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