Monday, August 27, 2012


So I have a crush on a fellow named Optimus Prime. He has big brown eyes and likes me (I think) because I gave him a fancy apple.

OP (he didn't ask me to call him that, but I could tell he kind of liked the nickname) is a champion fighting bull, Yunnanese style. The way bullfighting is done in these parts of the world is quite different from what I know of bullfighting elsewhere, with its blood and gore and Hemingwayesque characters and death of critters who did nothing wrong but happened to be born bulls.

In Yunnan, bulls fight each other and the match is determined by which bull runs off first. When we went to Yunnan to see this phenomenon, I have to say I was both surprised and pleased that this kind of fighting was far less bloody and lasted sometimes only seconds.

The town of Damogu in northeast Yunnan has a kind of natural amphitheater, surrounded by the craggy volcanic rocks the region is known for. Spectators perch on the rocks or dangle their legs over the wall built around the pit where the bulls fight.

On our first day of bullfighting, we watched a good four hours. Organizers started with the less fierce bulls. Two bulls would be led into the arena. The first few bulls needed a certain amount of prodding and whipping to goad them into charging each other. Even when they did, you had the sense that they weren't fully engaged in the spectacle. Quite a few of them saw a mud pit in one corner of the arena and ran right over there to roll around in the mud like a puppy off the leash. Others, left to their own devises, would stick their noses up in the air sniffing and studiously ignoring the other bull four feet from them, until out of the blue, one bull would turn in an instant and butt the other guy. Sometimes that would result in a head butting battle with locked horns (so many cliches come from bullfighting!) but more often, one bull would suddenly charge away from his opponent, losing in an instant. Once when two bulls of unequal size were matched, the smaller bull took one look at the behemoth in front of him and took off in a gallop. Can't say I blame him.

What's also fascinating is the number of wirey young men who watch all this from the pit itself. Their main job is to stop the winning bull from continuing to charge the loser: the minute one bull runs off, the match ends. But sometimes the winning bull seems to want to make a further point and continues to gallop after the loser, both of them panting and splashing through the mud in the hot august sun. The men chase after both bulls with nothing but a rope and a hook to capture the bulls. Some of them end up sailing along with a tenuous hold on the horns, Chinese cowboys.

At today's event the crowd is enormous. A woman with a fur-trimmed fake black leather jacket, high heeled sandals, and black three quarter leggings that end in lace sits under a parasol next to me on a hill overlooking the arena. When her baby cries she lifts her black top and sticks a nipple in his mouth.

 I sit under a parasol too, but the day is still blazingly hot.

The highlight of the day was OP. And he was well worth the wait. Before OP fought, his handlers threw a red blanket over his back and he became the Muhammed Ali of bulls. As he walked majestically down from his prime shaded waiting area, the crowd began a low roar. And unlike other bulls who had to be goaded into fighting under the blazing Yunnan sun, OP burst through the gate like a freight train, throwing off his handlers and his blanket in one stride and charging toward the other bull like he hated him. The first bull he fought, number 3, met OP's challenge for a split second and then turned tail and raced around the arena with a look of terror on its brown face. I had never seen one of these majestic creatures look frightened, but 3 galloped several laps around the arena with his tounge hanging out and his eyes rolling, outrunning all the wranglers who were racing to catch him.

The second match was much like the first -- gate opens, charging bull heads straight for the other bull standing there minding his own business, and it's all over in seconds. I kept waiting for OP to say he could float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Meanwhile, some perspective. I've been baking at the bullfights since 1 that afternoon, and even with a pink parasol, a wide brimmed hat with a pink ribbon and bow, sunglasses, sunscreen, and plenty of water, I had had it. So when I heard that OP was fighting three more times, I bailed on Bob and his entourage of videographer, translator, and all-around-fixer. Sorry, OP. I knew you didn't need me there to cheer you on.

I went back to the restaurant where we had had lunch. It was packed with diners, so I convinced the staff to sell me a large and COLD bottle of beer, which I took outside and sat on the steps, drinking. It's hard to overstate just how much attention a laowai in a pink bonnet, purple tee shirt, and bright pink face attracts when she grabs that bottle of beer and sits on the stoop drinking.

When I first sat down on the dusty stoop, I was alone, but soon I was surrounded by people who had finished their dinner and left the restaurant. The children were the bravest, and they ran by me again and again peering curiously at me as I read and typed on my iPad. But the others got braver as time passed, and they casually strolled by me on my stoop, glancing over my shoulder as I typed. I'm used to being stared at in the rural areas of China. As Bob said, they've seen bulls before. They probably haven't seen many foreigners.
Later I hear that OP has taken down all the competition and even rolled a few hapless fellows. Losing bulls are often sent to the slaughterhouse, I’m told, so although there isn’t the same amount of visible gore (unless you count the severed donkey’s head I saw at one donkey-meat stand on the way into the arena), it’s still a life and death kind of situation. I’m still glad I saw the spectacle, which also included a woman with bound feet picking her way through the crowd, a poor pensioner begging our leftover cold noodles, the sight of giant horned bulls grazing peacefully amongst the throngs of people, and a ten-year-old smoking a cigarette with the aplomb of John Wayne. And, of course, one more opportunity to look ridiculous in hats.

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