Yunnan/Sichuan Torch Festival

This is a story from when my informant, who is Chinese-American, went back to the rural town in Yunnan, China that her father’s family hails from when she was around 10 years old.


“So in Yunnan, China (and Sichuan, which I’ve learned from outside research) there’s this festival that happens at the end of summer called the torch festival, with a lot of stuff like people dancing around bonfires, lighting paper lanterns, lighting torches, etc. When I was younger and in China during that time, I participated in the festival at the rural town that my grandparents live in called Xiangyun. One of the activities I remember most about it is people gathering in a circle around the fire and jumping over it. I accidentally ran towards it as the same time as another person and burned a hole in my shoe haha.”


“When I asked my parents about it, they said it was to ward off insects as the harvest season started. When I did more research on it, I found out it was based around a specific legend of how a hero warded off a swarm of locusts with fire (I believe this story comes from the Yi people, but double check me on that). As far as I know, I think the custom is endemic to that specific area of Yunnan, cause I couldn’t find it in the resources on the torch festival online. Although I was only looking at sources in English, so that might’ve affected it.”


This festival shares a lot of similarities with many holidays that occur at the end of summer and usher in autumn and winter. It focuses on the presence of light and warmth (lighting torches and lanterns) to ward off the increased darkness of the following days and emphasizes creating a bountiful harvest by warding off harmful insects. The ritual of people jumping over a fire is interesting because it seems like people want to take the risk of being burned to heighten their spirits and get ready for the gloominess of winter.