Travellers in the mountains of Chiang Rai Province can tell from a distance when they are near a traditional Akha village. Standing taller than any house will be the village swing, or at any rate its frame, left up since the previous year’s Swing Festival. No other people in the north build or use a swing. For the Akha its use, for three days during the rainy season, is part of the most colourful of its twelve annual festivals.
In their own language the Akha call the Swing Festival Yehkuja, which translates as ‘Eating Bitter Rice’. This doesn’t refer to the taste as to the fact that at this time of year, another month or more until harvest, the people are beginning to run out of last year’s rice crop. And the rain, if it hasn’t already, will start getting heavier soon. Basically this is the last chance before the monsoon ends to relax a bit and enjoy life.
The Akha use a calendar with a 12-day cycle. As in China, each day is represented by an animal and certain rituals are associated with certain days.
Most big Akha festivals begin on a buffalo day. The Swing Festival starts nine full cycles—108 days—after the ceremonial First Planting of the rice crop on a buffalo day in late spring. As this can vary from one mountain to another, or even one elevation to another, it often happens that in a given year one can witness the Swing Festival two or three times. Most traditional villages schedule it sometime in September. This year the festival falls on either 1st or 13th September, depending on the village.
As the festival activity includes ritual offerings to the family ancestral spirits, on the morning of the first day the women dress up in their full traditional costume, even when they don’t usually wear it, and gather water for this purpose from the village’s consecrated water source. Each family makes its own offering privately at their homes. The ancestral altar is in a corner of the women’s side of the house. The offerings consist of bits of cooked food, water and rice whisky. After the rituals the women begin preparing the feast.
Meanwhile the men cut poles for a new swing frame. The next day the village spiritual leader (dzoema) supervises the work of putting it up. The new frame must use at least two of the postholes of the old frame and its shadow must not fall on any house. Men secure the four poles, tie them together at the top and suspend a long rope from it, with a loop at the bottom end. The dzoema makes modest offerings at each posthole to the earth spirits, to avert any accidents. When all is ready the dzoema gives the swing a test ride and then anyone who wants to can now ride the swing for this and the following two days. Men take a turn by standing with the left foot in the loop, getting an initial shove by a friend and then kicking with the right leg to swing. This is not so easy, actually, and sometimes the rider only spins around and never swings. But some of the young men are particularly skilled at this, though they don’t have any opportunity to practise during the year. They kick so high they swing up to the level of the top of the frame and onlookers fret that they might actually loop the frame. But that never seems to happen as no Swing Festival accidents have been recorded. By contrast, the women insert a plank through the loop and, carefully tucking the skirt behind the rope, swing by sitting on the plank and pumping with both legs.
Getting a push from behind or an assist from a friend pulling a lead rope attached to the swing, the women, especially the younger ones, tend to swing as high as they can go before they get too dizzy to keep it up. The older ones may not try to go very high, but instead rock back and forth several metres while they sing plaintive old songs about the loss of their land long ago in the plains of southern China.
Besides the main village swing, families construct smaller swings in their own yards for use of the children. Some villages also erect a four-seat Ferris wheel and place it next to the swing. On festival nights the traditional village dance ground (d?h?w) is likely to be active, with young folks in full costume performing a set of Akha songs and dances. On this second night, too, a troupe of youths, usually mostly girls, perform the rhythmic pounding of bamboo tubes, house to house, all night long, finishing up in the morning at the dzoema’s house, where they are subsequently treated to a meal.
Because the women on this occasion dress up in all their best Akha clothing and ornaments the Swing Festival is also known as Women’s New Year. The traditional New Year which falls in late December is known as the Men’s New Year. Both festivals are the two times a year an Akha female may make changes in her basic costume components. The first change comes at round age 12, when the girl exchanges her child’s cap for that of a girl. The next change comes a few years later, when she begins to don the jejaw—the beaded sash that hangs down the front of her skirt and keeps it from flying up in the breeze. The last change, in mid-adolescence, is to start wearing the fancier, bigger, adult woman’s head-dress.
In addition to the new ‘official’ status of full womanhood, the Akha girl on Swing Festival days may have new ornaments to wear. These could be beads or silver chains given by her relatives, or perhaps her boyfriend. And she will likely wear a beautiful new jacket she lavishly embroidered herself. Then, dressed to the hilt in her ethnic best, she will take her turn on the swing, kick vigorously and, with jewellery bouncing off her chest and her head-dress’s chicken-feather tassels flailing in the wind, swing boldly high into the sky. And the whole village will be watching. And admiring.