In July, 2017, I traveled to Sichuan, China for two weeks to photograph the area inhabited by the Yi minority of Southwestern China. Other than passing through Beijing airport, we saw none of the “tourist sites” of China. It was a fascinating adventure, especially since the other 4 participants cancelled for a variety of reasons. Nothing like a private tour! Just me, a professional photographer, our Mandarin-English guide, and our Yi- Mandarin interpreter. Chengdu and the Old Teahouse We started in Chengdu, a city of 10 million. I flew in a day early to see the pandas at the preserve and to recover from jetlag. We spent the next two days photographing in the Old Teahouse. The structure was built in the 16th century as a temple, but then became the starting point of the tea route from Sichuan to Tibet. It is a dilapidated building with dirt floors and wooden walls that covers about 1 city block. But, oh, the photo opportunities! It is now a community center for the older generation where they come to drink tea, play cards, read the paper, smoke, watch TV, and chat. When you enter, you get your cup of jasmine tea and pick your seat, which is yours all day until you decide to leave. There are baristas there who perform amazing acrobatic feats with the boiling water and cast iron kettles, a barber who seems busy all day, and a multi-talented man who serves tea, plays a percussive musical instrument, and cleans your ears for you! Families come in for a cup, a bride and groom came in for their wedding photos, and we met photographers from all over China (but we were the only Westerners!) It is reality TV on steroids. I could have stayed a week, but even in two days got to know a number of the regulars, even though we had no common language. They were all gracious and fun-loving. The Torch Festivals We then flew southwest where we visited the cities of Xichang and Butuo, the centers of the Yi population and the Torch Festivals. The Yi population is about 100,000, and are primarily poor farmers. They have their own culture, customs, language, and alphabet. The Torch festivals take place annually to commemorate the story of the Yi people’s origin. There is a very large and high production one near Xichang that draws around 50,000 people and lasts three days. Others in Butuo and around the region are smaller but still are elaborate productions and last a full three days. The first day is entertainment, with commemorative bonfires built after dark around which there is dancing. The second is the beauty pageant and folklore activities. The third day are the animal competitions – bull fighting, cock fighting, horse racing, and sheep wrestling. During this time, most of the people are dressed in their traditional costumes (very elaborate), which vary from village to village. This was an opportunity to meet many teenager and young adults who were quite anxious to try out their English. The first two questions were always: “Where are you from?” and “How old are you?” (I didn’t realize the possibilities until I heard Oliver say he was 30! I instantly shed a few years also…) And they all wanted their photographs with the Westerners. I think I was photographed as much as I took images. But it made it easy to get their image in return. Our guide said that the government is concerned about unrest among such a large group of poor and ethnically diverse people, so it underwrites the festivals as a way of recognizing them and keeping them happy. The last 6 days we spent visiting remote villages to photograph local folks. Most of them had never seen a Westerner before, so it took some time in each village to break the ice, even though we had a Yi guide with us. Some villages never opened up, at which point, we would just travel on. A typical village might consist of only 30 families. Living conditions in the villages are very primitive – the homes are rectangular structures about 10 x 30 feet. One end has a fire pit (no ventilation) and the rest is for bedding and some storage. The animals may be living inside also and crops are dried and stored in the roof area. There is no running water inside. Most had a dirt floor and wooden walls. Farming and husbandry are the primary occupations. The markets (every two weeks) are for purchasing manufactured goods, getting dental work done, and selling goods. This gallery includes the first of the photos from that trip. Check back! I took 12,000 images on that trip and am still working through them!
© Dorothy Weaver Photography