CHAPTER XXVI. CHINESE NEW YEAR AT YUNG-CHANG
The last half of the expedition began January 13 when we left Ta-li Fu with a caravan of thirty miles for Yung-chang, eight days' travel to the south. The mafus although they had promised faithfully to come "at daylight" did not arrive until nearly noon and in consequence it was necessary to camp at Hsia-kuan at the foot of the lake.
We improved our time there in hunting about for skins and finally purchased two fine leopards and a tiger. The latter had been brought from the Tonking frontier. There were a number of Tibetans wandering about the market place and in the morning a caravan of at least two hundred horses followed by twenty or thirty Tibetans, passed into the city while it was yet gray dawn. They were bringing tea from P'u-erh and S'su-mao in the south of the province and although they had already been nearly a month upon their journey there was still many long weeks of travel before them ere they reached the wind-blown steppes of their native land.
The trip to Yung-chang proved uninteresting and uneventful. We crossed a succession of dry, thinly forested mountains from 7,000 to 8,000 feet high which near their summits were often clothed with a thick growth of rhododendron trees. The beautiful red flowers flashed like fire balls among the green leaves, peach trees were in full blossom and in some spots the dry hills seemed about to break forth in the full glory of their spring verdure. We crossed the Mekong near a village called Shia-chai on a picturesque chain suspension bridge of a type which is not unusual in the southern and western part of the province. Several heavy iron chains are firmly fastened to huge rock piers on opposite sides of the river and the roadway formed by planks laid upon them. Although the bridge shakes and swings in a rather alarming manner when a caravan is crossing, it is perfectly safe if not too heavily loaded.
In the afternoon of January 21, we rode down the mountain to the great Yung-chang plain, and for two hours trotted over a hard dirt road. The plain is eighteen miles long by six miles wide and except for its scattered villages, is almost entirely devoted to paddy fields. The city itself includes about five thousand houses. It is exceedingly picturesque and is remarkable for its long, straight, and fairly clean streets which contrast strongly with those of the usual Chinese town. At the west, but still within the city walls, is a picturesque wooded hill occupied almost exclusively by temples.
We ourselves camped between two ponds in the courtyard of a large and exceptionally clean temple just outside the south gate of the city. It was the Chinese New Year and Wu told us that for several days at least it would be impossible to obtain another caravan or expect the natives to do any work whatever. It was a very pleasant place in which to stay although we chafed at the enforced delay, but we made good use of our time in photographing and developing motion picture film, collecting birds and making various excursions.
Chinese New Year is always interesting to a foreigner and at Yung-chang we saw many of the customs attending its celebration. It is a time of feasting and merry making and no native, if he can possibly avoid it, will work on that day. Chinese families almost always live under one roof but should any male member be absent at this season the circumstances must be exceptional to prevent him from returning to his home.
It is customary, too, for brides to revisit their mother's house at New Year's. On our way to Yung-chang and for several days after leaving the city, we were continually passing young women mounted on mules or horses and accompanied by servants returning to their homes. New clothes are a leading feature of this season and the dresses of the brides and young matrons were usually of the most unexpected hues for, according to our conception of color, the Chinese can scarcely be counted conspicuous for their good taste. Purple and blue, orange and red, pink and lavender clash distressingly, but are worn with inordinate pride.
These visits are not an unalloyed pleasure to the bride's family. Dr. Smith says in "Chinese Characteristics":
When she goes to her mother's home, she goes on a strictly business
basis. She takes with her it may be a quantity of sewing for her
husband's family, which the wife's family must help her get through
with. She is accompanied on each of these visits by as many of her
children as possible, both to have her take care of them and to have
them out of the way when she is not at hand to look after them, and
most especially to have them fed at the expense of the family of the
maternal grandmother for as long a time as possible. In regions where
visits of this sort are frequent, and where there are many daughters in
a family, their constant raids on the old home are a source of
perpetual terror to the whole family, and a serious tax on the common
resources. [Footnote: "Chinese Characteristics," by Arthur H. Smith, p.
Religious rites and ceremonies form a conspicuous part in the New Year's celebration. At this time the "Kitchen God," according to current superstition, returns to heaven to render an account of the household's behavior. The wily Chinese, however, first rubs the lips of the departing deity with candy in order to "sweeten" his report of any evil which he may have witnessed during the year.