Folks have gathered, firecrackers have been lighted, stage wardrobes have been opened, roosters have been sacrificed, ceremony has been carried out... Amid the violent beats of gong and drum, actors put on their masks, clear their voices and stand ready for the show. For hundreds of years, this very same traditional event has repeated again and again, entertaining generations of the people in Tunbao (in local dialect Tunpu).
There always exists a myth among laymen that anthropologists or ethnographers must be tackling with subjects about ethnic minorities living in isolation. Because of that, we often overlook the people and cultures near us, like those in Tunbao, only within a stone throw from the city of Anshun (pop. 2,440,000), and some 60km west of the provincial capital of Guiyang (pop. 3,320,000). Because of its unique folk costumes and operatic arts, outsiders often misidentify the ethnic identity of the Tunbao people. Despite their appearance, they are not some exotic tribe as one might imagine. They are the Han, who comprise 96% of the Chinese population.
Because of its unique folk costumes and operatic arts, outsiders often misidentify the ethnic identity of the Tunbao people. Despite their appearance, they are not some exotic tribe as one might imagine. They are among the Han, which comprises 96% of the Chinese population.
Tunbao is neither a single village nor a single town. Instead, it is a general term for an area encompassing a cluster of villages. Like many other place names in China, Tunbao has its own meaning. While "Tun" can roughly translate to station troops or, in an extended sense, village. It is often used interchangeably with "Zhai" - stockade. "Bao" stands for fort or garrison. This very name precisely reflects its history and turbulent past which, for many people, remains as nothing but a vague, distant tale.
1381 AD, thirteen years after the establishment his Ming Dynasty, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang dispatched 300,000 troops to conquer the insurgents in the southwest, in order to secure his power in central China. The military machine crushed its way to Puding (today's Anshun), the frontier of the Middle Kingdom, and continued to push forward as far as the south of Yunnan. Unfortunately, even with such overwhelming military victory, the central government was not able to bring the constant revolts in the trouble region under control.
To consolidate his ruling, the Emperor implemented a "defense and cultivation" policy, based on the advice from his generals. By building "Tunbao"s on the arable land along the Guizhou-Yunnan passage, it could on one hand protect the interior from the rebels' harassments and, on the other, produce grains not only enough for the troops and the locals but also for the tribute to the central government. Part of the victorious troops, which once appeared to be home-bound, suddenly had to face a reality by staying permanently. Voluntarily or not, they laid down their weapons, picked up the farming tools, began to plot this virgin land they would later call home. The emperor shipped their families for reunion.
They watched their fellow soldiers departed forever. Their future perspective was dicey and uncertain at best. In the next few centuries, dynasties replaced one another. The central kingdom had undergone countless cycles of war, devastation, resurrection and prosperity, which constantly renewed the culture of China. But the people of Tunbao were to be excluded from such revolutions. They had indeed been long forgotten. Even though life always carried on, they faithfully passed on the cultural legacy bestowed by their ancestors.
I hop onto a suburb-bound minibus in the bustling city centre of Anshun. The city landscape changes abruptly into rural form. In about ten minutes, the flashy residential high-rises are already behind the rear window. Outside the windshield was a picture of typical scene of Karst tectonics. One by one, standalone limestone peaks stand aloft on the green plain.
At the gate at Yunshan Tun, or Cloudy Mountain Village, I come to appreciate how wisely the site was chosen. Sitting at the saddle between two stony peaks, the front and rear walls completely seal off the settlement from outside, leaving enemies absolutely no point of entry. I follow the steep steps on the wall. Army ensigns still fly high. The villagers have never forgotten their identity as the descendants of the ancient warriors.
Indeed, after more than 600 years, the village still stubbornly preserves its appearance. Fish-scale roofs cover the houses laid out along the valley, naturally forming the only main street of this enclosed village. I saunter through this artery linking the front and rear gates, only the plaques of the omnipresent party headquarters and family planning office remind me our epoch of twenty-first century. Outside the defunct rear wall is a vast green field like a secret fertile garden that nourishes the soldiers and settlers inside the garrison.
Yunshan Tun is part of Yunfeng Ba Zhai - "Eight Villages of Cloudy Peaks". Demographically and culturally, they are the heart of Tunbao. But not every village in Tunbao enjoys the same geographical advantage like Yunshan Tun. I descend from the Yunshan Tun to Benzhai in the plain, but soon found myself lost in the labyrinth of narrow alleys between the tall stony walls. The entire stockade was set up with a defense mindset. I venture by knocking the door of a family. Their house still retains one of the eight ancient watchtowers in the village. Today, these towers have mostly been used for granaries. I reach the top via a squeaky ladder. Like an ancient sentry, I watch the panorama of the stockade through the small window in the tower, and reckoned how this fortress of maze, with watchtowers like this placed in strategic positions, had kept enemies from different ways on checked.
This remarkable defence scheme had given people of Benzhai a perpetual sense of security. Doors hardly need to be closed. Each of them is symbolically guarded by the drawing of Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong, two legendary ancient warriors turned protecting deities like Janus. Taking a glimpse through a opened door, I see golden corns and red peppers hanging dry under the eaves, a dog dozing by the threshold, chickens pecking by the wall, and a laundry machine humming in the courtyard. Many families of Benzhai live in quadrangle compounds with a courtyard at the centre, architectural style inherited from their ancestors in central China. Facing the courtyard entrance is the main hall, where dinning, meeting and religious ceremonies take place. The head and important members of the family live in the side chambers, and children and grandchildren live in the wings.
Elaborated carvings rendering exotic plants, animals and calligraphy adorn the eaves, doors and windows. The homesick of our ancient soldiers and their families grew over time. Facing the prospect of never returning to their native home, the only consolation was to mimic an environment as close as possible to the homes they used to grow up and live. Unfortunately, many of these decorations did not survive the years of Cultural Revolution in the 1960-70s.
For both Yunshan and Benzhai, tourism is put on the agenda. Newly established ticket stalls herald the introduction of future entrance fees. But none of these villages is more forerunning than Tianlong Tun (Heaven Dragon Village) several miles away. It shares the similar layout with Benzhai, only with much larger open area at the village centre. It is more accessible thanks to its close proximity to Guiyang-Anshun Highway. Local officials are certainly allured by the huge and lucrative success (or disastrous failure from another point of view) of Lijiang in Yunnan Province, where its ethnic Naxi culture and pristine snow mountains make it one of the hottest tourist spots in China.
Today, Tianlong sports a handful of restaurants and a hotel by entrepreneurial locals. Red lanterns dot along the main roads, creating a constant feeling of festivity. Some folks put on their traditional attire they once gave up. Operas are constantly on show to tourists for a fee. An artificial canal, a poor imitation of that of Lijiang, cuts through village without water.
I am disappointed by this commercialisation. But I am not discouraged in the quest of the genuine Tunbao culture. On the bumpy dirt roads, I held tight at the back of a noisy motor rickshaw that carried me hop from one village to another. Before sunset, I arrived in the village of Jiuxi (Nine Brooks). I have no prior knowledge of either the village or what surprise I would encounter. But in this unpretentious ambience, I know I have found my ultimate destination.
It is the eve of the Chinese New Year. Housewives are doing the last-minute holiday preparations - slaughtering chickens, washing vegetables, and fetching water from the nearby small reservoir. A plaid scarf wraps around their heads and shields of the chilling wind in the winter. Underneath is a black or white headband encircling their foreheads. In the middle of the heel-reaching indigo garments is a girdle of sombre colour. The tight collars and loose sleeves are neatly outlined with dark bands. Such Ming Dynasty costumes frequently seen in classic movies are still the daily attire of the people in Tunbao.
I settle down in the home of Yuan Erniu. A peasant in his forties, Yuan is also a member of the local operatic troupe. I am feeling lucky. Tomorrow, he and his troupe will be performing a floor opera as part of the new year celebrations. They only do so one more time in the year to celebrate harvest. No one remembers when this tradition began. They only know they must faithfully carry on the tradition passed on by their ancestors.
As we relax around the fire in the evening, Yuan leads me to his bedroom. He opens a wardrobe, revealing to the guest his theatrical treasures - costumes, masks, crowns, weapons and, a theatre banner boldly displayed the title of the opera.
“I have been doing this since my twenties”, he said. “But now, I am in my forties, and my son has gone to the city to earn money. Who knows how many more years I could perform, and who knows if my son would ever come back to the village...”, he continues to lament.
Early next morning, the all-man opera troupe gathers in Yuan’s home, all in long traditional dress. Men greet, pour tea and light cigarettes for each other. It is then followed by an unusual silence like meditation. In the kitchen, Mrs Yuan and several other women prepare the important repast before the performance. After the meal, and more tea and cigarettes, the men suddenly stand up, and exit the door one by one.
The spectators have already packed the small open area in the middle of the labyrinth of deep alleyways. There is no stage. The theatre banner in Erniu’s bedroom now hangs high on the stony wall. Below is a ceremonial table arranged with incenses, cups of wine, and a roasted pork head. As soon as the troupe’s elder nods and signals the beginning of the ceremony, the minute-long explosion of firecrackers pounds everyone’s eardrums. In the sea of smoke, the men slowly open their wooden suitcases, carefully moving the masks onto the ceremonial table.
The elder pours cups of wine to the basin of charcoal burning on the ground. One by one, the actors walk solemnly over the steam erupting from the basin. Meanwhile, blood is dripping from the neck of a rooster. The poor animal has ceased to struggle, held powerlessly on the hands of the elder, who bow three times in front of the masks, the banner and the incenses.
It is not at all surprising to see such long process of ceremony before the show. In Tunbao’s floor operas, the ceremonial purpose is at least equally important to that of entertainment. This is the moment for everyone to pray heaven for a better coming year. In fact, from a theatrical standpoint, the opera is rather rudimentary and lack of refinement. A gong is the only instrument in the show containing no singing and melody but monologues or dialogues. There are only a few operas in the troupe’s repertoire. With Tunbao’s history, they all understandably have a military theme.
The performance is almost impromptu. The masked actors mingle with the spectators. Their front stage is the ground encircled by the crowd. There is no need for back stage. They can take a tea break if they feel tire. Men, women and children watch attentively. They must have already watched the show again and again over the years. But they don’t seem to lose any bit of interest. After all, this is one of the only two opportunities of entertainment in the year.
This may seem incomprehensible, as the village is less than 30 kilometres from Anshun, which is inundated with video parlours, karaoke bars, entertainment arcades. Are these descendants of the ancient warriors determined to preserve the indigenous culture bestowed by their ancestors, or their mobility is simply limited by their economic power? The answer is yes to both. Erniu’s son has gone earning money in the city. He may never want to come back to this unknown village. Yet the opera still repeats itself twice a year, and the women villagers still prefer their six-hundred-year-old costumes over any modern attire. The Tunbao tradition has survived 600 years of war and dynasty change. It will continue to survive the impact of modern culture.