Bai People and Culture
The Linden Centre is located in the “Cradle of Bai Civilization” – the ancient city of Xizhou. The city is located ten miles south of the former northern gate of the Dali Valley, or Shang Guan, a fortification that helped protect the thin, fertile strip of land between the 14,000 foot high Cangshan mountains and the 30 mile long Er Hai Lake. The Dali valley takes its name from the former Buddhist kingdom that ruled over the surrounding lands. Since 1956, the central government has officially called this region the ‘Dali Bai Nationality Autonomous Prefecture.’
The Bai population of roughly 2 million makes them the fourteenth largest ethnic minority group in China, of a total of 55. After the Yi Nationality, the Bai are the second largest ethnic group in Yunnan (out of 25). Scholars are still debating the origins of the Bai people – some claim that they are descendants of the Burmese, Yi or Han Chinese. Their language, which falls under the Sino-Tibetan family, is still spoken alongside Mandarin Chinese. Schools teach in Mandarin, but many families speak Bai at home. It is estimated that over 75% of the Bai people continue to speak the Bai language.
The Bai people have inhabited the Dali region for over 1300 years. They were known as gifted singers and poets, and also made great advances in science, architecture, astronomy, medicine, literature, and painting. The glorious traditions of the Bai people can be appreciated through the architecture of the Three Pagodas located 2 km north of the old city. In the time of Nanzhao (737-937 A.D.) and Dali Kingdoms (ca. 937-1253 A.D.), the temple Chong Sheng Si was the largest monastery in this area, and the Three Pagodas were only a part of it. Now, the monastery has long disappeared and only the Three Pagodas remain after over 1,000 years.
The Bai people have created majestic stone complexes, characterized by a footprint of three wings and one main wall. The three wings, often two storied and constructed in wood, form a courtyard facing a large adorned white wall. White is the most commonly used color on these buildings, which form clusters of Mykonos-style villages nestled among the verdant fields. In fact, Bai means ‘white,’ a name that illustrates the esteem with which the Bai people value this color. Women still continue to wear white clothing with pastel complements.
The Bai of Xizhou take pride in their business prowess and academic achievements. Xizhou is home to a number of scholars who passed the rigid Imperial examinations. After 1911, some of the wealthy families of Xizhou sent their children abroad for education. The town still shows examples of their sojourns in the form of Western-influenced homes placed in the back yards of their families’ traditional courtyards. During China’s war against Japan, some of the leading universities from China’s east coast relocated to the unoccupied regions of Yunnan. Xizhou was home to Huazhong University, a group of three schools established by Yale-in-China, as well as leading scholars including two of China’s most important cultural figures of the 20th century – the writer Lao She (who called Xizhou the “Cambridge of the East”) and artist Xu Beihong. Xu, who had traveled to France to study oil painting and later became renowned for his ink paintings of horses, held one of his early exhibitions in the small Confucian temple just west of the Centre.
Bai Religion and Spirituality
Nestled in the verdant southeastern vestiges of the Himalayas, Dali’s location enabled it to take on a mystical quality among its northern neighbors. The Chinese have even associated the region with a Buddhist ‘Shangri-La’ – a frontier region not unlike America’s Wild West – where spirits intercede to uphold the virtuous. One of Asia’s bestselling books of all time, Heavenly Dragons by Jin Yong, takes place in Dali. The current Tian Long Ba Bu Movie Studio, also known as “Dali-wood,” was built outside Dali’s west gate for the 2002 filming of Jin’s book (at the time one of the most expensive television series ever filmed in China). The author, who first released Heavenly Dragons in 1963 at the age of 39, based his novel in this region due to the fact that “The Dali Kingdom was a Buddhist country. The emperors all believed in Buddhism and often relinquished their reigns to become monks. This is a very strange and unique phenomenon,” (as taken from Beth Notar’s Displacing Desire).
The Dali region houses a plethora of temples and important ancestral halls. Located at a major trading crossroad where Southeast Asian cultures collided with the northern Chinese customs, the region has developed a unique blend of religious beliefs and corresponding iconography. Early animist traditions gave way to fervently followed Buddhist convictions during the Nanzhao (738-902) and Dali Kingdoms (937-1253). It was during these reigns that Dali became one of the leading centers of Esoteric or Tantric Buddhist studies in Asia, a fact still evident in some of the remaining relics from that period such as the Three Pagodas located just outside the Dali city walls and the bronze and stone ritual objects, such a vajras, knives, and bells, now seen in regional museums.
Due to the constant interaction – political, economic and cultural – between the Bai people and the Chinese, Daoist and Confucian beliefs became interwoven with Buddhist traditions. It is not uncommon to find in local temples the Daoist pantheon of gods surrounding a Buddha with features clearly influenced by early Hindu carvings. Wooden plaques with the carved names of important ancestors may sit on the altar alongside black clay censors, while carved images, different in each village, are placed in some of the most honored positions. These latter figures, known as Ben Zhu, are among the most unique elements of the Bai spiritual tradition.
Ben Zhu Temples
The Ben Zhu, or “Founding Ancestor,” is an archetypical result of the collision of religious traditions in the region. Each village, which has seen an increasing and fluid pantheon of Gods throughout its existence, has incorporated its own history and legends in deifying former village leaders, warriors, and heroes. These deities, tied to the immediate surroundings, protect the people against sickness and violence, foster the local crops and livestock, and ensure prosperity. They become a personal and omniscient god, lending solidarity to each village’s life.
Within a fifteen minute walk of The Linden Centre, one can find over ten temples with Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian and Ben Zhu iconography. Day trips are available as well to the important spiritual mountains of Jizu Shan, Shibao Shan, and Weibaoshan. Weeks can be spent in the area visiting the religious complexes, talking with the monks, and sharing teas and foods with the local villagers in their Ben Zhu temples.
Ben Zhu Festivals in Dali correspond to the Lunar calendar and mainly occur after Chinese New Year. During such festivals, the Ben Zhu are taken from the temple and carried through town to a different location where they will stay for a designated number of days. The gods are carried on specially made chairs. The villagers will follow the gods to the designated spot burning incense and giving offerings of food and money at each location.
Bai culture celebrates several significant festivals throughout the year, including the “”Third Month Fair,”" usually in March or April depending on the lunar calendar. This is perhaps the most grand festival of the Bai people, and is celebrated annually at the foot of the Diancang Hill to the west of Dali city. There are sporting contests, theatre performances, dancing, horse racing and other games. Merchants from far away places such as Burma and Vietnam come to ply their medicines and wares. The “”Torch Festival”" is held on the 25th of the sixth lunar month, where scores of torches are lit to help yield a plentiful harvest and blessings of good health and fortune on the people. Banners with favorable sayings are hung in doorways and at village gates beside the flaming torches. Villagers march through their fields with torches to drive insects away and benefit their crops. Experiencing such incredible local celebrations in the village is an incredible opportunity for guests of the Centre.
One of Yunnan’s most celebrated festivals, the Guanyin Festival (linked with the Third Month Holiday), commemorates the seventh-century visitation of the Goddess of Mercy to the Cangshan mountains outside Dali. Guanyin, a Bodhisattva whose iconography became much more feminine after leaving India, is one of the most worshipped deities in Dali. The Guanyin Temple, located just south of Dali, celebrates the story in which Guanyin saved Dali from rebels by changing herself into a giant and dropping a massive stone to thwart the attackers. The rebels, frightened at the site of a 100 foot tall woman, fled in fear and never returned.
Rao San Ling (Walk around the three spirits) is also called the “Carnival for Bai people”. Every year over seventy one Bai villages in Dali come together to honor the main Ben Zhu “Founding Ancestor” named Duan Zong Bang “King of the 500 gods” in the 2nd lunar month. Very early in the morning the villagers walk from the Chong Sheng Temple (“Fo Du”—the capital of the Buddha) along the foot of Cang mountain to the Sheng Yuan Temple (“Shen Du”—the capital of the god). Each family or group of individuals will bring offerings and food and perform a sacrificing ceremony in Sheng Yuan temple. The next day, they move to Jin Gui Temple (Xian Du—the capital of the faeries) in He Yi Chen village by Er Hai lake. They dance and sing at night to please the gods. On the third day, they move back south along the lake to a village called Ma Jiu Yi near Chong Sheng Temple where they pray a final time to the Ben Zhu for protection thus closing out the festival for another year.