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Yi people dress up as tigers when the festival

Wudi Village (五地村) lies in the mountains of southeastern Chuxiong Prefecture (楚雄州), right in the center of Yunnan province. To get there requires taking a bus first to Chuxiong, another to Shuangbai (双柏), 60 kilometers south, then yet another one to Fabiao Township (法脿乡), 50 kilometers further southeast. Fabiao is pleasantly sited amidst rolling hills, with a good vantage point for sunrises. It's a Han town, as are the villages immediately south, towards the reservoir. From this body of water, a trail bends west to a long valley flanked by high hills, their slopes sprinkled with medium-sized villages sitting above terraced fields.

Wudi is among them, about an hour's walk from the junction at the reservoir. Like the other settlements in this part of Shuangbai County, its inhabitants are members of the Yi nationality — the largest ethnic minority in Yunnan — comprising five major dialect groups and thirty-odd separate sub-groups. Aside from hearing the language — a Tibeto-Burman tongue quite different from Chinese in both structure and sound — not much exists in the village to mark Wudi as Yi-inhabited. Unlike many other sub-groups, Wudi's Yi do not dress in traditional costume, not even the older women. Nor do they carry distinctive shoulder bags, like the more assimilated of their Yi cousins in other counties of Chuxiong.

About 60 to 70 houses stand in Wudi, sited just below the summit of a high ridge, buildings of rammed earth, timber and tiled roofs. It is the architecture typical of rural Yunnan, with nothing particularly Yi about it, in stark contrast to the Yi log cabins of the northwest or the flat-roofed Yi houses of Honghe Prefecture (红河州). Homes sit close together along cobbled streets and are sited around a pond next to the central square, which extends halfway up the slope behind.

Near the top of this back slope is the village altar, so to speak, with three stones standing in a small clearing. This certainly identifies the village as Yi, for the custom is common to nearly all Yi sub-groups. The stones represent the original Yi ancestors, and rituals taking place here are conducted by a bimaw, the tribal specialist in such matters and office existing in every traditional Yi society. So in spite of their apparent assimilation into the folds of Chinese culture, the Yi of Wudi do retain at least vestiges of their original traditions.

Once a year, though, they do much more than exhibit vestiges. A fortnight after Chinese Spring Festival — or Lunar New Year — Wudi village stages a peculiar festival of its own called laohuzhuan (老虎转), or 'Dressing Up as Tigers' — that in no way resembles anything culturally Chinese, unless it be the shamanistic dances of ancient, preliterate times. For this event, several young men don strange costumes, paint their bodies and masquerade as tigers. They are joined by other men, including the village bimaw dressed in long black gowns. Together they perform magic dances to invoke the gods' blessings for the coming rice crop.

Perhaps in the past villages besides Wudi used to stage this event as well, but in Wudi itself the festival was banned in 1952 by Communist cadres bent on eradicating 'superstitions'. Not magic and ritual, but hard work and discipline will make the crops grow, ran the new argument. The undermining of other Yi customs and beliefs continued, sometimes subtly, sometimes fiercely, until the Reform Era launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. The Party then reversed policy on minority nationalities, who were then allowed to revive, more or less, as much of their ethnic traditions as they wished. In Yunnan, home to 24 of China's 55 minority nationalities, the government encouraged the process by repairing and renovating religious buildings and subsidizing festivals.