by Jim Goodman
Han Dynasty authority in Yunnan was intermittent and under the Tang and Song Dynasties, Yunnan was an independent state; Nanzhao during the Tang and the Kingdom of Dali during the Song. Neither of these states exerted much control of their southwestern territories, relying on autonomous local rulers to keep the peace. When the Mongols conquered Yunnan they set up an administrative center in Tengchong, but the area was still lightly populated and relatively lawless until the Ming Dynasty drove the Mongols out in the late 14th century. With Yunnan now part of China, the Ming encouraged Chinese settlement in the province.
As their businesses prospered, some merchants left home to expand their business abroad. This was particularly true in Heshun, 10 km south, a town famous for its high percentage of residents who became Overseas Chinese. Retaining connections with the homeland, they endowed their families, and the town itself, with funds for nice houses, as well as parks, pavilions and even a library. With architecture classical but influenced by foreign styles, obvious prosperity, quiet atmosphere, lack of slums pleasant parks, views and pavilions, Heshun is a popular excursion out of Tengchong.
The only non-Chinese style building in town is the large library on the campus of Yiqun Middle School. Set up in 1924, sponsored by Heshun’s native Overseas Chinese, it contains over 60,000 volumes, including some rare ancient texts. The town’s other public buildings all reflect the traditional style, embellished with carved beams, painted rafters and vertical boards of poem couplets, inscribed by famous calligraphers.
The words take on a poignant irony when one knows that in 1879 Qing Dynasty troops, fearing a revival of the Muslim Rebellion, massacred hundreds of Tengchong Muslims by hurling them over the falls. The incident, not mentioned on any signpost in the vicinity, makes Dieshuihe a kind of historical attraction. Another is the city’s former British Consulate, a large, forlorn-looking building built from 1921-31 and abandoned when Japanese troops invaded Tengchong in 1942.
Under its terms the Qing government agreed to pay compensation to the victims’ families, arrest and try the killers, grant British citizens the right of extra-territoriality and make revisions in its trade policy favorable to Britain. Ten years later Britain took control of northern Burma and Tengchong eventually became a trading post for goods coming out of British India. Prosperity returned to Tengchong and prevailed until the Japanese occupation of Burma.
Most tourists were Chinese from big cities and unlikely to make such an endeavor. The geothermal feature more interesting to them was the presence of hot springs. Several of these lie scattered around the county, but the biggest is Rehai—the Hot Sea—about 20 km south of Tengchong.
The Rehai springs contain many minerals good for the health. They are effective in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and skin diseases. Near some of the larger hot springs in the 9 km2 park are bath houses and steam beds where guests can indulge in such treatment.
They are divided into several sub-groups, but share the same language, part of the Yi group of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group, related to Yi, Hani and Lahu. They have no written system, but the Lisu preserve their history in songs, which can sometimes take an entire day to sing. The Hua Lisu, one of the largest sub-groups, moved into the mountains of Tengchong around the beginning of the 16th century.
The campaign was a success, though Wang Ji died just before its conclusion, and law and order was established on the frontier. Other than being conscripted for government labor projects from time to time, the Lisu remained pretty aloof from the plains, practicing swidden agriculture, hunting and gathering and a basically subsistence economy. Over the centuries some of them moved to lower altitudes, straddling or flanking streams, and raised different crops on fixed fields. They were also involved in the logging industry in the past.
They stand out at once for the attraction of their colorful clothing, both men and particularly women. Men might wear a turban or a broad-brimmed hat, plus a long jacket, usually white or pinstriped gray, boots and a sash over one shoulder of discs cut from cowry shells. The women wear long-tailed blue coats with silver clasps in the front and brightly colored flaps at the back, knee-length pants and puttees or black rattan rings around the calves and a belt with embroidered tassels holding a long black apron with colored trimming.
Their jewelry comprises many strings of beads, a stiff round collar ornamented with silver studs, buttons, shell discs or cowries, with silver pendants suspended from the bottom of the collar, plus other pendants that hang from the belt or apron. The traditional headgear is a round cap; of a row of cowry shell discs, with colored cloth on top and in flaps over the back.
The most interesting time to visit Tengchong’s Lisu is during the Sword Ladder Festival, 8th day of the 2nd lunar month. They stage it in honor of Wang Ji, their commander in the pacification campaign. His soldiers revered him and said he was so brave he could walk across a bed of hot coals and climb a ladder of swords. This was a way of saying ‘very very brave’ but the Lisu took it literally. Every year brave volunteers run over a ‘sea of fire’ at night and the next day climb a ladder of 36 machetes, the sharp side up. Their only reward is the prestige from doing it.
Lisu villages have a better material life now, with roads, bridges, schools, easy access to the market and other improvements. They are more integrated into the modern world, yet the Sword Ladder Festival proves that they cling to certain old traditions, especially those that are so tied up with their history and identity, that are quintessentially Lisu.
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