Monday, September 27, 2021

French Adventurers in Yunnan 1867-73


                                                                 by Jim Goodman 

       In the mid-19th century, bolstered by the new wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, France began competing with Great Britain over establishing colonies in Southeast Asia.  The British had already taken lower and central Burma, Siam was strong enough to resist, so the French turned to Vietnam and forced a treaty in 1862 that gave them control over several provinces in Cochinchina, the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam.  The following year they signed a treaty with Cambodia that made that country a French protectorate, probably saving it from annexation by Siam.  Now that they possessed lands along the Mekong River the next question was how to take advantage of it.  Most importantly, was this the river road to China’s riches?         

       To find out how close to the Chinese border the river could be navigated a group of French explorers, military officers and their Vietnamese porters and servants formed the French Mekong River Expedition.  Led by Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier, it departed Saigon 5 June 1866.   Before the year was over they had discovered the Khone Falls in southern Laos, an effective barrier to long-distance navigation.  Nevertheless, the party continued upriver, traversing ever-rougher country in ever-hotter weather until they reached Luang Prabang 29 April. There they took a four-week rest.

       Having jettisoned most of its baggage, sent its collections of jungle specimens on to Bangkok, and reduced loads to one bag per person, the party set out again 25 May soon after the onset of the rainy season.  The journey was further complicated by political troubles trying to pass through the petty states of northern Burma.  Eventually they got into Menglong for a first meal on Chinese soil.  They admired the White Pagoda there and began trekking north, passing exotic peoples like the Aini, with their unusual head-dresses.

       They reached Jinghong at the end of September. Local Dai officials were inclined to refuse the party permission to proceed, until Lagrée showed them a letter from Prince Gong, a brother of the recently deceased emperor.

       Departing Jinghong 2 October 1867, in two weeks they reached Simao (today’s Pu’er).  A fortified city 300 years old, lying in a plain surrounded by low mountains, Simao was their first genuinely Chinese city and they were overjoyed to be there, past the petty intrigues of the Dai and Burmese.  But they were aware they had walked into a province wracked by the Muslim Revolt and as they traveled further north they would come across evidence of the devastation wrought by the war.

       The Chinese mandarins in Simao extended their best hospitality, in spite of the explorers' decrepit appearance.  One of them, though, tried to remove Lagrée's hat to see the back of his head.  Rumor had it that Europeans were so powerful because they had a third eye in the back of the head, with which they sought out riches while appearing to be looking at something else.  The explorers thought this humorous, so it did not cause offence.  The mandarins were anyway cooperative, both here at Simao and at the next stops of Pu'er (now called Ning’er) and Mojiang.

       On 17 November they came to Yuanjiang, where they had their grandest reception, greeted by a party of mandarins with an escort for them of 200 soldiers and porters.  Posters bearing the guests' names were hoisted aloft, cannons boomed and music played.  The chief magistrate demonstrated that even in so remote a place as Yuanjiang he was not without his own small collection of modern gadgets.  These included a watch, a telescope and a stereoscopic viewer, which he used to look at erotic pictures.

       But of greater significance to the French was Yuanjiang's proximity to the Red River.  That this waterway, which empties into the sea below Haiphong in Vietnam, might be the river road to China, rather than the Mekong, ignited flames in Garnier's imagination.  He tried taking local boats as far as they would go, but soon came to dangerous rapids banked by high, perpendicular cliffs.  No amount of cajoling or threatening could induce the boatmen to take him any further.

       Still harboring hopes of navigation downstream somewhere, to be explored at some future date, Garnier made his way to Jianshui to join the rest of the party.  Arriving ahead of them through the magnificent Chaoyang Gate, he aroused the immediate and overbearing curiosity of the local residents.  When the crowd took to hurling stones at him to see how he would react, Garnier fired off a few quick shots with his revolver.  The crowd, amazed that a firearm could shoot successive rounds without having to reload, quickly scattered.

       The rest of the party arrived soon and the entire group was then insulated from the unruly populace by the mandarin Li Daren.  Under this powerful magistrate’s protection the explorers were safe from unwanted scrutiny.  They experienced similar conditions in Tonghai and were obliged to barricade themselves there.  (In Tonghai they also experienced a freak early snowstorm, which for the Vietnamese in the party was their first ever look at snow.)  But nothing untoward happened in Jiangchuan and from here on their reception was normal and civil.

       Leaving Jiangchuan and skirting Xingyun Lake the party came to its first grisly evidence of Yunnan's civil war.  There on a plain beside the lake stood hundreds of unburied coffins, containing victims of a cholera epidemic that followed recent fighting in the area.  Continuing towards Kunming they passed by many villages that had been burnt to the ground.  They spent a night on the southern shore of Dian Lake and arrived at Kunming 23 December for a two-week rest and a discussion of what to do next.  It was the biggest city they had soon so far and  was heavily fortified, as the war was always in mind.

       Since leaving Jinghong for Simao the Mekong Expedition had veered further and further away from the river they were supposed to be surveying.   Now Garnier, always eager to be the first Frenchman to discover anything, proposed to take part of the group west to Dali to once again explore the course of the Mekong.  Lagrée, by now extremely ill, acquiesced, his own interest being simply to stay put and try to recuperate.

       The Muslim Revolt was still raging, though Kunming had fully recovered from its brief occupation by the rebels several years earlier.  Du Wenxiu's forces were at the moment mostly quartered around Dali, but one never knew when they might move east on a foray.  As insurance for the road, as well as to serve as an introduction to the self-styled Sultan of Dali, Garnier secured a letter from the most respected mullah in Kunming.  This document requested all good Muslims to aid the explorers on their purely scientific mission.  Garnier hoped this would be sufficient to persuade the Sultan to allow the party to continue to the Mekong.

       However, keeping in mind that central Yunnan was the most frequent battleground in the war, the French decided to take a longer, but safer, route to Dali.  They proceeded north to Huizi, in Qujing Prefecture, where Lagrée stayed to convalesce.  Garnier's group then turned west into Sichuan to the Jinshajiang (River of Golden Sand--Upper Yangzi), becoming the first Westerners since Marco Polo to see the river this far into the interior of China.  They then re-entered Yunnan and swung southwest through present-day Dayao County en route to Binchuan. 

       From there the party continued towards Dali, seeing the Cangshan Mountains, Bai people and Erhai Lake for the first time 1 March.  But they never did get to meet Du Wenxiu, for he and his advisors would not believe they were French explorers on a scientific survey.  Rather, the court at Dali considered them English spies and made it clear the party would be killed if they tried to enter Dali.

       Garnier's group then had to retreat, over much the same route, to Huizi, which they reached 3 April and learned that Lagrée had died of amoebic dysentery 12 March.  The Expedition was over.  Garnier gathered the survivors and took them to Shanghai, where they embarked for Saigon.  Garnier himself and expedition member Louis de Carné published their findings, a wealth of information about Yunnan, hitherto a practically unknown province, to guide and excite all who would follow in their wake.  They had failed to find a viable trade route into China after all, along the Mekong anyway, but hinted that perhaps it would be the Red River instead.  It ran through northern Vietnam and the optimistic imperialists expected France to seize control of that territory soon.

       Within four years of this prediction Jean Dupuis, an adventurous French businessman, put it to the test.  He had heard of the Red River commercial possibility in Shanghai when the Mekong Expedition members were there at the end of their long journey, and thus began pursuing the connection almost at once.  For his first cargo he chose a commodity that was in great demand by the Chinese government--arms and ammunition.  In the spring of 1871 Dupuis obtained a commission from Kunming to bring a shipment into Yunnan.

       Brazenly passing the border town of Lao Cai, Dupuis entered Yunnan at Hekou (then called Songping) and sailed over another 100 km to Manhao.  Today Manhao is a small, riverside town on the Gejiu-Jinping route, near a picturesque view of this river.  There Dupuis unloaded his cargo and transferred it to a pony caravan to go north to Mengzi, where the government buyers waited.  Flushed with success, Dupuis claimed credit for both proving and discovering the commercial potential of the Red River, ignoring Garnier.       

       Next, instead of trying to secure permission from the Tonkin government in Hanoi, Dupuis went to France to talk up his project.  When he departed in spring, 1872, he had what he thought was semi-official backing.  This implied the French government hoped he would succeed, but couldn't openly support the attempt.  This gave this impetuous adventurer all the sanction he needed.  After the rains concluded that autumn, Dupuis loaded his arms in shallow-draft vessels and sailed into Yunnan, brandishing his commission from Kunming as his excuse to ignore Vietnamese objections.

       The following year (1873) Dupuis was ready for another run.  Only this time he chose salt for his cargo.  Salt was a government monopoly in Tonkin, exacerbating the attitude of the Vietnamese, already outraged by Dupuis' first shipment.  This time they blocked passage.  Dupuis promptly hoisted the French flag, as if to display official French government backing.  At this point both Dupuis and the Vietnamese contacted Admiral Dupré of the French mission in Saigon.  Dupré saw the situation as an opportunity to advance French interests in Tonkin.  He dispatched Garnier with a small force to help Dupuis.

Together Dupuis and Garnier had but 400 armed men with them, not all of them soldiers.  Some were Vietnamese supporters of the Le family and the Trinh Lords of the north, who had been displaced after the civil wars by the Nguyen of Hue.  But Garnier, convinced of Western superiority, styling himself "the Great Mandarin of France," demanded the Vietnamese give up the citadel in Hanoi, which they of course refused.  On 20 November Garnier's forces made a surprise attack and captured it.

       Next day the Vietnamese, allied with Chinese Black Flag bandits, counter-attacked.  After repulsing the first assault, Garnier decided to make a sortie.  But in pursuing the enemy he split up his small band and then ran into an ambush set by the Black Flag forces.  They captured and beheaded him.  Dupuis escaped.  Dupré disavowed Garnier's actions and the French had to sign a treaty with Tonkin that expressly prohibited commercial use of the Red River by foreigners.

       Yet in 1882 the French took over Tonkin anyway.  Theoretically the Red River route to China was open again.  But first the border had to be demarcated, which began in 1884.  The Black Flag bandits were still a force in the region and harassed the border commission constantly.  Based in Hekou, they sailed downriver to attack the French commission, killing a few.  But eventually the work was completed and commerce with Yunnan commenced.  Hopes were high for trade in tin and other minerals and a French Trade Mission was set up in Mengzi.  But the volume never amounted to much.  The river was just too shallow.

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Monday, August 30, 2021

The Three Krubas of Li


                                                         by Jim Goodman


       In its previous incarnation as Haripunchi, Lamphun was the first city established in Northern Thailand, way back in the 7th century.  It was allegedly planned by the hermit Wasuthep, who adopted and raised a Mon girl, from a nearby village, after rescuing her from  an eagle's grasp, then when she reached puberty sent her downriver to be trained for her future role at the Mon royal court at Lawo, today’s Lopburi.  When her boat arrived the royal family considered this something auspicious and took her into the palace as a member of their own family.

       Wasuthep had also taught her martial arts and the new princess proved her value as an asset by leading Lawo’s armies in victorious battles with rival Mon states.  After a few years she answered Wasuthep’s summons and left Lawo to return upriver to take charge of the new city as Queen Chamadevi of Haripunchai.  She subdued the indigenous Lawa tribe, introduced and spread Buddhism in the area, expanded the realm’s territory and eventually abdicated in favor of her elder twin son and retired.  After her death Chamadevi remained an indelible part of the people’s memory and regard and her cult continues down to the present, with a big park in Lamphun honoring her memory..   

       In later centuries Haripunchai repelled three Khmer invasions, halting Khmer expansion in Thailand after its conquest of the other Mon states in the Menam Chao Phya River basin. The next major event in the city’s history was its conquest in the late 13th century by King Mengrai of Lanna.  Quite impressed by its high level of civilization, he did not attack the city but instead basically took it by subterfuge.  He built his own capital at Chiang Mai, 30 km north, modeled on Haripunchai's layout and designated Haripunchai the spiritual capital.

       Though its legacy still influenced Northern Thailand in religion and architecture, the city no longer played a role in regional history.  Eventually renamed Lamphun, it was just the small capital of a small province.  But in the late 19th century it once again became influential thanks to the work of the Three Krubas of Li, the province’s southern district.

       The word kruba means ‘great teacher’ or ‘teacher of teachers’ and is bestowed on monks with a reputation for extraordinary piety and religious awareness.  A monument to the Three Krubas of Li stands at the outskirts of the town of Li, with statues of Siwichai, Apichai Khao Pi and Chaiyawongse, all of them monks from the district.  The first monk so designated was Siwichai, born to a devoutly Buddhist but poor peasant family in Ban Pang in 1878.

       As  he grew up the boy believed that his family’s poverty must be due to karma from a previous life and decided to atone for that with good works.  He became fully vegetarian and a Buddhist novice at 18 and fully ordained monk a few years later.  He became known for his asceticism, mastery of meditation, generosity and compassion for animals.  After his ordination he built a new temple in Ban Pang by persuading the local populace to cooperate as a way of making merit.  This was the first of many such temple projects, usually renovations, which Siwichai sponsored and led, such as Wats Suan Dok and Phra Singh in Chiang Mai and Wat Chamadevi, with its 12th century chedis, in Lamphun.  

       His charisma attracted a wide following and his recommendations on a proper monastic life, inspired by his own example, won respect throughout the region.  It also stirred up controversy, even outright opposition, with the religious hierarchy in Bangkok.  At that time the kingdom was under the rule of Chulalongkorn, Rama V, and the former Kingdom of Lanna was semi-autonomous, still having its own hereditary sovereign (chao).   France and Great Britain were gobbling up territory on Thailand’s borders and Rama V felt the need to more fully integrate the company in the face of foreign threats.

       Besides reducing the Chao of Chiang Mai’s powers, Rama V’s government sought to unify the country’s Buddhist practice.  The Sangha Act of 1902 created monastic hierarchies with royal titles and rankings.  Lanna monasteries tended to be without established hierarchies and Bangkok abbots viewed Siwichai as antipathetic to the Sangha Act.  Moniks like Siwichai were expected to fall in line.  It was a matter of national unity, not to mention ecclesiastical  authority.. They ordered him arrested and subjected to several interrogations, even confined for over a year to Wat Haripunchai in Lamphun.  

      The suspicions were unjustified, for Siwichai’s work was concerned with making merit and spreading good works and not involved in monastic organization, much less Lanna separatism.  The charges were dropped and Siwichai was free to resume his projects.  The affair did have one impact on him, for his renovations did not restore Lanna temples in the precisely original Lanna style, but modified to the Rattanakosin style of central Thailand, such as whitewashed walls and orange roofs.

       Three years before he died, Siwichai carried out his most famous project in 1935 by mobilizing thousands of devotees to build a road from the northwest edge of Chiang Mai 15 km up the mountain to the temple of Doi Suthep.  The mountain was named after Chamadevi’s first guardian Wasuthep and the temple constructed in 1383.  Surrounded by forests, it is visible from the valley and Is one of the city’s notable landmarks and, with the road making for easier access, a popular tourist attraction. On the full moon might of the 4th lunar month, the occasion of Makha Bucha, marking the day of the Buddha’s birth, Enlightenment and death, Chiang Mai devotees hike to the temple to pay homage, returning after sunrise. 

       A statue of Siwichai stands in the Doi Suthep compound and another one stands in front of the assembly hall at Wat Phra Singh.  Devotees also erected a huge seated Siwichai, with hunched shoulders, on a hill beside the expressway at the turnoff to Lamphun.  The temple he built at Ban Pang has a museum displaying his personal effects and Siwichai amulets are still popular.

       Back in Li, a quiet small town 100 km south of Lamphun, one of Siwichai’s disciples, Kruba Apichai Chao Pi, acquired a similar reputation.  His most notable achievement was the renovation of Wat Prathat Phanom on a hill in the town. The temple had been abandoned for three centuries and under Apichai’s directions volunteers built a new, expanded temple compound and gilded chedi.  After his death his body was mummified and laid in a glass coffin inside the temple.  Devotees ritually change the corpse’s clothing once every March.  A statue of him, 15 meters tall, stands in front of the chedi, from where people also to come at sunrise to enjoy the view across the valley. 

       Close to the Three Krubas of Li monument lies Wat Phrabat Ha Duang, which local legend claims was originally built at the direction of Queen Chamadevi.  Returning here from military campaigns in the east she witnessed five lighted balls floating over five pieces of soil.  She ordered chedis to be constructed over each of the spots.  Those standing there now are not the originals, but recent renovated versions in exactly the same places.

       This tale of Chamadevi, as well as others of her exploits around Li, is not part of the usual narratives about her, historical or mythical, in Lamphun or elsewhere in her former realm, such as the imagery of Wat Chamadevi and Wat Prayeun in Lamphun or Wat Doi Kham south of Chiang Mai.  Wall murals at these temples depict mythical scenes from her life like her abduction as an infant by an eagle and rescue by Wasuthep, his training of her on the mountain, her boat journey to Lawo, her enthronement and how she first battled and then outwitted the Lawa chieftain Viranga.

       Murals also portray true historical events such as her reception in the city, her life at court and her diplomacy, in which she arranged for her twin sons to marry the deceased Viranga’s daughters, thus pacifying the Lawa and accommodating them to her rule.  Nothing else.  A temple a little south of Hot named after her was built next to a place on the Mae Ping River where she stopped for a break on her boat journey from Lawo.  It features a large seated sculpture of her and on the plain beside the river stands a chedi built at that time.  

       Relying only on this imagery one could conclude that after the trouble with the Lawa peace was established all around and Chamadevi’s career afterwards consisted of simply spreading Buddhism.  The people of Li, however, retain more of her life story, beyond just the tale of the chedis of Wat Ha Duang.  And thanks to the legacy of Chaiyawongse, the third famous kruba of Li, this is on public display.

      In the 1970s Chaiyawongse, strict vegetarian himself, persuaded Karen villagers to give up consuming animal products, become Buddhists and rebuild a temple ten km south of Li next to a large village of two branches of the Karen minority.  Called Wat Phrabat Huai Tom, the temple compound features special architectural elements like a rounded temple roof and a stepped white pagoda.  A statue of Chaiyawongse sits beside the entrance to the assembly hall. 

       What also distinguishes this temple is the courtyard next to the assembly hall that exhibits a replica of the boat Chamadevi rode on her journey to Haripunchai.  Wall murals along the corridor portray incidents of her life, in particular her military exploits around Li.  A portrait of her fondling an elephant while it bows in obeisance and a gibbon kneels nearby suggests her affinity with wild animals.  There’s a scene of her presiding over her court and another of her dispatching emissaries to her allies or subordinate princes in her military campaign against enemies east of her realm.

            A depiction of her preparing plans for combat while camping in the jungle comes next, followed by portraits of her and her armies in battle.  In these she or her sons ride elephants in fights with enemies, but in other scenes only the armies are in action, foot soldiers against their foes.  In one mural she is on horseback on a hill directing maneuvers and in another she rides forth, wielding a sword, to engage in a duel with a mounted opponent. 

       Murals in Wat Doi Kham portray her military training under Wasuthep and there are historical records of her leading Lawo forces to repel an invasion by a rival Mon state, though these were written long after the events.  Nevertheless, the murals at Wat Huai Tom reinforce her military reputation and hint at a more involved life than that assumed by her devotees today in the Lamphun area.

       How much of this is relevant to the Karen Buddhists who come to pray at the temple is a good question, for hers is a separate cult, more like that of a guardian spirit, only partially connected to the Buddhist religion.  The Karen have only been living in Thailand about two hundred years.  But Wat Prathat Huai Tom also draws Thai pilgrims from throughout the area, largely descendants of Chamadevi’s original subjects.  For them the murals and boat replica are likely to resonate more.

       The Karen village here also specializes in handicrafts, like basketry, woodcarving and especially weaving.  Displays of textiles—sarongs, Karen blouses and fringed shoulder bags are just outside the compound and the steady trickle of visitors provides customers.

       Chaiyawongse’s final project, done in the 90s, was to persuade Li people to build a new chedi and temple called Wat Chedi Sri Wiang Chai.  He claimed to have found fossilized cattle feces left by a previous incarnation of the Buddha, when he was a cow belonging to a bodhisattva.  This made the spot sacred and, worried that the area now open range and uncultivated might be profaned by development, he launched his building campaign.

       Modeled on the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, the gilded Sri Wiang Chai Chedi stands over twenty meters high.  As the area is relatively level land, it can be seen from far away.  The compound also holds a shrine housing life-size images of a pair of cattle, statues of the Buddha, of a demon spirit, of Chaiyawongse himself and a general riding a multi-headed elephant. It is a fitting example of the work of the three krubas of Li, carried out not by the sponsorship of government or the wealthy class, but by the common people, motivated solely by the desire, as good Buddhists, to do something to make merit.


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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Lahu History in Yunnan

                                                    by Jim Goodman


       Among Yunnan’s 25 recognized minority nationalities, the Lahu, with a population over 600,000, rank the eighth largest.  They speak a Tibeto-Burman language that’s part of the Yi sub-group, related to Yi, Lisu and Hani.  Despite some dialect differences among the many sub-groups, the basic Lahu language is mutually intelligible among them all.  Like many other ethnic minorities, the Lahu never developed a script for their language.  There are no Lahu books or records and what we know of their origin and early history depends on the people’s traditional myths and legends and scholars’ interpretations of them

       For a long time scholars believed the Lahu descended from an offshoot of the Qiang in northwest China.  Although it’s the name of a recognized minority nationality today, in ancient times the term ‘Qiang’ identified anyone in the far west who wasn’t Han, Mongol or Tibetan.  These proto-Lahu supposedly settled in the Yellow River plain until driven south by an expanding Han population, eventually all the way to Yunnan.  A Lahu genes study in 2015 cast doubt on this story, discovering no Lahu genes matching those of northwest China people and all of them resembling those of others in southwest China.

       On better grounds is the conjecture that the Lahu are descended from the ancient Kunming people who lived on the Dali plain.  They later migrated to the hills either during the Nanzhao Era (7th-10th centuries) or after the Mongol conquest 1253.  By the Ming Dynasty they were firmly ensconced in the range of mountains south of Dali in Lincang, Pu’er and Xishuangbanna prefectures, an area broadly identified as Loheishan in early Ming documents.  They established their settlements in remote mountain areas, far from the plains and their administrators, living in wood and bamboo stilted houses with an open balcony and thatched roof.. 

       They were basically self-sufficient, reclusive folks who lived by slash-and-burn agriculture supplemented by hunting, for which they were famous.  Legends speak of them as renowned tiger hunters and in fact their name Lahu in the Lahu language means ‘eaters of roast tiger flesh’.  Their Dai neighbors in the plains called them Museur, which means ‘hunter’ in Dai.  Several sub-groups exist, usually named after the dominant color of the women’s garments, like Yellow, Black or Red Lahu, which have sub-groups of their own and they all have their own distinct names for themselves.

       The most colorful are those in Nanmei district in Lincang County, the northernmost area of Lahu inhabitation in Yunnan.  Females of all ages dress in the traditional style; long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket with wide strips of embroidery and appliqué along the lapel, knee-length shorts and calf-wrappers.  Medium blue and yellow are the dominant colors.  South of Nanmei, in Gengma and Shuangjiang Counties, and the northern districts of Lancang County, the women wear more subdued colors, mostly black and mid-blue, sometimes with some trimming on the lapels, and wear black tubular skirts, some with a few red lines above the hem.  In the southern part of Lancang County and in Ximeng, Menglian and Menghai Counties they are more colorful again, featuring red and black garments with lots of embroidery and silver studs.  

       They are most concentrated in Lancang, where they occupy over 50% of the land, thus making it Lancang Autonomous Lahu County.  In the county capital stands a huge yellow gourd, symbolizing the one from which the Lahu people originated.  Mvuh Hpa Mi Hpa, the Lahu origin myth—Creating Heaven, Creating Earth—is widely known among the Lahu both in Yunnan and in Southeast Asia.  In the past Lahu bards sang verses of the epic at festivals and other special occasions.  The Lahu language had no script until 20th century outsiders devised one based on the Latin alphabet.  The epic has been translated and published, but other versions exist, some much more embellished with details, yet all contain the same basic elements.

       Part One narrates how the all-powerful divinity G’ui-sha created the sky and the earth, making adjustments to make them the way they are now and adding the sun and the moon.  In Part Two G’ui-sha creates the elements of life on earth.  He starts with water, then plants and animals.  Next he makes a hut, burns it down and plants a gourd seed in the ashes.  It grows to a large size and when ripe topples over to the ground.  A wild ox accidentally breaks the vine and the gourd begins rolling away.

       When G’ui-sha discovers it is missing he starts searching and asks various plants and animals if they had seen it.  Most of them lie, so G’ui-sha curses them with certain consequences.  Humans, when finally born, he told them, would split up the dishonest bamboo to make baskets, eat the meat of the lying goats, use the prevaricating indigo to dye their plants, etc.  Trees and plants that answer honestly he rewards with the capacity to bear fruits or flowers.  Eventually he finds the gourd floating in the sea, conscripts crabs to bring it ashore and takes in home. 

       After it is thoroughly dried he orders rats to gnaw a hole in its hard surface.  From this hole emerge Ja Ti, the first man, and Na Ti, the first woman.  She later gives birth to six sons, who marry and become the progenitors of the six Lahu sub-groups.  The remainder of the section deals with the birth and growth of children and the creation of fire.  Part Three narrates the introduction of the characteristics of Lahu life and culture:  hunting and gathering, the use of iron, rice agriculture, establishing permanent settlements, using medicinal plants, raising cotton and celebrating New Year.

       Aside from the special veneration accorded G’ui-sha, Lahu religion was originally animist, like most mountain peoples, driven by fear of nefarious spirits and measures taken to propitiate them or prevent their misbehavior.  But a major outside influence began arriving in the 17th century at the end of the Ming Dynasty.  An ex-Ming official Yang Dayuan, a monk at Jizushan north of Dali, undertook a mission to spread Mahayana Buddhism to  the highlanders of Loheishan, primarily the Lahu and Wa.  He was also reputedly an herbal medicine specialist and his ability to cure sick people while proselytizing made his spiritual message resonate all the stronger.  Lahu have always had a propensity to follow religious leaders who were healers.

       He established a monastery at Nancha, in northwest Lancang County, taught and trained new monks to carry on the mission elsewhere.  By the middle of the 18th century there were seven major Mahayana temples in Lancang County and one each in Ximeng and Shuangjiang.   These were monasteries with monks, novices, regular spiritual exercises and rituals, lessons in Buddhist scriptures and meditation sessions, while  also the focus of great public festivals and community services.

       How extensive the adoption of Buddhism was is not certain.  Much of Lahu territory was beyond the range of the monasteries.  Villages had temples, but simple ones, without much in the way of imagery and no resident monks or novices, just caretakers.  Conversion also had political implications.  Yang’s mission came when Han immigration had begun in the area and the new Qing Dynasty was establishing control over the peripheral parts of the empire.  The monks were largely Ming loyalists resentful of the Manchu foreigner regime and it is reasonable to assume they spread anti-government sentiments along with their spiritual message to a people already wary of the new authorities.

        The Qing government policy began with rule by proxy, in which local rulers governed on its behalf and were expected to keep the peace and suppress revolts.  The Naxi Mu family in Lijiang, for example, was responsible for the entire northwest, establishing military posts as far north as upper Deqin County.  In 1727 the policy changed.  For most of Yunnan, including Lijiang, the government appointed its own Han governors.  But for the southern frontier areas they still relied on a number of Dai princes in autonomous states. 

       Most of the Lahu areas fell under the jurisdiction of the Dai sawba of Menglian.  Even if carried out by their local proxies, the new system entailed new interference in hitherto undisturbed remote areas.  The hill people rightfully assumed that this interference in their lives most likely meant taxes and forced labor conscription.  Throughout the rest of the 18th and early 19th centuries the Lahu staged periodic revolts against Menglian authorities.  While never completely successful, they did somewhat modify the burden of government requirements.

       Meanwhile, by mid-19th century the Qing Dynasty was in clear decline and struggling to fend off British and French imperialist demands and encroachments.  The Qing Court’s fears multiplied as they witnessed the French take over Vietnam step-by-step and the British gobble up Burma in three stages.  Now imperialist forces stood on China’s own borders.  And while Vietnam’s border had long had clearly defined lines, Burma’s did not.  Burmese kings had never exercised direct control over any of the Dai states in southern Yunnan.  They demanded recognition of Burmese suzerainty, but so did the Qing emperors and most Dai states simply paid token tribute to both.

       In the 1880s Qing armies campaigned in southwest Yunnan to establish direct control in lieu of continuous British advances.  It took them years to subdue Lancang County, where the outnumbered, outgunned Lahu resisted the most and the longest, relying on guerilla tactics and their trusty crossbows.  The soldiers leveled the remaining Lahu monasteries, though these had mostly been abandoned already.  The campaign did work in halting the British advance and establishing permanent Chinese control over southern Yunnan.  It also sent lots of Lahu fleeing south to Menghai and Menglian Counties and over the border into northeast Burma.

       Since then, the main disturbances to Lahu culture and identity have been the Cultural Revolution and modernization.  The former was an all-out assault on Lahu tradition and identity.  Not all of the proscribed customs revived after it was over.  But ethnic pride did, as well as the wearing of traditional garments.  Modernization enhanced integration with the outside world, introduced new cash crops like tea in Xishuangbanna and potatoes in Lancang, and an improved transportation network enabling greater participation in the regular market days.  The Lahu are also more educated than past generations and less likely to believe in some of the traditional beliefs, taboos and superstitions.

      A minority of Lahu converted to Christianity and the first Protestant church in Yunnan was erected at Nuofu, a Lahu village in southern Lancang.  Others became Buddhist, of the Theravada branch practiced by their Dai neighbors.  Mahayana Buddhism among the Lahu and Wa died out over a century ago, though ruins of the monasteries of Nancha in Lancang and Mengka in Ximeng still attract occasional Lahu pilgrims.

       Some of the old Mahayana customs still persist in contemporary Lahu culture.  One of them was the observance of vegetarian ‘merit days’ on new moon and full moon with an injunction against farming, hunting and the killing or eating of domestic animals.  For a people famous as hunters that was a significant, Buddhist-inspired rule to adopt.  Mahayana influence is also evident in the village spirit house.   

        Like temples in Buddhist villages, the Lahu spirit house stands apart, and usually above, the residential area, its compound surrounded by stakes.  In some cases tall poles with banners, like Dai village temples, may also stand along the compound.  The building honors the Creator God G’ui-sha and the interior layout resembles that of a Mahayana temple, though without any image.  The altar features banners of the sun and moon, both venerated in Lahu thought.  The village ritual specialist carries out ceremonies here, such as the New Year in December, on behalf of the community.  New Year is also the occasion when the younger generation honors their elders by drawing fresh water and bathing them.

       Differing from other highlands people, the Lahu accord women a high status and the birth of a daughter is considered a blessing.  Originally Lahu society was matrilineal, the groom lived with his bride’s family and property passed from mothers to daughters.  Over time a dual inheritance system evolved, with sons inheriting from fathers and daughters inheriting from mothers.  Although parental approval was desirable, marriage partners were by choice, not arrangement.  To compensate the bride’s family for the economic loss they will experience, the groom lived in the bride’s house and worked for her father for a fixed period, usually three years.  Then he took her either to his family dwelling or to establish a house of their own.

       The inheritance system is evolving yet again as more Lahu youths leave the villages for work in the towns.  Nowadays Lahu parents tend to bestow the entire inheritance on the son or daughter who will best support them in their old age.

       The status of women is still high.  The elderly heads of the female lineages—groups of related families--are much respected.  They chair discussions and are the ultimate authority over cultural matters like customs or disputes.  Women are always more rooted in their culture and the persistence of this tradition bodes well for the future of the distinctive culture of the Lahu.  It’s as important an indicator as the beautiful Lahu-style clothes they continue to wear to the markets.

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               for more on the Lahu see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Beyond Shangrila: the Mountains of Deqin


                              by Jim Goodman


       Mountains in Yunnan rise higher the further northwest you go in the province.  They top more than 4000 meters in Dali Prefecture and over 5500 meters near Lijiang.  There are other 4000+ peaks in Ninglang County and upper Nujiang, but the biggest of them all lie in Deqin Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture, for most of its territory is geographically the southeastern tip of the Tibetan Plateau.  Here the mountains stand over 6000 meters.

       The most accessible and popular part of the prefecture is Shangrila County.  It used to be called Zhongdian until 2001 when, to promote its tourist potential, the government claimed it was the site of the Shangrila of James Hilton’s famous novel Lost Horizon and so officially changed its name.  With its broad plain, traditional Tibetan houses, lovely monasteries at Songzhanlin and other places and friendly people, it certainly appeals as an idyllic escape from the commotion of wherever the tourists came from.

       The Shangrila hype notwithstanding, the village of the novel had a very different setting, in a valley with a triangular-peaked snow mountain towering over one end.  Shangrila lies at about 3100 meters and from various points in the county, especially in winter, one can see some snow around the mountains beyond the plain.  But they are not very high and to see anything resembling the mountain described in Lost Horizon one has to go further on to Deqin, the next county north.

       Not long after leaving Shangrila city, after passing Napahai Lake, the landscape abruptly changes.  From here on the topography is all mountainous, with no more broad expanse of relatively flat land.  The road runs along the higher parts of the mountain slopes that, in the early 90s during my visits, were largely denuded of trees, with stray hamlets clinging to the hillsides. Then it descends to cross the Jinshajiang, the River of Golden Sand that is the moniker for the Upper Yangzi, and soon pulls into Benzilan, the first major town in Deqin County.

       There were two Benzilans then.  In the lower one, the original Tibetan settlement, the houses lined a ridge overlooking a small plateau that served as farmland and pastures.  The upper one was the commercial center along the main road, full of shops, hotels and restaurants catering to travelers on the Shangrila-Deqin route, most of whom stop here for lunch.

       From Benzilan it’s up into the mountains again, where the slopes are high and barren again, although not necessarily due to deforestation.  Many gradients are so steep they never supported forests anyway. But streams run down them and there, on modest gradients, Tibetans built their settlements that are patches of green in the otherwise dusty brown landscape.   Around 15 km from Benzilan a turn-off takes one a short distance to a dramatic view of a bend in the Jinshajiang,  The river makes a loop 2/3 the way around a conical hill  protruding from the vertical cliffs on the eastern bank.

       Back to the road, the next stop north is the monastery of Dongzhulin, 103 km north   of Shangrila, at an altitude of 3000 meters.  The original monastery lay further away from the road and was built in 1667 during the reign of the Kang Xi Emperor, who himself was interested in Tibetan Buddhism.  In the 19th century Dongzhulin housed over 900 monks and 12 Living Buddhas (reincarnations of famous lamas).  It was here that the French missionary Père  Renou disguised himself as a trader and stayed to learn about Buddhism and to speak the local dialect in order to, after he left the monastery, proselytize Christianity among Deqin’s Tibetans.

       Dongzhulin became associated with the Tibetan Revolt in 1958, allegedly storing arms for the rebels, and in retaliation government forces leveled the monastery.  In 1985 it was rebuilt in its current location, a splendid traditional-style building, four stories high and supported by 82 thick wooden pillars.  The ground floor houses large images of various deities like Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gulugpa (Yellow Hat) monastic order, Avalokitesvar, Manjusri and others.  Portraits of celestial beings, demons, benevolent and wrathful deities fill the walls.  The 3rd floor features huge images of the Maitreya Buddha, seven meters high, and Sakyamuni, ten meters high.  The other floors are for reciting sutras and performing private rituals. 

       In the early 90s Dongzhulin had about 300 monks and one Living Buddha.  There was also a Buddhist nunnery attached to it.  Nuns follow the same rules as monks, shave their heads, wear robes, recite sutras, etc, but have the option of staying in the nunnery or living at home.  Most stay in the nunnery across the road in Shusong. 

        From here it’s another 80 km or so to the county capital and halfway there the road runs through a forest and over a pass at 4000 meters.  The peak of Baimashan looms to the left of the road.  Though only 4292 meters high, it is perpetually covered in snow.  The pastures on the edge of the forest are prime yak grazing areas in the summer months.  The whole area is a protected nature preserve, home to foxes, deer, leopards and bears.  The poplar trees and parts of the pine groves turn yellow in autumn and local species of the maple tree turn red.

       From the pass the city is another 35 km through stony hills with thin patches of forest and scarcely any human habitation until just before the city.  Formerly called Atuntse, and known to local Tibetans as Jui, Deqin is about half the size of Shangrila and at around 3400 meters a slightly higher altitude.  It is sited on slopes that funnel precipitation down to a stream at the lower end of town that eventually empties into the Lancangjiang (Upper Mekong).  Most of the buildings then were modern concrete structures, with a quasi-Tibetan style in the upper end neighborhood and no style at all elsewhere.

       The only remaining wooden buildings were around the central market, which was about half the size of Shangrila’s but less ethnically diverse, for nearly all the city’s residents are Tibetan.  Several shops here and on the main street specialized in Tibetan clothing, crafts and jewelry.  City residents and villagers come here to sell off heirlooms, furs and herbs and purchase Tibetan belts, scarves, carpets, woolen cloaks, brocaded silk, fur hats and ornaments of coral, turquoise and silver.

       Most Deqin women, though, didn’t seem to be as fond of wearing traditional clothing as in Shangrila County and when they did the outfit resembled  more the style of Lhasa, with an ankle-length dress and a long striped apron in front, rather than the ensemble popular in Shangrila County.  On the whole, they were not as outgoing or engaging as their counterparts in Shangrila/Zhongdian, but invariably polite and cordial.

       Deqin has a mosque, not for Hui but for Tibetan Muslims who converted to Islam when part of Hui-run caravans in the past.  The population is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but the devout had to journey to villages beyond the city, as Deqin had no big monastery of its own anymore.  During the Qing Dynasty, especially in its last decades, lamas from high-ranking Tibetan families ruled Deqin as their private fief.  Around the end of the 19th century two new developments began to challenge their practical autonomy.  Under pressure from France, the Qing government allowed French missionaries to proselytize in Tibetan areas.  At the same time the government inaugurated a land reform policy in these same areas.

       Both of these threatened the lamas’ authority.  Land reform would target their own family holdings and conversion to Catholicism would undermine their religious leadership.  In 1904, the British colonial Government of India authorized the Younghusband Expedition, a military invasion of Tibet ostensibly designed to prevent the Russians from taking it.  London disapproved of the move and the following year Younghusband’s forces withdrew.

       Among the Tibetans the incident provoked outright rebellion against anything and anybody foreign.  In 1905 a widespread uprising began at Batang in southwest Sichuan, where the lamas instigated attacks on the foreign missionaries, all their converts and Chinese government officers.  Victims suffered grisly deaths, especially the priests, and the rebellion spread to Litang and Kangding in Sichuan and down into Yunnan in Atuntse/Deqin.  Massacres of priests and their followers took place in Deqin and Cikou, the French mission in the Lancangjiang valley south of Deqin.  Marauders mounted the severed heads of the priests on the Dechenling Monastery gate in Deqin.

       Chinese government forces halted the rebels’ advance on Xiaowieixi, the next Christian settlement south of Cikou.  They then marched on Deqin, isolated and surrounded the lamas in Dechenling and finally slaughtered everybody inside and burnt the building to the ground.  Chinese officials took charge of the administration, but eventually married local women and stayed on after their service was completed.  Surviving Christians rebuilt their demolished church in Cizhong, a little north of Cikou, this time in a French village style.

       The main reason travelers go to Deqin is not for the city’s few attractions, but for the view of the nearby snow mountains. On a clear day this is truly magnificent.  Leaving Deqin the road heads towards the Lancanjiang and after climbing out of the city’s valley and into the countryside, doming to Dong village and the modest Feilai Temple, surrounded by grain fields.  Inside the main hall is a large statue of the mountains’ guardian deity.  In the annex, when I visited, the carcasses of freshly killed goats hung from the rafters.  As the monks were presumably vegetarian it wasn’t their food.  Some Bon, pre-Buddhist sacrifice? I wondered, but never did find out.

      Lovely  Taizishan Snow Mountain, 6054 meters altitude, is visible from the approach to Dong.  A little further on, at a small break in the forest, is the most celebrated viewpoint.  Looking west one can clearly see Meili Snow Mountain, at 6740 meters altitude the highest in the province.  From its peak a long wide glacier runs down in front.  This is the most accessible glacier in Yunnan and in later years tour companies promoted one-day hikes to it and back or overnight camping at the glacier’s foot.  Adventurous travelers could also go on extended treks in the nature preserve around the mountain.

       On my visit the viewpoint also featured several chortens and strings of prayer flags, adding a religious aspect to the scene.  After a few years the government built a high wall between the road and the viewpoint with a ticket booth in front of its only door.  The entry fee was 150 yuan.  On my visit it was free.

       The road continues along the Lancangjiang Valley all the way to the Tibetan border, passing both forested and barren areas and through tunnels chiseled out of the cliffs.  It is a good example of Yunnan’s road engineering skills, though occasionally subject to landslides, which are always quickly restored.  Herder take their yaks along the same road and wherever fatal accidents have occurred, people have erected chortens on mounds of stone slabs inscribed with Tibetan prayers.

       About 30 km north of Deqin the road swerves away from the valley to cross the Adong River.  Upstream stands a major hydroelectric plant and a switch pulled here daily around midnight plunged Deqin and vicinity into darkness.  Further up, 64 km from Deqin, lies Foshan, a nondescript town from where the Lancang River is the provincial boundary between Yunnan and Tibet.  Just past Foshan is the rather prosperous village of Nagu, famous for the ancient stone coffins found nearby, but unfortunately they had been removed to a museum by the time of my visit.  Another 40 km is the Tibetan border, with an old Naxi settlement on the way, a relic of the early Qing Dynasty when Naxi troops from Lijiang guarded the border.

       While the mountains south of Taizishan are not as high or dramatic, the scenery all the way to Cizhong is quite impressive.  A road from the south end of Deqin winds along narrow gorges cut by the Lancangjiang’s tributary streams, offering sporadic glimpses of the snow peaks, passes through three tunnels and then makes eight distinct bends on the descent to the riverside town of Yunling.

       From Yunling the road runs along the Lancang River, with excellent views across to isolated villages, monasteries perched atop ravines, deep gorges cut by streams, splendid tall, thin waterfalls spillling over sheer cliffs, and occasional thick forests that burst into a variety of colors in autumn.  Around Yanmen, 30 km south of Yunling, Nagu-like stone coffins have also been found, including remnants of ancient pottery and bronze artifacts.

       A little downriver on the opposite bank lies the county’s last major attraction—the Catholic Church at Cizhong.  Tibetans comprise 3/4 of the population, with Naxi at 20% and Han 5%.  The altitude is sufficiently lower here so that Cizhong farms can grow rice instead of barley.  Viniculture, introduced by the French missionaries, is also prominent and Cizhong has a reputation for its wine.  Tibetan Christianity never revived in Deqin, but here in Cizhong, in spite of 1905, it survived.  Its congregation is mostly the older generation, but its very existence puts Cizhong on the list of what-to-see for any traveler seriously exploring Deqin County.


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For more on Deqin and the Tibetans, see my r-book Living in Shangrila