SHAXI HIGHLIGHTS

SHIBAOSHAN

Shibaoshan 石宝山 (Stone Treasure Mountain) lies about 10km north of Shaxi on the road to Jianchuan, and was one of the very first nature reserves and religious sites to be officially protected in China back in 1982. The 2000 hectare area is made up of three separate mountains, known as Mount Baoding, Mount Shisan and Mount Shizhong, along with four temples; Shizhong Temple, Baoxiang Temple, Haiyun Temple, and Jinding Temple. Thanks to the areas remoteness, the temples and grottoes miraculously survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

OLD TOWN

This is ancient market square was once a bustling center of the tea horse caravan road. It is home to Xingjiao Temple, recently restored by a Swiss Government grant. The Old Town is still criss-crossed with narrow alleys that once rang out to the clang of heavily shod pack horses, but now form a fascinating maze for intrepid, curious travelers. Many of what were once tack shops, blacksmiths and caravanserais have already been converted into guest houses and souvenir stores, while others maintain their original function as homes to people and animals alike.

FRIDAY MARKET

Market day is the highlight of the week in Shaxi valley, when everybody congregates in the old town to stock up on produce and exchange gossip. Rows of traditionally dressed Bai matriarchs squeeze together along the curbside to offer a wide range of local fruit and vegetables, grown on small family farms. Yi women in bright scarlet and bold turquoise, trek for hours down from their mountain villages to trade with the lowlanders, making for one of the most colorful and photogenic market days in Yunnan.

VILLAGE LIFE

The Shaxi Valley is home to 16 villages, all with their own unique flavor. A walk through these villages reveals a people living in large traditional courtyards built of rammed earth and stone, decorated with ornamental gardens. The San Fang Yi Zhao Bi (literally: "three rooms and a wall" is the large compound design that Shaxi people still build and live in today. Here you will find goats, cows, pigs and donkeys occupying barns in the back sections, which extended families go about traditional life. The Bai people of SHaxi are warm and welcoming to visitors and you may find yourself being invited into someone's home for tea or even a meal.

PEAR ORCHARD TEMPLE

Known locally as 'Ci Yin An' 慈荫庵 (Temple of Sheltered Mercy), this breathtaking multi-level temple complex, commanding spectacular views across the valley from its vantage point at the head of Diantou Village, was actually a functioning nunnery until the religious purges of the 1960's. The series of shrines, halls and kitchens were recently restored by American designer Chris Barclay, builder of Yangshuo Mountain Retreatand Yangshuo Village Inn in Guangxi Province. Expert local craftsmen were bought in to preserve the original structures through traditional building techniques and showcase their incredible carpentry and stone-masonry skills. Surrounded by some of the last remaining old growth pear trees, the Pear Orchard Temple now boasts an award-winning vegetarian restaurant, Pear Blossom Organic, as well as cooking classes led by temple chef Madame Yang.

ANCIENT MUSIC

The unique Dongjing Guyue 洞经古乐(“Aancient music from the cave) is a fading musical tradition in the Bai and Naxi areas of Northern Yunnan. Performed by an ensemble of eight men and played mainly on erhu (two-stringed cellos) and percussion, the music tells stories of the Dali region. Currently in Shaxi there are still a few village ensembles consisting of elderly men who still perform. Mainly performing during local festivals, one group can be heard some evenings at the Xi Lu restaurant in Shaxi Old Town and another in Duan Village, performing on the ancient theatre temple stage at Old Theatre Inn


HOLIDAYS & FESTIVALS

Shaxi Singing Festival

A magical experience on Shibaoshan

In earlier times, young locals would gather at the Baoshan Temple during the 3 days from the 27th to 29th every lunar month, to sing love songs and court other young singles. These days the activity has been concentrated into an annual event that begins on the 27th of the seventh lunar month. The Shaxi Singing Festival (沙溪歌会)is one of the colorful events of the year, and it is a great experience to see all the local subgroups of the Bai and Yi turn out in their best dresses. The temples are full of VIPs, TV crews and traveling tinkers, while the locals compete for the titles of singing King and Queen. Like Shibaoshan itself, the festival does not receive a great deal of visitors from afar, but considering its ease of access and its stunning spectacle, this is likely to change in the very near future. Best of all, on the days of the festival, the entrance fee is lowered to just 2 RMB.

Shaxi Crown Prince's Festival

The Crown Prince Festival (沙溪太子会) takes place in March in the old town area of Shaxi. Effigies of the crown prince and Sakyamuni are carried in procession around the four cardinal gates, while children dress up as infant princes and princesses. The festivities climax with a show given on the Sideng Temple Stage, and this is one of the very few times when the often deserted old square is packed to bursting.

Shaxi Torch Festival

The Torch Festival (沙溪火把节) that takes place on 25th of the sixth month of the lunar calendar, is rooted in the local agrarian culture. As soon as the rice begins to ripen, villagers and farmers alike, took torches into the fields to scare away birds and insects that might eat the valuable crops. In the villages large torches up to 20 meters high, made of stalks and pine branches are adorned with fruits, fireworks and flags printed with auspicious Chinese characters. Dancing and drinking go on late in to the night, but thankfully the celebrations are not as raucous as they are in Dali, where the fire powder throwing can quickly get out of hand.

 

   PEOPLE OF SHAXI

THE BAI

Occupying the region for at least 3,000 to 4,000 years, the Bai are the second-largest minority group in Yunnan, as well as being one of the oldest. The 2000 census identified just over 1,800,000 individuals as Bai and speaking the Bai language, 80% of whom live in the Dali Bai Nationality Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. In Guizhou, the Bai can also be found in Bijie, and in Sichuan they live near Xichang. Throughout their history, the Bai have dominated by controlling the richest agricultural lands, either administering the region for others or ruling outright through a number of prominent families. Scattered throughout the Shaxi valley are sixteen Bai minority villages. The population of these villages ranges from a couple hundred to a few thousand in the main village of Sideng, with about 22,500 for the entire valley.

Shaxi retains the vestiges of a matriarchal society, but in the twenty first century, this now extends only as far as children taking the family name of their mother. The Bai—the "white"—revere the color, which they regard as noble and is the main color of their traditional dress. An unmarried girl always combs her hair into one pigtail, tied with a red string at its end, and then coils it over her head. In general, girls enjoy dressing up like beautiful camellia flowers on special occasions, and so it is hardly surprising that they are referred to not as 'miss' or 'young lady' but as 'jin hua' or 'golden flower'.


Bai Religion

Considering their crossroads location, it is hardly surprising that the Bai have adopted practices from Han Chinese ancestor worship, as well as that of Indian Buddhism. In most villages, the cult of Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy, a female fertility deity, is combined with worship of the Benzhu or Village Lords. This was probably influenced by the Chenghuangmiao or Gods of the City temples, (common to every Han Chinese city until 1949) so that every village has its own local god, often a historical figure such as the first ancestor to settle this area, a great sage or a local hero. It is very common to find Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian and Benzhu temples or shrines within a single Bai village, or even within a single temple complex. The mythologies surrounding these cults are extremely rich, as every deified character has his own history and legends. Iconography is therefore extremely varied to reflect these many tales. Many are rough-hewn hemp and papier-mâché images, often to be found riding fearsome beasts such as dragons or tigers in order to show their strength. Their role is to protect the village and its population. Worship takes the form of Bai language chants, local song and dance, and traditional Bai foodstuffs made as offerings. At the doors of these temples, are warrior guardians, usually at the sides of the main entrance. While Yunnan was an independent state, the Bai were enthusiastic in their adoption of Tantric Buddhism. This particular sub branch later became known as Azhali Buddhism, from the Sanskrit acarya, or "teacher." In Shaxi the most popular form of temple is the 'kuixinge', many of which also incorporate performance stages. The kuixinge is devoted to a god of learning, a distinctive 'tutelary spirit' which the Bai traditionally hold in very high esteem. Perhaps the finest example of this is at the Old Temple Theater, outside the old town the village of Duanjiadeng, and restored as part of the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project. In the more remote areas, there are still vestiges of Bai primitive animism. It is not difficult to find places where different gods are honored, such as the God of the Mountain, the God of the Crops, the God of the Hunt, the Dragon King or the Mother Goddess of the Dragon King. The Bai believe that spirits can cause illness, but can also protect them. In some of the villages there are female shamans, sometimes with enough power to enter into trance, who still play an important role in the spiritual life of Bai villages.

THE Yi

The Yi or Nuosuo ethnic group are historically known as Lolo, and number more than four million in Yunnan Province, most of whom are concentrated in an area hemmed in by the Jinsha and Yuanjiang rivers, and the Ailao and Wuliang mountains. Huaping, Ninglang and Yongsheng in western Yunnan form what is known as the Yunnan Lesser Liangshan Mountain area. The Yi's traditionally live in the mountainous areas, herding and hunting with susbsistance agriculture. The are likely descended from Tibetan and Naxi people and they practice a form of animism, led by a shaman priest known as the Bimaw. They still retain a few ancient religious texts written in their unique pictographic script, similar to the DOngba writing of the Naxi in Lijiang region. Their religion also contains many elements of Daoism and Buddhism. The Yi around Shaxi are scattered in Shaxi high mountain areas, mainly cultivating potatoes, corn, wild honey and Chinese traditional medicine such as ginseng. Vast forests stretch across the Yi areas, where Yunnan pine, masson pine, dragon spruce, Chinese pine and other timber trees, lacquer, tea, camphor, kapok and other trees of economic value grow in great numbers. The Yi of Shaxi can be seen in the valley particularly around market days. The women are distinguished by their brightly colored yellow, green and red clothing, often accompanied by ornate head dress.

   SHAXI HISTORY

THE TEA HORSE ROAD

The Southern Silk Road, better known as as the Ancient Tea Horse Caravan Road predated its more famous northern counterpart by at least 300 years, The first written records of the route are from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which was locally known as the Nanzhao Kingdom period (649-920), but trade had been taking place long before this time. From the hillside plantations of Simao and Xishuangbanna the muleteers brought pu'er tea; Burmese traders, often accompanied by Indian monks bought hides and animal bones, for use in in Chinese medicine. Salt, an essential commodity before the advent of refrigeration, came from Qiaohou, south of Shaxi, and from Yunlong across the mountains to the west, along with silver from Misha, and nearby Heqing. As well as felt, silk and precious stones came that most valuable of medicines, opium, perhaps Yunnan's largest cash crop at the time. All of these and more were traded with Tibetans for items such as musk, rare fungi and exotic medicines, found in the frigid mountains to the north. The main village of Sideng became an important staging post for the caravans, and the whole valley flourished in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The market square became famous throughout the southwest, and attracted traders from a wide range of cultures that only enhanced the profitability of the Tea Horse Road. Hani from southern Yunnan brought tea and rich cloths. Naxi from Lijiang brought timber, Muslim Hui bought yak furs and horses. The wealth generated by all this trade is clearly evident in the ornate local architecture, with their imposing gate towers and spacious courtyards. At the center of all this, stands the Qing dynasty theater, directly across from the 400-year old temple, dedicated to as wide a range of faiths as the merchants and pilgrims that turned this remote village into a vibrant trading hub, which lasted well beyond the end of the Qing Dynasty (1614-1911). The caravan routes finally died out around 60 years ago, when the newly formed People's Liberation Army began its advance on western Tibet, and requisitioned every pack animal they could find. The centuries old trade routes came to an abrupt end by 1950, when the communists' ban on private markets put the last nails in the coffin. The locals quickly reverted to agriculture and passed the last few decades in relative isolation.

More recently, the World Monument Fund added Shaxi's market square to its Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2001. By this time squatters had taken over much of the village, and many of the buildings had decayed to the point of collapse. In 2002, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (ETH) and the People's Government of Jianchuan County jointly established the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project (SRP) to protect and revitalize the cultural and natural heritage of Sideng Village and the Shaxi Valley. With USD1.3 million in funding from the World Monument Fund they hired a Swiss conservation expert Jacques Feiner, who had previously made his name at Yemen's old city of Sanaa, one of the earliest centers of population in human history. His approach has been to restore rather than rebuild, using traditional techniques and materials wherever possible. Apart from the restoring the temple and the stage, the entire market plaza was drained and relaid, which has led to a number of major awards, including a UNESCO Award of Distinction for cultural heritage preservation.

   SHAXI TRAVEL INFO

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