Rao San Ling
Rao San Ling Day 1: Sheng Yuan Temple

The Rao San Ling festival began on May 13th, 2012 at Cheng Huang Temple at the South Gate of Dali’s Old Town. Throughout the morning, members of the Bai community participating in prayer, chants, singing, and burned material offerings. Many of these offerings signify good fortune, health, and fertility. Inside the temple, prayer, chanting, and donations continue surrounded by Ming Dynasty walls.

From here, Bai people will continue on their journey to Sheng Yuan temple. This is by far the most populated and fervent component of Rao San Ling. The lengthy cobblestone-like road leading to the temple is lined with all sorts of vendors. Horse-drawn buggies will shuttle people into the heart of the festival for a fee for those unwilling to venture on a 30-minute walk through the crowd. Many of the vendors sell cultural items related to the festival, such as the small drums, symbols, and noisemakers used by the Bai people. Trinkets and stickers crafted from shells and multi-colored fabric, mostly pink, yellow, green, red, and white, worn by those paying homage to the Benzhu and Patron Gods in each village’s temple are found along the way to the temple. There is also boundless quantities of food, fruits, candies, livestock, musical instruments, and other material items to purchase throughout the area.

Closer to the temple, there are families, children and adults enjoying communal meals and live performances of traditional music before proceeding further. Within the temple’s walls, groups of Bai gather together for prayer, chanting, and giving offerings to the Patron Gods and Benzhu. It’s also common to see beggars and people with disabilities throughout the festival grounds and near the temple. Specific to Sheng Yuan temple is the Temple horns that would be played in tandem throughout the afternoon. Offerings to the Gods often include food, such as bao zi (steamed buns) and rice cakes, incense, chickens and roosters, money, and sometimes cigarettes. Throughout the festival, but especially further away from the temple, groups of the Bai community sing traditional songs of love and courtship. These verses are often improvised to a consistent melody and hint at potential attraction between the singers.

Outside the main area of the festival and Sheng Yuan temple, groups of folk musicians and festival goers join together in dancing and creating music. You may notice a few common themes among the dancers and musicians. There are three dances common throughout Rao San Ling. The first involves the rattle sticks, which is seen in the later part of the video below. Two other dances, seen on the second and third day, include colorful hats and fans as well as live music and singing. An interesting and most likely recent occurrence is the combination of traditional instruments with contemporary hip mounted amplifiers. In some cases, these amplifiers are used to play additional that musicians will play over, much like a drum machine or sampled audio in some Westernized culture.

As the afternoon progressed to evening, our team made our way down the long road, past the temple, stages, and vendors to find a bus back to Dali’s Old Town. Even though we ventured away from the Sheng Yuan temple to the next destination, the first day of Rao San Ling continued into the night. See the full photo set on Flickr for additional media from ChinaVine on Rao San Ling.