Sunday, November 27, 2016

Wandering Around Weixi County

                                              by Jim Goodman

Tacheng TIbetan neighborhood
       Anyone wishing to meet or research Tibetans in Yunnan goes to Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the northwest.  Tibetan villages lie all over the high plateau and rolling hills of Shangrila County and speckle the steep hills of the more rugged Diqing County, backed by the highest mountains in the province.  Most of Yunnan’s Tibetans live in these two counties, but some also inhabit nearby districts in Weixi, the prefecture’s other county, a Lisu Autonomous County, where Tibetans are a minority and Lisu constitute over 60 % of the population.
       Nevertheless, two important old Tibetan monasteries have existed in the county since the 17th century.  One is a cave temple in Tacheng district, several km west of the Jinshajiang, the river that divides Weixi and Shangrila Counties.  Known as Damosi, it lies high up near the summit of the mountain, with a few monks’ quarters built next to the mouth of the cave containing the main shrine.  It was named after Damo, an Indian disciple of Siddartha, who is said to have spent ten years in the cave on this mountain and achieved Enlightenment there.
Damosi cave temple
       According to Buddhist lore, the surroundings are imbued with religious symbolism.  Damo is supposed to have left his footprints in the stone here. The mountain 18 kilometers distant from the cave shrine is said to resemble an elephant kneeling before Damo's feet.  The Lapu River running along the southern base of the mountain is like a khada—the ceremonial silk scarf.  West of the elephant's trunk is Damoshan, shaped like a seated Buddha.  The temple was constructed at the mouth of the cave in 1662 and restored in 1984.
       Further west along the Lapu River is the town of Tacheng.  The houses are old-fashioned, tile-roofed types common to rural Yunnan, with modern buildings, and not too high, in the town business district.  A modest new Tibetan temple stands on the eastern side of town.  The town’s population, besides Tibetans, includes Han, Naxi, Lisu and Bai.  But when Tacheng hosts dance troupes for major festivals and other events, most of the performers are Tibetan.
TIbetan dancers in Tacheng
       The show takes place in the main square, graced by a chorten—Tibetan pagoda.  More such chortens can be seen in nearby villages on the road south along the river to Weixi city.  But after that the villages on the hills flanking the river are Lisu, while those alongside it tend to be Naxi.  Some have covered bridges crossing the river, but with unattractive corrugated iron roofs. 
       After a journey of a few hours the road bends away from the river and eventually ends up at the northern end of Weixi, a city bounded by scenic high mountains that climbs up the hill behind the bus station.  Some of the business district buildings still have wooden facades with blocks of tiny windows, just like the old days.  Traditional style houses characterize most of the residential neighborhoods, largely Lisu, where the people still keep ponies to carry goods to and from the market.  Their farms are right next to the suburbs and, like the Lisu in Nujiang, they plow their fields with a pair of oxen, with one man guiding the animals and one man working the plow.
lower Weixi
Lisu in Weixi
       As this is a Lisu Autonomous County, signs on government building gates are in both the Chinese and Lisu languages.  The Lisu language is not written in the government-devised system using Latin letters and letters to represent tones, as on signs in Nujiang.  In Weixi they use the Fraser alphabet, created by an American missionary, using Latin letters, but adding backwards or upside-down letters for special sounds in Lisu.
Lisu on the way to Weixi's market day
       The Lisu accent continues in the artistic plaques erected in the city’s small stadium.  Low-relief sculptures depict Lisu dances, of course, but also hunting with crossbows, spearing buffaloes and planting rice. 
       Compared to the Lisu of Nujiang or southwest Yunnan, the Lisu sub-group around Weixi, and in villages up the Lancangjiang (the Chinese portion of the Mekong), do not dress so splendidly.  The women’s outfit is closer to that of the Naxi, with a back apron and side-fastened jacket over plain trousers or a black skirt.  Market day is not as colorful as elsewhere in western Yunnan, but it will include a few Tibetans selling medicinal herbs and a large section for orchids, which is almost a cult thing in western Yunnan, some of them selling for very high prices.  
central Weixi business district
       While Weixi city doesn’t have any temples, it does have a Christian church atop a ridge just west of the city.  It has a three-tiered steeple, more in the Chinese style than Western, but a long, Western church-style nave.  On Sundays several dozen Weixi devotees, mostly Lisu, come to hear the minister’s sermon.
       The Protestant congregation here is the legacy of American missionaries of the Republic of China era.  But they were not the first Western proselytizers in the area.  French Lazarist missionaries arrived in the region in the 1860s.  In 1867 they established their first Catholic church at Cikou, in southern Diqing County, and in 1870 a second church at Xiaoweixi, northwest of Weixi, 12 km north of the junction of the Yongchun River with the Lancangjiang. 
village above the Yongchun RIver
       Both these churches were built in a style resembling that of Buddhist temples.  The one in Cikou was later destroyed and a new one, looking different, replaced it at CIzhong, a few km upriver.  Xiaoweixi’s church survived intact, though for some years it was converted to a school and then a storage house until the post-Mao era, when worship was permitted again and the church resumed its original function.
       The French established their church at a time when most of the province was experiencing the convulsions of the Muslim Rebellion, which didn’t end until 1879.  It must have been a lonely outpost for the missionaries.  But in 1892 they got a visit from a few of their fellow countrymen when the exploring expedition under the Prince d’Orléans passed through here on their way to search for the sources of the Irrawaddy River. 
Xiaoweixi Catholic Church, built in 1870
       While the scenery along the Yongchun River is quite pleasant, that changes dramatically once the road turns north along the Lancangjiang.  Now it’s high mountains along the river, especially the western side, and beyond them even higher mountains, often with perennially snow-capped peaks.  Lisu villages lie high up near the snow line and streams coming down from Biluoshan, the mountain range on the western side, cut deep gorges as they reach to the river. 
       From Kangpu, one of the larger towns on the route, the mountains are also quite steep on the eastern side of the river and the landscape resembles that in the Nujiang canyon.  Augmenting this notion is the presence of three pairs of rope-bridges between Kangpu and Yezhi. 
       The highland area is mostly Lisu territory, but the riverside towns like Kangp;u and Yezhi are Naxi.  During the Ming Dynasty, the government of the Naxi chieftain of Lijiang was responsible for frontier security.  As a result, Naxi garrison towns began appearing on the upper reaches of the Lancangjiang, even north of Diqing.
       Badi district, north of Yezhi, is the other major area besides Tacheng with substantial numbers of Tibetan residents.  Yet in the mountains above Kangpu, far even from Badi, is the county’s other major Tibetan temple.  Called Shouguosi, it was founded in the late Ming Dynasty by monks of the Karmapa (Black Hat) sect of eastern Tibet.  The same sect later sponsored construction of a subsidiary monastery at Puhua, near Bingzhongluo in upper Nujiang.
decorated roof at the temple entrance
       Shouguosi sits on a hill about 350 meters above the riverside town of Kangpu.  The road to get there is beyond Kangpu, about six km south of Yezhi, where it zigzags up the forested hill four km and ends at the village.  A mixed population of Naxi, Tibetan, Lisu and Han occupy about 30-40 houses, mostly in the Naxi style, including the traditional pair of wooden fish suspended from the apex of the roof, representing water as a defense against fire and lightning.
        Strings of prayer flags span the lanes leading to the temple, which sits above the back end of the village.  Unusually, it faces west, towards the Biluo Mountains and Tibet itself.  The temple is an elegant old redwood building, with three tiers and gray tiled roofs.  The top tier was added in the mid-Qing Dynasty and elegantly carved posts support the four corners of the roof. 
Bhairab wall mural outside the entrance
       The building has not been renovated since and while some of the exterior color decoration has faded, the carvings on the brackets, of animals and vegetation, are in good condition.  A wall mural of the fierce deity Bhairab near the entry door is mostly intact. And the rows of diamond vignettes of religious symbols that fill the space under the roof at the entrance are unscathed by time.
       In contrast to the muted tones of the exterior, inside the temple is a whirl of color.  Long tubular pendants, covered with flaps of different bright colors, drop down from the ceiling.  New thangkas (religious paintings) and long, narrow pennants hang from the brackets.  Most of the wall murals, generally featuring forms of Bhairab, have been repainted, though a few original, partly faded sections remain.  Gilded bronze statues of Buddha, Avalokitesvar, Padmapani and Tara decorate the altar area. 
       Like the thangkas, these look like recent works and probably donations from outside the immediate area, since there are no nearby Tibetan villages.  From eight to ten monks and novices live there and the village is very religious-minded.  That’s not surprising, since the four different nationalities that live there do so because of their common faith.  Shouguosi monks are very proud of their temple and their tradition and welcome the rare visitor with tea and a khada—ceremonial white scarf.
central market square of Yezhi, old yamen on the right
       Views from around here, and glimpses west through openings in the forest cover on the way back down to the riverside road, reveal steep gorges and high mountains with large swathes of woodlands.  Weixi County still enjoys 36% forest cover, giving it a rich variety of biological resources.  Besides being home to such rare animals as the takin, clouded leopard, pangolin, red goral, golden cat and the snub-nosed monkey, the province’s official mascot, the forests abound in medicinal herbs and plants, edible wild fungi and ornamental flowers like orchids.  Weixi city hosts a trade fair every year to market the county’s medicinal plants, drawing buyers from across the province and beyond.
       Just past the turnoff up to Shouguosi, the road passes between high cliffs that squeeze the river and turn it into raging rapids comparable to those on the Nu River over the Biluo Mountains.  Then a few km later the landscape changes.  The mountains on the east bank stand further away from the river.  A broad tableland spreads out down from their gentle slopes and the town of Yezhi lies at the end of it, just above the river.
Naxi at the Yezhi shops
       A bi-lingual sign at the southern entrance identifies Yezhi as the “Hometown of Lisu Culture.”  Actually, like Kangpu 16 km south, it is mainly a Naxi town and the most impressive old building in the town center is the original Qing Dynasty administrative residence (yamen) of the former Naxi chieftain.  Not in use today, it stands next to the central market square. 
       Naxi women in Yezhi dress very much like those in Lijiang County, minus the ‘seven-starred cape:’ side=fastened jacket in maroon, blue or black, plain trousers and a long black apron.  Occasionally Lisu women turn up in town, usually in modern clothes, but recognizable by their fringed white shoulder bags.  The next village north of Yezhi, on the west bank, is also Naxi, but the settlements above the river, on the edges of high ridges and the slopes of the western mountains, are all Lisu.
       In the 1930s the Morses, an American Protestant missionary family, set up a base in Yezhi.  For several years they evangelized among the then poor, downtrodden, exploited Lisu villages and had great success.  Eventually they moved on to Gongshan County in Nujiang, with similar results, until forced to flee to Burma in 1949.  Today most Lisu in western Weixi County are Christian.
Lisu village near Yezhi
Naxi woman in Yezhi
       Perhaps that’s why they don’t favor their full ethnic outfit for everyday wear anymore.  Some missionary groups sought to eradicate the custom because it pre-dated the arrival of the Word of God.  The Morses’ sect did not make such demands, but at any rate the Weixi Lisu did not abandon it completely.  They still don it for the big Christian festivals, for while Christianity is part of their tradition now, so is their original Lisu identity.

the Lancangjiang in Weixi County
                                                                   * * *   
               for more on the Tibetans in Yunnan, see my e-book Living in Shangrila
                           on the Naxi, see my e-book Children of the Jade Dragon

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