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-by Ernie Diaz
Maybe it’s that much easier to be one with the land when the land is as gentle as Honghe. Still, the Hani minority have a track record of plentiful rice harvests when all others around suffer from drought and flood.
Much of this plenty owes to their unparalleled terrace farming. But how did they evolve such a complex microsystem of self-sustaining rivulets and reservoirs, paradoxically a genius work of simplicity? Naturally long experience born of necessity plays a factor. “The wisdom of past sages is like oil squeezed from a rock, the life blood of our people,” goes one Hani adage.
The other factor, however, must be a relationship that goes beyond respect for nature to profound faith in it. Few are the people who have so closely taken their cue from the signs nature has given them. This faith is manifest in their refusal to adapt to the times, to use aught but organic fertilizer or native rice strains. At long last, though, some of the terraces grow fallow and cracked, not from natural but human neglect. The youth are leaving for the city, and leaving behind a way of life that shows a connection to all nature’s whims rare in an agrarian people.
Back when the Hani and the Yi were yet one, the Hani lived in caves, a much damper, more miserable experience in subtropical rain forest than that of the Shanxi folk in their snug cave homes. But the Hani didn’t have to spend winters locked in those caves, and roamed far afield, and gathered mushrooms for sustenance. They noted well the mushroom’s ability to resist wind and rain, and to provide shelter for critters small enough to fit under its awnings.
Thus the origins of the Hani Mushroom House, warm and water-tight during rainy season, cool and breezy during the hot season. A bamboo and wood frame support the conical roof of couch grass, which caps three stories: a lower for keeping livestock and farming tools; a tripartite middle for living in, an fireplace glowing year-round in the center, and a top for both altar and storage, covered with soil before the roof for fireproofing. The Hani’s mushroom houses form in non-regulated clusters that follow the natural dictates of the mountainside, the only unbreakable rule that they face the sun. As such, Hani villages form a brilliantly organic counterpoint to their terraces.
Long Street Banquet
A pragmatic people, the Hani ring in their new year with a full larder, after the autumn harvest, as opposed to after the first weak signs of spring. Their Thanksgiving is called the Long Street Banquet, a feast at which the whole village breaks bing together. Hani far afield are summoned from the village stockade, where massive drums and gongs hang in wooden frame, beaten by young men with vigor born of local tradition, which holds that the louder the noise, the more auspicious the coming year.
Dragons do the devil’s work in the West, but sometimes shower blessings on the Han. To the Hani, the dragon, or at least its spirit, must be supplicated yearly at the village dragon tree, with sacrifice. His form is recreated at the Long Street Banquet, as scores of tables are laid end-to-end, any space between strictly forbidden. At the head of the table-dragon sit village elders and the nominal dragon head, a representative who has been chosen by divination to channel the dragon’s spirit, who can be blamed or praised for the village’s luck.
Hog-flesh in every form, sticky rice balls, and spirits of every kind refresh the celebrants. Special guests get roasted cicadas and chicken heads. All are at their leisure, free to do anything – sing, dance, wrestle, find a mate – for the next week. Any who wander into the festivities are forbidden to leave until the feasting is done.
The Hani share this festival with the Yi, a tribe of whom they were once one, but from whom they departed ages ago. The festival’s origins say much about both tribes’ fear of hubris. Ancient forebearer Artilaba possessed the strength to contend with the heavens themselves, and defeated a Hani deity in wrestling to prove it. In retaliation, the gods covered the land in locusts. No hero, but the combined might of all able-bodied Hani, wielding torches, finally dispersed the plague.
Fire-worship, therefore, lies at the heart of both the festival’s significance and ceremony. On the first day all villagers gather wood for a bonfire that faces an altar, whose location has already been chosen by a Hani moqi ritual master. That same master will initiate the chant which the whole village joins, eventually striking the flint and igniting the bonfire. Every family then lights a torch from the fire, and proceeds in a snaking dragon procession from village to fields, posting a torch in the corners that will keep away pestilence both literal and metaphoric.
The next day is given to celebrating, gorging the least of it. Young men are to emulate the mighty Artilaba with feats of wrestling and horse racing. Bullfights distract the older men, wise enough to enjoy violence by proxy. Young women are bidden to adorn themselves as night unto the beauty of the legendary Ashima as possible. Flirting and matchmaking are the true objectives, with elders crowning both the most beautiful, intelligent girl and bravest, most generous boy, a benediction, but certainly not a guaranteed match. The third night is a closing ceremony of singing and dancing around a bonfire which continues to provide light into the dawn hour.