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Yunnan – "Here Be Dragons"

On a hot late April afternoon, the bus trundles over the bridge on the Lancang River (further south the Lancang divides Laos from Myanmar and is called the Mekong River) and rolls into the palm lined streets of Jinghong, the capital of the Xishuangbanna Dai Nationality Prefecture, the most southern region of Yunnan province.

Yunnan is the sixth largest province in China with climates ranging from subtropical Xishuangbanna to temperate Tibetan highlands with mountain peaks in permanent snow. One third of China's ethnic minorities living here come from the border countries of Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and nearby Thailand and constitute 50% of Yunnan's population.

Historically, Yunnan was considered by Beijing to be on the edge of civilisation (China) and therefore barbaric and hence was largely ignored. On a map of Yunnan it could have been written: "Here be dragons." And indeed there are many places in Yunnan named for dragons: Dragon Gate, Black Dragon Pool Park, and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Not surprising, when Kublai Khan invaded Yunnan in 1252 he thought it a separate country and called it Qandahar meaning "Great Country". When they ruled between 700-1200 AD, the Bai called it Nanzhao or "Southern Kingdom". And Marco Polo called it Caragan. Today, Yunnan with its colourful population of minorities, little resembles the rest of China where the Han Chinese towns all look alike.

Fruits The name Xishuangbanna is a Chinese approximation of the original Thai name, Sip Sawng Panna, meaning 'Twelve Rice Growing Districts" and is home to the Dai, the Hani or Akha, the Miao, Zhuang, Yao, Ainu, Jinuo, Bulang, Lahu and Wa.
Because I have an aversion to hordes of tourists, I am less than alarmed that I am 2 weeks late for the big Water Splashing Festival which washes away the dirt, sorrow and demons of the old year and brings in the happiness of the new.
From the number of men in sarongs and women in brightly colored skirts and tops, the Theravada Buddhist temples and pagodas, the elephant and peacock decorations everywhere and the subtropical heat it is easy to think that I am in Thailand. Here many tropical features can also be found: bananas, mangoes, coconuts, tamarind, rainforest, hibiscus and bougainvillea.

Compared to the relatively drab and serious Han Chinese, the Dai are colourful and relaxed which appeals to my Trinidadian sensibilities. The women are casually elegant in brightly coloured short tops and long clinging skirts with a belt of silver metal links. The men look comfortable in vests, sarongs and thong slippers - in the afternoon heat I would often see them behind the sales counters, in the kitchens or strolling the streets bare back with just a sarong.

Market Along with all the other tourists, I go to the markets to gape at the minorities in their tribal best and realise that I have reduced these people to the level of bird watching. That they are a people suffering on the lowest rung of Chinese society matters less than getting a photo of a rare Lahu, the Tiger Roasting People.

The fearless Lahu live along the Lancang River and are now mostly farmers though hunting still remains a way of life. Like many of the minorities, their traditional costume is colorful with intricately patterned embroidery and beads and coins for adornment.

It is difficult to imagine that only 60 years ago this pleasantly lazy area where nothing seems to happen was the focus for resistance to the Japanese invasion when they occupied Nanning in 1939. Xishuangbanna was part of the famous 1154 km long Burma Road when the Americans moved medicine, weapons and supplies from Rangoon to northern Burma, across the border to Xishuangbanna and finally to Kunming, a major US airbase.

Bamboo Hut The Dai hut which I share with a Japanese student is made of woven bamboo and is raised off the damp earth on stilts, much like a Manzanilla or Mayaro hut. In the hot tropical afternoon heat it remains cool and is pleasant to lie in bed in the mornings with chinks of sunlight coming through the bamboo walls. In the adjacent huts are a group of American missionaries of varying ages, singing gospel songs and strumming guitars. I watch them warily and they nod but do not preach, so we slowly become nodding neighbours.
Not long before, I had struck up a polite conversation with a table neighbour who turned out to be an American missionary who had been in China for over ten years and was trying to teach the Chinese not to spit.

"I don't agree," I said just to make conversation. "I don't like the spitting any more than you do. But, after all, this is their country and, short of committing genocide, they can do whatever they like. What you and I may think isn't important." Not realising my faux pas, I rambled on, "It's a matter of cultural superiority, don't you think?" She looked at me in shock that I had the impudence to gainsay her God given mission in life. She promptly began a conversation with another neighbour and thereafter totally ignored me.

There are a few nearby cafes where I eat huge fruit salads with pineapple, papaya, watermelon and ice cream and drink coconut water or fruit juices. There's another café owned by an Akha auntie where they boast 'the best hamburgers in Yunnan'. The burgers are big and good but the burgers at Sakura Café in Lijiang Old Town are better. Several restaurants feature Dai women doing a song and dance routine, dressed in colourful costume, beating their drums in a bored way to entice customers but few travellers are attracted.

In the new town, which I find lacking in atmosphere and interest, the streets are wide and new but the shop owners don't know any of the names, not even the street on which they live and work and can't be bothered to ask. The Post Office is also spanking new and huge and the Internet section is housed in a tiny room with a single terminal.

1100 years old, Manting Lu Temple is a Theravada Buddhist temple in natural clay and wood unlike the ornate, brightly painted Chinese Mahayana Buddhist ones or the massive, squat Tibetan Buddhist ones. There is a shed in the outer yard where a long thin dragon boat is stored. I take off my shoes as if entering a Hindu mandir and an orange robed monk shyly invites me to enter. He is young, perhaps 15 or 16, and looks very much like a Thai.

Monks in Temple"You are a monk, how long?" I ask.
"Two months."
"Do you like it?"
He nods. "Yes."
"And later, you will still be a monk?"
"No, next month I will go back to school. This is Tanpa Festival."

Tanpa is the time when all Dai boys go to the temples to be initiated as novice monks.
"What are these silk scarves for?" There were a number of them in white and yellow hanging from the ceiling.
"For prayers. People buy them and leave them here after praying for favours."
"And the mirrors on the roof, what are they for?"
"I don’t know."

I e-mail my Thai friend, Suebsak, who replies: "The mirrors are to reflect and prevent the evil spirits from entering the temple. The wind chimes on the eaves of the temples make a spiritual music that goes all the way to Heaven. Elephants bring luck and fortune and perhaps the peacock is significant to the Dai but not to us in Thailand."

Monks in Market In the markets the small, tough, old Miao women in their heavily embroidered caps, jackets, short skirts and leggings look like warriors from the hills. Many of them are barefooted, some wear green army plimsolls, some thin sandals of leather. Other subgroups of Miao are classified according to their dress: Black, Red, White, Blue, Long-Horned and Flowery Miao.

I had seen them travelling in Fujian wearing, making and selling their ornate silver jewellery which has become their trademark. They used to melt coins to make their jewellery but recently the Chinese Government has begun to give them an annual silver stipend. Nowadays though, much of their jewellery for sale is made from an alloy. Originally from north of the Yellow River they have migrated south into Laos, Thailand and Vietnam where they are known as the Hmong.

The Biblical flood also features in Miao oral tradition which says that the first humans were hatched by a mythical bird and that the sky is propped up by twelve silver pillars. Though a few converted to Christianity in the 19th century, most have retained their animist beliefs and ancestor worship.

I ask a few people in these areas, "What people are you?" They usually reply, "I am Yunnan people," rather than, "I am Chinese." After hundreds of generations of living in Dragon Country, they still think of themselves as Yunnan people.


Back to a Trini View of China


North-west China: The road to Tibet - Lugu Lake | The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Southern Route

The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Northern Route | North-west China : The Silk Road | China : The Centre of the World

Journey to Shangri La: Yunnan | Journey to Shangri La: Dali | Journey to Shangri La: Lijiang

Journey to Shangri La: Zhongdian & Deqin | The Year of the Dragon

All credits to Jiang He Feng - Education 2001