Dragon and Phoenix


On the Qingshui River, Shidong is a village known for its silversmith, who demonstrates for us. It’s beautiful work: mostly dragon/phoenix and flower motifs (although I also spy one wall plaque with a dragon and mermaid!). The smith's son is dressing for the afternoon dragon boat festival races, so we promise to cheer for his village. The festival itself is very lively, very crowded, and very hot. We wander around the stalls, try to stave off heat-stroke, and look for a place in the shade. A local man asks to take my photo on his cell phone, and Sally becomes very popular with a class of high school girls practicing their English. We stay through the start of the spiral dance, which will go on for hours as the older women (showing off their silver headdresses with dancing phoenix centerpieces) will be replaced by young ladies who are checking out, and being checked out by, young men (village dating rituals). Then back to Kaili, dinner, and the internet cafe, where I post a note to the SYP fan forum.

Summer Solstice

In Datang (aka “Edison Chen”) village, the “short skirt” Miao present a lot more home brew and a dance performance; we join in and then take a group photo. The Miao headdresses are very elaborate and beautiful, a show of wealth in the amount of silver embellishment. Often the central motif is a chrysanthemum, which I take as auspicious. The second stop for the day is Nanhua Village (long skirt Miao), where we watch a second (unplanned) performance, as another group has already arranged this. This village is much more commercialized and full of shops. There’s a Christian church which the caretaker unlocks for us, and an old lady sings us a hymm in Mandarin. Back in Guiyang, we have dinner at a fairly upscale seafood restaurant (but not a lot of seafood dishes — hmm?!). The toilets, we decide, are 5-star. Plus we can wander around the tanks of fish, eels, snails, frogs, crabs and other menu items, still flopping around.

22 June

First stop for the day is Huangguoshu Waterfall — a very popular tourist spot and supposedly the largest (or widest, or something) waterfall in Asia. The walk to the falls is totally paved and littered with hawkers selling rain ponchos. As elsewhere in SW China, most of the tourists are Chinese, many from Taiwan or HK. The young women invariably wear high-heeled shoes. Someone in our group theorizes that their boyfriends have dragged them to these places where they must hike down slippery trails, but I think they just want to look good. It’s been raining and there is a lot of water. The falls are impressive (although small compared to, say, Niagara). What is cool is that the path (a loop) takes us behind the falls itself.

We also visit a couple of villages today — Buyi and Old Han — and then to Jichang village where Ming dynasty-era costumes are still worn. Here there is a ground opera performance. Ground opera is performed on the ground, not the stage (duh!), and evidently often was seen in the streets. This village has a set area for performance with audience seating and a platform for musicians. The form originated during the Ming dynasty when Han soldiers occupied Guizhou. Homesick without their families, they needed a pastime. All of the operas recount military encounters, many from the Three Kingdoms period, which is what we saw. The players wear masks and fight with spears and swords.

After that, we visit a batik museum, which has some very beautiful pieces. Stuff for sale is pricey but a few people make purchases. After dinner we go to the train station, as we are taking an overnight train to Kunming. This is fun — like a slumber party! Ann, Sally, Amihan and I share a compartment (I bag a top bunk). It’s raining outside, with some impressive lightning flashes. The train leaves on time (as we are finding with most Chinese transportation). A bit of chatter and giggling, with Mao Mao advising a “secret knock” system for toilet runs, and then we tuck in for the night. The train car is pretty full, so lots of manipulation for toilets and sinks in the morning.


Kunming is famous for its mild climate: “eternal springtime.” It’s about 6,500 feet in altitude and close to Burma. Right now, it's a very rainy spring day. Our first stop after lunch is the Yunnan Minorities Museum. This is a treasure-house of artifacts from costumes and masks to ancient script documents, and is practically empty. We have a guide for the main rooms and then some time to explore our project topics. I really enjoy the costume rooms (a centerpiece of the collection), but a smaller room filled with masks is also very interesting.

Then we go to the Bamboo Temple, which is famous for its clay figures of the 500 arhats, sculpted by Li Guangxiu and his five assistants toward the end of the 19th century (the project took ten years). The figures are marvellous: very lifelike and all different, many humorous and even irreverent. (Evidently they were considered so disturbing that the sculptor was forbidden to work again after their completion.) The temple is also known as Qiongzhu Si; it’s a huge complex, originally Tang-era but burned down and rebuilt in the 15th century.


Next day we drive to Dali, a picturesque town near the shores of Er Hai (Ear Lake). Our hotel is in the old town center, charming but a tad funky (evidently nobody is supposed to read or need more than mood lighting at night). We have a very nice lunch, then visit San Ta (Three Pagodas). The pagodas themselves are very old; the tallest (Qianxun Ta) from around 800 AD, and the two “newer” ones built in the 11th century. They tower up before the Cang Shan mountain range, with a newer, huge Buddhist temple complex behind. The museum was closed so we could not look at the relics removed during the 1979 renovation, but the ground and bell tower were fun to explore.

It was raining sporadically but a lovely evening to walk to dinner in the old city and wander around the shops. A bunch of people were standing in front of one huge screen hanging above the street, watching Kung Fu Hustle. No luck in the CD shops.

25 June

Next morning, several small visits to:

Bob really wanted to hike on Shan Cang, and we took the gondola up even though it was raining. Fortunately, the trail was quite paved, and the rain stopped, giving us some fabulous views of the lake, the town, and the Three White Pagodas. I ran into a Chinese family on the trail, and after several “ni haos” and “Meiguos” and “Jiujinshans” they asked to take my picture with them (the small girl was particularly excited about this). I wonder what they will tell their friends back home?

A Collage of Decorative Motifs

Click on thumbnail for larger photo

Having read some of the myths and folktales of the Yunnan cultures, I was hoping to find symbolic representations of these stories in textile, jewellry, and architectural decorations. Except for the Miao butterfly motif, I am somewhat disappointed. Everywhere one finds the dance of dragon and phoenix, lovely and evocative but reflecting more of the Han cultural symbology than the mythology of the individual cultures we explore. It dawns on me, however, that San Francisco's totem is the phoenix, symbolic of the city's many rebirths from the ashes of fire. Perhaps this explains my affinity with China, the land of the dragon.

Suyoupenging across China
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