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Events History Local Culture

Summer Wrap Up: Festivals

August 30, 2019

This summer we’ve had a busy season packed with education programs, culinary tours, awesome speakers, and guests like you! Here’s an overview of what we’ve been up to here at the Centre over the past few months. This post is part 2 of our Summer Wrap-Up series, with a focus on local holidays, enjoy!

火把节 (Huo Ba Jie): Torch Festival

火把节 (Huo Ba Jie), also known as the Torch Festival, was originally an Yi Minority celebration that falls between the 24th-26th of the 6th month of the lunar year. At some point in history, this festival also became a part of Bai traditional holidays as well.

Today, the festival still involves prayers for a good harvest, offerings to local gods, and scaring away demons. However, interestingly, there are several “origin stories” behind the festival:

A popular Yi folk legend tells of a warrior named Atilaba who drove away a plague of locusts by burning torches made from pine.

Another popular origin story that is often told in Dali is: The leader of the Nanzhao Kingdom (a state that co-existed with the Tang dynasty), Piluoge, invited the rulers of seven surrounding areas to his ancestral temple, the Songming Building. This was a trap, and he burned all of the smaller rulers to death so that he could consolidate power over the region. The wife of the local ruler of what is now Xizhou, named Po Jie, had an ominous feeling, and tried to persuade her husband not to go, but he insisted on paying his respects. She put an iron bracelet around the arm of her husband, and after he was burned to death, Po Jie identified her husband’s body by the bracelet, and brought him back home. Piluoge heard of her virtue and wanted to woo her, but Po Jie closed the city gate and committed suicide by drowning in lake Erhai. So people in Yunnan burn torches to grieve for and commemorate her bravery.TORCH FEST (32 of 18)Today, as part of the holiday, almost every village that makes up the larger Dali area erects its own giant torch – an impressive structure made up of straw and other flammable materials. This giant torch featuring a bamboo pole that juts out, and is decorated in bright colors, fruit, baby dolls, and various plush toys. Each family then has their own small torch, which they bring to the giant torch to light and bring back to their own homes to burn into the night.

An interesting part of the the torch festival is it’s also a competition. Men will gather at the foot of the giant torches to compete for the colorful pole when it finally falls. This year I went to see the giant torch at the Zhengyimen – the main gate of Xizhou Old Town. As I dodged the falling ash and debris from the giant burning torch, I took photos of the young to middle aged town men gathered at the foot of the pole waiting for their chance at a year’s worth of good fortune. People told me that whoever catches the colorful pole, not only gets a year of good luck in their endeavors, but must also invite everyone over to his house for a meal.

TORCH FEST (37 of 18)

After several false alarms, the pole finally fell after a dramatic shower of sparks rained down from the top, and then began the chaos. The men who had previously been cracking jokes, smoking their cigarettes, waiting for their moment of glory jumped into action, wrestling each other for the pole, and eventually breaking it into pieces. After the men did the initial work, grannies rushed in forcefully grabbing little bits of the pole from the men, some even bringing scissors, begging for a piece of the luck. I’m not sure who eventually “won,” as the pole was broken down into so many small pieces after the police stepped in to help calm some of the chaos, so I didn’t get to go to a free meal at the winner’s place.

Ghost Festival


It was the second to last night of Studio Klasse film workshop, and I was heading out of the Yangzhuoran courtyard at 11:00 pm with several students who needed to be accompanied home. About 15 minutes before we got ready to head out, as it does on most Xizhou summer nights, it started to pour heavily. As we walked out to the rainy stone streets, I could make out piles and piles of what looked like plants, fruits, various offerings, and what had minutes ago been burning sticks of incense. These piles were all at regular intervals along the road, and as we walked home we quietly stepped carefully to avoid treading on these offerings.IMG_2691Over the preceding few days, I had started to notice paper shoes and clothes at the morning market, appearing alongside the usual fare of fresh vegetables and fruits. I also had to snap a picture of the plastic “iphone” and “chanel” sets for your deceased loved ones who enjoy the finer things in the afterlife. These goods were being sold as offerings to ancestors to be burned for the Ghost Festival –鬼节.

Occurring on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, Ghost Day is a Taoist and Buddhist festival that marks the opening of both heaven and hell, when ghosts are free to walk the earth. A local film workshop student explained to me that on Ghost Day, families light incense and leave offerings of food and paper mache items to guide their deceased family members, both older and younger, home. The seventh month is also known as Ghost Month, with Ghost Day only marking the beginning. Throughout the month there are various rituals performed by local families, and at the end of the month they must send their otherworldly relatives back.




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