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Stone Forest

Stone Forest

People Of The Stone Forest


By Jim Goodman

Among the many attractions of China's Yunnan Province, its ethnic melange is the best known. Yunnan is home to 24 minority nationalities, with dozens of branches and sub-groups, residing in all sorts of geographical conditions. The tourist literature urges travellers to sample the colourful traditions, lifestyles and costumes of the minorities. And the first of these the visitor will most likely encounter are a branch of the Yi nationality known as the Sani. Images of their turbaned women abound on posters, batik wall hangings and cloth shoulder bags. Sani handicrafts – costume components, purses, bags, embroidered panels – saturate the tourist-oriented shops and stalls as far west as Dali and Lijiang. Sani women hawk such wares on the streets of Kunming near the parks and big hotels. Their homeland is nearby Lunan County, three hours ride from Kunming, site of the famous Stone Forest (Shilin in Chinese), a tourist attraction since the Ming Dynasty.

Once upon a time in the Permian Age, some 270 million years ago, a lake occupied the county's territory. Sudden shifts in the earth's crust thrust the limestone lakebed upward to form a tableland. Rain, wind and seeping water daily nibbled away at the limestone, causing fissures in the pillars, sculpting others into grotesquely suggestive shapes, since dubbed with fanciful names like Phoenix Preening its Wings, Rhinoceros Looking at the Moon, Camel Riding an Elephant, Wife Waiting for her Husband. That's the geologists' explanation, anyway.

The Sani have their own version. Accordingly, an ancient Sani Prometheus named Jinfang Roga sought to improve the lot of his people by building a great dam to hold the waters as a defence against drought. To do this he sneaked into Heaven and stole a magic whip, capable of driving mountains like sheep. All night he drove the peaks together and headed towards Yiliang, west of Lunan. But he failed to finish before dawn, when the whip's magic powers ceased. The herd of peaks stood fast to become the Stone Forest, while the vengeful gods captured the hero and put him to death.

Actually Shilin is merely an 80-hectare concentration of a phenomenon which characterises much of Lunan County's landscape. Another conglomeration, of darker rocks, lies several kilometres north. It's called Naigu Shilin, after the Sani word for black. Clusters of similar stones pop up all over the rolling highland plain, while many Sani villages lie adjacent to "stone groves" of weird pillars equally as eye-catching as those of Shilin. Every time I return to Lunan I am tempted to emulate the poets and start bestowing names, too: Buffalo Rampant, Drunken Sentry, Crooked Phallus, Tower of Pebbles, Easter Island Immigrant. But I wouldn't want any signs put up, or Chinese characters painted on the pillars, a practice which mars appreciation of Shilin, and which is spreading to Naigu Shilin as well.

Fortunately, the rest of the county's scenery stands unmolested. A small stone lion is the only manmade structure near the shores of Changhu – the Oblong Lake east of the county seat. A picturesque body of water that can be circumambulated in about an hour, it lies just a few kilometres off the Guishan road and occasionally serves as a picnic site for local Sani. Wilder in its setting is Yuehu – Moon Lake – in the north of the county. On the approach to Shilin are several karst caves, whose walls are illuminated with lights of different colours. And in the southwest, an hour's ride from Lunan town, the Bajiang River drops 96 metres over a cliff at Daduishui. This cataract, splayed 30 metres wide, is Yunnan's most spectacular waterfall, with not even a tea shop anywhere near it.

In between these gems the land undulates gently, bounded by a horizon of distant hills and mottled by villages, patches of forest, flocks of sheep and goats and tilled fields of red earth, with crops of rice, maize or tobacco. Sani villages usually lie around one or two large ponds that serve as principal water sources. Houses are of typically Yunnanese construction: rammed earth walls with tiled roofs, the ground floor for living, and the upstairs for storage. Back walls sometimes have built-in beehives for honey production. The wheels of carts and barrows, as well as the old-fashioned threshers, are often made of wood. Most houses have bamboo-frame looms, identical in structure and use to the two-treadle, stand-up type employed by Thailand's Akhas, except that the thread is spun from hemp, not cotton.

Sani weavers claim it takes 76 steps to turn hemp from seed into cloth. Much of this involves treatments and rinsing in various solutions to soften the stalks. Laborious it surely is and in past generations all Sani garments were made with hemp cloth. In recent years Sanis have had access to urban markets and can buy finished cotton cloth. The use of hemp cloth has become restricted to shoulder bags, men's vests and women's capes. The rest of the costume is mill-made cloth, with parts, like shoulder bags and baby-carriers, hand-embroidered. Women wear a long-sleeved tunic, trousers, an apron with embroidered strap ends, and a round turban with an opening at the back, through which they hang their ponytails. Married women favour dark blue and black. Younger women prefer lighter and brighter hues, while their headgear sports a pair of triangular tabs over the ears, to indicate their single status. Straw hats and capes of coconut husk are worn by both sexes. Older women like capes of sheepskin, fastened, like all capes, by tabs appliquéd with ornate cut-out designs.

Sani women devote much of their free time to embroidery, even producing items like strips of tiny flowers, sold to Kunming shops for use as garment trimmings. Men are responsible for construction, quarrying and livestock care. Women do most of the farming and domestic chores. They also gather herbs and edible roots and fungi from the forest, selling them in the streets of old Lunan, especially Wednesdays and Saturdays, when village Sani journey to Lunan packed in tractor-trailers. The markets fill with rural merchandise, from animals and vegetables to utilitarian items like carrying poles, sundry types of rope, stools of coiled straw, plus various baskets, whisks and brooms.

Upon returning home the youth tend to gather in the village centre in the evening for a round of music and dancing. Flutes, drums, three-string lutes, perhaps an accordion and a certain type of broadleaf comprise the instrumental section. Dances can be quite lively. One number includes the brandishing of pitchforks and another features a two-man lion. On holidays the whole village may join in, staging bullfights and wrestling matches as well. The greatest such celebration occurs on the 24th day of the 6th lunar month – the Yi Torch Festival, which the Sani stage in the stunning arena of the Stone Forest.

The songs, however, may be heard at any time. They are in the Sani dialect of the Yi language, a Tibeto-Burman tongue characterised by short vowels, a tonal system more akin to a musical scale than that of Chinese or Thai, and many guttural and sibilant consonants. One hears lots of sh's, zh's and gh's, and even one best rendered as hkhl, as in hkhláwné (face). The songs may be accompanied by a thin bamboo mouth harp called the mosheen. The most popular are those dealing with the tragedy of Ashima, the Sani national heroine. An alabaster statue of her stands in the centre of Lunan town, with many roads and shops named after her. Old folks sit on stools at weddings and sing her ancient ballad, while those whose marriages turn unhappy find solace in singing of her fate, and identifying with her.

The bittersweet ballad depicts Ashima as the ideal Sani maiden. She is beautiful, honest, a talented singer and mosheen player, a happy herder and farmer, whose love of nature in her native land is reciprocated by all the birds, beasts, plants and people around. Far away lives the evil magician Rebubala, who also plants flowers around his domain, "but to his flowers no bees would come to sip the nectar there." But Rebubala has staked his prestige on securing this renowned beauty as a wife for his repulsive son. He dispatches a greedy go-between, but Ashima refuses to leave her home for the wealth of her suitor, for "clear water will not mix with foul." The envoy kidnaps her and takes her to Rebubala's where, for her obstinacy, she's whipped and cast into a dungeon.

Her brother Ahei hears of her distress, mounts his steed and gallops after her. The ogre and his son challenge Ahei to a singing-riddle contest, which Ahei wins to gain entry into the castle. Thereafter he is subjected to several more tests, with his sister playing warnings on the mosheen, until he triumphantly escorts Ashima out of the castle. But the double-crossing Rebubala conjures up a flood to thwart the pair just as they reach the Stone Forest. A wave sweeps away Ashima, leaving behind only an echo. Her spirit remains to inhabit a pillar in the park's Little Stone Forest. Nowadays tourists like to pose their lovely Sani guides beside it. They are especially pleased when the girl gazes poignantly at the pillar, since it makes a good photograph. Virtually none of them have any inkling of how evocative a moment that might be, in the mind and heart of their guide, as she looks upon Ashima Rock.


Text by Jim Goodman; Photos by Jim Goodman, David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media