Friday, February 2, 2018

Tiger-Eaters of Lincang

                                    by Jim Goodman
Lahu women on the road near Nanmei
       Lincang Prefecture in southwest Yunnan is one of the least explored parts of the province.  Counties in the south are home to sizable Dai and Wa communities, as well as smaller groups of De’ang, Lahu, Yi and Bulang.  But the northern half of the prefecture, and Lincang city itself, are generally ignored because travelers assume there is nothing interesting in the area.
       Lincang city, known locally by its original name Fengxiang, lies south of the confluence of the Nanding and West Rivers.  At 1450 meters altitude, the city rises on a low hill south of the river junction.  Streets branching off the main north-south street feature still traditional Han shop-houses when I visited several years ago, but most buildings elsewhere, like the Grand Hotel, administrative centers and the central bank, were very modern, with little in the way of Chinese motifs, more influenced by the Shanghai European style.
bank in Lincang city
       The only truly attractive area was South Gate Park in the southwest quarter.  The upper part is devoted to children’s rides and playgrounds, but even here are places where musicians set up to play, while further on is a two-story old-fashioned teahouse , divided into several small, classical style rooms with elegant furniture and ink-brush paintings on the walls.  Nearby is a pond with pavilions and an arched bridge.
       Just above the pond is a small zoo.  On display were a pair of tigers and black bears, two pairs of different kinds of wolves, four red pandas and a meter-long, web-footed, yellow-toothed badger or gopher that I didn't recognize.  The aviary featured griffons, cranes, wild chickens, guinea fowl, peacocks and golden pheasants.
traditional teahouse in South Gate Park
       After a day checking out yet another major Yunnan city, I set out on an excursion to Nanmei Autonomous Lahu District, 48 km west along a high road that followed the West River to its source and the turned south.  The road still kept to the high side of the Dananmei River, which flowed far below and divided the hill settlements of the local Lahu.  The minibus from Lincang that ran the route to Nanmei once every afternoon and returned to Lincsng in mid-morning, dropped me off in the township headquarters, a small place of a school, hospital and several modern government buildings and not a single hotel.  Fellow riders on the bus  kindly arranged for me to stay in the lower floor of a restaurant, where they had a single bed and a toilet down the hall.
musician in South Gate Park
red panda in the park zoo
       Having spotted a couple of Lahu women on the way in, and noticing they were dressed in traditional clothing, I set out for the nearest village, just 2 km north.  In contrast to the administrative center, all the Lahu houses around here were all in the traditional style, of brick and wood with balconies, railed or fenced, on the upstairs floor, sitting on the ground on the ground for the most part, though a couple were raised on low stone piles, with wood tile or corrugated iron roofs. 
morning clouds over Nanmei Valley
No temples or churches existed anywhere, though a few field shrines were visible scattered among the heavily terraced slopes.  The road runs evenly along the ridge for several kilometers at an altitude of 1900 meters.  The terraces dominate the slopes on the western side all the way down to the river and a few villages lie near the river on both sides of it.  Occasional groves of trees, especially downhill closer to the river, separate the terraced sections.
       This village seems to be the ceremonial center for the Lahu communities in the vicinity.  The entrance at the front consists of long twin stone staircases, with a row of stone blocks running between them and a small water-wheel sculpture halfway to the top.  A big mortar bowl sits at the foot of one staircase, though made of concrete, and a wooden gateway with an overhead horizontal beam rises above the first steps.  
Lahu woman at home
smoking on the road
       Past the water-wheel sculpture the stairway ascends more steeply to end at a square at the beginning of the settled area.  The village meeting hall sits here, a very wide building on stone piles, with walls of plaited split bamboo and lots of tables and chairs inside.  An enclosed pond lies beside it, decorated with a small water-wheel model, though not in actual use.  In fact, I didn’t see any other water-wheels in the area, nor any streams near their fields, where water-wheels might have been used.  Perhaps it was a cultural symbol, a relic of earlier centuries when they lived on the plains.
Nanmei village gate
       The villagers didn’t seem disturbed by a foreigner in their midst, just carried on with their daily chores, like preparing a slaughtered pig or embroidering cloth.  They were polite and didn’t mind my interruption or taking photos, but did not invite me in for a drink, the way the Wa and Yi did everywhere I met them in the prefecture, nor initiate any conversation.
       Nanmei district is one of the more northern areas of Lahu habitation.  During the Han Dynasty a proto-Lahu people known as the Kunmings occupied the pastoral areas further north around contemporary Dali.  The Lahu evolved out of this ethnic group and were famous hunters in the Wuliang Mountains, noted for their skill at killing tigers.  The name ‘Lahu’ actually means ‘tiger-eater’ and until today the Dai and other neighbors, both in Yunnan and in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, generally refer to them not as Lahu but as ‘Museur’—hunter.
village pond and meeting hall
       As a consequence of the rise of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the 8th century, the Lahu were forced out of the plains and moved south to live in the hills.  About 460.000 now reside in Yunnan, in Lincang, Pu’er, Xishuangbanna and Honghe prefectures.  They are divided into several sub-groups, named after the prominent color of the traditional women’s clothing.  I don’t know whether the Nanmei district Lahu were called the Blue Lahu, but that color dominated the female clothing components, being the basic background color
       They wore a long-sleeved, side-fastened coat that reached to the calves and was split on both sides.  Under this they wore a blouse, knee-length shorts and leg-wrappers.  Most jackets were a medium blue, with some older women preferring black.  They were heavily trimmed with bands of embroidery or thin, appliquéd cloth strips of bright colors on the cuffs, hems, collar, lapel and shoulder blades. 
woman smoker and her long pipe
taking a break on market day
       Their shorts were similarly enhanced around the knees and the leg wrappers even more so.  Like the coats, they revealed individual characteristics that were still recognizably the local Lahu style.  They could be folded over at the top, studded with little silver discs or completely appliquéd.  Most women tucked the front flap of their jackets into their waistbands to better show off the shorts and leg-wrappers and their embellishments more clearly.  A few dressed without the leg-wrappers.
       There seemed to be no uniformity to the headgear.  Most simply wrapped their hair in a headscarf.  Some piled their hair into a cone and wrapped a peaked white cloth around it, which draped on each side to the shoulders, and kept it in place with a colored cloth around the brow.  The most common jewelry was big silver hoop earrings.  A few wore silver bangles, but the Lahu around Nanmei were in general less ornamented than other ethnic minorities in Yunnan. 
example of Lahu leg-wrappers
coming into the market
       Back in Nanmei town there is nothing to do at night, for both shops and restaurants close a couple hours after dark.  I ate dinner just after sunset, then retired to my room for the night and woke early to see the morning cloudlets that floated just above the valley.  I was wondering what I should do today, whether it would be worth it to hike down to the villages close to the river just to see if daily life there was any different from that in the nearby villages I had already visited.
       Then I noticed tables and stalls being set up in the central square.  Gangai?” I asked one of the men involved.  Dui,” he replied.  Yes, it was market day, held in Nanmei every five days I later learned.  So I stayed another day and night.  Villagers began streaming into Nanmei from about 8:30, from both the north and south directions.  Like market days elsewhere in Yunnan, women constituted at least 80% of those in attendance.  And in Nanmei they were manly consumers, for only a few ran stalls themselves or brought goods in to sell.  The Han were the sellers.
Lahu women in the Nanmei market
       No other minority nationality lives in the district, so those attending were nearly all Lahu, mostly females and all dressed up in their finest traditional garments for the occasion.  The parameters of the distinctive local style allow for much individuation in the trimmings and embellishments.  No two outfits were alike.  Sometimes the headscarves resembled others, sometimes not.  Teenaged girls left their hair uncovered.  The hoop earrings were the same on those who wore them, but otherwise the cut of the clothing components was standard, but the colors, embroidery, use of silver studs and colors for the appliquéd strips differed completely from one female to another.
       Lahu mall ales were a small part of the crowd and did not wear anything especially traditional.  Boys and young men dressed in ordinary modern clothes, while older men wore dark blue jackets and trousers.   The women provided the color and to an outside observer like myself, Nanmei on market day was like an ethnic fashion parade.
stalls set up for Nanmei's market day
       By mid-morning the streets were getting crowded, though it was never very congested.  Red umbrellas stood over a line of stalls along the street south of the square and Lahu women browsed them individually or in small groups.  Merchants sold rice, vegetables and their seeds, thread, strips of embroidered or appliquéd cloth, shoes, spices and tobacco, the latter being one of the most popular items.
       Along with rice and maize, tobacco is one of the main crops in the Nanmei area.  And the Lahu love smoking, especially the women.  Using small pipes with very long, thin bamboo stems, they smoke while walking to the market and continue puffing away while ambling around the stalls.  Older men use pipes with shorter stems, while younger ones prefer cigarettes.  Only among the Wa had I witnessed such a large percentage of women smokers; in Nanmei virtually every woman over thirty.
       In keeping with the traditional look, the women carried pack baskets of woven split bamboo, made by the men of their household, to bring in or take back their goods.  A few women led ponies, but other than chickens, these were the only animals in town that day.   There was no buffalo, cattle or pig market.  Except for a couple small noodle stands and one fellow selling steamed buns, the market didn’t have any place offering a decent meal.  I went back to the restaurant where I was lodging for lunch, then returned to the market to find it just as active, and just as leisurely as before. 
teenaged Lahu girl
young Lahu woman in the market
       No haggling took place at the stalls.  Nobody seemed to be in any kind of hurry, either.  Women chatted with each other a long time while they examined thread, bolts of cloth or sacks of tobacco.  I slipped into the same relaxed, laid back mood myself.  If someone got in the way when I was trying to photograph a Lahu woman, I didn’t bother to jump up and go pursue the shot.  Another photogenic lady will come along, or maybe the other one will return.  Nobody shunned the camera or gestured against me or, for that matter, paid me any attention at all, men included.
       The square remained crowded past two p.m. and then began gradually thinning.  By 4:30 the stalls and umbrellas came down and the last Lahu shoppers slung their baskets of goods over their backs and headed home to their villages.  It was not the usual kind of market day experience for me, even in other parts of Lincang prefecture, where local minorities approached me for a brief conversation or even invited me for a snack or a drink to continue the encounter.  Yet it was still quite enjoyable, if only for the plethora of traditional clothing. 
Lahu women at a market stall
Lahu woman and her pipe
       It was also an example of the uneven influence of modernization on Yunnan’s traditional cultures.  Nanmei is not a remote outpost like in the past.  Good roads connect it to Lincang and some of the Lahu make the journey to the city on their motorbikes.  The district has electricity in all the villages, televisions in the homes, government offices and a school in town—all the right influences that have elsewhere eroded traditional customs and practices. 
        Yet the Lahu in Nanmei are far less affected by these developments. They accept modern improvements in their lives, but have retained everything in their culture that makes them distinctly Lahu.  There must be more places like that in Yunnan, waiting to be discovered and appreciated.  I’m hoping I find them
Lahu women going home after market day
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Nanmei is the last stop on Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey through Xishuangbanna and the Wa Hills.  See the itinerary at


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