In a small Lisu ethnic village on the snow-capped Mount Biluo, elders told us that in the past, people would get up and leave for hunting when, at dawn, the brightest star appears on the sky, high above the horizon in the east. We knew that they were referring to the Venus. When the cherry blossoms were in bloom, local people knew that it was time to celebrate the upcoming of the new year. They would plough the fields when they saw peach flowers budding. Corn seeds were sowed when flowers studded vast expanses of a wild grass yellowish in color. “Sowing can?t be later than that,” said one of the elders, speaking in the language of his ethnic group, the Lisu. “Otherwise, there would be no harvest.”
The village is in the Nujiang Valley, which is a part of the southwest China area with three mighty rivers, the Nu, Lancang and Jinsha, running abreast. For hundreds of years in the past, people of Lisu and other ethnic minority groups in the area used changes in natural phenomena as reference in deciding when to do this or when to do that. The Lilis used to divide the 12 months in a year according to their own “natural calendar”, which is neither the traditional Chinese calendar nor the Gregorian Calendar. The first month, the Lilis decided, was, and still is, for celebrating the upcoming of the new year; and the second, for building houses. The third comes when flowers are in full boom on the mountain slopes, and the fourth, when birds are heard singing. In the fifth month, people in the past would do farming by using the slash-and-burn method, a practice they abandoned a long time ago. The sixth used to be called the “month of famine” as people had consumed all the food in reserve while the year’s harvest was yet to begin. The seventh and eighth are time for people to go up the mountains and gather medicinal herbs for sale or for their own use. The following two months are time for harvest. The 11th is for wine making and the 12th was for hunting. The Lilis believed that devils would hound the area in the sixth and seventh “months”, when it is dry and hot and people were short of food. In August, devils would leave when it is cooler and people had more food. This kind of “calendar”, so to speak, is no longer used. Despite that, we can?t take light of the role it once played in the development of the area’s unique culture. For local elders, in particular, it serves to link them to the history of their ethnic groups and clans, and to their ancestors who came to settle in the area many, many centuries ago.
Like the Lisus, people of the Nu ethnic group living in the same area celebrate new year in the 12th month, which roughly coincides with December by the Gregorian Calendar. For them, this is time for building new houses and slaughtering animals for feasts and ceremonies dedicated to their ancestors. Until about 50 years ago, the Nus had lived under a clan system, their clans named after animals, the likes of the tiger, bee, bird, bear, chicken, snake, monkey, etc., as well as rocks, tree trunks or buckwheat. According to local elders, once upon a time, the Goddess of Bee descended from Heaven to this area, and got married with the God of Snake on Earth. The marriage, so to speak, gave birth to a baby girl, who was to become the ancestor of all the Nu clans. When the girl reaches adulthood, she married, alternately, with different animals ? the tiger, bear, deer, mouse, etc., and the offsprings resulting from the marriages were to organize themselves into different clans with these animals as their totems.
Legends such as this one about the origin of the ethnic group have been passed down from generation to generation by words and singing, mostly in the month for celebrating the new year. In the past, songs were sung and legends told at mass gatherings. Old songs are now seldom sung and old stories seldom told these days, but one old tradition seems to remain intact. As part of the new year celebrations, families will trek the old mountain trails via which their ancestors migrated here from the Lancang River Valley. While walking, they would keep shouting the names of their family members, in hope that their ancestors would protect them. The mountain trails, narrow and dangerous as they are, lead the Nus to their past, which they value so much.
For hundreds of years in the past, people were able to communicate and benefit from each other’s cultures thanks to those trails and the turbulent Nu, Lancang and Jinsha rivers that cut through those towering, snow-clad mountain ranges. Ancestors of the Lisu ethnic group were also immigrants from the Lancang River Valley. They came about three or four hundred years ago, later than ancestors of the Nus. Like the Nus, the Lisus celebrate the new year in the last month of the year. For both the Nus and Lisus, the month is time for wine making and drinking. At a festival gathering of relatives and friends, participants will each bring with them a bucket of homemade wine for sharing with others. After three toasts are made, people begin singing, often in antiphonal style, while drinking from the same bowl, a traditional gesture of solidarity and friendship. Wine-drinking gatherings are held not only for the festival. After a dispute is settled, the parties will invite neighbors and friends to a get-together to drink the so-called “wine of solidarity” contributed by all participants. There is a song dedicated to such gatherings, which goes something like this:
We live under the same Heaven.
We live on the same Earth.
Let hatred be washed away
By the Turbulent waters of the river.
Life goes slowly in this mountainous area, but never is it frozen. Here we were, in Ah Pin’s house. Vulture feathers are displayed on the wall of the main room, along with skulls of river deer and other animals and an antler, and we were also shown crossbow and a bag of bear skin still with arrows in it, which our host kept in a corner of the room. As a hunter, Ah Pin used to have a homemade shotgun, which he handed over to the local government after hunting was banned. “Life now is much better than in the past, and we don?t have to go hunting for meat and fur or on gathering wild fruit to make up the shortage of food,” he said.
Ah Pin still misses those years when tigers, bears, monkeys, leopards and numerous other animals prowled the deep forests on those mountains. Under the old rules, he said, skulls of the prey were kept out of gratitude to the mountain gods who had been generous enough to give out some of their “subjects”. Animals are still there, but in much smaller numbers. “It is good that the government has banned hunting and helped us start a new, more countable life by engaging in crop farming business,”the former hunter said.
Wildlife is now under strict protection in numerous nature preserves in the area, which is also a paradise of birds ? pheasants, peacocks, as well as what the local people call “love birds”. The “love birds”, so to speak, live in pairs. The male bird and the female bird in a pair are always seen together. When one bird dies, the other bird, “heart-broken”, will not live long. Legend goes that the birds are souls of devoted lovers.
High up the mountains, at about 3,500 to 4,000 meters above sea level, there are a range of lakes created by glaciers. Despite such a high altitude, these places present a vast ocean of flowers in late Spring and early Summer, the season when people come from afar to gather medicinal plants and do fishing in the lakes. This is also the season for animals to come and mate. Nobody knows how many lakes dot the mountain slopes. Just on one slope of Mount Biluo, we counted a dozen. The most famous is the Tingming Lake in the Gaoligong Mountains. The lake area is a dreamland of tranquility and peace. It brooks no disturbance. When here, people may whisper but can never speak in a loud voice. If they utter a few words in a loud voice, a rain or even a hailstorm will instantly fall from the sky as if to punish them for their “wrongdoing”. In the old days, people suffering from a drought would gather here for rain. An elaborate ritual would be held in honor of the Heavenly God. Sacrifices would be displayed at the lakeside and then people would sing and dance amid the beating of gongs and drums.
In the early 1970s, highways were built to link the valleys with the outside world. Those ancient mountain trails are now almost deserted, and are occasionally used by people like us who come to see what life could be like many, many years ago and enjoy the beauty of nature and, moreover, those unique cultures of the local inhabitants ? Ethnic Tibetans, Naxis, Lisus, Yis and Miaos. Here we find the Shangri-La in its true sense, a dreamland of peace between peoples and harmony between Man and nature.