This summer, several Teach For China Fellows traveled to Cangyuan, a county in southwestern Yunnan on the border with Myanmar. The county is home to the Wa minority 佤族, who every year celebrate the “Monihei” 抹你黑 festival, in which participants attack and smear one another with mud. Check out this account of the festival by Sam Waldo. Photo by Christine Yuan.
“Whatever god it is that the Wa worship, it’s pretty clear that theirs is the one true god,” Axel says facetiously as we walk down one of the main thoroughfares of Cangyuan, today cordoned off and teeming with mud-blackened pedestrians. Monihei, a traditional holiday of the Wa ethnic minority in southwestern China, had been such a success that it did in fact seem like there might have been divine intervention.
<an hour previous>
Our band of ten foreigners stands packed like cattle among the thousands of Chinese waiting for the gates to the festival grounds to be opened. The weather in Cangyuan has been cool and wet the two days that we have been there, but with the sun beating down at midday the only reminder of the rainy weekend is the intense humidity, magnified by the breath and sweat of so many bodies.
The long fence, a kind of automatic metal contraption I’ve only seen in China, retracts and the crowd rushes to the event field. It’s a grass field, a soccer pitch when it isn’t Monihei, with a large stage set up on one side and concrete bleachers lining the other like a high school football stadium. On the field are dozens of lidded vats, maybe three feet tall and almost as wide, that at this point are still sealed and even under guard. As the crowd filters to either the field (for the participants) or the bleachers (for the observers, most of the women), attention is drawn to the stage.
A hundred or more Wa girls, high school age it seems for the most part, wearing traditional dress, a simple red and black cloth wrapped sort of like a sari but shorter, begin a unified song and dance with the backing of powerful speakers. The Wa people, from my understanding, have really never broken with their traditions; most of them live lives that are considered normal by modern Chinese standards, but the Wa it seems have thus far avoided that historical moment where traditional culture becomes artifice, only something to be pedaled to tourists. Most Wa people haven’t intermarried with Han Chinese; their skin is much darker than Han Chinese; they grow their hair long; they speak their own language; they do traditional dances and sing traditional songs as a part of their own lives and not just for the sake of preserving dying traditions. They are still a people apart from China, though at the same time they have little trouble fitting in.
Their music, when I have heard it, is comprised of many voices singing a simple line in unison accompanied by heavy drum beats, generating a powerful and intimidating sound. Such is the effect with this performance of the hundred or more Wa girls on stage. Dark skin, long, straight, black hair, foot stomping, powerful percussion –simple and warlike. After the song’s very loud conclusion, the lids come off the vats and monihei begins.
I approach one of the vats, already surrounded by half a dozen Chinese men. Everyone is shirtless – standard attire for monihei doesn’t exceed shorts and flip-flops. The men are all smiling as they frantically hurl the specially prepared mud-pudding mixture in the vat into the sky. Some have cups or small bowls, others use their hands – the goal at this point is to get as much of the mud onto others as possible. I should explain now that the literal translation of “Monihei” is “rub you black,” and this is the expressed purpose of the festival. At this point I am still unsure of exactly what lay ahead of me in the coming minutes. I approach the vat, looking to join in the mayhem. The first big splash of mud that hits me is also the worst, temporarily blinding me and also getting caught in the back of my throat. This isn’t just wet earth, it is a special concoction designed and produced specifically for the day – it has a strong cocoa taste and smell, the consistency of runny pudding, a little strange but better than eating dirt.
After I recover from this first barrage, the battle has fully begun. Across the field all of the vats are open and the mud rains from the sky. Mud is slung, flung, smeared, dumped, and slapped on every man, woman, and child. The scale is incredible – it isn’t simply that everyone is getting muddy, rather every single person has, in a matter of minutes, become completely covered from head to toe in the chocolate-colored mud.
The whole thing doesn’t last more than twenty or thirty minutes – the mud goes pretty quickly, and there’s only so much
to do after all of the participants are already fully saturated. Things slow down – mud wrestling and impromptu slip-and-slides in the half-foot of mud lining the ground replace the free-for-all. After a few more minutes pass, everyone simultaneously comes to the conclusion that the year’s festivities are over and we begin drifting out of the gates. Across the street from the field they have installed a public shower system of sorts – lining the sidewalk are hundreds of meters of bamboo secured firmly together to serve as a long water pipe. The underside of the bamboo is punctuated with hundreds of holes, and water runs down the length of the entire pipe so that every few feet there is another shower tap.
Monihei, clearly, left quite an impression. It was as novel an experience as I’ve had in recent memory, and even in a country this foreign to me I have yet to encounter something so entirely different.
I’ve heard two different stories of the origin of Monihei. One, the traditional school of thought, is that the mud-smearing is a sign of rejuvenation and fertility. Rubbing mud on someone is a kind of blessing, and the festival is held before the planting season to usher in hope for a good harvest, etc. The other definition is a little more fun. We heard this one at a bar in Cangyuan the night before the festival at near-2 AM from a table of intoxicated Wa guys. It’s simple – the Wa people are dark-skinned, so they want to make everyone else dark-skinned too! Get some dried mud on you and you get to be an honorary Wa for the afternoon – it’s a nice thought, inclusive and goofy, and it adds to the joviality of the whole festival for me.
But most of the local people we asked, including many Wa, were surprised at the question and unable to provide an answer. They would smile, chuckle, and mumble in their local dialect in that way that we’ve all gotten used to – it’s the standard response from most locals when we foreigners do something they think is silly. At any rate, be it fertility ceremony or ethnic rite of passage, Monihei was a whole lot of fun.