Reporter's Diary: Xichang Torch Festival, What a fiery experience
Wei Lynn Tang

The Yi people, one of China's 56 ethnic groups, are known to be fire-worshippers. This goes way back to a folk legend, that made people believe fire has the power to ward off evil spirits, kill pests and thereby ensure a good harvest.

At the Torch Festival in Xichang, the biggest festive occasion for the Yi group, people of all ages are dancing and singing around bonfires. They also bring that fiery spirit to the stage to compete in wrestling, bullfighting, arrow shooting and beauty pageants.

The fun-packed festival lasted three days, from July 26 to 28, and it intertwines a bigger agenda: ensuring this 200-year-old tradition is not lost.

At the beauty pageant, for example, contestants are judged based on how much they know and understand their ethnicity.


"During my mother's time, pageant contestants were observed and judged by the elderly, a door-to-door affair, literally, based on their physical appearance, behavior at home, and morality," Asu Jieya, one of the 60 contestants, told me.

"But now, the criteria's have changed. We are tested on our understanding of ethnic culture, such as lacquer and embroidery. This beauty contest has made me realize the beauty of Yi women on a deeper level," she added. This shows traditions have to keep up with times.

For Jisha Yizhu, who loved wrestling since he was a little kid, participating in the annual wrestling contest is a question of honor, while the cash prize that is winking for the winner is just an additional perk.

"Wrestling is our traditional culture. I have been participating in this contest for three straight years, and I'm aiming to be the champion, as I believe by winning, the road ahead will be easier for me. I can then make more friends," he said.


Speaking of making new friends, the Torch Festival is also historically known to present an excellent opportunity to meet your future spouse. According to Boshi Aga, honorary president of Xichang Yi Society, the festival has become a new Valentine's Day after China's reform and opening-up.

"Young men and women can date without traditional taboos during the three days," she said.

Seeing families and friends coming out full force to support their county mates on the competition stage, strangers and friends mingling unhinderedly, holding hands to dance freely around bonfires through the night, I suppose the atmosphere does call for it somewhat.

People dance around a bonfire holding hands in the Torch Festival. /VCG Photo

People dance around a bonfire holding hands in the Torch Festival. /VCG Photo

Dating possibilities aside, the Torch Festival is a time of togetherness. Fu Xindi, a local Yi woman, said no matter where she is, she would always go back home during this festival.

"I regard it as a great chance to get together with my family. Just like the Mid-autumn festival for Han people, and Thanksgiving Day for Americans, it's really important to me," Fu Xindi said.

Besides carrying forth the tradition of holding fire torches to parade the villages and present a platform to showcase the Yi's best talents, it's always lovely to see how festivals like these can continuously bring people from all ethnicities closer together.

(Video by Wu Siyi)