Ritual Chants of the Bai People Posted on 02 Aug 20:33

By relocating to Shangyincun (上银村), a village about 7 kilometers outside of the ancient city of Dali, I’ve brought myself into closer contact with the minority groups in China that produce some of the spectacular textiles I’ll be making my straps from. Specifically, the Dali region is dominated by the Bai ethnic group, who are masters of traditional tie-dye techniques. In a later blog post I’ll take you inside a tie-dye workshop working to preserve the most traditional dyeing techniques.

For now, however, I’d like to show you another aspect of Bai culture: their ritual music. The Bai have a unique form of local religion called Benzhujiao (本主教) which centers around praying to local gods, or benzhu, who are for the most part unique to each village. The video below shows the ritual chanting in the benzhu temple in my village. The women are most likely part of the Lotus Pond Society, an all female religious group that organizes the rituals for important festival days. The full chant is included for the sake of completeness, but you’ll get the basic idea if you only watch a minute or two.

 

It is commonly acknowledged that religious boundaries are quite fuzzy in China, and the chanting and rituals seen in the video shows influence from Buddhist ritual. Notice how the women ring a bell and bow at when certain points in the chant? This is done at the names of certain bodhisattvas, a common practice in Buddhist chanting. Notice also that the women are striking miniature versions of the wooden fish drum used to keep time in Buddhist chanting. The final connection is that this Benzhu temple is located directly adjacent to a much larger Buddhist temple in a more traditional Chinese style. From all of this it is clear that while Benzhujiao is a unique feature of Bai religious culture, it has adopted features of more mainstream Chinese Buddhism.

The approach to the Benzhu shrine where the women are chanting.

The adjacent Buddhist temple.

The women were very welcoming and offered me cups of sweet tea with puffed rice floating on top. Cups of the same tea were placed on the altar as offerings. They weren’t at all shy about being filmed, and seemed to quite enjoy seeing the playback after I had finished.

Fancy some rice crispies in your tea?

This was filmed on May 1st, which is in the lead up to one of the biggest festivals of the year, the Third Month Fair (third month of the lunar calendar). The fair itself takes place in Dali, 7 km away, and is marked by a huge trading market, horse races and other contests, and a massive influx of tourists. Fortunately, our little village stayed calm and peaceful throughout.

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