Stories and Legends: Yunnan's Torch Festivals




I don't recall exactly when I first heard stories about The Torch Festival in Yunnan, but I do remember going to the festival in Stone Forest County in August 2010.

I was with an American colleague who was working at a water treatment plant in Yiliang, about an hour by car from the provincial capital Kunming, and his sister who was visiting from the States.

Driving from Yiliang late afternoon under the dome of a lavender-pink sky, we arrived at Stone Forest County early evening and ate a lamb hot pot while observing the hustle and bustle and clamour of the food stalls and the endless stream of people along the labyrinth of narrow streets.

Fires began to burn in the twilight. The evening turned into a huge Fire Ball.

Here are some photos of that evening courtesy of Nathaniel Dick.





She began with one single story....[a]nd from there, the stories accumulated into heaps of stories, like the dry stone of a date growing into a palm tree, with hundreds of dates covering its branches.

--Hanan al-Shaykh, One Thousand and One Nights, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011:288.

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The body of lore and legend on the Torch Festival is extensive in both oral and written sources. The written sources include 'The Barbarian Women  A'nan', 'Zhuge Liang's Southern Expedition,' 'The Burning of Songming Tower' and 'Piluoge Unites the Six Tribes.' 

The stories I have read in Chinese are, to say the least, flat and uninspiring, but the stories are not the culprit. The storytelling is the issue. 

For the stories to ignite my imagination, I would have to rewrite them, re-imagine them.

Let me give you one example. In one version of the origins of festival among the Yi, a swarm of locusts descend on a village sent by an angry god. The locusts strip the fields and eat the crops after one of his celestial wrestlers is defeated and dies at the hands of a mere mortal. 

This is the story in a nutshell. 

The story could be reworked and re-imagined from a number of different angles and locations. The locations, in this case, heaven and a village on earth, are also real characters in any story. What of the god and his wrestler?  Is the wrestler he sends to earth his personal bodyguard? Does a god, presumably powerful and strong, need a bodyguard?

And then there's the battle between the villagers and the locusts. How are the locusts ultimately vanquished? What of our hero, the wrestler A'ti Laba? And the other torch bearers doing battle with these short-horned grasshoppers?  And what of the locusts carcasses in the aftermath of the battle? 

Every version of these stories can be to re-imagined into a collection of short stories that as I have suggested, owes less to the source material of the stories than to the imaginary realm of the storyteller. 

For me, the Torch Festival is a metaphor for life. Life is a flame. Life burns. The torch bearers in these stories are the custodians of the Fire of Life, fires that have been burning since time immemorial.

The following stories are gleaned from two Chinese sources (see links below). Translating them has reopened a magic door and taken me into the heart of storytelling and the storyteller. 'The universe,' the poet Muriel Rukeyser reminds us, 'is made of stories, not atoms.' 

-Peter Micic 

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The Torch Festival is celebrated by a number of cultural groups in Yunnan including the Yi, Bai, Naxi, Hani, Jinuo and Lahu.The  Festival usually falls on the 24th or 25th day of the sixth lunar month which was celebrated this year across regions of Yunnan in early August. Activities include bull fights, horse racing, wrestling, songs and dances and beauty pageants.  

The festival is also called  'Stars Returning (To Heaven) Festival' (回星节). The term 'stars returning' is said to originate in the Bai language or one of its dialects, perhaps a homonym for 'firewood' (xinl) and 'fire' (huix). 

In most ancient civilisations, the celestial observances of the moon, sun and planets were used to count the days in making calendars.Fire calendars (火历), also called 'ten month calendars' (十月历) were common in ancient civilisations across parts of China, the burning of fires used to clear the fields in slash and burn agriculture, determine ritual celebrations, mark seasonal events or punctuate processions.

These ancient societies like other ancient societies elsewhere worshipped nature in all its forms-- the sky and the stars, rivers, rocks, trees and the elements such as fire and water. 

There is also a connection with the fire calendar and the Emperor Yan ('Yan' literallly means 'flame'), however tenuous, which could tell us much about the Torch Festival  whose origins have admittedly been lost in the mists of time.

Some versions of the origins of the Torch Festival  

1. Naxi (纳西族) 

In one version among the Naxi, there was a god called Zilao Apu. He was ripe with envy over the happy lives of mortals on earth. 

He ordered one of his generals to go down to earth and engulf it in a 'sea of fire.'  When the general arrived, he met a man carrying his nephew on his back and his son walking by his side holding his hand. 

His sister-in-law had died and the man had taken upon himself to look after his nephew. This struck a deep chord in the general's heart. He started to think that all these earthly mortals were equally kind and virtuous. He now had second thoughts about what he was going to do.

He told the man of his plans to turn the earth into a giant ball of fire and how he could deceive the god and prevent a calamity. He instructed the man to tell the villagers that on the 25th day of the 6th lunar month, torches should be lit in front of their houses.

When the god Zilao Apu woke up from his deep sleep, he was eager to know whether the general had carried out his instructions. Looking down from heaven, all he could see was a huge fire. He concluded that the villagers had been engulfed in a sea of flames. Satisfied that his order had been executed, he fell asleep, never to awaken again. 

From that time on this day became known among the Naxi as the Torch Festival. 

2. Lahu 拉祜族

There once lived an evil man on a mountain who enjoyed gorging the eyes of humans and eating them. 

Another man on the mountain, who was known for his kindness and generosity, had a plan to rid everyone of this eye-eating monster.

On the 24th day of the 6th lunar month, he rounded up a number of mountain goats and smeared their horns with bees wax then let them loose in the evil man's direction. 

The evil man could hear buzzing sparks and thought the he was being fired at. He quickly fled and hid himself in a cave blocking the entrance with a stone slab. He was unaware that the water in grotto gushed out from this one entrance. When the water gushed out the man was submerged in water and drowned. 

From that day people we no longer afraid that the eye-eating man and it was commemorated as Torch Festival. 

3. Bai (白族)

The origins of the Torch Festival among the Bai, at least one version of the story, is connected to A'Nan (Man A'nan). 

During the early Tang dynasty in the seventh century, there were six tribes in Yunnan. Disturbed and agitated that one of the tribes was becoming stringer and powerful, a tribal chieftain by the name of Piluoge convened a meeting with the chieftains from the other five tribes. 

The wife of one of the chieftains called Man A'nan was suspicious about why the meeting was convened. She could smell a rat, but could not persuade her husband from not going. Before he left, she tied a circular band around his on his waist as a talisman. 

The chieftains gathered in the Songming Tower. Piluoge was now ready to execute his treacherous plan. He ordered that the Tower be destroyed. All the five chieftains were burnt alive.

When Man A'nan arrived at the scene, the circular band she had give her husband allowed her to identify her the body among the smoldering cinders. She carried the body home. To add insult to injury, Piluoge asked for Man A'nan's hand in marriage. Man A'nan bluntly refused. After burying her husband, she killed herself. 

It is said that the Bai celebrate the Torch Festival to commemorate "The Burning of Songming Tower" and Man A'nan. 

In another version, Guo Shizhong, a Han Dynasty general killed a chieftain in Dali called Man'ana then proposed to the chieftain's wife Man A'nan. As she wept and mourned her loss, she feigned acceptance. 

At a memorial service to commemorate her husband's death, Man A'nan burned the morning hall and then threw herself on the fire. 

Each year, the Bai light torches to commemorate her bravery, fidelity and integrity.  

4. Yi (彝族)

According to one Yi version, there were two formidable wrestlers. One lived in heaven and his name was Sire A'bi. The other on earth was called A'ti Laba. 

A god in heaven was jealous of A'ti Laba's prowess as a wrestler and sent  one of champion wrestlers by the name of Sire A'ba to challenge him. But at the time of the competition,  A'ti Laba was not in the village. He had  been called away on business. Before leaving, he asked his mother to prepare a plate of iron discuses to greet the wrestler from Heaven. 

When Sire A'ba arrived and saw the discuses, he jump to the conclusion that the secret to A'ti Laba's extraordinary power and strength was because he ate these circular disks. Frightened, he fled. When A'ti Laba returned and heard that Sire A'bi had left he chased after him.

Finally the competition took place, but unexpectedly, the god's wrestler was defeated and killed.  The god was raged and lashed out against A'ti Laba by sending a swarm of locusts to strip the fields and eat the villager's crops.  

On 24th day of the 6th lunar month, A'ti Laba rounded up the villagers, hundreds strong, and requested them to cut pine branches, light them and go to the fields where they formed a large semicircle of pine torches in a large open area ready to do battle with the locusts. 

This day became known as the Torch Festival. 

©Peter Micic


Sources (Chinese):

1. http://baike.baidu.com/link?url=M_FfwCm5no2hAqAu-soeD1eMaNV90ag-917drX1YIh0HID1lSBz-RaL5Nvhdda-v

2. http://yndaily.yunnan.cn/html/2013-07/23/content_731940.htm?div=-1

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