by Jim Goodman
Lying in a broad and fertile plain 50 km south of Dali Prefecture’s Xiaguan in western Yunnan, boasting many Ming and Qing Dynasty structures and a preserved old quarter of traditional shop houses, Weishan is a charming, old-fashioned Chinese town that gets surprisingly little tourist traffic. The few visitors are mainly Chinese families or couples from other parts of Yunnan. Dali, just 18 km north of Xiaguan, is the main attraction for travelers in the area. Tourists from all over China and beyond jam the old town streets, lined with overpriced souvenir, tea and jewelry shops, complain about the crowds, the prices and the commercialization of local culture but never venture to Weishan, an hour and a half away. Yet in Weishan’s old town the shops on the streets sell items for the local population, merchants are laid back and friendly, it’s never crowded, always leisurely and the atmosphere of traditional urban China far more authentic than anywhere in Dali.
|street in Weishan's old town
Moreover, it has its historical importance as well, for the Nanzhao Kingdom had its start right here, in the 7th century, when the town was known as Mengshe, the capital of one of the six native chiefdoms, or zhao, roughly in the area that is now Dali Prefecture. Being in the most southern location of the six, the area around Mengshe was the Southern zhao—Nanzhao. In 649 its ruler Xinuluo conquered a neighboring tribe in Midu and shortly after, when Tang Court officials were looking for an ally to secure their southwest frontier they chose Xinuluo’s state.
|a Nanzhao king, from a Weibaoshan mural
Mengshe lost its political importance and had no impact on the history of the next several centuries. Nanzhao expanded, contracted and imploded. Its successor Dali lived in peace with Song Dynasty China until the Mongol conquest. With the rise of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, the Mongols evacuated and the Ming Court began sending immigrants from eastern China into Yunnan to give it a more Chinese identity. In the Dali area, from 1382 the Ming Court dispatched soldiers to both establish military garrisons and clear land to settle down on farms.
At that time the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Yunnan were not Han Chinese but a mixture of many ethnic minorities. In Dali Prefecture the dominant groups are the Bai and Yi. Nanzhao’s ruling class was Yi or proto-Yi, while Dali’s kings were Bai. Today the Bai constitute the largest ethnic minority in the prefecture and dominate the plains areas, while the hills are mostly inhabited by Yi.
|Bai shopkeepe in Weishan
In the late 14th century the city underwent a major transformation, beginning with a name change from Mengshe to Weishan, apparently a contraction of Weibaoshan, a sacred mountain 18 km south of the city that would become home to many temples, mostly Taoist, over the next four centuries. The mountain is swathed in thick forests of pine and cypress, the shrines and temples sited at intervals along roads and paths that ascend to the summit.
The entrance to the area is about halfway up the mountain. The first compound inside is dedicated to the Nanzhao kings. Paintings or statues of them line the hallway on the upper level, with basic information about each posted on a signboard in Chinese, Yi and English. The information is a bit biased, though, in the sense that an uninformed visitor would never get the idea that Nanzhao was actually an independent state, not just a vassal existing with imperial permission, but one that completely annihilated two large invading Tang armies.
The walls flanking the lower courtyard feature low-relief sculptures of life in Nanzhao times. Vignettes depict soldiers marching to war, kings at the palace and scenes of daily life, as well as a Nanzhao-style standing Buddha with a seated Buddha on his head.
|Dragon Pond mural, Weibaoshan
As a result, development and expansion proceed much more slowly in Weishan than in those cities on the main commercial routes. The atmosphere is never hectic, traffic jams unknown, the people relaxed and friendly. At the edge of the city, on the way to the bus station, a large park serves as an outdoor tea center, where patrons sit in small stools at tables of woven split bamboo. A short walk from this is a quiet park with several nice Qing Dynasty buildings. A couple of blocks further up is the old town, where cars are banned.
Dominating the preserved old quarter, erected by the first Ming administrators in 1397, is the very wide and imposing, 23.5 meter-high Gongchen Tower, which used to serve as the northern gate when Weishan was a walled city. Urban planners at that time laid out the city in a chessboard grid, resembling the nearly square shape of an official seal. Gongchen Tower was considered the handle. Standing beside a large plaza, its rose-pink stone walls are topped by a two-tiered, red hardwood building with tiled roofs and upturned corners. From its upper tiers observers can view the straight stone streets radiating in the four cardinal directions.
The street running from Gongchen Tower to Xinggong Tower is lined on both sides with red wooden shop houses with tiled roofs and has the most traditional look and feel of any street in the city. They are all modest buildings, with the goods stored in the room facing the street, which may also serve as a workshop, and the living quarters in the rear and in the attics. There are a few shops selling antiques, plus one or two with ethnic clothing, though their customers are not tourists so much as local ethnic minority people who buy the items to wear.
|old town street
Shops on the street continuing on the other side of Gongchen Tower are less oriented towards traditional items and more towards things like modern clothing, medicines, shoes, children’s toys, stationery etc., but the buildings are in the same classic traditional style. Lanterns hang from the roofs of these and from the compound gates of houses on the side streets. On some of the narrow lanes branching off one street or another farmers set up stalls to sell mushrooms, edible fungi, walnuts and fruits and, during festival times, decorations and items used in the events.
|old-style sandals for sale
|old town noodle factory
|Tuli Yi women, Dacan
|local Hui girls, Dacang
While minibuses ply the route from Weishan to Dacang and beyond, many people prefer the more leisurely journey by pony cart. They can hold up to 12 people or so. Weishan County is one of the very few places in the province where pony carts are still widely used. As in Weishan, market day in Dacang is not confined to a single area or neighborhood, as country folk set up stalls in several separate venues.
Once in a while some folks might set up some entertainment spot at a market day, playing music or just singing songs. Weishan itself has little in the way of entertainment at night. Not many restaurants exist, although the number is steadily growing. In an old house next to Gongchen Tower is a bar, but for socializing local folks take to one of the side alley grills for kebabs and cold beer with their friends. The real entertainment in Weishan is not in the form of music and dance, not even ethnic music and dance (other than on big holidays). It lies in appreciating the slower rhythms of traditional everyday life in a city with bilingual signboards that announce, “All of us are living images of Weishan. Every household is a window into the culture of Weishan.”
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