Sunday, December 8, 2013

Weishan, Yunnan—Birthplace of an Ancient Native Kingdom

                                                             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
    Dali is more famous because it was long the capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom, Tang Dynasty China’s rival in the southwest, and its successor the Kingdom of Dali, which remained independent until overwhelmed by Kubilai Khan’s Mongols in 1253.  It is also near scenic Erhai Lake and mountains of 4000+ meters, which made it a prime destination from the very dawn of modern tourism.  Weishan is less well endowed physically and topographically, but did not undergo the commercial transformation of Dali, where now virtually every building caters to the tourist industry.  Weishan is still a slice of Old China, unique in western Yunnan.
    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
    Four generations later Mengshe’s ruler Piluoge conquered the other five zhao.  In 738 the Tang conferred a royal title on him and recognized Nanzhao as a vassal state.  Piluoge’s own opinion, and that of his successors, was that Nanzhao was independent on a par with Tang China.  Until it fell in the early 10th century, shortly after the Tang regime’s own demise, Nanzhao fought both Tibet and China for control of the region, periodically launching invasions into Sichuan, defeating any invasion into its own realm.  But now that Piluoge’s success had made Nanzhao a bigger state, the capital shifted closer to Erhai Lake; first at Taihe, then Dali.
    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
    Because they are the largest community Dali is an Autonomous Bai Prefecture, where the top officials are Bai.  But the Yi and Hui outnumber the Bai in Weishan, so the latter is an Autonomous Yi and Hui County.   Some of the Hui are descendants of Kubilai Khan’s Central Asian Muslim allies, who stayed on to administer and garrison the province in the Yuan Dynasty.  Others came in after the Ming Dynasty evicted the Mongols and sponsored immigration.
    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.
Nanzhao-style Buddha
    From here to the summit, up two separate roads, are fourteen temples in the classic Chinese style, surrounded by trees, built with brick and tile, embellished with courtyard gardens and ponds.  The most interesting of these is Wenyong Temple, in particular for the Dragon Pond in the upper courtyard.  An elegant pavilion stands in the middle of the pond, connected by a stone bridge to the courtyard walkway.  On its base just above the water is a famous mural of a circle of Yi dancing around a bonfire celebrating the Torch Festival.  Painted in the 18th century, reproduced in hotels and restaurants in Weishan, the top half is still sharp and vibrant, though the rest is faint and has lost most of its color.
Dragon Pond mural, Weibaoshan
    On the ride back down the mountain to the city are several spots with a broad view of the plain, its farms and villages and distant hills.  The modestly sized city of Weishan does not resemble a fast-growing modern metropolis, for very few tall buildings mark its skyline.  The city was not on the Tea and Horses Road and its prosperity basically derived from its fertile and fruitful land.  Even today, while connected by a good road to Xiaguan, it is not on the major provincial highways from Kunming to southwest Yunnan.
    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.
Xinggong Tower
    Originally, when it was a walled city, gates stood at the end of each street.  Today only one such street ends with a gate, called Xinggong Tower.  It was built around the same time as Gongchen Tower, rebuilt at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, but it is narrower, only as wide as the street, with two tiers rising above the neighboring houses.  Both towers are illuminated at night, as are the main streets of the old town, or at least the sections closest to Gongchen Tower.
    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
    Other shops cater to the needs of local residents.  There are shops selling furniture and ornate bird cages, bolts of cloth, sandals made of cloth or straw, noodles, footwear, tie-dyed clothing, sitting stools and sundry other items.  Customers take their time examining the goods.  The patient shopkeeper never pesters, never urges them to buy this or that item, in fact never says anything until the customer is ready to ask a question.  The rule seems to be politeness before profit.
    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
    Many more will join them during Weishan’s regular market days, held the 10th, 20th and 30th every month.  At that time the city fills with minorities from the vicinity—the Yi, Bai and Hui—dressed in their traditional clothing.  The Yi women, from the Tuli branch of the Yi minority, are particularly colorful, in bright shades of red and green and fancy headgear.   
Tuli Yi women, Dacan
    local Hui girls, Dacang
    While Weishan’s market day draws a good proportion of Yi women, they come in even greater numbers to Dacang, a small, largely Hui town 35 km north.  Full of nondescript modern buildings, but with one small and attractive Buddhist temple, Dacang holds its market day the same dates as Weishan, as do a couple other villages in between Dacang and Weishan.   At the northern end of the Weishan valley, Dacang draws more Yi to its markets because it is closer to the hills where they live.
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.”
Gongchen Tower

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