Torch Festival Posted on 24 Aug 20:53

Tea Horse is in the middle of an action-packed month! From Aug 6-11 I was in a small Yi minority village in the mountains to celebrate Torch Festival (火把节) and attend a forum on the preservation of traditional culture. Then, from Aug 17-22 I supported Compass World Arts for their world music workshop in Xizhou, a well-preserved old town not too far from my home in Dali. In addition to be being incredibly fun, both activities were helpful in establishing the kinds of partnerships I need to keep Tea Horse moving forward. Now, here at the end of the month, I find myself exploring Northern Laos, searching for (and finding) hand-crafted textile traditions among the hill tribes of Luang Namtha province. So much to get caught up on! For this post I will be focusing on the time I spent in the Yi minority village, Xiaocun (小村)but expect reports on the music workshop and Laos to follow in later posts.

The village of Xiaocun drew my attention because it has chosen a unique path of development, thanks in part to the efforts of Wuli, a visionary young man I met recently at a street art festival. Wuli is a native of Xiaocun, but after having spent his 20’s in Beijing, he has finally returned to his isolated hometown with a unique message. He has convinced his fellow villagers that they need to chart a course of development that can improve livelihoods, while avoiding the pitfalls of overdevelopment, excessive tourism, and the breakdown of traditional culture as seen in tourist hotspots like Lijiang, and increasingly, Dali. At the same time, he wants his village to open up to the right kinds of outside culture: things that will broaden understanding and tolerance, while also helping people to maintain a sense of pride concerning their own cultural heritage. Thankfully there are many other villages in China and throughout Asia who are working on sensible paths of development, but I’ve never before seen a village choose this path so early. Xiaocun may have only 60 households, and not a single toilet, but it has vision and determination to spare!

A typical home in Xiaocun.

The homes of the village are spread out through the valley, rather than concentrated in a single location.

Wuli’s work in Xiaocun includes setting up a business to collect, package, and sell local food products (honey and wild mushrooms), and establishing an ecologically-sound fish breeding pool on the stream through the village. On the cultural front, Wuli hopes to re-establish music, textile, and religious traditions in the village by inviting experts from more populated Yi centers in southern Sichuan Province to spend time in the village. He has already convinced an Yi shaman, or Bimo (毕摩) to relocate to Xiaocun to help maintain their animist faith.

 

Mushroom hunting with Wuli, visionary, entrepreneur, and Xiaocun native.

Through the forum I was able to meet a young Yi painter and poet, Jike Bu, also from Sourthern Sichuan, who was quite knowledgable about Yi textiles. Jike is already working on turning traditional Yi embroidery into bags, totes, and iPad cases, and she was very happy to work with me on sourcing textiles for my straps. I hope you all agree the traditional embroidered strips seen in the pictures below would make fantastic guitar straps!

         

The Yi people use these appliqué strips to decorate clothing. For our straps we hope to use similar designs in hand-woven cotton fabrics rather than machine fabrics.

The forum participants enjoyed living and eating in local homes, took part in community dances, and witnessed the dramatic procession of torches on night of Torch Festival. The festival memorializes the semi-mythical vanquishing of a plague of insects by having everyone in the village brandish torches and form a wall of fire to drive the insects out. While its origins lie with the Yi people, torch festival is now celebrated by a variety of ethnic groups in Yunnan province.

Sorry for the horrible sound issues, but I hope the images still convey the excitement of the torch procession. After circling the fire a number of times, the torch bearers marched through the village.

 By the end of the weekend, forum participants and local villagers had discussed plans for a number of projects: promoting the villages products online and in overseas markets, setting up embroidery workshops, bringing outside musicians to play live music for traditional dances (currently danced to recorded music), and improving sanitation to make the town more attractive for cultural tourism and homestays.

Clearly, it was a productive weekend, but the most beautiful part was that all of these wonderful ideas arose spontaneously from our casual interactions at the forum. In fact, in the strictest sense there was no forum! Attendees and villagers freely mingled: no lectures, no panels, no topics enforced. Our discussions were driven by the mutual interests and passions shared by the forum attendees and the local people. This was all in keeping with Wuli’s belief that meaningful change comes about through the self-organizing capacities of willing and engaged participants. Because Wuli is such a dynamic individual I hope to conduct an interview with him in the future to share his vision for approaching the problems of cultural preservation and development. Say tuned for that, and for further updates as I develop guitar straps from the textiles of the Yi people.

Parting shot: my little helper in Xiaocun.

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