Friday, February 26, 2021

In Search of Lampang’s History

                                                                    by Jim Goodman


       The third largest city in Northern Thailand, Lampang, straddling the Wang River and home to a variety of temples and other attractions, gets a good share of the tourist visits.  Just a hundred kilometers from Chiang Mai, its major sites can be done in a day-trip, even when combined with a stop in the elephant camp on the way.  Overnight excursions are also popular, especially weekends, with their evening street markets.  Fridays the venue is Cultural Street, in Wiang Neua, the oldest part of the city.  Saturdays and Sundays it’s on Kad Kong Ta, along the river, a street featuring splendid, century-old houses built by merchants from the teak wallah years.  

       While exploring these neighborhoods, visitors get a feel for the city’s antiquity.  Many of the old town temples date from the Kingdom of Lanna era, 14th-17th centuries, while the Kad Kong Ta houses, Burmese-style temples, clock tower and railway line and station represent Lampang’s special prosperity in the golden years of the teakwood business.  But these are just part of Lampang’s history, for it is the second oldest city in all of Lanna, established many centuries before Thais had even begun living in Northern Thailand

         The first city was Haripunchai, now called Lamphun, founded in the 7th century and ruled by Queen Chamadevi, the most remarkable and accomplished woman in Thailand’s history.  Although no contemporary written records exist, no scholar challenges the fact that Chamadevi was a real historical person, even if her life story has been embellished by legend.

       She was born in a village west of Lamphun.  While still a baby she was supposedly grabbed by an eagle that flew to Doi Suthep.  The hermit Wasuthep, after whom the mountain was eventually named, harried the bird into dropping her into a pond, where a lotus flower sprouted to receive her.  Wasuthep raised the girl, named her Vi, taught her martial arts as well as other lessons of life and at her puberty divined her future.  Discovering she was destined to rule a new state, he decided to send her down to the Mon state of Lawo, today’s Lopburi, to be properly trained for this role.  He dispatched her on a boat all the way down to Lawo, which took a few months, with a pair of monkeys as companions, said to be the origin of contemporary Lopburi’s large monkey community.

       Lawo’s rulers assumed her surprise arrival to be an auspicious event.  They adopted her into the royal family, renamed her Chamadevi, and after a few years formally installed her as a princess.  She was already quite beautiful then and aroused marriage suits from princes in other Mon states.  When she refused one offer the suitor led an attack on Lawo in order to seize her.  Chamadevi aroused Lawo troops and allies and led the successful counterattack.  She did get pregnant later by a lover who enrolled in a monastery afterwards.  Meanwhile, Wasuthep up north decided it was time for Chamadevi to return to administer the newly laid out city of Haripunchai. 

       Chamadevi left Lawo by boat, a journey that took several months, and after being ceremonially installed as Haripunchai’s sovereign, a week later she gave birth to twin boys, Mahantayot and Anantayot.  She sponsored Theravada Buddhism as the state religion and several years later she mortally defeated the local Lawa chieftain Viranka, taking his domain under Haripunchai’s jurisdiction, yet diplomatically arranged for her sons to marry Viranka’s two daughters. 

       Chamadevi then pushed south, over the Kuntan Mountain Range, and founded Khelang, today’s Lampang. Khelang, 70 km south of Haripunchai, lies on the Wang River and was an important post on the trade routes to other Mon states.  Its layout was in the shape of a conch, surrounded by walls and moats, just like Haripunchai.  After abdicating as queen, leaving Mahantayot as Haripunchai’s sovereign, she retired to Khelang, where her other son Anantayot was the ruler.  At the age of 89 she died in Khelang and her son had the corpse taken to Haripunchai for the cremation. 

      Khelang continued to be the second most important city in the state.  It also bore the brunt of three Khmer attacks in the 12th century.  Haripunchai repulsed all of them and the victorious Mon king, head of the only Mon state not to be absorbed by Angkor’s expansion into central Thailand, built the golden chedi at Wat Haripunchai over what was Chamadevi’s original residence, and the chedis at Wat Chamadevi.  An earthquake flattened the latter, but in the early 13th century they were rebuilt  The smaller of the two contains her ashes.

       By then Tai Yuan had begun emigrating to Haripunchai and in the mid-13th century they were able to overthrow the Mon dynasty and install a Tai Yuan sovereign.  Later that century King Mengrai of Lanna conquered the city with the local royal family’s cooperation and Khelang was soon absorbed as well, its name subsequently changed to Lakhon.  Still, the city retained its local autonomy and prospered enough to afford new temples, many still extant, in the classic Lanna style.      

         The legacy of Lampang’s Haripunchai era is not very visible.  The city does have a Chamadevi shrine and a few famous temples nearby, like Wat Phra That Sadet, Wat Pang Yong Khok and Wat Lampang Luang, are restorations of ones originally founded in Chamadevi’s time.  Within today’s city limits the oldest extant relic is the stump of a brick chedi in the grounds of Wat Don Tao, first built by King Anantayot in the early 8th century.  More extensive ruins are at Wat Muen Khruen, from the early 13th century, just outside Pratu Ma, the northeastern gate.  The tapered, bell-shaped chedi has been restored but otherwise only the foundations of other buildings remain from a compound built three generations before the Lanna conquest.

       A few other temple ruins augment Lampang’s historical atmosphere.  In the heart of the old Wiang Neua quarter stands a relatively well preserved compound gate called Ku Chao Ya Suta, built in the late 14th century.  It is embellished with full relief sculptures over the arch and on the sides and is the entrance to Wat Kak Kaeo, where only the foundations of the other buildings remain. 

       Similarly, at Wat Pa Phrao, constructed in the mid-15th century, also outside Pratu Ma in the same neighborhood as Wat Muen Khruen, only the chedi still stands and it’s missing its upper spire. Its name can be translated as ‘place of the coconuts’.  It was outside the city walls, so may well have originally been, along with the older Wat Muen Khruen, a kind of forest temple.  A third abandoned ruin, in Wiang Neua, is the big but dilapidated chedi of Wat Umong, the only surviving remnant, tucked inside a crowded residential neighborhood.

       Other temples erected in the Lanna era are still is use, renovated in a manner that reflected the original design, of wooden buildings without the addition of paint or plaster, with roofs of dark tiles.  Wat Pathuton in a quiet part of Wiang Neua is an outstanding example, featuring fine carvings on the doors, classic Lanna viharn and a black chedi with gold embellishments.  It was named after one of the city’s former gates and part of the old city wall flanks its courtyard.

       Even more interesting is Wat Pong Yang Khok, southwest of the city past Lampang Luang.  According to the origin legend, Chamadevi was on her way to Lampang Luang when her elephant suddenly stopped and bowed.  The queen decided to spend the night there and prayed for a miraculous sign.  Then a halo of Buddha relics flashed over an anthill.  Chamadevi ordered a temple built over the anthill.

       The rather small viharn here is named after Chamadevi and renovated five hundred years ago.  The tall and wide building behind it, called the ‘castle’, went up around that time and now serves as the monks’ quarters.  A statue of Chamadevi stands outside on a pedestal across the street.  Within the compound is also a small shrine to the elephant that bowed to the Buddha, originally constructed, like the viharn, in 710.  Another shrine features a portrait, behind the Buddha image, of Po Thip Chang, the Lampang hero who freed the city from Burmese rule in the 18th century.

       A similar origin story narrates the founding of Wat Lin Hai, also in the same area.  An elephant carrying a Buddha relic from India stopped to bow at this site.  In 1683 a prince from Kengtung in northeast Myanmar, sponsored the construction of the temple here.  The viharn is in classic Lanna style and the entry gate features wonderful stucco sculptures.  The temple’s museum contains many antique artifacts, household goods, jewelry and sculptures

        As the southern part of the Kingdom of Lanna, Lampang was a target for attacks by Ayutthaya, which captured the city in 1515, but later withdrew.  The Burmese Kingdom of Ava conquered Lanna in 1558, but left local rulers as autonomous governors.  In 1660 King Narai of Ayutthaya marched his armies north and expelled the Burmese from most of Lanna.  But when Ayutthaya withdrew after Narai’s death, Ava reasserted control and installed its own governors.

       Still, Lampang was a long way from Ava and never fully resigned to foreign rule.  Revolts broke out periodically and in 1732, led by native Po Thip Chang, Lampang recovered its autonomy, which Ava reluctantly recognized and it was a quarter century before Ava re-imposed its rule.  In 1767 Ava destroyed Ayutthaya, but the survivors regrouped and founded a new state, the Kingdom of Siam, its capital on the Chao Phaya River, and began challenging an Ava in retreat just fifteen years later.

       Lampang under its ruler Kawila declared independence from Ava and made an alliance with Siam.  Ava attacked and besieged Lampang for three months in 1783, until an army from Siam relieved the city and drove the Burmese from the area.  Kawila’s forces continued to push Ava out of northern Thailand and re-established the state of Lanna as a vassal of Siam.  (From then on Lakhon became officially known as Lampang.)  Yet the Burmese threat persisted for another couple decades and one of the first tasks of the new government in Lanna was to strengthen its cities’ defenses.

       Lampang rebuilt its walls but these gradually disappeared as peace endured, the threat ended and the city expanded.  In recent years Pratu Ma, the Horse Gate, was reconstructed and on each end of it some remnants of the original mounds, bricks and moat remain in place.  Near the river in Wiang Nuea is the Ho Amok Tower, erected in 1808 and designed to support cannons along the top.  It was never used for defensive action but was left as a legacy of a bygone yet important historical era.

       Over the course of the 19th century Lanna gradually lost its autonomy and became fully integrated with Siam, politically and economically.  By 1900 Lampang was prospering, thanks to the launching of the teak business.  Loggers cut trees in the forest.  Elephants dragged out the logs and formed them into rafts at the riverside.  These rafts floated down the Wang River to its junction with the Chao Phaya and then on to Bangkok.

       Thai people living near the forests were at that time unwilling to work in them, so the logging captains encouraged immigration from Burma, then a British colony.  As a result many Burmese-style temples appeared in the city, especially across the river from the old town.  With their very different architectural features they add to the city’s variety as well as represent a distinct historical period.

       Likewise, so do the houses constructed for the teak wallahs.  Most of them still house descendants of the original owners, like the mansions along Kad Kong Ta.  The grandest of them is Baan Sao Mak, the House of Twenty Pillars, in a neighborhood nearby, which now serves as a museum, with a fascinating array of antique furniture inside.  A short stroll from Wat Pratuphong stands the old two-story house that belonged to Louis Leonowens, the husband of Anna of Anna and the King of Siam fame.  Not much is left of the furnishings, but in the yard is one of the early 20th century trucks used to transport teak logs and other displays of the trade.

       The final legacy of the teak trade period is the Lampang train station, which opened in 1916 to connect the city with Bangkok, 642 km south.  Logs moved much more expeditiously after that.  By then Chiang Mai was into the business, too, so construction began to extend the line.  The Kuntan Mountains Range was in the way, so workers created a tunnel through it and then two double-span bridges across streams; the White Bridge just north of the tunnel and the Black Bridge beside Lamphun.  Chiang Mai railway station opened in 1921.

       The logging business has ceased, but Lampang today reflects its commercial success in other trades and industries, including tourism. For visitors Lampang has many relics from throughout its history, waiting to be appreciated.  After all, the city has been continuously inhabited for nearly 1400 years.


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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Chiang Dao—the City of Stars


                                   by Jim Goodman


      Doi Chiang  Dao, Thailand’s third tallest mountain at 2225 meters, stands on a broad plain, overlooking a rolling, forested landscape, a few km from the town named after it.  Originally called Doi Piang Dao (“mountain at the level of the stars”), the town beside it became known as Chiang Dao (“the city of stars”) and the mountain became more commonly referred to by the same name.  About 80 km north of Chiang Mai, it is popular day excursion, primarily for the caves within the mountain, sometimes including a stop on the way at an elephant riding camp.

       The entrance to the caves lies near the foot of the mountain, with two passage ways inside.  The upper one runs about 200 meters, is illuminated and contains, besides the usual stalagmites and stalactites, a number of Buddhist shrines.  The lower passage way is 750 meters long, full of twists and turns, rugged and narrow, no shrines and no overhead lights.  Taking this route requires a guide and lamps.  Even with a powerful flashlight, the novice is unlikely to know which turn leads on to something attractive and which runs into a dead end wall of rock.

       The shorter upper cave is easily negotiable with enough illumination, and not overly bright, to see everything clearly and maintain the atmosphere.  The stalactites are usually walls of rock with vertical fluted indentations hanging down from the ceiling, some with very jagged pointed ends.  The stalagmites are less numerous, some in breast-shaped mounds lining a ledge, others resembling human heads.  None of the rock formations are particularly arresting, but they provide a nice backdrop to the shrines.

       The biggest one is not far from the entrance, featuring large seated Buddhas in a niche in the cave wall.  Further on are other seated Buddhas, big and small, in rows on ledges and a reclining Buddha in a space between two boulders.  Perhaps the most interesting image, towards the end of the upper trail and next to a large seated crowned Buddha, is of a bewhiskered, crowned figure, shirtless and wearing pants and what looks like royal jewelry, standing within the coils of a seven-headed naga (mythical serpent).

       Buddhist imagery also graces the area in front of the cave entrance.  Stone chedis stand along the shore of a clear and clean, turquoise-colored pond.   Small Buddha images sit in niches in the cliff behind, while a small chedi rests on a dragon-headed boat in the water next to the path.  To the right of the pond a regal gilded Buddha sits on the coils of a naga, while all around it are similarly sculpted Buddhas, all in white.  Another chedi tops a nearby mound.

       The settlement beside the cave is a typical northern village with mostly stilted houses, whose residents work as guides in the caves or up the mountain.  Some of the women are involved in basketry.  Several quiet guest houses also exist in the vicinity, as well as in the town.  While a visit to the cave will not take much time, some visitors come for a longer stay, for the town and district offer other attractions.

       Around three hundred species of tropical birds fly around the area.  Bird watchers can spot some of them on early morning hikes around the base of Doi Chiang Dao and lots more by trekking to the summit.  This requires a local guide, for the mountain is a national park, heavily forested and the trail is not so easily evident to one who’s never taken it.  It’s 7.5 kilometers to the top and the journey up and back normally takes about eight hours.  While it can be accomplished in a day, most hikers arrange to stay the night camping at the summit, in order to appreciate the night stars and the splendid, panoramic view of the sunrise.  And the tropical birds will be more active as the hikers then make their way through the trees down to the mountain’s base.

       A less taxing excursion is a visit to Wat Tham Pha Plong, two km north of the cave.  The temple is on top of a small hill, surrounded by the jungle, accessible by a staircase of 500 steps.  For nature lovers, continuing north in the district are more venues.  The Pha Daeng National Park extends over a thousand square kilometers, a landscape of rolling valleys and forested mountains and isolated clearings with villages of the Karen and Lisu minorities.

       Besides the birds and the scenery, the park contains other attractions like the Pong Arn hot springs, which offers tubs for visitors wishing to soak in the therapeutic waters.  Closer to the northern border with Myanmar is the Sri Songwan Waterfall, tumbling off a high cliff.  Like Doi Chiang Dao, the mountains in the park are part of the Darn Lao Range, running north on the east side of the Salween River through northeast Myanmar up to Yunnan.  Doi Angkhang, west of Fang and Thailand’s second highest peak, is also part of this range.  Doi Thoai, west of Sri Songwan, is the source of the Ping River, which flows past Chiang Mai.

       From the cave a road runs a few km directly to the market area on the northeast side of the city.  Next to the road just a couple blocks before the market is Chiang Dao’s most unusual temple—Wat Mae It.  It has the usual compound elements of assembly hall, monks’ quarters and ordination hall and a large image of Upakhu, a famous 3rd century Indian monk.  Its broad courtyard, though, features displays of the tortures of the Buddhist Hell. 

       Figures with abnormally stretched arms, torsos and legs stand in a line taller than the viharn.  Below them Hell’s demons exercise various forms of torture on sinners both male and female.  The demons saw bodies down the middle, slice open heads, rip out tongues, mutilate genitals, force naked bodies up thorn trees and other nefarious maneuvers. 

       According to the Buddhist doctrine the sinners will experience excruciating pain but not die.  The inflicted wounds will heal and then be reopened.  The torture will last x number of years and then the victims will be reborn for another round of life on earth.  The “Temple of Hell” concept is not unique to Chiang Dao, for several exist in other parts of Thailand, including a bigger, more elaborate one at Wat Mae Ket Noi near Mae Jo, not far from Chiang Mai.  The idea is to scare believers into being good by graphic exhibits of what happens to those who are bad.


   There’s not much else of interest in the town itself, with a population of about 15,000 and no relics from its establishment in the time of the Kingdom of Lanna.  The one major and colorful exception is the weekly Tuesday morning market, for it draws not only Thais from all over the district but also some of the hill tribes, as the ethnic minorities are called.  Stalls and stands start setting up from 6 a.m., while other sellers simply lay out their goods on the ground next to the main street.  Further back from the road more stalls occupy a big field that is otherwise empty every other day.  Goods on sale range from basic consumer items like shoes, clothing, sunglasses, tools and small appliances to every kind of agricultural product, plus various food stands offering snacks, drinks or noodle meals.

       A few Hmong women show up, probably coming from the Chiang Mai area, managing stalls selling Hmong jewelry, clothing and accessories.  They can be recognized by their pleated batik skirts and their hair tied in a bun.  Much more numerous are the Lisu and Palong, both of whom have several settlements in the district.  The Lisu have been here much longer, in some cases over a hundred years, while the Palong began arriving only in the early 1980s, escaping the ethnic insurgencies raging in Myanmar at the time.

       The Lisu are the fifth largest ethnic minority in the country, after the Karen, Hmong, Lahu and Akha, living mainly in the northern border provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son.  Their language belongs to the Yi sub-group of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family, related to Yi, Akha and Lahu.  Wooden houses, and more recently concrete ones, characterize the settlements, usually sited on the higher and steeper slopes of the hills.  As a result they were relatively isolated from life in the plains. 

       In the late 20th century their forested habitat became a target of the logging industry, which began cutting down most of the forests throughout Thailand, not just the north.  To save what remained, the government banned logging and turned several northern areas into national parks, where cutting trees and hunting were outlawed and ‘encroachers’ evicted.  Despite the fact the rate of deforestation was much lower in the north than the rest of Thailand, thanks to the hill tribes’ traditional skills of land management, the government continued to see them as a threat to conservation and periodically has launched campaigns to evict them.  Just seven years ago, for example, authorities demolished the century-old village of Laowo and forced the removal of its people.  Fortunately, things have simmered down since then.

       By now most villages have switched from growing rice in plots rotated by the slash-and-burn method to cash crops—vegetables, tea, coffee—in fixed fields.  While their material life has thus altered considerably, the Lisu still hold on to their other customs, like the traditional clothing.  Even the men often prefer to wear the Lisu trousers, loose and wide to the knees and tight around the calves, usually brown or blue, both at home and when visiting the towns. 

       The women dress much more colorfully.  Traditionally, over plain black trousers they donned a long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket in bright colors, slit on the sides and front and back panels reaching to the knees, with thin bands of appliqué around the shoulders and neck.  A couple decades ago the favored colors were red, blue and green.  But nowadays the apparent uniformity has given way to different colors on the sleeves and front fastening flap and even cut differently.  Nevertheless, the current style is still authentically Lisu and definitely stands out in the crowds.  No one else wears anything similar.

       The other minority attending market day, more numerous than the Lisu, is the Palong.  Being relatively recent residents, the Palong are not Thai citizens and are restricted from traveling outside their district.  A few may turn up in Chiang Mai, like for Shan festivals, as the Palong are also Buddhist.  Government publications do not even list the Palong as one of Thailand’s minorities, though with a population around 5000 they are larger than registered minorities like the Khamu, Htin and Mlabri.  Chiang Mai’s Hill Tribe Museum does not include any exhibit or mention of them, though they are invited to set up a booth when the museum hosts a fair or special exhibition.

       Thailand’s Palong came from Myanmar.  The Palong also live in southwestern Yunnan, China, where they are known as the De’ang.  Their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer linguistic family and is related to Wa and Bulang.  Like the latter, and some of the Wa, they are Theravada Buddhists, following the same religious calendar and activities as their Shan and Thai neighbors.  In a typical Palong village their homes are stilted houses of wooden poles and beams, split bamboo walls and balcony and thatched roofs.

       Besides rice and vegetables, the Palong also grow cotton, which the women spin and weave to make their clothing components, using a simple back-strap loom fixed to a pole underneath the house floor.  The basic women’s outfit is an ankle-length red tube skirt worn with a long-sleeved jacket.  The jacket color is black or blue, with a wide strip of red running vertically down the front.  A narrow strip of cloth, studded with small silver disks, surrounds each upper arm sleeve, with coins, bead strings or long tassels suspended from the lower edge.

       The red skirt has very thin horizontal stripes of blue, white or gray and folds in front at the waist.  Lacquered black rattan rings wrap around the waist to secure it.  Instead of rattan rings, or in addition to it, Palong women may wear a thick silver belt, about 5 cm wide.  The only other kind of ornamentation will be small earrings and silver bangles.

       Since the warfare over the border has much subsided, hill tribes crossing into Thailand to flee the violence has also sharply reduced.  As a result the Palong (Lisu as well) are under less government pressure and their lives have become more stable and secure, even while still officially ‘stateless’.  Their weaving skills have aroused the interest of tour agencies, who have been arranging groups to visit Palong villages set up to showcase their weaving, providing an extra income for the villagers.  Meanwhile, for foreign and domestic visitors, every Tuesday morning the Palong, like the Hmong and Lisu, are the stars of Chiang Dao.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Luchun: the Hani Majority County


                                                               by Jim Goodman


       Southern Yunnan’s Honghe is a Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, wherein the Hani and Yi minority nationalities comprise a majority of the population or occupy over 50% of the land.  Usually the latter is the case, especially north of the Red River, where Han immigrants have long been settled in both rural and urban areas.  South of the Red River the land is much hillier, farmed by using the ancient and famous water-filled terraces, and Han residence is confined to the cities.  Even there, employed by the government bureaucracy or as shopkeepers or involved in other urban services, they are in competition with local minorities.

       Luchun County, in the southwest and bordering northwest Vietnam, attracted but a handful of Han immigrants after 1949.  Much of its territory is mountainous and still heavily forested and it has always been relatively isolated, off the main trade routes and mainly accessible via Yuanyang County to its east.  As a result, Luchun County’s population is 80% Hani, nearly all of whom can trace their residence back many generations.

       Entering from Yuanyang County, after 15 km the traveler comes to Luchun city, the county capital, lying on a long, high, narrow, east-west ridge.  Its modern buildings, largely whitewashed cement, line the ridge, with Hani villages and rice terraces immediately below on each side.  The bus station, central market and public park are in a four-block stretch in the city center.  From the park and from glimpses between the buildings are good views of the terraces and mountain scenery.

       Most urban residents are Hani.  Most shop signboards are bilingual—in Chinese characters and the English letters used to write the Hani language.  The Hani call the city Donya and their language is used more often here than Chinese. 

       The main Hani sub-group call themselves Awo Hani.  Females of all ages still prefer their traditional clothing, consisting of a very Chinese-style, long-sleeved jacket over trousers and a round decorated turban.  Most jackets fasten on the right side, with a few buttoned down the front.  The style is relatively uniform, but they could be any color.  Some prefer black or dark blue, and not just the older women.  Others choose a variety of soft pastel colors, often patterned, no two alike.  The trousers are usually plain or else black with a blue stripe around the shins.     

       On their heads they wear a round cloth turban shaped like a pillbox hat with a tassel hanging over the side.  Women from Sanmeng to the south can be identified by the huge woolen tassel draping over the right ear.  The turban could be plain or decorated with silver studs or cultured pearls.

       Every horse and rat day in the 12-day animal cycle Luchun stages its market day.  Villagers swarm into the city bearing a variety of products to sell or empty pack-baskets to fill with goods to take home.  They set up stalls to offer rice, various vegetables, spices, forest goods, medicinal herbs, baby frogs caught in the terraces, honeycombs, edible insects or clothing.  Some may even just stand somewhere on the street holding a single item, like a cooked bird or a newly made traditional jacket. 

       Market day also attracts Hani from other parts of the county, mostly the south, like Sanmeng and areas closer to the Vietnam border.  Some groups from the far south wear fancier turbans with decorative flaps and tassels and a jacket festooned with several triangles of silver studs.  The crowd may also include a sprinkling of other minority nationalities in the county, like Yi, Dai and Yao.

       A few Yi are migrants from the Nisu sub-group in Yuanyang County, who run small shops and businesses.  Their women wear brightly colored, side-fastened jackets with bands of appliqué on the hems, sides and cuffs, and a belt with long, wide, decorated ends hanging over the buttocks.  Younger Nisu girls may also wear a silver-studded, chicken-shaped hat.

       The county’s indigenous Yi belong to another sub-group from four villages near Niukong, 37 km west of Luchun.  The road winds down from the high ridge and runs along the Niukong River, passing many Hani villages, mostly on the south side, with mud-brick houses and thatched or more often tiled roofs—the typical rural Yunnan style, though not enclosed by compound walls.  After passing a few bamboo bridges the road reaches Niukong town beside the river.  Market day here takes place a day before Luchun, on snake and pig days, drawing local Yi as well as a few Hani sub-groups.

       The Yi villages are up above the town and consist of houses similar to those of the Hani.  Yi women here wear a long-tailed coat, sometimes shorter in the front, side-fastened, over plain black trousers.  Older women wear white, younger ones prefer indigo or black with red, light blue or magenta sleeves and shoulders.  They appliqué stylized patterns of dragons, phoenixes, fish, butterflies, birds and peonies below the neck, front and back, around the shoulders and on the cuffs and elbows.  Most wrap their hair in a simple kerchief, but some don a silver-studded “chicken hat” and tie a hair braid over it to keep it in place.   

       West of Niukong the road rises into the hills and away from the river to a turnoff about 15 km later that runs south for 65 km to Qimaba, a large Dai settlement of over 200 houses almost exactly in the center of the county.  Hani villages sprinkle the hills in the beginning, but soon the environment is heavily forested until Qimaba, which lies on a gentle slope above its terraces. Irrigated by streams that also run through the residential area, reinforced by stone walls on their sides, the terraces stretch out like a fan in front of the village and end at the cliffs above the Chama River. 

       The Dai inhabitants belong to an animist sub-group that migrated from Shiping County to this isolated venue in the 19th century.   They have the same mud-brick, tile-roofed, two-story houses as elsewhere in the county, but with an open section in the center without roof, over a slightly sunken square pit next to a water tank, where they do their washing, while a drain carries the waste water into the stream along the path outside.  Thus, in Qimaba, water engineering is not just for their agriculture; it extends to the settled area as well.

       Most of the women prefer their traditional outfits:  blue or black tubular skirt, side-fastened, long-sleeved top with embroidered front, hems and cuffs and sometimes the entire back of the jacket.  They wear these basic components all day, even when working in the fields.  For social occasions or going to the market they may also wear a tall, elaborate head piece lined with coins and silver studs above the brim, with a long black flap hanging down the back.

       Most of the area north of Qimaba is part of the Huanglianshan Reserved Forest, a mountainous wooded zone around the Huanglian Mountain peak of 2637 meters.  A few stray Hani and Yao villages lie tucked away in the forest, but the Yao are more accessible in Shangpinghe, a large village just west of Pinghe in the southeast.  The houses are mud-brick or whitewashed concrete, closely placed in rows on a slope above their rice terraces.

       The Yao here are members of the Landian sub-group, also found in Yuanyang and Jinping Counties.  Both sexes usually dress in their traditional plain black clothing, the women in bulky, side-fastened jackets with tails in the back, the men in knee-length jackets buttoning vertically in front.  Women also wear a skein of magenta woolen threads draping across the jacket front and don a tall black headdress over a coil of black braids.  Men wear a round cap with silver disks around the bottom.

       The turn-off south to Pinghe is just before entering Luchun County from the east.  The road skirts the eastern side of the county for 47 km to Pinghe, overlooking valleys cut by tributary streams of the Mengman River.  This is the most heavily populated part of Luchun County and Hani villages lie all along the slopes, with their water-filled terraces climbing up to cover over 80% of the hills flanking the streams.  

       A branch road just after the Pinghe turnoff winds for 37 km up and down hills to Sanmeng, a Hani town directly south of Luchun geographically.  The bus stops at the bottom of the hill, from which it is a steep hike to the village itself.  The reward is the splendid scenery visible all around, accented in winter by low-lying, wispy morning cloudlets.   

       Compared to the eastern and northern sectors of Luchun County, the rest of it is rather sparsely settled and very forested.  Not many roads link the isolated villages with main thoroughfares.  After the Qimaba turnoff the main highway continues to Dashuigou, a nondescript town itself, but interesting for the different sub-groups of Hani.  The women of one dress in similar style as Hani around Luchun, but with a fancier head-covering, knee-length trousers and colored cloth wrappers around the calves.  Another group wears long jackets and very tall black cloth headdresses with a rectangular top, along with big round silver earrings.  Both sub-groups are spillovers from Mojiang County to the west.

       From Dashuigou the main road runs through the hills south to Daheishan, a town about the same size and look.  Then it turns southwest and soon enters Jiangcheng County.  The Hani in this part of the county dress more like those in Luchun, but their dialect differs considerably, being more like the Hani dialect of Pu’er Prefecture.

       The Hani language is a member of the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family.  It is related to Yi, Lahu and Lisu, and like them has several dialects.  The basic grammar and syntax for all Tibeto-Burman languages is the same, with a subject-object-verb word order.  When the Chinese government decided to devise writing systems for those languages without them, the dialect spoken in Dazhai, just beyond the western outskirts of Luchun city, became the standard for the Hani language and the one used to make a Hani-English dictionary.  It is the one spoken over most of Luchun County, as well as, with a few vocabulary differences, Jinping, Yuanyang, Honghe, Hekou and northwest Vietnam. 


After long campaigns to Sinicize minority nationalities and eradicate traditional culture, after the Reform Era began the government reversed that policy and encouraged ethnic identity.  Not every old custom was revived, but certainly ethnic pride returned.  As part of that manifestation, in 1994 the primary school in Guangma village, on the slope across the stream on the south side of Luchun, began instructing in the Hani language and teaching students how to read and write in Hani, using English letters.


   For the first three years instruction is given in both Hani and Chinese and afterwards mainly in Chinese.  Up through the fifth grade students also have twice weekly Hani language lessons.  The Honghe Prefecture government sponsored the publishing of books in Hani, generally folk tales, Hani proverbs and seasonal work songs. 

       Revivalism has also meant an active role once again for the Hani ritual specialist.  The Hani are animist and employ the specialist to perform the proper traditional rites to appease potentially troublesome spirits, protect the fields and the people’s health, and be able to read portents in the liver of the sacrificial animal. 

       Hani festivals like the Long Table Feast are back in vogue.  For this one all the village men dine together with all the tables lined up on a single village lane and crammed with a great variety of dishes, from meat cooked myriad ways to different edible insects, with each family’s women bringing a tray full for the collective feast.  Liberally punctuated by toasting and drinking, the meal takes all afternoon.  The men then retire and it’s the women’s turn, though not including the drinks.

       Some villages have the traditional gates at the main entrance.  Consisting of a wooden beam aid across two upright poles, it has carved swords or other warning symbols to keep evil spirits from visiting.  When villagers sicken and no medicine seems to work they will call on a shaman to go into a trance to find out what the afflicting spirit demands in order to recuperate and then follow the shaman’s advice afterwards.  They claim it always works.

       For the Lunar New Year villages erect swings and teeter boards for the youth to enjoy.  The swing consists of four long tree limbs lashed upright together with a pair of ropes suspended from the top and joined by a plank at the bottom.  The teeter board is a long beam inserted into hole in a tree stump.  A rider sits on each side, steering the board both up and down and around in a circle.

       For adults, the main activity is family visits and banquets.  And the Hani women will put on their fanciest traditional jacket and turban and whatever jewelry they have.  New Year is always a time of hope and it’s better to dress in your finest to welcome it.  

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               For more on Hani culture, see my e-book The Terrace Builders    

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Allures of Tengchong


                                                            by Jim Goodman                            


       From ancient times until the advent of modern highways and railroads, the main means of long-distance trade and international commerce by land was the caravan.  Consisting of sometimes hundreds of animals, carrying both trade goods and their own provisions for the lengthy, arduous journey, caravans began connecting China economically with places as far away as Europe from the early Han Dynasty.  Because the main item exported from China was silk, the caravan routes became known as the Silk Road.  The most famous route ran from northwest China all the way to Europe.  Another, less traveled but not as long or grueling, was the Southwest Silk Road, running from Sichuan through Yunnan and on to Burma and India.

       Han Dynasty authority in Yunnan was intermittent and under the Tang and Song Dynasties, Yunnan was an independent state; Nanzhao during the Tang and the Kingdom of Dali during the Song.  Neither of these states exerted much control of their southwestern territories, relying on autonomous local rulers to keep the peace.  When the Mongols conquered Yunnan they set up an administrative center in Tengchong, but the area was still lightly populated and relatively lawless until the Ming Dynasty drove the Mongols out in the late 14th century.  With Yunnan now part of China, the Ming encouraged Chinese settlement in the province. 

       Traffic on the Southwest Silk Road revived and as Tengchong was the last major stop inside China before crossing into Burma, immigrants arrived in droves and established businesses that all thrived.  The city’s setting was part of the attraction.  At an elevation of 1640 meters, with a mild climate year-round, it sits on a broad plain with mountains standing in a horseshoe shape around it, the opening to the south.  The land produced grain, sugarcane, tea leaves and oil crops.  Around 400 years ago tobacco cultivation began, generally on the slopes of the volcanoes north of the city.  A very high-quality tobacco, nowadays it is usually blended with other Yunnan tobaccos.

      Tengchong was also a transit point for silk and other items from Sichuan and Yunnan.  The city’s main import was Burmese jade, which the city’s craftsmen carved and prepared for export all over China.  The jade business is still part of the city, augmented in recent years by Burmese amber.  The city holds a Jade and Amber Bazaar every dive days, attracting merchants from both China and Myanmar.

       As their businesses prospered, some merchants left home to expand their business abroad.  This was particularly true in Heshun, 10 km south, a town famous for its high percentage of residents who became Overseas Chinese.  Retaining connections with the homeland, they endowed their families, and the town itself, with funds for nice houses, as well as parks, pavilions and even a library.  With architecture classical but influenced by foreign styles, obvious prosperity, quiet atmosphere, lack of slums pleasant parks, views and pavilions, Heshun is a popular excursion out of Tengchong. 

       Heshun translates as Peace and Harmony, an appropriate name for a town that exemplifies those concepts in its layout and atmosphere.  It lies on a knoll above a clear shallow stream, holding about 1300 houses and 7000 residents.  Nearly every family has at least one relative who is an Overseas Chinese. In fact, the number of Heshun-born Overseas Chinese is nearly twice that of the town’s current residents. Over the centuries it has earned a reputation for producing talented men—scholars and educators, writers and artists, philosophers and rich merchants. 

       A road winds around the base of the knoll and branching lanes lead to the houses, pavilions and ponds.  A classical gateway marks the entrance to each neighborhood.  The houses are usually whitewashed, with sloping tiled roofs and upturned corners.  All of them look like the domiciles of fairly wealthy families.  A few exhibit a mixed architectural influence, with standard Chinese style roofs, the corners turned up higher than usual, and very Western-like doors, balconies and windows.

       The only non-Chinese style building in town is the large library on the campus of Yiqun Middle School.  Set up in 1924, sponsored by Heshun’s native Overseas Chinese, it contains over 60,000 volumes, including some rare ancient texts.  The town’s other public buildings all reflect the traditional style, embellished with carved beams, painted rafters and vertical boards of poem couplets, inscribed by famous calligraphers.

        Some of these structures stand in the parks and rest-stops, of which there are several, often beside ponds.  The town has plenty of places for strollers to take a break and enjoy the serenity and scenery.  The ponds may be active at any time, with children playing or women washing clothes, using stone anvils mounted at the edge of the pool.  The women do their laundry under roofed shelters built long ago as a gift by newlywed husbands before they set off on their business travels.  Yuanlongtan, about 1.5 km behind Heshun, has the most limpid water and lies in front of the town’s largest temple compound, sprawling up the wooded hill behind it.

       Back in Tengchong it is difficult to find traditional architecture, as the existing such neighborhoods scattered between concrete high-rises are slowly but inevitably disappearing.  The city does boast one outstanding natural attraction not far from the center—Dieshuihe, a waterfall that plunges 40 meters over a sheer cliff.  Inscribed in stylized calligraphy on the side of the cliff are four characters that describe the waterfall as “a sword that sweeps away the dense miasma.”

       The words take on a poignant irony when one knows that in 1879 Qing Dynasty troops, fearing a revival of the Muslim Rebellion, massacred hundreds of Tengchong Muslims by hurling them over the falls.  The incident, not mentioned on any signpost in the vicinity, makes Dieshuihe a kind of historical attraction.  Another is the city’s former British Consulate, a large, forlorn-looking building built from 1921-31 and abandoned when Japanese troops invaded Tengchong in 1942.

       British involvement in Tengchong began with an expedition led by Augustus Raymond Margary to explore trade routes from Shanghai through China and into India.   While he was traveling a little north of Tengchong, in February, 1875 bandits waylaid his party and killed him and his ten Chinese workers.  Great Britain then demanded compensation from the Qing government, while local authorities countered that the British had not informed them in advance of Margary’s trip.  Well aware of the Qing Dynasty’s decline and weakness, the British   forced one of its ‘Unequal Treaties’ on China, this one called the Chefoo Convention.

       Under its terms the Qing government agreed to pay compensation to the victims’ families, arrest and try the killers, grant British citizens the right of extra-territoriality and make revisions in its trade policy favorable to Britain.  Ten years later Britain took control of northern Burma and Tengchong eventually became a trading post for goods coming out of British India. Prosperity returned to Tengchong and prevailed until the Japanese occupation of Burma.

       After the Japanese War came the Chinese Civil War, the establishment of a Communist system, the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution, which reached into even remote cities like Tengchong, and finally the Reform Era.  From then on former businesses revived and thrived, while industrialization and exploitation of the county’s natural and mineral resources accelerated.  The construction of new highways across the province rendered access to Tengchong much easier, an asset which sparked growth of a tourist industry.

       While it doesn’t have the towering snow mountains of the northwest or the tropical environment of Xishuangbanna, the county is unique in Yunnan for its many volcanoes, some of them still active.  Relatively young volcanoes, geologically speaking, form a partial ring around the county capital.  Adventurous visitors can take a long hike up the side of one to see the crater and view other mountains from a high perspective.

       Most tourists were Chinese from big cities and unlikely to make such an endeavor.  The geothermal feature more interesting to them was the presence of hot springs.  Several of these lie scattered around the county, but the biggest is Rehai—the Hot Sea—about 20 km south of Tengchong.   

       Visitors here take a leisurely walk through the forest on a trail beside a creek.  The hot springs pop up at frequent intervals, sometimes within the creek, or spewing from a fissure in a rock shaped like a toad’s head, sometimes out of a nearby pool.  A few bubble out of manmade stone cauldrons, decorated with carved animal figures. The most impressive is the Big Boiling Pot, 3 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep, its steam, at 90 degrees C., gushing up into the air several meters.

       The Rehai springs contain many minerals good for the health.  They are effective in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and skin diseases.  Near some of the larger hot springs in the 9 km2 park are bath houses and steam beds where guests can indulge in such treatment.

       Tengchong’s other alluring attraction is the presence of the very traditional Hua Lisu ethnic minority, living in the highlands northwest of the city.  Hua means ‘flower’ and this Lisu sub-group is so named for the bright, ‘flowery’ colors of their traditional apparel, especially that of the women.  Lisu tradition claims the Lisu had a kingdom in eastern Tibet before the Tibetans migrated there.  Afterwards they gradually moved south through Sichuan into western Yunnan.

       They are divided into several sub-groups, but share the same language, part of the Yi group of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group, related to Yi, Hani and Lahu.  They have no written system, but the Lisu preserve their history in songs, which can sometimes take an entire day to sing.  The Hua Lisu, one of the largest sub-groups, moved into the mountains of Tengchong around the beginning of the 16th century.

      Security was an initial problem, for Ming Dynasty rule had not established control very much beyond the Southwest Silk Road route.  Bandits ruled the rural and remote areas.  Finally, in the early 16th century the Ming Court dispatched Minister Wang Ji to conduct a pacification campaign in southwest Yunnan.  To augment the forces he brought with him, he recruited local residents who had suffered from cross-border bandit raids, especially the Lisu, and gave them military training.  

       The campaign was a success, though Wang Ji died just before its conclusion, and law and order was established on the frontier.  Other than being conscripted for government labor projects from time to time, the Lisu remained pretty aloof from the plains, practicing swidden agriculture, hunting and gathering and a basically subsistence economy.  Over the centuries some of them moved to lower altitudes, straddling or flanking streams, and raised different crops on fixed fields.  They were also involved in the logging industry in the past. 


      The easiest place to meet them is Guyong town, 52 km nw of Tengchong, on market day.  Guyong sits on an elevated plateau a few hundred meters higher than Tengchong.  The town is Han-dominated, as is the immediate rural area, but the hills are just several kilometers away, full of Lisu villages, and some of them show up in Guyong on market day.

       They stand out at once for the attraction of their colorful clothing, both men and particularly women.  Men might wear a turban or a broad-brimmed hat, plus a long jacket, usually white or pinstriped gray, boots and a sash over one shoulder of discs cut from cowry shells.   The women wear long-tailed blue coats with silver clasps in the front and brightly colored flaps at the back, knee-length pants and puttees or black rattan rings around the calves and a belt with embroidered tassels holding a long black apron with colored trimming.

       Their jewelry comprises many strings of beads, a stiff round collar ornamented with silver studs, buttons, shell discs or cowries, with silver pendants suspended from the bottom of the collar, plus other pendants that hang from the belt or apron.  The traditional headgear is a round cap; of a row of cowry shell discs, with colored cloth on top and in flaps over the back.

       The most interesting time to visit Tengchong’s Lisu is during the Sword Ladder Festival, 8th day of the 2nd lunar month.  They stage it in honor of Wang Ji, their commander in the pacification campaign.  His soldiers revered him and said he was so brave he could walk across a bed of hot coals and climb a ladder of swords.  This was a way of saying ‘very very brave’ but the Lisu took it literally.  Every year brave volunteers run over a ‘sea of fire’ at night and the next day climb a ladder of 36 machetes, the sharp side up.  Their only reward is the prestige from doing it. 

       Lisu villages have a better material life now, with roads, bridges, schools, easy access to the market and other improvements.  They are more integrated into the modern world, yet the Sword Ladder Festival proves that they cling to certain old traditions, especially those that are so tied up with their history and identity, that are quintessentially Lisu. 

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