Each year sees a new Torch Festival in the regions of Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi, regions inhabited by the Yi, a minority for which this festival is considered the most important. Compare it to our Christmas or to Chinese New Year. While this festival is now also enjoyed by many other minorities in the same area, the Yi, the seventh largest group of the 55 minority groups of China, are the ones who celebrate it the most.
This festival has many origin stories, but the most popular comes from the legend of the wrestler Atilaba. The tale goes that Atilaba won a wrestling contest against a god and killed him. Another god, furious, decided to send locusts on the crops of the villagers for three days and three nights to take revenge. The Yi came up with the idea to hold torches made of pine tree to protect their harvest and burn all the insects. Since then every year this festival takes place and people burn torches.
And here comes my story. Chasing cultural festivals I decided a few months back to try and get in the Torch Festival and while the idea of seeing what was happening in town was clearly of interest, I wanted to experience something more personal, something different. With the help of The Bivou in Lijiang I got what I wanted: a night in a Yi village and a night in Lijiang to compare the experience. Off to Yunnan, this August 2015 was about to give me a chance to try something new.
Celebrating the Torch Festival in a Yi village.
On the first day of the festival we reached a Yi village high up in the mountain after riding for a few hours on a dirt road that rocked the car pretty hard. I came out of there wondering where my spine went but was straight up unable to talk, humbled by the view I was witnessing. There was the village facing the mountains, in a sea of clouds. Beautiful and quiet, only the sound of the cattle could be heard and I was already in love.
After a wander I dropped my bag in my host house and sat in the courtyard for a while, taking in all the details and information of this spot. Lucky… that’s the only word that was coming up to me when thinking of my situation, I was lucky to be there and when ,a few hours later, I was sitting in front of a bonfire, the same word kept on coming up to me.
When the night fell on the village and the rain stopped for a while, the fire in our host house crackled and the few pine torches in his son’s hands lit up just enough to guide us through the darkness. Walking to the nearby house, slipping on the mud, we got in to the sight of a roaring fire in the middle of the courtyard surrounded by people dancing and singing. I thought I would just observe, might feel a bit cast-away, I was wrong. After sitting down in a dark corner with my partners in crime, we were soon joined by a few people bringing beers and trying to get us to join in… so I did, join hands and danced, laughed, cheered, communicated as much as I could and loved every bit of that night. I felt like a part of that big family and at the end, when I left, I was leaving friends behind. Maybe that’s the type of magic the Torch Festival holds too.
Those festivities felt different from what I was going to see later on.
Watching the town burn in Shuhe Ancient Town.
The next day was time for the celebrations in Lijiang. While the local Yi communities were enjoying the festival in their home, the towns were also getting ready to join in. Wooden stacks were starting to form in the streets and to get decorated with diverse flowers by the local shop owners, stack of torches showed up in the town centre and were being sold to people wanting to join in and while the sun was coming down, the town was going to light up like never before and I was getting myself ready for a very different celebration.
Before getting there I read and heard a few things about this festival. Mainly targeted to local tourism, the minorities joining in are paid to do so and it maybe constitutes more of a business than the real thing but then again the same thing could be said about Christmas back home. But it is true, the Naxi, Yi, Bai and other minorities that do join in for the festivities and dance near the big bonfire in town are paid to do so and don’t hide it. And why not! It doesn’t make the whole thing less interesting.
After the biggest wooden stack in the main square is lit, traditional music starts to be played by a group of old Chinese men, the crowd gathers around them and this is when the elbows start flying and I start on thinking of all the things I hate about China… I hate crowds… Why on earth is she standing there talking a selfie? Just let me take a photo… Let me see… I’m quickly getting frustrated, swearing in my head when this lady in front notices me and now I remember why I love China… she grabs my arm and bring me to the front. I start to get red and tell her that no, I’m okay, but soon the rest of the people near us notice me too, smile at me and push me to the front where I get bend and get a few photos. This is so China… And I am reminded of what makes it so special to me. Those people make it what it is. I need to forget all my Western concepts. I know that but it catches up with me sometimes.
This happens a few more times. I move in the crowd to have a look at the dances of the few minorities and get pushed around a few times but there are always those people that decide to protect me and get me closer and I watch, happy, feeling a bit awkward, the rest of the festivities before I start exploring the town by night.
Fires are roaring everywhere in the streets and the town is burning, people are improvising a few dances around some of them, I startle on a young boy playing the drum next to one of those fire, people are dancing, enjoying themselves and… what the hell! I join in too and get, once again, a great feeling about that festival. Complete opposite of the principle of Songkran, it still brings people together and everyone is clearly having fun.
I keep on walking through Shuhe Ancient Town and watch children playing with fire, torches burning and people just having a good time without a care in the world and it feels great.
While this is so different from my night at the village the day before, this is still amazing. I get back to my room at The Bivou tired but happy.
Where can you experience the Torch Festival?
If you fancy joining in next year and want to see what the Torch Festival is all about you can get to Lijiang and many other towns in Yunnan.
One of the biggest celebration though is in Sichuan, in Liangshan.
If it’s your first time in China I would recommend opting for Lijiang instead. But if you are a bit more use to the country then please join me in Liangshan for the Torch Festival in 2016!
This year’s photo were taken near Lijiang, Yunnan.
Did you know about the Torch Festival or any other similar festival that include playing with fire? Would you like to join this type of celebration? Tell us in the comments!
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