Sunday, May 28, 2017

Festival Time for Tibetans and Their Horses

                                      by Jim Goodman

mounted Tibetans on the highway in Shangrila County
       The high plains of Shangrila County, actually the southeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, have only been connected by motorable road with the rest of Yunnan in recent decades.   Before that was just a track.  It was a well used one though, for it was an important part of the Tea and Horses Road, wherein caravans carried tea up from southern Yunnan to Zhongdian, as it was then called, and beyond to Tibet and western Sichuan, and Tibetan horses came down from the Plateau to Yunnan, and then beyond to China.
       The trade began flourishing from the foundation of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the 7th century, whose territory encompassed today’s Yunnan, plus at times various areas beyond, as a result of its periodic wars with Tang Dynasty China.  Both these regimes collapsed early 10th century.  After some years of power struggles, new regimes established themselves:  the Kingdom of Dali in Yunnan and the Song Dynasty in China.
monk on horseback in the countryside
       The Song regime was less secure, for it faced a long-term problem on its northern frontier with mounted enemies.  Rather than try to conquer Dali, mindful that their predecessor had never succeeded in conquering Nanzhao, the Song Court pursued a policy of peace and trade.  China needed the horses for its own armies.   Tibetan horses had a high reputation for being strong, agile and easy to train for warfare.  The Song Dynasty would undertake no steps that might possibly interrupt this vital supply.
       Tibetan horses didn’t save the regime from its ultimate defeat, but on the Tea and Horses Road business persisted.  The route took on a new significance during World War II, after the Nationalist government relocated to Chongqing.  With the Japanese blockading all shipments from eastern China, supplies had to come in by land from Kalimpong, India, through Tibet, thence to Zhongdian and on to Dali and Kunming. 
       This was the last heyday of the Tea and Horses Road caravans.  Nowadays trucks bring in the goods over new highways, reducing the journey from Lijiang to just five hours.  When the county opened to foreigners in the early 90s, it took at least eight, and sometimes was halted for several hours to clear landslides.  Trucks and buses generally left in the morning from Lijiang, as well as from Zhongdian back to Lijiang, so from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, the highway was relatively traffic-free and the main movement along the road comprised Tibetan villagers on foot or horseback.
dressing up Lhasa-style for the festival
a day to wear the fox fur hat
       Tibetan villagers back then were fairly well off.  They had spacious barley fields and vegetable gardens, sturdy and comfortable houses, yaks and other animals, including the family pony.  Some owned tractor-trailers, useful for hauling field produce and going to the city market.  But for visiting other villages, only the pony would do.  Even monks rode them.
pony parked at the festival grounds
       Owners kept their horses well fed and groomed.  They used a heavy leather saddle for riding, but placed under it woven woolen blankets, with artistic motifs taken from their carpet designs.  There are times in the year when the men don’t have a lot of work to do, so they may use that leisure to improve their equestrian skills and try to train their ponies to do more than just carry them around.  And if they’re confident of their success, they’ll want to show off for the annual Horse Races Festival (Saimajie in Chinese).
       Events begin the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (this year 30 May), when the barley fields have already been sown, azaleas are in bloom, and work is slack until the rains begin.  Tibetans come from all over Diqing Prefecture to attend, as well as southwest Sichuan, joined by Naxi from Baishuitai, Yi from the southern mountains, Lisu from Weixi County and Bai, Han and Hui from the city.   The venue is the lap of Five Phoenixes Mountain (Wufengshan), just south of the urban area.  Most of the Naxi, Yi and Lisu, and the Tibetans from Tacheng district in Weixi, are members of dance troupes sponsored by the city government, which puts them up in hostels.
tent erected at the festival grounds
       Most of the non-local Tibetans bring tents and pitch them around the festival grounds.  Some Shangrila Tibetans will do the same, for that’s where they will rest and feast in between the festival acts, with meat, vegetables, snacks, fruits, jiu and plenty of buttered tea, dining on their finest old carpets.   They will use their best copperware and silver-inlaid cups and bowls, too, for at festival time one has to make a good impression. 
       Stylistically, the festival requires putting on your best ethnic clothing and jewelry.  Some women will wear the long chuba popular in Lhasa, with a multi-striped apron in front.  They may also deck themselves with the family heirlooms:  necklaces, pendants, rings and hair ornaments.  The men will don wide-sleeved Tibetan jackets, tight pants and fur hats or top hats of brocaded silk with fur flaps.  Village girls dress more simply, but in their newest and cleanest, with as much jewelry as they own.
Shangrila Tibetan girls
Lisu woman guest from Weixi County
       Besides the Tibetan fashions on display, visiting ethnic minorities have their own distinctive outfits.  The Naxi women from Baishuitai wear ankle-length coats, usually black, a few white, tied at the waist, a sheepskin cape and colored yarn braided into their hair.  The contingent also includes costumed dongba priests, from one of the few places where this Naxi tradition survives.  Yi women dress in bright, tri-colored skirts and the men wear wide-legged trousers, turbans and woolen capes.  Lisu women from Weixi dress in a long, flowing skirt and wear a tall, pointed cap, embellished with cowries or silver studs.  To a Western tourist, the outfit evokes the look of a medieval European princess.
masked dance by lamas from Songzhanlin
       In its pre-Shangrila days, the city had not yet built a stadium to stage the festival.  In 1994 there was just an oval track, 400 meters long, with some bleachers on the side.  City officials sat in the center, while local people occupied the other seats, lined up along the track or stood in trucks parked to the side.  Mid-morning the first day, following a few speeches, a riding exhibition commenced, with the horses sporting silver bridles and decorated with ribbons and pompoms tied to their manes and tails.  The riders galloped their steeds twice around the track, then reared up to a sudden halt.
       Next came the dance shows, beginning with a performance by lamas from Guihua Monastery in Songzhanlin, dressed in bright robes and grotesque masks.  This was the most interrupted dance, as Han tourists swarmed all over the troupe to get close-up photos of the masks.  Other Tibetan dances included one where women wave their ultra-long sleeves around like scarves and a few skits from the traditional Reba Dance set.  These featured lots of stooping and spinning by the males, vigorous drumming, women brandishing staffs and characters with animal heads.  In between the Tibetan acts were numbers by Hui girls and by Han schoolchildren.
dancer in the role of a yak
Reba Dance character
       From 1995 the county government began inviting performers from beyond the city’s immediate environs, such as Tibetans from Diqing and Tacheng, Naxi from Baishuitai in Sanba district, south of the city, and their Yi neighbors.  The Naxi dongba priests, mostly very old, in bright silk robes, wearing the paneled crown of the Five Buddhas and wielding swords, danced around the entire track, whirling and slashing at invisible demons along the way.  The Naxi youths, like the Lisu and Yi troupes, performed energetic dances lined up in ranks or joined in a ring.
local Tibetans watching the dances
       Other than the lama dancers, who only performed once in front of the stage, the other groups also staged their shows at various spots on the track, enabling the rest of the audience to see them.  When they concluded, the jockeys arrived for the preliminary rounds of racing.  Some of them rode on the heavy saddle and blankets.  Others used only a thin cloth under them or rode bareback.
       Four horses compete in one heat, which comprises five circuits of the oval track.  But not all four of the horses make a real effort to race.  In the distant past, Chinese valued Tibetan horses for their good response to training.  That’s not so with the contemporary breed.  Saimajie is the event that will demonstrate, to both their jockeys and the spectators, just how embarrassingly unmanageable these ponies can prove to be.
start of a men's race
       Four horses start the race, but rarely do all four complete it.  At least one will choose to trot, or even walk, not race, despite the frantic efforts of its rider thrashing it with his quirt.  It might even be lapped by the heat’s winner—and this is only a five-lap race!  Another horse might just wander off the track entirely or jump into the bleachers and scatter the spectators or throw its rider to the ground.
       Such antics certainly amuse the crowd, who may erupt in a mock cheer for the slowpoke pony that finally dawdles its way to the finish line.  Some of the races can be quite exciting, though, with the winner but a neck ahead of the second place finisher.  After several groups of male jockeys have made the rounds, the last event before a break is a race between two female jockeys, who make just three rounds instead of five, but in a contest as spirited as those of the best male riders.
women's race
       Besides the races, the program includes a demonstration of riding skill.  Jockeys ride at full gallop down the straight part of the track and lean way over to one side to snatch up white scarves lying on the ground at 30-meter intervals.  It’s not easy and no one succeeds in getting all the scarves.  And just as with the races, a few horses will refuse to run, only trot or walk, which of course gives the rider plenty of time to reach down and pick up the scarves.  The spectators just laugh.  Everybody knows how temperamental Tibetan horses are.
       More rounds of racing heats and scarf pickup feats take place after the lunch break.  Tibetan drama groups also stage plays in the field beyond the track.  These will be skits from the Reba Dance repertoire, a 900 year-old tradition that combines dancing, talking, singing, circus acts, comedy and high drama.  The cast will include lords and ladies, generals and ministers, deities and animals, clowns and peasants.  The show could take place under a tent roof, with the sides open to view, or out on the field, with the audience standing in an oval around the players.
picking up a scarf at full gallop
       Activities the second day back then resembled those of the first, minus the ethnic dances that opened the festivities.  Back in the city, however, crowds of outsiders roamed the shops to check out all the different items on sale.  Fancy, Lhasa-style robes, in wool or silk, with imitation leopard-skin cuffs and lapels, Tibetan-style wide leather belts, broad-brimmed summer hats, riding crops, daggers, boots, and horse trappings attracted the men's attention.  Women examined rings, necklaces, bangles, scarves, blouses, capes and earrings.  Besides the clothes, summer fruits filled baskets along the main road, small open-air stalls in the market sold basic noodle and bean gelatin dishes, while on the pavements lay displays of medicinal herbs, roots and animal parts. And in the streets some people were out just to stroll around and look at the variety of people in town, including foreigners.
Tibetan drama at the festival grounds
       On both evenings after it was finally dark, groups of Tibetan youths took over a few of the intersections on the main road and formed circles to sing and dance.  These were the most convivial hours of the festival.  Arms around each other’s waists, girls lined up on one side, boys on the other.   Usually one girl in the group selected the song because she knew all the verses (most songs are long).  So she led and the others followed.  The girls sang one stanza, then the boys responded with another stanza.  The dance steps were simple and each group blithely continued until no one remembered any more lyrics, at which point they picked another song. 
       In the 25 years since the county opened its doors to foreigners Saimajie, like the city itself, has grown bigger. The program has been extended from two days to three, with additions like a staged music show, extra dances and dramas and, incongruously for a festival showcasing horses, a cross-country motorcycle competition. 
       The essence of the festival remains the same, though.  It’s more organized, with a presentation that gets glitzier all the time, and attended by many times more outsiders than two decades ago.  But for the Tibetans, it’s the last round of fun and games before the more demanding work of the rainy season.  It’s a time to dress to impress, meet other Tibetans from other places, perhaps engage in romance, show off equestrian skills and demonstrate the close relationship they have with their horses—things they’ve been doing since long before the first foreigner came to see the festival.

TIbetans from beyond Shangrila attending the festival
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                        for more on Yunnan’s Tibetans, see my e-book Living in Shangrila


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