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The Bai of the Erhai

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Not all “Chinese” are Chinese.
[Photo of Guanyin Temple]
A contradiction? Not quite; especially to the 84 million Chinese who will never see themselves as typically clad in a blue worker’s uniform and Mao cap, the familiar trappings of a Chinaman in the eyes of many Westerners.

The 84 million, who compose a measly 7% of the whole Chinese population, are members of ethnic minorities loosely associated with the dominant Han (the Chinese you and I know). There are over 50 such minority groups, concentrated mostly in Yunnan Province, southern China.

The Han, being the dominant cultural and political ethnic group in China, has embodied the Western conception of the Chinese. But while this dominance is completely justified given the Han’s superior number, the country’s cultural aspect would indeed be lackluster if not for the unique contributions provided by oft- oppressed minorities.

Ancestral Domain

Nestled in the foothills of the massive Hengduan Mountains, the eastern curtain of the Himalayas, by the coast of the majestic Erhai Lake, is the ancient walled prefecture of Dali.

Home of the Bai for 3,000 years, the ancient primitive city lies west of the Han-dominated central plains, east of Tibet, and just north of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau.

Crisscrossed by rivers, the plateau has a mild climate and is covered by fertile pastures. The dense woods, river valleys, and vast tracts of land form a breathtaking landscape and provide an abundance of crops like rice, winter wheat, beans, millet, sugarcane, and tobacco. The forests teem with valuable timber and medicinal herbs.

White People

It is believed the Bai got their name from their penchant for wearing white clothing. (White in Chinese is pronounced “bai.”)

Women traditionally wear a white coat with black or purple trimmings, blue loose trousers, embroidered shoes, silver bracelets, and earrings.

The Bai, numbering around two million, speak a language different from Mandarin, yet heavily influenced by the official language in the written form. Their language has a blend of Tibetan and Burmese words and is a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Melting Pot

[Photo of Tourist in Dali]The Dali’s location near the crossroads of Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Tibet, has made it a melting pot of cultures. It is said that Southeast Asian culture from these countries have equally influenced the Bai as much as the Hans have. That’s why in Dali you will find an uncanny mix of conventional Chinese decor and colorful tropical motifs.

Although Buddhist, the Bai practice animism and worship their village god Benzhu and folklore or historical heroes.

Renaissance People

The Bai are known across China for their superb artistic creativity. They have excelled in architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and crafts like lacquer work. The great Three Pagodas at the Chonsheng Temple in Dali, which has stood erect for over a thousand years, is a testament to the Bai’s architectural mastery.

The Bai have also been credited for inventions and advances in meteorology, astronomy, the calendar, agriculture, and medicine. Their ancient contributions to medicine and astronomy are well documented and are still studied in Chinese universities.

Aside from contributions to Chinese literature, the Bai are also acclaimed for song and dance. The “Lion Dance,” created by the Bai during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), is still performed all over the world today.

Marble Marvel

Among the arts in which the Bai excel most is sculptural work on marble. Some accounts state the Bai began using the mineral since the Neolithic Age. Artifacts of the period show that prehistoric Erhai dwellers used stone tools for farming, fishing, and hunting. But the use of marble for craftwork began in the Tang Dynasty.

Cangshan Mountain beside Erhai Lake has been mined for its precious marble for as long as anyone can remember. It still contains vast deposits of the famous Dali Stone or Yunnan marble, a pure white limestone rock with exquisite texture and veins of red, light, blue, green, and milky yellow. It is colorful and has a translucency similar to Myanmar jade. The carved pieces are selected and classified based on the quality of veins, the vividness of the rock’s color, and the detail of the carving.

There are huge deposits in all 19 peaks of the Cangshan. But while marble is plentiful in the area, most of the large boulders have already been quarried.

Marble coming from the region is highly valued for carving and construction. However, the industry receives little monitoring and no official figures are available on the actual revenue from the mines.

The marble from this area is sold mostly as carved pieces that could sometimes be as pricey as jade ornaments.

Dali City’s streets are lined on both sides by shops selling almost anything made out of marble. The most common designs sold in Dali are the four seasons, scenes from mountains, rivers, trees, birds, animals, feathers, fairies, spirits and, of course, Buddha representations. But tourists may hire one of Dali’s over 1,000 marble sculptors to make custom designs.

[Photo of South Dali Gate]Selling the Bai

 While the locals make good money out of marble, the government is now on a frenzy to market one of its living national treasures—the Bai—to increasing streams of local and foreign tourists.

It is vigorously promoting traditional Bai festivals like the March Fair, held every year at the foot of the Cangshan. The grandest of the Bai festivals, the fair started as a religious activity and memorial. It now features merchandise from other regions, as well as a showcase of traditional sports and dances.

The Torch Festival, another important annual event for the Bai, is celebrated to wish for good health and a prosperous harvest. Villagers light torches in front of their homes and march to the fields to drive away pests.

Primitive Simplicity

But the major come-on for tourists is the city itself.

Tourists say the Ancient City of Dali is unsophisticated, quiet, and primitively simple; a restful contrast to the progress of neighboring Xingguang, capital of the Autonomous Region of Dali.

The walled city has a perimeter of 6 kilometers and walls 7.5 meters high and 6 meters thick. Formerly having four city gates, the imposing entrance tower greets visitors.

The main street is adorned on either side by green-tiled houses, shops as ancient as the city walls, and an abundance of workshops.

The Bai’s houses are conversation pieces. They show a painstaking attention to detail and emphasize color and decoration. Intricately designed gates, towers, arches, windows with woodcarvings, marble, and colorful paintings are common features. One can expect flower beds in every courtyard and hills of flowers every year.

The Foreigners Street, recently constructed for visitors, features Bai food and the famous three-course tea; the first cup is bitter, the second cup, sweet, and the third, an aftertaste.

Government Attention

[Photo of Erhai Lake]Beijing’s focus on the Bai is the result of a government policy restudy on ethnic minorities. There was a time when minorities were barred from practicing their traditions in an effort to homogenize China and promote unity—eventually turning everyone into Han.

Tribesmen were sent to factories during the communist construction boom of the 1950’s and religious practices, as well as the use of ethnic dialects, were banned.

But the government is now struggling to preserve what little has remained of the Bai’s cultural heritage, trying to mend the damage it caused some decades ago. Perhaps, for the Bai, the years of repression will still
end with a sweet aftertaste.

print ed: 02/08


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