A Laowai at Renli Yi

As a relative newcomer to Xizhou, it was tough for me to imagine the holiday Renli Yi when my coworkers described it to me. I absorbed the point of the festival easily enough: many villages near Dali have their own set of local heroes that they worship for good luck. Renli Yi is one of the most important, and almost as big a display as the Lunar New Year. Like many holidays they honor these heroes with ritual feasts, fireworks, and incense. Renli Yi, however, is unique, and I had a tough time really picturing it. Different groups of local men and boys pull carts carrying a statue of the local heroes as fast as they can around a huge banyan tree while they are urged on by young men dressed as women. It sounded like one of those things you really needed to see to understand.

When we arrived at the banyan tree, people were already beginning to assemble. They looked a little nonplussed at our presence at a festival that is obscure even among most Chinese. After a brief lunch at a local home, we joined the throng of people circling the massive tree.

The first thing I noticed was that there wasn’t a terribly large space for the carts to circle the tree between the crowds. The second was that the carts were exceedingly top-heavy. I thought back to stories of my colleague MCK’s experience pulling one of the carts the year before. I was not anxious to volunteer to do the same.

Luckily I didn’t have to. The signal was given, and the first cart started its run. About eight men and teenagers sprinted full tilt towards the circle, laboriously hauling the cart with them. Some of them busily puffed cigarettes as they did. Two or three more participants stood up in the cart, further adding to its imbalanced weight distribution.

As they rounded the first corner, the cart tipped onto two wheels, the rear end kicked around, threatening to hit those gathered to watch, while the top of the cart caught part of a telephone line. I prepared for screams of alarm, but none were made. This was apparently standard procedure. The cart slammed back down onto all four wheels with a creak and made two more laps around the tree.

This repeated half a dozen more times, with varying degrees of success. Some carts were too slow and flagged off to the side before they had completed more than one or two revolutions. Between runs, old men would light firecrackers with their cigarettes and toss them so close that fragments would hit us in the face and the percussion of their detonation resonated in our ears. The fireworks, at least, I had gotten used to already during my time here. The smells of incense and gunpowder mingled in the square, and the throb of drums resonated.

When the seventh cart went barreling toward the tree for its turn, the inevitable finally happened. They over-steered and the cart tipped over, ripping the telephone line down with it. The crowd laughed and whooped, then gave a polite golf clap as the men struggled to restore the cart to its upright position. I was slightly more stressed by the sight than the locals, and couldn’t believe anyone would volunteer to do this.

After the procession, we made our way back to the Linden Centre and reflected on what we had just seen. I felt lucky to have witnessed it, but even luckier that I wasn’t standing in one of those carts.

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