Narration of the increasingly popular mud festival in southwest China
Monihei （摸你黑）is a mud festival held in southwestern Yunnan, specifically in Cangyuan, a city bordering Myanmar. The tradition of this festival is based on spreading mud on people to spread health and prosperity. It’s believed that the more muddy you get, the better.
Held every May 1 and 2, this festival comes from the Wa ethical minority, one of 56 ethnic groups in China. The name itself could not be more literal: “Mo”（莫） means “touch”, “Ni” （你）en this case means “you” and “Hei”（黑） means “black”. There means something like: “I touch you and you get black” or directly, “I put you black”.
Characteristics of the Wa ethnic minority
The Wa are an ethnic group from the border territories between Myanmar and China. Their estimated population is 1.2 million people, of whom 800,000 are in Myanmar and 400,000 in the Chinese province of Yunnan.
They have a reputation for being honest and good-hearted people and are characterized for being mainly farmers. They show it proudly in many of their dances staging the day to day of their rural life working in the countryside. The Wa ethnic minority are polytheists and believe in various gods related to nature.
Although in China it is not allowed now, formerly and even in some corners of Myanmar, this ethnic minority has traditionally always practiced polygamy. For example, a friend of the Wa ethnic minority told me that her grandfather has two wives and that her father also has two wives.
There is another aspect that is even more peculiar than the previous ones. In the past, they were known for the practice of cutting off the heads of their enemies and using them as sacrifices so that the crops would be fertile. Later the head of the victim was placed in the square, in the form of victory and warning. This practice was banned in China and replaced by buffalo heads that can still be seen in some villages of this ethnic minority.
How to go from Kunming to Cangyuan
There are several ways to get to Cangyuan. The most comfortable of course is to go by plane. Cangyuan has a small airport and the flight from Kunming takes less than an hour. Flight prices can vary from 500Rmb to 1500 (70 to 200 euros) depending on when you buy the tickets.
The other way to go is by sleeper bus, although it is not at all advisable. The ticket costs 200Rmb (25 euros). In theory you are told that it is 8 hours trip to Lincang, which is a city of the autonomous prefecture of Dehong. Then from there you have to take another bus to Cangyuan which takes 4h more for 80Rmb.
We went by bus because the tickets were very expensive. It turned out that the reality was far from what we had been told. Halfway there, the driver stopped for 5 hours to rest. We left Kunming at 7pm and arrived in Lincang at 11:30am. 16 hours or so of travel.
When we arrived in Lincang we were tired of so much bus and we decided to take a taxi. The taxi cost us 500Rmb. It was also a 4 hours trip but if you are 4 it is definitely worth it. We arrived in Cangyuan at 5 pm after 22h travelling. That said, it is not advisable to travel by bus.
Monihei: Where to stay in Cangyuan?
There are a few hotels in Cangyuan but no backpacker hostels. The hotels are 4-5 stars and very expensive at that time. Also, if you don’t book in advance you won’t find any rooms available.
For the Monihei festival what the locals do is to rent their houses or loose rooms. This type of rental is called Nongjiale（农家乐）, which means “rural tourism or agrotourism”. The prices are usually around 100 or 150Rmb (12-20 euros) per bed. We were lucky and found a room with 4 beds right next to the square where the festival was held by 80Rmb the bed. (If you are interested in going to Monihei, you can ask me. I contacted quite a few families who rented their house and I keep all the phones.)
Monihei: Traditional dances and bullfights
Every day of Monihei, in the mornings, you can go to witness bullfights next to the main square of the city. They are also very typical of this area. The entrance costs 50Rmb, and although it is not a very pleasant spectacle to see, it is very curious. A lot of people make bets. They put the bulls one in front of the other so that they fight and the first one that puts aside the head is the loser and thus the fight ends.
At 2:30 a.m. the mud party begins. The party takes place in the city square. It is a giant square where barrels full of mud are brought and cutlery is placed around the square.
I recommend you to go a little earlier to see a traditional show that the Wa do: “The dance of the hair”. In this dance a lot of girls from the Wa minority dance moving their long hair while the men play a traditional hollow wooden drum.
At night people go to Hulu XiaoCheng （葫芦小城）, an area of the city that is very well cared for and retains a more traditional style. There you can go to see dance shows, live music or, if you feel like it, dance traditional dances around the square.
Monihei: The Mud Festival
At the end of the show, they count down and uncover the mud barrels. Everyone starts throwing mud at each other and in 2 minutes you’re all muddy.
To throw mud they give you some small cardboard bowls. In 10 minutes they are destroyed so you end up picking up mud with your hand or with what you catch out there. (Like water bottles or some other bucket). When the mud from the barrel runs out, people take it from the floor and keep throwing it or rubbing it all over you.
The party lasts as long as the mud dries. The first day was cloudy and the mud lasted about two hours. We were throwing mud at each other like little children. On the second day there was a shining sun and a lot of heat, so the mud dried immediately. In less than an hour there was no mud left.
At the end of the party you can shower in some bamboo showers that have been placed outside the square or directly in the river. During the departure from the square to the showers took us about an hour because everyone wanted to take pictures with the laowais (foreigners in Chinese). We were the only foreigners so we got a lot of attention.
Here’s a little video I shot with my cell phone inside the mud festival:
How’s the party in China’s countryside?
Every night at the end of the Monihei mud festival and after a good shower we would go to the square to dance some traditional dances.
When we got tired, we would go to an old friend’s bar. We stayed up late drinking and getting to know the sympathetic and humble Wa people first hand. To give an example, in three days, they wouldn’t let us pay anything.
The last night, to say goodbye to the festival as it deserved, we cheered up and after having a few drinks in the bar we went to the only discotheque in town. If in the town square we were attracting attention, here things were getting out of hand. In short, we met half a discotheque and not only were we not allowed to pay for a single drink, but we were “forced” to drink as much as we could and even more.
The last day in Cangyuan we went to Wengding (翁丁村) a village on the outskirts of the city that has the privilege of being the last remaining tribal village in all of China. But that’s another story and I’ll tell you about it in my next article.
To finish I leave you another video of a friendly channel where you can see more widely each of the events of the mud festival:
We’re younger than we’ll ever be.
I hope you liked my article about Monihei or at least you find it useful in case you ever decide to take a trip to Yunnan. If so, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or subscribe to the blog to read future articles.