Text and photographs by Xie Gang
Similar to the Dai ethnic group’s well-known Water-Splashing Festival, the Va ethnic group of Cangyuan County, Yunnan Province, hosts a festival called”Moh Nin Hei” (wipe you black) Carnival, where special mud is substituted for water. In the Va language,”Moh Nin Hei” literally means”let it be,” or more figuratively,”Stick with your dreams and pursuits.” A legend goes that in remote antiquity, the Va people wore thick fur to keep warm, but felt burdened by the heavy garb because it made fighting and running from wild animals rather inconvenient. Without the fur, however, they were left unprotected from the scorching sun and the forest’s myriad of stinging insects. Eventually, they witnessed a buffalo roll in mud to protect itself from the sun’s rays and insects. Following the animal, the Va people began covering their bodies with mud and leaves to hide from predators. As the custom developed over time, they realized that mud could effectively relieve pain and swelling as well as provide detoxification effects. Ever since, mud has been an indispensable ingredient in their daily life.
The Va also consider black beautiful. In their culture, the color represents diligence and good health, so their traditional attire is primarily black. Long ago, they would dye their teeth, hoping to match dark skin with shiny black teeth. An old saying even goes,”We must share the same pace to dance together, and to chat and laugh together we must share the same black and shiny teeth.” At the Moh Nin Hei Carnival, the darkest person is considered the most beautiful. One should apply mud to a girl’s face to enhance her beauty, to an elder’s face for health and longevity, to a child’s face for safety and good luck, and to a friend’s face to enrich the relationship. In general, black faces symbolize happiness, and the muddier, the happier.
The Moh Nin Hei celebration evolved from a custom meant to expel evil and pray for safety by applying a mixture of ash, ox blood, and mud to faces. Nowadays, the festival focuses on blessings and the muddy mixture comes from a plant named Niangbuluo. The plant is considered”eternal” by the Va people, capable of delivering long life to humans. Actually, the Va people have always been searching for the secret of immortality. When the herb was discovered, they ground it into powder and mixed it with mud before covering their bodies, hoping for health and longevity. The mud used at Moh Nin Hei Carnival is composed of local yellow mud, the”immortality plant,” and cocoa powder, which functions as sunscreen and moisturizer. The yellow mud turns black after it dries.