Lancangjiang: The Mekong River in China
by Jim Goodman
A few of the towns on the Upper Mekong played roles in the area’s history. Deqin was the center of a violent uprising against the Qing Dynasty government in 1905. Cizhong, in the southern part of Deqin County, is the site of a Catholic church established by French missionaries in the 19th century, rebuilt here in 1921 after its original further south at Cikou was destroyed in the 1905 rebellion. At Xiaoweixi, further downriver in Weixi County, was the other French mission church and its original building still stands. North of Xiaoweixi, above Kanpu, is Shuoguosi, the southernmost Tibetan monastery, erected in the 17th century during the reign of the Kang Xi Emperor, who often patronized Tibetan Buddhism.
Lying north of the Tropic of Cancer line, and with its mountains, high plains and plateaus, the Upper Mekong enjoys a temperate zone climate. Winters are cold but not bitterly so and except for occasional rain or snow generally dry and sunny. Spring is balmy and full of fresh flowers. The rainy season runs from around late May to October. Autumns are mild with good weather, dominated by a landscape of ripening rice fields and, in the higher altitudes, forests speckled with a bright range of tree leaf colors.
All that is just history now and in fact the Tibetans in Shangrila County have always gotten along well with the Han. Large farms dominate the county’s high plains, requiring two or three families working together for two days to bring in the autumn harvest. To the north, however, the land is rougher and rockier, the farms much smaller. A single family can crop their own field in half a day. Here animal husbandry is more important. But in the past an epidemic could wipe out their animals and, faced with survival at stake, Deqin Tibetans raided the richer Shangrila farms, while Han and Naxi soldiers protected the Shangrila Tibetans from their wilder cousins up north: hence, the good relations in Shangrila.
It was a frontier Naxi culture, without the dongba tradition or the sophistication of religious rites prominent in Lijiang. Yet in essence it resembled the Naxi culture of villages beyond the immediate vicinity of Lijiang. The brick houses on stone foundations with tiled roofs were the same. So were the traditional garments, the way of farming and the Confucian norms regulating family and society.
In the hills above the Naxi settlements lives the Lisu ethnic minority. They are predominantly a rural people, divided into three main groups: the Black Lisu of Deqin and Nujiang, the White Lisu of lower Nujiang and upper Baoshan, and the Flowery Lisu of Baoshan, Myanmar and northern Thailand. The latter are famous for their bright colorful garments and, in China, an annual festival wherein men climb a tall ladder of sharpened swords.
The Wa ethnic minority also inhabits the hills west of the Lancangjiang next to Lahu territory and over the border in northern Myanmar. Unlike most hill people in Yunnan, whose languages are from the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group, the Wa language is Mon-Khmer. In the past they were notorious for their headhunting custom. They believed the skull of a freshly decapitated head possessed a soul-force that would, when mounted in the fields, protect the crops for up to two years. Spring was thus the season for organized headhunting raids, usually as far from the home village as possible.
A smaller minority in southwest Yunnan, the Bulang, also speak a Mon-Khmer language. Like the Wa, they are considered the earliest inhabitants of this area. They are also the only Buddhist hill people. Buddhist Wa and Lahu villages do exist in the region, but all the Bulang are Theravada Buddhists and they claim they got the religion before the Dai. Every village has a temple and it’s still the custom for boys to spend a short period as a novice in the temple. The Bulang raise the usual hill crops, but in recent times have concentrated more on tea cultivation.
A smaller minority east of Jinghong, the Jinuo, remained isolated until last century. In fact, they were the last people in Yunnan officially recognized as a minority nationality. Originally families lived together in longhouses, but as modernization and development reached Jinuoshan, they began opting for individual dwellings. Tea cultivation dominates their economy now, but old traditions persist, like the annual festival honoring the blacksmith, whose tools and metal products they credit with lifting them out of poverty and barbarity.
Modernization is progressing all along the Lancangjiang basin, yet ethnic traditions have persisted. Because of an environment of rough mountains and remote valleys, life among the people for many centuries carried on mostly autonomously. They might suffer the interference of periodic tax and labor conscription campaigns by local princes, but were largely beyond the battlefields whenever war broke out in the region, even the Muslim Revolt that ravaged central Yunnan in the 19th century.
Greater transportation links promoted integration with the modern world, access to schools, clinics and markets, while advances in communication, like cell phones and the internet, have accelerated that process. It has altered some aspects of traditional ethnic minority culture but has by no means undermined the whole of it. Traditions and customs survive because the people do not see them as antithetical to modern times, but as part of their identity. Ethnic pride among the peoples of the Lancangjiang has been a resilient characteristic and today makes the region as attractive as the wonderful scenery from which it sprang.
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(adapted from the opening chapter of my latest book—Peoples of the Greater Mekong: The Ethnic Minorities, to be published soon by World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore)