Yunnan Province, or 'South of the Clouds' as it is more poetically referred to, is the home to as many as twenty-five different ethnic minority groups. Naturally, the vibrant folk festivals that take place here throughout the year are a major part of the region's draw to visitors from both China and overseas.
As hugely enticing as such festivals are, they do take place in some of the remoter corners of this large province, which means reaching them isn't always so easy. With that in mind Yunnan Nationalities Village is a great place to engage with some of these incredible traditions, some of which are outlined below, all within the very convenient city limits of Kunming.
Water-Splashing Festival (Poshuijie)
Perhaps because of its huge sense of fun, as well as its appeal to everyone from toddlers to older folks, the Water-Splashing Festival has become the one of the region's biggest seasonal draws. With a fun, slightly raucous atmosphere, and plenty of opportunity for visitor participation, it has increasingly appealed to international guests too.
Held every year in the middle of April, this is a traditional festival observed by the Dai, Achang, Bulang, Wa, and De'ang groups as well as Thai-speaking people abroad. For the Dai in particular, this is the most important festival of the calendar and serves as their new year celebration.
During this time, Dai people wear traditional dress and participate in dances, whilst other activities like cockfights are also staged. It's a vibrant and exciting period in which to explore the area, and the endless water splashing makes for a refreshing blessing as the sweltering summer approaches!
Recommended places for participating the festival: Xishuangbanna and Yunnan Nationalities Village.
Torch Festival (Huobajie)
The Torch Festival is celebrated by a number of different minority groups in Yunnan including the Yi, the Bai and the Naxi, each of whom observe it on a different day of the sixth month in the lunar calendar.
On this day, families prepare huge feasts and light torches, symbolizing a hope for bumper harvest in the coming year. The evenings are especially lively during this period, and the Yi people can often be seen singing and dancing in public squares. Bonfires are lit throughout the region, and any visitors in attendance are warmly invited to participate in the convivial procreedings.
Recommended places for participating in this festival: Chuxiong, Dali, Kunming World Horticultural Expo Garden, and Yunnan Nationalities Village.
Kuoshi Festival and Knife Pole Festival
Kuoshi Festival is unique to the Lisu people, in whose language it translates simply as 'new year'. It begins at the start twelfth month of the lunar calendar and, as the name implies, carries over into the start of the new year. On the second or third day of celebrations, a family will set up a bamboo hut close to hot springs, and temporarily relocate there bringing with them prepared food and any other daily necessities.
Over the course of the festival, singers from surrounding villages gather next to the hot springs to dance where they host competitions and performances such as crossbow shooting. This is a great opportunity to sample authentic Lisu cuisine, including corn cakes and homemade rice wine. In 2022, the festival will be held on December 24.
Another intriguing celebration held by the Lisu people is the Knife Pole Festival, which visitors might consider amazing and alarming in equal measure! As part of this ritual, barefoot Lisu men clamber up 20-meter-tall ladders constructed of no fewer than 36 sharpened knives, reaching the top to wild applause from the audience. These climbers are referred to as 'Nipa', a wizard of sorts, and regarded as heroes locally. In the evenings villagers gather around the fire to sing and drink rice wine, often staying up until the early hours.
Another performance held on this day includes participants walking over broken glass without shoes whilst, in the evening, a dramatic ritual called Xiaohuohai ('small sea of fire') sees Lisu men, with bare upper bodies and feet, imitate various animals to jump back and forth on piles of red burning charcoal which are then rubbed over their bodies. The Lisu believe that this 'baptism of fire' will prevent bad fortune in the future.
Recommended places for participating in this festival: Lushui City, Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, and Yunnan Nationalities Village.
Dali March Street Festival (Sanyuejie)
Dali March Street Festival is a traditional festival of the Bai nationality people with a history going back over 1,000 years. Held annually in the middle of the third month of the lunar new year, it is regarded as one of the most important in western Yunnan.
During the festival, the entire old town area of Dali is adorned with lanterns that, along with the bustling streets filled with Bai people from across the region, help to create a buzzing atmosphere. Vendors of all kinds gather near Dali's famous West Gate to trade their wares, making this a wonderful time to sample traditional Bai snacks.
In addition, visitors will encounter traditional competitions and artistic performances including horse racing, archery, chess, wrestling and martial arts.
If you would like to take part in this lively festival, go west to Dali, or visit the Yunnan Nationalities Village in Kunming.
Guniang Festival, roughly translated as 'Young Ladies Festival', is observed by the Hani people and reflects some of their particular ideas about love. The Hani believe that the right to choose one's own love is the key to happiness, and this festival demonstrates their respect to females and, most importantly, the freedom of marriage that their women enjoy.
On this special day, it is Hani men that are required to do all the work, whilst the women sit back. Should a man wish to pursue a love interest, he will need to rise early and make a fire, cook for her and bring warm water with which she can wash her face. At noon, men gather in the village square where they borrow women's clothing and wear it for a session of traditional dancing before returning home to prepare food until the sun goes down.
Recommended places for participating in this festival: Honghe County, Honghe Prefecture and, of course, the Yunnan Nationalities Village.
Lamugu Festival is celebrated by the Wa people, and its name means 'dragging the drum', a reference to the large wooden instruments that are especially important in local culture. On the day of the festival, cattle are sacrificed to the gods and young men ascend the mountains to fell a tree that has been selected for the making of a new drum.
The following morning all residents dress up in their traditional costume and gather to drag the huge drum on ropes through the village, singing as they go. Priests play an important role in this festival, selecting the most auspicious day for the proceedings to take place and even overseeing the sacrifice of chickens in order to curry favor with the gods.
This is a fantastic opportunity to hear the brilliant percussion music that the Wa people are known for, as well as seeing their traditional 'hair flicking' dance. The rhythm of the drumming is as intoxicating as any music festival that you are ever likely to experience.
Recommended places for participating the festival: Cangyuan Wa Autonomous County, Lincang City and the Yunnan Nationalities Village.