Venerate all things Bulang-Nationality People protect the forest with their religion

By Shen Dingfang (Programme Officer, Yunnan Office of PCD), Yan Zhangwang, Yan Kansan (Villagers of Zhanglang Village)

Editor's Note: In Xiding Township of Menghai County in Xishuangbanna, PCD has initiated a programme to explore and develop community-based and culture-centred models of sustainable living. The programme is implemented in eight Bulang villages, of which Zhanglang Village is the centre.

The village of Zhanglang is surrounded by a verdant and lush patch of forest said to cover more than 3,000 mu(200 ha) of land. In the forest are numerous centuries-old ancient trees. When I first came into contact with villagers of Zhanglang, I was curious about how they managed to keep the forest intact. There were two questions in my mind. First, many communities have their own traditions or institutions to protect their forests. For example, Hani people have a tradition of protecting their scenic forest and Dai people their Long Forest. Do the Bulang people of Zhanglang have similar traditions or institutions? Second, today's society advocates materialism and consumerism. Nature as well as forests is defined as "resources" which means economic value.

Spirit in all things; venerating ancestors

We once organized a meeting in Zhanglang for villagers from various communities. When some villagers from other communities saw an old tree in Zhanglang, they said, "If this tree were found in our village, whoever got it would make a fortune." Villagers of Zhanglang laughed and said, "Our li [1] is to protect the forest." In Zhanglang, all forests are protected: Long forest [2], forests for protecting the village and the roads, forest from which water flows, ge en [3],bang [4] and divine trees. This practice is closely connected with the religious beliefs of the villagers, who are mostly Theravada Buddhists. The villagers believe all things have spirits. They venerate their ancestors and believe that all things are ruled by spirits and gods. For them, there are good and bad people, but one should strive to do good in one's lifetime. As human beings we should live in harmony with the spirits and gods that also inhabit this world, and avoid offending them. In Zhanglang, the emotions of the spirits and gods are humanized and all actions are judged by human standards. In this way, li was developed as a norm to restrain the behaviour of humans.

Observing precepts and emphasising sharing

Dan means "to sacrifice and share". It is one of the most important li in Zhanglang. Villagers realise the purpose of life by practicing dan and they resolve conflicts by practicing it together with other li. They believe that to have a full and whole life, one must go through three types of dan: dan pa, sanshuangxi dan, and dan weixianDan pa is the lowest level of dan and its practice mainly involves commemorating family members who have passed away and practisingdan in relation to elderly people in the community. Sanshuangxi dan is dan practised in relation to Buddhist temples.Dan weixian is the highest level of dan and involves practising dan to everyone in the village, to Buddhist temples and all neighbouring communities. The three types of dan are different in terms of their scope and level, but all of them require a corresponding material basis. Villagers have to observe precepts [5]. Anything that is obtained by violating one or more precepts cannot be used in dan. Therefore, villagers have to work hard and live a simple life. In other words, throughout their life, they practise asceticism. Dan is practiced in every aspect of everyday life. For example, there are ban because villagers believe that trees are needed on the slopes for passers-by to rest under and for animals, spirits and gods to live in. Protecting ban is dan.

Protecting the ecology with dan

In recent years, under the influence of the outside world, some villagers tried to grow tea surreptitiously in the forest. When the tea trees started to grow, they cut down other trees to give way to the tea trees they grew. Consequently, the forest was damaged. PCD launched a programme in collaboration with the villagers to conduct a community survey to raise other villagers' awareness on this issue. Even though there were different opinions, all villagers believed that dan should be observed. In the end villagers agreed to remove most of the tea trees and to do their best to prevent the forest from being damaged.

In the tradition of Bulang people, they are the "intellectuals". Kanglang is the azhang of Zhanglong.Azhang is the one who manages the temples and the village. He is therefore held in high esteem in the local community. He is also the main advocate of dan in Zhanglang today.
The size of the nature reserve of Zhanglang Village is over 3,000 mu. Villagers have been able to protect the reserve because of the influence of the cultural tradition of the community. In Bulang tradition, a person should seek to "sacrifice and share" throughout their life. Because of this, they are able to live in harmony with nature.



  1. Translator's note: The Chinese character is a Confucian term which means customary practice and norms.
  2. Long Forest: A long forest is where village gods reside. It is therefore forbidden to hunt or pick fruits in the longforest. Even tree branches that fall to the ground on their own are protected. Long forest is a nature reserve developed by the local community.
  3. Ge en: A Bulang term which means trees on mountain ridges.
  4. Bang: A Bulang term which means trees on the slopes.
  5. Precepts: The five precepts are to refrain from destroying life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from incorrect speech and from excessive drinking.