The aftermath of vacation: unpacking suitcase, downloading last of pictures, writing a to do list that starts tomorrow. Also thinking that I love a local story of how Guanyin transformed herself into an old Bai woman, who carried a rock by roping it to her head and then used it to stop an invading army. Yes!
Half an hour outside Weishan, Lotus East Village (莲花东村) stands apart from the surrounding villages, both historically and culturally. Unlike mountain villages, like those around Lushi, which cultivated Yunnan Red (滇红茶), Lotus East once supplied the horses and guards for the caravans that moved tea and other goods along the Tea and Horse Route (茶马道). Although small, the village was powerful and relatively wealthy. In fact, during the Nationalist era, the clan heads – brothers Ma Shiji, Ma Shiqi, and Ma Shixiang – were aligned with Long Yun, the former Party Secretary of Yunnan Province.
Culturally, the residents were and remain Muslims, who elegantly synthesized elements of Han and Bai traditions within the context of Islam. The couplet that graces the entrance to the village mosque exemplifies the hybrid cultures of Southwestern China. In Mandarin, the word for “mosque” is literally “clear truth temple (清真寺)”. The author has taken those two characters and used them as the opening characters of a Mandarin style couplet:
The pure rises, the polluted sinks, ultimately 10,000 teachings return to one
Truth and piety are not different, the entire universe praises Allah
Today, the Mosque and former homestead of the Ma brothers are open to the public, as is a small museum that introduces horse caravan culture (马帮文化 – literally “horse gang culture”) and the cross cultural breadth of China’s southwestern trade in tea, horses, and other luxury items. Impressions, below:
Another commercial center on the Tea and Horse Route, Weishan (巍山) is located about 75 minutes from Dali. Weishan was the first capital of the Nanzhao, but was soon replaced by Dali, which has a more temperate climate because located on the banks of Lake Erhai (洱海).
One of the main Weishan tourist sites is Weibaoshan (巍宝山), which literally means “Treasure Mountain Wei”. The mountain has been designated a national park and walking paths that thread from and between Daoist temples have been laid. Contemporary Daoists have occupied many of these temples and it is possible to stay the night there for a donation. However, the architectural treasure is the Long Spring Retreat (长春洞) which was constructed between 1779 and 1799 and is dedicated to the Jade Emperor, the Lord of the Underworld.
Sites like Weibaoshan vex me. I studied Chinese language and history in order to experience places like Long Spring Retreat, as if the poetry and philosophy of classical China still animated everyday life. However, 17 years in Shenzhen have taught me that even if the contemporary cultural mix includes Daoism, nevertheless capitalist forms and modern desires more obviously structure human relationships and desires in China.
And yet, if not for capitalist forms, I could not have visited Long Spring because I not only needed to purchase a ticket to enter the park, but also get myself from Shenzhen to Dali, Dali to Weishan, and then from Weishan to the mountain. Alas, none of those plane rides and car trips manifest the Daoist virtue of regulating my life by according to natural rhythms. Instead, they more properly manifest the US American virtue of satisfying individual desires through post-industrial convenience.
The point seems to be remembering to take time to reflect on our place in the world, not only as individuals, but also as a species. What does it mean to be human? What does Long Spring Retreat teach that we cannot learn through Shenzhen’s rush to reproduce and exceed the material wealth of North America?
Although less famous than the Silk Road, the Tea and Horse Route (map) had three branches: the commercial route (Lhasa to Chengdu), the official route into Tibet (Lhasa to Kangding, where it reconnected with the commercial route), and the Yunnan-Tibet route (Mangkang to Kunming), which threaded through the Lincang mountains until it met up with the official route in Kangding. A small commercial center on the Yunnan-Tibet route, Lushi was located at the nexus trails that threaded through the Lincang Mountain Range.
Local farmers continue to live in villages along those ancient trails and still use pack mules to bring supplies from the town to surrounding villages. Mrs. Zhang discovered us wandering on one of the partially cemented trails that led to the river and invited us into her family compound for tea.
Mr. Zhang’s grandfather built the first building in the in the 1930s. Each subsequent generation added to the complex, and today the compound has three main buildings and a separate section for farm stock, a kitchen, and solar panels for heating water. With the family responsibility system, the Zhangs obtained several mu (666 2/3 sq meters) of land, where they have planted feed corn, walnuts, and vegetables. Their daughter has moved with her husband to Kunming and their son has opened a small shop in Lushi. One of the three buildings is for him and his girlfriend upon their marriage. The Zhangs earn between 10-20,000 rmb ($US 1,750 – 3,500) a year, which has been almost completely invested in building the house and their children’s education.
We chatted about their lives and in turn, they asked about ours. After half an hour, we took our leave and headed back toward Lushi. I remarked on the difference between walking in Lushi and Shenzhen, where I have been stopped by guards when trying to climb Jingshan Mountai in Shekou, let alone invited in for tea. My friend replied that the more commercialized a village or town, the less hospitable the residents.
This experience has me thinking about the potential and paradoxes of hospitality. In Lushi, if a door was open, we could walk into the compound and expect to be welcomed. The previous day, for example, Old Mr. Zhang (same surname as the village Zhangs) sat with us for 40 minutes, chatting about local history. We offered to continue the conversation by sending photos to the qq accounts of younger family members, who are online. At the same time however, when deflected through tourism, hospitality slips from a social practice into a commercial strategy. During this trip to Dali and its hinterland, we have stayed at hotels where our hosts are friendly, helpful, and pleasant and yet we do not feel obliged to grow the relationship.
Today I am wondering about hospitality in globalizing times. Social hospitality remains an important means of transforming strangers into acquaintances, even as commercial hospitality has expanded with the growth of tourism. The difficulty, of course, is that many of us travel hoping to encounter social hospitality and end up frustrated by differing expectations about the obligations of commercial hospitality. So just what do hosts and guests owe each other when the bill can be paid in full and yet we now live in a global village?
We drove about eight hours from Dali to Lushi (鲁史), a market town (镇) in the Lincang Mountains (临沧山). The last 80 kilometers covered a narrow road, which twisted through dramatic slopes and was, in places, covered in thick mud and rocks from a rainstorm the night before. The trip and the unreliability of the roads created a sense of distance from my everyday life; lack of access to internet reinforced this sense that I was far from the modern world. Moreover, I found it difficult to understand local Mandarin, let alone the local language.
The layout and size of the old city area remind us that Lushi was once a vibrant center of mountain life. Peasants packed mules with tea, walnuts, and palm leaves and then set out on narrow trails to sell their goods in seasonal markets in Fengqing (凤庆), Nanjian (南涧), and Weishan (巍山). Old Mr. Zhang told us that during WWII, national forces from Guangdong and Hunan stationed at Lushi. In the not so distant past, Lushi was more prosperous than Fengqing, which only rose to local prominence as a county seat during the Mao era.
Moreover, this was not a trip that placed me beyond the reach of gaokao results (all 42 members of the graduating class of 2012 found places at university), Olympic broadcasts, and packaged snacks. We stayed at a clean motel and ate regional specialities, including jizong mushrooms in spicy oil (油鸡枞) and broad beans stir fried with local pickles. There were telephones and high heels, motorcycles and cigarettes, angry bird balloons and electronic toys scattered through out the crumbling buildings and old stone walkways.
The restructuring of the relationship between Chinese cities and their hinterlands that began during Maoist collectivization and intensified with post Mao industrialization not only favored coastal cites, but also disenfranchised rural China. Today, Lushi is a painful contemporary to Shenzhen precisely because the mountain town has been so obviously positioned at the underdeveloped edge of the modern world and not because that’s what it once was.
Impressions of a rainy day in Lushi, below:
The two hour trip from Dali to Fengyu Market Town (凤羽镇) eases senses overstimulated by tourist crowds, let alone Shenzhen’s urban crush. Nestled within extensive rice paddies and surrounded by mountains, Fengyu stands in provocative contrast with Shenzhen’s industrial parks and reclaimed housing estates. The town’s crumbling architecture evokes past elegance and stately lifestyles, while elderly women dressed in traditional Bai costumes maintain local religious traditions, setting up small altars at the entrance to the town. Here, at the periphery of urban China’s periphery, I slip into forms of rural nostalgia — once upon a time, a stately, elegant society of noble warriors, rural scholars and happy peasants resisted both Tibetan and Han incursions.
And yet. Where Shenzhen streets bustle with young migrant workers, Fengyu’s main street and side alleys shimmer silently. Whatever remains of the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms, today, young Bai must choose between agricultural labor and life elsewhere, in Shenzhen, for example, where one of my favorite restaurants serves Yunnan delicacies that are flown in daily to tempted jaded palates. A walk through Fengyu, below:
Am in Dali, Yunnan, which for years was a favorite spot for backpackers, Chinese and foreign. The out of the way city boasts mountains for trekking, fresh weather, ethnic minorities with links to Tibet, and inexpensive crafts and food. Almost 30 years of backpackers have shaped the development of tourism in the area and many of the shops sell hippy clothes, while the cafes serve better bread and muesli than are available in Shenzhen.
Nevertheless, consistent low-end tourism has brought the area enough capital to inspire dreams of attracting higher-end tourists. Yesterday, for example, I took the Cangshan Mountain Cable Car and then walked through the mountains to Xima Pool. The trip is over 5.8 meters long with a rise of almost 2 meters. Built with French technology, the cable car symbolizes the initiative to transform Yunnan into a world class tourist destination. In fact, the Kunming Airport, which opened June 28, 2012 exemplifies the scale of ambition — according to an architect friend, it is large enough to handle 30-40 million people a year, which is larger than Shanghai’s airport.
I’m not sure how much infrastructure debt Yunnan has incurred, but Cangshan has not been diminished.