Sanduo festival for the mountain god of Lijiang

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

  Another week, another festival. The 8th day of the second lunar month is one of the biggest days for the 300,000 Naxi [pronounced NA-she and no relation of Nazi] who live around the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The day is a local holiday and even though I joined the day-long celebrations late in the afternoon, I still got a sense of how important the day is for the Naxi.

The Sanduo festival commemorates the most powerful god in Naxi mythology. Sanduo is the Naxi god of war, and also a protector of the people and their land. It is said that during the Song dynasty (960AD - 1279) the Naxi leader Mai Cong dreamt a god said he was coming to help the Naxi fight their enemies. Then, in every battle after that dream, a warrior appeared in white armour, wearing a white helmet, holding a white spear, and riding on a white horse. The brave white warrior's role in helping protect the Naxi is still honoured to this day. The Naxi believe Sanduo was born on the 8th day of the second lunar month, in the year of the goat/sheep.

There is also another story about Sanduo, linked to a temple which honours the Naxi deity. In the story a man hunting in the Yulong mountain valley kept on seeing a white deer. Despite his efforts - and those of his dog - to catch and kill the deer, the animal always seemed to get away and disappear. Then one day, the hunter tracked down the white deer and was just about to shoot it with his bow and arrow, when the deer changed into a white stone. The hunter carried the white stone out of the woods and down the mountain. On his way down, he stopped to rest, but when he was ready to move on again, he found the stone was too heavy to move. So the hunter told others about the stone, and before long, the villagers built a temple around the stone to worship the incarnation of Sanduo.

As well as the statue at the temple called Beiyue [Northern Ranges], there is statue of Sanduo at Black Dragon Pool, where the warrior god is dressed a little like Elton John, all in white.

Commemoration of Sanduo goes something like this:
Visit the Beiyue temple
Head up to the nearby Yufeng temple
Go for a picnic, shared meal followed by a dance

As many peope in Lijiiang old town are involved in tourism and can't spare most the day away from their duties, in the Water Wheel square a tent had been erected with a large image of Sanduo, for people to make offerings. During the day many townsfolk, many in traditional costume, came to visit the pine-fringed shrine, offering food and incense to the protector god. A Naxi orchestra played at various times during the day, under the shade of red and yellow banners. Smoke wafted from four 2-metre high purple incense sticks.

I took a mini-bus up to Yufeng temple, set up and along the valley hillside. The temple is designed like a modular house, with other buildings and courtyards able to be added. During the Cultural Revolution the temple was turned into a police station and extensively damaged.

While the temple has been restored, I am still not sure who is running the show: the monks or the local government. It is 20 yuan - about $US3 - to enter the temple complex and soon after entering into the main courtyard a couple of people - it is hard to tell if they were monks or just temple workers - invited me over to a side room. One presented me with a white scarf - or hada - but the other then wrote down on a piece of paper the figure '100' and motioned for me to put in 100 yuan - about $US15 - into the collection box. I resent the inflated voluntary donation (probably increased for foreigners - and put in 5 yuan.

The main attraction at Yufeng temple is not so much the over-charging monks or the intricate paintings on the walls and ceilings, but a small side temple, up above the main courtyard. The small courtyard is home an ancient and very beautiful tree known as the 10,000 flower camellia, also dubbed the 'King of Camellias'. There are four special things about this tree, which appears as if it has been pruned repeatedly as it is only five metres high. The first amazing thing is the tree's age. The plant is over 500 years old. It was planted between 1465 and 1487 during the Ming dynasty.

The second interesting fact is that it is actually two trees, rather than one. The two different camellia trees were planted alongside each other and trained to intertwine, so it is hard to tell them apart as they are now joined at the base. The first part of the pair is called the '9-hearts-18 petal' tree, because it has 9 layers of stamens and 18 petals. The other part of the pair is called the 'tea camellia with red flowers' and yes, you guessed it, it has thicker colours than the other. This one has single bloom flowers. For many, the intertwined trees are symbolic of marital harmony.

The third interesting fact about this tree is its blooming. The 50 square metre crown blooms for around 100 days. Buds appear in the season term called Slight Heat, then by the start of Spring the tree blooms, right through to Summer when everything starts to wither. During those 100 days there are 20 batches of flowers blooming, and each flowering has around 1000 flowers each batch. So rather than being 10,000 flowers, it is actually more like 20,000 flowers each year. Hence is also being called the Most Perfect Tree in the World, known for its rosy clouds during Springtime.

The fourth thing about the tree is how it survived the Cultural Revolution. The monks used to sneak into the temple courtyard to water the tree during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. One of those plant carers is still alive and these days sits on a chair beside the tree, watching to make sure no one tries to damage the tree, take its flowers, or take clippings of the old tree.

I spent an hour or so hanging out with the tree guardian, watching groups of people file into the courtyard, walk around the tree, then line up to have their photo taken in front of the ancient camellia. Most visitors were families, often in their 'Sunday best'.

Naxi, like many Chinese, are eclectic in their religious beliefs. Yufeng temple is Buddhist, but with Naxi and Chinese-style architecture, such as courtyards with mosiac tiles portraying bats, a Naxi symbol. So there is no conflict of interest if a Naxi goes to a Buddhist temple, a shrine to the Naxi god Sanduo, and then a Taoist temple - all in the same day. Like an gambler knows, it pays to spread your bets.

It is said that Naxi find Bon or Tibetan Buddhism useful for funerals and prayers for the dead, Taoist satisfies mystical and aesthetic needs, Confucianism with its ancestor worship was needed to keep up contact with the departed, animism gave a way of dealing with the unseen powers in nature, and shamanism was required to protect the living and dead from evil spirits.

After time spent sitting in the camellia courtyard, I walked down the hill, along the alleyway of stall selling walnuts, pine nuts, medicinal herbs, noodles, wall hangings and cushion covers. After the throng of the temple, it was pleasant to walk further down the hill, past picnicing families through pines into the quiet of the forest.

The Beiyue [Northern Ranges] temple, a shrine to Sanduo and the only non-Buddist temple in the area, was also busy, with visitors making their way towards the back temple where Sanduo sat between two protectors. The temple was originally built during the Tang dynasty in 779 or 785, and then rebuilt in 1535. In the courtyard in front was a huge incense burner the size of a bathtub, but I had read somewhere that during the Cultural Revolution a huge burner made of gold was melted down, and its replacement containted no precious minerals. Similarly, the statue of Sanduo was black, rather than his usual white. Naxi here too, were offering sacrifices to Sanduo for his help during the past and for his future protection. Naxi also come here on the 8th of the 8th lunar month, offering goats as sacrfices.

I got a mini-bus to Baisha, half way back to Lijiang, where the market was coming to a close with potted plants, farming equipment, shoes, and deep-fried potatoes were on sale. A man with a small amplifier was marketing a pasta/noddle-maker which sold for 80 yuan. I briefly visited Dr Ho's house, where his son, now over 50, was in charge, as Dr Ho had some local government function to attend in town.

I walked back towards town, through some strung-out villages that seemed very rural. Houses with courtyards served as storage areas for grain and hay. Cattle chewed on corn stalks and old people sat around enjoying the last of the sun. A cobblestone path, perhaps the old road, linked Yulong village and Shuhe, a replica Lijiang old town with a 20 yuan entrance fee. Taking the 'trademan's entrance from the north I checked out the Tea Horse Road museum with its saddles, leather bags and pu'er tea. Shuhe itself is like Lijiang, made up of new and old. The new is largely shops, restaurants and cafes, minus the crowds of Lijiang old town. The old, well, there's only the temple and a bridge left that I can remember from the late 1990s. Upstream, near the Dragon's Well where water springs up, they've done something terrible to create a water landscaped park. However the water seems stagnant and green with weed.

Later, someone tells me that traces of pesticide are now appearing in Lijiang's drinking water. Will Sanduo protect the Naxi, their land and their drinking water?

On the way back to Lijiang I pondered something I'd read earlier that day. You see, the Naxi are often portrayed as being matriarchal, where women rule the roost, yet my observations and other research don't bear this out entirely. An anthropologist from Temple University, Sydney White, believes Han Chinese influence over the last few centuries have impacted on Naxi culture, in particular the roles of men and women. He believes the theme for men is largely about fame, while for women it is sacrifice. And he matches this categorization with medical research which shows Naxi men overwhelmingly suffer from diseases of consumption, such as heart disease, liver disease and kidney stones, whereas Naxi women tend to suffer from 'diseases of production, such as arthritis and headaches.

Anyway, I'll finish with a found poem from a translation of a Chinese website - China Style - and its interpretation of the Sanduo festival.

Sanduo is the spirit of the jade dragon snow mountain
the west clans of everyplace all want the solemn and impressive fiesta
they go to jade dragon ancestral temple

in addition to fiesta
in addition to doing obeisance
the people have an outing
they swim, they enjoy flower, they convene relevant academic colloquium

At night, the city full of people like the tide
they sing
uncommonly noisily
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