This is an anthropological study of the village gods of the Baizu in Dali prefecture, Yunnan province. This is all about the why, rather than the whatThis is an anthropological study of the village gods of the Baizu in Dali prefecture, Yunnan province. This is all about the why, rather than the what, so myths and rituals are brought in to illustrate a point (for example, here are a few gods associated with childbirth, or this myth illustrates how pragmatic the religion is). We are never given any myths in depth, and there is no attempt to cover the village god pantheon exhaustively, but as a clear and concise explanation of the function of the Baizu religion, how it is why it is, this is the best I’ve read.
There is an account of the origin myth, the first I’ve found: In the beginning there was chaos, then the waves of the infinite ocean punched a hole in heaven. A small sun fell from the hole and caused the waters of the boundless sea to boil, awakening a great golden dragon. The dragon ate the sun, but it burned and choked him, forming a ball of flesh in his gullet. The ball exploded from the dragon’s mouth, the flesh spraying across creation, becoming all the things of the world: forests, birds, beasts and creatures of the sea. It also became the first man and first woman, Laogu and Laotai.
According to the author, the first village god temple we have evidence of is in the eighth century, after the first Dali kingdom had been founded (the Nanzhao). But even today you can see how the Baizu religion is closely linked with the shamanistic faith of tribal times, when there were a myriad spirits linked to every natural phenomenon (disease, drought, crops). So there is no next world, no heaven or nirvana quarantined off from this squalid life, rather it is all about the here and now – village gods help kids get good grades, cure a sick horse, ensure a good harvest. This also means the gods have all the human failings of the Greco-Roman gods: They get married, have children, have affairs, get jealous, and act out of spite in an ongoing celestial soap opera.
There’s a good, detailed section on the raosanling festival – but has the same problem as I’ve encountered with other books; how much of the rituals are still carried out today, how many has he picked up from books that have now died out? I still haven’t had a chance to go check it out for myself. At least he mentions that nowadays not everyone walks the whole route, and it’s perfectly acceptable to take a moped round the different temples.
He makes the connection between agriculture and village gods much clearer. I’d noticed the abundance of dragon gods, and that all Baizu are the descendants of the golden dragon, but hadn’t put together that this is just a manifestation of a water god controlling floods, irrigation, rain for crops and so on, vital in a society that survives on agriculture.
I also found the typical layout of a village god temple helpful, the table of festivals in the back is not as useful as it could be because for the most part it only gives the honorific name of the god, not always their actual identity or what happens during the festival.
This is a book for specialists, it reads like it was adapted from an academic paper but is still very readable. It repeats ideas at times, but as the ideas were new and Chinese is not my first language this just helped to reinforce themes rather than be lazy or irritating. On the off-chance you’re a Baizu village god geek, this is a good one. ...more
The title of this in English is Xizhou – The Charm of An Ancient Thousand Year Old Town. Xizhou is a town in Dali, at the north end of Erhai lake. ThiThe title of this in English is Xizhou – The Charm of An Ancient Thousand Year Old Town. Xizhou is a town in Dali, at the north end of Erhai lake. This is a mainstream book aimed at tourists, covering history, local food, religion, arts and crafts.
As a fairly detailed look at the town this does the job. However, it feels a little cobbled together. It seems as if the author is not overly familiar with the place, and the writing veers between his recounting a tourist visit, saying things like “the girl who took us on a tour of the house says that…” to extremely detailed histories clearly taken from other books (such as the biography of the businessman Yan Zizhen).
There are things I picked up that I didn’t know before: A more detailed account of the Rao San Ling festival, for example, where for three days “over one hundred thousand people” make a pilgrimage around a circuit of holy sites (city of the gods to the dragon king’s temple).
There is the Xizhou Harvest Festival (栽秧会) which I thought was only held in Eryuan county, and there’s a lot of detail: A colourful maypole; the Master of the Rice Seedlings (秧官) leading the women in a sowing competition while the men bellow love songs.
A great detailed account of arranged marriages, but I think this is from a book – a lot of people I know in Dali have arranged marriages, but this is usually because the couples parents want someone with a high income and connections rather than seeing if two people’s stars are aligned. Still, I liked the mnemonic to see if the couples year sign is cosmically compatible (as in 2015, the Year of the Goat, so all people born in this year will have the Goat star sign). This marital strife rhyme goes: “The snake and the tiger will cut each other like knives, the white horse is afraid of the blue ox, on meeting the ox the rabbit will ascend to heaven, the pig and the monkey will never see eye to eye, the golden chicken and the jade dog will both be in tears, while the rat and the goat will perish together!”.
For the most part the language is easy enough to read for a non-native speaker, though the author does get a bit flowery at times: On the section on Baizu marriage he says “Just like the golden flower girl combing her hair beside the butterfly pool, and the youth spurring his steed in a dash from Jianchuan, boys and girls see the world with a purity, a beauty and captivation, and from the thronging crowds of the March Fair spy their one true love.” There’s more like this.
Sometimes it’s divorced from reality (I doubt there was a time when you could fish by just dipping a bucket in a stream). Sometimes there's misinformation, such as saying that in the 80s and 90s the Xizhou pancakes were so popular in Kunming that they rivalled the Kunming erkuai (a rice cake staple). But when I asked around, people who've lived in Kunming during that time said he was probably talking about modeng baba (摩登粑粑) which is a home grown Kunming pancake: You can’t buy Xizhou pancakes in Kunming. The description of the Xizhou cheese making process (乳扇) doesn’t match what I’ve seen.
I know these are little things, but it adds to the cut-and-paste feel.
When he quotes historical sources the language gets tricky, but sometimes needlessly. For example there’s no reason to tell us in olden times the southern non-Han traders were known in Chinese as “河赕贾客”, as that just means “southern non-Han trader”, but using obsolete Chinese characters I had to go look up.
The book itself is a pleasing thing though, and this is what shifts my Goodreads rating from 2 to 3 stars (though I’d still be hard pressed to recommend you pick it up). Full colour, creative layout, only occasionally veering into the cringe-inducing text-over-faded-image or fuzzy-edged-photo-with-cute-rounded corners. Some of the photographs are lovely, especially the double page spreads, with only a few out of focus or overly Photoshopped. ...more
The only decent history of Dali I've found in English. Even though it's translated by a non-native speaker, it's of good enough quality that the writiThe only decent history of Dali I've found in English. Even though it's translated by a non-native speaker, it's of good enough quality that the writing is quirky ("it's as dangerous as stroking a tiger's whiskers") rather than headache inducing. In fact it's the first time I've seen the historical narrative told in such a clear way: Nanzhao was about surviving between the two martial powers of Tibet and China, the Kingdom of Dali was Buddhist in a big way. You can get a handle on different eras.
Things I learned that I hadn't come across before:
The first scientific archaeological dig in China took place in Dali (beneath Malong peak), with the first qualified woman archaeologist Zeng Zhaoyu (曾昭燏).
When Xi Nuluo united the Erhai tribes at the Iron Pillar of Midu, a giant bird flew down and stayed on his shoulder for eight days. This was seen as an auspicious (if inconvenient) sign that he should be leader.
After the burning of the Songming Tower, the story continues with Pi Luoge sending soldiers after Bojie to her hometown of Dengchuan to force her into marriage. She refused, walled up in the city, and committed suicide only when the city was overrun. This is a big part of why she was deified (as a loyal and virtuous woman).
Wuwei Temple (无为寺) has nothing to do with Daoism, even though “Wuwei” (“the path of least resistance”) is probably the most famous Daoist tenet. The name comes from a proclamation by Guanyin.
There is a raksasa demon (罗刹) trapped under a stone in Wanqiao township (Shangyanxi village).
Dali old town was built by the Ming according to a Han Chinese design, so is not a typical Baizu settlement (I guess that would be the four city gates, square city wall, but I don’t know how a Baizu settlement would differ).
The military occupation by the Ming is reflected in Dali place names, so you have suo (所), a kind of defensive outpost used to move populations into unsettled areas, and ying (营), barracks where Ming troops are garrisoned, shao (哨) sentry post, and so on.
There’s more, but you get the idea. The book is a nice overview, but also has a lot of specific, colourful details that join the dots and make the story come alive.
The only real criticism I'd have is the repetition, if a figure turns up in both a history chapter and a themed chapter, their story appears twice, sometimes word for word. Same goes for the photographs - Xiaoputuo Island turns up a couple times, for example, just from different angles. ...more
I loved Empress Orchid, but here Min sticks way too closely to historical events, and I never got a clear picture of the empress: She wants her son toI loved Empress Orchid, but here Min sticks way too closely to historical events, and I never got a clear picture of the empress: She wants her son to rule, yet her son seems terrified of her; she doesn't seem to have enough outrage at what the foreigners are doing to her country; she reads the Times (of London) and cares what the journalists write.
But in the end it just didn't have the emotional drama of the first book, which it could have done. ...more
A China travel book: A Californian who knows nothing about China and zero Chinese spends a month or two travelling round all the major tourist sites.A China travel book: A Californian who knows nothing about China and zero Chinese spends a month or two travelling round all the major tourist sites.
China's tourist sites are, at best, gruelling, and Troost makes this into a sardonic account of lurching from trauma to trauma.
There are inaccuracies on pretty much every page, but none of them matter - he gets the feel of China travel right. The only thing which really irritated me was when he said "people in China choose Western names because there are so very few Chinese names". I think if he played this for laughs instead of recounting it as an earnest truth it might work, but really...
On the (possible) downside, despite coming from a Dutch background his references are things like MASH, Star Wars and Dan Brown. He goes for broad, sweeping views of the country rather than details (but that's what the book was aiming for), and he spends way more time with Westerners than Chinese. This includes spending time with the various nutters and hippies who end up in Asia - this is mostly to up the humour stakes I assume. But if you're in China and a stranger out of nowhere offers to buy you a beer in a backpacker cafe, the answer is surely "bugger off". And then when he tells you he's a "bodyguard", it's really time to leave.
The other thing is he repeats Western media accounts of China without seeming to digest them. Fair enough, I guess, if you're trying to give a picture of a country you know nothing about in as short as time as possible. But if I was going to write a travel book like this, going to a place where I knew nothing about the country or language, I'd rather go the whole hog and ignore all preconceptions. If the whole thing was just first-hand experience, focusing on details, I have a feeling you'd get a much more real picture of a country than filtering your experience through whatever some Newsweek article said. Also, it shouldn't be too hard to find English speaking guides and translators so you can actually talk to people. But then it would be much harder to make an entertaining book. ...more
This is a collection of colour photographs of temple statues.
Each page of the book is dedicated to a different village god from the Bai ethnic area (This is a collection of colour photographs of temple statues.
Each page of the book is dedicated to a different village god from the Bai ethnic area (mostly Dali prefecture in Yunnan province).
These gods are known as “benzhu” (本主) in Chinese, and alongside the photograph is a brief description of the god’s origins, the dates of holy days and the location of his or her temple.
This is a real labour of love. Author Yang Hengcan (杨恒灿) spent over a decade without funding or academic interest, taking it upon himself to spend his retirement visiting villages with an old film camera. His main mode of transport was a rattling old bicycle, though riding wasn’t always practical, some remote mountain villages could only be reached on foot. He even flew out to see the Bai diaspora in Hunan.
Yang has divided that gods up by their origins, such as primal nature spirits and dragon spirits, though the vast majority, four fifths of the book, are real historical figures who have been deified. And from these there’s a fairly even spread of individuals from the Nanzhao, Tang (Han Chinese), Dali Kingdom and Ming (more Han Chinese), with less and less up to the present, though there’s even a dapper looking god from Republican era China.
Here are some of my favourite origin stories:
The god of Cangshan mountains granted the boy Hui Sheng (慧生) wings and a cloak of invisibility. Hui Sheng flew up to heaven and stole water from the Jade Lake of the Queen Mother of the West, keeper of the peaches of immortality. He flew back over the mountains sprinkling the water, which changed into Dali’s eighteen streams and relieving the valley of drought.
In Xiangyun county there was a small blue dragon (小青龙) who had become disillusioned with the world, and often wandered off by himself into the wilderness. An upstanding individual, he couldn’t stand the abuse of power he saw in society; he soon became notorious for pelting bullying officials with hailstones. In retaliation one official slaughtered a dog and surreptitiously poured its blood into the dragon’s pool. This pollution transformed the dragon into a wisp of blue smoke, and he drifted off to live deep in the mountains. When the dry season came and the dragon’s pool dried up the farmers became anxious. They set up a colourful tent of streamers and a decorated palanquin, and beating drums and gongs marched into the mountains to call the dragon back. He returned, yet every year the ceremony is re-enacted.
In Lijiang, the White King (白王) asked his advisor about his kingdom’s destiny, and his advisor replied that the kingdom would stand until the sun and moon rose together in the west (meaning “forever”). Then the Mongolians invaded from the west, and on their flags was the emblem of sun and moon.
Other stories I like are the tiger-riding god of medicine and the demon monkeys of Golden Shuttle Island (金梭岛的妖猴).
There are a couple reasons this is not a five star book, despite it being the only one of its kind.
From other sources I’ve read there are close to 2,000 villages with their own benzhu, which would be too much for one book, yet because of the way the book was put together it feels like he included a photo from whichever village he wandered into, rather than choosing the most representative deities.
Another problem I have is with the origin stories. Judging from the shift in register, from colloquial to formal, I assume he got these descriptions verbatim from sources at each temple. This means some are more complete than others, but more of a problem is the repetition – the Ming generals and officials are sometimes repeated word for word from one page to the next. That’s ok for a reference book, but not great if you’re reading from cover to cover.
But these are minor things, it’s really a great book. The appendix has some really interesting stuff too: The protocol for a typical benzhu festival, the layout of a temple, and the position of the different gods’ statues. This is followed by a series of photos of the temple buildings, with an example of each section (so main gate (大门), main shrine (大殿), screen wall (照壁) and so on). Then there’s a section of benzhu (with festival dates) for places that either lack a statue of the deity or the whole temple building no longer exists – this is really impressive, as I’ve been stumbling round Dali looking at these places and the physical temples are all I’ve got to go on. I don’t know how he managed to collect this information, except a lot of conversations with village councils.
And in the end this is a book of photographs, so even if you don’t read Chinese but have (like me) been charmed by Dali’s village gods, it’s worth it just for the pictures.