hauled to the side.  But it was quite a climax to the procession.  Unfortunately, like the boat races, that was also dropped from the program long ago.
       At the turn of the century the city added another attraction to the festival by staging a ‘sound and light show’ on the riverbank opposite the Municipal Office.  The stage show featured skits of players in ancient costumes, carrying noble ladies in palanquins across the stage, classic dances and loud, recorded music.  Fireworks shot off behind the stage, but there were fireworks from other points all along the river as well.  The stage occupied the most popular area for launching krathongs, which sort of interrupted the main festival activity.  Besides, Loy Krathong already was a ‘sound and light show.’  After two years, with little attendance, the city dropped the show from the program.
       While the processions are in progress, now as in the past, other activities take place along the route and on the riverbanks.  The yard of the Governor’s Mansion, just before the bridge at the end of Tha Pae Road, is full of food stalls.  One can buy snacks, rice or noodle meals, grilled meat, dried fish, sushi and more exotic specialties like gilled chunks of goat, sheep, rabbit, wild boar, ostrich, deer, crocodile and scorpions.  Behind the stalls stands a Ferris wheel, just like at a circus.
Big Krathong on the Ping RIver 1990
Big Krathong on Tha Pae Road, 1993
       All along the river are piers from which people place their krathongs in the water.  Food, drink and snack stalls line the sidewalks.  In between the piers folks shoot off small fireworks or light sparklers, while on the third night a series of skyrockets burst into the sky in multiple colors.  And for about a dozen years now the illumination includes the addition of sky lanterns.
       More like a hot-air balloon in the way it operates, the sky lantern is a wire-frame paper cylinder about one meter high.  Fixed to the bottom is a small tray containing cotton soaked in kerosene.  The user lights the cotton and then holds the lantern steady while the flame heats it up, which normally takes about a minute.  When enough heat has been generated inside the lantern, the holder releases it and it goes floating high into the sky.
like a traditional fashion show
       Problems can arise, especially if a breeze suddenly comes along.  If the lantern is released too early, it could tilt and catch fire, slam into a tree or crash into the river.  But considering the thousands of people sending sky lanterns aloft, that doesn’t happen very often.  Most of them successfully join the other launched lanterns in a stream that speckles the heavens.
        The lanterns are usually white, which makes them pale orange in the sky.  A few are red or blue or have faces painted on them.  The best to watch are the ones that have a long tail of sparklers attached.  Once they ascend they start leaving a trail of glitter below them that follows them high into the night sky.
       The sky lanterns can also interfere with aircraft.  A few years after their introduction the city decided to restrict their use to two nights only and canceled all flights from 7 p.m.  When they burn out the lanterns fall back to the ground, on roads, in gardens and people’s yards and that has caused complaints.  This year the government announced the day before the festival that sky lanterns and fireworks of any kind were prohibited under pain of 60,000 baht fine and three years in jail.
sky lantern lift-off
sky lanterns along the river
       Either Chiang Mai got a special dispensation or the city simply ignored the decree.  Authorities had already canceled 78 flights.  To ‘uncancel’ them would have been just as much trouble, since the airlines had already readjusted.  Newspaper editorials denounced the sky lanterns as not being a traditional part of Loy Krathong and a nuisance.  They also slammed the post-festival rubbish problem in the rivers.
       I doubt that Chiang Mai people see it the same way.  This year the festival was as enthusiastic as ever.  Sky lanterns filled the sky for two nights and fireworks characterized the third night, though not as many as in the past, for it was individuals setting them off and not part of a city show.  And no one muttered about the mess to clean up next day.  That’s always been a familiar aftermath, one they’ve dealt with for centuries.  For local folks, Loy Krathong will always be worth the trouble.  It’s the most beautiful event of the year.
taking a break during a procession traffic jam,  2017
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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Frontier Peoples of Western Dehong

                                    by Jim Goodman

Dai farmer and his son riding buffaloes outside of Ruili
       Dehong in southwest Yunnan is an Autonomous Dai and Jingpo Prefecture.  Only about 20% of Dehong consists of plains and valleys.  The rest of the prefecture is hilly or mountainous and has a forest cover of around 60%, the highest rate in the province.  The population tops one million, with the Han a slight majority.  The Dai dominate the plains and valleys, while the Jingpo constitute the largest ethnic minority in the hills, especially in the western part of the prefecture.  Han Chinese only began migrating to Dehong after the eradication of malaria in the early 50s and largely, but not entirely, reside in the urban areas.
       The Dai are not the only indigenous folks in the plains, nor are the Jingpo the only hill people.  As for the Han, some also have farms in the plains, while others work in the coffee and tea plantations in the hills ,such as Dachang, east of Lianghe.  Such Dehong features become apparent when taking a trip from Tengchong, just north of Dehong in Baoshan Prefecture, to Ruili in southwest Dehong.
Nandin Xuanfu, the former palace in Lianghe
       Lianghe, the first city on the route, is an easy ride through the plains from Tengchong.  But even when I visited two decades ago the city was thoroughly modernized, almost entirely Han-inhabited.  The only Dai elements consisted of a couple small restaurants, a pagoda in the inverted bell shape built around 1980, and the palace of the former Dai ruler.
       This is the city’s main attraction, originally built in 1851, when Lianghe was known as Nandin.  The palace (Nandin Xuanfu) consists of seven connected courtyards, with gardens, pools and red brick buildings with dark gray, tiled roofs.  The doorways from one courtyard to another are circular or oval, a feature seen in many temples in the prefecture as well.  Here the district’s chaopha (Lord of the Sky in the Dai language) lived in sumptuous splendor, while lesser members of the aristocracy owned smaller houses, but still in marked contrast to the simple dwellings of the commoners.
Achang woman
Achang woman returning from the fields
       The Dai in Dehong speak a different dialect than the Dai further east and use a different alphabet than that used in Xishuangbanna.  They generally live in houses of gray-brown brick and tiled roofs that sit on the ground.  In rural villages some build homes, one or two stories, with walls of plaited split bamboo, with roofs of tin or thatch.  Like other Dai, they are accomplished rice farmers, with irrigation canals that intersect the fields and provide a source of fish.  Dehong rice is especially tasty and that grown in Zhefang district in Luxi County was one of the tribute items demanded by the imperial Qing Court.  The prefecture is also famous for its pineapples.
countryside near Yingjiang
       Dai villages lie west and south of Lianghe, but to the north and east lie settlements of the Achang minority nationality.  The Achang in Yunnan number a little over 40,000, nearly all of whom live in Dehong.  Another 2000 or so reside across the border in Myanmar.  Chinese historical records indicate the Achang were living in Dehong in the 13th century. 
       They speak a Tibeto-Burman language and under imperial China enjoyed a measure of autonomy.  But their chieftains were subordinate to the Dai chaopha, who could make tax and service demands on the Achang as he wished.  Consequently, Dai culture has had a strong influence on the Achang.  They live in the same kind of gray-brown brick houses, practice Theravada Buddhism, with a temple in each village, and dress similarly.
Yunyan Pagoda near Yingjiang
       The men wear a side-fastened, long-sleeved, dark jacket over trousers.  The married women dress in the same back sarong as the local Dai women, with a long-sleeved blue or black jacket, also similar to that of the Dai.  The main difference is the headgear—a tall, tubular, brimless black hat.  Unmarried girls wear no hat, but tie their braids over their heads.  They also wear trousers instead of sarongs.
       The other major Achang concentration is in Husa district, Longchuan County.  Besides boasting the finest Achang Buddhist temple, Husa is renowned for its swords.  The tradition is a very ancient one among the Achang and they are so skilled at it that other peoples around them rely on Achang swords rather than make their own.
De'ang woman
Burmese-style tiered pagoda near Yingjiang
 The sword is like a machete, used to chop bamboo and wood, in defense against wild animals and bandits and part of local military gear.  The Lisu use Husa swords in their Climbing the Sword Ladder festival.  And Jingpo men brandish them upright during the ceremonial dance of the Munao festival.
Three Elephants Pagoda, Zhangfeng
       The Lisu and Jingpo minorities are especially prominent in the mountains of Yingjiang County, the next one west of Lianghe.  Yingjiang city is 50 km distant, after crossing a mountain to get to it.  Like Lianghe, its population is manly a Han, but with some minority touches, like a Jingpo statue and Munao festival house and arena, Dai elephant sculptures and a few Dai restaurants.  Jingpo swarm into Yingjiang for the Munao events, but rarely otherwise.  The Lisu live in the northern mountains and seldom venture to the city.  Dai villages constitute the city suburbs, so they are often in town during the day, the women in black sarongs and carrying their goods in baskets at each end of a bamboo pole.
Guangmu Pagoda, Jinghan
       Yingjiang was built around a reservoir a few km west of the Daying River.  A long, straggling Dai village lies between the city and the river.  A path at the end of the cemetery (Dehong Dai bury their dead) leads to the Yunyan Pagoda.  Rising from a square base, it consists of a white mound, with brass spires, topped with filigreed silver crowns, the central pagoda towering above forty smaller ones.  A nearby temple features a modest assembly hall and a five-tiered, pale red pagoda in a very different style from Yunyanta.  The resident monks, as in Myanmar, wear red robes.
       The road from Yingjiang to Zhangfeng, the administrative seat for Longchuan County, measures 136 km.  It crosses the Daying River and runs along the eastern side until entering Longchuan County, crossing high mountains tp gradually descend into the plains and Zhangfeng, seven km from the border town of Laying.
       Longchuan is about the same size as Lianghe, but had more of a non-Han feel to it back then.  Foreigners could only stay in the Hongchuan Binguan, a few blocks from the central market, but sited alongside a plain with a good view of the mountains to the west.   Dai, Bai and Achang restaurants were nearby and at the latter I tried the Achang specialty—guoshou mixian (over-the-hand rice noodles). 
       The noodles are made from reddish hill rice, served with chopped and ground pork, peanuts, chili, coriander, sauce and soup.  Achang folks take a handful of noodles and add the other ingredients, which gives the dish its name.  I and other non-Achang diners however, preferred to use chopsticks.
Jingpo men in Zhangfeng on market day
       Also near the hotel stood the finest religious monument in Zhangfeng—the Dai-style Three Elephants Pagoda.   All white, its base sits on a small island underneath the sprawling branches of a huge pipal tree, with the central spire rising above the three sculptures of trumpeting elephants.   Other pagodas in the suburbs and beyond were the Burmese kind, with several tiers of tin roofs, each level smaller than the one below.
       Jinghan, 12 km  northeast of Zhangfeng  is a nondescript town that was formerly the county capital.  Just outside town is the hilltop Guangmu Pagoda, accessible by a flight of about 300 steps.  On a white mound with a bronze spire, its original construction dates to 1632 and marks the spot where Dehong Dai believe Buddhism was first established in the prefecture.
Lisu woman in Zhangfeng
Dai food stalls in the Zhangfeng market
       Every five days Zhangfeng hosts open market day, attracting people from both sides of the border.  Besides the Dai, Jingpo and Lisu from the mountains to the northeast show up, hawking hill crops, deerskins, split-bamboo baskets and other items.  A few De’ang women may also turn up, recognizable by their bright, multi-colored jackets and headscarves, woolen tassel earrings, striped sarong and perhaps, like some Jingpo women, rattan rings around the hips.
rural Dai temple, Longchuan County
       From the Mon-Khmer linguistic group, the De’ang population is only half that of the Achang,.  A few scattered De’ang villages lie in the hills near the Myanmar border, but most of Dehong’s De’ang live in Santaishan district, especially in the hills south of the main road om the way up to the Buddhist cave temple at Sanjiaoyan.  They live in stilted wooden and bamboo houses with thatched roofs and, like their Dai neighbors, practice Theravada Buddhism.
       The last of western Dehong’s cities is Ruili, 37 km south of Zhangfeng, the largest of the four.  From the 8th-12th centuries it was the capital of Mengmao, the most powerful  kingdom in the immediate region.  The Mongols conquered it in the 13th century and the Ming Dynasty reasserted Chinese suzerainty in the 14th century.  It retained a measure of local autonomy until the 20th century and in recent decades has become important because of its commercial ties to neighboring Myanmar.
Dai women cycling home from the fields west of Ruili
       Ruili has all the hallmarks of a prosperous border town, with skyscrapers and expensive hotels towering above the rows of royal palm trees on the main streets.  It rises late, with few shops open before 10 a.m., and stays active late, with most people having dinner after dark and the warren of shops and stalls inside and outside the covered central market busy until midnight.  Many Burmese wander through town, including individual jade merchants hawking ornaments to Chinese tourists who came to Ruili specifically to buy jade.
       The other Ruili feature drawing Chinese tourists two decades ago was its proximity to the Myanmar border.  They could take a short trip from Ruili to Jiehao, step across the border to the other side and be able to say they’d been to a foreign country, even if but a few hours.  The main road, Highway 320, ran another 34 km southwest from Ruili to Nongdao, at the extreme end of the prefecture.
       The road ran more or less parallel to the Ruili River, a branch of the Nu River that, after crossing the boundary, becomes the Salween River.  The road runs in a straight line, but the river is somewhat winding, so that pieces of Myanmar territory lie between the river and the boundary line.  And at Jiehao, a chunk of Chinese territory lies south of the river.
the Snake Tree near Mengling
       The land is relatively flat on this route, featuring a succession of Dai towns, villages and farmlands, a rural relief after the bustle of Ruili.  Every Dai village has a temple, usually a modest wooden one, but occasionally grander, with multi-tiered pagodas in the Burmese style, flanked by tall bamboo poles with long, narrow cloth banners fluttering from the top and great banyan trees in the courtyards.  Hansha Temple, a few km from Ruili, and Leizhuangxiang, on a hill north of the highway and further down towards Nongdao, are two fine examples.
       The most famous is Dadenghan Temple, 20 km southwest of Ruili, near Jiexiang.  On stilts, with red wooden walls and silver-colored roofs and pagoda spires, with a covered entrance corridor, it is typical of the Dehong Dai Buddhist style.  It was built in the 18th century and is supposed to house bone relics of the Buddha.  According to local legend, the Buddha stopped for a night here on his mission to preach the religion throughout Asia.
Jiele Pagoda, Dehong's finest
       East of Ruili, Highway 320 runs 25 km to Wanding, the last major town before the boundary of Luxi County.  It’s not much to look at today, but from the hill behind it, especially from the Thousand Buddhas Temple on top, one has a commanding view of the city and Myanmar beyond the bridge.  Wanding had a brief flare of importance in the Second World War as the terminus of the Burma Road, established after the Japanese seized eastern China and the government removed to Chongqing.  Tons of supplies, food and weaponry crossed into Yunnan from the British colony of Burma, until the Japanese conquered Burma and closed the road.
       Returning to Ruili, I made two last stops at Mengling and Jiele.  The former town hosts a patch of old banyan trees, with multiple roots descending from their lower branches.  One is called the Snake Tree, similar to the Single Tree That Makes a Forest in another park in SE Yingjiang County, as well as the one of the same name in Daluo, Xishuangbanna. 
       Jiele’s attraction is its pagoda, the finest in Dehong, originally erected in 1500 and restored ten times since, most recently in the 1980s.  The central spire, rising above several subsidiary golden spires, stands on a white base with the top part covered in dark orange tiles, unique in the prefecture.  With views of Dai farmers riding their buffaloes on the way back to Ruili, it was a fitting way to close my exploration of Dehong, a day of history, culture and everyday rural Dai life.

Dadenghan Monastery
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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Limi Yi Discoveries in Wumulong

                                             by Jim Goodman

Limi Yi girls in Wumulong on market day
     Numbering over five million, the Yi minority nationality is the largest in Yunnan.  They are not a homogenous ethnic group, however, for the designation of Yi includes 25 distinct sub-groups in Yunnan alone, speaking five different related, but not mutually intelligible dialects.  Travelers become familiar with some Yi groups when visiting popular destinations around the province, like the Sani of the Stone Forest area, the Nisu of Yuanyang County, the Tuli around Dali and the Nuosu of the northwest.  Yet autonomous Yi districts, where the Yi constitute the majority of the population, exist in almost every prefecture. 
       Several of these are in Lincang Prefecture, south of Dali and one of the least explored parts of the province.  I was traveling in Lincang around Lunar New Year one time, in company with my friend and fellow veteran Yunnan explorer Ludwig Brinckmann, when we unintentionally wound up in Wumulong, a Yi Autonomous District.   We’d been in Junzhai, on the Nanding River near Mengding, for the New Year festivities and intended to proceed upriver to Daxueshan, mainly because neither of us had ever been there. 
young Limi Yi woman
Limi mother and baby
       That mountain rose to 3504 meters just northwest of Daxueshan township.  According to the map the district was an autonomous Yi, Lahu and Dai one.  So there might be some traditional clothing photo-ops, though we had been only moderately successful in that respect in Junzhai.
Limi Yi women taking a rest in the market
       We were lucky to be able to depart Junzhai the day after New Year, for transportation is irregular for the holiday period.  But local folks claimed the road to Daxueshan was bad and we couldn’t even hire anyone to take us there.  However, a truck offered a lift to Yongkang, so we took that, intending to find a bus from there next day.  The journey afforded us lots of scenic views of terraced hills, flame trees in full bloom and De’ang mountain villages scattered across the slopes. 
       Yongkang itself was a boring town, its only attraction a magnificent old banyan tree in a special park in the northern part of town.  No bus went directly to Daxueshan though, so early next morning we got tickets to Wumulong instead, hoping to find a minibus or something to Daxueshan from that town.
young Limi girl
impromptu gourd-pipe duet
       The ride took three hours, passing flowering bushes on either side of the road as we left town, going northeast to Yalian, at 1400 meters altitude.  From there the bus turned east, climbing into the mountains to 2200 meters and passing steep hillside terraces.  Then it gradually descended to Wumulong, at 1900 meters.  By chance, it was market day when we arrived, held every chicken and rabbit days, according to the 12-day animal cycle.  The streets were already crowded with black-clad Yi people, and we opted to forego Daxueshan and stay here a couple nights.
Limi woman's black headdress
        These folks in black belonged to the Limi branch of the Yi, a small group numbering around 26,000, about 20,000 living in Wumulong district, the rest in Yalian and Daxueshan.  As usual on market days, women dominated the crowds, and virtually all females of all ages dressed in their traditional outfits.  What photographer, or even just ordinary curious traveler, could ask for more?
       The basic woman’s outfit comprised a thick-brimmed turban or headdress with the back end falling to the shoulders, a long black coat with its tail tucked up in the back of the waist, a black apron and black trousers.  The only part standing out for its color was the thin cloth belt around the waist.  But only among the oldest women was the ensemble completely black.  Middle-aged women stitched blue trimming onto the lapels of the coat and around the trouser cuffs.  Some also attached bright strings or other small ornamentation just above the brims of their headdresses.
Limi girl's checkered headdress
teenaged Limi Yi girls
       The younger the female, the more color embellishment the outfit featured.  Some of the unmarried youth wore no headdresses and festooned their collars and sleeves with strips of very colorful embroidery and lots of sequins.  Others embroidered colored lines on the lower front half of the apron and the wide cuffs of their jacket sleeves, as well as the lower back part of the jacket.
       While the teenagers tended to wear no head covering, many of the pre-pubescent girls wore headdresses as fulsome as those of their mothers, but instead of plain black, they were checkered black and white.  The even younger girls wore long black coats with lots of color trimming and embroidery.  They also wore caps, like those of the babies still carried by their mothers, only partially black, with colored appliqué patches all around and some silver half-globes stitched onto the front.
tree on the edge of Wumulong
       According to Limi Yi history, the black clothing originated over a thousand years ago, when they lived further north and escaped a wicked overlord.  Their tale of this does not mention whether they wore brighter, more colorful clothes before that, but the black clothing they date to this event.  Perhaps it was to conceal them better in the dark when they fled.
       We didn’t spot anything that might have been a traditional Limi Yi men’s outfit.  The overall percentage of male attendance at market day was anyway small and both Han and Yi men dressed in ordinary modern clothes.  Occasionally we could distinguish which men were Yi by overhearing them speak to each other in what was recognizably not Chinese.
       That’s true elsewhere in Yunnan.  Even in places where the women remain strongly attached to the traditional look, the men have abandoned it.  They have always been more connected to the outside world, where they are more conscious of being part of a minority group, and more inclined to avoid ethnic identification (and possible discrimination) by appearing to be part of the anonymous modern masses.
winter flowers at Wumulong
      On the other hand, they can be extremely conservative and tradition-minded in all other aspects of life.  They follow all the domestic customs and those involving relationships with both kin and non-kin.  Their ritual specialists know all the ancient rites, even though while performing them they dress in their daily apparel, with nothing particularly identifiable as Yi.
      Yi women, like other minority nationality women in Yunnan, spend most of their time at home or in the immediate village environment.  Their traditional culture orders their lives far more than those of the men.  They are also less likely to be conversant in Chinese and whatever disparaging remarks might be made about them by Han Chinese when in the towns will pass right past them without their comprehension.
       Another characteristic of traditional minority women is to generally travel outside their environment in small groups.  They may hike out to their fields and back alone, but to venture into a venue like market day in the nearest town, they prefer to have companions.  Occasionally it might just be one friend, but usually it’s a group of four to six.  Individuals might wander off from the group to examine something at a stall, but will rejoin them afterward.
elderly Limi woman with her pipe
       Such was the scene we witnessed at Wumulong.  Groups of women, or even young girls, roamed through the market together, stopped at stalls together, took breaks together and departed at the end of the day together.  Some of the groups were all of the same approximate age, but others were mixed, like two or three families, mothers with their children, that might include teenaged girls.
       Wumulong is basically one long street, part of the main highway, where lies the business district of shops, restaurants and hotels.  The residential neighborhoods are along the side streets that lead out to the fields.  For market day, some merchants set up stalls or street layouts on the main road from the center of town to the eastern end.  Most, however, were in the spacious market square near the eastern entrance to the urban zone.
       Mountains rose just behind the market area to provide a scenic backdrop.  Most of the stalls were lined up in rows in the center, but others set up around the edges.  They sold clothing hung on racks, shoes laid out on tarps, grain in bags, vegetables and other farm produce in bins or baskets.  Other stalls sold tobacco and water-pipes for smoking it, farm tools, hot noodle dishes and cold popsicles for the children.
       There were many cloth merchants, with both plain black cotton cloth on offer, as well as colored silks.  These seemed to draw some attention from the Yi, as did the shoe racks, to a lesser extent.  One shop sold gourd-pipes, which we noticed just as two Yi customers were trying then out with a little Impromptu duet that drew a quick crowd of listeners.
Limi woman making clothing
Limi village near Wumulong
       The activity began dying down by 4 p.m., so we strolled past the market square to the edge of town.  Flame trees were full of bright red flowers at this time of year and a few stood in Wumulong.  On the path beyond the market square were bushes with flowers just as bright as the flame trees.  Trees here divided from their trunks into several thick branches just above the ground.  With the mountains visible just beyond, it was a fitting climax to a lovely day, especially since it was so unexpected.
       Yalian staged market day the following day, so we returned there early next morning.  It was a beautiful drive, passing over the mountains with early sunshine bathing the villages on the slopes.  But market day was disappointing, with only very ordinary stalls and few Limi Yi in attendance.  We returned to Wumulong around noon and wandered out to a Yi village a few km from town.
village women embroidering together
       Nearly surrounded by a patch of forest, the village had houses of mud-brick, usually with gray with tiled roofs, a few with a roof of corrugated iron.  We also spotted some satellite dishes, which seemed pretty incongruous for an otherwise typical old-fashioned village.  The very first people we saw, from the knoll on the way to the entrance, were a pair of women in a yard behind a house.  One was seated on a stool embroidering cloth, while the other was weaving cloth.
       Weaving is a common winter activity, done outdoors on a simple loom of wood and bamboo that can be dismantled and taken inside if the weather turns bad.  It has two overhead heddles that separate every other thread and are connected to two treadles, operated by the feet.  The Yi woman we witnessed sat on a bench at the back of the loom and wove a strip of plain white cotton cloth about 25 cm wide. 
       It resembled the Akha loom in Thailand I am quite familiar with, except that the Akha weave standing up.  After a short conversation with these two women about the loom and their work, we wandered off to another courtyard, where several women were sitting together busy with their needlework.  We chatted quite easily with them, too, while they stitched appliqué patterns onto black cloth or embroidered sleeve cuffs and apron borders.
       Soon one of the men came to invite us inside his home to share a small bottle of maize liquor.  We sat beside the fireplace near the ancestral altar on a wooden plank mounted on the wall just below the ceiling.  It was decorated with flowers and small pine boughs and held offerings of rice cakes and small cups of liquor.  A polite but lively conversation ensued ad we stayed until it was getting dark and left while still sober enough to negotiate the trail back to town.
weaver at her loom
Limi woman at Yalian
       The biggest event of the year for the Limi Yi is Sangzhaoli, staged about 10 km from Wumulong.  The festival originated with their relocation to this area.  At that time two young men made some unspecified ‘great contributions to building up the town.’  The headman then invited them to choose the best Limi girls for their wives.  All the young women bathed in a nearby hot spring and dressed up for the event, which is what Sangzhaoli has commemorated annually ever since.
       Festival day begins with bathing in the hot spring and then dressing in t heir finest traditional apparel and jewelry.  Besides the display of ethnic fashions, the festival includes lots of dance performances on or in front of a wooden stage and contests among the men playing the gourd-pipe and shooting crossbows.  The evening is devoted to romance, with married couples this night permitted to date their former boyfriends or girlfriends.
       With its shows and its crowds of traditionally-garbed attendants, Songzhaoli is the most spectacular time to visit the Limi Yi.  Yet traditional ways are firmly embedded in everyday Limi life and not confined to one splendid annual festival.  That tradition also includes warm hospitality to guests, especially strangers, with the intent to leave a good impression of the hosts.  Consequently, anytime of year is a great time to visit the Limi Yi.
Limi Yi women in Wumulong
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