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Heshun: Ancient Merchant Town Along the Southern Silk Road

 

On the day we visited Heshun there was a film crew onsite and a mule team, pictured here, from a nearby village was hired to provide an 'authentic' atmosphere.

On the day we visited Heshun there was a film crew on site and a mule team, pictured here, from a nearby village was hired to provide an ‘authentic’ atmosphere. In bygone days, however, the trading was conducted primarily in Tengchong and not Heshun itself. Heshun was not a trading town/market but rather the home to many successful merchant families.

From the 17th to 21st November 2012 I travelled with Dr Ed Jocelyn to Baoshan. This is the second part of my report on a fieldtrip to Baoshan (宝山). In the previous posting I described Baoshan and the old ‘Southern Silk Road’ across the Gaoligong Mountains (高黎贡山), examining some of the prospects for ecotourism in the nature reserve. In this post I wish to describe Tengchong (腾冲) and the historic merchant town of Heshun (和顺). You can see where Heshun is located on Google Maps here. You can view a selection of images on my Flickr account here.

As I have been noting throughout this blog, Yunnan is undergoing a period of remarkable change. This is the most intensive period of ‘modernisation’ that Yunnan has yet experienced (I see ‘modernisation’ – a concept with its own historical baggage that needs to be unpacked at some point – in Yunnan, and China more broadly, as occurring in stages). This process is intensifying notions of ‘Yunnaneseness’ and facilitating the construction of contemporary narratives that tell ‘the story’ of ‘being Yunnanese’. It is the challenge of every age to tell its own story. In Yunnan much of this is happening through the development of the tourism industry within which the notion of the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ is playing a significant role in terms of branding and providing a trans-provincial narrative. Tourism – in its most contemporary manifestation – is about ‘telling stories’.

The remainder of this blogpost is divided into two sections. I first provide an introduction to Tengchong. I will then introduce the merchant town of Heshun and relate highlights of an interview with one of Heshun’s senior citizens and head of an important merchant household. In so doing I hope to reveal some of the tendencies in the development of cultural heritage tourism in China and in Yunnan in particular.

In times of rapid social and cultural change 'old timers' are extremely valuable repositories of life in the 'old days'. This gentleman, holding a waterpipe (for smoking tobacco), was able to tell us much about caravan life in Tengchong. In days past he was a muleteer.

In times of rapid social and cultural change ‘old timers’ are extremely valuable repositories of life in the ‘old days’. This gentleman, holding a waterpipe (for smoking tobacco), was able to tell us much about caravan life in Tengchong. In days past he was a muleteer and organised small trading caravans.

Tengchong 腾冲

Tengchong, a county of Baoshan, is only a few kilometres from the Burmese border. It is home to the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy and has a mild sub-tropical highland climate. There is also quite a bit of volcanic activity in the region and Tengchong is well known for its hot springs and geothermal parks. The population is predominantly rural and in 2008 estimated to be 640,000. The population consists of seven ethnic groups, primarily Han and Dai.

As the notion of the ‘Southern Silk Road’ suggests, trade has been particularly active between what we nowadays call Baoshan and Burma (Myanmar). At least since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Tengchong (also known for a time as Tengyue/Tengyueh) was one of the first major Chinese towns a traveller would have encountered crossing from Burma into China (depending on the direction one took after crossing), by which I mean it was the first administrative town with a magistrate (an official representative of the dynastic government). The land link to Burma is particularly important. Burma sits neatly between China and India and also has direct sea access to the Indian Ocean (and thus the trading routes associated with the Maritime Silk Road). This is no doubt one of the factors that made Burma particularly attractive to British colonial interests (just as now it is of great strategic importance to China, India and the United States). The occupation and incorporation of Burma into the British Empire in 1823 gave British traders a hope of exploiting the overland route between Burma and Yunnan, with a long term view to opening up a railway link between India and eastern China (a dream as yet unrealised but one that should be completed within the next two decades) (there is a brief description of the British Burma-Yunnan railway on Wikipedia). In an effort to demarcate the border between Burma and China, the British also fought a number of battles with the Qing. And for that matter the Qing also fought several battles with the Burmese kingdom in the 18th Century, all of which were quite devastating losses for the Qing (who dispatched Manchu and Mongol soldiers from the far north of China to fight in the tropical jungles of Burma!). In 1931 the British set up a consulate in Tengchong – the date may actually be a bit earlier –  giving some indication as to British interests (e.g. trade, security, keeping the French in check, etc). The British occupation of Burma and access to western Yunnan was also exploited by many explorers and budding ethnologists as a ‘backdoor’ into one of the remotest and unknown (by Westerners) parts of the ‘Celestial Empire’, all of which is described very well in Thomas Mullaney’s Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China. I would like to stress here, with no spoilers, how important Mullaney’s book is for reunderstanding the development of ethnic classification in the People’s Republic.

From 1942 to 1945 the Japanese occupied Burma and used it as a base for an invasion of Yunnan. The Japanese Imperial Army occupied Tengchong and, after crossing the Gaoligong Mountains, attempted to take Baoshan but were stopped at the Nu (Salween) River by the Chinese (who destroyed the bridges). The Nationalists set up the Chinese Expeditionary Army (中国远征军). The Chinese Expeditionary Army, a Chinese force of 100,000 trained with (American) Allied assistance and supported by American air power, was established to specifically expel the Japanese and stop them from forming a rear front. The major counterattack was launched in 1944. The battle was very intense with tens of thousands of casualties and pitched street battles in Tengchong as the remaining Japanese soldiers held up in, of all places, the former British consulate (obviously the Brits had long since evacuated). This was a major Chinese military victory over the Japanese (very important for morale after so many defeats in previous years). The Japanese occupation and defeat is well promoted in Tengchong and is a major feature of the Chinese tourist experience in its own right. A popular television drama captured the tale quite well and helped to revive historical memories of the importance of the battlefront in Yunnan (if the Japanese were able to take Baoshan and advance to Dali, Lijiang and Kunming, then the vital supply route over ‘the hump’ – an Allied supply flight route between India and Yunnan over the Himalayan Mountains – could have been severed and the Nationalists could have had significant enemy forces both in the front and in the rear). Tengchong is, not surprisingly, also home to China’s largest war cemetery.

The War Cemetery was built in 1945 and contains the graves of 3,346 Chinese soldiers (along with a handful of US soldiers, and also an unspecified number of Japanese). There were wreaths in the main hall from individuals, companies, and government departments from all over China, and also a number from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The scale of the cemetery and the story of the Chinese struggle and final victory over a brutal Japanese occupation understandably strikes a chord with Chinese visitors. There is also a monument to the American soldiers with a letter from George Bush Junior (interesting to reflect on a time when China and America were allies).

The Tengchong War Cemetery was built in 1945 and contains the graves of 3,346 Chinese soldiers (along with a handful of US soldiers, and also an unspecified number of Japanese). On the day we visited there were wreaths in the main hall from individuals, companies, and government departments from all over China, and also a number from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The scale of the cemetery and the story of the Chinese struggle and final victory over a brutal Japanese occupation understandably strikes a chord with Chinese visitors. There is also a monument to the American soldiers with a letter from George Bush Junior expressing friendship with China (interesting to reflect on a time when China and America were allies).

Tengchong has big designs on developing tourism. In 2005 Tengchong received three million visitors, mostly domestic Chinese tourists. The plan is to dramatically increase that number within the next decade. The Tengchong Airport was opened in 2009 and has direct flights to Kunming, Jinghong, Dali, Lijiang, and Chengdu, and no doubt the destination list will continue to expand (even with a modern expressway Tengchong is still quite a drive even from Kunming). A number of five star hotels and resorts are under construction. There are already several golf courses (with more being built despite a Chinese government moratorium on the building of new golf courses  – the trick is to not call it a ‘golf course’ but a ‘recreation centre’). I can vouch that Tengchong also has one of the best taxi and bus management systems in China. For anyone who has tried to take a taxi in Jinghong (you have to first ask the driver ‘where will you take me’), for instance, you will know what I mean. A friend of mine was rewarded with 200 yuan for reporting a non-compliant Tengchong taxi driver. The driver was also fined. Praise the Lord!

A view of Heshun. One of the challenges faces historic towns such as Heshun is regulating the use of new building materials and modern conveniences. Here we can see many solar hot water heaters which 'spoil' the aesthetics.

A view of Heshun. One of the challenges facing historic towns such as Heshun is regulating the use of new building materials and modern conveniences. Pictured here is a view of Heshun with many solar hot water heaters ‘spoiling’ the aesthetics.

Heshun 和顺

One of the key assets in Tengchong’s tourism arsenal is the historic merchant town of Heshun, just a few kilometres from Tengchong itself. Heshun is well known as one of China’s most significant ‘Overseas Chinese Villages’ (侨乡), by which is meant that over time many people from this town have travelled abroad for trade, marriage, education and so on, and thus have built up strong ties between villages and towns in Heshun and overseas Chinese communities abroad. In its 600 years of history, most of the families of Heshun were involved in trade with Burma. Those who did well in the trade – and that seems to have included quite a few families – built large and elaborate mansions in Heshun. They also contributed to the construction of public facilities and amenities. Heshun has one of the first modern public libraries in China. Heshun is also the birth place of many famous locals including Ai Siqi (艾思奇) (1910-1966), a well-known Marxist intellectual who was once a teacher of Mao Zedong.

Since 2003 Heshun has adopted a corporate partnership model in developing tourism (a form of public/private initiative). The public partner is Heshun Town (和顺镇) under the supervision of Tengchong County (腾冲县). The corporate partner is the Brilliant Group (柏联集团). The Brilliant Group has diverse interests in property development, hotels/spas, retail, and most interestingly, tourism and tea. Heshun is one of the jewels in the Brilliant Group crown. Apparently the agreement between both parties is for forty years. This public/private model in tourism development – especially with regards to ‘ancient towns’ (古镇) – is now widespread across China. There are pros and cons with every model and I will be exploring this in more detail in the book.

A bar strip has been built at the front edge of Heshun. In my experience such features are the death knell of a quiet and quaint ancient town.

A bar strip has been built at the front edge of Heshun. In my experience such features sound the death knell of a quiet and quaint ancient town. This is part of what I call the ‘Lijiang Model’. The priority seems to be generating revenue rather than actual quality heritage management.

Interview with Mr Wang

The Wang family has a very impressive family mansion in Heshun. Mr Wang, at a vigorous 79 years of age, can be found in the family residence most days and is more than happy to chat to visitors. We engaged Mr Wang in a long interview of which the following are highlights.

Mr Wang’s  ancestors were Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) soldiers who came from Sichuan and fought battles all the way to the border of Burma. This would confirm with the general expansion of the Ming during this period, the first time that dynastic power gained a proper and sustained foothold in many border regions of Yunnan, and opening up the possibilities for large scale migration for central and eastern China. Many local Han people claim to either be the descendants of soldiers or convicts.

Mr Wang went to Burma with his parents in 1938 when he was four years old and came back in 1942, fleeing the Japanese invasion. After the Japanese surrender in 1945 his mother took his younger brother and older sister back to Burma (it being such an important part of the family business). His parents remained in Burma (his father died early, his mother came back to Heshun when she was 80). Mr Wang stayed in Heshun with his grandparents.  Burma in those days was known as ‘Nan Yang’ (南洋) (Southern Ocean). Before 1949 Burma was regarded as a very advanced place (先进的地方), with lots of modern commodities. China, at least those places bordering Burma such as Tengchong, were much more ‘backward’ (落后) by comparison.

Entrance to one of the prominent family ancestral temples of Heshun. The ancestors are not 'worshipped' but rather venerated and remembered.

Entrance to one of the prominent family ancestral temples of Heshun. The ancestors are not ‘worshipped’ but rather venerated and remembered.

One of the historically important trading centres, known as ‘Foreigner Street’ (洋人街), was at the border of China/Burma in Longchuan County (Zhangfeng). The Heshun traders went to Burma to buy matches, soap, and other household goods associated with British manufacturing.  Many of these items in Chinese were described as ‘foreign’, e.g. matches are ‘foreign fire’ (洋火). Of course jade (翡翠) was also a very important commodity from Burma, one which has a very long trading history. Mr Wang recounted a story of a chief muleteer who used a stone by the side of the road to balance one of his mule loads. When he got back to Tengchong the muleteer discarded the stone into his family well. Over time the water cleaned the stone revealing precious jade! The Chinese traded silk, tea and salt. The salt came primarily from Midu/Shaxi (in Dali) and was shaped into disc form (柱子盐). Much of the tea came from Zhenyuan (镇远) (Puer), also famous for its ancient tea trees. Of course there was also trade in opium (in the old days, Mr Wang recounted, a visitor to a merchant’s home would have been offered opium as a courtesy).

Going abroad (usually to Burma) to do business was known as ‘going out the door’ (chumen 出门). For the men of Heshun it was vital to ‘chumen’, those who didn’t, and couldn’t make money doing trade, would be looked down upon and have trouble finding a wife. Most of the traders picked up the Burmese language. Many of the Burmese traders the Heshun merchants interacted with were actually descendants of Han Chinese/Burmese marriages (although not many could speak Chinese). In places like Mandalay and Rangoon there were many Chinese descendants and a Chinese trader could get by without speaking Burmese. Some traders actually had Burmese wives and set up a family in Burma. Some of them even brought back their Burmese wives and children to Heshun (at a time when polygamy was still acceptable in China).

Heshun has constructed a cultural museum describing the history of the town and importance of the Southern Silk Road. The display is very similar to other such 'narratives' found in museums and public sculpture in other parts of Yunnan.

Heshun has constructed a cultural museum describing the history of the town and importance of the Southern Silk Road. The display is very similar to other such ‘narratives’ found in museums and public sculpture in other parts of Yunnan. If you look carefully you will see that the chap in the centre is not Chinese.

In Heshun the traders didn’t organise their own caravans. They called upon other locals (from other villages/towns) to do so. The caravan organisers and muleteers generally came from very poor backgrounds (although some chief muleteers – 马锅头 – did very well). According to Mr Wang there were no ‘name brand commercial’ caravans in the region (商号马帮), unlike in Dali where some professional caravan companies had amassed great fortunes. The caravans had a lead mule/horse (头马) which was decorated very beautifully/elaborately, with a mirror on the forehead (to reflect evil). Generally mules were used for haulage and horses for riding. Mr Wang also recollects the time before 1949 when after the harvest the tenant farmers would bring rice to the landlords houses. The rice was transported either on the back of oxen or mules. Reference was also made to the past conflict between the Qing (Han) and Muslims (Hui). There is a battle site grave near Heshun where the remains of many men and horses have been discovered. [This is most likely part of the Panthay Rebellion (1856-1873). Many Hui ended up fleeing to Burma and Southeast Asia (where they are now as the ‘Haw’).]

On the day of our visit to Heshun and interview with Mr Wang, President Obama was visiting Burma, a very significant event in the geopolitics of the Southwest/Southeast Asia. Mr Wang, without any reference to Eisenhower’s ‘military-industrial complex’, argued that Obama and Clinton (Hillary) visited Burma (and SE Asia) to primarily thwart/encircle China and sell weapons to SE Asian allies. The weapons/armament industry, Mr Wang said, is a vital part of the American economy. He also noted the virtue of open discussion and criticism of policy and political leadership that you have in the US.

On the day of our visit to Heshun and interview with Mr Wang, President Obama was visiting Burma, a very significant event in the geopolitics of the China/Southeast Asia. Mr Wang, without any reference to Eisenhower’s ‘military-industrial complex’, argued that Obama and Clinton (Hillary) visited Burma (and SE Asia) to primarily thwart/encircle China and sell weapons to SE Asian allies. The weapons/armament industry, Mr Wang said, is a vital part of the American economy. He also noted the virtue of open discussion and criticism of policy and political leadership that you have in the US.

2 Comments

  • Jan 19th 201306:01
    by Frank H

    Reply

    Seems like this corner of Yunnan has quite a lot to offer in terms of stories. Would you say there are still many options for developing a sustainable kind of tourism in and around it?

    Thanks for your incredibly interesting post!

    • Jan 21st 201308:01
      by Gary

      Reply

      Thanks Frank. Defining what actually is ‘sustainable’ in cultural, economic and environmental terms in fact is very challenging. I’ll leave definitions for another time. Suffice to say that Tengchong (and Yunnan for that matter) is large enough to ‘sustain’ both ‘small scale’ (independent/community based) and ‘large scale’ (mass tourism). In fact the former depends on the latter (that is, the mass tourism model has provided the development of basic infrastructure and services that make small scale tourism more possible). So perhaps we should be talking about ‘coexistence’ and ‘interdependence’ rather than one model versus another. Cheers, Gary

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