Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why Lijiang Deserved its Heritage Site Award—and What Happened Next

                                                            by Jim Goodman

Dayan in the early 90s
In the early 1990s the Chinese government nominated Lijiang’s old town of Dayan to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  At the time, Dayan was the last major traditional urban entity in Southwest China.  It was basically an autonomous town, whose 50,000 or so Naxi inhabitants grew their own food, brought in their own fuel, organized their own markets, got water from the streams that ran through the town and was dependent on the outside for basically just electricity.  Life in old Dayan ran pretty much the same way it had for centuries.  All but a handful of its buildings were in the traditional Chinese style, characterized by red wooden walls, stone foundations and tiled roofs.  In terms of Heritage Site qualifications, Dayan lacked nothing.
       On my first visits to Lijiang in the early 90s foreigners had to stay in hotels near the Mao statue, a part of the city full of drab, utilitarian, concrete buildings, a few blocks away from the entry to Dayan.  Unlike Dali then, no guesthouses existed in the old town.  I used to rise early and head for the old town to see who wakes up and starts working first.  Turned out to be makers of noodles and black bean pudding.  The rest of the city slept in longer.  Only around 9 a.m. people started setting up market stalls in Sifang Square and Qiyilu, while Shazu Lane became lined with butcher stalls run by middle-aged Naxi women.
opening up shop
lady butcher on Shazu Lane
       Most of the older women dressed in the Naxi style and donned the seven-starred sheepskin cape as well.  A shop producing them stood next to the Old Stone Bridge.  The men preferred ordinary modern clothes and didn’t seem to ever work much.  The women ran the market stalls, did the purchasing, washed vegetables in the streams, hauled in the firewood and toted the water pails.  The men carried caged songbirds out to places where they could sit, smoke long pipes and listen to the birds.  Other men brought their hawks with them, tied to their wrists, while they sat on a bench to drink tea and converse.
washing vegetables in one of Dayan's streams
       I never tired of treading those winding stone streets to every nook and cranny of the town.  But that was an adventure that generally ended shortly after dark.  The small daytime restaurants, where I enjoyed lunches of rice and sausage baked in a clay pot, washed down with a glass of the Naxi wine yinjiu, were closed by then.  The people had all retired to their homes for the evening and the only restaurants were at the far edge of the town, next to the new city.  In that respect, too, Dayan was following the old ways, for traditional small towns in China did not have much of a night life.
Naxi gentleman with his hawk
Naxi women on a Dayan street
       Lijiang didn’t have an airport then, nor the highway from Dali through Songgui and Heqing that reduced the journey from over six hours to under three.  Fewer tourists, Western or Chinese, made it that far.  The Westerners were almost all backpackers and the Chinese visitors included art students, who would sit on the stones to sketch the traditional houses or the Old Stone Bridge.  No spot in the old town was ever crawling with tourists.   And anyway, some of the tourists were Tibetans from Diqing Prefecture and Yi from Ninglang County.  A few Bai women from Dali ran shops selling antiques or brass and copper items.  Other Bai women came from nearby Jinshan district, distinctive in their bright blue and rose pink jackets and headscarves.  The presence of these outsider minorities further emphasized the ethnic element in Dayan’s exotic atmosphere.
Jinshan Bai girls were frequent visitors.
       Always fascinated exploring the old town, submerged in a timeless classical urban China atmosphere, I was not surprised to learn of Dayan’s bid to become a World Heritage Site.  The UNESCO selection committee slated a visit for the spring of 1996.  But before they arrived a violent earthquake, 7.2 on the Richter scale, struck Lijiang County on a cold 4 February at 7:15 in the evening.  For ten terrible seconds shock waves punched through various spots in the old town and countryside, leveled dozens of houses, office buildings and business establishments, ripped open foundations, cracked stone walls and sent others tumbling to the ground.  Whole villages, especially in the Wenbishan and Jinshan areas, collapsed in a heap.  The quake killed 80 in Lijiang and over 300 in the countryside.
       Dayan residents had to put up tents and makeshift shelters of corrugated iron sheets or thick cardboard and slept in their courtyards or in public squares, in sub-freezing temperatures.  With aftershocks continuing, they were afraid to stay in their homes, even if these were the undamaged ones, and risk having the roof collapse on them.  Relief poured in from all over the country, 
earthquake damages, 1996
especially Hong Kong.  But by the time the Heritage Site committee arrived, little had been restored and the city was still in a shambles.  The quake had punched around the town, rather than concentrating on one big area, so the committee members often walked past a row of fallen buildings piled on top of their own rubble, while the buildings on either side and behind them stood undamaged.  The initial quake demolished a large percentage of the wealthy folks’ homes, but the aftershocks hit mainly the poorer quarters of the town.  The committee didn’t wait to see how the reconstruction turned out.  Its members approved Dayan’s bid, making recognition official later that year. 
       The one positive effect of the earthquake was a new awareness, both nationally and locally, of Dayan’s cultural value.  Millions of people who had never heard of Lijiang before followed developments of the catastrophe on the national news channels.  Many of them now wanted to go see it before anything more befell it in this seismically active part of remote China.  A new airport had already opened south of the city and newly rich Chinese tourists began flocking to Lijiang even while reconstruction was still in progress.
       The local government decided, in line with the Heritage Site award, all buildings within the boundaries of the old town had to be in the traditional style.  This meant knocking down the row of three-story cement shop-houses that lined one of the streets leading to Sifang Square.  Fancy new buildings in traditional style replaced them.  While they looked a little too good for Dayan, a few future monsoons would weather them enough to look like a natural part of the city.
       Reconstruction included erecting small wooden bridges over the streams to replace the existing simple stone slabs.  The government also reorganized the market scene by closing the butcher stalls on Shazu Lane and relocating them and the stalls on Sifang Square and elsewhere to a new venue two blocks beyond the old town.  Residents now had to walk a long way to buy their food. 
Closed: the Naxi market on Sifang Square
       It turned out the authorities had their own idea of what a Heritage Site should look like.  It didn’t stress preservation so much as transformation.  Apparently they thought that recognition as a Heritage Site gave them the right, even the duty, to recreate Dayan as an idealized version of itself.  This was not a decision made by insensitive Han bureaucrats from the north.  This was the choice of the Naxi-run city government itself, a policy that eventually resulted in the removal of all the Naxi living in the Naxi old town.
       Dayan’s makeover began with the destruction of the rest of the undamaged buildings in about twenty square blocks of the southwest quarter in order to construct a magnificent palace compound.   Officials claimed they were recreating the original palace of the former Mu family rulers that existed in the past.  This was simply not true.  In dynastic times strict sumptuary laws governed how big or fancy a house could be, depending on one’s rank in the Confucian hierarchy.  If this Mu family palace were really an authentic recreation of the original it would have been twice as big as that of the Governor of Yunnan province.  The notion that the palace of a minor frontier town could be bigger and more impressive than the Governor’s in the capital was historically, culturally and legally impossible.
       Of course, the new palace compound included a ticket booth.  And its construction signaled the new attitude applied to the old town.  Its transformation would not be marked by restoring Dayan to what it had been before, but by making a wholly new Dayan, oriented toward attracting tourist money.  As for the damaged buildings, in most cases owners did not have enough money to reconstruct them.  Chinese businessmen, largely from Hunan province, swarmed into Dayan to make deals with these owners to rent the building, pay for its reconstruction, keep the traditional architecture, but make it bigger, more ornate, and convert it into a guesthouse, restaurant or high-priced souvenir shop.
       Within a year most of the damaged buildings, thanks to outside investment, had been restored, but not as Naxi houses.  Their former residents, as well as those evicted to make room for the Mu family palace, moved into a subdivision outside Lijiang the government created for them.  These new houses were constructed in the Naxi style, but were identical, all the same dimensions and the same distance apart from each other, like barracks in an army compound.  They were more modern than those in Dayan, with running water and with two toilets per house, instead of one every two blocks, as in Dayan.  The people lived more comfortably than before, but they had lost the whole social and cultural environment they had enjoyed before the earthquake.
First the bridge was replaced, then the houses.

       The business assault next targeted the undamaged houses, aiming to turn these into commercial establishments as well.  Naxi house owners initially resisted, especially the older generation, but already tourists from all over China were flooding Lijiang and the kind of lifestyle Dayan residents had enjoyed before the earthquake was looking increasingly impossible to revive.  Within a few years every family had agreed to move out and every old building in Dayan had been torn down and rebuilt as a guesthouse, restaurant or souvenir shop.  They all employed traditional architecture, but far fancier than the original houses.  The only parts of Dayan left intact and authentic were the Old Stone Bridge and the paving stones.
       The makeover continued with the erection of two huge water-wheels, which Dayan never had in the past, next to an entry gate proudly announcing its status as a World Heritage Site.   Other arches and gates went up on various streets, along with rows of potted flowers.  The city government also required every building to hang red lanterns from the rafters beside the front doorway.  Officials explained that because of the international renown of the film Raise the Red Lantern, people associated red lanterns with traditional domestic Chinese architecture.
a vanished way of life
      Apparently none of them actually saw the movie.  In the film’s narrative, the red lantern goes up when it’s that particular concubine’s turn to sleep with the master.  So the red lantern of the movie is not exactly symbolic of domestic architecture but instead symbolic of domestic sex.  By 2004, when I visited Dayan again after seven years absence, soft lighting illuminated the buildings of the old town at night, the lanterns were lit and wild parties transpired at the square, full of boisterous singing and drinking by Chinese tour groups, replacing the former peace and nighttime quiet of old Dayan.  The atmosphere was now more like that of a traditional red-light district.
      Four years later, on a brief return visit, the only Naxi seen in Dayan were the dancers that entertained tourists daily at Sifang Square and the older men in ancient martial gear guiding children’s pony rides through the old town.  Where only two new guesthouses had existed on the periphery of the old town before the earthquake, the town now had hundreds.  Every other building was a commercial tourist establishment.  Yet Chinese tourists loved it.  Just because the buildings were all in classic Chinese style, Dayan seemed to look like the kind of place their grandparents grew up in.  That the Dayan lifestyle had disappeared did not bother them.  It was too harsh a way of life to witness anyway, an unwanted reminder of the bad old days before they all
Chinese artist sketching the Old Stone Bridge, 1993
 became rich enough to be tourists to faraway places like Lijiang.  As for the ethnic element, Chinese tourists could rent colorful Guizhou province Miao costumes for an afternoon to parade around the town in.
     In the end, the earthquake was less damaging to Dayan than its reconstruction afterwards.  The earthquake killed a lot of people, true, but the makeover of the town killed its identity forever.  The Naxi could have restored Dayan after the quake to its original condition, slowly maybe, but they could have done it.  But its post-quake designation as a World Heritage Site soon made that impossible.  The characteristics of Dayan that made it so richly deserve recognition as a World Heritage Site became destined for deliberate extirpation, thanks to the decision to cash in on the award and orient the town in the direction of tourist revenues.  A Heritage Site jettisoned its heritage to morph into a holiday playground.  And that was the greater tragedy.   
Naxi at leisure on Sifang Square, 1994

                                                                        * * *

           for more on old Dayan and the Naxi, see my e-book Children of the Jade Dragon

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pleasures of the Black Lisu Homeland

                                                         by Jim Goodman

Fugong city
       In terms of scenery, western Yunnan’s Nujiang Canyon just keeps getting better the further north one goes from its bottom end in Liuku.  Culturally speaking, though, the most interesting stretch is that from between Fugong city, practically the center of the canyon, and the Gongshan County boundary.  This area is the Black Lisu heartland, who form the majority of the population, and while they also live north and south, in the northern part of this county lie most of the rope-bridges still in regular use, the most traditional type of houses, the most prevalent use of the crossbow, and the greatest proportion of people dressing in the ethnic style, both men and women.  Consequently, it was the part of Nujiang I enjoyed the most.  And in the early years of this century, when I conducted my research, I was usually the only foreigner around.
       The Black Lisu first crossed the Biluo Mountains, which flank the eastern side of the river, in the 16th century and settled in Fugong and Gongshan Counties.   They soon outnumbered the aboriginal Nu people and in the end so influenced them that nowadays Nu women in Fugong County dress like Lisu and use the Black Lisu dialect in the markets.  The Black Lisu women’s outfit comprises a long, bulky white, cotton or hemp skirt with gray pin-stripes or of black velvet, with some older women preferring blue, a long-sleeved blouse, side-fastened red or black vest, bead necklaces, a string of conch disks across one shoulder and a beaded cap lined with conch disks in the front.  On market days in northern Fugong County this is the outfit that dominates the crowds. 
Lisu gentleman, Lishadi
the Black Lisu ethnic style
       Unlike other traditional minority areas, though, here the men also dress Lisu-style, mainly with a long-sleeved white shirt, with the same gray pin-stripes as on the women’s skirts, the pockets and cuffs bordered in black velvet.  Both sexes carry the same shoulder bag, red with colored bands and a black strap
the "many-legged house"
       Until well into the 20th century the Lisu tended to site their villages high up on the slopes of the 4000 meters+ mountains flanking the river.  Where the ground was relatively level they built box-like, wooden houses of four meters per side.  But more often the houses were on slopes, elevated by 20 to 30 stilts and known as “many-legged houses” or even “thousand-legs houses.”  Nearly every family kept pigs and chickens.  Some owned cattle and ponies as well.
       This area beneath the house served as a place to store plows, troughs and other things.  The floor above was the living space, with a fireplace in the center and a bamboo tray suspended above it, where they kept household implements and the bamboo tubes and dried gourds used for carrying water. Smoke from the cooking fire permeated these items, which made them impervious to insects.
       Out of bamboo they also made cups, tumblers and mugs, chopsticks, bowls, ladles, pipe stems, crossbow bolts and cases, flutes and Jew’s harps.  After spitting the bamboo into strips, men plaited them into carrying baskets, fish traps, winnowing trays, floors and walls and the cradle-basket mothers use to carry their infants.  Women made the floor mats from straw on a primitive loom.
split-bamboo walls on a Lisu house near Fugong
       On their farms they cultivated maize, buckwheat, barley, yams and beans.  In the 20th century rice farming initiated and now it is the most important crop.  As a result, the former slash-and-burn way of farming has yielded to terrace cultivation.  Other 20th century innovations include the construction of roads and suspension bridges, replacing the rough caravan trails of old and many of the rope-bridges, which were formerly the only way to cross the river, and the introduction of electricity to even the highest villages, thanks partly to the harnessing of the river’s energy potential through many small-scale hydroelectric projects.  Traveling through the county now, one sees these almost as often as spectacular waterfalls.
the Stone Moon
       Throughout nearly the entire route along the Nu River, the highway runs just above the water, with the Gaoligong Mountains flanking the west side and the Biluo Range the east banks.  North of Fugong it makes one of its rare ascents high above the river, between Lumadeng and Lishadi, on the approach to the area’s most famous landmark—the Stone Moon. 
       Though not one of the highest Gaoligong Mountains, it is unique for the huge oval hole, 80 meters wide, near the top of one of its peaks.  Nujiang’s Lisu attribute its creation to the divine shepherd Adeng, who was the lover of the heavenly princess Ala.  She was the daughter of the Dragon King of the East Sea, who was opposed to their affair and put up obstacles to their union.  The lovers then eloped to Earth.  The Dragon King spotted them on Gaoligong Mountain and, commanding the seas, dispatched waves of water onto the area, attempting to drown the pair.  With his magic bow and arrows, Adeng shot a hole in one of the peaks.  The water passed through this hole and rushed elsewhere, leaving the lovers high, dry and safe.
Nujiang landscape, from the Biluoshan side

       The road descends past the Stone Moon, but continuing north the mountains keep rising, some with perpendicular, fluted cliffs near the summits or snow on the peaks.  As for the river, so much of it whitewater rapids, it was a big part of the scenery, too, changing from brown to green to blue, depending on the season, and in winter, when it ran at less volume, revealing patches of white sand beaches.  It was certainly a great landscape for any kind of research and I dragged my own out an extra year or more just for the pleasure of returning to revel in it.
       That wasn’t the only excuse, though. To climb slopes to get special photographs, to hike along the river just to hear its roar, or to ride another rope-bridge—these were physical thrills.  Equally enjoyable were my encounters with the Black Lisu residents, both in Fugong and vicinity and at the market days upriver in Maji (Mondays), Lishadi (Tuesdays) and Lumadeng (Wednesdays).  Fugong stages its own every five days and offers the greatest variety of products at stalls lining several streets. Besides the usual conglomeration of goods—modern and traditional clothing, shoes, umbrellas, tools and baskets, food and animals, seed packets and orchids galore, market day in Fugong features items generally not found elsewhere in the county.  Some layouts offer freshly slain wild game, like various birds, field rats and flying squirrels.  Handmade items of wood and bamboo are more available here, too, sold by men.  These include bamboo cups, flutes, Jew’s harps, tobacco pipes, crossbows, bolts and quivers.
jungle produce in the Fugong market
       Upriver market days offered less variety, but were crowded all the same, with even more people dressed in traditional clothing.  I always went early to seek appropriate spots to photograph villagers coming down the mountains or crossing the bridges on their way to the towns.  I would try out some of the Lisu language small talk I’d learned, which always drew a positive response and often led to invitations to tea, noodles or liquor in the markets or perhaps dinner at their house in a nearby village.  I’d have to revert to simple Chinese rather soon if the conversation continued very long.  But I had the satisfactory feeling of becoming part of their family history from then on.  ‘Yes, we met a foreigner once.  And he spoke Lisu!’
Lisu women on their way to Lumadeng market day
       At least half of the Black Lisu are Christian, yet just as friendly as the traditional animists.  The only real difference in their attitude to guests is that the Christians don’t drink or smoke, so the encounter is necessarily more subdued than sharing drinks at the hearth of a non-Christian host.  Traditional Lisu have a saying, “If the guest leaves the house sober, the family failed its hospitality responsibilities.”  But before I got too intoxicated in such situations, the host always made sure I returned to my hotel safely.  It could mean strapping me up to his cable hook to ride the rope-bridge over the river together, or accompanying me on my walk down the hill to make sure I didn’t stumble.  All part of the hospitality responsibilities, I assumed.
       The biggest public events of the Black Lisu calendar fall in late December.  For the Christians, of course, it’s Christmas Day.  For the traditional Lisu it’s Kuoshi, their New Year, which in recent decades has been fixed to start 21 December, the winter solstice, and run two or three days, depending on locality. Honoring the Lord of Heaven Baijani, asking his blessing for the coming months, as well as honoring the spirits of the village and the family ancestors make up the spiritual duties of Kuoshi.  The rest of the festival is devoted to making manifest that venerable Lisu adage, “None but the dead should be deprived of the mirth of life.”
climbing the greased pole at Kuoshi
playing the bamboo mouth-harp
       I attended the daytime activities at a hillside village 2 km south of the Fugong city limits, which were under way by 10 a.m.  Several men were competing in a crossbow competition in one field, while others struggled to climb a greased pole about eight meters high.  Early efforts provoked much laughter as those who tried just kept sliding down quickly.  After a while, enough dry spots appeared on the pole that finally one young man reached the top and plucked the flag.  Just as merry were the tug-of-war contests, pitting one village against another, or one neighborhood against another, or even boys against girls.  Spectators cheered their favorites, applauded the winners and derided the losers, who had been ingloriously yanked into the dirt.
the "one-heart drink"
       Meanwhile, ring dances commenced in another area, accompanied by women on bamboo mouth-harps, boys on flutes and three-stringed lutes and much drinking by both participants and spectators.  I was literally dragged into this scene, not so much to dance as to enjoy the local custom of the ”one-heart drink,” wherein one drinks cheek-to-cheek with the woman from a single large tumbler or bamboo mug.  After accepting several insistent invitations, being the only foreign male there, I was already quite drunk.
       The activities were winding down and folks heading home.  I hadn’t eaten yet, saw that it was two o’clock, and decided to stop at the first noodle shop on the way to the city.  My next conscious thought was of waking up sprawled out beside a partly demolished wall of a building two blocks past the turn-off to my hotel and one block from the main road, in a not particularly interesting residential neighborhood, oblivious as to how I got there.  A glance at my little clock informed me it was 4:30 p.m.  I still had my camera, money and other valuables and if any local people had passed me they probably just stepped over me, like they did with their own drunks who fell asleep on the street.  I later learned that Fugong had the lowest crime rate in all of China’s thousands of counties.  So if you are going to fall into a drunken stupor anywhere in the country, it’s safest to do so in Fugong.
rice-beer on sale in Lishadi
       Fortunately, I still had time to recover before the evening show.  The previous night marked the passage of the old year, with a stage show in a primary school courtyard of songs, comedy acts and dances, including a particularly lovely number by a Lishadi troupe, named after the Stone Moon, with girls periodically forming the famous oval with their arms.  This night’s show, welcoming the New Year, was held in a hillside field in the city’s northern suburbs.  But aside from getting the bonfire going, there was nothing organized about it.  No stage shows entertained the people. 
       Instead, they entertained each other, with music and dancing, spontaneous antiphonal singing, flirting and the free flow of rice-beer.  Pretty young women in their best traditional gear went around to all the guests to share “one-heart drinks.”  Because the crowd was larger than the one I had joined in the morning, I didn’t have to quaff as much beer this time and wound up in a state of inebriation I could handle.  I was a bit worried that I would overdo it again and not remember any details of the party.
       How the girls could consume so much I never did figure out.  Only some months later I learned that the Lisu ferment the brew for thirty days and thus it tastes like ordinary beer but it’s practically as strong as whiskey.  Until then I had never believed people who said they got so drunk they didn’t remember a thing.  But now it had happened to me.  I still cannot recall what happened those two and a half lost hours.  To this day I don’t know whether I ate noodles or not.  My Black Lisu hosts and hostesses had definitely carried out their hospitality responsibilities.

Black Lisu woman iLishadi for market day
                                                                                * * *