by Jim Goodman
|riverside houses by the abandoned wells
The evidence is at once apparent in the fancy sculpted gate and monuments at the southern entrance. Down the road past this gate and off the lanes in the upper part of town across the river stand many fancy, capacious Qing Dynasty houses. Some have long been unoccupied and are badly in need of restoration, including the magnificent Wu family mansion, with five stories and 99 rooms. Others vanished with the shrinkage of Heijing, for they were home to a species of businessman that became extinct within the founding of New China and the reorganization of the nation’s commerce—the wealthy salt trader. Those black holes in the riverbank are abandoned salt wells. Heijing once had eight functioning salt wells and supplied most of northern Yunnan, including Kunming. Now only one remains operative, while most of the salt used in Yunnan today comes from the eastern provinces.
|roof carvings on a salt merchant's house
This was the first salt well in the vicinity. Serious production only began in the Tang Dynasty. It peaked during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, when the government organized and supervised the salt trade and regulated its distribution. By the end of the Qing Dynasty salt tax collection constituted 47% of the provincial revenue.
Heijing produced its salt from wells that were up to 80 meters deep. Seven or eight men turned a huge wheel, to which was attached a wide pail two meters long to scoop up the brine. The work crew them boiled the brine in big cauldrons until only a residue remained. This they pounded and cleaned, laid out blocks of it on the riverbank to dry and then cut these into cakes for transport.
|decorative Heijing house roof
|entrance to a salt merchant's mansion
With no competition and a constant heavy demand, Heijing’s salt trade generated wealth for everybody in town, not just the 84 license holders. Porters only had to work 3-4 hours per day to make a good living. Itinerant merchants made frequent stops and the town hummed with prosperity. Even the vegetable vendors wore ornaments of gold and jade.
But it was the rich who defined the public life of the city and patronized religion. Before 1949 the town and its environs boasted fifty temples and mosques, plus one Christian church. Contemporary Heijing has but four: Zhetian Buddhist Temple in the lower town, Zhenjuechan Buddhist Temple high up on the west bank hill, Feilaisi, dedicated to the Chinese trinity of faiths—Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism and just above the upper town, and the Wenchan Confucian Temple in the centre of the upper town.
|Zhenjuechan Buddhist temple
To the Wenchan Temple, with its own ceremonial gate, pond, elephant-headed roof struts and old dormitories, the salt traders sent their sons to study. For a small town, Heijing had a high number of accomplished scholars who passed the final round of examinations in the imperial court. Their descendants today proudly keep the commemorative boards issued to them by the court in Beijing.
|carved doors of a wealthy house owner
That may explain the subdued contemporary nightlife, for there’s little to do after dark. But in its heyday nightlife in Heijing sparkled with parties and public spectacles hosted by the rich. The main street was lined with opium dens and mah-jong parlors, where the porters tended to spend the greater part of their time and wages. Food vendors worked the residential lanes where the salt traders lived. From the upper stories of their high-walled houses the customers lowered a tray by rope, the vendors filled it with various dishes, the household hoisted it up and then lowered down the money.
|Wenchan Confucian temple
Life in old Heijing was easy and good. The salt traders devoted much of their wealth and leisure to the pursuit of culture. In doing so they enriched not only their own lives but also those of all the town’s residents. When they disappeared as a class no one took their place. Heijing shrank and took on the character of an ordinary small town in Yunnan. Evocative relics remain, from the memorial gates and vacant mansions to the carvings on the posts and doors, and even the ancient salt wells. With a little imagination the visitor can conjure a vision of Heijing in its prime, when houses were works of art, scholars were venerated, high culture was glorified and salt was king.
|the Monk's Tomb