Bai jiama from Shangguan

David LeffmanUncategorized Leave a Comment

In 2018 I visited Zhang Ruilong (张瑞龙), a sixth-generation carver of Bai minority jiama woodblock prints, at his studio out in the countryside near Shangguan, north of Dali old town in Yunnan. This is probably the last area in all China to use jiama prints on a daily basis as part of their Buddhist, Daoist and local Benzhu folk religious practice, calling on deities for protection against physical or supernatural threats.

A mud-brick Mongol-era tower not far from Zhang Ruilong’s studio, in the countryside at Shangguan.

At Mr Zhang’s studio I bought an album of jiama, several hundred prints held together with cord stitching, along with a wooden printing block featuring the White Tiger one side, Xuanwu as a turtle on the other. The designs are fairly small at 12cm x 15cm, printed in black on paper hand-made out the back of the studio by his ageing parents.

Two sides of a single woodblock by Zhang Ruilong: White Tiger of the West and Xuanwu, God of the North

While I had a general chat with Mr Zhang about the history of his family’s business and the way it was coping with modern pressures, there obviously wasn’t time to ask about the folklore behind each deity – there must be hundreds in the local pantheon – or exactly how the prints were used.

Ancient Occult Jiama of the Bai Minority (古老神秘的白族甲马)

Then a few weeks back in Kunming I came across Ancient Occult Jiama of the Bai Minority (古老神秘的白族甲马). There’s a good amount of solid infomation inside for a Chinese book of this sort, which catalogues the many Bai gods and illustrates their biographies with prints, including some by Zhang Ruilong.

So, here are a few Bai prints from my own collection, with information distilled from Ancient Occult Jiama.

One-legged Wulang

獨脚五郎

Originally a general in the local Nanzhao kingdom (738–902 AD) who lost his right foot in battle. A moral and honest man, he fell out with his corrupt ruler and became a hermit in the mountains, helping out local people. Worshipped after his death as a benevolent deity in the Weishan area south of Dali, Wulang is invoked at weddings, funerals, times of illness, and in the wake of natural disasters.

Xiao Spirit

梟神

Owl-like xiao are considered evil birds. Hearing one calling repeatedly in the middle of the night means that there will be a disaster in the village; if there’s unaccountable trouble in a household, or an elderly relative has been taken sick, it’s often believed that a xiao is responsible. A “xiao spirit” is a deity who can exorcise these birds, invoked by burning a pair of these prints. In some places xiao spirit and white tiger prints are stitched into babies’ hats to ward off evil. 

Disperser of Evil Spirits

丧煞之神 五方五煞

Male and female evil ghosts might capture the souls of men and women after death. These defensive jiama need to be burned with other complementary prints at funerals so that the dead reach the afterlife unmolested. Also used if a person has been frightened and becomes unconcious, to chase away evil spirits. The prints are usually used at home first and then burned outside.

Mahakala

大黑天神

Mahakala is one of the guardian gods of Tantric Buddhism, a fierce blue deity with three faces and six arms, who wears a necklace of skulls and has the power to subdue demons. His hands hold swords, a human head, a ewe, and elephant skins which are spread behind his back. He is a major deity in Dali, Heqing, Eryuan, Jianchuan and other counties, worshipped as a god who drives away evil spirits, suppresses ghosts, and protects the environment from disasters. The jiama is used to invoke his defensive power, and is usually burned with other complementary prints.

Swordsman

刀兵

There are different interpretations for this print: in some places they represent defensive warriors who chase off demons; elsewhere they depict “lonely ghosts”, the spirits of soldiers killed in battle, who prey on the living. Either way they are burned in exorcisms, either in the home, in temples or out in the wilds. In Weishan, south of Dali, these jiama are also used to diffuse family feuds.

The Sun

太阳

The Bai revere heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, and these deities are invoked with jiama at all important events, including Spring Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, when building a house, moving to a new home, getting married and having a child. During ceremonies at Xizhou township’s Butterfly Spring, people also stick little paper sun and moon symbols to their temples.  

White Tiger Spirit

白虎之神

The White Tiger guards the western direction in Chinese geomancy, usually paired with the Green Dragon of the east; the two are essential for a range of exorcism ceremonies and funeral sacrifices. In the Weishan district the White Tiger also brings harmony to fractious households, while around Eryuan it is believed that the White Tiger, Crying God and Taisui are all unlucky deities.

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