Written by Xie Zongming
In the mountains and forests along the Nujiang River, there lives an ethnic group who survived the harsh nature and kept their struggles in mind to prepare for the worst. They are the Lisu people, who used their long-tested hunting skills to secure their lives in the mountains. Lisu people have been through many dangers brought by both nature and other people in the past hundreds of years. A thrilling festival was set to remind them of the brutal nature of life and encourage them to be vigilant. This festival is the Knivesladder-Climbing Festival.
A thriving group scarcely recorded
Lisu people generally live along the Nujiang River in Southwestern China, for which there is a special autonomous prefecture in Yunnan Province. From a global perspective, Lisu people also live in Myanmar, Thailand, and even as far as India. When H.E. U Myo Thant Pe, Myanmar Ambassador to China, said that China has similar cultures and ethnic groups with Myanmar, he mentioned Lisu people as an example, saying that the two peoples at the country border treat each other like neighbors. In fact, there is a grand Lisu International Meeting, where Lisu peoples from different countries gather and have fun.
However, this international ethnic group was scarcely mentioned in the historical record. For a group with clear regional features, it is a little peculiar that the earliest record of this group appeared as late as Tang Dynasty (618-907). It is because Lisu was considered a branch of another ethnic group, which is reasonable as they didn’t form a unified group. Instead, they were under different banners of bigger groups. Later in Song Dynasty (960-1279) and Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), due to the political unrest and the lack of imperial focus, there were hardly any records about Lisu people in about 400 years.
Until Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) when China achieved the Great Unification again, detailed records about Lisu people started to appear. Due to a rebellion in Southwestern China in early Ming, the court sent troops and regular governors to the region and thus get first-hand information about the Lisu people. Historical records mentioned that Lisu people still took hunting and gathering as their livelihood in the 14th century and the government had to collect animal leather since they didn’t develop agriculture. The record also mentioned that the Lisu men “often carry a crossbow and poisoned arrows with them”, whereas the Lisu women “dig the roots of vegetation for daily food”. The tough living condition is well depicted.
Tips: The Lisu group has different clans, which are named after objects such as animal, insects, and plants. People of each clan have the same family name, ensuring coordination in shouldering responsibilities. Through centuries of migration and progress of modernization, this kind of close relation hardly functions today but this kinship remains in their names.
To remember and to be prepared
In Chinese idioms, “Climbing a mountain of knives and diving into a sea of fire” is used when a person is willing to undergo the most severe trials to get something done. It seems as if the Lisu people have taken this idiom too seriously and literally. In the annual Knivesladder-Climbing Festival, Lisu people have two activities, namely climbing a ladder of knives and walking on burning coals, with other pre-event rituals started one day before the festival. Taking place on the 15th day in the 1st lunar month , the festival is meant to dispel the bad luck from last year and wish for good luck in the new year.
There are many stories about the origin of this festival, with two mostly-accepted versions. The first version explained the festival as a commemoration. As it is mentioned, it was until Ming Dynasty that the empire got to know Lisu people through a nearby rebellion. General Wang Ji was sent there to lead the troops and was later appointed as the governor of the region. Under his governance, the region became prosperous, for which he earned the respect of the Lisu people. However, the general was framed by a courtier and was sentenced to death. Therefore, the Lisu people used this extreme festival to commemorate General Wang. Another convincing yet simple origin story is that the festival is a metaphor for the Lisu people’s struggles in the mountains, telling their offspring to be prepared for the worst conditions. Either way, the festival shows Lisu people’s determination when facing challenges.
The festival needs to be hosted by the village’s shaman, who is in charge of enchanting the holy paper azalea and the knives. The festival consists of 7 parts, 6 of which are carried out on the day of the main event. Each part has its unique ritual that is mainly about object enchanting. The climbers will enchant their feet with wormwood, believing that it will make them invulnerable against the knives. Once all preparation is done, the performers can start climbing the knives ladder. The climbers will use their skills to avoid the cut, such as pinching the knives instead of grabbing them. Once they reach the top, they can take the red cloth on the top of the ladder, which means obtaining a good life. Some climbers might even do a few tricks on the ladder.
Later in the evening, people will gather around a bonfire, placing an iron plow and an iron chain in the fire. When the bonfire burns out and the iron plow is red-hot, the fire walking will start. People will be separated into groups of 3 to charge across the burning charcoals. Some will even hold a lump of burning coal with both hands in this process. The event will quickly hit its climax with such enthusiasm.
This is the thrilling festival of the Lisu people. Though they’re living in a safe modern world, they still remember their toughest days through this annual festival that signifies their previous struggles. As the Chinese saying goes, “be prepared for danger in times of peace”.
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