Shamans and flaming torches: festival shines light on culture of Yi minority
Celebration in southwest China started as chance for matchmaking but for new generation it has become an opportunity to connect to their roots
Surrounded by green hillsides and fluttering flags, young women wearing silver headdresses and colourful costumes filed onto the stage, dancing hand in hand as sounds of singing filled the valley.
The Yi people of southwest China have for centuries celebrated their biggest holiday of the year, the torch festival, over three days during the sixth lunar month.
Traditionally an occasion for matchmaking, with young men and women searching for potential spouses, the festival has become an occasion for the Yi to maintain their customs in a time of rapid change in China’s countryside.
In an effort to boost growth and lift living standards, Beijing aims to resettle millions of rural people in cities in coming years.
Modernisation has already brought transformation to the remote area of southwestern Sichuan province where roughly two million Yi people live, with a new airport and railroad networks crisscrossing the hills.
At this year’s festival, an amplifier blared songs and a stream of commentary not in the local language but in Mandarin Chinese.
Spectators watching the festival wore backward baseball caps and cargo shorts. Women with dyed hair snapped selfies with the girls as they adjusted their delicate and complex costumes.
At night, revellers and tourists carried long torches past a tall bonfire shooting sparks into a rainy sky, and dreadlocked shamans put themselves through painful rituals with scorching hot metal implements.
It increasingly rare for young Yi people to don the traditional clothes of their ancestors.
“This is my first time wearing the full traditional costume,” said one girl at the festival outfitted in a towering metal hat. “I really like wearing it. At other festivals we don’t wear it.”
Some women carried yellow umbrellas and sported long skirts of red and gold, others wore tinkling metal ornaments, embroidered belts and hats shaped like chandeliers.
Men paraded in leather helmets and shields, bearing swords and staffs, while a troupe of young women walked together under brilliant yellow parasols.
Wenze Mochen, 20, said she has had her costume since she was a child. “My mother had people make it for me,” she said. “It usually takes a few months to make one.”