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Sword Ladder Climbing Festival of Lisu Ethnic Minority in Tengchong

Sword Ladder Climbing Festival(刀杆节) of Lisu Ethnic Minority

Sword Ladder 傈僳族刀杆节

16 March 2016 in Lunma, Tengchong

Ever climbed up a swaying pole over thirty-six sharpened machete-blades on your bare feet? Well, if not you are not cut out to be a Lisu man. In Lunma village, every year the Hua Lisu men climb the sword pole on the occasion of the Daogan, or Sword Pole, festival. Yes, it hurts. No, no-one really get's injured. How come? Well, you have to be a Lisu man to do it.

When the balmy spring weather arrives in the mountains of Tengchong and Lianghe, the Hua Lisu begin to anticipate their greatest annual event-Daoganjie, or Climbing the Sword Ladder. Held the 8th day of the 2nd lunar month, preceded the night before by the feat of running through the "sea of fire," the festival honours the Ming frontier general Wang Ji. Lisu men at that time were employed as troops in the border area and raised to value courage in warfare. General Wang Ji had a reputation for being so brave he could walk through fire and climb on swords. With Daoganjie, the most valiant men of the village emulate their historical hero.


On the night before the sword ladder is raised, fires burn on the outskirts of Lisu villages, creating the "sea of fire" of hot, burning coals. Removing their shoes and invoking all the potential powers of mythic emulation, Lisu men dash across the glowing embers. Then, having made their run, they display the unscorched soles of their feet.


The next day the ladder goes up about noon. Meanwhile, on the adjacent grounds, a carnival atmosphere prevails among the snack stalls and the dice trays, where people lay wagers on the fall of three big dice as they, are released from their position above the tray. When the ladder has been erected and secured to the stakes on the ground, the next task, which takes over an hour, is to fix the machetes, sharp side up, on the rungs. Some time after the completion, without any fanfare, the climbing begins.


The first one up is an older man, dressed in his best, with a large turban, bandoleers of cowries, a silver-encrusted bag draped over his shoulder, a sword hanging from his belt, and of course barefoot. Slowly he ascends the 60 swords, reaches the platform at the top and yanks a couple of the flags, lights a string of firecrackers and hurls the flagpoles to the ground.


Even before he's begun his descent the next one is climbing up. About midway up the ladder is a narrow platform. As one descends he pauses at this to let the one who is coming up pass, then continues going down. When he reaches the last rung he proudly shows off both of his uncut, unscathed, unbloodied soles. The priest at the base of the ladder rubs the soles with ashes and gives the climber a small cup of refreshing liquor. No public applause accompanies the completion of the performance and in fact only a dozen or so men will make the attempt. One can only imagine their internal satisfaction when they succeed. It is one of the most amazing, inexplicable feats performed at any minority festival in the province.


None of those in attendance is oblivious of the dangers involved in this act. Perhaps the crowd's silence is inspired by awe. But just to be sure, the chief priest may be seen ritually gesticulating to ward off any threats to the climbers' safety. When the last of the day's heroes makes his descent, the priest, some of the.earlier climbers and their wives, form a ring and dance around the ladder, while traditional Lisu music blares over the speakers. The dance lasts about 20 minutes and at its conclusion the remnants of the crowd disperse for home. The ladder will be taken down the following day.

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