Navigating the labyrinthine of commerce at an old Chinese religious festival.
In the last week of April, the fair came to town in Dali.
There were games, fried foods, “snake women,” horse racing, music, and crappy trinkets for sale. It was a Chinese carnival. The occasion was the full moon in the third lunar month. That’s when the local Bai ethnic people hold their biggest festival of the year: San Yue Jie, or Third Month Street.
When a friend first told me about San Yue Jie, I thought it was San Yue Festival. In Chinese, the word “jie” (节) means “festival” while “jie” (街) means “street.” They have the same sound, and most festivals are called “festivals.” But San Yue Jie is called Third Month Street because the festival takes place largely on the Third Month Street, a place where merchants come to set up stalls selling food and items.
By now, the festival has extended to many more streets than just Third Month Street. Western Yu’er Road and the road parallel to Third Month Street are also packed with stalls. Yu’er Road is the main road in Dali, but the western portion of the road is mobbed with people and stalls, turned essentially into a pedestrian street, and cars slowly drive behind lines of people. National brands set up promotional tables at spots all around the ancient town. (It’s a good time to enjoy free samples!) Merchants come across the border from Burma, and pretty college girls get hired from across the country to promote various brands.
It’s not just a market festival, though. It also has horse racing and Bai traditional music performances. There is a stage in the main square of Dali Ancient City and another stage at the top of Zhonghe Hill with music performances all week. At the horse racing arena, they have horse races all week, and also skill riding displays. This year, a group of motorcyclists came from Australia to put on a motocross freestyle show.
It’s one of the largest temple fairs in China. According to a paper put out by the Canadian Center of Science and Education’s Asian Social Science department, total trade during the week-long festival surpasses 800 million yuan.
Temple fairs sprung up out of Buddhist religious festivals. When masses of people descended on Buddhist temples, so did merchants hoping to make a profit. By now, people go for the merchants themselves, and the religious aspect of the festival has faded.
The original basis behind the festival was to celebrate Guanyin, a warrior who saved Dali from a flesh-eating devil. Guanyin is represented in Buddhism as the bodhisattvah Avalokiteśara, and many cultures believe different legends surrounding this deity. In Dali culture, Guanyin fought off the devil Luosha during the 7th century, and since then the Dali people went to San Yue Street, officially known as Guayin Street, to sacrifice to Guanyin.
Now many believe a different legend, reflecting a more commercial version of San Yue Jie. On the 15th day of the third month, with the full moon out, the Third Princess of the Dragon King looked up at the sky and remembered about moon goddess Chang E’s street festival. She and her husband flew to the moon on a dragon. They were amazed by all the items on display at Chang E’s street festival, but they weren’t allowed to buy any, so they returned to earth and hosted a festival of their own on San Yue Jie.
Walking up San Yue Jie today, you can buy a lot of things: snacks from across the country, traditional Tibetan medicine, toy guns, apparel, “Sansnmg” and “Nckia” knockoff cell phones, iPhone branded polo shirts, CDs hawked by musicians. When a fire damaged the packaging of some soap and shampoo products in Kunming, a vendor took them to San Yue Jie and laid them out on a table. Beggars also found a way to make the most of the crowds. One beggar sat down in the middle of Yu’er Road and started writing calligraphy on a long sheet of paper. As the paper got rolled out, it became covered in piles of 1 RMB notes.
Walking up the street, I was most interested in the rice wine vendors giving away free samples. Not that rice wine tastes good, but it is wine, and it is free…
I had never tasted Maotai before. It’s the most famous brand of rice wine, the brand that is often used for giving gifts and/or bribing officials. Maotai went down smoother and had a subtle tasty flavor to it. I don’t know if that was the rice wine or the reputation, but it was good. Both the rice wine and the girls promoting it came from Guizhou, a poor province to the northeast of Yunnan famous for Maotai, poverty, minorities, and scenic waterfalls.
At the top of San Yue Street, the market stretched out into the grass and completely became a food market. There were restaurants with headless donkeys outside and yak meat hanging from the ceiling. There was an even larger selection of wine. There were also vendors selling Tibetan qingke wine, which tastes better than rice wine. I tried them all.
The two rival “cool tea” companies were squaring off all over town. At the top of the market, Wanglaoji and Jiaduobao both had tables set up. The two brands had a trademark dispute resolved in such a way that they now use identical red packaging and advertising slogans. When I went to the Wanglaoji table, I said, “Jiaduobao is only 4 RMB. Why are you charging 5 RMB?” The sales girl told me Wanglaoji was the real thing but gave me a discount. At the Jiaduobao table, multiple sales girls surrounding me when they saw I was carrying a Wanglaoji bag and said, “No! Jiaduobao is the real one!”
Inside the horse racing arena there was another cool tea battle emerging. The advertising slogan by Wanglaoji is, “If you fear fire, then drink Wanglaoji!” (“怕上火，就喝王老吉!”) Now there’s a new tea in town, and it is called, “Don’t Fear Fire” (不怕火). They were promoting it in the horse racing arena, Wanglaoji’s and Bu Pa Huo’s ads seemingly creating a dialog.
Before the races started, a horse riding team from Shangri-La, a Tibetan city in northern Yunnan that used to be known as Zhongdian, warmed up the crowd with trick riding. With their horses decked out in multicolored flags, they rode standing up and lying on their sides.
The races started with the top tier racers competing for the regional bragging rights and continued for two hours. Afterwards, there was a target shooting show. Riders mounted horses with guns and sped down the track shooting at balloons. The Bai people have traditionally engaged in hunting.
Back in the town square, Bai people were performing traditional songs in front of the “Foreigner Street” gate. For some of their songs there was a man and woman singing back and forth, a Bai traditional style called antiphonal singing. The instruments are covered with python skin. At night, a group of Bai people danced in the street in a circle.
The festivities continued for a week. It gets kind of tiresome walking up San Yue Road with packs of people moving slowly for tens of meters on end. One local waitress in Dali said, “I don’t like San Yue Jie. My phone was stolen on the street.” Some people think that it’s just one big annoying market.
Most places in China have temple fairs during Spring Festival that are packed on the day after New Year’s eve. In Shanghai, the “temple fair” was at Yuyuan Garden, and it had all the people of temple fair, but none of the allure. In fact, Yuyuan Garden has already been turned into what amounts to a permanent temple fair. There are stores selling trinkets and malls selling jade jewelry in and around Yuyuan, so there were no merchants there with their own tables for the temple fair in Shanghai, nor were there traditional music performances or games. It was just shopping at existing shops.
For San Yue Jie, they bring a spectacle you can’t see any other time of the year.