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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