You've never really seen what fire can do until you've been in a village surrounded by bonfires. What was once a way to protect villages and crops from infestation, the Torch Festival is now a celebration that has become one of the most popular festivals in southwest China.
For three days in July, villages in Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan light up with torches and are full of dancing, singing and parades by fire-worshippers. City-wide dances and group chanting go on into the wee hours under sparks shooting through the sky.
Villages Play With Fire in their Own Style
Fire is just part of the three-day party. The annual festival gives villagers in the southwest an excuse to let loose, and among all the singing and dancing, there's horse racing, goat-wrestling and bullfighting.
Some villages hold beauty contests where local girls don traditional costumes. In fact, the Torch Festival has become a venue for young people to court each other, a kind of Valentine's Day that just happens to start off with a bang amidst endless fireworks and live musical accompaniment.
The pyrotechnic season begins on the 24th day of the sixth lunar month but festivities can continue into August, usually with three main days of celebration along the way.
Folks in Dali celebrate the Torch Festival by building massive pillars which they alight at an appointed time, Burning Man-style. The whole village grabs burning sticks and runs around with them, igniting them with pine resin and explosive powder. The festivities culminate with fire-jumps and rice wine.
The Xichang-centered festivals—in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture (Liángshān Yízú Zìzhìzhōu, 凉山彝族自治州) in southern Sichuan — traditionally celebrated the legend of how villages were saved from a plague of locusts by torching everything. But over time, the event has become focused on the beauty of Yi women, the fighting prowess of cocks and various other local pastimes such as flute-playing, lamb chop-sucking and fireworks. And fire-jumping and flammable pine resin. With rice wine.
The counties around Xichang—especially Puge (Pŭgé, 普格) and Meigu (Měigū, 美姑)—have flourishing Torch Festivals that include bullfighting, beauty contests, musical performances and, of course, a whole lot of fire-dancing.
The Naxi in Lijiang do a little of all of this, including burning massive pillars of pine, dancing in circles, watching cock and bull fights and fire-jumping. With rice wine.
The heart of the festival is a celebration of the local culture and people that make up southwest China.
Sip a cup of tea and spend an idle afternoon browsing the markets displaying distinct arts and crafts. Observe how tofu is made and how rice wine is brewed. A treasure trove of handicrafts complements the festivities. Yi needlework, especially, will wow you with its original designs and color schemes. Among these shops are medicine clinics where you can take a peek at traditional healing methods.
And since the festival is meant to celebrate fertility and the harvest, indulge in the local cuisine and spicy flavors this part of China is famous for by joining the villagers as they raise glasses and sit down to barbecue well into the night.