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Visit to Longchuan County (龙川县), Dehong Prefecture (德宏州): Part 3

School children in Husa with the new Project Hope teaching building under construction in the background

After a restful night in one of the homes of the villagers we had a quick breakfast and made our way to the local village primary school where Mr Shao is the Principal. The primary school is a ‘Project Hope’ recipient. Project Hope is a programme run by the Communist Youth League (CYL) Central Committee and the China Youth Development Foundation. It encourages donors to contribute to education projects in rural China where access to quality education is a real challenge. Most commonly the donors contribute funds to build school buildings, but they can also contribute through providing scholarships and infrastructure (such as libraries and computers). The donor in this case was  a particular government department based in Kunming. When we visited the school the Project Hope building was still in the process of construction but there was already a relatively new teaching building in operation funded by the local government.

Each day a number of children are tasked with the responsibility of cleaning the school grounds and classrooms.

There are a total of 174 students at the school. The school teaches grades one to six. There is also a ‘preschool’ class (学前班) which is basically a primer in Chinese Mandarin for the local children as most of them up to this point have only ever spoken Husa Achang. In this class they teach in a bilingual mixture of the local language and Chinese Mandarin. In fact all of the children at the school are Achang. It is the only school in Husa in which this is the case, the other schools have students from other ethnic groups (Han, Dai, Jingpo, and Lisu) as well as Achang. So the challenge of teaching in such an environment is very considerable. Some students have to stay at the ‘preschool’ level for an additional year if their Chinese Mandarin does not reach an acceptable standard. Even so I was informed that for those students who go onto Year One the challenge of teaching them in Chinese is still very great. As a student of Chinese myself I can totally appreciate that one year is not very long to master Chinese! In most primary schools in large urban centres by Year Three the students will also be taking basic English lessons. But given that Chinese is already a second language for most students in Husa they don’t burden them with this requirement. The school also requires that the students wear the school uniform, but as many families are quite poor it is not enforced. The fact that they at least come to school is enough! The school does insist that all children have some form of footwear (and will provide something for those who can’t even manage that).

With the teaching staff.

There are nine teachers at the school, including the Principal who also has teaching responsibilities. According to the official guidelines for staff-student ratios, based on the number of students they should be allocated another two teachers, but funding is just not enough to make that a reality. The teachers therefore have to take on an extra load (for which they get additional compensation). Two of the teachers are Achang, one is Dai and the rest Han Chinese. All of the teachers live onsite at the school (each teacher has a single room to him/herself). The teachers report that the pay and conditions have improved in recent years, but there are still many challenges. For instance, the teachers do a great deal of community work especially with regards to the ‘problem’ students. As there are no social workers or other such community support personell in the community the burden of counselling, mentoring and so forth, falls on the shoulders of the teachers. And given that they live in the school itself they are basically on call 24 hours a day.

Swatting up before class by the looks of it ...

The authorities have a new policy which waives all tuition fees for students from years one to nine (China has a ‘nine year compulsory education’ law 九年义务教育). Textbooks are also distributed free of charge. Prior to this policy change it was difficult for some families to send their children to school. For instance, in most of rural China, an average family may have an annual income of 3,000 yuan but the tuition fees could mount to a total of 800 yuan. That’s quite a considerable amount for struggling rural families. In Husa the average income is much lower than 3,000, so the challenge was even greater (whilst the school fee was not as high as 800 yuan, as a proportion of annual income it was, nonetheless, beyond the reach of most). The new policy seems to be working reasonably well. Mr Shao reported that attendance levels from the village families is very high. However, there are other issues to contend with. One of the challenges that Mr Shao mentioned was for families in which both parents were working in eastern China (usually in the factories of Guangdong and Zhejiang). Although they were making money they were unable to remit any to their families in Husa and the children therefore tended to stay at home (where they were also needed to do some of the farm work in the absence of their parents). Sometimes these children got into a bit of trouble with the authorities as their grandparents where unable to control them. Also, and very unfortunately, the ‘preschool’ year, as vital as it is, is not included in this policy and it can be extremely difficult to get the ‘fee’ (which is approximately 100 yuan per semester) from the families. Indeed, it make take anything up to three years for a family to pay the complete fee, if at all.

Pull up a pew ... literally!

After a lengthy discussion with Mr Shao and some of the teachers who didn’t have class at that moment Mr Shao ‘rang the bell’ and issued instructions for the students to assemble outside. I had agreed to give the students a brief talk about Australia and the ‘world outside’ Husa. Most of the children have never been outside Husa and they have never seen a foreigner in the flesh, let alone one that can speak to them in Chinese. Mr Shao was very keen for me to talk to them and fire them up a bit about the importance of education and hard work! I kept my talk very simple. I talked very generally about myself and my ‘education’ in China and gave a simple introduction to Australia. As is usual in the case of these presentations I talked a bit about Australian animals. I had some ‘Australiana’ gifts and told the students that whoever was brave enough to ask me a question would get a ‘prize’! This worked quite well as usually the students are extremely shy, but the lure of the ‘prize’ seemed to motivate a few of them. I really enjoyed talking to the students and I think, by the smiles on their faces, they found the experience a pleasant distraction from regular classwork!


As Mr Diao and I were leaving a number of the students blockaded the school exit by forming a human chain. They wouldn’t let us leave until we promised to return again in the future. I was extremely moved by this. It makes one realise how privileged we are and how such a simple thing as a visit by a ‘not-very-talented or significant’ foreigner can mean so much to these children. I have since had communication with Mr Shao and we have some plans to develop a special programme in the school, hopefully one which can be ‘exported’ to other schools as well. I hope to get some of our Chinese language students from UWA involved. More details later! In the meantime stay tuned for the next report about the visit to a Jingpo (景颇族) village, the last leg of the ‘Dehong Tour’.

The Australia-China Education Fund: Kunming Visit June 2010

The Nu River Valley. The Nu is China's last 'wild (undammed) river'. See it before it's too late!

 For much of late May and June 2010 I have been in Yunnan Province. The main purpose of my visit has been to attend two important meetings on the Chamagudao (Ancient Tea Horse Road) (more on those meetings later) and to visit some potential fieldsites for my research and that of future postgraduates. I have been travelling to Yunnan Province for many years. I have run study and cultural tours to Yunnan in the past, and plan to do so again in the future. It is truly a beautiful and fascinating place. Culturally it is very diverse with 26 different ethnic groups (more than any other place in China). Topographically it is also a natural wonderland with terrain ranging from jungles to high alpine meadows. Yunnan is extremely mountainous and this has meant that ‘modernisation’ is slower than compared to eastern China. There are still many areas of poverty and many social, economic and cultural challenges faced by local communities. But as my blogs are noting, change is taking place and Yunnan will not be the same in ten years time, so there is some sense of urgency to document what is happening.

Dr Russell Harwood. Now working in AusAid on the 'soccer skills programme' (that's a joke by the way, Russell only supports AFL!).

 In this connection, a few years ago a young lad by the name of Russell Harwood approached me in my office in Asian Studies at The University of Western Australia (Perth). He was interested in switching from a degree in International Business to something more firmly based in the social sciences. He had good Chinese under his belt as he was one of the few students of non-Chinese background in Western Australia to study Chinese Mandarin at school (Mount Lawley Senior High School). I was very impressed with this young man and took him on in a special ‘Honours’ project focusing on rural development in contemporary China. He did exceedingly well and went on to gain a PhD scholarship for an ambitious project examining rural education and development in western China. I suggested to Russell that if he wanted to make the most of his PhD experience he go somewhere a bit challenging. I suggested he do his fieldwork in Gongshan County (贡山县), Nu River Prefecture (怒江州), Yunnan Province (云南省). You can see where Gongshan is on Google Maps here. He agreed to take up the challenge and I arranged some contacts for him to get official approval to undertake his fieldwork. Although at first it was very tough going – Gongshan is extremely remote – Russell persisted and came up with the goods in the form of an excellent PhD thesis (soon to be published in book form). But being ‘Russell’ he was not content just to parachute into the fieldsite, gather his data and leave. He decided it was important for him to give something back to the local community.  

Shi Min with Sazimenken children on the 'Safe Path to a Better Life'

 Given that his research was on education Russell decided to establish the Australia-China Education Fund and use his resources and connections in Perth to raise scholarships for students in Gongshan. He also coordinated a major engineering project to construct a concrete path linking a village on a hill-top to the nearby county town (in order to allow the children of the village to get safely to school during the rain season). You can see a video about the ‘Safe Path to a Better Life’ on my Flickr website here. This project was later incorporated into the Gongshan County Government’s official ‘Building a New Socialist Countryside’ programme which is one of the largest programmes launched by the Central Government in Beijing to reduce the development gap between urban and rural/eastern and western China. Later Russell channelled the funds into scholarships for young women who have graduated from senior high school to take up technical and/or tertiary studies in Kunming (the provincial capital of Yunnan). This most recent project is known as the ‘Women in University Initiative’. 

A visit by Australian university students to the Dandelion Migrant School in Beijing. The school is run by a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to give the children of migrant workers in Beijng an opportunity to receive quality education.

As the then Director of the Confucius Institute at The University of Western Australia I was very proud to support Russell in this endeavour. It is fair to say that with the support of the CI at UWA Russell was able to get a lot more exposure that would have been the case. From the point of view of the CI at UWA I saw this as a valuable opportunity to reach out to Australians of all walks of life to both support a development project in China and at the same time learn more about contemporary China in the process. I have seen that linking such projects (that is, ‘development’ and ‘cross-cultural understanding’) is extremely successful. Russell and the CI received strong commendations for this project from the Vice-Chancellery (which used Russell’s example in a major nation-wide promotion campaign to demonstrate the calibre of UWA postgraduate students, you can see a copy of the advertisement here: The Australian 27 Jun – Rev 21Jun), and the Office of the Chinese Language Council (home of the Confucius Institute Headquarters). Many of the visiting Chinese scholars and officials to the CI at the time were also very pleased to see that the resources their country was providing to the CI at UWA were not only helping educate local Australians about China but also giving something back to young people in China – a real ‘win-win’ situation. It was in part due to this success, and also to the general solid progress of the CI at UWA at the time, that we received an ‘Advanced Confucius Institute Award’ and I personally accepted an ‘Outstanding Individual Performance Award’ (though acknowledging that ‘individual’ here is really a collective effort). Russell was also able to attract a lot of support from the local Western Australian community and draw people to the CI at UWA who otherwise would have had no interest in our activities.

The Fund has received very generous support from many Western Australians, including the Rotary Club of Matilda Bay, the Jack Family Charitable Trust, Patti Chong and Jen Wheeler. Unlike other poverty alleviation and education scholarship support programmes that target China, in the Education Fund the Australian supporters know exactly to whom and where the money is going. The supporters receive regular updates and can follow the progress of the scholarship recipients. The ‘value’ therefore works in both directions: on the one hand the scholarship recipients receive financial support (and mentoring), and on the other the donors learn about the social and cultural life of young people in China in a way that feels ‘real’ and ‘intimate’. In short, the project was a complete success exceeding all our expectations and it opened a new path in the development of ‘cross-cultural’ communication and understanding between Australia and China.

 At present there are two young women, Hu Junying (虎俊英) and Yu Qiuxia (余秋霞), who are studying in Kunming under the auspices of the Women in University Initiative scholarships. Whilst visiting Kunming during this trip I took the opportunity to catch up with Junying and Qiuxia and see how they were getting along. I’m pleased to report that both young ladies are doing very well. The transition to life from a remote mountain gorge to a bustling urban environment was a big challenge for them both. Although both did well at school in Gongshan (and hence where academically worthy of the scholarships) they found ‘competing’ with their classmates who have been educated in the cities quite tough.  

Hu Junying

 Hu Junying, the first recipient of the scholarship, is studying law at The Yunnan College of Business Management (云南经济管理学院). Junying is from the Nu ethnic group, a very small ethnic community inhabiting the upper reaches of the Nu River valley. She is a very mature and intelligent young woman with a strong sense of community responsibility. I asked Junying what has been her greatest reward during her recent two years of life in Kunming. She told me that for her the mere opportunity to leave Gongshan, which she had never done before, and come to Kunming in itself was extremely rewarding. She has learnt a lot about life in the ‘modern’ world and acquired many new skills, both in class and in the challenges of day to day life as well. I also asked Junying what she hopes to do upon graduation. She replied that she hopes to take the examinations to become a lawyer and work in the legal field. Her other option is to take the civil service examinations and become a public official. I then asked Junying what the greatest challenge was for her thus far. She told me at first it was very difficult to keep up with her classmates. She had to put in extra effort just to stay level with them. However, after two years of persistent hard work she is now in the top five in her class. Well done Junying!  

Yu Qiuxia

 Yu Qiuxia is studying a programme in music education (specialising in voice and ethnic minority performance) at Yunnan Arts University. Qiuxia is from the Lisu ethnic group. She had to undertake a special performance examination to get entry. The university campus has a real ‘artistic’ feel to it. As you walk through the campus you can hear music from every direction as students and teachers practice. Qiuxia said that the learning environment was very inspiring. It was only when she entered the rehearsal room that she saw the first piano in her life. She is now learning to tinkle on the ivories (an interesting connection here to Russell’s family as his late grandmother was a noted pianist). Qiuxia is keen to see more of China and to take the songs and music of her home to a broader audience.

 Both Junying and Qiuxia are extremely grateful to all the donors and want to pass on their personal thanks. It is hard for us to sometimes imagine what a huge difference this means for their lives. It is truly ‘life changing’. The scholarships have opened up new horizons for them, they can dream of futures that were once unimaginable. Russell and I are sure they will go on to do great things and be role models for other young women from Gongshan.  

Professor Diao Qigang, Kant's man in Kunming.

 Special mention must go to Professor Diao Qigang of Yunnan Finance and Economics University who has generously donated his time to monitor the transfer of funds to the recipients and to provide ongoing mentoring and supervision. Mr Shi Min, who lives in the county town of Gongshan, has also played a vital role in working on the ground to process the scholarship applications.

 Unfortunately the CI at UWA in its present incarnation has decided it will not support this project in the future. Nonetheless Russell and myself are determined to see that the Education Fund continues its good work and that we continue to develop the innovative model of ‘development’ support and ‘cross-cultural’ understanding. I personally see this innovative direction as a major growth area into the future. We hope that our supporters will continue to support the project and follow its progress in the years to come. I’m sure it will move from strength to strength. There will be some important announcements in this regard in the coming weeks, so please stay tuned!  

The obligiatory 'in front of the gate' photograph.

Visit to Longchuan County (龙川县), Dehong Prefecture (德宏州): Part 2

A healthy bowl of rice noodles to start the day! I went easy on the chili!

Early on the morning of Wednesday 26th May we left Zhangfeng (章风) for Husa (户撒阿昌族乡). You can see where Zhangfeng is located on Google Maps here. And see where Husa is located here. The images for this trip are on my Flickr website here. After the previous evening’s ‘planning meeting’ some of us were a little bit worse for wear (but no names need be mentioned!). So it was unanimously decided to seek out the best breakfast stall in Zhangfeng for a serving of ‘day after’ noodles. That wasn’t too hard to locate with a local driver who took us to a nondescript alleyway where a crowd had gathered outside a noodle cafe (for want of a better term). What I’m about to describe is very typical of breakfast stalls/cafes in Yunnan. The set up is very much ‘do it yourself’ to varying degrees. You first choose your noodles. Typically you can choose from wheat or rice based varieties. The noodles come in different shapes and sizes – flat, thin, cut into squares, etc – with regional variations and specialities. If you ever travel with a true noodle aficionado you may get locked into a conversation about the different merits and styles of noodles for quite some time, so be warned! The noodles are placed in a large bowl and then the ‘chef’ adds a chicken broth (you can sometimes choose from beef and lamb as well). A dollop of chili-pork (or beef) sauce is added. The sauce is not usually very spicy, but it is quite oily. You then take your bowl and select the spices and/or condiments to add. There is too much choice to note here! The typical spices and condiments include chili powder, dry chili, chili sauces (usually one or two different varieties), soy sauce, sesame oil, ‘Sichuan pepper’ oil, garlic, ginger, diced coriander, diced spring onions, MSG and white pepper. Generally you can also help yourself to a small side-plate of pickled vegetables. And of course an obligatory cup of tea.

Xiao Feng's chili noodle special!

Traffic jam and the road worker campsite

After breakfast we left Zhangfeng for Husa. This would usually be a drive of two hours, just across a nearby range and down into the Husa plain. But as seems to be the case almost everywhere in Yunnan at the moment the local road network is being upgraded! In Yunnan when they upgrade a road they tend to do the whole road in one hit, no matter it if is just a few kilometres or a few hundred kilometres! So the road over the range into Husa was completely dug up and in the process of upgrading. This is great news for the future users of the road network, but for those using the roads now it means long delays! Very long delays! Due to the recent downpours the road had turned to mud and slush. Some of the large trucks with full loads had to be towed, and sometimes pushed, up the steep inclines. When you have over twenty trucks waiting you can see that this is not going to happen quickly!. That nonetheless always gives me some time to talk to the road workers, if they are not on the job. Most of the road workers will live on-site in camp like facilities for the duration of the road construction. This can sometimes be for over one year (as I will describe later in my blog on traveling down the Lancang (Mekong) valley). They tend to come from all over China. An excavator driver can do very well with something in the range of 4,000 – 5,000 yuan per month. Low skilled workers get much less but still it is more attractive than farm work.

Truck with full load being towed up steepish incline.

Public water fountain in Husa village. The water comes from a stream straight of the mountainside. Here the villagers will wash their vegetables, clothes, etc. But it is certainly not for ablutions.

So after some delay we finally arrived in Husa (户撒). Husa is a relatively large fertile plain (called a bazi 坝子 in Chinese) surrounded by densely forested hills and mountains (at approximately 1,300 – 1,500 metres above sea level). It is home to a large population (12,000 according to the 2005 census) of the Achang ethnic group (阿昌族) and is an ‘Achang Autonomous Village’ (户撒啊唱乡). ‘Village’ here refers to an administrative category, actually there are eleven villages on the plain. The total Achang population in China is 28,000, with 90% residing in Dehong Prefecture, so the Husa Achang represent a large community. The Achang tend to live very close to the border with Myanmar and there are ‘Achang’ communities residing across the border as well (Husa shares four kilometres of border with Myanmar). Most Achang are Theravada Buddhists with a smaller proportion having been converted to Christianity. The Achang of Husa seem to be quite ‘sinified’ (汉化) as they also practice elements of Daoism and so-called ‘ancestor worship’ (I think ‘veneration’ is a better term than ‘worship’). I believe this indicates that Husa was quite an important trading point and commercial route as this would allow for deeper and longer contact with other ethnic groups such as the Han Chinese. Actually, I have since discovered that Husa contains an ‘ancient road’ (户撒古道). I’ll have to check that out next time I visit.

The Ancient Husa Road (photo taken by Jun Ruipeng)

Monk in Husa displaying Buddhist scriptures in Pali.

The Achang speak a Tibetan-Burmese language. The Achang in Husa speak a distinct variation. In fact during the 1950s when the government was carrying out the ‘ethnic identification’ (民族识别) campaign (the large programme to ‘officially categorise and identify’ the ethnic groups of the People’s Republic of China) some argued that the Husa Achang should be a separate ethnic group (another reason for a separate identity seems to stem from the claim that the Husa Achang are descended from Han Chinese solidiers who were garrisoned in the region during the early decades of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) (which may also explain the sword making tradition, see below, and evidence of Han Chinese cultural practices). The Achang language does not have an officially recognised script. Many Achang use the Dai and Han Chinese scripts for written communication. I say ‘officially recognised’ because whilst we were in Husa we visited a small Theravada Buddhist temple in a village where a monk (佛爷) had created an Achang script! The monk was himself a very interesting character. He was born in Husa but left with his parents for Myanmar when he was four years old. Now at the age of 64 years he has returned to his native village to develop a script and teach the local inhabitants the merits of Buddhism and leading a productive and healthy life. He was very concerned not just about the spirituality of the local people but also by what he sees as many social ills. Once again, given the close proximity to the ‘Golden Triangle’ drug use is a problem and there are a number of HIV AIDS cases. He is very well educated in Buddhism and can read Pali (the ancient literary language used to record the earliest Buddhist scriptures). The script he has developed is based on the Dai script which indicates that the Husa Achang language is quite close to Dai. I was very impressed with the sincerity and devotion of this gentleman and hope to interview him in more depth later (although he can’t speak Chinese Mandarin, only a rough version of the Yunnan Chinese dialect).

The manuscript outlining the Achang Alphabet

Swords on display in Husa

A sword, machette, and/or knife is indispensible when travelling through the forests and jungles, as I have discovered in travelling with mountain people in many parts of Yunnan. It is an ornament that marks manhood. It is a useful tool for cutting your way through the forest/jungle. It is a primary device for forging implements made from wood and bamboo. It is also a valuable defense when confronted by dangerous beasts and bandits (not that there are so many of these in this day and age). So I was delighted to discover that the Husa Achang are famous sword and knife makers and that the Husa Sword (户撒刀) (also known as the Achang Sword 阿昌刀) is quite a prized collectable. The swords were historically valued by the Dai and Jingpo, and even by the Tibetans (so there is the connection to the ‘ancient road’, it indeed becomes quite intriguing). The sword making of Husa is recognised by the authorities as intangible cultural heritage (the earliest written records of sword production in Husa go back at least 600 years). Apparently a master sword maker produces the ceremonial swords used by the PLA soldiers ‘guarding’ the national flag in Tiananmen Square (I will try to verify this later). The small town at Husa has a number of swordsmith shops with forges at the back of the premises. Mr Shao knew one of the local swordmakers, Mr Lai Jinwan, and we payed him an informal visit upon arrival to learn more about his craft. The best wood for making the scabbards and handles comes from Myanmar and Laos. He has many sword collectors from all over China, and Asia, who come to make purchases. There is a well developed express mail delivery service (apparently the trick is not to declare the item as a ‘sword’ but as a ‘craft item’ and it will get through the mail system without any problems, at least to destinations in China). Mr Lai was kind enough to give a demonstration of forging a sword (打刀) as well. We didn’t have too much time however as he had to rush off to attend a local wedding!

Mr Lai demonstrating his sword forging skills.

Local Husa resident demonstrating 'across the hand noodles'

After our visit to the temple and discussion with Mr Monk we wandered around some of the villages and the fields (where the planting of rice seedlings was still in process), chatting to the villagers as we went along. I noticed that the trusty water buffalo was still being used, which seems to indicate that the community is not yet prosperous enough to purchase tractors (the fields are certainly big enough to accomodate them, which is not always the case). We gradually made our way to the home of the local village party secretary, without doubt the most important political figure in the community, for a special dinner treat: ‘across the hand rice noodles’ (过手米线). In addition to knives and swords the Achang of Husa are famous for their ‘across the hand rice noodles’. The rice noodles are made locally and are quite distinct as they are made from a special variety of ‘red rice’. Traditionally you place a small portion of the rice noodles in your hand and put the sauce on top, hence the phrase ‘across the hand’ (perhaps ‘in the hand’ would be better but ‘across’ matches well with another even more famous rice noodle dish of Yunnan, ‘across the bridge rice noodles’ 过桥米线). The sauce is a concoction made up of chicken broth, pork mince, garlic, special bean paste and many many spices of different varieties. The production process is quite complicated and took at least one hour just to get it all ready for consumption. Actually the batch that was made for us was a bit like an Italian meat sauce, only spicy! The garlic was very pungent. I know that chicken was very fresh as we were privileged to see it walking around the courtyard a few minutes earlier. I had a good discussion over the meal with the local party secretary. It was very good to hear him place a great deal of importance on developing education and encouraging all families to send their children, boys and girls, to school. Maybe this was because the local primary school principal was with us but it was very encouraging in any case.

Achang music and dance performance

The Achang, like almost every other ethnic minority group in Yunnan (!), are keen musical and dance peformers. After dinner we were treated to a performance by the local village music and dance troupe. The performance took place in the local Buddhist temple which also doubles as a community hall. The musical culture of the Achang is indeed very rich. I did some preliminary research on the Chinese language internet and discovered that quite a bit of research has already taken place on their musical traditions. It was good to see that the musical culture is still alive and well. The dancers were of all ages and even the kids were getting in on the act. In some places I know that the arrival of ‘modern’ music (popular music and karaoke) has led to the decline traditional music culture. How ‘alive and well’ of course cannot be determined by one performance. Perhaps there is a research project here for someone?

A One Rupee 'button'. You can see the metal loop that has been attached to make it 'button ready'.

To conclude this blogpost I want to mention the Husa market. I seem to have had a good run of luck in coming across ‘market day’ recently. Such was also the case this time in Husa. Like many of the markets in rural Yunnan it was extremely colourful and interesting. I’m really getting keen on this as a research topic! But in this instance my favourite ‘discovery’ was with three Achang women on their way to the market. As we were walking in the same direction and with the same destination in mind I struck up a conversation with them (I’m getting reasonably good at picking my way through regional Chinese/Yunnanese accents!). They were wearing traditional Achang blouses and I noticed that the buttons were large round metallic objects. On closer inspection the buttons turned out to be One Rupee coins from British India! I know that many ethnic peoples in Yunnan and Southwest China collect such coins for use as ornaments but this was the first time I have seen examples so close. I managed to convince one fine lady to sell me one of the ‘buttons’ and it is now one of my ‘treasures’. It is incredible to consider how this 1905 One Rupee coin minted in Calcutta (I’m pretty sure about that) during the reign of King (and Emperor as it notes on the coin) Edward VII made it all the way to Husa and ended up as a ‘button’. It goes to show that commodities of all types – swords and coins among them – were making their way over the seas, mountains, streams and through the forests, jungles, fields and villages to and from places like Husa. As isolated as we may think a place like Husa is its ‘real’ history shows something quite to the contrary.

The next day was devoted to a special visit to the local village primary school. This turned out to be a very rewarding, and indeed, moving experience and I learnt a great deal about the challenges of education in Husa. More on this in the next blogpost. Stay tuned!

Three charming 'one rupee' button ladies

Visit to Longchuan County (龙川县), Dehong Prefecture (德宏州): Part 1

Clouds Rolling Over the Hills on the Road from Mangshi to Longchuan

From the 25th to 28th May I visited Longchuan County (龙川县) in Dehong Prefecture (德宏州). You can view the images taken on this trip at my Flickr website here. A map of Longchuan County can be found at Google Maps here. The full administrative title for Dehong is ‘Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture’ (德宏傣族景颇族自治州). It has a population of just over one million with 49 percent Han Chinese and the remaining 51 percent composed of various ethnic groups, but principally the Dai and Jingpo peoples. Dehong borders Myanmar. It is at the southern tip of the Gaoligongshan Mountains (高丽贡山), which runs all the way up to Tibet and is the western side of the Nu River (怒江) gorge. The Nu River runs through Dehong into Myanmar (where it is known as the ‘Salween’). In fact ‘Dehong’ is Dai for ‘lower reaches of the Nu River’. The climate is tropical/sub-tropical (depending on altitude). The Dehong Prefectural Government has an English website here, which is informative but certainly needs some improvement. As with everywhere else in Yunnan they are keen to promote tourism and pitch themselves as the ‘Home of the Peacock’ (孔雀之乡). It is also where much of Yunnan’s, and for that matter China’s, coffee is grown. Of course there is also a lot of tea grown here as well, and many ancient wild tea trees can be found in the forests.

A 'ladyboy' at the Ruili-Myanmar border. She/he was charging five yuan for tourists take photos with him/her. One of the more 'interesting' aspects of cross-border 'trade' I saw on this trip.

There is a very busy border port with Myanmar at Ruili (瑞丽). A great deal of jade and timber pass from Myanmar to Ruili through this port. The road to Ruili is part of the ‘Old Burma Road’ (滇缅公路) which runs from Kunming through Dali, Baoshan, Tengchong, Ruili, into Myanmar to Lashio (with some extension built to Assam, India, by the British during the Second World War). The Burma Road was originally constructed by the Chinese (largely by hand!), and later with American help, to bring in supplies and troops to resist the Japanese invasion during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Today the new road to Myanmar (as ‘Burma’ is now known) on the Chinese side is a modern highway. Apparently on the Myanmar side it is in very bad shape and in some places the jungle has taken back control. This part of Myanmar is the stronghold of ethnic groups such as the Shan and Kachin who have been in conflict with the military junta for many many years. The Kaichin are in fact part of the ‘Jingpo’ people. The borders are still quite porous as far as the locals are concerned and they cross over quite frequently. Given the proximity to the notorious ‘Golden Triangle’ it comes as no surprise that there is cross-border smuggling of heroin and that some local communities have felt the brunt of heroin addiction and HIV AIDS. I saw many public service notices on billboards and village house walls warning people of the effects of drug addiction and AIDS, so no doubt it still constitutes a serious problem in some quarters. Ruili seems to be booming with a lot of construction and expansion (residential and commercial). Ruili is also quite famous for its nightlife and many people from Kunming fly up for debaucherous weekends and cross-border trips to the casinos in Myanmar. The late night BBQ in Ruili is some of the best in China.

Monk in Husa who has created an Achang language script

The purpose of this trip was to visit Achang (阿昌族) and Jingpo (景颇族) communities in Longchuan County. I wanted to find out about their past, present and future, with a particular emphasis on education and development. I’m looking for suitable field sites to conduct long term qualitative research. It turned out to be an extremely rewarding trip with many unexpected surprises along the way. Some of the highlights include a visit to an Achang primary school in Husa (户撒) where I gave a short speech to the students about Australia, a fantastic conversation with a monk from Myanmar now resident in a Husa temple who has created a written script for the Achang language, and a meeting with a Jingpo ‘shaman’, a Dumsa, who recited a special welcome for us in Jingpo language (along with many quotations from Chairman Mao!). There was also a visit to the Husa Market and the discovery that up until four or five years ago this was itself an extremely important point for commerce and trade in the region. And of course there was a lot of tasting of local cuisine. Keep an eye posted for more details in future instalments.

Mr Diao on the mobile in Jingpo costume!

The trip was ‘organised’ by my good friend and colleague Professor Diao Qigang of Yunnan University of Finance and Economics. Mr Diao is a scholar of Western and Chinese philosophy with great expertise in Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. We had some great conversations about all things meta-physical, eastern and western, past and present. I have known Mr Diao for many years and we have already travelled together widely in Yunnan. I say ‘organised’ as this was not an ‘official’ visit arranged by a university or government department (although I did have a letter of introduction from Zhejiang University with a nice red stamp). This trip was arranged through what the Chinese call ‘guanxi‘ (关系, connections) and ‘renqing‘ (人情, human sentiment). Even as we boarded the plane from Kunming to Mangshi we had no idea where we would exactly be visiting. All we knew is that a Dai woman by the name of Xiao Feng would be waiting for us. Xiao Feng was a great discovery! She was loads of fun and extremely witty. Herself and her Dai friend Xiao Yu ended up travelling with us for most of the trip. When we arrived we told Xiao Feng what we were hoping to achieve (over a Dai meal of course). She rang her friend who is a primary school principal in Husa, Longchuan County . A few moments later we chartered a vehicle to take us to Zhangfeng, the county seat of Longchuan, and were on our way! That evening we met with Mr Shao Linzhong, the primary school principal and worked out a basic itinerary. We also spent some time playing cards, and in particular ‘Struggle Against the Landlord’ (斗地主) which is an extremely popular card game in China. If you can play this game you will have no shortage of friends! In this version of the game the losers were ‘punished’ by having to drink shots of beer, and later, rice wine (baijiu, 白酒). When the stakes get high you learn to pay very close attention! Suffice to say I already knew the rules (with some slight local variations) and was able to dish out as much ‘punishment’ as I took.

So we had made all the plans, bonded over food, tea and drinks, and found a car and driver, all at the end of our first day! I call that very productive! We retired to the hotel in anticipation for the next day’s journey to Husa, home of the Achang people. Stay tuned!

Planning meeting to be followed by cards, drinks and a meal!