Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Last Mongols in Yunnan

                                                                by Jim Goodman

    Tonghai County in central Yunnan has a number of attractions that make it worthy of an excursion from Kunming, just 130 kilometers away.  The county seat, Tonghai city, lies at the base of a wooded hill a few kilometers southwest of Qilu Lake.  It still has an old quarter next to the hill, featuring a three-tiered Qing Dynasty tower and narrow streets of old-fashioned shop-houses, door gods at the compound gates and caged songbirds suspended from the roof corners.
Tonghai old quarter

    From the old town a walkway leads up the hill.  Called Xiushan (Beautiful Mountain), the hill has for centuries been a Buddhist sanctuary.  The walkway winds through the thick forest to several secluded temples, dating back to the Tang Dynasty, and passes open vantage points.  These afford a view north of the broad plain from the modern part of Tonghai sprawling below the old quarter to the distant minarets of the Hui town of Najiaying on the north side of Qilu Lake.  Around the hill the view south encompasses the hills of the Yi district of Lishan.  One of these, a few km southeast of Tonghai, contains a limestone cavern called Fairy Cave.
    Ancient temples, caves, traditional urban quarters, even Yi villages are not unique to Tonghai, but common to many places in the province.  What makes Tonghai special is the existence of three villages at the base of Peacock Mountain, a large hill several kilometers west of the city.  This is Xingmeng Autonomous Mongolian District, the only place in the whole province that is home to the descendants of the Mongol conquerors of China. Their presence here, a very long way from Mongolia, Outer or Inner, is a living historical vestige of an important story in Yunnan’s long history—how it became part of China.
Qilu Lake and the Tonghai plain
    In the 13th century the territory of what is now Yunnan belonged to the Kingdom of Dali.  It was the successor to the Kingdom of Nanzhao, which used to battle Tibet and Tang Dynasty China for supremacy in the southwest.  It fell to internal coups shortly after the Tang Dynasty collapsed.  The Song Dynasty that eventually won out in the post-Tang succession struggle, decided to adopt a non-aggressive attitude towards Dali in order to maintain trade links.  The item prized by the Song Court was the Yunnan pony.
    The state’s greatest security threat was on its northern frontier, where the enemy comprised mounted nomadic forces.  Song China needed horses for its defense and therefore required good relations with Dali so that nothing interrupted trade on the traditional Tea and Horses Road from Yunnan to Tibet.   Not threatened on any of its frontiers, nor ambitious to extend them, the Kingdom of Dali enjoyed a long period of peace, even after Genghis Khan’s Mongols conquered the northern part of China.
Kubilai Khan statue, Sansheng Temple
    The Song Dynasty held off the Mongols for another century, so the Mongols decided to attack China from its weak, southwestern flank. This entailed subduing the Kingdom of Dali on the way.  In 1253 Kubilai Khan led a massive expedition through Sichuan’s mountains and crossed into Yunnan at Yongning in the northwest.  Easily subduing the local Mosuo and Pumi, he left Mongol officers in charge of the district and headed south towards the Lijiang plain, home to the Naxi minority.
    The Naxi, confronting a force many times bigger than their own, opted to help the Mongols cross the Yangzi River on inflated goatskin rafts and joined the campaign against Dali   Kubilai pitched his tent near the old stone bridge in what later became Lijiang’s old town and prepared his next campaign.
    Dali put up a spirited but futile resistance, but Kubilai left the dethroned king in charge of the area as his local official.  He left a small occupation force and then moved on to take control of the rest of the erstwhile kingdom.  Leaving a Central Asian Muslim ally in charge of the province, now incorporated into the Mongol Empire, Kubilai Khan then returned to the Mongol capital to get involved in a succession struggle for several years before he came out on top.  Following that he conquered the rest of Song China, from the north rather than the southwest, and in 1279 set up the Yuan Dynasty in Beijing.
houses along a canal near Xingmeng
    Yunnan remained under the control of Central Asian Muslim governors, backed by Mongol army units, throughout the Yuan Dynasty.  When it fell in 1368 Yunnan remained the last Mongol stronghold south of the Yangzi River for another thirteen years while the new Ming Dynasty consolidated its control in the rest of the country and plunged into a succession struggle.  But when that was settled the Ming Emperor dispatched an army to expel the Mongols from Yunnan.  Ming forces crushed Mongol forces at the Baisha River near Qujing in 1381, then hunted down remnants all over the province until they were confident they had killed or expelled every last member of the race.  From then on Yunnan was part of the Chinese Empire.
Mongol woman planting rice
    One small group managed to evade the Ming army, escape to the hills, change their way of life, live in disguise and wait until the political climate improved for them to admit that they were Mongols.  This is the small, tightly knit community that settled in Xingmeng.  Over the centuries it survived on fishing, then farming, and finally, in modern times, on both agriculture and the construction business.  Despite these lifestyle changes, they maintained the social customs and traditions they brought with them from the northern steppes.  Most women still wear the traditional jackets, vests and caps, often adorning them with silver clasps, buttons and pendants.  They live in sturdy houses with high, thick walls, separated from each other by narrow cobbled lanes.  They worship at the Guan Yin Temple but also, in Xingmeng village, have their own Sansheng Temple, honoring, and housing large sculptures of, three of the great empire builders of their past--Genghis Khan, Menggu Khan and Kubilai Khan.
    Local legends incorporate supernatural elements into the community's historic shifts in lifestyle.  When the Ming troops all but eradicated their presence the last seven fugitives sat on the shore of Qilu Lake pondering their future.  Suddenly an old man emerged from the waters, standing on a rhinoceros skin.  Inviting them on to the skin he pointed to a huge fish supporting a temple.  Back on shore the men realized that because the words for "food " and "temple" were similar the old man had been telling them that fish could be food.  And so they began drawing on the fish and eels of Qilu Lake for their sustenance.
     Settling at Xingmeng at the base of Peacock Mountainl the last Mongolian men had to marry Yi women and inculcate them into their language and customs.  Their community began to multiply and then years later the Goddess Achala arrived at Qilu Lake, subdued a dragon responsible for flooding the plains, and dug a hole at the lakeside.  Excess water dropped through this hole and emptied into the South China Sea.  Hence the county's name pf Tonghai--"connecting the sea."  Achala then subdued more dragons and removed them to the hills to "dragon pools"--springs--to irrigate the new fields.
    Since then the Mongolians have been farmers, though they still trap eels and small fish in the canals that connect Xingmeng with the lake.  In recent decades, the men have worked much of the year in the construction business, enjoying a high reputation as carpenters, stonemasons and bricklayers.  Consequently they are out of the area most of the time and Xingmeng's residents, except for the busiest times in the agricultural cycle, are mostly women and children.
    To get there from Tonghai visitors take a short minibus ride of six kilometers to Hexi, a small town that holds a weekly market attended by many Xingmeng residents.  From there a turn towards the north leads the next two kilometers to Xingmeng, at the base of Peacock Mountain.  Along the road are several restaurants offering the local specialties—Taichi eel and Beijing-style roast duck.  Tour groups from the capital sometimes make a one-day excursion from Kunming to Xingmeng just to eat the roast duck and see if it really is Beijing-style, generally agreeing that it is just like what they eat back home in the north.
street scene in Xingmeng
   threshing grain
    Since the turn of the century Xingmeng has been gaining attention as one of the more unusual tourist destinations in Yunnan, drawing over 10,000 visitors annually.  Near the entrance to Xingmeng a new, Mongolian-style building houses the Ethnic Culture Garden and the number of restaurants has grown.  The glitzy additions are all near the village entrance, though, and a leisurely walk through the narrow lanes is still an exposure to a rural atmosphere that hasn’t changed much, other than the introduction of electricity, for centuries.  Men are usually out on construction assignments, while women perform some of the household chores, as well as farming activities like threshing the grain, in the open yards next to their compounds.  Appreciative of the interest in them, they are polite and friendly to outsiders and ready to engage in conversation.
threshing in eh villa
    Only in 1979 were Xingmeng's people officially recognized as part of the Mongolian nationality.  The male leaders of Xingmeng at once dispatched a delegation to Inner Mongolia to invite Mongolian teachers to come instruct their children in the written and spoken language and the customs of the steppes.  Bi-lingual signs, in Chinese characters and Mongolian script, began going up over the shops and public buildings.  Young men took up traditional sports like wrestling and archery.  Women proudly wore their ethnic clothing again, so long suppressed during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution.  It was a great time to be openly Mongolian once more.
    Yunnan's Mongolians have their own locally evolved customs as well as those they retained over the centuries, and speak a dialect that is closer to the local Yi dialect than to anything heard in Inner Mongolia.  Their greatest cultural event is the Nadam Festival held every three years in December.  (The next one is in 2014.)   Modeled on the Nadam held in the Mongol homeland, it celebrates their recognition as one of Yunnan’s minority nationalities and honors Kubilai Khan.  Xingmeng’s Mongolians dress up in their best ethnic clothing, as well as in costumes from the northern steppes.  The district and county governments subsidize the expenses, guaranteeing a grand show.  They stage wrestling tournaments, archery contests and equestrian performances, all the kinds of events that entertained their ancestors before and after they conquered China.  From the enthusiasm and ethnic pride on display, it’s as if the Yuan Dynasty had never really fallen.
to the fields near Xingmeng
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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Imperialist Vestige in Yunnan—the French Railway

                                                           by Jim Goodman
    In the last decades of the 19th century the tottering Qing Dynasty regime in China found itself under increasing pressure from Western encroachment.  This was the heyday of imperialism and by a series of military actions and the imposition of the Unequal Treaties, as the Chinese were to call them, Western nations had established themselves with impunity in Macao, Hong Kong, the Shandong Peninsula and portions of Shanghai.  In the late 1880s the country faced threats on a new front—the southwestern province of Yunnan. 
    The most aggressive imperialist powers had just seized the territories of China’s southern neighbors.  The British had grabbed northern Burma and the French had occupied northern Laos and northern Vietnam.  That put the Western powers right next to the ill-defined borders of Yunnan.  The Qing Court first rushed to make boundary agreements with the two powers.  That may have stopped the imperialist appetite for territory, but not their economic ambitions.  The British and French both viewed Yunnan as the gateway to China’s riches and soon began devising ways to penetrate the markets across the border.
French Consulate in Mengzi
    They began by pressing the Qing government to establish trade relations and in 1887 succeeded in securing permission to open consulates in Yunnan.  The British opened theirs in Tengchong in the southwest, the French chose Mengzi, halfway to Kunming from their border.  It was a small but prosperous city, close to tin mines, lying in a broad plain of 1500 meters altitude.  The city’s central attraction was South Lake, featuring many Ming and Qing Dynasty temples and pavilions, to where scholars would retreat in order to prepare for the state’s examinations.
    The French built a consulate near the lake and a small customs house beside the water.  Their presence was rather small in the beginning.  And the city was hard to get to when coming from Vietnam.  In 1895 an expedition led by the Prince D’Orléans stopped in Mengzi on its way through Yunnan to the sources of the Irrawadddy in Upper Burma.  They had to take a boat from Hekou to Manhao up the Red River, then hike over 80 km up to Mengzi.  And this was just a small group of explorers, not a big trading expedition.  Clearly, communication lines into Yunnan had to improve dramatically for commerce to succeed.   A railroad seemed to be the answer.
French customs house, Mengzi
    The French plan was for a line from the port of Haiphong through Hanoi all the way to Kunming.  The French completed the line to Lào Cai in 1906, spanned the Nanxi River with a bridge to Hekou on the Chinese side and commenced constructing the track to Kunming.  This section of the line proved to be far more difficult to build than the relatively flat route along the Red River in Vietnam.  The 464 km-long route rises from Hekou, at 78 meters above sea level, to Kunming, at 1900 meters.  It required 107 viaducts and 155 tunnels.
    The route ran alongside the west bank of the Nanxi River, crossing it at the end of the county’s boundaries and running on the east bank through Pingbian County.  Workers had to cut through thick jungle in the mostly uninhabited, malaria-infested lowlands of Hekou County, then blast tunnels through the mountains of Pingbian County and further on and haul heavy steel beams, made in France, to the sites requiring bridges or viaducts. Between kilometers 104 and 127 in Pingbian County the track gradient rises from 500 to 1100 meters and the line passes through 59 tunnels.
Renzi Bridge, the "bridge over the crossbowmen"
     railway work in Pingbian County
    Altogether it was quite an engineering feat, particularly the two famous spectacular bridges—the curved bridge on pyramidal piers at kilometer 83, called “le pont en dentelles”  (bridge in lace) and “le pont sur arbalètriers” (the bridge on the crossbowmen) at kilometer 111, between the tunnels of two sheer cliffs 100 meters above the river.  Besides the railway line, workers also had to construct buildings for the 34 stations from Hekou to Kunming.
railway work in Mengzi County
    Financially, the Hekou-Kunming line cost France 167 million francs, but the human costs were even more staggering.  Of the 60,000 “coolies” hired or impressed through corvée labor to work on the project at least 12,000 died, mostly in the Nanxi River Valley, while around 80 French and Italian contractors also died.  Malaria was the biggest killer.  Other causes included landslides, accidents and various diseases.  French overseers became notorious for their brutality towards the workers and their haughty attitude towards the native population, treating them like the subjects of a conquered country.
    In 1910 workers laid the last railroad tracks to Kunming, then called Yunnanfu, and train service all the way to Haiphong opened at the end of the year.  For all the violence, misery, deaths and extra taxes associated with its construction, though, it was not an outstanding commercial success.  Trade between Yunnan and Vietnam largely consisted of opium and tin sent down to Vietnam and cotton textiles and tobacco sent up to Yunnan.  Anticipating an expansion of trade, hoping the railroad link to China’s interior would draw business away from Shanghai and go through Haiphong instead, the French built a bigger consulate and customs post near Green Lake in Kunming.
French Consulate in Kunming
    In 1915 the French constructed a branch line from near Mengzi to the tin mines near Gejiu.  Eventually this line was extended west all the way to Shiping.  Until the end of the last century this line was a kind of market train.  It made stops at every big village on the route and people brought farm products and animals on board to sell, got off several stops down the line and later boarded the return trip home.
    The volume of goods traveling by train remained modest though, until the Sino-Japanese War broke out and the Chinese government moved to Chongqing.  Now the French railway was a main supply route to the Chinese and suffered heavy Japanese bombing.   When the war concluded international service had halted and in 1951 the new government in Beijing closed down the French Consulate in Kunming and expelled its officials.
    The line eventually re-opened on the Chinese side, though only as far as Hekou.  The Vietnam side suffered extensive bombing during the war with the United States and in the border war with China in 1979 the bridge over the Nanxi was destroyed.  A decade later relations between the two sides were normalized and people could buy a ticket from Hanoi to Kunming again.  The bridge had been rebuilt, and until the end of the century was the only crossing point between Lào Cai and Hekou, but ticket-holders had to disembark at Lào Cai, walk over the bridge and hop the train to Kunming at the Hekou station.
railway bridge connecting Hekou with Lào Cai
    The train was still primarily a cargo train, but as in pre-war days it had several passenger compartments.  Tourists began taking the ride in the 90s as both Yunnan and Vietnam opened their doors to foreigners.  The line was narrow-gauge, one meter wide, which meant compartments that were rather cramped compared with those of more modern trains on wide-gauge tracks.   Hot meals were available on the journey and the train had sleepers for the ride from Kunming to Hekou, which departed in the evening and arrived next morning. 
    The best way to see the scenery, though, was to board the morning train at Hekou, leaving at 7:30 a.m. and arriving in Kunming early evening.  For the first couple of hours the train moves through dense jungle on the west bank of the Nanxi River.  At the southwest tip of Pingbian County it begins a slow ascent into the hills, hugging slopes high above the river, riding over the “bridge in lace’ and passing through many tunnels.  Eight of these lie between Baihe and Wankang and from there, for the next hour, too many to count.
the "bridge on lace"
entering a tunnel
   The scenery on this stretch, roughly five hours from the starting point at Hekou, is the best on the route—Miao villages on the gentler, lower slopes, their terraced fields sprawling below them, backed by steep, craggy limestone peaks.  With all the tunnel passages, though, the traveler gets only quick glimpses of these landscapes before entering darkness again.   North of Wankang the tunnels become more frequent, especially after the track suddenly veers northeast along the Sicha River for a spell, crosses it over the “bridge on the crossbowmen” and turns southeast along that river until just before its confluence with the Nanxi.  Then it turns northwest in the direction of Mengzi. 
    A quick glimpse of this bridge is all a passenger could get.  To get a full and dramatic view of it one has to proceed there by road from Heping further north, or by the longer route from Wankang, and then take a back country road that turns off the main road to the Sicha River.  The view is amazing, the bridge spanning the gap between two tall cliffs, the left one slanting 70 degrees, the right one nearly perpendicular to the river way down below.  About bridges and viaducts the French knew what they were doing.  Sometimes they picked the wrong places to lay the track on the slopes, leading to landslides in the rainy season that halted traffic for various lengths of time.  But no bridge or viaduct ever suffered damage.
French clock at a station near Mengzi
    After turning northwest again, the line continues through rugged hills with their lower slopes covered in terraces, though the peaks are less jagged.   By the time the train enters Mengzi County the hills become rounder, bereft of farms or villages, and gradually smaller and so freckled with big boulders that scarcely any grass can grow on them.  The track gradually descends to the Mengzi plain, though it does not actually pass through the city itself, the nearest station being several kilometers away. 
    Mengzi became the Honghe Prefecture capital several years ago and has a whole new section of fancy apartment blocks, wide avenues and government buildings.  The old city is still a rather sleepy place, its main attractions being beautiful South Lake and the surviving French buildings, including the prison they built in the early 20th century.  The city hosts market day on Sundays, when the streets are filled with ethnic minority women in colorful, handmade clothing.  Many are Miao, related to those who live along the tracks in Pingbian County.  An even larger portion are Yi and various sub-groups of Yi will dominate the ethnic minority populations in the vicinity of the railway line from Mengzi to Kunming.
South Lake, Mengzi
    After Mengzi the scenery is pleasant, though less rugged, consisting of rolling hills and open pastures.  The line passes through Kaiyuan and then veers almost due north along the Nanpan River until it reaches Yiliang, just west of the Stone Forest and famous for its roast duck.  From here the line turns west to its final terminus in Kunming. 
    The train ride was a pleasant traveling experience.  Besides the scenery, foreigners could observe activities at the numerous stations, see Miao women in their distinctive clothing, and chat with Chinese villagers making short journeys of one or two stops.  The only problem was landslides, which could cause long delays.  By 2003 such incidents happened so frequently the government closed the line for passenger services.  After renovation of the tracks the line reopened, but only for cargo.  And if landslides still happened and delayed the delivery of cargo, that was less of a problem than stranded passengers.
    Nowadays a railway museum in Kunming occupies the site of the former northern station.  Yunnan has other railway lines now and the stories of these are part of the museum’s display, too.  But such lines were all Chinese government-sponsored and part of the propaganda of the nation’s progress.  The attitude towards the French railway is different.  It may grudgingly acknowledge the technological achievement, but more apt to focus on the horrific human cost of the project, something that never bothered the French in their manic attempt to “open up” the interior of China and get rich. 
    They didn’t accomplish that.  The railway line never generated enough commerce to justify the expenditure.  Even today, though the line is still open for cargo, most goods moving between Kunming and Hekou go by truck on new super-highways.  So even the cargo service is probably on its way out.  The last cars will go into the museum, along with other paraphernalia from the 34 stations, and farmers will rip up the track to use as fences for their fields and pastures.
French postcard of the train at the station in Kunming (Yunnanfu)
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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Weishan, Yunnan—Birthplace of an Ancient Native Kingdom

                                                             by Jim Goodman                    

    Lying in a broad and fertile plain 50 km south of Dali Prefecture’s Xiaguan in western Yunnan, boasting many Ming and Qing Dynasty structures and a preserved old quarter of traditional shop houses, Weishan is a charming, old-fashioned Chinese town that gets surprisingly little tourist traffic.  The few visitors are mainly Chinese families or couples from other parts of Yunnan.  Dali, just 18 km north of Xiaguan, is the main attraction for travelers in the area.  Tourists from all over China and beyond jam the old town streets, lined with overpriced souvenir, tea and jewelry shops, complain about the crowds, the prices and the commercialization of local culture but never venture to Weishan, an hour and a half away.  Yet in Weishan’s old town the shops on the streets sell items for the local population, merchants are laid back and friendly, it’s never crowded, always leisurely and the atmosphere of traditional urban China far more authentic than anywhere in Dali.
street in Weishan's old town
    Dali is more famous because it was long the capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom, Tang Dynasty China’s rival in the southwest, and its successor the Kingdom of Dali, which remained independent until overwhelmed by Kubilai Khan’s Mongols in 1253.  It is also near scenic Erhai Lake and mountains of 4000+ meters, which made it a prime destination from the very dawn of modern tourism.  Weishan is less well endowed physically and topographically, but did not undergo the commercial transformation of Dali, where now virtually every building caters to the tourist industry.  Weishan is still a slice of Old China, unique in western Yunnan.
    Moreover, it has its historical importance as well, for the Nanzhao Kingdom had its start right here, in the 7th century, when the town was known as Mengshe, the capital of one of the six native chiefdoms, or zhao, roughly in the area that is now Dali Prefecture.  Being in the most southern location of the six, the area around Mengshe was the Southern zhao—Nanzhao.  In 649 its ruler Xinuluo conquered a neighboring tribe in Midu and shortly after, when Tang Court officials were looking for an ally to secure their southwest frontier they chose Xinuluo’s state.
a Nanzhao king, from a Weibaoshan mural
    Four generations later Mengshe’s ruler Piluoge conquered the other five zhao.  In 738 the Tang conferred a royal title on him and recognized Nanzhao as a vassal state.  Piluoge’s own opinion, and that of his successors, was that Nanzhao was independent on a par with Tang China.  Until it fell in the early 10th century, shortly after the Tang regime’s own demise, Nanzhao fought both Tibet and China for control of the region, periodically launching invasions into Sichuan, defeating any invasion into its own realm.  But now that Piluoge’s success had made Nanzhao a bigger state, the capital shifted closer to Erhai Lake; first at Taihe, then Dali.
    Mengshe lost its political importance and had no impact on the history of the next several centuries.  Nanzhao expanded, contracted and imploded.  Its successor Dali lived in peace with Song Dynasty China until the Mongol conquest.  With the rise of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, the Mongols evacuated and the Ming Court began sending immigrants from eastern China into Yunnan to give it a more Chinese identity.  In the Dali area, from 1382 the Ming Court dispatched soldiers to both establish military garrisons and clear land to settle down on farms.
    At that time the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Yunnan were not Han Chinese but a mixture of many ethnic minorities.  In Dali Prefecture the dominant groups are the Bai and Yi.  Nanzhao’s ruling class was Yi or proto-Yi, while Dali’s kings were Bai.  Today the Bai constitute the largest ethnic minority in the prefecture and dominate the plains areas, while the hills are mostly inhabited by Yi. 
Bai shopkeepe in Weishan
    Because they are the largest community Dali is an Autonomous Bai Prefecture, where the top officials are Bai.  But the Yi and Hui outnumber the Bai in Weishan, so the latter is an Autonomous Yi and Hui County.   Some of the Hui are descendants of Kubilai Khan’s Central Asian Muslim allies, who stayed on to administer and garrison the province in the Yuan Dynasty.  Others came in after the Ming Dynasty evicted the Mongols and sponsored immigration.
    In the late 14th century the city underwent a major transformation, beginning with a name change from Mengshe to Weishan, apparently a contraction of Weibaoshan, a sacred mountain 18 km south of the city that would become home to many temples, mostly Taoist, over the next four centuries.  The mountain is swathed in thick forests of pine and cypress, the shrines and temples sited at intervals along roads and paths that ascend to the summit.
    The entrance to the area is about halfway up the mountain.  The first compound inside is dedicated to the Nanzhao kings.  Paintings or statues of them line the hallway on the upper level, with basic information about each posted on a signboard in Chinese, Yi and English.  The information is a bit biased, though, in the sense that an uninformed visitor would never get the idea that Nanzhao was actually an independent state, not just a vassal existing with imperial permission, but one that completely annihilated two large invading Tang armies. 
    The walls flanking the lower courtyard feature low-relief sculptures of life in Nanzhao times.   Vignettes depict soldiers marching to war, kings at the palace and scenes of daily life, as well as a Nanzhao-style standing Buddha with a seated Buddha on his head.
Nanzhao-style Buddha
    From here to the summit, up two separate roads, are fourteen temples in the classic Chinese style, surrounded by trees, built with brick and tile, embellished with courtyard gardens and ponds.  The most interesting of these is Wenyong Temple, in particular for the Dragon Pond in the upper courtyard.  An elegant pavilion stands in the middle of the pond, connected by a stone bridge to the courtyard walkway.  On its base just above the water is a famous mural of a circle of Yi dancing around a bonfire celebrating the Torch Festival.  Painted in the 18th century, reproduced in hotels and restaurants in Weishan, the top half is still sharp and vibrant, though the rest is faint and has lost most of its color.
Dragon Pond mural, Weibaoshan
    On the ride back down the mountain to the city are several spots with a broad view of the plain, its farms and villages and distant hills.  The modestly sized city of Weishan does not resemble a fast-growing modern metropolis, for very few tall buildings mark its skyline.  The city was not on the Tea and Horses Road and its prosperity basically derived from its fertile and fruitful land.  Even today, while connected by a good road to Xiaguan, it is not on the major provincial highways from Kunming to southwest Yunnan.
    As a result, development and expansion proceed much more slowly in Weishan than in those cities on the main commercial routes.  The atmosphere is never hectic, traffic jams unknown, the people relaxed and friendly.  At the edge of the city, on the way to the bus station, a large park serves as an outdoor tea center, where patrons sit in small stools at tables of woven split bamboo.  A short walk from this is a quiet park with several nice Qing Dynasty buildings.  A couple of blocks further up is the old town, where cars are banned.
    Dominating the preserved old quarter, erected by the first Ming administrators in 1397, is the very wide and imposing, 23.5 meter-high Gongchen Tower, which used to serve as the northern gate when Weishan was a walled city.   Urban planners at that time laid out the city in a chessboard grid, resembling the nearly square shape of an official seal.  Gongchen Tower was considered the handle.  Standing beside a large plaza, its rose-pink stone walls are topped by a two-tiered, red hardwood building with tiled roofs and upturned corners.  From its upper tiers observers can view the straight stone streets radiating in the four cardinal directions.
Xinggong Tower
    Originally, when it was a walled city, gates stood at the end of each street.  Today only one such street ends with a gate, called Xinggong Tower.  It was built around the same time as Gongchen Tower, rebuilt at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, but it is narrower, only as wide as the street, with two tiers rising above the neighboring houses.  Both towers are illuminated at night, as are the main streets of the old town, or at least the sections closest to Gongchen Tower.
    The street running from Gongchen Tower to Xinggong Tower is lined on both sides with red wooden shop houses with tiled roofs and has the most traditional look and feel of any street in the city.  They are all modest buildings, with the goods stored in the room facing the street, which may also serve as a workshop, and the living quarters in the rear and in the attics.  There are a few shops selling antiques, plus one or two with ethnic clothing, though their customers are not tourists so much as local ethnic minority people who buy the items to wear.
old town street
    Other shops cater to the needs of local residents.  There are shops selling furniture and ornate bird cages, bolts of cloth, sandals made of cloth or straw, noodles, footwear, tie-dyed clothing, sitting stools and sundry other items.  Customers take their time examining the goods.  The patient shopkeeper never pesters, never urges them to buy this or that item, in fact never says anything until the customer is ready to ask a question.  The rule seems to be politeness before profit.
    Shops on the street continuing on the other side of Gongchen Tower are less oriented towards traditional items and more towards things like modern clothing, medicines, shoes, children’s toys, stationery etc., but the buildings are in the same classic traditional style.   Lanterns hang from the roofs of these and from the compound gates of houses on the side streets.  On some of the narrow lanes branching off one street or another farmers set up stalls to sell mushrooms, edible fungi, walnuts and fruits and, during festival times, decorations and items used in the events.
old-style sandals for sale
old town noodle factory
    Many more will join them during Weishan’s regular market days, held the 10th, 20th and 30th every month.  At that time the city fills with minorities from the vicinity—the Yi, Bai and Hui—dressed in their traditional clothing.  The Yi women, from the Tuli branch of the Yi minority, are particularly colorful, in bright shades of red and green and fancy headgear.   
Tuli Yi women, Dacan
    local Hui girls, Dacang
    While Weishan’s market day draws a good proportion of Yi women, they come in even greater numbers to Dacang, a small, largely Hui town 35 km north.  Full of nondescript modern buildings, but with one small and attractive Buddhist temple, Dacang holds its market day the same dates as Weishan, as do a couple other villages in between Dacang and Weishan.   At the northern end of the Weishan valley, Dacang draws more Yi to its markets because it is closer to the hills where they live.
While minibuses ply the route from Weishan to Dacang and beyond, many people prefer the more leisurely journey by pony cart.  They can hold up to 12 people or so.  Weishan County is one of the very few places in the province where pony carts are still widely used.  As in Weishan, market day in Dacang is not confined to a single area or neighborhood, as country folk set up stalls in several separate venues. 
    Once in a while some folks might set up some entertainment spot at a market day, playing music or just singing songs.  Weishan itself has little in the way of entertainment at night.  Not many restaurants exist, although the number is steadily growing.  In an old house next to Gongchen Tower is a bar, but for socializing local folks take to one of the side alley grills for kebabs and cold beer with their friends.  The real entertainment in Weishan is not in the form of music and dance, not even ethnic music and dance (other than on big holidays).  It lies in appreciating the slower rhythms of traditional everyday life in a city with bilingual signboards that announce, “All of us are living images of Weishan.  Every household is a window into the culture of Weishan.”
Gongchen Tower

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