Dayangjie Hani Village
Standing on a high mountain above the east bank of the Honghe River, you will be swathed in the rolling magic cloud sea of the Ailao Mountains. In the brief gaps when the clouds disperse, you can see the Honghe River in the deep valley below, thin as a winding thread, weaving its way through the huge, naked-rock mountains.
Behind my back, a tape-recording was playing. Zhang Fa, a Hani priest, was singing a song related to the story of an ancient village god and his people that happened a long, long time ago. It seemed that with the singer's help, I was straddling the threshold between modern and ancient worlds, in contact with the ancient gods.
It was the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, a time when the Hani people in the mountains had finished planting rice and were now welcoming the return of the God. The peima(Hani priest)is the busiest person in the village at this time. When elders follow ancestral tradition by holding memorial ceremonies for the God who protects land, people, crops and livestock, the peima acts as an intermediary between the human and the divine; he uses long historical poems or short eulogies to call on and console owners of land, and sends best wishes both to the greening rice plants and to all the village households.
This place, in the heart of the Ailao Mountains, is called Dayangjie and is located in Honghe County, Yunnan Province. Its inhabitants are known as the Yeche, a branch of the Hani ethnic minority. The Ailao Mountains are an eastern spur of the Yunling Mountains, the watershed between the Hengduan Mountains in the west of Yunnan and the plateau in the east of the province. Moist warm air currents moving eastward from the Indian 0cean meet the barrier of the Ailao Mountains where they are transformed into abundant rain and fantastic cloud sea spectacles, moistening and nurturing the splendid terraces on the Ailao Mountains.
Yeche villagers, as with other branches of the Hani and the Yi minorities living in the Ailao Mountains, are usually located at mid-level on the mountain slopes. Higher up the mountain are forests and below are the terraced fields like stairways to Heaven, stretching from deep down in the river valleys up the mountain slopes to 2,000 meters and more above sea level. The terraces stretch their way, hugging the form of the mountainside, connecting several mountains together. The smallest terraces at the steepest spots are only about two square meters in area. Apart from the words of the peima's songs, there are no written records to show when the Ailao Mountain terraces were first constructed. In any case. a project of this magnitude could not have been achieved in a day.
The rainy season was imminent, and the clouds massed in the Ailao Mountains were heavier with wetness. As the clouds moved lightly past, it was hard to tell if they were rain or fog. The fog had a taste to it-carrying the breath of au the trees, flowers and grasses in the forests. It carried sound with it too, of insects crawling among leaves, of little birds shaking their wings and of clear water dripping from ancient towering trees. 0ne 7s vision, every human sense was mobilized in this dense fog. This was a place to move the soul.
Zhang Fa was still singing and the flames of the kitchen fire danced in his black eyes as he focused on one spot. I knew that the world he was seeing was from ancient history. Like the bards of the Homeric Age, Zhang Fa is, for the Yeche people, a priest, a singer, one who knows history, one with access to the divine. Through his songs, he tells the history of his people, his memories and his understanding of the world.
This was my experience in the Ailao Mountains many years ago. However, I did not have a real understanding of the content of Zhang Fa's songs until several months later. I made phonetic transcriptions of the tape recordings, invited Zhang Fa to Kunming and had the songs translated word by word by a Hani language expert. 0nee again the experience was moving and touching. This ethnic people that created these wonderful terraces have left mankind with more than just terraced fields and mushroom houses; they have also left their doctrine of respect for the land. Their teaching tells us that the world in the great mountain ranges is full of every kind of life. The God lives in the far off Heaven, while the niha(the Hani word for ghosts)roams the high thorny clifs. Spirits who live between the God and the niha reside among the dense woods and streams of the deep shady valleys. The world of man is nothing more than just one part of this land, a land dominated by natural and supernatural forces. You know your own place in the world, and should also respect other lives including the gods, ghosts and spirits.