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Archive → October, 2011

Migratory Birds, Reclusive Daoists and the Secret of the Nanzhao Kingdom: Exploring Ancient Routes in Weishan and Weibaoshan

“Yunnan is a special case, a kind of test to which the whole process of Chinese
cultural and political expansion can be subjected. It could be seen as the model
which further expansion would follow, if or when it becomes politically feasible; or
it can be seen as the furthest probable limit of Chinese incorporation of a region
formerly non-Chinese.”

C.P. Fitzgerald, The Southern Expansion of the Chinese People: Southern Fields and Southern Ocean (1972)

The indefatigable Yang Xiao examines a tube of liquid black: Vegemite. Perhaps one day it shall be known as the 'Ancient Vegemite Road'? It goes good with noodles!

From the 28th September to the 8th October 2012 I explored various sites of research interest in and around the historic county of Weishan (巍山) and famous Daoist (Taoist) mountain of Weibaoshan (巍宝山), gathering information, conducting interviews and making useful contacts. Weishan is also one of the more northerly places in Yunnan suitable for the growing of tea (although on this occasion I did not have the chance to visit any tea plantations or indeed sample the very famous ‘roasted tea’ (烤茶) ), so there are important connections to the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (茶马古道) worthy of investigation (indeed, Weishan has been designated as a ‘Significant Ancient Tea and Horse Road Town’ (茶马古道重镇)). Weishan County lies within Dali Prefecture (I’ve written about Dali and the Third Month Street Festival here) and is 54 kms from the prefectural seat of Dali, approximately two hours drive. You can see where Weishan is on Google Maps here.  You can also see a collection of images taken on this trip on my Flickr site here. Once again I did this trip on foot with a mule team organised by the fine people at Red Rock (now also based in Dali). This continues my interest in the combined forces of revivalist approaches to cultural heritage (in this case that of muleteering and caravan culture) and ecotourism. The fieldwork was also very important to me as it was my first visit to Weishan and was a valuable opportunity to gather a sense of how Weishan is presenting itself as a cultural tourist destination along the so-called ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. This blog entry is a summary of my initial impressions, preliminary findings and thoughts about possible further research directions and follow-up fieldwork.

Give me a home amongst the gum trees: On our way from Midu to Weishan we passed through many eucalyptus plantations and a number of small eucalyptus oil distilleries. Eucalyptus trees have been cultivated in southern China for quite a long time (for at least 50 years perhaps) but it is only in recent years through the emergence of poverty alleviation programs that the number and size of the plantations has increased, especially in Yunnan. The growth of the plantations has not been without controversy. On one side are the advocates who argue that the trees are well suited to the soils and climate and can become a good source of additional income for local peoples, whilst on the other side are those who argue that the plantations suck up valuable water and is changing the local ecology which in turn is impacting on the cultures of the local ethnic peoples.

Introducing Weishan (巍山): The Yi, the Hui and the Edges of Empire

Weishan is designated as an Yi and Hui Autonomous County with a population of approximately 300,000. The main economic activity remains agriculture, but as we shall see below there are also efforts to develop cultural tourism. The Yi and Hui are two significant ethnic groups in Yunnan (and other parts of China). The Hui (回族), with a total population in China of approximately 9.8 million, are a rather interesting ethnic group (and some would argue that they don’t really fit any ethnic identification criteria very well) in which the common feature is the practice of Islam and associated customs (such as abstinence from the consumption of pork). As I have mentioned before on this blog, the Hui have been important traders in the region ever since the Mongol led invasions of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368). In general, wherever they have settled they tended to adopt the local languages, costumes and architecture of the dominant people in that particular location and yet retain their own religion and associated customs. There is a very good historical overview of the Hui (or ‘Haw’ or ‘Panthay’ as they are known in Thailand and Burma respectively) and their role as traders in Yunnan and mainland Southeast Asia here. Weishan is significant in Hui history for being one of the major centres of the ‘Panthay Rebellion’ (better known in Chinese as the Du Wenxiu Rebellion 杜文秀起义) (1856–1873), an uprising led by a rebellious Hui by the name of Du Wenxiu which caused havoc in the region for well over a decade until finally and brutally crushed by the Qing forces.

Mr Chen, one of our muleteers, fixes the 'luggage rack' to the mule. This was the first time I saw these modern steel fabricated racks, quite an innovation in terms of durability and convenience.

The Yi (彝族) are also one of China’s larger ethnic minorities (少数民族) with a total population of about 7.7 million. Yunnan has the largest concentration at about 4.5 million. They are an extremely diverse group speaking different languages/dialects (depending on your definition) and spread across a large area (Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi and Guizhou). Culturally the Yi are also very different depending on region and climate, which in themselves may help explain such widespread variation. As the saying goes ‘Four seasons in one journey, different weather every 10 leagues’ ( 一路见四季,十里不同天). You often find Yi villages high up in the mountains where they grow maize, raise pigs, tend flocks of goats and herds of cows, and roam the forests hunting and gathering edible and medicinal plants and fungi. What make the Yi of Weishan different to their kin elsewhere is the claim that they are the descendants of the people who established the relatively unknown Kingdom of the Nanzhao (南诏) (737 to 902). The story goes that there were originally six tribes/kingdoms in the region around Dali and Weishan. The tribe/kingdom in Weishan, known as the Mengshe tribe (蒙舍诏) unified the other tribes into one powerful kingdom. Over the course of its history the Nanzhao (which at one time extended as far south as present-day north Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma, and north into the rich fertile plain around Chengdu in Sichuan) was sometimes ally and sometimes rival of the Tang Dynasty and often in conflict with the first united and powerful Tibetan kingdom that had also emerged at about the same time. It is also at this time that Buddhism is in the ascendancy across the region and the Nanzhao is no exception. Once again we see the importance for the emerging trading and transportation routes for the travel of ideas, and not to mention of course the marching of armies.

On our way over the pass we passed through a small Yi hamlet and bumped into a few of the locals.

Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) Weishan has been firmly incorporated into the Han Chinese sphere of influence (actually it was the above-mentioned Mongol invasion and Yuan Dynasty that preceded the Ming that brought the region into the firm fold of the ‘Middle Kingdom’, but it was the long enduring power and influence of the Ming, which also saw large waves of Han migration into Yunnan, that really established the firm foundations of Han Chinese culture). During much of the Ming and into the Qing the tusi (土司) system was in place which meant that the dynastic governments ruled through the local ‘chieftains’ (in most cases either ‘appointed’ or ‘approved’ by the dynastic centre). The Weishan tusi was one of the longest running tusi appointments from 1382 to 1897 (514 years). As with much of Yunnan, you get the real sense here that you are at the ‘edge of empire’. For me these are some of the most interesting places where different cultures meet and where the story of the consolidation of the nation-state in our own modern times is played out in the peripheries. The Yi of Weishan are in any case nowadays significantly ‘sinicised’ (汉化) and in the towns and villages (especially those in the fertile basin area) you don’t see much in the way of traditional Yi forms of dress and so forth. But as I will discuss below, there has been somewhat of a resurgence in Yi identity in recent years which appears to be a combination of grass-roots identity activism and top-down initiatives to develop cultural tourism and stimulate economic development.

Loading the mules in Weishan. It has probably been quite some time since the centre of Weishan witnessed a 'real' caravan. Good to be part of a cultural-historical revival.

The current old town of Weishan was built during the Ming Dynasty (construction began in 1390) and although it no longer has the original walls and only one remaining gate the central axis of the old town is still intact and very well preserved. Unlike Dali and Lijiang, Weishan has not yet been overrun by the tourist hordes (to elude here of course to the Mongol armies of Kublai Khan). The old town is distinctly locally orientated, that is, most of the shops and activity are orientated towards the local inhabitants. It feels as if you have stepped back twenty years and can see what street life must have been like in Dali and Lijiang before the onslaught of mass commercial tourism. Of course there is some tourism and tourist orientated shops, but the presence of tourism seems rather limited and nonintrusive, at least for the time being. There are a number of old courtyard mansion (most seem to have been built during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) and a few during the first half of the 20th Century). The Confucius Temple is currently undergoing restoration, but from what we could see it is very impressive. Indeed, with reference to the Confucius Temple (which in Chinese is often referred to as the ‘Temple of Literature’ – 文庙), Weishan is famous for producing many scholars who passed the highest level of the imperial examination (进士) and since the Ming Dynasty has been widely acclaimed as a ‘famous site for arts and literature’ (文献名邦). These are all signs that Weishan was once a very important and prosperous frontier town during the Ming and Qing.

The Gongchen Gate (拱辰楼). This is the north and only remaining gate of the old town of Weishan. The inscription on the upper story read 'A View of Ten Thousand Li' (万里瞻天) which could also be interpreted as a reference to the vastness of the dynastic empire.

That prosperity has much to do with strategic location along the network of trading routes that crisscross southwest China and the surrounding region.  Weishan sits at an important crossroads for traffic to Myanmar (Burma) and Sichuan going one way (roughly east to west) and traffic between Tibet (via Dali, Lijiang and Shangrila) and Simao and Xishuangbanna (roughly north to south). Weishan has been variously described as an important staging post and administrative centre along the Southern Silk Road (南方丝绸之路) and the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道). I will not get embroiled here in the debates over which one of these terms correctly describes the trading routes in this region. I’m still in the process of making my way through the Chinese and English literature on the subject and will reserve my conclusions for a later date suffice to state at this point that my interest lies not so much at the moment in historical accuracy but rather how concepts such as ‘the Ancient Tea Horse Road’ are being deployed to create new ways of imagining cultural landscapes and new forms of economic activity (notably cultural tourism). In any case it would seem that to a certain extent both ‘silk road’ and ‘tea road’ would apply in the case of Weishan.

Weishan still has the distinct feeling of a county town in the mountains. Locals from near and far come to the town to sell all manner of handicrafts and mountain produce. Local noodle manufactures make their noodles in the traditional way and hang them up to dry for all to see. Pictured here, locals paste public notices on the walls of the central tower (星拱楼). All of which gives Weishan the authentic feeling of a real living town orientated primarily to the locals rather than a commercial tourist centre occupied by souvenir stores and bars.

The Majestic Bird Way Pass (鸟道雄关): Where Migratory Birds and Caravans Cross Paths

We started our journey in the neighbouring county of Midu (弥渡县) and made our way up and along the old caravan road which goes through Longqing Pass (隆庆关). Up to about six or seven years ago the road was still actively used by the locals. Our muleteers (who I interviewed and will discuss in another blog on the lives and times of the modern muleteer), who also hail from Weishan, are in the horse, mule and donkey trading business, and informed me that they used to take this path whenever taking their animals to and from livestock markets in Midu (there is also a weekly livestock market in Weishan which we stumbled upon. I think a study of these markets and associated entrepreneurialism would be quite interesting). Nowadays it is more economical to transport the animals by hiring a truck, which saves both time and money. It was quite evident that even within a few short years of inactive usage that the path was in places quickly becoming overgrown. However, as we approached the pass (which is about 2,600 metres), there were long stretches of remnant road (passing through one very small Yi hamlet).

On the remnant ancient road from Midu to Weishan, just a kilometre or two away from the pass.

The pass nowadays is also known as ‘The Majestic Bird Way Pass’ (鸟道雄关). For thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands of years, migratory birds (候鸟) have been flying over this pass in their seasonal migrations north and south. At the time we passed through (October) the birds were making their way south to India and Southeast Asia to escape the cold winter of northern China and Siberia (a very wise thing to do in my opinion!). The locals have long since known about the migratory habits of the birds and it is recorded that they would set up nets and use fire and smoke to disorientate the birds into their clutches (many birds may already have been a bit lost given the fogs associated with the pass at this time of year). This practice continued up until the early 1980s when the authorities imposed a ban in the interests of conservation.

A deep hoof impression (马蹄窝) in the rock made over the centuries by countless caravans. This impression is approximately 20 centimetres deep.

Yet the practice of catching the birds continues, but this time it is for the the sake of banding (or ‘ringing’) the birds in the interests of science. As I passed by I took the opportunity to have a cup of tea with the ‘banders’ huddled around a fire in their tent (the ‘banding station’) where they were roasting corn and sweet potato (the birds only fly over the pass in significant numbers during the night). They explained to me that in one night it was common to capture several dozens of different species of birds, sometimes even several hundred different species, which goes to show how important this bird passage is for ornithological research (an important onsite meeting of ornithologists from around the region was held here in 1997). The banders were employed by the Yunnan Department of Forests (which is the local ‘banding authority’).  Instead of fires and smoke they use lights to distract our feathered friends. Needless to say the migratory bird pass has now been factored into the development of tourism and on the other side of the pass a road has been constructed up to a point which makes access on foot more amenable to day trippers.

At the pass itself there is an ancient roadside shrine, possibly dating from the Ming Dynasty, dedicated to local deities that offer protection and a safe journey. By the signs of recent offering and incense sticks it is evident that the locals still pay their respects. Next to the shrine is a large stone engraving (actually, it is a replica as the original is stored in a local museum) upon which is inscribed in Chinese 'The Majestic Bird Way Pass' (鸟道雄关). This is believed by some to be the earliest written record of any such migratory bird pass in the world. But as to when the original inscription was made I have yet been unable to ascertain

Reclusive Daoists and the Secret of Weibaoshan: Discovering the Kingdom of the Nanzhao

Ten kilometres southeast of Weishan town lies Weibaoshan Mountain (巍宝山). At only at 2,509 metres above sea level it is not a very high or imposing mountain by Yunnan standards, but it has its attractions and its secrets. Since 1992 Weibaoshan has been an officially designated ‘national forest park’ (国家森林公园), which means that it is open to tourist development. The mountain is covered in lush forest and there are many ancient trees in the temples and about the mountain side, but I wouldn’t say there is any significant primeval forest as we can assume the locals (as I will explain below, there are a number of villages at the foot of the mountain) have been harvesting timber and other produce for quite a long time. As early as the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) (some sources suggest as even early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220)) Weibaoshan attracted the attention of Daoists as a site of seclusion, meditation and practice.

Daoist by the name of Xiao Yao at Changchun Temple (长春洞). Well versed in all the Daoist arts of physical and mental cultivation.

Over the following centuries numerous Daoist temples were constructed to the point that they are well scattered on the main northern and southern sides. Weibaoshan is thus regarded as one of the fourteen (some sources give the number as ‘thirteen’) important Daoist mountains of China. We visited quite a few of the temples on this trip. There are too many to mention in detail here but it seems most of the Daoist pantheon are accounted for including the Jade Emperor and Laozi (Laotse). There are also a smaller number of Buddhist temples, temples such as the God of Wealth dedicated to folk religion (and no doubt there is much cross-over between Daoism and folk religion) and some sites of local animist worship. Indeed we can see here the mutual influence these various belief practices have asserted upon each other over the course of history giving rise to some interesting examples of Chinese religious syncretism. Some of the temples that date from the Ming and Qing are absolutely exquisite cultural relics. The Changchun Temple (长春洞) on the northside of the mountain is particularly impressive and is a national level cultural relic. We were fortunate enough to spend some time with the local  resident Daoist. Compared to the Daoists on the other, more popular, side of the mountain, this gentleman (Master Xiao Yao) appeared to be the genuine article and gave us a demonstration of taiqi and the flute, amongst other things. His temple can accommodate up to 15 visitors for overnight visits so it would possibly be an ideal place to take a student study tour.

On our final night on Weibaoshan we pitched our tent in the courtyard of a temple simultaneously devoted to Laozi (Laotse), Shakyamuni (the Buddha) and Confucius (from left to right). The elderly lady caretaker was extremely welcoming and given that we had three of the great backbones of Chinese culture watching over us we felt very safe indeed. Just outside the temple in a grove of ancient oak trees I saw signs of animist veneration of the local spirits. An incredibly rich tapestry of religious belief and practice in one location.

I want to focus here on the ‘Patron God Temple’ (土主庙) as it relates to a fascinating ‘secret’ that can be traced all the way back to the Nanzhao Kingdom. The temple is dedicated to the first king of the Mengshe Tribe (see above), Xi Nuluo (细奴逻). In fact it is actually an ancestral shrine used by his descendants who inhabit the villages around the base of the mountain where Xi Nuluo once also tilled the earth. As we ascended the mountain with the mule team, avoiding public roads as is our practice, we were actually following the ancient pilgrimage route still used by the locals on festive days when they honour Xi Nuluo (some sections closer to the temple contained good sections of remnant road). We were fortunate enough to bump into the temple caretaker and he invited us to camp outside the temple so long as we agreed to first pay our respects to Xi Nuluo. We were more than happy to oblige. Later I conducted an interview with him and learnt much about the development of Yi identity and cultural tourism in Weibaoshan in recent years. What follows is drawn from the interview and subsequent research of local and online sources.

The shrine to the ancestor of the Weibaoshan Yi: Xi Nuluo (细奴逻).

The Wenchang Palace (文昌宫) which includes a Qing Dynasty fresco depicting an Yi ancestor ritual dancing and music performance.

Most interestingly he told us of the ‘secret’ of Weibaoshan. For a long time it appears that mainstream culture ‘forgot’ about the descendants of the Nanzhao. There was a good reason for this as the locals themselves wanted to ‘be forgotten’. After the Nanzhao ended the descendants of Xi Nuluo feared for their lives as Chinese history is littered with examples of ‘exterminating the grass by pulling out the roots’ (斩草除根) in which new dynasties massacred whole clans of the previous ruling elite in order to prevent the reemergence of rival claims to power. The descendants of Xi Nuluo changed their surname from ‘meng’ (蒙) to ‘zi’ (字) and ‘cha’ (茶) to hide their origins. Both of the latter two characters contain elements of the character ‘meng’ which is meant to be a hidden reference to their ancestors. It is only since the 1980s that the locals have more publicly and openly associated themselves with the Nanzhao. Nowadays there are two important festivals, one of the 15th day of the 9th lunar month to celebrate Xi Nuluo’s birthday and another on the 15th of the 1st lunar month to carry out the veneration of the ancestors ceremony. A famous and very important nearby Daoist temple (文昌宫) includes a Qing Dynasty fresco (dated 1795) which depicts the singing and dancing associated with this festival, demonstrating that even though it was ‘forgotten’ the locals continued their cultural practices and veneration of their lineage descent. It is also worthwhile noting that Xi Nuluo is also now venerated as a Daoist deity and the story of his coming to power and the rise of the Nanzhao has been incorporated into the Daoist cannon. We were also informed of more recent developments which shed light on the efforts to develop cultural tourism in Weishan and draw upon the history of the now ‘remembered’ Nanzhao Kingdom. The actual original temple to Xi Nuluo is quite small, but behind and now incorprated into it is a much larger temple with a central shrine and two adjoining wings. This construction is quite new and dates from around 2004 (to be verified). It is an extension of the original shrine insofar as it venerates the Nanzhao in its entirety and includes bronze statues of all the kings of the Nanzhao (and including the wife of Xi Nuluo). The buildings and courtyards are adorned with images depicting the rise and fall of the Nanzhao and the unique Yi script (which I can’t elaborate on here to suffice to say it is not a script in common use and its deployment here has more to do it seems with establishing a common identity amongst a disparate ethnic group). On the 8th day of the 2nd lunar month the local authorities hold a large festival in honour of both the Nanzhao and the Yi people. I write ‘local authorities’ as this is a relatively recent festival in which the locals are enticed to provide the dancing and music with small payments (something you wouldn’t imagine was necessary in a more ‘authentic’ celebration). The local literature on this event describes it as a major festival for all eight million Yi people. The first such festival was held upon completion of the extension to the ‘Patron God Temple’ indicating that it may have something to do with the development of cultural tourism. In both cases, that is, the local festivals to the ancestors and of the recent developments centred around a collective Yi identity and cultural tourism, we can see good examples of grass-roots and top-down initiatives being played out. I think there is a rich research project here that cuts across many important issues: ethnicity, identity, memory and history, modernisation, and so on.

The new and very large temple behind the Xi Nuluo shrine. Yi script is on the banners hanging down the front.

As you can see Weishan has a remarkable and fascinating history. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface here. There is plenty of material for research and I now have a long list of questions begging for answers. Stay tuned!

The caretaker of the temple we camped in on the last night on Weibaoshan generously offers us a cup of 'salty tea'. 'It will refresh you and invigorate your weary limbs' she said kindly. 谢谢大妈!祝你身体健康!万事如意!