On the thirteenth day of the third moon, that is to say at about the end of March or beginning of April, there was a very lively and hilarious festival specially for women who were barren or had a desire to produce more children. It seemed to me that the men of Likiang were more than sympathetic to this worthy aim and showed a much greater interest in these festivities than did the women. The high point of the festival was a whole day pilgrimage to the peak, called Ghughlangyu, some six miles east of the city, where there was a small temple, worship at which, it was alleged, produced the desired results. It was best to reach the peak just before sunrise to enjoy the sight of the first rays of the sun striking the peak and Mount Satseto’s glorious crown of ice.
On the eve of the festival all women and pangchinmei were very busy cooking, baking and burnishing their houkous and samovars. Men were excited, brushing their mules and horses and trimming their saddles, and large supplies of wine were collected. The pilgrimage began shortly after two o’clock in the morning. My friends always called to pick me up, armed with torchlights and mingtzes, as the moon, at this phase, was visible only till four o’clock. Once outside the town, the spectacle was unbelievable in its grandeur and beauty. Endless strings of flickering lights moved across the plain, converging at the foot of the dark and silent peak. Like a fiery dragon, composed of a myriad of little flames, they climbed and twisted along the face of the mountain. Lights were reflected in streams and canals, and merged with the reflection of the still bright moon. Each woman carried a blazing houkou, sparks and flames issuing from the chimney. It looked as if hundreds of small locomotives were running through the fields. By the time we reached the foot of the mountain there were hundreds of people there, talking and laughing. Tents were being erected on the meadows and in the woods, rugs spread and the houkous hissed, emitting a delicious smell of food, while a great procession climbed upwards with mingtzes and torches to light the path.
The climb was steep and we were quite exhausted by the time we reached the top. It was icy cold at this high altitude; there was hoar frost on the grass and shrubs and the water in the pools was frozen solid. The east glowed orange and gold and the Snow Mountain sparkled in the rays of the sun which we could not yet see. At last the rays struck us and rocks started to crack with a musical sound. We entered the small temple which was choked with people. The women prostrated themselves before the goddess Niangniang, the giver of children, and hastily put the bunches of incense and candles before the image. A small priapic god, golden and naked, was touched and kissed by the pious women who so ardently desired children. There he stood in front of the goddess, like a little boy ready to urinate. Passing this little god, the girls giggled and blushed, averting their faces. Their turn had not yet arrived for such ceremonies.
It was not possible to remain long on the small platform of the peak owing to pressing crowds of new arrivals: so we started descending slowly. As we turned a corner there was a burst of music and singing from an ascending procession of Minkia women and maidens. The girls wore gaily embroidered jackets without sleeves: bright silk kerchiefs were tied around their heads, on which they wore sparkling diadems of semi-precious stones. The men with them played on flutes and cymbals and they all sang ‘Nanmu Amitabha‘ as they were slowly climbing upwards, holding candles and incense sticks in one hand.
Below it was like a scene from a great Oriental ballet. Beautifully dressed men and women sat on sparkling rugs around the shining houkous. There were tents of many colours, with richly caparisoned mules tied to trees. Groups of girls and boys promenaded in the woods gathering flowers. Many Minkia boys had red sashes across their shoulders and promenaded like peacocks whilst girls giggled and winked at them. A red sash across a young Minkia’s shoulder at a festival proclaims the fact that he is still single and ready to be courted by a desirable girl. The handsome ones were soon surrounded by admiring girls who fluttered and buzzed like bees around a flower. One of them was at last captured by a pretty and determined girl, who led him away from the envious glances of her friends. From now on the lucky fellow had to pay attention to her only and a proper engagement ceremony might follow later.
The Fertility Festival continued till noon and then the tired and happy people filed slowly back to the town or villages.
It was not far from this Ghughlangyu peak that Madame Lee had her tomb. All her family on her husband’s side was buried there. She and her husband, already in the fullness of their years, expected serenely and in confidence to join the dear departed in the not too distant future. All the tombs had been recently rebuilt and renovated, and the time approached for a yearly sacrifice to the dead. As we were now old friends, I was invited to share in this joyous ceremony.
The tombs, some fifteen of them, were situated on a meadow in the foothills. It was a peaceful and beautiful spot. There were tall, shady trees and flowering shrubs. A brook gurgled in the ravine below, and the view down on to Likiang and the plain was magnificent. Each tomb was faced with stone and the front was decorated with a niche containing the names of the husband and wife, their ages and the dates of their death. A separate plot was earmarked for the future grave of Madame Lee and her husband. I had come in advance with Mr Lee, and had enjoyed a walk in the hills. Later Madame Lee appeared with other women and her grandchildren. They brought houkous as well as provisions, and when the food was cooked, it was arranged in bowls on a large tray with cups of wine. The old couple placed it on a ledge before the niche of Mr Lee’s parents and incense sticks were lighted. Then the couple prostrated themselves before the tomb several times, inviting the departed to partake of the proffered food and wine. The procedure was repeated before each tomb and by the other members of the family in their turn, so that the ceremony took a long time. Finally the food was spread on the ground, and we all gathered round to enjoy what became quite a gay picnic.
There was nothing lugubrious about the proceedings and there was no sorrow or sadness. It was a joyous and serene reunion with the departed who, it was firmly believed, were present in the spirit. Had they appeared at this moment there would have been no consternation and no terror. They were expected and welcomed, whether they were invisible or visible, at this joint feast at which both worlds participated. Both were joined by love and affection and all knew that they would be reunited when earthly nature had taken its course.
After the meal the old couple went again, with their family, to prostrate themselves before the graves, expressing thanks to the ancestors for their attendance at the feast. They returned well satisfied and happy. They had had a full and rich life and they contemplated with pride their last home where they would sleep for ever amidst the beauty of the mountains and forests, perhaps listening to the eternal rustle of the pines and singing of the birds.
July, which was the critical month before the rainy season, had several festivals. With the rice already planted, the people did not have much to do and the evenings were devoted by the younger set to dancing and to flying the kounmingtengs — the lighted balloons. During the day one could see the young men and pangchinmei pasting together the oiled sheets of rough paper to form the structure of a balloon. These balloons were then dried in the sun and were ready for use in the evening. Crowds gathered to watch. A bunch of burning mingtzes was tied underneath; the balloon swelled and quickly rose into the air to the shouts of excited spectators. The higher it rose the more good luck it promised to its owner. Some went up very high indeed and floated in the sky like red stars for several minutes. At the end they burst into flames and fell, sometimes causing fires by setting light to straw in unwatched farmhouses. Sometimes there were as many as twenty of these balloons floating through the dark sky. Balloon flying lasted for about a couple of weeks and it was great fun.
Then there was the Buddhistic festival of All Souls’ Day, when, as in Japan, tiny boats were constructed of paper, small candles were lit in them and they were floated down the swift Likiang River.
But the greatest festival in July was the Houpaochi or Jumping through the Fire. Every household constructed a pyramid, two or three feet high, of wood splinters, mingtzes and incense sticks all tied together and gaily adorned with flowers. These bundles were placed upright in the middle of the street before each house. The day passed in feasting and drinking; at night a light was applied to each bundle and, as they began to blaze, the young people jumped over them. It was considered to be lucky and I did it myself without any serious ill effects.
This festival was not confined to Likiang valley but was observed as far down as Tali. Its origin was very old. People said it had started with the establishment of the great and powerful Nanchiao Kingdom some time during the Tang dynasty. At that time the whole region between Tali, capital of the kingdom, and Likiang was a series of small Minkia kingdoms. The King of Nanchiao wanted to extend his realm and personal dominion and, being cruel and cunning, hit on a very effective scheme. One day he invited all his brother kings for a conference and a great feast. One of those invited was the King of Erhyuen, a small principality some ninety It north of Tali.
The Queen of Erhyuen was as sensible as she was beautiful and she did all she could to dissuade her husband from attending the feast, as she felt sure that a sinister motive was hidden behind this unusual invitation. However, the king said that he was in honour bound to go. So certain was the beautiful queen that something evil was bound to happen, that she insisted on putting iron bracelets engraved with the king’s name on her husband’s wrists and ankles.
The King of Nanchiao had a special pavilion constructed and lavishly decorated for the feast. It was said that the woodwork of the pavilion had been fashioned out of particularly inflammable woods. When the visiting kings had been wined under the table by the hospitable King of Nanchiao, the doors were bolted and torches applied to the pavilion. Everybody inside was burnt to cinders and no one could identify the remains of any king except those of the King of Erhyuen. The queen was easily able to identify the bones of her beloved husband by the iron bracelets; so that he was the only king to receive a proper burial. The young queen was inconsolable and shut herself in her palace, but the ruthless King of Nanchiao heard of her great beauty and sent ambassadors to ask for her hand. The more she refused the more insistent did he become. At last she knew that she could not avoid this political marriage, and not wishing to be dragged to the king’s court by force, she notified the king that she would be ready for the marriage as soon as she had burned her husband’s royal robes, which was her last duty to him, as was the custom of almost all the monarchs in the Orient. Then she had a great pyre prepared on a hill near the city and the robes were spread over it. The torches were applied and, when the fire was at its highest, dressed in all her most beautiful robes of state, the queen jumped into the flames. The heroism and virtue of this beautiful and beloved queen have never been forgotten and the festival was established in her memory even in states which had no direct concern in the tragedy.