More than a Decoration!

January 22, 2019  By Fan Wenjun  Editor: Wei Xuanyi, Lei Yang


Dali, which has a history of more than 2,000 years, is a well-known tourist attraction in China. Dali has many ethnic Bai villages, which are scattered throughout the region of Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake (a must-see scenic spot in Yunnan Province). The traditional dwellings of the Bai ethnic group, and the surrounding natural landscape, are as beautiful as Chinese ink-landscape paintings. The good living environment has helped nourish the good folk culture of the Bai people. Inscribing family traditions on the screen walls is one of the folk customs of the Bai people.

More than Walls

Bai people attach great importance to the decorations of their dwellings. The screen wall, which faces the front gate, is an essential architectural element of the Bai's traditional dwellings. The screen wall is also a common sight in the traditional buildings of members of the Han ethnic group. According to legend, ancient Chinese believed ghosts might visit their homes at night. They hoped to be safe and ward off danger, so they built walls to prevent ghosts from entering through their doors. That was the origin of the screen wall.

Bai people decorate the screen walls in their courtyards. They decorate the walls with calligraphy and ink and wash paintings. The calligraphies provide details of the families' traditions. Bai people hope their descendants will understand the meaning of their families' traditions.

Family Culture



The inscriptions on the screen walls often indicate the last names of the families. Nearly all of the people can guess the last names of the families from their family traditions. For example, the inscription "Qinglian Yifeng" implies the family is surnamed Li. Qianlian refers to Li Bai, a world-famous poet of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Li's hao (similar to literary name) was Qinglian Jushi. So, the inscription suggests Li's family hopes to inherit good virtues from Li Bai.

The inscription "Gongbu Jiasheng" implies the family is surnamed Du. Gongbu refers to Du Fu, a prominent poet during the Tang Dynasty. Du is referred to as "poet sage" by Chinese. Du is also called Du Gongbu by later generations. So, the inscription suggests Du's family hopes to have fame as good as Du Fu. Bai people connect their families’ names with distinguished ancestors, as they hope to inherit the good virtues from their world-famous ancestors.

Some Bai people do not connect their families' traditions with world-famous ancestors. However, the meanings of their families' traditions are still important. "Bairen Jiafeng" is the family tradition of Zhang's family. The tradition was derived from the story of Zhang Gongyi, who was able to manage his household in a good way. When Zhang was managing the household, several hundred family members lived together in harmony. According to legend, Emperor Gaozong, of the Tang Dynasty, once visited Zhang's family. Emperor Gaozong asked Zhang how he could manage his family in such a good way. Zhang wrote "忍" (which means tolerance) nearly 100 times to the emperor, as he thought being considerate and tolerant of other family members was the secret to a harmonious family. Tolerance was also a tradition of Zhang's family. So, the inscription suggested members of Zhang's family hoped to live in harmony.

The inscription "Qingbai Chuanjia" is the family tradition of Yang's family. The  tradition refers to Yang Zhen, a government official during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). Yang was free from corruption, and he asked his family to economize food and clothing. Some people once suggested Yang should buy some buildings or stores for his descendants. He refused, because he believed the most valuable heritage for his descendants was his unsullied reputation. The inscription suggests Bai people hope to inherit an honest and upright spirit from their ancestors.

Inheriting, Promoting

A family is a cell of society, and family traditions determine the social atmosphere. In recent years, women's federations, at all levels, in Dali, have looked for the family traditions on the screen walls in the prefecture. The women's federations have collected the families' traditions, and they have promoted the meanings of the families' traditions, including gender equality, respecting the elderly and looking after the children, being thrifty in managing a household and living harmony with neighbors.

"In the past, I thought 'family tradition' was abstract. I could not see it, and I could not explain it clearly. Through the publicity of the women's federation, I have realized the qualities of modesty, frugality and hard work of my parents make up the family tradition of our family. I will benefit from the good virtues all my life," says Luo Xuelian, a resident in Xiangyun, a county in Dali.

"In the past, my mother looked after my grandmother. I learned from my mother. Now, my parents are old, and I am looking after them. Even though my life is busy, I know the true meaning of family and love in a better way. Accompanying family members is the family tradition of my family," written by Chen Xiufeng, president of the women's federation of Weishan County (in Dali).

(Source: Women of China English Monthly November 2018 Issue)

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