Sunday, March 28, 2021

Instant Friendships--Lisu Encounters in Nujiang


                                              by Jim Goodman

       After my first journey to Yunnan in 1992, I wanted to see every prefecture in Yunnan and eventually visited Nujiang in the summer of 1998.  Gongshan County was still closed to foreigners, so after a brief stay in Liuku I spent several days in Fugong County.  The mountain scenery along the river kept getting more beautiful further north.  Snow-capped peaks of over 4000 meters were already visible before Fugong city, even though it was the warmest month of the year.  Steep slopes on either side were lined with terraces and settlements speckled the hillsides.  Thick forests swathed the tops and some areas between the villages.

       I had good weather on my arrival and the enchanting landscape provoked me to vow to come again at different seasons.  But by the time I departed I had other reasons.  Nujiang was not on the usual tourist trail and I didn’t know anyone in Yunnan who had been there.  It was an Autonomous Lisu Prefecture because the Lisu made up the majority of the population.  So what would be the Lisu reaction to a Western visitor?  Would they ignore me?  Be too shy? Feel intruded upon by my camera?  Well, as it turned out they were quite friendly, easy to engage with, and only initially shy.  They were as curious about me as I was about them.

       The other attraction of Fugong that reinforced my desire to return was the very visible presence of traditional Lisu culture.  A large portion of the women, young and old, dressed in Lisu style, with long skirts white, blue, black or pinstriped gray, a side-fastened vest over a long-sleeved blouse, a beaded cap and ornaments of beads and shell disks. Some of the men wore the traditional front-fastened shirt of pinstriped gray, often with black cuffs and collar.  And both sexes carried the Lisu-style shoulder bag, even when they wore all modern clothes.

       Fugong stages market day every five days and it’s the most interesting in the whole prefecture both for the show of traditional garments and the range of products on sale.  Women run stalls selling Lisu skirts or jackets, others display ornaments, but besides the usual cosmetics, toiletries, shoes and such, other traditional Lisu products were also available.  These included an array of bamboo cups, beer mugs, spoons, ladles, smoking pipes and bongs.  Others sold baskets of split bamboo and there were several places to buy crossbows, crossbow bolts and bearskin quivers.  You could also buy crossbow victims, like the carcasses of flying squirrels and field rats, along with other animal parts—hooves, antlers, turtle shells--used as medicine.

       Crossbows are one of the salient traditions characterizing the culture of Nujiang.  Men took them to the fields just in case some edible prey appeared and carried them from their villages down to the city on market day, where the stalls selling them were busy with potential customers.  Nujiang is not the only place with crossbows.  They are popular in the Wa Hills, too.  But nowhere else are they so widely in use.

       I also spotted men with crossbows while taking a taxi north to Nujiang’s most famous mountain, called the Stone Moon after the big oval hole just below the peak.  The road rose above the river to provide a suitable viewpoint, as well as a tavern where the driver and I could share a couple drinks. I paid a hundred yuan for the excursion and the next day hired him for fifty yuan to take me to Dapuluo, a village north of Fugong that according to the map looked close to the main road.

       The map was deceptive.  The village lay up a steep slope.  The driver took me to the junction and informed me he could not take his vehicle up to Dapuluo but promised to come back to pick me up when I returned.  The road uphill was more like a wide dirt path, only suitable for tractor-trailers, and so rutted I preferred to walk anyway, which took an hour.  The houses, mostly wooden with slate roofs, lay in a cluster surrounded by rice fields.  It was planting time so most villagers were at their farms.

       After wandering around taking pictures, it was time to go back down and meet the driver, who was already waiting for me.  Before taking me back to Fugong he wanted me to have a meal at his home first.  Maybe he felt guilty about charging me so much just to go several km to the Dapuluo junction.  It was a lavish and leisurely chicken dinner, washed down with rice liquor, with conversations about my life in northern Thailand, the Akha and Lisu there, my research in Yunnan and me learning how to say things in the local Lisu dialect.  My new friend later spread the news about me, for the following morning during market day in Fugong I overheard men speaking about the American from Thailand researching ethnic minorities.  A few introduced themselves and asked me to compare Yunnan and northern Thailand.

       Well, it was going to be easy to make friends here, so two years later, after Gongshan County was open to foreigners, I decided to make Nujiang the primary focus of my Yunnan research.  I started with a few days in Gongshan, including Bingzhongluo and the First Turn of the Nu River.  On the long bus ride to Gongshan I became familiar with another major feature of the Nujiang canyon—rope-bridges crossing the river.  Formerly made of split bamboo, which required changing after a while, now they were wound steel cables, almost all in pairs, and still in regular use, especially those near market day venues.

       Leaving Gongshan, I opted to spend a night In Lishadi, in Fugong County north of the Stone Moon, a picturesque town with tall pointed peaks right next to it.  After arriving I headed for the rope-bridge just north of the town that connected the riverbank to the Lisu village of Heizao.  From a distance I observed two men crossing over to the other side, but they were long gone by the time I reached the hook-up point.  However, after a few minutes four little girls came to the other side, hitched up with two harnesses on single cable hooks and then, without parental/adult supervision, the two pairs crossed and re-crossed the swirling river several times.  Witnessing this I deduced 1) it can’t be dangerous and 2) it must be fun.

       On the way back to Lishadi I stopped at a small sewing shop because a beautiful young Lisu woman in full traditional clothing and ornaments was inside visiting her friend the owner.  I took the opportunity to try using the Lisu language small talk I had picked up so far.  She was surprised, of course, and blushed a lot, but the short conversation was successful.  She was from Heizao so I asked her if she rode the rope-bridge.  By way of answering she reached into her pack-basket and pulled up her rope harness and cable hook.  Everyone who lived there had their own gear. 
       So the next time I visited Fugong I asked a Lisu woman I knew running a handicrafts shop to purchase a harness and cable hook for me.  But the nearest rope-bridge was one of the rare single cable types, where I would have to pull myself over from halfway across the river.  A Lisu man in the area came over and I explained, in simple Chinese, what I wanted to do and why here was not the right spot.  He offered to take me to Damedi, several km south, with its ordinary sloping pair of rope-bridges.  And there I experienced my first crossing of the Nu River in the time-honored traditional way.
       My next ambition was to use the Lishadi rope bridge with the excuse to deliver photos of the kids I had watched the previous trip.  It was market day but still early and a young man had just crossed when I arrived at the hook-up point.  He offered to take me to the village.  He left his own cable hook behind and hitched his simpler belt harness to my hook.  We failed to locate the girl I met in the shop but we did find the little girls.  My new friend kept repeating how delighted the girls were with their photos, while the parents plied us with steamed buns and cups of rice liquor. 
       Rope-bridges are not unique to Nujiang.  I saw my first one in use near Qiaotou on the way to Shangrila.  And there are still some along the upper Lancangjiang.  But, like the crossbows, only in Nujiang are they so widely in use.  I took my harness and cable hook with me on several subsequent excursions to Nujiang.  I counted 28 rope-bridges in the canyon, two of them single cables and the rest in pairs.  I rode across the Nu River at eight locations, some more than once.  It was a great way to make a favorable impression on the local people, especially those who had never ridden one themselves.

       It helped make new friends, too.  I carried the cable hook and rope harness in a shoulder bag so part of it was visible and recognizable to people in, for example, Lumadeng on market day.  Very quickly a Lisu man approached, guessed why I had such gear and offered to take me to the rope-bridge a few km north of the town.  He took his own gear along, made sure I tied up correctly and we rode across in tandem and back.  After that it was off to his house for snacks and beers, where his wife happened to be weaving at the time.  That was a skill I knew well and had even picked up a lot of the Lisu vocabulary about it, enabling me to make a few relevant comments to her and compare her narrow loom to similar Akha looms in Thailand.

       I returned to both Lishadi and Lumadeng a few times over the years, both for the rope-bridges and the colorful market days, where most Lisu dressed in traditional style.  They each had areas for drinking local maize beer and rice liquor.  Villages on the slopes were fun to visit because most were non-Christian, unable to pass up a chance to meet their first foreign guest and eager to demonstrate their hospitality by getting that guest pretty inebriated.  Their houses were usually wooden, stilted when on steep gradients, with thatch or tile roofs, simple interiors and minimal furniture.  The hearth was in the center with a bamboo tray suspended above where they stored bamboo baskets and vessels, which would be cured by the smoke from the cooking fire. Hunting trophies, like horned heads of barking deer, they might also mount above the hearth. Big ovens and storage containers flanked the rear wall.

       South of Fugong the houses are usually on stone foundations and most are Christian.  They are just as friendly and hospitable and eager to impress a guest.  They serve tea, though, not alcohol, because Christians, the sect here anyway, don’t drink or smoke.  They could make exceptions, however, as I found out on a trip to Anicha, a Christian Lisu village high up in the Gaoligong Mountains a little south of Fugong, site of a Dulong Cattle ranch.

       Dulong Cattle are raised for their meat and never used as traction animals. They are easy to manage and would provide an extra income for the village.  The project was started by Bobby Morse from Chiang Mai, whose family had been Protestant missionaries in Nujiang before 1949.  His Fugong manager took me up there.  As our hosts prepared our dinner they asked me if I drink liquor with my meal.  “Sometimes,” I answered, not to obligate them.  But perhaps it did, for they went out and fetched a ‘lax’ Christian villager to bring a bottle of corn liquor and drink with me.  I had my alcohol and a companion to converse with

       My final trip to Nujiang coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival.  But aside from moon cakes in the Fugong market there was no sign of the celebration.  The Christians don’t mark it and neither, apparently, do the animists.  Told of a traditional village high up the slope not far from the city, I hiked there hoping for good news.  Alas, more than one resident informed me nothing was scheduled. It began to drizzle so a family invited me into their house.  

       Inside I spotted a crossbow in the corner and two trophies, an eagle and a pheasant, mounted on the wall.  Both were headless, probably because their heads were inserted into bottles of home-made liquor, like I’d seen among the Yi of Ninglang.  They also had a loom that was used for making straw floor mats, with stones tied to weight the heddle threads.  Hadn’t seen that before.

       The rain stopped before I got too drunk.  I thanked the family for their hospitality and thanked the rain for delaying my departure and enabling me to learn about one more aspect of Nujiang culture.  If I ever make it back, I’m sure there is more to discover.  All I need to do is make new friends—easy among the Lisu of Nujiang.