Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

The Sani

This weekend I travelled with Dr. Wen to the Chinese countryside. We were heading to a village 120 kilometers southwest of Kunming in Shilin Yi Autonomous County. Dr. Wen is working on filming a short documentary on ethnic minority handicrafts in Yunnan and the people of Shilin are noted for their beautiful work. My role is to help edit and narrate the video in English. Dr. Wen has also been organizing projects to preserve ethnic minority culture and village life.

Entrance to the Mizhi Holy Forest in Tengzishao

The name Shílín (石林), translates to “stone forest,” and refers to the striking natural landscape of the area that is perhaps unlike anywhere else on earth. Tall rocks emanate from the ground, many looking like trees made of stone, creating the illusion of a stone forest. The forest is over 270 million years old and formed during the late Permian Period when the ocean subsided. Giant rocks were gradually worn away by water leaving a fantastic karst landscape covering much of southwest Yunnan.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to visit Shilin National Park, one of most popular tourist attractions in all of China. This time however, we ventured away from the tourist parts and into the remote village of Nuohei Shitou Zha, home to the Sani people. The Sani who are recognized as part of China’s Yi ethnic minority, possess their own unique language, customs, and ethnic identity. Known in ancient times as Tengzishao, the village is over 600 years old and is one of the few remaining villages in Yunnan to preserve its authentic culture. However, as is the case in many parts of China, tourism and other factors are threatening to destroy village life. Tengzishao is just one of the places that Dr. Wen is fighting desperately to preserve. There are many traditions that are unique to those living in Tengzishao and we hope to capture some of these traditions in our documentary.

Traditional hand embroidered Sani clothes

Our first stop was in a neighboring village where we got to see famous traditional Sani handcraft and embroidery. The clothes of Sani women are intricately embroidered with colorful designs. A single Sani turban has all the colors of the rainbow and is a symbol of faithful and love based on Sani legend.

In the evening, we arrived at Tengzishao. As we entered the village, we marveled at the old streets and houses, constructed entirely of karst stones found in the surrounding valley. The Sani are inextricably tied to their natural surroundings, a relationship that is ingrained in their culture and passed down through Sani legend. The locals were all hard at work, carrying in harvest from the fields and tending to their livestock.

We walked all the way to the top of the village where we visited the Nuohei Yi Ethnic Group Culture Museum. Inside, the walls were covered in stories and pictures telling the history of Tengzishao. For dinner, we were invited to a local household where they had prepared a fantastic traditional meal. While we ate, they made sure that we had a warm welcome and toasted us with Sani wine while singing traditional Sani songs. As the sun set over the village and we pleasured in this incredible moment, nothing else seemed to matter.

It was not until we were on the way back to Kunming that I began to wonder how much longer this beautiful existence could survive. Tengzishao and the people that live there are truly magical. I hope that our project and others like it will help raise awareness for the importance of preserving these places, not just for their historical and cultural value, but also because there are important lessons to be learned from their practices and traditions that may help us in the future.

To learn more about Nuohei Shitou Zha, you can follow the link to my friend’s website. Click on the first video entitled “石林 (英文)”. The video features Shilin and Nuohei Shitou Zha with English subtitles.