Torch Festival

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 18, 2021

The Torch Festival takes place from the 24th to the 26th day of the 6th lunar month every year. It is an important shared traditional festival of the Yi, Naxi, and Bai ethnic people in Southwestern China.

Torch Festival of the Yi People

The Torch Festival is an event as influential to the Yi people as the Spring Festival is in the Han people's lives. For 3 days, men and women, young and old, carry flaming torches and engage in a variety of activities. This time is also a good opportunity for young men and women to meet prospective spouses.

During the festival, torches are erected in front of every household, and a pile of faggots several meters high is erected in the center of the square. When night falls and gongs and horns are sounded, people of all ages come forward to ignite the faggot pile. Cheerful flames leap up to the sky, crackling and spluttering all the while. Shouts of joy together with the boom of gongs and drums create a beautiful musical sea of rejoicing.

Elsewhere, men and women in pairs form rows facing one another on a patch of grass. The men play 3-stringed instruments as the women kick and clap to the tempo. Snack vendors take full advantage of the occasion, pitching booths under shady trees where people can rest and enjoy refreshments before carrying on with the day's activities.

And of course, this assembly is a good chance for young men and women to find their "Ashima" or "Brother Ahei," thus paying particular attention to their costumes. Young women wear a stiff, triangular piece of fabric on either side of their elaborate headdress to attract the attention of single young men. However, no young man should ever touch this ornament, or he will be forced to labor for 3 years at the girl's home. On and after their wedding day, young women remove the 2 triangles and lay them flat on top of their heads to symbolize marital peace and happiness.

When a young man chooses a certain young woman, he will snatch away her embroidered belt when she is least expecting it. This practice can be traced back to the ancient Yi marriage custom, where the bridegroom pretends to kidnap his bride. If the young woman returns his love, she will allow him to court her. If not, she will put on another belt allowing the man to keep the one he had stolen.

Torch Festival of the Bai People

On the 25th day of the 6th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the Bai ethnic minority celebrate the annual Torch Festival in their own special way. They wear fancy costumes and butcher pigs and sheep for a feast, and children dye their fingernails red with a kind of flower root. On the eve of the festival, people get everything ready for the big celebration. They set up a large torch about 20 meters high made of stalks and pine branches. On the top of the torch sits a large flag. Several small flags are fixed around the torch, printed with auspicious Chinese characters hoping for peaceful land, favorable weather, a bumper harvest, and abundant farm animals. Fruits, fireworks, and lanterns are all festively hung around the torch.

The next day, people start the day by visiting their ancestors' tombs and hold a memorial ceremony for them, bringing offerings and burning small torches and papers that symbolize money, to be used in the afterworld. The people also have dinner earlier than usual. After dinner, both the young and the old gather at the village square to admire the big torch and go horse riding. Before they ride away, each person goes around the torch 3 times. Those who don't ride horses go home to enjoy the imitation torches in front of their houses and then elect the most beautiful torch of the village. Young mothers carry their babies on their back and walk around the winning village torch 3 times to pray for the health of their babies.

At nightfall, the senior citizens of the village lead the others to offer sacrifices to the torch and to kowtow. After this is done, several young men climb up the torch and light it. In no time, a flame rages, accompanied by strong drumbeats and the sound of firecrackers. As the fire continues, broken bamboo sticks from the burning torch fall to the ground, and people try their best to catch them. Those who catch the sticks are thought of as lucky and are warmly congratulated. The lucky ones then entertain the other villagers at their homes with cigarettes, wine, and tea. The scenes from these traditions are spectacular indeed, sure to create memories for a lifetime.

Finally, the festival reaches its climax with the traditional torch playing. Young men and women each hold a torch. When they meet someone, they scatter colophony powder onto the torch fire and the flares blaze upward. It is believed that this expels whammy from their bodies. Then, the young people go to the farms and fields with the torch in the hope of eliminating pests. Near the very end of the celebration, people lay their torches on the ground and set them on fire. Now it is time for everyone to jump over the fire 3 times, one by one. They jump and pray to the god of fire for security and good luck. Finally, they go home filled with excitement and the 3-day celebration concludes.

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