Beset by anxiety and uncertainty, with an undercurrent of fear, I sat at my desk. There was no desire or energy to work and indeed there was no work to do. No one in town or in the villages seemed to be interested in anything, much less in co-operatives. People whispered and talked in small groups and then went about their business listlessly. Suddenly, in my perplexity, I decided to go and find out from my trusted and intimate friend Wuhan what was really happening. He was well connected both in town and in the villages and surely he could enlighten and advise me. At that moment there was a sound of steps on my staircase and Wuhan himself entered. It was an almost unbelievable coincidence, a real case of telepathy. He said he had come to invite me to his village on the morrow as he was performing the Muan Peu ceremony. He had no time now to talk, he added, as he had to buy incense and other things for the ceremony and to hurry back home to make the necessary preparations.

I left the house very early next morning and was at Wuhan’s farm before ten o’clock. As was the custom, he spent the night fasting with some friends and dtombas at the holy place and was now fully dressed for the ritual. We proceeded to the holy place, which every Nakhi village has for the purpose of these sacrifices. It was a small clearing, and was enclosed by a grove of age-old trees surrounded by a broad wall of boulders and stones, at one end of which stood a long altar also made of rough stones. There on the altar, between two candlesticks, was a triangular ploughshare and offerings of grain. Special incense sticks of gigantic size stood on both sides of the altar. Wuhan prostrated himself several times before the altar, holding incense sticks in his clasped hands.

Such was the simple ceremony, but it was one of great importance and solemnity among the Nakhi. Only the elder male in the family was entitled to perform it — the father or, if he were dead, the son. Different clans of the Nakhi performed this ceremony at different times. Wuhan belonged to the famous Gvghugh clan, whilst some of the villagers were of the Gvdza clan.

In this sacred ceremony the head of the family made a sacrifice to Heaven, symbolized by the mystic Mount Somero, the Centre of the Universe, where God and His lieutenants, the lesser deities, dwell. The triangular ploughshare represented Mount Somero in a visible form. The bountiful Heaven was humbly thanked for the plentiful harvest of grain and other foodstuffs, the continued prosperity and the health of the family and the domestic harmony it had vouchsafed during the past year, and was implored not to withhold its favours to the family during the current year.

The same kind of ceremony was practised by the Black Lolos and other members of the Nakhi race, collectively known as the Chiang. The origin of the ceremony is as old as mankind itself and antedates all known religions. It was the same type of sacrifice with the same purpose as that related in the Bible when, at the dawn of the human race, Cain and Abel sacrificed the fruits of their labour, and when Noah, after the landing of his ark, thanked God in a similar manner. It was the harvest festival practised by all races at all times of their history. It was practised by the Emperor of China, who sacrificed in great humility at the resplendent Temple of Heaven in Peking, and it is practised now, although in a slightly different form but with the same intent, by the Eastern Orthodox Church during the evening service when the priest, blessing the bread, oil and wine, thanks God for His abundance, love and great mercies and invokes His blessings for the future. It was made a focal point in the beautiful liturgy of St John Chrysostom, ‘Thine from Thine to Thee from All and for All.’

A feast, at which the sacrificial food was utilized, always followed the Muan Peu ceremony, but only close relatives and members of the clan were invited. When the guests had gone and we remained alone I broached the subject of my worries to Wuhan.

‘Wuhan,’ I said, ‘we have been good and intimate friends for a very long time and I want you to tell me absolutely frankly what is happening in Likiang, what do you think will happen and what can I do? I feel worried and unhappy.’

He stared at the ceiling for a long time. Then he leaned towards me and began to talk in a lowered voice, although there was nobody around except his old mother and wife, neither of whom knew English or Chinese. He explained to me that the mysterious reformers at Chienchwang, Erhyuen and Paoshan were the Communist advance guards who came to infiltrate among the population and pave the way for the ‘liberation’ of that part of Yunnan ahead of the arrival of the regular Red armies which were moving from Szechuan and Kweichow. At the moment Likiang was already infiltrated and everything was ready for the coup; they were waiting only for the arrival of certain important leaders, who were coming in secret from Kunming. He said it would be a matter of a week or two, or perhaps even a few days, before the city officially ‘turned over’. He himself did not know much about communism or communistic principles and tactics. However, he thought, there might be trouble all around. In his opinion the best course for me would be to go to Kunming and stay there for a while to see what happened. We parted in sadness — a premonition, perhaps, that it was my last visit to this peaceful and happy farmstead.

I returned home in a very gloomy mood. Likiang was changing day by day; it was filled with an atmosphere unclean, murky and pregnant, and I was afraid lest it gave birth to a phantasmagoria of the things one desired least but was unable to avoid.

I stayed at home most of the time. Somehow I now had little desire to go out in the streets. The wine-shops of Madame Lee, Madame Yang and Madame Ho were no longer the open gates through which I had entered the life of Likiang, the nursery of friendships. No longer were they, for me, centres of interest and knowledge, even though through their windows new kinds of strangers were to be seen passing in the streets. They passed with grave and cold faces. There was a suggestion of ruthlessness and arrogance as they peremptorily parted the crowds to make their way. I wanted to do something and could not. I lost my appetite .and could not sleep well. Thoughts whirled in my brain day and night. Was this a new crisis in my own life also? Did I have to go on the road again? Where to, how and when? The idea of leaving Likiang, perhaps for ever, appeared intolerable. Nowhere in my turbulent life had I tasted such peace and such happiness as in Likiang. To me it was paradise. I thought I had worked hard to win it, and yet it seemed to be slipping away. I knew it was a paradise to me only and I never tried to convert those outside to my private belief or induce them to visit me. In spite of my long residence here and in China, I was still Western enough to realize that the idea of ‘earthly paradise’ was not the same in the West. In Likiang there were no hotels, no cinemas, few bodily comforts, no funicular to the top of Mount Satseto and no natives to ‘perform’ for a tourist’s fee; in contrast there was the ever-present danger of disease to constitutions weakened by too much hygiene.

My happiness in Likiang did not spring only from an idle enjoyment of the flowers and their scent, of the brilliance of ever-changing snow peaks and of a succession of feasts. Neither was it in the absorption in my work with co-operatives or in service to the sick and poor. It was in an even balancing of these two aspects of life, but to become perfect it needed the belief in the love and goodness of God and the friendship and trust of the simple and honest people among whom I lived. When these things had been granted me, I felt at last at peace with the world and, what is more important, with myself. I believe that this sort of happiness is perhaps a foreshadowing of the true paradise, unlike what is pictured by the theologians of many religions. Who would want a paradise resembling a cafe de luxe where the departed can enjoy food and drinks free of charge throughout eternity whilst contemplating the splendours of heavenly scenery? And it is no substitute for paradise to be eternally preoccupied with sickness, misery, filth and rags. Paradise is perhaps the transformation of both through wisdom and love and the knowledge that the work has been well done.

At last the dreaded day arrived. It was announced that Likiang had been ‘liberated’. A Communist Executive Committee was promptly established and took over. The magistrate was arrested along with a number of town elders. The head of the local militia, Captain Yang, fled and they arrested his third wife. All the scamps and the village bullies, who had not done a stroke of honest work in their life, suddenly blossomed forth as the accredited members of the Communist Party, and swaggered with special red armbands and badges and the peculiar caps with duckbill visors which seemed to be the hallmark of a Chinese Red.

I was introduced to the Executive Committee. It consisted of a number of newly arrived members of the Paoshan Liberation group. They were some of the dreaded Makung (Malayan Communists), Chinese of a peculiarly uncouth and brutal-looking type, reminding me of certain gangsters who were employed as truck drivers on the Burma Road. They had trekked into Paoshan direct from Malaya, passing through Chiengmai in Siam, which was the favourite route between Yunnan and Malaya for the Communist agents. Some of these to whom I spoke had a pretty good knowledge of Russian and evidently had had their training in the U.S.S.R. A few other members were, surprisingly, Nakhi whom I had not known before, and who had recently arrived from Peking where they had probably been trusted officials of the Red Government. They were quite civil and looked much more intelligent and cultured than the Malayans, and seemed to have more authority.

The debut of the new government was the shooting of Dr Lee’s brother, that wretch who had nearly poisoned me with chloroform at a party. Everybody had to go to witness this execution. I did not go as I am not a lover of morbid sights, and was later fined two dollars for non-attendance. Afterwards I had to pay many fines for this sort of offence. Next day there was a procession of the elders and others accused of opium-smoking and other crimes against the people. The wife of Captain Yang was among them. With bound hands they shuffled along, carrying on their backs huge placards announcing the nature of their crimes. It was a sorry and pitiful sight.

To celebrate the ‘liberation’ a mammoth meeting was arranged on the racecourse which everybody had to attend. After the meeting, carrying hundreds of banners and placards with the images of Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, the crowd passed through Main Street. Just at that very moment there occurred a terrific thunderstorm and they marched, drenched to the bone, while the hastily painted Mao Tse Tung and Stalin dissolved on their banners under the deluge.

To protect the revolution, the militia had been disarmed first and then reorganized into a new unit, a real little army, to which all the young men now belonged. Not to be outdone, and in the spirit of the new equality of sexes, many girls dressed in the soldiers’ blue uniforms, cut off their hair and became soldiers too, staying at the same barracks and eating together with the men. Yet there was no suggestion of immorality because love was prohibited along with wine and fine food. These recruits were given very little to eat and what there was was very poor. However, to forestall grumbling, the officers ate together with the men, and these tactics went well with the village bumpkins, but others were not deceived. The officers were members of the Executive Committee which held its sessions always in the dead of night; and these sessions were not held on empty stomachs, for sumptuous dinners, wine and even opium preceded the business.

Many of my village friends were among the recruits and they always found time to sneak into my house through the back door which was quite close to the barracks on the hill. They were as hungry as dogs and we always kept something for them to eat such as a rich soup or fat pork with rice. They had not a cent between them and I used to make them small loans, enough at least for cigarettes.

Three days after the liberation parade, Dr Rock arrived by chartered plane on one of his periodical visits. I had had no means of advising him beforehand of the political changes and he nearly collapsed as I greeted him with the words, ‘Welcome to the Red Paradise!’ He was treated civilly, although they searched his baggage, and the funds he brought with him were not confiscated. We spent the night at a village near the airport and went to town next morning. We felt isolated amidst this new set-up and saw each other almost every day to exchange the latest news.

Life in Likiang had changed almost beyond recognition. There were daily parades of boys and girls everywhere with the eternal singing of the tune of ‘John Brown’s Body’ and hymns of praise for Mao Tse Tung. Old Nakhi dances were prohibited and replaced by the new Communist dances which were neither attractive nor becoming. Many people donned the blue uniforms. Hired labour was abolished and all the village people had to work collectively. After their work, though tired and sleepy, they had to listen to interminable indoctrination talks at daily meetings and afterwards to dance the compulsory Communist dances. It was prohibited to eat chicken and pork and drink wine, except very occasionally. Poor villagers no longer found buyers in town for their eggs, poultry and pork, and even the firewood was not much in demand. They had to return to their villages without the money they hoped to obtain from the sale of their products for other pressing needs.

There was at the time in Likiang a group of very poor Lotien boys who usually came for seasonal farm work. Under the new regulations they could not be engaged as they were hired labour. They were desperate and starving, without money or food and clothed only in a few rags. I could not stand the sight of their suffering and despair and invited all of them to my house to stay for a few days. I fed them, supplied them with such clothing as I could find and gave them enough money to enable them to return to Lotien.

There were continual arrests, usually in the dead of night, decreed by the dread Executive Committee, and secret executions. It was reported that an old man at Boashi village was shot by a squad commanded by his own son.

The local merchants had been ‘fined’ and had to pay out thousands of dollars to the Executive Committee. These ‘fines’ or ‘contributions’ were not fixed and further levies were hinted at. The failure to pay up was a signal for the arrest of the victim and probable liquidation at a future date. Not a few merchants had already been arrested and their execution was pending; and the magistrate was also on the list. The inveterate opium smokers and elders were either locked up in jail or permitted to buy their freedom by further stupendous ‘fines’. The local jeunesse doree were also recruited into the militia and had to exercise and march on almost empty stomachs. All of them had been opium smokers and I can well imagine their sufferings.

The dtombas were proscribed and many of them lived in fear of their lives, expecting to be arrested any moment and executed. The lamaseries were desecrated, images and priceless tankas burned or smashed, sutras destroyed and lamas either arrested or scattered. The lamasery halls were declared to be the future seats of popular schools, as if there were not enough buildings elsewhere for this purpose. The temple of the god Saddok was likewise desecrated and everything inside it smashed. Lenin’s dictum, ‘Religion is the opium of masses’, was probably more zealously enforced in Likiang than it had been in Russia.

One day a group of the new officials appeared at my gate and, without much ceremony, confiscated all the machinery and tools donated by America for the benefit of our co-operatives. They also took all my accounts and receipts for the loans we had made to them. Afterwards they proceeded to the co-operative societies themselves and confiscated their knitting and sewing machines which I had previously sold them officially on behalf of our office. I tried to find out the reason for such drastic and precipitate action. ‘All this belongs to the people now,’ the officials said. ‘We are going to create our own people’s co-operatives on a grand scale. Where a co-operative society of yours had thirty members, ours will have 3,000 members.’ What could I say in the face of such economic absurdity? But I pointed out that, as it was, the present co-operatives were for the people and of the people and the machinery and tools were imported for them. That meant nothing. A couple of men, their eyes aflame with greed, attempted to search my private rooms and carry away my stock of medicines. Others, perhaps still retaining a spark of decency, dissuaded them. I told them they were at liberty to take anything they coveted, even my personal belongings.

After these incidents and several remarks, overheard from the Malayan members of the Executive Committee, that I was an agent of ‘Western Imperialism’, I at last decided that I must leave Likiang, and quickly, before the Russian advisers and the regular OGPU from Peking came. I talked it over with Dr Rock, who wanted to leave anyway for reasons of his health whilst the going was still good. We went to see the Executive Committee, and if there was any opposition to our departure from the Malayan members, it was quickly quashed by the Nakhi members who were clearly their superiors. Dr Rock and myself still had the affection and respect of the Likiang people and our prestige was high. The committee authorized our departure by chartered plane, but on the condition that it should bring from Kunming several thousand silver dollars which the government there owed to Likiang teachers. But communications with Kunming had been severed, so Dr Rock had to send a runner to Tali to send the telegram. We waited anxiously. A reply finally came that the plane would pick us up on the 24th or 25th of July.

I never mentioned to anybody that I was going away for good. I only said that I was going to Kunming to fetch the new consignment of medicine which had arrived there for us from the International Red Cross in Chungking. Even when packing I took with me only my typewriter and a suitcase with my clothing and a few books. I had to abandon my library, victrola, medicines and many other belongings. Dr Rock likewise left many treasures behind.

For two days I went round the town talking to friends and acquaintances, saying good-bye to them. Even to my closest friends I did not say that I was not returning, but they were not stupid and I knew they sensed it. I sat for a little while with old Madame Lee. She said her shop was as dead as a doornail and she did not know what to do now. Wine was prohibited and she did not dare to make new stocks or sell old ones. Cordially she wished me good luck and blessings in her own way. Madame Yang was upset and tearful; the committee was after a nephew of hers suspected of being pro-Kuomintang. She was genuinely sorry to see me go. The ‘merry girls’ appeared funny in their male military uniform; the soldiers’ caps gave them, however, a coquettish look. They were rather insolent and full of their own importance, but even they became sorry when I told them I was going away, and all said they hoped that I would return from Kunming soon. Madame Ho looked gloomy and worried. She had had to pay a heavy contribution to the committee, and they were likely to come for more any day.

Wuhan came in the evening. He was terribly worried. The village scoundrels, now in the flush of their power, were after him and his little fortune. His brother-in-law, gentle and inoffensive Wuhsiha, was strung from a tree on the accusation of his wife, who disliked him because of his inborn sexual weakness. It was shocking news. I bade him go back and not bother about seeing me off. We had a very touching farewell. Howenhua, a friend of mine, came trembling and reported that his old father, a landlord at Chiho, was shot by the village committee. Although Likiang still maintained its outward appearances, there was a naked reign of terror in the villages, especially at Boashi, which I had to pass the next day.

In the morning it was raining heavily. My cook was very ill. Hozuchi picked up my meagre baggage, put it on his basket and we started for the airfield forty-five li away. Only Wuhsien dared to accompany us; he was a devoted friend. But the downpour was too heavy, the roads flooded and I persuaded him to return. Hozuchi and I plodded on and on and reached the village by the airfield late in the afternoon. Dr Rock was already there. We tried our best to dry our drenched clothing by the fire. Outside the house was guarded by village militia as if we were criminals.

Next day we went to the field early. It was a bright, sunny day, and we thought the plane must surely come. The day dragged on until, about sunset, we returned to the village deeply disappointed. Just as we were on the point of unpacking our bedding, there was a roar and the plane landed. We rushed back to the field. Some newcomers were disembarking and there were many heavy chests on board with the silver brought for the schools. There was no time to be lost. The chests were dragged off the runway. We piled our baggage in and I said good-bye to the tearful Hozuchi, pressing some money into his hand. The field was ringed by the village militia and by the curious. I looked at the Snow Peak, perhaps, I thought, for the last time. Had I but known the future at that moment! For in December of 1952 this great mountain convulsed and split. Tremendous shocks rocked Likiang and the towns and villages as far as Hoking and Erhyuen and even more remote districts. For a whole week the earth heaved and trembled. The terrified people rushed to the fields and forests for safety and lived there in whatever clothing they had been wearing, at the mercy of the elements. Returning to the city they found havoc, and the houses which had not been levelled were plundered by robbers. Boashi and Lashiba, the two villages which saw so many bloody excesses by the Reds, were totally destroyed. Chienchwang had not a house standing; even its city walls collapsed. Hoking was also totally destroyed. No wonder the superstitious people thought it was a retribution for the destruction of the temple of Saddok, titulary deity of the Snow Mountain and of Likiang.

The sun had already dipped behind the towering peak of Mount Satseto, but its parting rays still painted in orange and gold the eternal ice and snows of its fan-shaped crown. Glaciers became dark blue in gathering shadows. The silver Dakota, resting on the flower-strewn alpine meadow, looked portentous and mysterious, a messenger of the gods sent from outer space. Like the fabulous Garuda, it had come to snatch us up, to take us into the unknown, and to plunge us into a new way of living…. So this was the end of the dream that had come true, to the happiness that passed all understanding.

The shadows were thickening. It was becoming cold. The terrific blasts of wind, which usually come after sunset, were already roaring down the great mountain. No time must be lost lest disaster should overcome the courageous man-made bird which dared to approach the Throne of the Gods. There was a last wave of the hand to friends, and local Nakhi peasants and lamas who were there to see us off. The propellers began to revolve. With misty eyes we fastened our belts. The plane taxied to the far end of the alpine meadow and then started with a roar. A crowd of Nakhi and Tibetans waved to us as we ran down the valley and rose into the air. Slowly we passed our beloved Likiang, with its tiled roofs and running streams, and started climbing to cross the Nanshan Range. The last glimpse was of the great River of the Golden Sand winding through its deep gorge amid the sea of mountains. Then it became dark.

Thus, due to political upheavals, ended my stay, of almost nine years, in the little-known and all but forgotten ancient Nakhi Kingdom of south-west China. Even during my youth spent in Moscow and Paris I had been unaccountably attracted to Asia, her vast, little-explored mountains and her strange peoples and, especially, to mysterious Tibet. The Fates, stern to me in many other ways, have been kind in vouchsafing me long travels in Asia which even now, I have a feeling, are not at an end. I had always dreamed of rinding, and living in that beautiful place, shut off from the world by its great mountains, which years later James Hilton conceived in his novel Lost Horizon. His hero found his ‘Shangri-La’ by accident. I found mine, by design and perseverance, in Likiang.

Singapore, Summer 1955


The year 1949 opened inauspiciously. The dark clouds of civil strife, upheavals and hatred hovered on the horizon. The Nationalist regime was righting a rearguard action and its control was shrinking rapidly. Yunnan itself was in the balance. Its powerful and ruthless, though just and popular, governor had been replaced by a general, who had been born outside south-west China and knew nothing of its problems. He did nothing for this remote province except plunder the ex-governor’s fortune of gold and silver and put his nominees in the Provincial Government. At one time the province came near to open revolt and the Central Government appointed as governor the nephew of the former strong man. But it was too late — the damage had been done — and the uncle, smarting from humiliation and the loss of his vast fortune, threw in his lot openly with the Red regime already entrenched in Peking. Bands of Communist guerrillas roamed through the province, seizing a small town here and a village there. Although Likiang was still peaceful there was restive-ness in the air as caravans brought more and more news of troubles elsewhere.

I believe it was in March that the jolly, roly-poly Pacification Commissioner went to Yungpei, a prosperous town across the Yangtze River, some three or four days east by caravan. There was some dispute there and, as it was a territory under his jurisdiction, the commissioner thought that his presence and mediation would help to settle it. In a fortnight or so Likiang was stunned by the news that there was an uprising at Yungpei, engineered by an army officer named Lokyun. This Lokyun, it was rumoured, had interned the Pacification Commissioner and disarmed his bodyguards.

There was little reliable news, but in a week or so the caravan traffic to Yungpei ceased as the caravan men reported that their cargoes were being plundered there. The iron-chain bridge over the Yangtze River was closed to commercial traffic and a heavy guard posted at the Likiang end of it.

Lokyun himself was evidently a crafty fellow. He did not admit that anything was out of order at Yungpei. Telegrams, signed by the commissioner, sending orders to the Likiang authorities continued to arrive regularly as the telegraph line remained undamaged, but the Likiang magistrate and elders felt sure that these messages had been sent by the commissioner under duress.

Having evidently consolidated his hold on Yungpei, Lokyun made the next tactical move. A long message was sent to the Likiang Government ostensibly from the Pacification Commissioner, bearing as it did his seal. It informed the government that Lokyun, burning with fierce patriotism and righteousness, had taken over the government and affairs at Yungpei and had decided to ‘liberate’ at least north-western Yunnan from corrupt officials, both Central and Provincial, to introduce just and incorruptible local self-administration (under his authority, naturally) and to lay down a new deal for the poor and under-privileged. He (the commissioner) himself was persuaded of the integrity and high motives of Lokyun; he heartily endorsed this idealistic movement, and would assist it with all the power at his command. Furthermore, the message continued, the armed forces and people of Yungpei were filled with brotherly love and sympathy towards the brave and noble people of the sister city of Likiang, and were determined to help them to overthrow the present corrupt and ineffective administration and the dominance of powerful and rapacious landlords and merchants.

The rambling document concluded with the assurance that Lokyun’s liberation movement had nothing to do either with the Communists or Nationalists, but was a spontaneous growth generated by the discontent and misery of the oppressed people of Yunnan. The government and people of Likiang were respectfully requested to welcome the liberation force which would be dispatched in the near future and treat its members as their nearest and dearest brothers.

There was some confusion among the authorities and people of Likiang upon receipt of this lengthy message. Some people thought that the Pacification Commissioner was still in authority; perhaps it was a genuine document really sent by him of his own free will; after all, he was not a fool and, if he said the man was honourable and idealistic, it might indeed be so. Perhaps it was an emergence of another strong man on the provincial stage. Such phenomena in Chinese national and provincial histories were by no means rare. If Lokyun was indeed such a man, perhaps it might be better to join up with him at the outset and thus be in a favourable position when his rule over the province had been firmly established. Others, more sceptical, advised caution and a wait-and-see policy. After all, they argued, Lokyun was not a Nakhi and his army was composed of outside Chinese. Why should the Nakhi submit precipitately to a stranger’s yoke? Besides, Likiang was the biggest and richest city in the region and quite a prize if Lokyun’s forces, probably little disciplined, should decide to help themselves. Likiang had already experienced in its long history such ‘friendly’ invasions.

Cautious counsels prevailed and it was decided to find out more about the merits of the new movement. A telegram was dispatched to the Pacification Commissioner asking him to come to Likiang alone and tell the city more about the advantages and benefits of the movement and the virtues of its comparatively unknown leader. There was no reply for several days. In the meantime, the cunning Nakhi sent spies to Yungpei, who returned in a few days in great alarm. Yungpei had been thoroughly looted, they reported, all leading citizens were under detention and the commissioner was kept by Lokyun in isolation. Gloom descended on Likiang, and the people in the shops and streets talked of nothing but Lokyun. Soon a new message was flashed from Yungpei.

The Pacification Commissioner wired that, in response to the Likiang Government’s request, he was coming to Likiang with Lokyun as his most valued guest. As a mark of respect for so famous and honoured a city as Likiang, an escort of honour of some 10,000 picked troops would accompany them.

Great was the consternation in town. Many shop-owners disappeared from behind their counters, for being practical women they began collecting into the back room all their most valuable goods, and we could see that our neighbours were starting to pack. Small caravans of horses and women with heavy bundles streamed furtively out of town towards the Snow Mountain, lamaseries or Lapo where, they thought, their valuables would be safer in the hands of relatives and friends if the worst came to the worst. Then a big gathering of the people was summoned by the magistrate and other high officials. There was a long and heated discussion about Lokyun’s imminent arrival with so strong an army. At last a unanimous decision was taken. Likiang should not surrender; Likiang must fight; all Nakhi would fight-both men and women. A message to this effect was wired to the Pacification Commissioner, aimed, of course, at Lokyun, and messages also sent to the sister cities of Hoking, Chienchwang and Tali. Hoking, in particular, was asked to join in the resistance.

A mobilization order was issued asking every able-bodied Nakhi to come to Likiang from his village, bringing whatever arms he could find, his bedding and a small store of necessary provisions. Another message was sent by runner to Chungdien, asking the Tibetans to help. This last step was taken only after much deliberation, for the Tibetans were always a dangerous ally. Were the city defeated and captured by Lokyun’s men, Tibetans would help them to plunder it. If Lokyun was defeated, they might decide to remain in Likiang just the same and help themselves to whatever they liked. But they were fierce and fearless fighters and as loyal to the Nakhi cause as the Nakhi themselves. The very mention that the Tibetans were on the march seldom failed to put the fear of God in the hearts of an enemy. It was largely for this psychological reason that the decision to invite the Tibetans was made.

News and rumours of the invasion started to pour in daily, then hourly. At first it was reported that Lokyun was coming with 10,000 troops; next day it was 20,000; then it was 40,000, until a grandiose total of 100,000 was freely discussed in the streets. It was impressive to watch the inborn courage, bravery and magnificent warrior spirit of the Nakhi which now displayed itself. There was no longer panic or confusion; only confidence, discipline, order and affectionate solidarity. They treated each other as a brother or a sister, who had gathered together to protect the beloved family.

The first step was to remove the flooring and then to dismantle the chains of the great suspension bridge over the Yangtze. They were detached from the boulders, to which they had been anchored on the other side of the river and they clanged heavily as they dropped into the turbulent stream. A series of patrols were posted on the bank to prevent a crossing by the ferries which were removed to the near side of the river. The villagers began pouring in from plains and mountains. Some carried heavy antique muskets reminiscent of the Three Musketeers’ days; others had flint-lock guns; many carried bows and arrows, spears and swords, halberds and lances and other arms of bygone ages. Comparatively few had up-to-date rifles and revolvers. There were some firearms at the yamen and these were quickly distributed. Most of the pangchinmei came forward and joined their brothers and sweethearts. In addition to the baskets, in which they carried their men’s provisions and blankets, these girls also brought their own weapons such as rifles, spears, swords or just long, sharp knives. All the newcomers were hospitably quartered by the citizens and my house too became like a barracks. Of course, we all had to feed them, but it was not too onerous, and they were polite, friendly and uncomplaining.

Soon it was reported that the invasion units had been sighted on the other side of the river. Baffled and disconcerted by the Nakhi’s war-like measures and their hostile attitude, the invaders moved hesitantly down the river towards Hoking. Ultimatum after ultimatum poured into Likiang demanding unconditional surrender. The reply from the Nakhi always was, ‘Come and take us if you can.’ Only Hoking sent a cowardly message of welcome and submission, promising Lokyun open gates and hospitality. The stalemate continued for three days.

In the meantime the Chungdien Tibetans arrived. They were hefty and hearty fellows, ferocious-looking and very picturesque. A cavalry unit, armed with rifles, spears and swords, they swaggered through the town on their shaggy ponies. They invaded my house, under the pretext of needing treatment for most varied ailments, and consumed many a large jar of ara (white wine) which I had the foresight to prepare. My cook was in a panic and rushed to me almost hourly, urging me to send my things away to a friend of his in a village for safe keeping, or at least to let him bury my silver dollars in a pot under the privy. I told him not to make a fool of himself. He was free, I added, to do anything he wanted with his own fortune. But I was not particularly happy about the situation, though I had a good deal of confidence in the Nakhi and Tibetans and their magnificent determination to resist at all costs. If Likiang was to be lost, I wanted to share their humiliation and misfortune as I had shared, during so many years, their life and their happiness.

At last the critical moment arrived. Under cover of darkness, Lokyun’s forces crossed the river in specially constructed ferries opposite Hoking. From that point it was only a short march to that town across a mountain range. Both the Nakhi and Tibetans moved down the valley to Chiho, some forty li away, where the border between the ancient Kingdom of Mu and the former Minkia states (now Hoking district) lay. Likiang looked forlorn and abandoned. The shops were shuttered and few people appeared in the street. Every member of my ‘Children’s Co-operative’ went to the front, arming themselves, like the men from our village, with the steel axes which I had previously received from Kunming and with other tools and machinery sent as part of the American assistance programme to our Co-operative Movement. I sat alone in our abandoned office. All the clerks, Hozuchi and the old couple’s son went away to fight. Only my cook and myself were left.

Under the weight of an intolerable tension and anxiety I went to Madame Lee’s shop. It was shuttered, but the old lady was there. She was calm, though her face looked worried. She said the people were now waiting to hear how Hoking was treated by the ‘great liberator’ Lokyun. We did not have to wait long. As I came to her place next day and sat sipping wine, the runners from the south came into the city. Very soon the truth was known and the people gathered in small groups excitedly discussing the news. As many in Likiang had suspected, Lokyun was no liberator and no revolutionary. He was a brigand, a robber of utmost rapacity the like of whom had not been seen in Yunnan for many decades. On entering Hoking, he extorted enormous sums of money from the merchants and wealthy landlords. His men looted and plundered to their hearts’ content. The shuttered shops were smashed with axes and silks and satins were scattered knee-deep in the streets. In the streets the women had their gold earrings torn off their ears, the men had their rings snatched from their fingers and their jackets and trousers pulled off. Mirrors, clock, clothing, utensils and other articles were carried off in heaps and sometimes scattered by the roadside and in ditches. The whole town was left as a shell of its former self. So Likiang now knew what to expect. Even old Madame Lee was infused with a warrior spirit and picked up her big chopper threateningly when somebody talked of Lokyun.

Flushed with their ‘bloodless and easy’ victory over chicken-hearted Hoking, the robbers now advanced on Likiang, with most insolent threats. They abandoned all pretence and openly declared what they would do to Likiang when they had taken the city. They appealed to the cupidity of the poorer Nakhi, asking them to join up with them and afterwards share the loot.

When they reached the Nakhi defence lines a great battle ensued. It was not true that the brigands numbered 100,000 or even 10,000. Perhaps the regular band was in the neighbourhood of 5,000 Yungpei men. The rest were their camp-followers — relatives and friends, mostly women, boys and the like who picked up the loot, as it came, and assisted to transport it to the other side of the river whence it was forwarded home. They were like the ravens and ghouls which wait for the end of the battle to snatch what is left. The Nakhi men fought bravely and well, and the girls by their sides distinguished themselves by their ferocity and fearlessness. It was reported that one pangchinmei killed five robbers with her own hands. The charge by the Tibetan cavalry rounded off the Nakhi attack. The brigands were utterly defeated and driven back to the gates of Hoking. Lokyun escaped, but the fat Pacification Commissioner was captured and brought back to Likiang. The wounded returned to the city and I spent all my time dressing their injuries, and for a couple of days my house looked like a hospital.

The inglorious Hoking now requested the Nakhi to pursue the robbers across the river and to recapture their loot. However, it was decided not to take any action as Hoking had previously refused to support Likiang in united action.

When the Nakhi and Tibetans made sure that the robbers had gone they returned to Likiang and were welcomed with open arms. There was a series of feasts for the victors and they received all kinds of gifts. The Tibetans lingered for a fortnight, still not being sure of the situation. If they had something else on their mind, they did not show it. Anyway, they were pacified and made happy with feasts and wine and gifts of cloth and provisions. Finally they received a sizable present of hard cash which, to them, was a satisfactory recompense for their sacrifices. Well satisfied, they returned to their native Chungdien.

The defeated brigands and their leader Lokyun, in their frenzy, rushed across the mountains from Hoking and looted Chienchwang. Still not satisfied, they went further to Erhyuen, where they took the little town by surprise. Eye-witnesses told me afterwards how the bandits took every room in Mr Ma’s new mansion apart, looking for gold and jewellery. What they could not take away, they destroyed, and large bevelled mirrors were smashed just for the fun of it. They did not even leave our Butter-making Co-operative alone. They smashed everything to bits in the milk room. I really do not know what possessed them to take away the cream separator which was so useless to them and which had given me so much work; but they carried the heavy machine for almost five miles and then dumped it into a ditch by the lake. Mr Ma told me afterwards that he was sure they thought it to be a new kind of machine-gun.

The unfortunate Pacification Commissioner was, of course, very ashamed of the role he had been forced to play in this unfortunate affair. It was a very severe loss of face as far as Likiang was concerned, but it was not irreparable, for after all the town of Likiang had not been harmed. No doubt he was taunted and reproached by the magistrate and Likiang elders, but from all accounts their attitude was surprisingly lenient. The situation at Hoking was different. Hoking had been invaded, looted and devastated, and the people there laid all the blame on the commissioner. They now claimed that they had opened the gates of the city to Lokyun only on the strength of the written assurances signed by the commissioner himself; otherwise, like Likiang, they would have resisted. Besides, the commissioner was a Hoking resident himself and thus one of its trusted elders. Actually he was from a district near Tali lake but had bought a mansion and had long established himself at Hoking. Thus the Hoking people claimed that he had betrayed them doubly, both in his official capacity and as an elder and guardian of Hoking. They demanded from the Likiang authorities his extradition to Hoking for whatever punishment they decided. In the meantime they held his family there as hostages. This was vastly more serious than his position in Likiang. With the people of Hoking he had lost face utterly and irretrievably; nor could he offer any explanation to the Governor in Kunming. He had to go down to Hoking, and he went. His house was about ten li before reaching Hoking. He said he was tired by long travel and wanted to rest before entering the city. He retired to his study. An hour later a shot was heard. When they opened the door they found him dead, sitting before his desk with a bullet in his head.

I was very sorry to hear of the old commissioner’s passing. He was a kindly old man and he was very good to me and my co-operatives. Whenever there was any trouble or unpleasantness he always tried to smooth matters over for me and he was very helpful with documents and passes whenever I had to travel to Kunming. The destruction of my Butter-making Co-operative at Erhyuen and the devastation wrought on that pretty little place made me very sad, and it seemed like a personal loss. It seemed part of me — a real product of my own enterprise and sweat, and a really new industry in that part of the country.

Somehow things had changed and Likiang was not quite the same after this harrowing experience. The old sense of security and certainty had gone, and the people had lost some of their zest for work and even for play. Lokyun was gone but the damage he had done lingered. Hoking market was dead and so was Chienchwang’s and Erhyuen’s. People had lost money and goods, and somehow they seemed to have lost heart too. No one cared to buy or sell. There was unrest everywhere, petty robberies and a flood of rumours. The caravan roads, never too safe before, further deteriorated with the appearance of small groups of bandits — well armed and seemingly unafraid of anything. Some said they were the remnants of the Lokyun band; others thought they were something else. The telephone line to Hoking had been repaired, but the telegraph line to Kunming was still blocked by the retreating brigands. The arms issued by government to the villagers had not been returned. People said they expected more trouble. Why? Where? When? No one knew and yet there was tension and suspense. Something was expected, something new — something fearful perhaps.

Soon there were rumours in the street that Chienchwang had ‘turned over’. What it exactly meant people themselves did not quite know. They said that Paoshan on the Burma Road had ‘turned over’ quite a long time ago, perhaps a month or two. Now a group of men from that place had reached Erhyuen, ‘turned it over* and were at present in Chienchwang. Who were these men? Nobody was certain. Were they the Communists? No, they themselves said they were not. Yet they wore a sort of uniform, a very simple one of indigo blue colour, and had a peculiar cap on their heads. They proclaimed the end of the landlords, the supremacy of the poor people and the abolition of luxurious living. As a first step, it was reported, they requisitioned some of the best houses and imposed a strict curfew on the town. No one was permitted to leave without permission, and usually such a permit was withheld from the landlords. Passing caravans were searched by them and certain goods and arms were taken. They prohibited the use of sedan chairs to all men under sixty and some travellers from Likiang to Hsiakwan were brusquely pulled out of their chairs, made to pay off the bearers at the full rate to Hsiakwan and were told to continue their journey on foot. A committee of the poorest people had been elected and was ruling the place in close collaboration with this mysterious group of men.

Piecing these rumours and reports together I could not help feeling that I knew who the mysterious reformers were. The pattern of their work and actions was only too familiar. A dread foreboding filled my heart.


There were forty-five industrial co-operatives by the summer of 1949. They included wool-spinning, weaving and knitting societies, brassware and copperware societies, a Minkia furniture-making society, a dry-noodle society, a ploughshare-casting society, Tibetan leather and boot-making societies, and others. Two spinning and weaving co-operatives were run entirely by women and they were among the best. The chairman of one of them was an elderly woman of gigantic stature. She was illiterate but she watched all financial transactions with an eagle’s eye. She bought all the wool herself and the yarn was disposed of under her strict control and supervision. She ruled the members — twelve women and three men — with an iron hand and sometimes beat the men into insensibility for any delinquencies or excessive opium-smoking. But she was just and honest and the members adored her for her ability; moreover, they were making pots of money.

It was easy enough to supervise the co-operatives which were in town, but some were far away in villages or mountains, like the Copper-mining Society by the Yangtze, where I met the Black Lissu baroness, and to these I had to make long expeditions from time to time.

The Ngatze Iron-mining Co-operative was both a curiosity and an experiment. It was the largest and had forty-three members. There were Nakhi, Tibetans, Boa, Miao and Chungchia among the members, and one Chinese. That it survived for a number of years with such a membership was something of a miracle and it was an unusual experiment in multi-racial co-operation. Strangely enough, its members worked in considerable harmony and were consistently friendly towards each other and to me. It was presided over by a very energetic but roguish man named Taichizu — a Nakhi from Wobo, a few steps below Madame Lee’s wineshop in Main Street. He needed careful watching, but I was never able to prove that he was a crook and the members seemed to be content with his management. Perhaps he did a little opium traffic on the side with the Lolos, as Siaoliangshan was not far off, but after all, this was not such a serious crime in these parts. His co-operative was forty miles from Likiang and was not far from my Upper Ngatze Paper-making Society. However, the difference in location of these neighbouring co-operatives was tremendous. Tai’s mine was in a trench-like gorge perhaps only 4,000 feet above sea-level, and the Paper Co-operative was floating above it at 14,000 feet. I always combined my visit to the iron mine with one to the paper factory which by direct route was forty-eight miles from Likiang.

The trip to the Iron-mining Co-operative required some preparation. First of all, Tai and all the members there were very poor, and sometimes I thought they did not have a dollar between them. They had no bedding to spare, so I always took my own. Secondly, there was very little to eat there so that pork, vegetables and wine had to be brought from Likiang. It was really a two-day caravan journey, but as there was not a village or a hut between Likiang and Ngatze it had to be covered in one day. This made it a very strenuous trip. I always insisted on our departure from Likiang before dawn, never later than four o’clock, which permitted us, with a stop for lunch, to arrive at the iron mine about five o’clock in the afternoon. After five it became dark in the valleys and gorges and I was afraid of losing my footing on the path which weaved along a series of precipices.

Sometimes I rode on horseback, but more often I preferred to walk the whole way. Our little caravan consisted of three or four horses, carrying supplies and bedding, and two or three tribesmen from the co-operative, usually Tibetans or Miao who had come to town the previous day with their horses bringing pig-iron. It was a long and tedious walk towards the Snow Mountain, in front of which there was a long and smooth alpine meadow which nature provided as the airport for Likiang and where only the row of white stones to indicate the runway was made by man. Still higher, there was another long plain to cross. It was dotted with low shrubs, and basalt rocks as sharp as razors protruded through the grass and cut the animals’ hooves and men’s sandals unmercifully. At last the low ridges ahead closed into a spring in a hollow and the traditional resting place for the people and caravans going to and from Likiang. We built a small fire, warmed our babas and pre-cooked food, boiled tea and had a pleasant, long rest, taking time over our meal. Then the road passed through a pine forest carpeted with flowers. On one side there was Sepilome — the Cassia gorge — filled with trees which later rose to meet our road. It was mysterious and beautiful beyond words. Here it was called Mbergkvho or the Buffalo Horn defile, and on its left side was a vast cave in which, legend says, lived a letthisippu — a ghoul who appeared as a beautiful woman to guileless men, enticing and then devouring them. It was in this gorge that my office boy Hoshowen’s father had been chopped to pieces by robbers.

As the road climbed higher and higher the flowers increased in variety and beauty — lilies and dark blue tree asters, dark peonies, irises and ground orchids. At last we emerged on a vast plateau at Ngaba. Before us on the left was the whole Likiang Snow Range, its snow and ice-clad peaks glittering like a string of diamonds. Of these peaks the Gyinanvlv was the loveliest, with her glacier flowing down like a blue veil. Pines studded the great undulating plain, and peeping between them were the incomparable incarvilias with their blooms like crimson gloxinias. At 11,000 feet it was quite cold, and in winter Ngaba is covered with snow and the wind is so strong and icy that many poor people have died on the way. The road forked left to Taku, a pretty village on the Yangtze, and then right, where we soon entered a great forest. We began to descend, the forest becoming more and more beautiful. Moss hung like strands of hair from age-old trees; there were bright green clumps of bamboo and all kinds of creepers. It was cool and moist in the green darkness and alive with the sounds of animals; cascades splashed on the road and a distant roar of waterfalls shook the air which was heavy with the fragrance of giant rhododendrons in bloom and the scent of pines and spruces. Through the trees we could see for miles and miles below the torrents tumbling into green valleys and dark gorges, the vast expanse of forests and the emerald meadows on which here and there were the black dots of Lolo dwellings: and above all this floated the purple and white scintillating snow peaks, remote and inaccessible.

For many hours we crept down through this enchanted forest and came at last to the village of Ngatze, which was all an earthly paradise should be. It was particularly wonderful in winter months, when after the snow and icy winds of Ngaba — winter at its cruellest — you arrived here in a few hours to find roses smothering the houses, bees buzzing among the flowers and vivid butterflies fluttering everywhere. What a delight it was to pick from the vine or to eat a blood-red tomato, ripened in the warm sun, whilst right in front of you, through a gap in the green mountains, you could see a snowstorm raging between snow peaks. The village was in a green bowl, like a gem encased in a frame of forested mountains.

The road dipped down sharply once we left Ngatze. The deep thunder of a savage torrent somewhere in the deep trench into which we were almost literally falling came nearer, and zigzagging with infinite care we at last reached the mighty stream. Shaking the earth, it rushed, boiled and raged among the great rocks that hindered its path. This was the famous Gyipergyina — the Black and White Water, or Heipaishui in Chinese. Of all the mountain streams in Likiang it was the most powerful and the noisiest. We could see high up its parents — the White Water on the left and the Black Water on the right — combining their fury to give birth to this terrible child. It was still swollen by melted snows and rains and the roar was so deafening we could not talk to each other. Soon we reached the iron mine and were at home.

In spite of its ferocity I loved the Heipaishui and always looked forward to staying for a few days at the Iron-mining Co-operative. To me this powerful torrent was a living being and I spent hours listening to its thunderous conversation and contemplating its enormous energy and vitality. At night, when all other noises subsided, its thunder seemed to change. No longer continuous and muffled, its separate notes became distinct and I could hear the varied voices, the whispers and hisses, the groans, and even the gaiety all of which it was compounded. I used to watch the Heipaishui playing with the pebbles and stones, hurling them at the rocks; or undermining and shifting by degrees with almost human precision huge boulders the size of small houses, which, with all resistance spent, toppled and crashed screechingly on to the rocks below.

The work at the Mining Co-operative started early in the morning. Some men dug the haematite out of the pits on the hillside, where the ore was very rich and contained, I was told, about 80 per cent of pure iron. Entire hillsides consisted of haematite, but extraction by hand was so primitive that they worked only the richest veins. The ore was brought by baskets to an opening near the stream and there the men, sitting on the ground, broke the stones into small fragments ready for smelting. A great furnace, constructed of stones, bricks and clay, bound with wooden poles on the outside, stood near by. The fragmented ore was dumped into the open top of the furnace, followed by a layer of charcoal, then another layer of ore, and so on until the furnace was full. Finally the top was sealed and the furnace fired. A water-wheel slowly worked giant bellows made out of a huge tree-trunk. After a whole day’s burning a small window was opened at the base of the furnace and the blazing stream of molten iron slowly poured out on the ground, solidifying into a thin sheet of primary iron. This was broken into large slabs and dragged aside for weighing, breaking and then loading into another smaller furnace near by, which was worked on the same principle. Soon a small door was opened in the furnace and a man extracted with long iron tongs a blazing lump of iron and deftly put it on the anvil. Immediately a group of assistants joined him, and with heavy hammers they pounded the lump, in a minute or two, into an oblong pig which was thrown aside on the ground to cool. This operation was a monopoly of the Miao and Chungchia, who were considered great specialists at it. These pigs were then weighed and stored for disposal.

Such was the uncomplicated working of this co-operative. Once a week a small caravan of horses took the pig-iron to Likiang, where it was sold to my Ploughshare-casting Cooperative and a few other smithies, the rest going to Hoking, Chienchwang and Hsiakwan, where they cast good kitchen boilers, and made such things as horseshoes and nails, knives and scythes.

The Tibetan and Nakhi members dug the ore and fragmented it. The Boa looked after the making of the charcoal. The Miao and Chungchia beat the iron, and a lone Chinese, named Ahting, was a sort of an errand boy, bringing caravans to Likiang, buying provisions and doing all sorts of odd jobs. He was rather a scamp, and a portion of his income came from a widow at Ngatze village with whom he was living. The Tibetans were from Chungdien, on the other side of the Yangtze, and they were very simple folk, friendly and cheerful. The Boa and Nakhi were from the mountains around and were very primitive, rather suspicious and really wild and wilful. But the most primitive and difficult to manage were the Miao and Chungchia members who lived close by in the valley downstream.

The Miao and Chungchia were very closely related, and there was only a minor difference in their dress or their writing, and therefore I shall refer to them collectively as the Miao.

In my opinion, they represented the most perfect example of an outgoing, dying race. Like the division of the Lolos and the Lissu into Black and White, the Miao were divided into the Flowery, Black and White Miao. The Flowery Miao live on the borders of the Yunnan and Kweichow provinces and they get their name from the picturesque and colourful costumes they wear. It may be said that they are more approachable and less introvert than all other Miao. The other Miao are styled White and Black merely because of the colour of their clothes and are certainly the most primitive of all the Miao. The ones near the co-operative were the White Miao, with whom the retreat from the world and other people became almost fetishism at times reaching absurdity. It was not only the presence of a stranger, a foreigner or Chinese in their midst which frightened them, but even the mere news that someone was coming to their village sent them all scampering for cover in the surrounding forests.

When at first I went with Tai to visit their villages close by, there was nobody left in the houses but pigs and dogs. This ridiculous situation only changed much later when I became friendly with the Miao members of the co-operative. They were so shy at first that they scattered whenever I arrived. Then, reassured by Tai and other members, they began at least to remain in their place when I came up to watch them beat the iron. Then I melted the ice by inviting them for a drink after their day’s work. This they could not resist, and after a few such occasions we became, at last, quite good friends.

Then we decided one day to go to their villages and they guaranteed that their people would not run away. They went with me holding my hands, like children led by a nanny. I was told by Tai, and then noticed it myself, that if I smiled, everything was all right, but as soon as my face became serious, they were frightened and tended to run away. And so, when dealing with them, I always tried to wear a grin on my face.

We climbed over the cliff on to a broad shelf where their fields lay. There was a curious rock lying in a depression on which a small pagoda, constructed of straw and bark, was standing. It was a Miao shrine. The path dipped into a little valley where the Heipaishui spread, no longer a roaring torrent but a broad and shallow river with every stone and pebble visible in its clear waters. The Miao huts were very low and dark, and their women, in white petticoats, sat inside weaving hempen cloth on primitive looms. In some of the low trees near the huts, I noticed huge nests, and was wondering what kind of birds built them when suddenly I saw children’s heads popping out of them. ‘These are our children,’ my Miao friends told me; ‘they always sleep there at night. We are very poor and have no bedding. At night it is very cold so the children sleep there together for warmth.’ Indeed there they were — huddled in the dried leaves with only a rag between them to cover themselves.

The poverty of the Miao was unimaginable. There was nothing in the huts resembling furniture or utensils. There were some vessels made of bark, bamboo or wood but no beds and no bedding. The men themselves were in rags, semi-naked, with no protection either for modesty or from cold. Even the older children had no clothing at all; though the girls had a kind of a small triangle to act as a fig-leaf. Most of them had big bellies from eating bulky and indigestible food, and their skin, unlike the glossy and firm skin of the Nakhi and Tibetans, was a pasty grey and felt like an old, crumpled newspaper. But how could one help them? They rejected almost everything which could assist them to improve their lot. I offered them the seeds of various vegetables and corn. No, they said, they would not plant them; they did not eat such things; they did not know how to look after them and they would not grow there anyway. They were not prepared even to give them a trial. They accepted simple medicines gratefully — eye lotion, quinine, sulphur ointment — but even these they used lackadaisically and laid them aside in some dusty corner when improvements did not come at once. They needed money but had almost nothing to sell, except perhaps a chicken or two or the eternal pig. The work at the co-operative helped, but it was not enough. The money was needed not so much to buy food, of which they had just enough, poor though it was, but to buy a wife and arrange a wedding feast. That must be done. The wedding feast was the only time when all these villagers had plenty to eat and plenty to drink. These were the rare and important events when they could glimpse a ray of joy and happiness and forget for a day the unutterable misery of their existence.

Sometimes I brought them gifts. At first I made the mistake of giving them such things as soap or electric torches as I ordinarily gave to the Nakhi and other tribes; these the Miao put in a place of honour and never used them, as if I had given them an ormolu clock or a Sevres statuette. Then I took to bringing them old clothes, a pound or two of salt, cheap cloth, or cones of brown sugar and jars of wine, and for these they were pathetically grateful.

There was nothing the Miao could do. Centuries ago, pressed by the expanding population of China, they had retreated from Kweichow to these wild and empty valleys and gorges where they could hide themselves from their aggressive neighbours. But now they found themselves pressed again: and this was the last frontier. There were no more empty spaces, no further retreat, nowhere to hide.

Even going to Likiang they avoided the people on the road. Huddled in small groups they gazed fearfully at any approaching group of strangers or a caravan and made a long detour to escape meeting them face to face. A harsh look or a loud word sent them scampering in unreasoning panic. Sometimes they called at my house but never stayed long. The way my cook looked at them, and the people coming and going through my office, terrified them.

After two or three days’ stay at the Iron-mining Co-operative, I used to ascend to my Paper-making Co-operative at Upper Ngatze. Its manager, my good friend Aiya Aiya, usually came down the night before to fetch me. He was an extremely nice, capable young Nakhi and a very hard worker. To avoid the day’s heat, which was unbearable in the fold of these tremendous mountains, we started early in the morning. The Heipaishui was crossed by a stone bridge a little way upstream from the Iron-mining Co-operative. Then the path started climbing sharply along a low ridge running by another stream which was a tributary of the Heipaishui. This country was rather dangerous as it was a sort of no man’s land, covered with great forests, and peopled by many comparative newcomers such as the Szechuanese squatters, Tibetans from Chungdien, Miao, White Lolos and displaced Nakhi and Boa.

There were two tea-shops on the way and we rested there. On one occasion Aiya Aiya looked rather anxiously at another table where some tribesmen were sitting. I noticed that he was trying to isolate me from them. I asked him what was the matter. He said that many of the local tribesmen, including the Miao, were adepts in casting evil spells. It was accomplished not by occult methods but by throwing a microscopic pellet of poison called ndouk, by a flick of the finger, into the person’s cup of tea or wine. Without anything being apparently wrong with him, the man’s health steadily declined and he died in a couple of months. I pointed out to Aiya Aiya that I was not a likely subject for such poisoning as I had not done anything wrong to these people, but he was not persuaded. He said they had a different mentality from ours and often followed strange, irrational fancies, doing many abominable things just for the fun of it.

Further up the mountain we passed a village called Sadowa, populated by Szechuanese squatters who were peaceful farmers by day and, it was alleged, ruthless robbers by night. The climb from this village became more arduous and we entered a vast forest, which enclosed a little village in a hollow, surrounded by a thick fence made of tree branches. It was a leper enclave in which several families of the Szechuanese Chinese and others, afflicted with the dreadful disease, were living. Then, past midday, we made one last effort and climbed, at an incredible angle, through a thick wood, to the small platform on which the Paper-making Co-operative was situated. It was a long, rather low building begrimed with the smoke of wood fires which were burning in it day and night owing to the cold. In front there were three large and deep square stone tubs. Further down there were two huge vats with furnaces underneath and a shallow, stone-lined oblong pool. A small, surprisingly powerful and noisy, ice-cold stream rushed from the top of the mountain, past the building, revolving a wooden wheel connected to a crusher. In a tiny fenced field a few cabbages and turnips grew; a few big pigs and some chickens roamed at large and there were two fierce Tibetan mastiffs chained to the log fence.

The co-operative had eight members. Aiya Aiya was the manager and he was assisted by his old father who never left the place. The rest were mountain Nakhi and Szechuanese, one of whom was the technician. The material for the paper was a kind of mountain bamboo called arundinaria. It was slender, of purple colour, and grew in dense patches at an altitude of not less than 15,000 feet. Several members had gone early on the morning of our arrival to cut it and would be returning with large bunches of it slung over their shaggy horses. After lying on the ground for some time open to the elements, it was put through the water-power crusher and dumped into the oblong pool; lime was heaped on it and there it stayed until properly processed. When soft, it was loaded into the vats and boiled with chemicals. The resulting pulp was transferred to the stone tubs, where a juice from the roots of a species of dwarf pine was added; it was then ready for making into paper. A frame of horsehair was dipped carefully into the tub and lifted with a thin layer of the pulp which was deftly deposited on a clean wooden board. This congealed almost at once. Then another layer was added on to this initial sheet and so on until a stack was formed which was taken away and a new one started. All the time more pulp solution, water and root chemicals were added into the tub. The stacked paper was separated and the sheets hung on long poles in the building to dry with the help of braziers. When the sheets were dry they were stacked again in reams and were ready for sale. The paper was yellowish in colour, thick and too rough for writing on. It was used for wrapping and other household purposes; but its main use was in childbirth, fulfilling the function of sanitary napkins and towels. It was very cheap and the margin of profit on its production was extremely meagre.

I nicknamed the Paper-making Society the ‘Co-operative above the Clouds.’ The view from the place was breathtaking. It was like looking from an aeroplane. Its height was 14,000 feet and one could see for miles around: as far as the dark trench, where the Iron-mining Co-operative was, and to a series of mountain ranges which, like colossal waves, ebbed away and melted into the blue haze of distant horizons. Sometimes clouds came, but they did not reach us. They floated below like a limitless silvery sea out of which the peaks protruded like purple islands.

The furthest co-operative society I had was at Erhyuen, about eighty miles south of Likiang. It was in real Minkia country. Erhyuen was the capital of that small kingdom whose beautiful queen committed the ceremonial suicide by immolating herself on a pyre after her husband had been murdered by the Nanchiao king.

The road to Erhyuen branched off the main caravan trail from Likiang to Hsiakwan at Niukai, where there were so many hot springs. Erhyuen was a small town but very picturesque as it lay in a perfect amphitheatre of green, forested mountains behind a large lake which completely isolated it from the plain except for a narrow causeway, spanned at intervals by high camel-back bridges. Heavily loaded boats passed underneath the bridges along the channels cut through the vast growths of rushes and lotus plants.

The countryside around Erhyuen was green and full of lush pastures, and here I had formed a Butter-making Cooperative. It was under the patronage of a very influential and powerful local family, named Ma, which was very progressive, patriotic and was determined to improve, through the introduction of new industries, the lot of the local Minkia, with all of whom they were more or less related. It was wartime then and Kunming, with its swollen foreign population, hungered for good butter, which it was very difficult to procure from abroad. Some butter was of course already being made at Erhyuen, but it was made in the wrong way, was dirty and went rancid almost at once.

About twenty young Minkia men, all from good farming families, who had cows of their own, joined together. I wrote to friends in America and they promptly donated a good-sized cream separator, which was flown out to Kunming and which I brought, with great trouble, to Erhyuen. A very creditable churn was made by our Minkia Carpenter Co-operative and the cans and other containers were made by the Copperware Co-operative out of solid copper duly lined with tin. The Ma family provided a clean building for the purpose. The downstair rooms were devoted to butter-making and upstairs we lived together. It was impossible for the members to start the process of butter-making by themselves, for they had some very funny ideas about hygiene and machinery; so I had to spend more than a month at Erhyuen, working like a slave, and teaching them the art of making butter in European style.

Every morning I got up at six and after breakfast we received the milk from neighbouring farms. It came in hermetically closed cans and was duly weighed and tested with a lactometer. If too cold, it was slightly warmed. Then it was poured into the separator. I shall never forget that separator. Day after day I had to turn it for hours on end, for it was almost impossible to teach the boys to do it properly by not accelerating too fast and then maintaining strictly the same rate of revolutions. It was a month before they could grasp this essential fact and even then I was never quite sure of them.

I had great respect for cream separators, especially big ones; I have always thought them to be dangerous if not treated properly, and with all my efforts I tried to inculcate this respect into the co-operative members. The boys always agreed, but I could see from their faces that they still regarded this machine as a sort of a new and amusing foreign toy. However, the machine itself decided to co-operate with me in teaching them a lesson. One day I went out of the milk room for a minute, leaving the handle to be turned by one of the boys. I do not know what he did but he probably over-accelerated, and there was a terrific explosion. I rushed back to find a shambles. The milk bowl and plates were scattered all over the room in pools of milk, crockery was broken and the heavy centrifuge lay in a corner on the floor beside a screaming boy. It appeared that, as the boy had increased the speed erratically, there had been a big electric spark and the heavy, madly spinning centrifuge had jumped right up at the ceiling. It scraped the boy’s leg and burned a wide patch of skin almost to the flesh because of the high velocity of its revolutions.

After this accident they acquired respect for modern methods and things went much more smoothly; and soon we were making up to fifty pounds of butter every day. It was sent, in little barrels, by truck to Kunming, was cut there into 1-lb., 1/2-lb., and 1/4-lb. blocks, wrapped and sold at a store. The business was good and had every promise of growing.

The list of my most interesting co-operatives would not be complete without mentioning the big Leather and Shoe-making Co-operative which became the pride of Likiang. It was composed of twenty-three young Nakhi men, between eighteen and twenty-five years of age, with the exception of the manager who was thirty-eight. It was affectionately called by the Likiang people the Wa Wa Co-operative, that is to say, Children’s Co-operative. All the boys had worked as apprentices to some local shoe-makers and I used to know many of them long before the society’s formation. Influenced by my talks on co-operation and its advantages, they had decided to emancipate themselves and start a business of their own on the co-operative basis.

At first the society was rather helpless because they knew only how to tan one or two kinds of very crude leather and the shoes they made looked as shapeless as potatoes. So I sent one of them, duly selected by themselves, to Chungking to be trained at a really good Shanghai leather-tanning factory. He spent two years there and learned shoe-making as well. At last the poor man, disfigured by smallpox which he had picked up at the war capital, returned to Likiang with a load of chemicals and instruments which he had bought out of the proceeds of a loan I arranged for the society. Then things began moving and in no time at all the co-operative turned out rolls of beautiful leather of several qualities. The shoes were now strong and elegant, and yet the price was extremely low.

They were clever and willing, these boys. They had natural good taste and they turned to good account the copies of Montgomery Ward’s catalogue that I provided. They constructed perfect copies of what was worn at that time on Bond Street or Fifth Avenue and probably at one-twentieth of the price. They made excellent top-boots too and, in addition, footballs, revolver holsters, military belts and a host of other leather articles. They captured, almost in the twinkle of an eye, the patronage of the local beaux and military officers. The orders poured in. In a few months Likiang had undergone a considerable sartorial change. The men in town and in the villages simply had to have the elegant shining black and brown shoes of the latest style, and to go with them they also ordered equally elegant trousers of European style.

Some of the boys lived at the co-operative, others at home. They had no salary but only an allowance sufficient for the immediate needs of themselves and their families. At the end of the year, when the profits were divided, they all got a bonus in accordance with the work they had performed. A sum was set aside as a reserve fund and a percentage was carried to the ‘common-good fund’. This fund was used primarily for funerals and weddings, and it was settled that each member was entitled to one wedding paid for out of the common-good fund, and each year a limited number of weddings were financed in this way by drawing lots. The profits were good and soon the society opened its own store in Main Street. Large consignments of shoes, top-boots and footballs went to Kunming, Paoshan, Hsiakwan and even to Tibet. The loans contracted by the society from banks were repaid. The ragged apprentice members now emerged as prosperous and substantial citizens — well dressed, well fed and respected by their neighbours and friends. They were excellent publicity for what co-operative enterprise, properly established and conducted, could do for the craftsmen.


The New Year celebrations provided the old gentlemen of Likiang with an opportunity to stage several concerts of sacred music in which they were adept. Madame Lee’s husband was also a musician in his own right and heartily participated in these highbrow functions. The concerts were a unique institution and were so inspiring and interesting that I never failed to attend them. It was wonderful and extraordinary to hear the music which was played during the hey-dey of the glorious Han and Tang dynasties, and probably during the time of Confucius himself. This musical tradition was one of the most cherished among the Nakhi and was zealously transmitted from father to son. A well-to-do Nakhi in the city could only be accepted as a real gentleman if he knew this ancient music or was a fully fledged Chinese scholar. When I discovered this noble academic preoccupation of the Nakhi men, I felt a new respect for them. I forgave the Nakhi women for over-indulgence to their menfolk. They gave them leisure, and at least a part of it did not go to waste. Spoilt they were, these Nakhi men, and many smoked opium to excess, but passing years mellowed them and turned their hearts to the attainment of culture and of the understanding of beautiful things. They had time for thinking and meditation. They had time to observe and drink deeply of the beauty of their marvellous valley and this did not fail to uplift and inspire them. Without being Taoists, they absorbed much of the wisdom of Tao, not through learning perhaps, but intuitively. Their happiness was great and they did their best to express it in the elegant and classical manner of their ancestors who had drunk deeply of Confucian idealism. The old Sage had always taught that music was the greatest attainment of a civilized man: and to music they turned to express the exquisite joy of living and to enhance the serenity of their old age.

A great blow was struck to Chinese civilization with the loss of Confucius’s own Book of Music. It was probably destroyed, along with other classics, during the great burning of books undertaken by Chin Shi Hwangti, builder of the Great Wall of China. Yet it is impossible to believe that the tradition of that great music did not survive in some remote places.

The Nakhi were extremely fortunate in having had a long contact with a remarkable man and himself a musician, the great General Chukoliang of the Three Kingdoms period (c. A.D. 221—65). That was shortly after the disintegration of the Han dynasty. That cultured general spent years in and around what is now Likiang and even left, as a memorial, several huge stone drums at Laba (Shihku) only eighty It from Likiang on the Yangtze River. He spared no effort or money to implant Chinese culture among the tribes, of whom he evidently preferred the bright Nakhi. Tradition says he himself taught them sacred music as he believed firmly in its civilizing influence. He left them a legacy of the musical instruments of that period and the sacred scores, and his able students and their descendants reverently preserved them in all their purity for succeeding generations.

There is nothing improbable in this. Chukoliang was a historical figure and his campaigns in ancient Yunnan are recorded history. That he was a man of outstanding cultural attainments is also an undisputed fact. If Likiang has remained so little known and isolated, even to the Chinese, up to this, day, we can only imagine how perfect the isolation was in those days. There had been invasions and military campaigns in Yunnan, but they affected the inner life of the Nakhi very little. Likiang was not a very great prize of war, being so small, remote and difficult of access. No Chinese general or his soldiers ever wanted to stay an extra day at so barbarous a place, with the bright lights of the capital and untold refinements of the Chinese life tempting them back.

So long as the Nakhi kings accepted the nominal suzerainty of the Chinese Emperor and sent some measure of tribute, they were left alone. Even the great conqueror Kublai Khan, who invaded Yunnan in the thirteenth century, advancing through the Kingdom of Muli with 1,200 chariots, barely glanced at the valley whose Nakhi king had offered his submission in advance. He was much more interested in investing Tali, whose proud Nanchiao king defied him, sitting in his impregnable Tower of Five Glories which accommodated a garrison of 50,000 men.

Thus Likiang has ever remained peaceful and isolated, and could devote itself to the perpetuation of cherished ancient arts. Indeed, it was China that had to sacrifice the purity of her music and drama to the whims of vulgar Mongol and Manchu conquerors. She had even to sacrifice her style of coiffure and dress, such as the long queue for men and the sheath-like dress of women. The conquests did harm to Chinese civilization and culture, and music perhaps suffered most at the hands of the invaders. The present-day Chinese falsetto singing and the discordant and shallow music of Chinese theatres are no more representative of the ancient classical music of China than modern jazz is representative of classical Greek music. Some esoteric Taoist monasteries have preserved fragments of the classical music and they perform it in their ceremonies and dances, but the instruments and the score they use are far less genuine than those preserved by the Nakhi.

When I was in Likiang sacred concerts were usually held at some rich man’s house. At intervals food and drinks were served both to the participants and the guests. The musical sessions were long and arduous but everybody was happy and attentive. The instruments were carefully arranged in a long room, sometimes in the enclosed veranda, and the atmosphere was reverent and definitely religious, with the scent of incense burning in great brass burners. There were the old carved frames on which multi-toned bronze bells were hanging in rows. Another frame had rows of chromatic jade pieces in the form of lunettes. A great and sonorous gong was suspended from a tall stand. There was a long chin or the prototype of the modern piano lying on a long table. Only very few people knew how to play it. And there were huge standing guitars, smaller pipas and several kinds of long and short flutes and pipes.

The old musicians, all formally dressed in long gowns and makwas, took their seats unhurriedly, caressing their long white beards. One man acted as conductor. They peered at the score: a flute wailed and one by one other instruments joined in. Although I love music, I am not, alas, a musician and cannot describe the music that followed in technical terms. It was majestic and inspiring and proceeded in rising and falling cadences. Then, as a climax, the great gong was struck. I have never heard in China such a deep and sonorous gong: the whole house seemed to vibrate with its velvety waves. Then, rising from their chairs, the elders sang a sacred ode in a natural voice and with great reverence and feeling. Then the symphony continued, with notes of unimagined sweetness, falling like a cascade from the jade lunettes, and giving way to a golden shower of sounds from the chromatic bells. The chords from the great chin were like diamonds dropped into the golden melody, reinforced by a stopped diapason. Never was there any dissonance or retreat from harmony.

To a Western ear it might have appeared somewhat monotonous, but actually there was no repetition. It was only that the theme was unfolding in rhythmic waves of sound into which new motives were constantly introduced. It was a recital of the cosmic life as it was unfolding in its grandeur, unmarred by the discordant wails and crashes of petty human existence. It was classical, and timeless. It was the music of the gods and of a place where there is serenity, eternal peace and harmony. If it appeared monotonous to the uncomprehending people, it was because their hearts did not reach the right equilibrium and stability. They only understood the music which suited their own condition of struggle and conflict. They wanted to hear the shouts of their ephemeral victories and crashes of their defeats, the wails of their death throes and discordant screeches of their insane carnivals. The majestic rhythm of a universe left them cold. Chaos was nearer their nature and they wanted to hear the sound of explosions even in music. The ancient sages were the true children of nature and immeasurably closer to the Divine. They understood better the nature of melodies and harmonies and to them music was one of the surest means of communion with Heaven and subjugation of the animal in man. Let us hope that this treasure of music in Likiang may be secure from the ravages of the modern age.

It was not in music alone that the men of Likiang were proficient, and some of them devoted their life to painting. Flowers and birds were their favourite subjects and they decorated many ceilings and panels in the elegant homes of the wealthy. They did not paint for money or fame but simply to satisfy their craving for the expression of beauty in pictorial form.

Quite a few Nakhi became Chinese scholars and wrote elegant poetry and essays which were not disdained even in sophisticated China: and even the humble Hoyei of my Copper Mining Co-operative was a painter of talent and a poet. I still treasure a small scroll he painted and inscribed for me.

The concept of Time in Likiang was totally different from that in the West. In Europe, and especially in America, the greater part of Time is devoted to making money, not so much to sustain life in decent conditions as to accumulate more and more comforts and luxuries. The rest of Time, which remains unoccupied, is ‘killed’ in a manner which has now become routine and rigid. Because of the preoccupation with work and the ritual killing of Time, there has grown up a comparatively new concept of the man who is so busy that he has no time at all. This idea of the man who is so busy that he has not a minute to spare has been enthroned as the standard by which all humanity is judged. The normal man is now he who repeats that he is extremely busy and has no time and he is treated with great respect. Men whose time is totally or partially unoccupied are considered abnormal and inefficient and efforts are directed to make them normal, either by making them work or at least by training them to kill whatever Time is free.

This strange attitude to Time in the West is not due to an antagonism to Time itself but to the unreality of the modern world which man has created for himself. With his misdirected energy and his lack of understanding he has made his world so complex and so filled with the trivia of existence that he has lost himself in it, like a Minotaurian labyrinth, and for him it has become the only reality. True reality is thought of as a philosophical abstraction fit only for a few thinkers and not for busy men. As the true reality is the only one that gives man a full satisfaction in Time, the unreal world of activity and pointless rush can only give an illusion of life. Whenever the rush stops, Time proclaims the void, and it is to escape the void that the time must be killed. It is done by highly and systematically organized sport, radio, movies, tourism, clubs and parties — by anything that can conceal the frightening face of Time. The more the reality of life is avoided the more necessary it is to kill Time. But without reality whatever man perceives is nothing but illusion and vexation of spirit.

In the beautiful valley of Likiang, then still untouched by the complexities and hurry of modern life, Time had a different value. It was a gentle friend and a trusted teacher, possessing, there, a magical property which not only I but others had noticed. Instead of being too long it was too short; the days passed like hours and the weeks like days; a year was like a month, and my ten years spent there went by like one.

It was not true that we were so busy that we had no time to perceive all the beauty and goodness that was in that blessed valley. There was time for both. The people in the street interrupted their bargaining to admire a clump of roses or peer for a minute into the clear depths of a stream. Farmers paused in their fields to gaze at the ever-changing face of the Snow Mountain. A flight of cranes was breathlessly watched by the market crowds and the song of birds was commented upon at length by busy Minkia carpenters who leaned back from their saws and axes. The groups of apple-cheeked old men, with flowing beards, laughed and joked like children as they descended the hill, with rods in hand, for a fishing trip. A factory closed for a day or two as the workers suddenly wanted to have a picnic by a lake or on the Snow Mountain. And yet their work was done and done well.

No Nakhi ever wanted to leave the valley if he could help it. Even those who had seen the neon-lit glories of Shanghai, Hongkong and Calcutta always wanted to return to Likiang to live. The same was true of the Tibetans, Lolos and even Minkia. Those who had travelled described vividly their revulsion and horror of the great cities they visited, with their hot, treeless streets, box-like buildings, sordid and foetid slums, and soulless, rapacious people who milled through the streets in vast, drab, grey crowds. In Likiang, where every man and woman was an individual and a person, the very idea of the shuffling, anonymous multitudes of China and India made these independent people shudder. The idea of free people being shut up to work in airless rooms for hours was abhorrent to the Nakhi. Neither for love nor money, they declared, would they ever work in such factories as they had seen in Kunming and Shanghai.


On the thirteenth day of the third moon, that is to say at about the end of March or beginning of April, there was a very lively and hilarious festival specially for women who were barren or had a desire to produce more children. It seemed to me that the men of Likiang were more than sympathetic to this worthy aim and showed a much greater interest in these festivities than did the women. The high point of the festival was a whole day pilgrimage to the peak, called Ghughlangyu, some six miles east of the city, where there was a small temple, worship at which, it was alleged, produced the desired results. It was best to reach the peak just before sunrise to enjoy the sight of the first rays of the sun striking the peak and Mount Satseto’s glorious crown of ice.

On the eve of the festival all women and pangchinmei were very busy cooking, baking and burnishing their houkous and samovars. Men were excited, brushing their mules and horses and trimming their saddles, and large supplies of wine were collected. The pilgrimage began shortly after two o’clock in the morning. My friends always called to pick me up, armed with torchlights and mingtzes, as the moon, at this phase, was visible only till four o’clock. Once outside the town, the spectacle was unbelievable in its grandeur and beauty. Endless strings of flickering lights moved across the plain, converging at the foot of the dark and silent peak. Like a fiery dragon, composed of a myriad of little flames, they climbed and twisted along the face of the mountain. Lights were reflected in streams and canals, and merged with the reflection of the still bright moon. Each woman carried a blazing houkou, sparks and flames issuing from the chimney. It looked as if hundreds of small locomotives were running through the fields. By the time we reached the foot of the mountain there were hundreds of people there, talking and laughing. Tents were being erected on the meadows and in the woods, rugs spread and the houkous hissed, emitting a delicious smell of food, while a great procession climbed upwards with mingtzes and torches to light the path.

The climb was steep and we were quite exhausted by the time we reached the top. It was icy cold at this high altitude; there was hoar frost on the grass and shrubs and the water in the pools was frozen solid. The east glowed orange and gold and the Snow Mountain sparkled in the rays of the sun which we could not yet see. At last the rays struck us and rocks started to crack with a musical sound. We entered the small temple which was choked with people. The women prostrated themselves before the goddess Niangniang, the giver of children, and hastily put the bunches of incense and candles before the image. A small priapic god, golden and naked, was touched and kissed by the pious women who so ardently desired children. There he stood in front of the goddess, like a little boy ready to urinate. Passing this little god, the girls giggled and blushed, averting their faces. Their turn had not yet arrived for such ceremonies.

It was not possible to remain long on the small platform of the peak owing to pressing crowds of new arrivals: so we started descending slowly. As we turned a corner there was a burst of music and singing from an ascending procession of Minkia women and maidens. The girls wore gaily embroidered jackets without sleeves: bright silk kerchiefs were tied around their heads, on which they wore sparkling diadems of semi-precious stones. The men with them played on flutes and cymbals and they all sang ‘Nanmu Amitabha as they were slowly climbing upwards, holding candles and incense sticks in one hand.

Below it was like a scene from a great Oriental ballet. Beautifully dressed men and women sat on sparkling rugs around the shining houkous. There were tents of many colours, with richly caparisoned mules tied to trees. Groups of girls and boys promenaded in the woods gathering flowers. Many Minkia boys had red sashes across their shoulders and promenaded like peacocks whilst girls giggled and winked at them. A red sash across a young Minkia’s shoulder at a festival proclaims the fact that he is still single and ready to be courted by a desirable girl. The handsome ones were soon surrounded by admiring girls who fluttered and buzzed like bees around a flower. One of them was at last captured by a pretty and determined girl, who led him away from the envious glances of her friends. From now on the lucky fellow had to pay attention to her only and a proper engagement ceremony might follow later.

The Fertility Festival continued till noon and then the tired and happy people filed slowly back to the town or villages.

It was not far from this Ghughlangyu peak that Madame Lee had her tomb. All her family on her husband’s side was buried there. She and her husband, already in the fullness of their years, expected serenely and in confidence to join the dear departed in the not too distant future. All the tombs had been recently rebuilt and renovated, and the time approached for a yearly sacrifice to the dead. As we were now old friends, I was invited to share in this joyous ceremony.

The tombs, some fifteen of them, were situated on a meadow in the foothills. It was a peaceful and beautiful spot. There were tall, shady trees and flowering shrubs. A brook gurgled in the ravine below, and the view down on to Likiang and the plain was magnificent. Each tomb was faced with stone and the front was decorated with a niche containing the names of the husband and wife, their ages and the dates of their death. A separate plot was earmarked for the future grave of Madame Lee and her husband. I had come in advance with Mr Lee, and had enjoyed a walk in the hills. Later Madame Lee appeared with other women and her grandchildren. They brought houkous as well as provisions, and when the food was cooked, it was arranged in bowls on a large tray with cups of wine. The old couple placed it on a ledge before the niche of Mr Lee’s parents and incense sticks were lighted. Then the couple prostrated themselves before the tomb several times, inviting the departed to partake of the proffered food and wine. The procedure was repeated before each tomb and by the other members of the family in their turn, so that the ceremony took a long time. Finally the food was spread on the ground, and we all gathered round to enjoy what became quite a gay picnic.

There was nothing lugubrious about the proceedings and there was no sorrow or sadness. It was a joyous and serene reunion with the departed who, it was firmly believed, were present in the spirit. Had they appeared at this moment there would have been no consternation and no terror. They were expected and welcomed, whether they were invisible or visible, at this joint feast at which both worlds participated. Both were joined by love and affection and all knew that they would be reunited when earthly nature had taken its course.

After the meal the old couple went again, with their family, to prostrate themselves before the graves, expressing thanks to the ancestors for their attendance at the feast. They returned well satisfied and happy. They had had a full and rich life and they contemplated with pride their last home where they would sleep for ever amidst the beauty of the mountains and forests, perhaps listening to the eternal rustle of the pines and singing of the birds.

July, which was the critical month before the rainy season, had several festivals. With the rice already planted, the people did not have much to do and the evenings were devoted by the younger set to dancing and to flying the kounmingtengs — the lighted balloons. During the day one could see the young men and pangchinmei pasting together the oiled sheets of rough paper to form the structure of a balloon. These balloons were then dried in the sun and were ready for use in the evening. Crowds gathered to watch. A bunch of burning mingtzes was tied underneath; the balloon swelled and quickly rose into the air to the shouts of excited spectators. The higher it rose the more good luck it promised to its owner. Some went up very high indeed and floated in the sky like red stars for several minutes. At the end they burst into flames and fell, sometimes causing fires by setting light to straw in unwatched farmhouses. Sometimes there were as many as twenty of these balloons floating through the dark sky. Balloon flying lasted for about a couple of weeks and it was great fun.

Then there was the Buddhistic festival of All Souls’ Day, when, as in Japan, tiny boats were constructed of paper, small candles were lit in them and they were floated down the swift Likiang River.

But the greatest festival in July was the Houpaochi or Jumping through the Fire. Every household constructed a pyramid, two or three feet high, of wood splinters, mingtzes and incense sticks all tied together and gaily adorned with flowers. These bundles were placed upright in the middle of the street before each house. The day passed in feasting and drinking; at night a light was applied to each bundle and, as they began to blaze, the young people jumped over them. It was considered to be lucky and I did it myself without any serious ill effects.

This festival was not confined to Likiang valley but was observed as far down as Tali. Its origin was very old. People said it had started with the establishment of the great and powerful Nanchiao Kingdom some time during the Tang dynasty. At that time the whole region between Tali, capital of the kingdom, and Likiang was a series of small Minkia kingdoms. The King of Nanchiao wanted to extend his realm and personal dominion and, being cruel and cunning, hit on a very effective scheme. One day he invited all his brother kings for a conference and a great feast. One of those invited was the King of Erhyuen, a small principality some ninety It north of Tali.

The Queen of Erhyuen was as sensible as she was beautiful and she did all she could to dissuade her husband from attending the feast, as she felt sure that a sinister motive was hidden behind this unusual invitation. However, the king said that he was in honour bound to go. So certain was the beautiful queen that something evil was bound to happen, that she insisted on putting iron bracelets engraved with the king’s name on her husband’s wrists and ankles.

The King of Nanchiao had a special pavilion constructed and lavishly decorated for the feast. It was said that the woodwork of the pavilion had been fashioned out of particularly inflammable woods. When the visiting kings had been wined under the table by the hospitable King of Nanchiao, the doors were bolted and torches applied to the pavilion. Everybody inside was burnt to cinders and no one could identify the remains of any king except those of the King of Erhyuen. The queen was easily able to identify the bones of her beloved husband by the iron bracelets; so that he was the only king to receive a proper burial. The young queen was inconsolable and shut herself in her palace, but the ruthless King of Nanchiao heard of her great beauty and sent ambassadors to ask for her hand. The more she refused the more insistent did he become. At last she knew that she could not avoid this political marriage, and not wishing to be dragged to the king’s court by force, she notified the king that she would be ready for the marriage as soon as she had burned her husband’s royal robes, which was her last duty to him, as was the custom of almost all the monarchs in the Orient. Then she had a great pyre prepared on a hill near the city and the robes were spread over it. The torches were applied and, when the fire was at its highest, dressed in all her most beautiful robes of state, the queen jumped into the flames. The heroism and virtue of this beautiful and beloved queen have never been forgotten and the festival was established in her memory even in states which had no direct concern in the tragedy.


Marriages in Likiang, whether happy or unhappy, were always gay and colourful affairs. But however sumptuous they were in town, they could never be compared with even the poor weddings in villages. In the countryside there was more space and more leisure. Provisions, augmented by the gifts from neighbours and friends, were more plentiful, and therefore endless meals could be improvised without a thought of the heavy catering bills. The guests from distant hamlets could stay for days as, unlike in town, there was plenty of accommodation, if not at the bridegroom’s house then at his neighbours’. In town a marriage was a minor and impersonal event, confined to a short stretch of the street, whilst in the village it was an affair of great importance, in which every family was intimately interested and concerned. It was anticipated with eagerness and the preparations were made months in advance. It was a great social event which renewed and strengthened the ties of affection with other villages and it provided an opportunity of seeing old friends, separated by long distances. I went dutifully to the weddings in town but must confess that my particular predilection was for country marriages. The further the village and the more primitive the people, the more pleasurable was my anticipation.

The marriage proceedings in town began a couple of weeks before the actual ceremony. Sitting at Madame Lee’s bar I could always watch the little procession of the ‘sending the wine ceremony’. The bride’s family were officially given the date and hour of their daughter’s marriage by the representatives of the groom’s family. About ten matrons, splendidly attired in new black mitres, silk tunics tied at the waist by sashes, and silk trousers tied up tightly at the ankles, and

Wearing embroidered slippers with upturned toes, proceeded in a military formation, four abreast through the street, looking neither to the right nor to the left. They were followed by about ten pangchinmei, similarly dressed but with their strange black Chinese caps with red buttons and their hair arranged in long queues. The leading lady carried a burnished brass pot of wine, decorated with pieces of red paper on which felicitous Chinese characters had been written. Another carried, on a copper tray, a pair of jade bangles. Others carried on their trays a comb, a bottle of perfume, a toothbrush, a box of powder, and so on. Thus each matron and pangchinmei carried one or another article of toilette on a separate tray. They marched with great dignity and in silence through the streets, announcing to passers-by the approach of the happy day.

Before the marriage, the dowry was sent in procession to the bridegroom’s house. It consisted of furniture, bedding and kitchen utensils of burnished copper and brass. The men carried the heavy pieces on bamboo poles and the women carried the rest in their baskets. There were wardrobes, tables and chairs, a pair of brass spittoons, a clock, two heavy quilts with embroidered silk covers, one representing a dragon for the bridegroom and the other with a phoenix for the bride. Then followed the utensils — copper buckets, basins, houkous, samovars, dippers, jugs and pans. The long procession was concluded with a series of heavy wooden chests with four legs, painted pale red; fastened by heavy, beautifully chased padlocks, they contained the couple’s clothing for all occasions.

On the auspicious day the guests could be seen streaming towards the bridegroom’s house. The men, old and young, dressed in their best, sauntered singly or in small groups. But the women and girls always marched in military formations, platoon size, the matrons walking ahead and the pangchinmei bringing up the rear. Again each carried a copper tray with a gift prominently displayed in the centre, although it might be only a small red packet containing a couple of silver dollars.

On arrival at the house, each guest was courteously received by the bridegroom, dressed as a Chinese gentleman in dark blue silk gown and black silk makwa (jacket), wearing a Chinese cap or European hat, with a huge red paper rose pinned to his breast. Immediately each guest proceeded inside to a table, usually in the corner, where he handed his present to a man who kept a special register of red paper. If it was cash, the amount and name of the donor was carefully recorded. If it was a measure of rice with four cones of brown sugar, which was the usual gift among the villagers, the rice was weighed and sugar appraised for its size, and again a record made with the name, sex and village of the donor. Afterwards the guest was handed a cup of tea by the bridegroom or his father and was free to mix and talk with other guests. The ladies usually joined the bridegroom’s mother in an adjoining room. Then everyone waited for the arrival of the bride, who had to reach the bridegroom’s house at the time determined by an astrologer. She must never be late, but as there were no reliable clocks either in town or in the country, she usually appeared much too early.

The bride arrived in a palanquin carried by two Minkia men. She was dressed always in a pink silk dress, old Chinese style, with a complicated headdress of false pearl beads, pompons, mythological birds and all. All this finery was usually rented, along with the palanquin, from one or other of the marriage and funeral shops in town. Arriving early she had to wait in her palanquin, sometimes for an hour or two, before the auspicious hour and minute came. Whilst waiting she had to simulate the utmost modesty and she usually buried her face in a red silk handkerchief. At last the time arrived and she was extracted by two bridesmaids and led to the gate. Firecrackers were let off. She jumped over the fire lit at the threshold to join the bridegroom. Rice was thrown over them and then, accompanied by a bevy of pangchinmei., she was rushed into the decorated bridal chamber where she remained during most of the feast that followed. There was seldom any special wedding ceremony. The very fact of her entering the bridegroom’s house, for all the world to see, was a sufficient guarantee that she was the man’s lawful wife.

Tables and benches by the dozen, mostly borrowed from neighbours, had already been laid out with the traditional marriage fare, with chopsticks and cups for wine. The guests needed no prompting and in a moment everybody was sitting and eating. Women sat with women and men with men. From time to time the bridegroom and bride came up to each table. An usher accompanied them with a tray with the cups of wine. They bowed to the guests, who rose and emptied the proffered cups, and with another bow they were off to the next table. By unwritten custom the guests did not tarry over their meal. As soon as they had finished their last dish of rice, they rose; the tables were hurriedly cleaned and rearranged, and another horde of visitors took their place. This eating in relay continued for hours. Neither did the guests, who had had their meal, tarry at the house. They promptly returned home. Such was the usual run of marriage festivities in the city.

One of the finest wedding parties in the countryside I ever attended was that of my good friend Wuhan. I had waited years for this happy event, and I was thrilled when one day his mother told me that, at last, she had paid the last instalment on the purchase price of his wife and the couple could now be united in wedlock. I knew that this marriage party would be extremely joyous because of the unique feature of the forthcoming union. Wuhan already knew and loved his future wife and she loved him. As I have already explained, such a felicitous occurrence in the Nakhi marriage system was extremely rare. I knew also that Wuhan was a well-to-do and generous boy, beloved by his friends and relatives, and that he would see to it that his wedding would not be easily forgotten for the lavishness of his hospitality. Indeed his list of the invited was something to see. Even Madame Lee and her husband were included in the list, although there was doubt that this busy and important woman would be free to come. Every member of my household received the red invitation card, including the cook, and members of my office staff.

There were long consultations about the amount of cash each was to send as a gift, what to wear and how to arrange the attendance at the feast without totally deserting the house.

The prospect of staying at Wuhan’s village for two or three days and of meeting old friends and making new connections was very attractive. The villagers in that district had accepted me as one of their own and I knew I would be treated with easy familiarity and affection. I had warned Wuhan long ago that I wanted no special concessions or comforts and always wanted to be treated as one of his Nakhi friends. I told him that, like the others, I would bring my own bedding. He asked me to come early on the eve of the wedding day and sent a mule to fetch my baggage. As it was considered extremely elegant in Likiang for a bridegroom to be attired in Western garb for the wedding ceremony, I lent Wuhan one of my best suits, a shirt and a necktie. He was much taller than I was, but it did not make much difference in the village where the substance of the thing was of more importance than its fit.

Almost all the days in Likiang were glorious days. It was the land of the spring eternal, but the day I started on my walk to Wuhan’s wedding seemed to be even more brilliant than usual. The beauty of this paradisical valley was never static or stale. It was renewed every day and something fresh and marvellous was added to it. The Snow Mountain was not a dead and stereotyped agglomeration of crags, ice and snow; it was a living goddess with her own way of life and moods. It never remained the same for more than a few minutes. It veiled and unveiled itself, trailed the bands of white vapour around its base or shot a white plume of snow into the azure sky. Its crown, in ‘the form of a vast, opened fan, shot out the rays of gold and silver. The gurgling of rushing streams mingled with the song of larks and cries of herons. Flowers changed their colours and variety with each day and always the air was heavy with fragrance. Everything seemed to scintillate and sparkle in this wondrous valley; nature visibly breathed and moved and smiled. Every walk outside the town was an excitement and a revelation: there was intoxication in the warm breeze and a hint of dancing in the undulation of green mountains, the streams twisting and bouncing and birds and butterflies flitting in the air. The people too smiled, laughed and sang with the fullness of their joy and happiness in this secret paradise.

Wuhan’s home had been transformed into a fairy palace. Gone were the stables and barns and the old courtyard. Instead there was a series of cool and elegant rooms decorated with carved screens and rich Tibetan rugs. The wide benches along the walls were also covered with rugs. A wide striped awning was spread over the courtyard and the floor was a soft carpet of fresh pine needles. All the ugly corners and crevices were smothered with pine branches and garlands of wild flowers. There were coloured paper streamers under the awning and a big fluttering ball of blown glass hung in the centre. A temporary kitchen was constructed in a shack outside the back wall and the women were already busy cooking for the morrow’s celebrations.

The day before the wedding is spent by the bridegroom with his friends. This is his last opportunity to enjoy the freedom of a single man’s life and to be alone with the companions of his carefree youth. Tomorrow he will be a married man, with new interests and responsibilities. He will see his schoolmates less frequently, unless he remains at school, and their relations will be more formal. We slept upstairs where the room had been cleared of its stores of grain and provisions.

In the morning the flood gates opened and the people streamed into the house. There were old gentlemen with long white beards, richly dressed women, women in their ordinary blue tunics, small boys and girls, pangchinmei and young men. Some came walking and some arrived on mules or horses. Gifts of money poured from men, but women’s presents were, for most part, measures of rice or wheat, sugar cones, jars of white wine, eggs, fowl, joints of pork and cakes of yak butter.

The bride was brought by palanquin at about two o’clock in the afternoon. Firecrackers were let off”, she duly jumped over the fire, rice was thrown and the feasting began at once.

The first to sit down at the tables were the old gentlemen. By all the rules of etiquette I should have joined them, but I had told Wuhan before that I did not want to sit with them. Eating with them would have been an honour, but I knew from experience how ceremonious such gentlemen were. They talked little and in measured and calculated tones; there was much fuss about the procedure of eating and drinking — who should raise the cup first, how much to sip and what to eat first. All questions and answers had to be very formal and dignified. What I wanted were not the ceremonies or honour but the informality and hilarity of a congenial company. So I waited until the elders had been fed and then took my seat with Wuhan’s friends and relatives. We had a glorious time, eating, drinking and joking, and calling many times the groom and bride to drink ceremoniously with us. Wuhan’s beaming mother glided between the tables and had a lovely smile and a kind word for every guest. Afterwards we sat in one of the rooms sipping tea. Unfortunately an uncle of Wuhan’s on his mother’s side came in. He was an old scamp and his nickname was Shebaba (Father of Obscenities). He was totally drunk and accosted all and sundry with comments of incredible indecency. There was an uproar among the old gentlemen and many women rushed, screaming and laughing, out of the house. Amidst shrieks and laughter, Wuhan and his cousin Wuyaoli set on the old man, trying to lead him away, until at last he collapsed in a corner and was carried out to sleep off his spirits in a hayloft.

The crowd became less dense when the neighbours returned to their homes for a rest. After sunset we had another meal. As darkness fell, the tables were all put together, forming two very long parallel tables with benches on each side and lit by pressure lanterns. After a long wait the old gentlemen returned and took their seats round one table and the women seated themselves at another. Wuhan sat at the head of the table, cups were filled with wine, the old gentlemen toasted him and ate the sweets and fruits. Soon they all rose to go. Then I and other friends were asked to sit at one of the tables. Small boys wriggled in beside us, while the other table was taken over by the pangchinmei and small girls. There was a unanimous cry that the bride should join her husband. After a pretended resistance, she appeared from her chamber and sat by Wuhan. Then a great inquisition started which I can only call a torture by spirits. Every friend challenged Wuhan to drink with him. This he could only avoid by a superior knowledge of the famous drinking games which came to the Nakhi from China. The loser had to empty his cup as a forfeit, but poor Wuhan was none too clever at them, and he had to empty many a cup, particularly as the small boys proved to be very adept challengers. Meanwhile, as was the custom, unbelievable indecencies were shouted at the newly weds which they had to bear in good humour.

Soon the house began to empty. A great bonfire had been constructed outside in the meadow, and the girls, their cheeks aflame with wine, had already started dancing and soon the boys joined them. The dance was like a conga. The boy put his hands on the leading pangchinmei‘s shoulders, another girl put her hands on the boy’s and so on until a long serpent of bodies slowly undulated round the fire to the tune of rhythmical singing. They walked slowly and made a side step at regular intervals. There were no musical instruments and the singing was improvised. A boy or girl would start some funny story and everybody had to continue in turn. It was interrupted from time to time by a refrain ‘How pitiful that was!’ because the narrative related imaginary dangers which continually beset the hero or heroine of the ballad. On and on they went, shuffling through the night without stopping, a dancer falling out from time to time for a short rest and drink of cold water without disrupting the dance. It became sheer hypnotism, this monotonous marching and the throbbing waves of sound. Beyond the pleasure they clearly derived from the dance, there was another, subtler meaning to it which showed the good manners and delicacy of the Nakhi. These dancers, about a hundred of them, came from distant villages. They knew very well that all available accommodation in the bridegroom’s and neighbours’ houses was overtaxed. They had nowhere to sleep, but to have made this obvious by loitering in the house, sitting on the benches round the tables or dozing off in corners would have deeply embarrassed the bridegroom’s family; and in honour bound Wuhan would have had to try to find some place for them to sleep. The dance, tiring though it was, thus provided the fiction that they were not tired at all and preferred to spend the night on their feet. Indeed, the dance stopped only at dawn. The privileged guests, myself included, were concentrated on the first floor and in a few rooms downstairs. We spread our pukaisand rugs on the floor, undressed, and all slept together in closely packed rows. The Nakhi always slept naked, whether it was warm or not, but some of the boys stayed up all night playing mahjong or poker, and with the singing and laughter outside and the click of mahjong pieces there was not much opportunity for sleep.

A year or so after this happy wedding, when Wuhan already had a lusty little son in his arms, I had to go to my Copper Mining Co-operative on the Yangtze River, run by my friend Hoyei. I liked the visits there but I always dreaded the precipices that I had to pass on the way. The mine was ninety li (thirty miles) from Likiang and it was a long day’s journey. As almost everywhere in Likiang district, the trail was one continuous panorama of mountain beauty and grandeur. After sixty li of comparatively level marching, we came to a point from which the great river became visible. There she flowed, like a liquid emerald, in the abyss that made my head reel. Like a green dragon she twisted, turned and foamed in gorges that staggered imagination. The trail dropped straight down, at least forty-five degrees, and down we went with our struggling horses. It was more a delayed fall than a regular descent. So steep was the path in some places that I had to break my descent by clinging to wayside trees. It was wonderful to see how our horses took it. Any moment I expected one of them to collapse with broken legs during the hours it took to negotiate this dangerous stretch. Then my real terrors began. A hanging bridge over a roaring stream a hundred feet below had to be crossed, after which the path ran along the wall of a sheer cliff with a fall of a thousand feet on the other side. Although I was led by Hoyei I suffered from nausea and my legs felt like jelly.

The village where the mine was located was perched on a small shelf over the roaring river; up to it narrow steps were cut in the rock, but there were no railings or protection at all from a bone-breaking fall. After lunch I was persuaded to visit a new copper mine they had opened somewhere along the river. They said the trip was quite safe and I agreed to go. The path led along a narrow shelf two thousand feet above the river. Cajoled and supported by Hoyei and his friends I somehow walked a mile or so. At one spot the rock shelf had collapsed and the path crossed the gap on the trunks of the trees driven into the face of the cliff. I could see through the crevices the river foaming far beneath my very feet. Then the path abruptly ended on a tiny platform jutting over the river. I became so giddy that I should have fallen off over the precipice had not my friends seized me in time. I collapsed, unable to go forward or backward, and I still do not remember clearly how I was dragged, or carried, back to the village.

The inhabitants of the village were the mountain Nakhi — simple and hospitable folk mostly clad in skin garments. They were quite poor as there was little good soil around. Only down below, where the hissing river made a turn, was there a narrow lunette of green fields and groves of mitou — Likiang oranges — hanging like yellow lanterns on tall, dark trees. This type of orange, or perhaps it was tangerine, was an outstanding fruit of Likiang. It was very large, like a medium-size grape-fruit, with a puffy, pimply, and easily detachable skin. It was very juicy and had a very pleasant taste, quite unlike any other orange or tangerine.

Many people came to see me at the Copper Mining Cooperative and, quite unexpectedly, I was handed an invitation to a wedding feast the same evening. I was very glad to accept as I was assured that many strange tribes would attend. The Nakhi customs here were rather different from Likiang and, I thought, it would be interesting to see them.

The bridegroom’s house was somewhere by the river and it was quite dark when, mingtzes in hand, we descended to the river through the hedges of giant Euphorbias candelabra. There was another terror in store for me. For at least a thousand yards we had to jump from boulder to boulder, over the dark waters rushing and swirling between. I was quite exhausted when we reached the scene of festivity. The house was on a ledge, just above the river, and the bonfires, lighted on the bank, were reflected in the racing waters. There were crowds of men and women inside and outside as we arrived. The youths, in blue turbans and clad in skin jackets and pants, played on flutes and houloussehs — a kind of bagless bagpipe made of bamboo stems with gourds for resonance.

I was heartily welcomed by the family, but this time I had to sit down to the feast together with the old men. Fortunately it was a short meal. Afterwards Hoyei came up to me with the bridegroom.

‘There are important guests here tonight,’ Hoyei said, ‘and we want you to meet them.’ I followed them into an upper room. A very dignified lady in a blue skirt and crimson jacket sat at the table with her husband, an oldish man with a long moustache. She must be a Noble Lolo, I thought.

‘Please meet the baroness and her husband,’ Hoyei was saying. She rose, smiled and pointed to a place next to her.

‘We are from the Black Lissu,’ she said, ‘and this is my husband.’ I bowed.

‘We live at the castle on top of that mountain across Yibi (the Yangtze),’ she said, pointing. ‘Lately we have had much trouble. Those dogs, the wild Lolos, have attacked us and burned three of my people’s houses. Luckily we beat them off. I wanted to bring my sons and daughters here today but they cannot be spared. They are up at the castle defending it,’ she continued in a conversational tone. I sat down. She offered me a bowl of white wine and indicated the dishes of food of which I pretended to eat a little. She was very good-looking for her age which must have been forty-eight or fifty. She wore a high silver collar with a clasp and long silver earrings terminating with hollow silver bubbles in the shape of eggs. Her husband’s face was quite flushed from drinking and he looked very sleepy. Glancing round the room, I noticed several rifles stacked in the corner.

‘These are our arms,’ the baroness said. ‘We must always have them handy.’ Of course she was right. Only then I realized that the village we were in was just opposite the infamous Siaoliangshan where the outlaw Lolos roamed, plundering and burning: but the Black Lissu were their brothers in spirit and quite a match for them. I wondered how it happened that the bridegroom’s family were such good friends with this noble family: arms and opium running, I conjectured, as it was scarcely possible to raise such a question. The Black Lissu wanted arms just as badly as the Black Lolos, and they had the opium which the Chinese wanted. Fair exchange is no robbery, and it was on that principle, I was sure, that the intimate friendship with this dangerous couple was based.

The courtyard, which was very small, was just below the room.

‘Let us go and watch the dancing,’ said the baroness. I followed her. The snake-like file of youths and women was already undulating around the fire. There was no singing here but dance music provided by a dozen or so of the mountain boys playing on flutes and houloussehs. The music was soft and lilting and in no way different, in its rhythm, from a foxtrot.

‘Let us dance!’ decreed the baroness.

‘I can follow the music, but I am not sure about the steps,’ I protested.

‘Never mind. I will show you,’ she said, joining the dancers. I followed her with my hands on her shoulders.

‘Ouch, you stepped on my toe!’ she cried when I made a wrong step; and I apologized.

‘Disgraceful,’ she murmured. ‘Look at that woman fondling that boy. She could be his grandmother,’ she added, indicating with her head an elderly woman who was practically hanging on the neck of a handsome mountain boy dressed in skins. The people at this village were certainly uninhibited. Romance was rampant; and girls were dancing as if in a trance, clasping their boy friends around the waist and looking at them with melting eyes as if they were little gods. There was a blast of flutes, pipes and houloussehs and the boys rushed into the middle of the courtyard playing their instruments and executing a sort of Cossack dance, throwing their sandalled feet in the air. Then there was another dance which was exactly like the Big Apple, and like little furies the girls jumped on to the boys and were whirled by them until exhausted. It was already very late and everybody was getting drunk. I bowed to the baroness, who pressed me to visit them across the river where they were returning on the following day.

In the morning we went to see them off. Three rafts waited for them. Each raft consisted of twenty or thirty inflated pigskins, held together by a flimsy bamboo frame. The rafts had been brought as far up the river as was possible. The baroness and her husband lay down on one raft and their suite occupied the others. The naked men, swimming in the water and holding the raft with one hand, helped to direct its course. The current was terrific, and the rafts twisted and bobbed up and down but soon they touched the other bank at the intended spot. Horses and retainers awaited the party there and they started crawling up the barren side of the mountain towards the forest and their castle.

Such were the marriages in Likiang and round about. For a girl who did not love her husband it was the end of her golden days when, as a pangchinmei, she roamed freely with her friends, boys and girls, dancing and romancing. In Likiang no one really objected to romances between a Nakhi girl and boy, but the people were roused if the romance was with a stranger. The motto was ‘The Nakhi girls for the Nakhi boys and nobody else’, and everyone was free within the framework of the tribe. A Minkia or Chinese who tried to flirt with a Nakhi girl went in danger of his life, and as a matter of fact many were killed by the jealous Nakhi men. I remember a young Chinese, a refugee from the Japanese, who came to Likiang on business. Attracted by the apparent ease with which pangchinmei mixed with men, he started to court a pretty Nakhi girl. Soon afterwards, in broad daylight, he was ambushed by three Nakhi who concealed their faces with handkerchiefs. They shot him in the cheek and said, ‘This is the first warning. Next time it will be in the heart.’ The man left Likiang in a hurry.

When a girl becomes a matron, at once her long queue is cut off and she must always wear the black mitre of the married woman. She must sleep at a side room on the ground floor and is not permitted to run around with her former friends. The husband sleeps, almost as a rule, in the drawing-room. During the day his bed, adorned with rugs, serves as a day couch. Quite unlike China and other countries, there are no double beds and husband and wife are not supposed to sleep together throughout the night: if a neighbour found out that they did, they would be disgraced in the village. Even the pukais (quilts) are always made of single size and never double. This restriction does not apply to friends. Male friends, visiting overnight, always sleep together with the host, two or three in the same bed, and if their number is large, they are distributed in twos and threes in other available beds. Women do the same with their visiting girl friends. They all sleep totally naked and the room is heated to an appalling degree by blazing braziers. It is a lucky and much-valued guest who, as a special honour, is asked to share a bed with the grandfather of the house.


Likiang could really hold the doubtful honour of being the world’s suicide capital. There was not a family that did not number a suicide or two among its members. Suicide was looked upon as a convenient and desirable way of escape from a tangled love affair, a severe loss of ‘face’, a grievous quarrel, a mortal insult, an unhappy married life and from a host of other unfortunate situations. There was no opprobrium attached to it and the unhappy man or woman was not threatened with eternal burning in a fiery furnace. Not that there were no furnaces in the Nakhi hell, but they were reserved for offences of a more heinous character. Yet it was believed to be true that suicides were definitely outside the pale of the paradise where the ancestors of all the Nakhi dwelt in leisurely enjoyment of the luxurious plenty of white yaks and fleet horses, vast expanses of rich fields and flower-strewn meadows, palatial houses, and wine, women and song.

The men and women, who had died by their own hand or suddenly, without the benefit of the magic coin in the mouth which opened the gates of paradise, remained as earthbound spirits, flitting here and there in a rather pretty no man’s land between the living and the dead. It was not a bad place and it closely resembled the material contours of the mother earth; there were hills and valleys, rivers and lakes and lush alpine meadows, overgrown with the gorgeous yuwoo flowers (The word yuwooliterally means suicide; thus there was a special variety of flower called the Suicide Flower). But existence in this pleasant place was rather aimless. They could eat the nectar of the yuwoo flowers and drink the dew, they could lounge on the clouds, talk to friends, if they had any, and indulge in shadowy love-making as much as they wanted. But sooner or later they got tired of it all and realized that they were neither fish nor fowl. They longed for their families but they could not reach them. It was impossible to return to earth, and the infrequent exchange of words with the near and dear through the sanyi medium were distressingly unsatisfying. Nor could they join the other departed members of their family as they did not know the way to the gates of paradise, which were guarded by malicious and unkind spirits. They were usually saved by their living relatives or parents who ordered the dtombas to perform a Harlallu ceremony which ultimately opened the gates of the ancestral paradise for them to enter.

Suicide was not committed haphazardly in an undignified or casual manner as in the West, where people throw themselves under a tram or train, jump from tall buildings or put their heads in gas ovens. The Nakhi, like other Orientals, considered the entry into the Beyond a serious and ceremonious affair. It was as unseemly to cross the Threshold in a hurry, dishevelled or in untidy dress, as to attend an audience at the king’s palace in dirty rags with perhaps a pail and broom in hand.

The yuwoo was a ceremonial suicide and had definite rules for stepping out of the body in a decorous and dignified manner and in proper surroundings. If the suicide was to be committed at home, the drawing-room was the right place for it. If it could not be done at home, as in the case of runaway couples, a secluded and beautiful spot in an inaccessible part of the mountains was the prescribed rule. The intending suicide had to be properly attired as though invited to an official feast. If the human personality persisted in the Beyond in the likeness of its earthly form, no doubt the dress persisted too and it would have been folly to wear dirty or improper clothes, perhaps for eternity. Besides, sooner or later there might be a passage to the ancestral paradise, and what would an ancestor say to a descendant entering the celestial mansion in rags.

All the various ways of ending life had not been definitely prescribed but a reliable variety of sure and lethal methods was recommended for the purpose. The best and surest was the root of black aconite boiled in oil and it was reasonably swift. It did cause great suffering, but it had the advantage of paralysing the larynx instantly so that no cries or groans could betray the whereabouts of the expiring suicides to any search parties. It was much preferred also because it did not disfigure the body as would death from drowning, hanging or a fall from a cliff. But its real value lay in double suicides, when it guaranteed the death of both lovers absolutely. No mischance was possible. A simultaneous jump from a cliff, into a lake or a river, a stabbing or even a hanging always carried the possibility that one party to the pact might survive, and perhaps not unwillingly. But these methods were not altogether disdained, so that there was a sufficient variety to provide an endless topic of discussion and suggestions for morbid neighbours.

The suicide pacts between girls and boys accounted, in my opinion, for at least 80 per cent of the suicides in Likiang. Next on the list were the unhappily married women and the rest were due to miscellaneous causes. This unusual and alarming prevalence of suicide among the young people was due entirely to the marriage system of the Nakhi which had never fitted the passionate character of these free and independent people. In their fervour to implant Chinese civilization and culture among their people, the Nakhi rulers had introduced a strict and uncompromising Confucian marriage code, the provisions of which caused much untold misery and death in this otherwise happy valley. According to old Chinese custom, it is the parents who arrange marriages for their children without the slightest regard for their likes and dislikes. As a matter of fact, most of the engagements are concluded between the families when their children are still in their infancy or even whilst they are still in their mothers’ wombs. It is considered highly improper and unnecessary that the prospective brides and grooms should meet each other before their marriage. It is only during the wedding ceremony that they see each other for the first time and nobody else is interested in whether they like each other or not after the wedding night. They have to stay together and there is nothing more to be said about it. No engagements, concluded by the parents, may be broken off in any circumstances.

With the Chinese, who have been trained for thousands of years in obedience to parents and in filial piety, this system has worked fairly well. They are docile and friendly by nature, and to many real love came gradually after marriage. But with the Nakhi this system never worked. They had practised, ever since the beginning of their race, free love like their cousins the Tibetans and the Liukhi who still do. This tradition was part of their very blood and still expresses itself in their gaiety, their dances and the free mixing of sexes which even Chinese morality had been unable to suppress. As few secrets could be kept in such small communities as Likiang and its surrounding villages, boys and girls knew well in advance whom they were going to marry and when. Sometimes there was mutual liking between future partners and all was well. But in many cases feelings were not reciprocated or it was dislike that was mutual. From this sprang a continual regrouping of the eternal triangles, and clandestine love was rather the rule in Likiang than the exception. Sometimes the unhappy lovers separated when the formal marriage took place, and sullenly paired with their unloved spouses, but more often than not, when love was too strong, they decided to end it all. This was especially the case when a baby was on the way, for a bastard was a disgrace of unparalleled proportions. The girl would be killed by her parents anyway, and the only escape was a suicide in which her lover was honour bound to join.

The idea of a suicide pact, it seems, had been established centuries ago by a Nakhi girl, named Kamegamiki, as the only way out of her entanglement with a handsome boy. She was to be married to a wealthy but plain man and could not bear the prospect. In accordance with the then prevailing etiquette, she did not broach the subject of suicide to the young man by word of mouth direct but conveyed the meaning in verse through the music of the Jew’s-harp which is a national musical instrument of the Nakhi and much used in love-making. Accompanying her whispered words with the harp she made a long and plaintive recital in which she used all her power and charm to persuade her lover of the hopelessness of their position, out of which the only escape was through death. He was not at all keen to follow her into the grave and raised many objections to her plan, expressing them in suitable verse, again with the help of the Jew’s-harp. But she was a persistent and possessive woman and finally she drove him to distraction with her promptings.

At last the boy yielded and promised to commit suicide with her, but on the condition that she put up the necessary capital. He wanted to get a suit of fine clothes and other articles of a gentleman’s attire, and a lot of good food and good wine. Perhaps, he thought, she would be unable to raise so much money; but, to his dismay, she produced the cash on the table without much difficulty as, evidently, she was a rich woman. He was trapped. They proceeded to a secluded spot in the mountains, spent an idyllic time until the provisions ran out and then, it is said, took the poison. This story and the verses are recorded in an ancient manuscript, called the Book of Kamegamiki. The top page is illuminated and shows the lady in a wine-red tunic and a petunia-blue skirt. Her great dark and lustrous eyes, even in the picture, seem to promise and beckon and their intensity still rivets the attention.

This story has inspired suicide ever since; it is recited by the dtombas, as a prelude, when performing the Harlallu ceremony, and the procedure of using the Jew’s-harp in concluding the suicide pact has been strictly adhered to. As the boys did not have a penny of their own, the girls were always called upon to finance the ceremony of yuwoo. They had to get new clothes, food and wine. Then, hand in hand, they slipped away into the mountains, where they ate and danced and made love to their hearts’ content until the end.

But even in the face of death, the Likiang girls showed their superiority over the weak male. Many boys did not want to die but were stampeded into doing it by their strong-willed sweethearts. It was related to me that once a girl drove her lover at the point of a sword and, scaring away the people who wanted to stop them, she forced the trembling lover to the brink of a high cliff and calmly pushed him over. Then, with perfect composure, she ran herself through with the sword.

Mass suicide pacts were not unusual and it was related to me that once six couples were found hanging in the forest on the Horse Saddle peak, next to the Shangri Moupo. Once a pair of unhappy girls were found standing, locked in an embrace, in a small lake below the Snow Peak. They had tied their ankles together, weighed them with a stone and jumped in. When a boy or a girl was missing from home for more than two days, the parents always suspected the awful truth. There was no time lost in organizing a thorough search, and in a few days the bodies of the unhappy lovers would be found at some far-away spot. The parents wailed and beat their breasts and began to make arrangements for the Harlallu ceremony. Sometimes the trail was still hot when the outraged parents started the chase. Judging from their grief and lamentations, one would suppose that they would have been overjoyed to catch their children before the deed had been done. It was nothing of the sort. Were the lovers to be caught alive, they would be reviled and perhaps beaten to death by parents or neighbours from the necessity of saving face. This face saving was the inflexible and immovable Moloch and had precedence over parental love. It demanded blood sacrifices, in one form or another, irrespective of all other considerations. The lovers knew this only too well and took great care not to be found alive. If a girl’s sworn lover had died far away from Likiang, she was honour bound to follow him into the grave.

It is surprising that the Liukhi of Yungning, living practically next door to Likiang, never had suicidal tendencies. But they had kept to their custom of free love and married or lived with anybody they liked. There were no heartbreaks there that could not be repaired, and the oblivion of death was not sought before its appointed time. Marriage amongst the Tibetans and Black Lolos was also on the basis of free choice and mutual love, and they had no such suicides. In Likiang the prevalence of free and easy suicides could also be traced to the dtombas pernicious influence. The rich emoluments from the Harlallu ceremonies kept the dtombas in clover and it was in their interest to encourage and maintain a high rate of suicides. Therefore, they kept up a subtle and cunning propaganda among these credulous people about the desirability of suicide as a logical solution of the grave problems of life. It was they who took pains to represent existence in the suicides no man’s land as blissful, and they certainly succeeded in their salesmanship. Their teachings during the centuries had brought the whole tribe to such a fine point of equipoise between life and death that it became a matter of touch-and-go, and sometimes a petty quarrel or a flash of rage sent a person beyond the veil.

Such examples of thoughtless and cruel avarice were not confined to the dtombas alone. I remember a detestable and blasphemous episode which occurred in Likiang during the war years. A small group of Gurkha soldiers and a few refugees from Burma had trekked into Likiang after a death march across those impossible gorges and ranges of the Salween and Mekong. Unfortunately some of them had dysentery and cholera. The Nakhi, never affected before by such epidemic diseases, succumbed in considerable numbers, and the Minkia carpenters had hardly time enough to produce the coffins. When their lucrative trade had slackened, with the abatement of the disease, they arranged sumptuous services at all Buddhistic temples of Likiang praying the Buddha and other deities to renew and keep up the mortality to the continued prosperity of their business. This reminded me strongly of a Tolstoy story in which a rich merchant, having garnered huge stocks of grain, was selling it at enormous profit during the famine. He vowed to God to build a new cathedral with big bells and all, if only God would keep up the famine in the land. That very night all his barns and storehouses were destroyed by fire.

The Harlallu ceremonies were a constant feature of life in Likiang. Strangers were not invited to witness them, but many friends made it a point to ask me as I was considered almost a member of their family. They always affected me deeply: perhaps it was the sense of the romantic in me that was thrilled by such a display of love unto death. I remember one particular case very well.

A girl in the village at the foot of the Saddle peak had a lover who was a soldier fighting with the army at Taierhchwang. One day his family received a telegram that he was killed in action. The girl cried bitterly when she heard the news from friends, but did not say anything. Then one night she dressed herself in her best garments, made up her face, put on perfume, and in the morning the parents found her dead, hanging from a beam in the drawing-room. It was only in death that the lovers were forgiven by their sorrowing families and it was usual for the Harlallu ceremony to be a joint one. It was for such a ceremony that I was invited to the house of the dead soldier.

On arrival at the farm I found the courtyard swept clean and decorated with pine branches. The family, dressed in white sackcloth, was waiting about for the guests. Near the entrance there were erected two artificial trees, made up of a thin pole, bamboo stalks, leaves and branches of other trees. They looked rather like two Christmas-trees as they were gaily decorated with little flags and banners and charms. One tree was for the boy and the other for the girl. The boy’s tree among other decorations displayed miniature articles of male attire — jackets and trousers, etc., cut out of coloured paper. There were also all the small articles that he had used and cherished, such as his favourite comb and his pipe, tobacco pouch, his mirror, razor and other little possessions. Her tree had her powder-box and lipstick, combs and pins, a simple vanity case, cheap ornaments and a perfume bottle, in addition to the paper models of feminine costume. It was touching and very pitiful.

In the centre of the courtyard there was a small mound of earth and sand, fenced in by wooden planks. A handful of multi-coloured triangular banners was stuck in the middle of the mound with the names and titles of the demons of suicide. Their likenesses, drawn by charcoal on a series of unpainted wooden tablets, were stuck in the sand around the banners. There were many of them — horrible creatures with snake bodies and bestial human faces; some had their hair standing on end, others had little diadems and caps on their heads. Outside, by the hall door, there was a small, silk-draped altar on which the pictures of the deceased stood with offerings of fruits and sweets, and an incense burner. On the other side below there was a sort of curtained kiosk where the dtombas sat, intoning passages from the Book of Kamegamiki and other ancient manuscripts. A gong punctuated their reading. There were seven dtombas and they were dressed in mandarin coats of embroidered silk, with five-petal diadems on their heads; on their feet they wore the ancient-style Chinese boots with very thick soles. After their recital they moved into the courtyard and started a slow dance around the banners and the demons to the sound of a small drum and their sonorous ndselers. They lifted one leg high, turned slowly on the other and stepped ahead. Continually repeating these precise but monotonous movements, they chanted the incantations summoning the suicide demons to come and the dead couple to appear once more at their home. On and on it went, persistent, irresistible.

‘Come! Come! Appear! Come!’ they commanded in a metallic and hypnotic voice. There was a deathly hush among the family and the guests. Beads of perspiration appeared on the dtombas faces and their eyes became inverted and glazed. They clearly moved in a semi-trance.

‘Appear! Appear! Come! Come!’ The words fell with each clang of ndseler and each beat of the drum. An hour passed and more. Still the rhythmic, intolerable command went on. Still the men stepped slowly and gyrated in unison. The tension mounted and was reaching a breaking point. Suddenly they stopped. There was a dead stillness and a gust of ice-cold wind filled the courtyard. Just for an instant, one brief moment, we all felt that the lovers had returned and stood there by their likenesses. I thought at first the impression was entirely mine: but, with a burst of weeping, the two families prostrated themselves as one man before the little altar. The guests looked startled. Nothing was seen and the impression was gone in a flash. But they had been there and everyone knew it.

The still weeping hosts now began to arrange the tables and a simple village funeral feast of the traditional eight dishes was served. A special table with similar dishes was put up for the demons and a row of dishes was placed on the altar for the departed. As the wine began to flow, the people regained their spirits and started talking and joking as if it was not a funeral at all. After the meal the dtombas killed two black chickens, putting the coins into their beaks as they expired. The chickens represented the deceased, and thus the gate to the paradise of their ancestors was opened and their connection with earth broken. Then there was another dance of the dtombas, armed this time with small, wooden swords. It was lively and resembled a spirited fencing as the demons, having been convened, feted and propitiated, were now being driven out of the house to their nether regions and conjured never to afflict again the two households with their suicidal influence.

Sitting one morning at my desk about ten o’clock, I was called by the neighbours to come down quickly to a house near our village gate. There I found a young girl in a stupor. It appeared that early in the morning she had drunk four ounces of raw opium, dissolved in a bowl of vinegar, and in addition swallowed two or three gold rings. I gave her injections of caffeine and apomorphine, and did all within my power to make her vomit. But the enormous dose of the poison was already doing its work — she was breathing stertorously and her cheeks were purple. Her eyes were open but she was unconscious. I persisted in my efforts and by three o’clock in the afternoon she came round and was able to talk to her family for a while. She was extremely angry with me and knocked the medicine out of my hands. ‘I want to die!’ she cried. ‘I must die! No one can stop me!’ and she relapsed into unconsciousness again soon afterwards. I stayed with her till midnight, administering caffeine and other restoratives. Several times she responded again, only to cry out how much she wanted to die. Then she bade a very touching and affectionate farewell to her heart-broken parents and sisters and brothers. She seemed to be much better by midnight and I was persuaded to go home, but she sank rapidly afterwards and was dead at four.

It transpired that she had gone with other girls on a pilgrimage to the Fertility Temple on a peak near Likiang. There they met some boy friends and had a meal together which they themselves cooked. Upon her return to town an aunt of hers, a bad-tempered woman and a notorious gossip, scolded her. She called her an apizdya (slut) and many other names in which the Nakhi language is so rich. She also hinted that the girl had surely lost her honour and a baby would be on its way in due course. It was this undeserved reviling in front of all the neighbours which had unhinged this normally placid girl. She felt disgraced and the only way to prove her innocence, she decided, was by suicide. The bereaved and enraged family of the poor girl meted a typical Nakhi revenge on the wicked woman. They proceeded to her house and smashed everything to bits.

When someone is killed in a house or a woman dies there in childbirth, the place automatically becomes chow (unclean). The dtombas are then invited to perform the Chownaggv or Purification ceremony in which the demons of uncleanness and calamity are convened, feasted and driven out. It is a very expensive ceremony as a black ox, goat or sheep, with a black pig and a black chicken have to be killed. The ceremony takes place at night.

Hoshowen was a junior clerk at my office. He was a stocky and quiet young boy but sometimes rather truculent. When he was a child, his father had been ambushed by Tibetan robbers and cut up into small pieces. He lived with, his widowed mother and an uncle on his father’s side at a house about one li from our village on the road to Lashiba. My cook doted on him and adopted him legally as his son and heir. The boy became a victim of one of these foolish marriage arrangements which were common in Likiang, and had to marry the girl to whom he had been engaged immediately after his birth. At that time he was but a few months old while she was already fifteen or sixteen; so that at the time of their marriage, he was a boy of twenty-two and she was a ripe woman of thirty-eight and old enough to be his mother. She was, however, a good and hard-working woman and looked after him and her mother-in-law well enough. Unfortunately for her, both Hoshowen and her mother-in-law hated her. It appeared that the older woman had found consolation in her widowhood in the person of a man in the neighbourhood. The daughter-in-law was wise to this and despised her for it, and there were constant quarrels at that unhappy house which sometimes ended in fights between the two enraged women. Egged on by his mother, Hoshowen also began beating the poor woman. The climax came one day when the mother, in tears, told her son that she had been gravely insulted by her daughter-in-law that morning and nothing short of a good beating of the culprit could restore her face and honour. There must have been a terrible and degrading scene when the husband and his mother together pounced on the defenceless woman. They left her afterwards in the kitchen, bruised and whimpering, and retired to bed as it was already nightfall.

At midnight the poor woman, crushed by humiliation and despair, made a fire in the kitchen and burned her pukai (quilt) and trousseau. Then she dressed herself in her best garments as a married woman of good family, touched up her swollen face and lips, prepared a noose and then hanged herself in the drawing-room. No one heard any noise or knew anything until morning. They found her with her face purple and choking horribly. She was still alive but never regained consciousness and died soon afterwards. Then a still greater tragedy was revealed: she was gone about three or four months with child. The whole house became accursed and unclean. Lamas were hurriedly called and, after a short service, the coffin was escorted to a meadow outside the village. There it was placed on a pyre, and after another short service by the assembled lamas a torch was applied (The bodies of suicides, of women who died in childbirth and those who died a violent death, were always cremated by the Nakhi. This was a survival of their ancient custom. Burials were only introduced after the adoption of Chinese civilization).

The next act of the drama opened again at Hoshowen’s house in the evening. The dtombas had been called, black animals prepared and tables and benches arranged for the usual funeral banquet. The lamas were sitting in the rooms on the first floor, intoning their litanies to the accompaniment of prayer-bells and small trumpets. Their butter lamps gleamed brightly. We went upstairs to watch their services. Everyone soon noticed that something was afoot in the adjoining rooms. There were loud raps, like pistol shots, coming from cupboards, walls and beams. Tables and benches crackled and moved very slightly over the floor. Everybody fled downstairs. I remained, fascinated as I always was by such phenomena.

The dtombas then started beating their drums, and as I did not want to miss the purification ceremony which was new to me, I went down to watch them. It was already ten o’clock and the moon was bright.

The stillness was uncanny as the dtombas started calling up the demons of uncleanness and calamity. Their likenesses had been stuck into a mound in the centre of the courtyard. They were dreadful, leering creatures, some headless, all with snake bodies — real devils this time. The black animals had been killed and there was blood spilled and smeared everywhere. The dtombasgyrated slowly to the measured clangs of ndselers. They were in a trance and there was something inhuman and mechanical in their mathematically precise movements. They looked like walking corpses with their pale faces and sightless eyes which had turned inwards. Their conjurations this time were different — they sounded insistent, potent, sinister. There was an atmosphere of unbearable expectancy and malignity. Almost palpably the forces of evil were filling the courtyard. People shivered and huddled closer to each other. It became cold and even the moon seemed to lose its brilliance. The tables and benches, prepared for the feast, began to tremble and move. My neighbours watched them, frozen in silent horror. Suddenly Hoshowen’s uncle was seized. He twisted and struggled on the ground, foaming at the mouth. People rushed to him, trying to hold him, but he shook them off like flies. His eyes were bulging out. A loud and strange voice came out of his convulsed throat. He turned to Hoshowen and his sister-in-law and shouted imprecations in that strange, unearthly voice. Again the people rushed at him trying to stop him and filling his mouth with leaves and anything within reach. Half choked, he subsided. The neighbours, with eyes of terror, fled and I was rushed home. Hoshowen fainted. We did not see the end of the Chownaggv ceremony. No one stayed for the funeral feast. Next day I was told that the uncle had been possessed by his brother, Hoshowen’s father, who spoke in a direct voice, using his brother’s larynx. He cursed his wife and his son for the poor woman’s death. He said he would avenge her and that their punishment would come soon.


The Nakhi, like many other people still unaffected by the materialistic Western civilization, lived in close and intimate contact with the world of spirits. They believed that the immensity of space was inhabited by big and small deities, spirits of the dead and a host of nature’s spirits both good and bad. The relationship between mankind and these many spirits was not considered hypothetical or conjectural but factual and authentic. Psychic phenomena neither surprised nor alarmed them unless they were of a disagreeable nature. Unlike the taboo imposed by religion in the West on communication with spirits, no such restrictions existed in Likiang and the communications themselves were looked upon as the normal and eminently practical means of solving certain intricate problems of life when other methods had failed. If there was an apparition, materialization or direct voice, people did not shrink from it but investigated the matter with sympathy and interest. In a word, a visitor from the unseen was treated as a person, with proper courtesy.

It was firmly believed that the dead survived. They did not live somewhere in the blue sky beyond the clouds but existed somewhere near, just on the other side of the veil. The veil could be lifted or, at least, a hole could be made in it for a short talk with the dear departed. It was not considered necessary or desirable to bother them too much for two reasons. One was that they had already accustomed themselves to their new existence and that it was a bad thing to remind them too much of earthly affairs and thereby induce them to become earthbound. The second reason was that if it should ever be demonstrated that the life beyond is as happy and felicitous as it is pictured in Nakhi scriptures, there would be the temptation to end it all and to migrate to a happier plane of existence in a hurry. As it was, the suicides in Likiang were too frequent and easy, and such revelations might cause a stampede, bringing the whole Nakhi race to a. premature end.

The dead, therefore, could only be approached in time of a severe crisis in the family when, for example, someone was dangerously ill, with all hope in drugs abandoned. Then a professional medium, called sanyi, was summoned and his visit was always arranged in the dead of night, when the neighbours were asleep. He chanted the incantations from the scriptures, accompanying himself on a small drum. He danced a little. Then he fell into a trance. There was no direct voice. The man gasped out what he saw. It might, for instance, be a tall old man in a purple jacket, slightly lame, leaning on a black stick. ‘Oh, that is Grandfather!’ cried the family, prostrating themselves. Then the sickness of the patient was described. ‘The old man is smiling,’ reported the sanyi. ‘He says the boy will recover in seven days if he takes this medicine.’ There followed a slow dictation of what to take and when to take it. The family prostrated themselves again as the old man was reported to be going away. On the other hand, the old man might have said that the case was hopeless and that the boy would be with him in three days.

People always said that such prescriptions or prophecies were infallible: either the patient recovered with the aid of the prescribed medicine or he was dead on the day and hour announced by his departed ancestor. Moreover, murderers could be brought to justice through interviews with their dead victims and certain family affairs cleared up. Conversations with the dead in dreams were a frequent occurrence in Likiang and were given much credence.

As I have already explained, the dtombas controlled a vast realm of malignant and destructive demons, who plagued mankind with their malicious interference. They ensconced themselves in the households, where disharmony occurred, and tugged telepathically at the disordered thoughts of the miserable or the depressed, inciting in them the ideas of revenge, murder or suicide. These demons are pictured in the Nakhi sacred manuscripts as being with a human head, of a repulsive appearance, and a snake body. The dtombas claim that these snake-like creatures can be seen by men subjectively under the effect of prolonged drink or in insanity. This is rather in accord with the Western conception of the visions during delirium tremens. The whole idea of the dtomba ceremonial dances is to induce these malignant creatures, once they had invaded the house, to come out, so to speak, into the open. Then they are ceremoniously feasted, exorcised and conjured never to return.

The deities are in a class by themselves and cannot be coerced or commanded. To these belong the powerful Nagaraja clans. The Nagarajas are the heroic spirits of great Nagas or serpents, and it is clear that they can be identified with the biblical seraphim who were the angels with snake bodies. Like the seraphim, all Nagarajas possess beautiful human faces and can manifest themselves in an entire human form. Many women fall in love with these handsome denizens of the spirit world and bear, as a result of the union, specially gifted and good-looking children. The Nagarajas are propitiated with milk and dainties at special ceremonies. They are always treated with particular courtesies. The Nagaraja cult is not confined to Likiang but is very popular in Burma and Siam. Nagas were worshipped in ancient Angkor Thorn also and the Naga motif is still predominant in temple decorations in Indo-China and Siam. In China the cult survives as the worship and reverence of the Dragon — the clawed Naga — which rules oceans, rivers and mountains. One of the objects of Fengshui in China is to determine the sites of houses and tombs so as to conform to the Dragon’s disposition and will.

It is believed that the Nagarajas sometimes live on the material plane incarnated, of course, in a snake form. One of them lived close to my Iron Mining Co-operative, and near the village which was on a hill covered with sparse woods. The deity stayed in a small cave and milk and eggs were placed at a respectful distance from the opening. Not satisfied by these willing sacrifices, the Naga emerged from time to time to swallow a chicken or young pig, thus becoming rather an expensive visitor. I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of it one evening. It was a huge king cobra, old and venerable, and its upraised head, I had time to notice, had a comb like a cock’s. We quickly moved away as king cobras can run with the speed of a galloping horse, and if bitten we would have died within half an hour.

In addition to the spirits of the dead, malevolent demons and Nagarajas, Likiang was a veritable playground for siao-shent^e, which in the West are usually termed poltergeists. I liked the Chinese version, which means ‘little spirits’ or, by extension, ‘little gods’. It is now freely recognized in the West by those interested in psychical research that such psychic phenomena are almost commonplace among people who believe in them. It seems that these unseen intelligences prefer to manifest themselves in a congenial atmosphere created by the impressionable acceptance of simple people who live in close communion with nature. In Europe and America, even in China, these poltergeistic manifestations are considered as an inexplicable nuisance. Many people believe, of course, that they are devil’s tricks to subvert the faithful, and when these unusual performances start, many shrink in pious horror and rush to have them exorcised.

The Nakhi people, whilst not welcoming such manifestations of the unseen forces, were nevertheless very levelheaded and practical when they occurred. They believed implicitly that the phenomena were originated and directed by intelligent spirit-beings — not the spirits of the ancestors but creatures of an order either below or above the human level. The accepted opinion was that the displacement of objects, rapping and other phenomena were not purposeless acts to frighten or annoy the occupants of a house, but were designed by the intelligences to attract attention as, evidently they had no other means of making themselves known. The purpose of this interference in the human sphere was, clearly, to communicate something to the family, or, perhaps, issue a warning about some impending misfortune which might be forestalled. Thus, instead of cursing or insulting the unseen intruders or shrinking from them, people addressed them courteously and tried to find out, by a timely seance, what the matter was.

The most celebrated case of persistent poltergeistic phenomena in Likiang, was the Lai family’s old house in one of the principal streets near Madame Lee’s wine-shop. The family was considered to be the richest in town, but it was agreed that their vast fortune seemed to have originated soon after the phenomena had started. It was a curious case and it is related by Fitzgerald in his book The Tower of Five Glories. I went to the house a few days after my arrival in Likiang and saw where the roof had been broken through in many places by the huge boulders which still lay on the floor as they had fallen. The walls were deeply scarred by the tongues of a flame which had appeared from nowhere. The place was utterly uninhabitable. A few years later it was pulled down.

This was the story, as related to me by friends. The Lais had been a moderately well-to-do family and they had only enough money to build that modest one-storey house. One evening, as Mr Lai was lying on his couch smoking opium, he noticed a strange disappearance and reappearance of objects. Turning over on the bed to relight his pipe, he saw, to his intense surprise, that the little lamp was gone. Laying his pipe on the table, he got up to investigate. Turning round, he saw the lamp in its old place but this time the pipe was not there. Day after day these curious happenings increased. Friends came to watch in fascinated amazement as dishes were carried by invisible hands from one table to another; playing-cards scattered over the bed; bottles of wine and cups moved round and many other acts, some of them highly comical, were performed. There was no hint of anything unpleasant or destructive. Finally, Mr Lai decided to arrange a seance at which it was discovered that there were two ‘little spirits’ in action and that both, so they said, were females. They declared that their purpose in molesting Mr Lai and his family was to demand that Mr Lai should rebuild the famous iron chain bridge over the Yangtze at Tzelichiang, some eighty li from Likiang on the busy Likiang—Yuenpei caravan route. This hanging bridge, about 150 feet long, had been built long ago by a pair of lovers, who had escaped from the fury of pursuing parents, and who, with great difficulty and only just in time, had crossed the raging river by boat to safety. In gratitude for their almost miraculous escape from two mortal dangers and in fulfilment of a vow they built the bridge. With the passage of time the eighteen chains, anchored to the huge boulders on each side of the gorge, where deep down the great river boiled, became loosened and worn out and liable to break at any time.

Mr Lai, during the fateful seance, retorted that it was easier said than done to undertake such a work, and that he was not a rich man. Why did the spirit ladies not go to somebody else with such a request? They replied that they came to him because they knew him to be a man of drive and purpose; as for finance, they would see what could be done.

Ever since that day the Lai family began to prosper exceedingly. In no time at all they became the richest merchants in Likiang. No one knows exactly how, but some people averred that the little spirits brought or materialized gold and silver ingots into Mr Lai’s room. Others thought it was opium, which was even better for trade than gold. A few conjectured that perhaps some vital trade secrets had been disclosed to the family by those omniscient spirits. One thing is certain — the spirits were always present in the house and continued to amuse the merchant and his friends with their clever and good-natured pranks. Then the day of reckoning arrived when the ‘little sisters’ declared that since Mr Lai was now a very rich man, the time had come to begin work on the bridge. But as always happens, when a man is becoming rich, his appetite grows with eating. Mr Lai dolefully protested that he was still a poor man and must accumulate more funds before he could undertake so expensive a job. ‘Now or never!’ cried the two infuriated spirits through the medium. In a flash, they changed from being charming angels into intractable, avenging demons. The pleasant and luxuriously furnished house was turned into an abode of desolation and fear. Tongues of flame licked the walls at unexpected places and times. Boulders crashed now and then in the very midst of the drawing-room. Pebbles were thrown into the food dishes and crockery was smashed. This continued for many weeks. Poor Mr Lai did not know what to do. His name became associated with bad luck in town and people were afraid to pass his house at night. All sorts of conjurations and exorcisms were resorted to, but without avail.

Fitzgerald describes in his book how a Chinese colonel visited the house, armed with two pistols and surrounded by his soldiers. ‘I am not afraid of you, you rogues!’ the colonel shouted, brandishing his pistols and entering the drawing-room. Before he had finished his tirade, a round stone, as big as a fist, hit him on the head and he had to be rushed away for treatment. A missionary, whom I met afterwards, boldly entered the house carrying a cross and the Bible. ‘Where Christ is,’ he shouted, ‘no evil spirits may abide!’ A huge boulder crashed right by his feet and he rushed out in a panic.

With a heavy heart, grieving over the ruination of his house and the heavy outlay of capital, Mr Lai had the bridge reconstructed. But the destructive manifestations did not abate. Another protracted seance was arranged in the presence of a local Buddhist priest. The ‘little spirits’ declared that they were disgusted with Mr Lai’s avarice and wanted to continue punishing him. However, they yielded to the priest’s entreaties and a compact was made by which Mr Lai would build a small shrine by the bridge; there was to be an attendant priest, and a daily offering of rice, wheat, wine and other edibles to be made in perpetuity. Mr Lai carried out the agreement to the letter and then, with a great ceremony, the ‘little spirit ladies’ were escorted to their new dwelling. The manifestations ceased and later on the old house was demolished and a new one built in its place.

I have never been seriously interested in communications with the dead: but poltergeists have always attracted me and I have devoted more than thirty years of my life to their observation and research whenever possible. I had long ago persuaded myself that these phenomena do occur and that poltergeists do really exist. In China, whilst staying for long periods at certain Taoistic monasteries, I had the opportunity of observing a number of interesting psychic phenomena but did not take part in them. I was particularly impressed by the long and difficult ceremony of exorcising an energumen at a Taoist monastery near Soochow. It was a most horrible proceeding.

My observations of the phenomena, in which the ‘little spirits’, or so-called poltergeists, participated, left me with a firm conviction that they had nothing to do with the spirits of the departed. They were not really human at all and even their intelligence did not conceal their lack of many characteristics we usually associate with men. For one thing, they did not possess love: they were joyous and they could be friendly, but that was about all. They could be easily pleased and just as easily displeased. In their nature, they were either malignant or benignant, and St Paul’s warning to ‘try the spirits whether they be good or evil’, before dealing with them, was very much to the point. I found out from practice that levity, frivolity, scepticism and conscious fraud during a seance attracted malignant spirits, but that a warm, friendly atmosphere generally led to contacts with benignant entities. A short prayer generally repelled bad influences. Laughter could interrupt a seance for good.

Armed with this knowledge, little as it was, I arrived in Likiang to find it a haven for anyone interested in psychical research. And the years spent in Likiang led me to experiences and experiments which showed that most of the poltergeists could be dealt with by carefully arranged contact through a seance with the spirit agencies involved; that seances could lead to poltergeistic phenomena without any reference to the spirits of the dead, and that the disturbances were not aimless and irrational but had a definite purpose in view. Indeed, if poltergeistic manifestations were aimless and senseless, then there would be more of them since they would require neither rhyme nor reason.

On the whole, the ‘little spirits’ do not seem interested in human affairs and they undertake their appearance only in special cases when certain specific interests of theirs seem to be involved. Ties of friendship and kindness seem to have an effect on them, and perhaps the concern of the two female spirits in the reconstruction of the bridge across the Yangtze was due to their past friendship with the adventurous lovers.

Another case concerned the hill which extended, at the back of our house, towards Double Stone Bridge. They repeatedly enjoined the people, through manifestations and seances, not to disfigure it by quarrying. But it was an easy and desirable place to obtain stone and the gangs of Minkia stone-cutters always tried to nibble at it. One gang started quarrying at the back of the hill. Within a week big boulders were thrown at them and a man’s foot was crushed. Then they moved to a place near Double Stone Bridge on the road’ from my house to Madame Ho’s wine-shop. They put up low shacks by the roadside and were cutting stone for a week or two without accidents. Then the warning came: pebbles were put in their wine-cups and stones thrown into their cooking pots. These Minkia were a cheerful, friendly lot, always singing and joking, and I used to stop to chat and drink with them when passing. I was delighted when they began telling me about the phenomena. One evening I was asked in, took the proffered bowl of wine and waited, sitting together with them around the fire. I watched my cup attentively and noted that nobody was very close to me. Bringing it to my lips I saw a round pebble in it. Then a hat from the man opposite was placed on my head. Within a few moments all the hats were exchanged by invisible hands, and other pebbles followed into our cups. But no one could spot the very act of the placing of the pebbles into cups or the changing of the hats. Then stones were gently thrown round our feet.

This continued for several days. Afterwards heavy boulders were thrown into the shacks, breaking the pots. At last a falling rock smashed somebody’s foot. Next day the Minkia had a secret seance and were told to get out as fast as they could or grievous things would happen to them. So the quarry was abandoned and only a small cave under the overhanging cliff showed where they had worked.

About a month or two afterwards I was passing the place in the evening. Some poor Tibetan pilgrims were preparing to pass the night in the cave. A woman and a child were sitting inside, the man was feeding a mule tied to a post by the cave. A sacred sheep munched grass by the roadside. Sheep are usually taken on a pilgrimage on which they carry a small load of provisions tied to a miniature saddle. They acquire merit from the long tramp to holy peaks and shrines and are never killed afterwards.

Early next morning I received the news of a terrible disaster and rushed to the cave. The whole hillside had crashed down on the family and the mule. Only the sheep continued to munch its grass unconcernedly by the roadside. Tons of rock and earth had buried them completely. People dug there for weeks without uncovering the bodies and, finally, the work was abandoned.


Likiang had five lamaseries which all belonged to the Karamapa (Red) Sect of the Tibetan Lamaism. They were beautifully situated on the hillsides surrounded by forest. Lamaism had been introduced into Likiang about four hundred years ago by the saintly Lama Chuchin Chone, who founded the first lamasery, Chinyunsze, at Lashiba behind the lake. The mystic doctrine of Tantric Buddhism, the colourful rites and the ecclesiastical connection with Lhasa strongly appealed to the Nakhi. Thus the faith, superimposed on their own Shamanism and in strong competition with Chinese Mahayanist Buddhism, spread in the valley. Some of the smaller lamaseries had been subsidized by the Mu King and, with the decline of the dynasty, they were left, so to speak, high and dry. Because they had not been built in strategic places, from the point of view of commerce and pilgrimage, they declined and had only a comparatively few lamas and trapas left to look after their vast but rapidly deteriorating buildings. The original lamasery at Lashiba was still prosperous because it lay on the Likiang-Lhasa caravan road and, in addition, was much revered as the mother of all other lamaseries. The Pouchisze lamasery, the one nearest to the city, was a small but beautifully grouped complex of temples and apartments. It had a saintly Incarnation, Shenlou Hutuktu, now dead, in whose honour a large white stupa still stands in the pine forest behind. I had the privilege of meeting him when I was in Chungking in 1941. This Grand Lama was a very kindly and enlightened man and at that time he had foretold that I should come to Likiang.

The Pouchisze lamasery was as cosy and intimate inside as it was beautiful outside. There were nooks and small courtyards filled with flowers and blossoming vines. A huge Tibetan mastiff guarded the place. He was so old that he tottered as he walked, yet he was still dangerous to intruders and his deep bark reverberated through the corridors like a lion’s roar. The kitchen, adjoining the little flower-filled courtyard and guest hall, was spacious and clean, and was presided over by an old Chinese cook, also a convert to Lamaism. He always provided a delicious meal and a jar of wine for the frequent visitors who came to spend week-ends at this beautiful and restful spot. The lamas and trapas of the lamasery were gentle and courteous. Most of them were natives of a large Nakhi village below. Because of the gentle and learned Shenlou Hutuktu, the lamasery was remembered by the Likiang gentry and by visiting Tibetan merchants, with donations sufficient to keep it going in proper style. Moreover, the lamas had a hope that soon Shenlou Hutuktu might decide to reincarnate in some lucky child’s body and bring the old glory back to his beloved lamasery and to Likiang. The only serious drawback to the lamasery was the lack of water, for the mountainside on which it had been built was dry and water flowed only during the rainy season.

I often went to Pouchisze for week-ends and the lamas were always glad to see me. It was wonderful to relax there with nothing but the rustling trees around, blue sky and the tinkle of a silver bell of a lama in prayer.

My favourite lamasery, however, was Yuenfoungsze or Shangri Moupo gompa. It was the largest and most active lamasery in the Likiang district, and was set half-way up from the plain to the sacred peak of Shangri Moupo, whose 14,000 feet high pyramid dominates the city on the south side. It was very strange that, whilst the great snow peak of Mount Satseto was only of local significance to the Nakhi, the smaller Shangri Moupo occupied a very prominent place in the Tibetan cosmology, being regarded as one of the sacred peaks of Tibet — the dwelling-places of the gods. The Tibetans believe that the gods reside alternately on particular peaks of western and eastern Tibet. High lamas keep a strict record of the cycles of these divine migrations and name the year and month during which the gods move from one to the other. When the gods have reached the Shangri Moupo and the Chicken Foot Mountain across the lake from Tali, which is also sacred, then it is time for the Tibetan pilgrims to turn their steps towards Likiang and Tali, to pay respect to these holy thrones of the gods, and to acquire merit by offering service or donations to the nearby lamaseries and shrines.

The Shangri Moupo lamasery was some eight miles from the city, along a narrow road which, passing fields and villages and crossing deep streams, led in a steep climb through the forest of pines and rhododendrons. The forest belonged to the lamasery, and was therefore a sanctuary for animals; so that the climb, though arduous, was like a progress to paradise. Birds sang from tall, shady trees; crystal streams rushed down in orchestrated cascades; rare flowers pushed up from under bushes, and the air was heavy with the fragrance of blossoms. After the first mani pile, with the stones and slabs engraved with the eternal ‘Aum, mani padme hum!‘ the road wove through a dense spruce forest. Then, suddenly the lamasery was there, lying in a hollow of the mountains like a huge bowl, with a green meadow in front and very old trees dotted around. There was a huge circular fish-pond, fed by mountain streams, and a flight of stone steps leading to an imposing gate, beyond which sat four giant grinning avatars, representing the four manifestations of power or energy; and across a vast courtyard was the great prayer hall itself, reached by two stone stairways. The courtyard was profusely decorated with flowers in pots and stone vases and there were rose bushes and old cassia-trees in the stone-lined tubs.

To the right of the courtyard there was a passage which led to a spacious dining-room decorated with huge mirrors. In front of it was another large courtyard, paved with cobblestones, at the end of which were stables for the horses and the mules, and a huge kitchen. Connected by a veranda to the dining-room was a two-storey wing, in which my good lama friend, the manager or bursar, lived below his trapa clerical staff. He was a convivial fellow, with bright intelligent eyes and a great forehead, and was quite bald. He came from a village not far from ours and, people said, he was happily married and had children. I asked him about it one day and he laughed heartily.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘if nobody gets married, where are the little lamas to come from?’

I had met him at Madame Lee’s bar, where he always went when in town as he was very fond of a cheering cup. He was most hospitable, and often invited me for week-ends. I always brought with me my medical kit and some flowers and vegetable seeds for the lama himself, for, like the other lamas, he was very fond of gardening.

My arrival was usually on a Saturday afternoon. After a drink of the special white wine made by the lamas themselves, the bursar disappeared on business, and I made excursions into the surrounding woods, searching for flowers, particularly the kounpanyas, which are little purple orchids. On my return to the lamasery I called on a few other lamas I knew and offered any medical help that I could give. There was usually an inflamed eye, a touch of a skin disease, a bout of malaria or an attack of indigestion, and they were very grateful for these little tokens of attention. Then the evening came, with the cold of an altitude of about 11,000 feet, and we sat by the brazier awaiting the gong for dinner.

I was always placed at the large round table at which the senior lamas sat. They were very dignified elders, some with white beards, clad in their red togas. All victuals were produced at the lamasery and the meals were very good. There was beef, pork and mutton, sauerkraut, rich potato soup, and everything was helped down with cups of wine. Rice was seldom served, but instead we ate the babas — thick wheat pancakes with butter and ham shavings. Young trapas served at the table and before and after the meals grace was said by the oldest lama.

Afterwards I lay on rich rugs in my lama friend’s cell, with butter lamps nickering before the golden Buddhas on an altar. Outside there was the hooting of owls and screeching of wild animals, and now and then the sound of a bell from some distant shrine. Before dawn there was the noise of a drum, then the mysterious, hollow call of a conch shell. Then there was the dawn service with its murmur of recited sutras, punctuated by bells, conch-shell blasts and the wailing of trumpets. I got up at about six or seven and at nine there was breakfast of butter tea, sauerkraut, hard-boiled eggs and fried pork, accompanied by the inevitable babas. At about ten there was again a call to prayer and I went to the main hall. The lamas entered in a stately procession, each wearing a tall curving yellow hat with fringes. They seated themselves, cross-legged, on low benches and began to recite sutras spread on low tables in front of them, while the blare of trumpets, conch shells, bells and drums punctuated certain passages. Two trapas with long-spouted pots passed from lama to lama filling little white cups with wine. This was always done in rainy or wintry days to protect them from chills and to keep up their strength during long services.

Behind the main hall and dining-room there lay a miniature city sprawling over the hillside. It consisted of one-storey houses with small gardens, all walled in. These were the residences of the high-ranking lamas. Each compound was occupied by one or two lamas and their attendants. Their old parents or male relatives could also stay with them; and a room could always be found for a guest for a few days.

I and my friend Changtehkuan, a Chinese from the Duchy of Bongdzera, often stayed with a close relative of his mother’s, who was a Tibetan. This venerable lama, who was in charge of the sacred music, was not really very old but he had a magnificent long beard, which is a rarity among the Tibetans, of which he was inordinately proud. He shared his apartments with another lama and had his old father staying with him. His house had two wings; one was their living quarters and the other contained a shrine of his favourite deity. The old man loved flowers and in his jewel of a little garden he tended his pots of crooked plum- and cherry-trees: his miniature bamboo grove and his cluster of roses.

Rich merchants and officials from Likiang came to stay with their lama friends for a week or two. I always avoided them as their ideas of relaxation were diametrically opposed to mine, and they either smoked opium all day long or played mahjong. They could never understand my desire to climb the mountains or visit the tribal villages.

Quite high above the lamasery, on a precipitous spur of the mountain, there was a curious shrine, always padlocked and sealed. I climbed to it several times but saw nobody. At last a friend explained to me that this was a hermitage where some thirty-five young lamas had been shut up for meditation and study for a period of three years, three months, three weeks, three days, three hours and three minutes. Guided by a guru, usually an old, saintly and learned lama, these young men chose a sacred word or text to meditate upon. The favourite word, I was informed, was ‘Aum‘, whose mystic meaning could seldom, if ever, be properly understood, but which contained power and enlightenment. Between meditations a regular course of Tantric theology was pursued. On the expiration of the seclusion each man became a lama in his own right and, if he chose, he could go to Lhasa to undergo further training and take examinations for higher initiations. I was told that two years more would be needed before the hermitage could be unsealed in a brilliant ceremony and the young lamas released. In the meantime, they stayed there strictly incommunicado with food passed through a small window by an old caretaker.

I had almost forgotten about the young lamas when later, to my surprise, I was invited by my lama friends to go to the lamasery for the great day of the opening of the hermitage. The news spread quickly and the whole town talked of nothing but the forthcoming event.

I started with my friend Changtehkuan on the eve of the ceremony. The road to the lamasery was crowded with groups of people in their best dress: old gentlemen, in formal Chinese garb, proceeded on horseback, escorted by their sons or attendants: women, in black mitres and silk tunics, carried in their baskets the houkous and all sorts of dainties. Pangchinmei, also with baskets, walked in droves with the local beaux in the rear. The lawn in front of the lamasery was covered with picnicking families sitting on rugs. The overflow of people was such that few expected to find shelter at night within the lamasery or in the lamas’ apartments. We put up with our long-bearded lama, but his house too was crowded and we had to sleep three in one bed. All night long there was singing and dancing outside the lamasery. The invited dignitaries and merchants played mahjong or smoked opium in adjoining houses.

Next day, early in the morning, the service started in the main hall. All the grand lamas, attired in yellow silk jackets and new red tunics, were there chanting the sutras; but, advised by our lama friend to hurry, we started on our way to the hermitage. Had we tarried, we should not have reached it at all so great was the press of the milling multitude.

From the terrace of the hermitage the view was breathtaking in the early morning sunshine. Clouds of incense issued from the lamasery, and the sound of great trumpets, the throb of a huge drum, the wail of conch shells and the tinkling of bells reverberated in the narrow valley. At last the great procession to the hermitage started. Senior lamas walked first, gold chalices in their hands sparkling like flames, followed by richly attired dignitaries and a vast crowd. The scene was indescribable in its splendour and beauty, with Mt Satseto sparkling in the background, deep blue sky and green pines and rhododendrons in bloom forming a vast stage setting for the glittering conclave. There was a short service before the sealed gate. Then the Grand Lama sprinkled it with holy water, dipping a bunch of the sacred kusa grass into the gold kumba (chalice). In the presence of the Pacification Commissioner and elders of the city, a gold key was inserted into the padlock, seals removed and the gate was flung open.

I thought the hermitage would be a mean, crowded place with a row of cells, like cages, along a narrow corridor, without light or air. It was nothing of the kind. Instead, I saw a vast oblong courtyard with age-old shady trees and masses of flowers. In the centre there was a tall and spacious prayer hall with a brightly polished floor. It was here that the lectures were delivered to the neophytes. All around the courtyard there were single-storey buildings divided into light and comfortable rooms. These were the students’ private apartments. In front of each room, in the courtyard, there stood a small kiosk with a golden Buddha and dozens of brightly burning butter lamps. A stall in front of each kiosk was heaped with sweet meats and there was a row of small cups filled with wine. Each graduate stood by his kiosk welcoming friends and acquaintances with a bow. Expecting a group of ascetic and emaciated young men worn down by lack of food and the severity of their mystic exercises, I was confronted with bright-eyed, well-fed men in resplendent vestments who laughed and chatted and pressed us to eat and to drink, while themselves setting a good example.

Tables were produced in no time, and food, brought by the parents and relatives, was spread. The houkous, in the centre of each table, spewed smoke and flames like miniature volcanoes and a joyous feast was soon in progress. I was led to a terrace where several tables were prepared for the dignitaries, and was seated with the jovial Pacification Commissioner and the high lamas. The food was superb and the wine still better, and by the time we got up it was late afternoon.

The meadow in front of the lamasery was crowded with richly caparisoned mules and crowds of relatives in preparation for the triumphal send-off of the newly made lamas. Each young lama was affectionately assisted into the saddle and led off with infinite care by his admiring folk, some of whom cried unashamedly with joy and unutterable happiness. It was the culmination of a cherished ambition, and an unparalleled honour not only to the family concerned but to the whole district from which the young lama came. Not all the graduates came from the Likiang district. Some were from Tongwa and Hsiangchen, from Bongdzera and Lotien and other little-known regions. They were Tibetans and Nakhi and members of other tribes who had adopted Lamaism, and were now to be the torches of the light of truth, going to dispel the darkness of avidya (ignorance) in their barbaric lands and to be the shining, priceless jewel of faith.

Nature itself smiled on the men during this felicitous day. The air was warm and scented, the sky so cloudless and blue; the Snow Mountain waved a long white plume, as if in greeting, from the glittering crown of its summit. The city was en fete and there were delirious celebrations in many houses that evening before the departure of holy caravans on the morrow.

It will be several years before this glorious festival is repeated. It takes a long time to find and prepare a group of serious-minded and ardent neophytes willing to endure such a long seclusion for the sake of faith and spiritual glory. Perseverance in studies and intellectual honesty are required. The full implication of solitude, obedience to guru, renunciation of worldy desires and tastes is not easy to inculcate and still harder to practise. The wise High Lamas have to exercise an infinite care not to include in the group any undesirable person. Any debauchery, or the scandal of escaping inmates, would destroy for ever the high repute of this holy and famed hermitage. The comparative comfort of existence, similar to some Taoistic hermitages in China, presents greater temptations than the life in certain Tibetan and Christian retreats, where the emphasis is on the mortification of the flesh. The problem of man was understood better at this hermitage. Man is not only a spirit: he has his physical nature as well. It is not with the destruction of one aspect of his being by the other that he fulfils his existence. It is by a harmony of the two that he becomes perfect. Jesus, Gautama and Gandhi emphasized this balance between the two extremes and it was for this reason that they were able to render their great services to humanity. Mortification, carried to excess, is no good either to man himself or to humanity. The greater victories come to the man who does not concentrate on murdering his body but utilizes its strength and energy in developing his spiritual gifts. A withered tree bears no fruit.

The sacred peak of Shangri Moupo was not of significance to the Tibetans only. At its back, in front of an immense sheer white cliff called Loupaper, there was a huge stony platform on which the Nakhi Shamans, called dtombas, held a conclave once in ten years. This was preceded by much feasting and drinking in tents and then the dtombas arranged a series of shamanistic dances representing various felicity ceremonies such as the Longevity ceremony. They were attired in Chinese figured mandarin robes and wore five-petal diadems on their heads. The dance was a slow one, always turning on one leg and swaying; it was monotonous but strangely rhythmic and, to me, very hypnotic. In one hand they held a magic sword and in another a ndseler. A ndseler is a cymbal, made of an alloy of gold, silver and brass, to which, as a striker, a small brass weight is attached on a string. The sound of it is most beautiful and quite unlike anything produced by a triangle or a similar orchestral instrument of the West.

There is little doubt that the dtomba practices were closely affiliated to those of the Mongolian Shamans. They had originated in the remote past long before the great religions made their appearance in the world. There is a close affinity between the Dtombas and Bonists, that is to say, the adherents of the ‘Bon’ or Black Church of Tibet. The Bon Church was the dominant cult of Tibet before the establishment of Buddhism. It is founded entirely on the practice of black magic and communication with evil spirits through necromancy and other morbid and macabre rites. The cups, made of human skulls, and flutes of human bone are used freely in certain religious services. There are a number of Bon lamaseries in Kham, where these practices take place, and it was occurrences such as these that helped to make Tibet known as a land of horrible occult rites and other unspeakable mysteries.

It cannot be said that the dtombas represented an established church like Lamaism. They worked independently, the art passing from father to son. They had a loose association, but it was by no means a recognized institution or club. They knew each other and, when occasion offered, they combined together for large ceremonies, and they were needed for the exorcising, during special ceremonies, of the demons of suicide and other calamities. As such occurrences were frequent, their trade was quite lucrative. They claimed control over spirits both bad and good, and as their performances always produced a trance or semi-trance they were a somewhat unbalanced people and were very heavy drinkers.

I believe that the Chinese Taoist cult of Changtienssu, established during the Han dynasty, borrowed many of its magic practices from the Bon lamas. It was this Taoist Church, the lowest of all, that encouraged the unwarranted and contemptuous opinion in the West about Taoism. Europe and America still have not realized that the true Taoist Church of China are the Lungmen Church with its sublime teaching of Lao Tzu, practised in all its purity, and the second church of Cheng-I Taoism which specializes in the knowledge of nature and man’s relation with the world of spirits. Much of what is best in Chinese civilization and the character of the Chinese people is entirely due to the philosophy and teaching of these two churches.

The higher Taoism buttressed by the written teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuan Tzu, conceives the Universe as a product of Tao, which means the Universal Mind, independent of the being itself, of space and of time: in other words a conception of God. Lao Tzu advisedly did not use the word ‘God’ because the Chinese language does not possess such an all-embracing and all-inclusive term. Immediately the word ‘God’ is used in the Orient it conjures up in the human mind a vision of a glorious, effulgent Man sitting on a flaming throne somewhere in immeasurable space. The teachers of Christianity in the Orient have always been handicapped by this all-important definition, and the Bible, provided for the different churches and sects implanted by the missionaries in China, has never been given by its translators a unifying term for God.

Lao Tzu, in his teaching, does not specifically mention Earth or its affairs: he simply and unequivocally states that the Universe is the product of Tao (Great Mind) which, by the Power of its Will, brought forms out of the formless, differentiated them by the flow of numbers and series, and activated life by the eternal rhythm of Yang and Ying which made all things and events in space and time relative to each other.

Therefore, since both the visible and invisible worlds are the creation of one and the same Mind, their difference is only relative and it becomes understandable that an interplay between them is possible and natural.

1 The author leaving on a tour of inspection of remote co-operatives

2 Author’s friend Hokuoto. A typical mountain Nakhi peasant from Lashiba

3 Akounya. The Minkia girl at whose house the author always stayed when travelling by caravan to Hsiakwan

4 Likiang. Author’s house. Front gate and main street of Wuto village

5 View of Mount Satseto (alias Snow Peak, Snow Mountain, or Yulungshan) from Likiang hill near the author’s house

6 Mme Lee at her shop in the morning, facing the bar at which her customers sit

7 Caravan from Hsiakwan to Likiang. Author’s baggage has just been delivered to the author’s courtyard by the caravan leader (standing)

8 A Tibetan buying pottery at Mme Yang’s shop inside the gate

9 Likiang street scene. A lama shopping

10 A Tibetan at Likiang Market

11 Likiang market-place. A Hsiangchen Tibetan woman shopping

12 Ahouha—one of the pangchinmei (girls) of Likiang in formal everyday wear

13 Likiang market square. Mme Yang’s daughter Afousya sits at her own stall on the left selling cakes and cigarettes. Mme Yang’s shop is opposite

14 Likiang Park

15 The Yangtze River at the Copper Mining Co-operative

16 The Yangtze River is entering the 11,000-ft-deep gorge Atsanko. The road through the gorge is on the left bank

17 Yuenfoungsze Lamasery (Shangri Moupo gompa). Lama dance

18 The Yuenfoungsze (Shangri Moupo gompa) Lamasery sacred orchestra playing during lama dances

19 Yuenfoungsze Lamasery

20 Yuenfoungsze Lamasery (Shangri Moupo gompa). The venerable lama

21 Shangri Moupo Lamasery. Senior lamas with the lama Manager on the right

22 The author’s friend Wuhan with his first-born son, old mother, and wife — all formally dressed

23 Mme Lee’s husband and grandson in front of an ancestral tomb

24 Old Nakhi villagers, formally attired

25 The main street of Likiang with some Khamba Tibetans passing through

26 Likiang. Leather-tanning and Shoe-making Co-operative

27 Wool-spinning Co-operative

28 Path inside Atsanko gorge 11,000 ft deep where the Yangtze River flows

29 A view of Likiang plain and Shwowo village from a lamasery


The aboriginal inhabitants of the Likiang plain were the P’ou or, as the Nakhi called them, the Boa. The conquering Nakhi, coming from the highlands of Tibet, scattered the P’ou and pushed them into the surrounding mountains, grabbing the rich plain for themselves. The Boa were very primitive, and it is said that they had even practised ceremonial cannibalism in the remote past, consuming their dead as a mark of respect. In comparison with the Nakhi they were little civilized, and possessed a mild inferiority complex. They did not like to be called Boa to their face, and when asked who they were, they almost invariably answered that they were Nakhi. Also, when mingling with the Nakhi, they were careful to see that they were not discriminated against in the matter of courtesies or etiquette lest an impression be created that they were an inferior race. Being mountain people, they always wore black semi-stiff cloaks, made of wool matting descending to just above the knee, and blue cotton trousers. The cloaks were of a perfect bell shape and I was always surprised on seeing the Boa approach, for they looked like huge moving mushrooms. For long walks they wore straw sandals which cost very little and were thrown away on arrival.

I had several friends among the Boa from Mbushi (Pig’s Flesh) village in the Nanshan mountains near the place where I had met the robbers on the way to Likiang. One of them was a young man named Wuchang, short, stocky and fat with a face like the full moon. He was always extremely polite and very dignified and used to bring me every time he came to Likiang a couple of big turnips or rutabagas and a tiny pot of honey which he presented to me with the air of a grand duke presenting a diamond tiara to his duchess. Then he took ceremonious leave, went to the market to dispose of the rest of his turnips and came back in the evening to have dinner and, usually, to stay overnight. Once he came when I had a party of Nakhi friends to dinner. Somebody must have said something uncomplimentary about his being a Boa because he cried bitterly afterwards the whole night through and I had much difficulty in reassuring him that no offence was meant. He said he was much insulted by these proud town people. His greatest ambition was to invite me to his wedding, but, alas, I had to leave Likiang before it took place. But once, on my way to Shihku on the Yangtze River, I had to pass his village where there were no springs or streams and the only water they had was in the pools left after the rainy season. Wuchang received me in his poor dwelling as though I were a count and he a refugee feudal king who had to take a temporary shelter in this mean hut. Sometimes Wuchang’s neighbours came with him to visit me. Wuchang disapproved of some of them and always whispered to me warnings to have nothing to do with them. I did not pay much attention but soon had occasion to regret it. A few weeks afterwards one of these undesirable Boa came in the evening, after the market, together with two friends. They looked primitive indeed as they glanced at me sideways like trapped animals. They all said that they wanted to stay overnight and would leave early in the morning. So I dined and wined them and led them to the guest apartment in the other wing. I gave them no bedding as the Boa and some other tribes-people always preferred to sleep on the floor, using their cloaks as blankets. Early next morning my cook rushed up to me almost blind with rage.

‘Come and see! Come and see!’ he gasped.

I entered the guest apartment. Our guests had already gone. All the walls were urinated through and through and there were ‘visiting-cards’ all over the floor. I never again permitted any Boa from that village, except Wuchang, to stay at my house.

In addition to the Nakhi, Boa and Tibetans, the Likiang valley and mountainous regions around were a hodge-podge of many other tribes, including the Black and White Lolos, Black and White Lissu, Minkia, Attolays, Miao, Chungchia, Sifan, Chiang, the most interesting of which were the Black Lolos and Minkia, who played an important role in the life and economy of Likiang.

In my long travels and sojourn among the tribes of China and Tibetan borderland, Turkistan and Siberia, Indo-China and Thailand, and other areas of south-east Asia, I have come to the conclusion that all the existing tribal peoples belong to two strictly defined categories — the outgoing and the oncoming. By the first category, I mean those who seem to have outlived their life span on earth, and to have lost their vitality. They have exhausted their evolutionary urge and have no more will or desire to make progress in life. They are not interested in improving their lot or in learning, or in fact in anything that goes on outside their sheltered nooks in the mountains. Even the age of aeroplanes and motor-cars, of improved methods of cultivation and miracles of modern medicine leaves them cold. They have no urge to investigate these wonders nor do they relate them to themselves. They just want to be left alone, to eke out their own primitive existence. When hedged in by their aggressive neighbours they surrender their lands passively and just retreat quietly and shyly into deeper recesses of the protective mountains. They resist feebly and ineffectually the efforts of governments and missionaries to draw them into the vortex of civilized life. They will even don foreign clothes and meekly go to church services in the mission, but only in response to gifts, persuasion and pressure. Their heart is not in it. They are static and cannot be pushed or elevated in any manner; and when the civilizing process becomes too rapid or violent they just cannot stand it and they die. Their role on earth has ended and they are bound to disappear, and disappear they will, in a few decades probably, under the surging onslaught of more aggressive and civilized races bent on expansion into the remaining corners of the planet in their search for more space. Either they will quietly die out or gradually they will be obliterated by intermarriage with other, more virile races. It is to this category of the moribund tribes that I would assign the Miao, White Lissu, Chungchia, Boa and many others, scattered throughout Asia from Kamchatka to New Guinea. Their struggle with the world, if a struggle it has been at all, is over and their doom is near in spite of all the spoon-feeding by governments and kind-hearted missionaries.

Tribes of the second category may also appear, at first glance, static or dormant, but the illusion disappears after a careful observation and analysis. First of all it must be noted that even their physical characteristics are vastly different from those of weak tribes. As a rule they are tall, strong and handsome people. They are very energetic in their own sphere of activity: there is nothing cowardly or shy about them, for they are aggressive, ruthless and cunning, if not actually clever. They may be awed at first by the wonders of civilization, but quickly get accustomed and try to put them to their own use. They are not afraid to mix with or travel among the people of an advanced civilization and are always ready to learn two tricks to the one practised on them. They are not averse to modern education and schools. They are always prepared to accept the benefits of modern medicine, new methods of agriculture and new varieties of vegetables and domestic animals. They learn the ins and outs of present-day commerce and are interested in politics in so far as they concern their borders and immediate livelihood. They are brave and intelligent and make excellent soldiers. There is little doubt that such vigorous tribes are coming into their own in the world and that they will play an important role in future events in Asia. If some of them have appeared dormant in the past, it was due to the isolation imposed by the lack of communications, the tyrannic despotism of their unenlightened rulers and, perhaps, the results of venereal and other diseases. As education spreads and medical facilities improve, there will be an immediate and spectacular resurgence of these virile, fresh and handsome races on the world stage. The world may yet be enriched by their music and dancing, their luxuriant artistic talents and their invigorating and passionate approach to life. To these tribes of the future undoubtedly belong the Nakhi, Tibetans, Minkia, Black Lolos and Black Lissu. The latter are but a sub-tribe of the Black Lolos and should not be confused with the White Lissu or White Lolos.

The home of the Black Lolos is in the Taliangshan, which is a mountainous country five hundred miles long and roughly one hundred miles wide which separates the vast Chinese province of Szechuan from the newly created province of Sikang. The Black Lolo always means the Noble Lolo or, as they call themselves in Chinese, Hei Kuto (the Black Bone). Actually the word Lolo is derogatory and should never be used to their face. It is best to refer to them in conversation as Hei Yi (the Black Yi), for an unwary choice of the word may mean instant death. I prefer to call them the Noble Lolos because they were, as a whole tribe, the most noble-looking people I have seen in my life. They are very tall and are of regal bearing. Their complexion is in no wise black but, like certain mulattoes, of a chocolate and cream tint. Their eyes are large and liquid, with a fire always burning in them, and their features are aquiline and almost Roman. Their hair is black, slightly wavy and very soft; and its arrangement is a distinctive feature of all Lolos. It is gathered through a hole at the top of their dark blue or black turbans and hangs as a limp tail or, more often, springs up like a miniature palm-tree, supported by a sheath of black strings. The hair of the Lolo is sacred and no one is supposed to touch it under the pain of death. They believe that the Divine Spirit communicates with man through the exposed lock of his hair which, like upstanding antenna or the aerial of a wireless set, conveys the spiritual impulses, like waves to a receiver, to the brain.

The formal dress of a Black Lolo is a black jacket secured by a leather belt adorned with mother-of-pearl. The trousers are immense and are so joined together that the seat hangs almost to the ankles. Usually of silk of gay colours — scarlet, blue, poison green, yellow or violet — they are tied at the ankles with woven ribbons. When formally dressed, the man must also wear as an earring a piece of amber the shape and size of an apple with a cherry of coral hanging beneath. An ankle-long cloak, called tsarwa, woven of soft grey or black sheep wool, thrown over the shoulders, completes the picture. The women also wear the tsarwa over their dress. When I first encountered the Noble Lolo women my immediate impression was that I was in the presence of a group of Italian princesses and countesses of the Renaissance period. In their long flowing skirts, their jackets of lovely faded brocade, their black picture hats, their high silver collars and great mother-of-pearl earrings falling to the shoulders, they stood before me so tall, handsome and haughty, with their smouldering eyes and that slight smile playing on their aristocratic, chiselled faces, that my first impulse was to bow deeply and kiss their hands. It was only my training in how to behave among the Lolos, painstakingly given me by my sponsors before I was allowed to proceed on my trip through their dangerous country, that saved me from such a foolish action which would probably have ended in my death. A deep bow was enough.

The Noble Lolos have no king and they do not live in towns or villages. Each clan occupies a well-defined section of this vast land and each member family lives in its own castle, located usually on top of a hill, some distance from neighbours. The head of the clan, in accordance with its prestige and importance, has a title of prince, marquis or baron. The castle is nothing like the medieval castles of Europe. It is simply a wooden stockade, heavily buttressed with stones and earth, and it has a stout gate. It is located on a hill for defence, and guards are on the look-out day and night for the approach of an enemy. The buildings inside are singularly unimpressive and consist of a group of mean low huts of interlaced bamboo or branches with plank roofs. Inside everything is scrupulously clean; and even a small pin could easily be found on the meticulously swept earthen floor. The furnishings are equally austere — a square table, a few benches, a chest or two and a round stone hearth sunk into the floor, over which a kettle is usually boiling. There may be a large armchair in the main hut, with a tiger or leopard skin spread on it, and some shields and spears hanging on the wall behind. This is the throne of the ruling head. There are no bedsteads, for the Lolos sleep on bare floor around the fire, wrapped in their tsarwas. It is a truly Spartan existence.

The Noble Lolos in the Taliangshan lead a settled, pastoral life. But, to paraphrase the Gospel about the lilies of the field, the Lolos do not plough or sow or gather anything into their granaries with their own hands. In conformity with their Spartan life, their social organization is a replica of that of ancient Sparta. Both men and women are warriors to their finger-tips, and all the qualities and virtues which made Sparta such a distinctive nation of the ancient world are praised and practised by the Noble Lolos with equal fervour and strictness. So ferocious and ruthless are the Lolos in battle, so contemptuous of death or torture, so cunning in their strategy and terrifying in their lightning and stealthy attacks, that they are feared more than any other people in the whole of western China and down to the borders of Siam.

Since they are the aristocracy, the caste rules are enforced with utmost severity and important deviations are occasionally punished with death. No agricultural or menial work is permitted to the Noble Lolos — men or women; they may not even serve at table. Men practise the art of warfare from childhood. Womenfolk spin wool, weave tsarwas, sew garments, embroider and look after the household. All work is done by the “White Lolos, who are the slaves — the Helots of ancient Sparta. It is they who cultivate the fields and gather the grain, rear animals and do the household chores. It is also their duty to act as go-betweens between their masters and the Chinese merchants in matters of commerce which, although despised by them, is nevertheless necessary to the well-being of the master race. Horses, cattle, grain and skins of wild animals are sent to local markets by the Noble Lolos through their White Lolo intermediaries, with the perennial instructions to be always on the look-out for any guns or ammunition, for which they are insatiable customers.

The Black Lolos like nothing better than to have punitive expeditions sent against them by the Chinese. By treachery or ruse they lure detachments of soldiers into the forests or defiles where they kill them from ambush and take their arms. Since early times, the Chinese have frequently had to take up arms against the Lolos. No battle against them has ever been decisive, and they have never been really conquered or dispersed. The famous Chinese General Chukoliang, who, during the era of the Three Kingdoms, carried out many successful expeditions into the western regions of China, fought many battles with the Lolos. They impressed him with their unparalleled bravery and savagery and, as he confessed in his memoirs, his victories were abortive; at one time he even had serious doubts about the human status of the Lolos and thought them to be ferocious beasts in human form. It is related that to satisfy his doubts he had one of the captured Lolos cut open and found nothing but grass and roots in the stomach. Evidently this discovery persuaded him of the futility of further warfare against these strange people on whom no military punishment had any effect and who made treaties, only to break them when the troops had been withdrawn.

Although China has consistently claimed suzerainty over the whole region of the present Szechuan and Sikang provinces since the beginnings of the Chinese Empire, the Lolos have never recognized any authority but their own. Since only the fringes of their country have been visited either by Chinese officials or foreign explorers, nothing much is known about its topography or its population. On maps the Taliangshan country is a blank space marked ‘Independent Lolos’.

Even with the aid of modern weapons and aeroplanes the conquest of the Lolos would be extremely difficult and costly, if not altogether impossible. There are no towns or villages to shell or bomb. The isolated ‘castles’ represent not the slightest value either to the conqueror or to their inhabitants. They are purposely built that way — to be abandoned at a moment’s notice. The invaders would not know where to go or where to find the Lolos as there are no roads to indicate the way, whilst the Lolos themselves know every nook and cranny of their own mountain fastness. Their tactics, bravery and treachery would certainly force an invading army into providing them with a ready arsenal to replenish their needs in arms and ammunition. They are as elusive as the will-o’-the-wisp and are ready to inflict death in many ways other than by use of arms. They are past masters in the use of the much-feared Yellow Poison, and it is nothing to them to poison all streams and wells used by their enemies with this slow-acting concoction.

Even at the present time, it is reported, the Lolos still remain unconquered. The new Chinese regime has demanded the surrender of their arms and their submission to the new government. Instead, the Black Lolos have arranged the withdrawal of all their clansmen and their families who lived on the outer, exposed mountain slopes, to the main ranges of the Taliangshan. At a great conclave a king was elected to lead them, a drastic and almost unprecedented measure which is only resorted to in a very grave emergency, when the existence of the whole race is at stake.

The White Lolos are not related racially to the Black Lolos. Originally they were of Chinese and other tribal stock, captured and enslaved by the Lolos. The process of the enslavement of fresh victims has by no means stopped, and it is this gnawing dread of such a fate which keeps in constant suspense all the Chinese living on the fringe of the Lolo-inhabited mountains. When I arrived in Yuehsi, ancient Tang capital of what is now South Sikang and northern Yunnan, I at once noticed this tension. Even when walking in the streets of this small but heavily walled town, Chinese shopkeepers and others looked nervously over their shoulder at the few Lolos buying and selling on the market. No Chinese ever dare leave the protective walls after sunset or before sunrise.

Leaving the town at dawn with my little caravan of two horses and a Lolo soldier in attendance, I noticed a Chinese youth passing through the heavily guarded gate. He carried a long knife in each hand and was shouting hysterically, ‘Come! Come! I am not afraid! Come!’ I thought he was mad and asked the Chinese sentry what was the matter with him. The soldier explained to me that the boy was on his way to the next village and was demented with fear of the Lolos. The narrow valley, in which the ancient town lay, was hemmed in on both sides with mountains where the Lolos lived, and to protect itself the village had strongly fortified stone towers to which families retired for the night.

Although the White Lolos were the serfs and had to work for their masters as required, I did not notice any signs of cruelty in the way they were treated. There was not much difference in the standard of living between the masters and serfs, as the former did not live in any great luxury. There was no difference in their diet, and when the Black Lolos had a feast everybody in the household had his share of food and wine. The distinction was emphasized in the difference of caste, and their functions. The nobility fought and plundered, and protected the household. The serfs did the field and household work and were afforded protection. No Black Lolo might marry a White Lolo, and did so only under pain of death. Romances between the castes were strictly taboo, because the purity of the Black Bone had to be zealously guarded. Punishment for disloyalty, and even for a breach of discipline, was swift and just, irrespective of caste.

Many White Lolos, through their perseverance, application and successful trade with the Chinese, have become more or less emancipated and established themselves as a sort of an intermediate caste in the no-man’s-land between the commerce-hating and exclusive nobility and the profit-minded Chinese community. They managed to remain in good grace with the first and formed enduring friendships with the latter. These fortunate individuals could intermarry with the Chinese if they wished and maintain a household in a Chinese town whilst retaining a pied-a-terre in their lord’s castle. Some of them have grown rich and powerful and a number have reached high rank in provincial military forces. Of course they were always careful to insinuate that they were actually members of the noble families themselves.

A few Chinese in the Lolo-dominated valleys of Sikang and Yunnan took the trouble to cultivate the friendship of these White Lolos and, through them, gained entree into some noble households. But such instances were very rare and there was always an element of danger in going on such visits, which in any case had to be confined to those Black Lolos who did not live far from the main roads. A Chinese visitor daring to penetrate too far into the mountains always ran a risk of being intercepted and captured by those who were unfriendly to the family he was visiting. I had a Chinese friend in Sikang who was on friendly terms with the Black Lolos on the Yehsaping plateau, and introduced me to several families there. ‘For friendship have a Lolo; for business choose a Chinese,’ he was fond of saying and, as I found out later, he was entirely right.

In social intercourse the Noble Lolos insisted on great formality. No Black Lolo would speak to a stranger or, much less, receive him in his house without a formal letter of introduction: and without a proper letter of introduction a foreigner’s life was in considerable jeopardy, especially if he knew nothing about the strict Lolo etiquette. Even with an introduction, no Lolo would take much notice of a foreigner unless properly dressed and well mannered. Any superiority complex, any undue familiarity or a mistaken notion that no ceremony was needed in dealing with such ignorant and uneducated savages would speedily prove fatal. A visit to the Black Lolo was therefore a hazardous affair. They might appear to be savages to someone from London, Paris or New York, but in fact they were no more so than were the Three Musketeers or the Knights of the Round Table. They exactly represented the persons and milieu of that glorious but now forgotten period. Although that colourful age has long departed from Europe, it still survives intact, by a freak of time and space, in the remote and inaccessible Lolo land. The country, the people, the customs and the dress are a faithful replica of the Middle Ages with its castles, knights and ladies, robber barons, chivalry, gay dances, minstrels, knaves and serfs. As one would have had to behave if introduced into a castle of that era, so one must now behave when in this land of enchantment.

These Noble Lolos are not entirely uneducated. They have their own writing. It is hieroglyphic, but the characters are only half as complicated as the Chinese. They are in the form of circles, half-moons, swastikas and rhombs, and are written in the same sequence as European writing. Every Noble Lolo man or woman can write a letter and there are many books in manuscript form. Not many of these books have found their way into the outer world, for they are jealously guarded and seldom sold.

Secondly, they have a well-established code of chivalry and social intercourse. Men and women have complete equality in everything. Any girl may marry or have as many romances as she likes, provided it is within the caste. Elderly or important ladies are treated with utmost courtesy and respect, and take precedence over their husbands when receiving guests or sitting down to a feast. Bows are exchanged; the handshake is just tolerated, but not so the friendly back-slap or anything like it. Once a man has been properly introduced and behaves himself as he should, his person is sacred and the whole clan feels responsible for his welfare and safety. The hospitality shown to a guest is incredible. Nothing is too good for him to eat or to drink, and rich gifts are piled on him when he departs. The Noble Lolos’ generosity to their friends knows no bounds; but they are extremely modest in receiving gifts themselves, and it is impossible to persuade them to accept anything that is really valuable like a diamond ring or a gold wrist-watch. Such gifts are politely but firmly declined with an excuse that it is too valuable or of no use in their simple life. Utility articles, such as matches, silk thread, packets of needles, a jar of wine or a packet of medicine are accepted gratefully and with enthusiasm.

A great feast is as a rule given for a guest, with rich and tasty food, much wine, beautiful dancing, minstrel singing and exhibitions of fencing. Wine is drunk out of a big jar placed on the floor in the middle of the room, from which it is drawn by each person through a long bamboo tube. As the level in the jar sinks, additional supplies are poured in. Lolo singing is unusual and very beautiful; some of the men have voices of great range and power. Dancing and music are almost Western, the music reminiscent of Hungarian tunes and the dancing, in which I have never seen any women take part, is quite like czardas or Caucasian sword dances.

The Lolos’ achievements in the realm of vegetable gardening and animal breeding were always puzzling to me. One would think that these people, so primitive in many respects and isolated for centuries in their remote mountains, would exist almost entirely on the roots and plants found in their forests, and on the flesh of wild animals, shot or trapped by them. It was a surprise to me to find that they planted and ate white and blue potatoes which compared favourably in quality and size with those produced in Europe and America. These potatoes, when grown by Chinese in West China, were originally small and diseased, and it was only after they had borrowed Lolo potatoes that they were able to improve the size and quality of their own crops. Lolo cattle were magnificent. Their bulls and cows were big, well fed and glossy with a peculiar greenish-red sheen. Their ponies were much sought after by the Chinese. They were of medium size and extremely hardy, and especially well suited to riding in the mountains. Sleek, lively and phenomenally intelligent, they could do almost anything but speak, being extremely sensitive to their owner’s wishes.

I was presented with two ponies by my Lolo friend, Szema (Prince) Molin, before I started on my trip through the Taliangshan. One was a red and white stallion called Hwama (Flowery Horse), and the other was a small grey one which carried my two suitcases and bedding. I had been warned not to use a whip unless I had to, and not to rely too much on the reins, but preferably to talk to the horse all the time and to indicate direction by touching the sides of his neck. Indeed, the little Hwama himself knew quite well where to go, when to trot or even gallop, and was extremely careful when descending precipitous rocky slopes or fording roaring torrents. Whenever I spoke to him, he replied with a gentle neigh. So human was this little horse and such a good, faithful companion that I felt his loss as keenly as that of a great friend when I had to sell him to the Governor of Sikang before my departure for Chungking.

The Lolos sometimes arranged horse-fairs in the neighbouring Chinese towns or settlements, which were invariably attended by the highest Chinese officers and wealthiest merchants anxious to secure good Lolo ponies and mules. There was wild feasting during those fair days, when the Lolos showed off their skill by galloping standing on the horse, picking up objects on the ground and displaying other tricks so well known in Europe from performances by the equally dexterous Caucasian Cossacks. The prices which pure-bred Lolo ponies fetched were out of proportion to those normally paid for other horses or mules. And they were not easy to get, as the Lolos kept the best animals for their own use.

Another interesting animal which the Lolos bred was their hunting dog. It was a lean, middle-sized dog, usually black, of such cunning and intelligence as to be considered almost fabulous by the Chinese. At night these dogs became good watch-dogs and gave an instant alarm of a stranger’s approach. The Lolo chickens were, in their enormous size and weight, also a cause of envy, and it was the wish of every Chinese to be presented with a rooster by his Lolo friends.

The question of where the Lolos originally obtained the stock of such excellent animals and the seeds of superior potatoes even before the arrival of Europeans or missionaries, has not yet been answered.

The secret of the Noble Lolos’ superior physique lies in the good food they eat and the fine country they live in. Beef, pork, mutton, chicken and fish are no rarities in their daily menu and a variety of Irish stew is particularly good. All this is eaten with buckwheat pancakes and washed down with pink buckwheat sparkling wine called zhiwoo. The only sweets known to Lolo children are fresh honey and brown sugar.

Since they live above five or six thousand feet the climate is always moderate and the air is pure and invigorating. Most of their country can best be described as a vast park with century-old oaks and flower-covered meadows, purling brooks and small blue lakes; though sombre forests clothe the steep mountain slopes. There are no snow peaks in the Taliangshan range, but snow covers the ridge in winter. With the castles perched here and there on the mountains, the gallant knights trotting on their sleek chargers, stately ladies passing on horseback with a small band of retainers carrying bows and arrows, and young girls running behind; and with the oak-trees and the meadows and the trill of nightingales, one feels transported by magic into the France of early Middle Ages.

Such is the country of the princes of Black Bone — beautiful like the legendary Arcadia, but mysterious and very dangerous. And with my two ponies and the little Lolo soldier, Alamaz, whom Prince Molin had detailed to accompany me, in a mother-of-pearl studded leather jacket and enormous trousers and armed with a bow and arrows, I felt small and insignificant when meeting the brilliant cavalcades of the Noble Lolos. Alamaz, trembling with fright, always begged me not to speak, not to look and not to smile. But I am of a naturally cheerful disposition, and I always bowed to the passing knights, and they smiled back to me. Only once was I cornered in a dry river bed by a mounted man, who knew a few words of Chinese.

‘Money, money!’ he demanded.

I showed him the few Chinese bank-notes I was carrying.

‘That’s nothing!’ he snorted, and rode away.

On the last lap of my journey which, Alamaz warned me, was the most critical, we turned aside to let a magnificently clad elderly lady, on a sleek black mule, pass with her large retinue of warriors and maidens. I bowed and she stopped, and addressed me with a smile. Alamaz translated in his halting Chinese. ‘The lady is going to Luku too.’ (Luku was the market-town where the Taliangshan road terminated.) ‘She suggests that we join her party, and she guarantees protection.’ I bowed again, thanked her and we fell behind the cortege. Once or twice we rested and she offered me a drink of zhiwoo from the horn she was carrying in her saddlebag. Finally she saw me safely into an inn at Luku. One of her warriors later came to collect a fee for her protection, a demand which I had not expected; but as it was evidently the local custom, I paid a few dollars, which were gratefully accepted.

The Lolos were not entirely confined to the Taliangshan, which was their ancestral territory. But it was only there, as I found out later, that they led a settled existence and were, so to speak, at their best. They also inhabited the vast region between the Kienchang valley, which formed the western border of the Taliangshan Range, and the Kingdom of Muli. The Duchy of Tsoso and other districts around Yenyuan and down to Yuenpei were all Lolo country. They also lived in the Siaoliangshan (Lesser Liangshan) — a mountain range following the Yangtze River along the bank opposite the Likiang district. Many of them had spread along the mountain ranges which abutted on Siam, and the Lolos, who periodically make raids into Siam, are known there as Haw Haw.

Those of the Lolos who lived in the forests of the Likiang Snow Range were White Lolos, and those who stayed in the Siaoliangshan across the river were a mingling of the White and Black Lolos, with many Black Lissu scattered amongst them. As I found out after my arrival in Likiang, the Black Lolos of the Siaoliangshan were quite unlike those I had met in the Taliangshan. They were absolutely savage and ruthless and, as far as I am aware, no one going there, with or without an introduction, has ever been spared. They had no habitual settlements and were used to roaming from place to place, burning the forest just to plant a single crop of buckwheat or of poppies. I could not find out for certain whether the Black Lolos on the Taliangshan grew poppy, and I had not seen any; but it is an established fact that the Lolos elsewhere are the principal growers of this profitable crop.

Opium made from the poppies was sold through the agency of the White Lolos and certain trusted Chinese merchants who worked hand in glove with the Chinese military. This was a vast and fabulously profitable trade for all concerned, and the main revenue of the Yunnan and Sikang militarists came not from taxes or even gold diggings but from opium. The wars waged between the generals were for the control of sources of supply of opium or of opium traffic revenue. The political reasons concocted for such hostilities were excuses primarily intended for the Western diplomats at the capital. The strictly worded and marvellously expounded laws prohibiting opium smoking and trafficking were equally deceptive and the high officials who presided over the enforcement of these laws were often themselves the greatest smokers. A poor farmer, wishing to make a small fortune with four or five ounces of the illicit drug, might be caught and shot as an example, but a caravan or truck loaded with tons of opium and escorted by a heavy military guard always reached its destination in safety.

A Chinese trader, normally a rather timid and law-abiding creature, becomes an intrepid adventurer ready to sacrifice his life and risk the welfare of his family if he scents the possibility of getting a good parcel of opium at the original grower’s price. He will go anywhere, suffer cold and hunger, risk encounter with robbers and wild beasts to obtain the black gold. He may even go into the dens of some of the Black Lolos; but whether he returns is a matter of fate.

There was an interesting case in Likiang while I was there. Hearing of an accumulation of the drug among the Lolos of the Siaoliangshan, two Chinese and a Nakhi procured official blessing and left on an expedition with some local soldiers in sufficient strength to intimidate, as they thought, the savages and secure the loot. What actually happened, once they had crossed the Yangtze, no one really knows, but a week or so afterwards the corpses of the three merchants were found on the Likiang side of the river, and the corpses proved to be only their skins stuffed with straw and grass. Of the soldiers there was no trace.

The reasons for the exceptional ferocity, lack of faith and uncontrolled lawlessness of the Siaoliangshan Lolos were to be found in the loss of caste and home, after their expulsion from the Taliangshan. As I have explained, the Noble Lolos’ sole occupation is that of being warriors. Probably to keep themselves in practice and to avoid going soft, they engage in warfare among themselves on any slight pretext. When one clan defeats another, they may make peace if the matter has not been very serious, but if the offence has been grievous and contrary to the general custom of the Lolos, all other clans may join together to punish the wrongdoers. When defeated they are usually driven out of the Taliangshan paradise, to become declasse, mere outlaws, without caste, without friends and homeless. They usually flee either to the Siaoliangshan or to other wild ranges of mountains, where they undergo a psychological change, losing all their codes of chivalry, mutual trust, loyalty and fair dealing even towards members of their own clan, not to speak of outsiders. Like beasts of prey, boiling with rage and humiliation, they rove and rave through the mountains, plundering, killing and torturing their victims to their heart’s content. An outsider’s visit to such a clan of outlawed Lolos is not possible, for they do not care for any laissez-passer or letters of introduction, and the only transactions, if any, that can be done with them, must be done through their White Lolo slaves or associates. A visit therefore to the Siaoliangshan, though comparatively near Likiang, was out of the question for me.

A number of the White Lolos from the Snow Range, and possibly from the Siaoliangshan, used to come to my clinic. They had a standing agreement with the Mu King to patrol the forest lands around the Snow Range infested with Szechuanese squatters, who were always suspected of robberies and murders. I do not know how useful the White Lolos were on these patrols, but they were certainly very destructive to the forests, burning them right and left without rhyme or reason. They always complained that they were very poor, and in appearance they were more filthy and grimy than other primitive tribes. Some of them pretended to me that they were Black Lolos, but their height alone and the wizened Mongolian faces precluded any possibility of so noble an origin. However, my medications and the white wine which was provided on their infrequent visits evidently made a deep impression on them and filled them with gratitude and friendliness. They enjoyed seeing me sometimes in the forests of the Snow Range on my way to the co-operatives or on occasional picnics, and sometimes they brought an egg or two or a small pot of buckwheat honey.

It was clearly the knowledge of my cures among these people that led to a rather delicate incident. Without any previous notice or warning, a real Siaoliangshan Black Lolo walked into my apartment one afternoon, accompanied by a couple of retainers. Even before he spoke, I recognized the aquiline features, flashing eyes and the upstanding lock of hair. He was very tall and had a sword and a dagger at his belt, and was dressed all in black. He said he was from across the river (I knew only too well what place he meant), that he was ill and wanted medicine. He would pay me, he added. I examined him and diagnosed a touch of malaria. I asked him where he was staying. He said that he had come to Likiang under a guarantee by Captain Yang, commissioner of the local militia, and that he had his baggage with him.

I served wine and we drank and talked. It was soon dinnertime, and as he made no move to go, I invited him and his retainers to share my own meal. After dinner I gave him a good dose of quinine and told him to rest until the next dose. He looked over my apartment with interest, and then announced that he would stay at my apartment over-night as he wanted me to check personally on the action of the medicine. This caused me some anxiety as I feared the consequences if he became dissatisfied with the efficacy of my medicine. On the other hand, I was well aware of the sense of insult which would be caused by refusing hospitality to a Black Lolo. A bed was prepared for him, with clean pillows and linen, and placed in the same room as mine. He undressed completely, put on the belt with the dagger around his naked waist and placed his sword under the pillow, with which he could quickly express any sense of dissatisfaction of the medicine. However, all went well, and he left early the next morning with profuse thanks, saying that he felt much better. I supplied him with some more quinine to take at home, and had to refuse the offer of a silver sycee. He was the last Noble Lolo I saw.

The Minkia people called themselves Pertse or Pervountse and the Nakhi called them Laebbou. They intermingled with the Nakhi both in the town and in the southern and eastern parts of the plain. They had their own villages or lived together near one another in Nakhi villages. Like the Nakhi and Tibetans, they were also a gay people, but voluble in the extreme and rather irresponsible. In facial appearance it was difficult to distinguish them from the Chinese. Men wore the same clothes as the Chinese, but women wore their own picturesque dress. Their Maung Khmer language sounded like Chinese but was sweeter when sung, and sing they did from early morning till late at night, whether working or not. They were very romantic and indulged in flirtations at all times. It was nothing serious — just a joke, a wink or a burst of song. The girls usually took the initiative in teasing or wooing their coy and sheepish men. Born coquettes, they always managed to create a situation where a man had to speak to them whether he wanted to or not. Purposely pushing a man with her basket, a girl would reproach him for being awkward, another would scream that he had stepped on her toe or tried to upset the bottle of wine she was carrying. There would be some repartee and finally the whole group would sit down, have a drink and sing.

The main trouble with the Minkia was that they were all very mean and much more calculating than either the Nakhi or Tibetans. Both men and women worked, but the women worked the harder. Whilst the Nakhi women also worked hard, they did it in a truly capitalistic spirit, expecting a good profit from every transaction or unusual exertion. They never carried anything too heavy for them and what they carried was for their own commerce. Their Minkia sisters did not possess such brilliant business ability, they were real transport animals carrying goods or objects from one town to another for a small fee. They developed an even stronger physique than the Nakhi women (which is saying much) as they always tried to carry heavier and heavier loads, which were paid for according to weight. They became champion carriers, some of them carrying anything up to 140 lb. It was nothing for a Minkia woman to carry a heavy cabin trunk from Hsiakwan to Likiang, and they would carry their disabled husbands or sick parents on their back thirty or forty miles to the nearest hospital.

But the greatest renown of the Minkia did not lie in the ability of their women to carry their husbands or of their men to run the caravan traffic to the Burma Road. It was their uncanny skill in masonry and carpentry that made the whole tribe famous throughout the Yunnan Province and far beyond the borders. They built speedily and well anything from a humble village house to a palace or a great temple. The precision and excellence of their work would be a credit to any Western architect. Steeped in the tradition of centuries, passed by example and word of mouth from father to son, every Minkia was a born artist. Every house, wayside shrine or bridge, though conforming to a set style, yet was an individual work of art. But it was in carving stone and wood that the artistic genius of the Minkia race found its finest expression. Even the meanest house must have its doors and windows beautifully carved and its patio adorned with exquisite stone figures and vases arranged with striking effect. The subjects of the carvings were always mythological, and perhaps their symbolism had already been forgotten, but their felicitous meaning was always plain. The process of stone and wood carving was laborious, but the execution was perfect, no detail being left unfinished. In Likiang only really poor Nakhi built their houses themselves.

It was the Minkia who were invited to build and decorate the houses of the rich in Kunming and other important cities. The beautifully carved and gilded tea-tables of the Dalai Lama’s household and his famous carved and painted stables, I was told, were executed by specially imported Minkia artisans. The King of Muli and other lama potentates always placed orders with the Minkia for tea-tables and other carved objects according to their own specifications.

If it is true that the Minkia had migrated into Yunnan from Angkor Thorn, this seemingly inborn propensity to artistic work in stone and wood is strong supporting evidence of the migration. Their facial features too, when they are pure-blooded Minkia, bear strong resemblance to the carvings on Angkor Wat. Their language is Maung Khmer and, although strongly adulterated with Chinese words and expressions, is nevertheless a distinct one. The name of the city Tali is not Chinese, but a perversion of the Khmer word Tongle, which means Lake. Tali is situated by a large lake.

Of all the tribes of Yunnan the Minkia are the closest to the Chinese, having adopted the Celestial Civilization almost in its entirety. They have no writing of their own and Chinese is used in all written communications and records. The intermarriage with the Chinese is extensive and unhindered either by tradition or jealousy. As a matter of fact, it is rather difficult to trace or identify a Minkia of really pure blood. It is only against the background of the morose, supine and rather unfriendly Yunnan Chinese that the Minkia become easily distinguishable by their inborn gaiety and levity. Not that Minkia women are judged as dissolute by their Chinese sisters, but no Chinese woman would dare to be so easy-going and friendly with men. Certainly few, if any, Chinese women would exchange double-edged jokes with a group of men or take part in drinking bouts.

My friendships with the Minkia were extensive and agreeable, but, looking back, I now realize that at no time were they so genuine or selfless as with the Nakhi. There were always strings attached to their gifts, and invitations to visit their ‘homes were very infrequent; they usually preferred to enjoy my hospitality. There is no doubt in my mind that they were a calculating and purse-tight people. The quality of their hospitality, with a few exceptions, left much to be desired; once or twice I was stupid enough to accept Minkia invitations, only to find the doors of their village padlocked on arrival. Afterwards I never went out to Minkia homes unless accompanied there by the host himself or his deputy.

However, I often went in the evening to visit groups of the Minkia carpenters whom I knew. They were always working till nightfall on some new houses due to the building boom in Likiang, and would be eating their supper when I arrived. As a rule they sat in a circle on a half-completed first floor and I was always very careful when climbing up their makeshift ladders. To them such hazards appeared non-existent. Their women always came to visit them, bringing some homemade delicacies such as pickled cabbage or turnip, and would stay in town for a day or two until replaced by other relations. Of course these visits to husbands, brothers or lovers were not the primary object in travelling to Likiang. They either had been hired to bring some loads up or had come with their own merchandise to sell. And it was so much nicer and less expensive to spend the night with their own folk, as a kettle bubbled on the hastily constructed hearth and sparks from the fire flew up into the uncompleted roof. There were straw mats or wooden stumps to sit on while a jar of white wine was passed around and a big pot of beancurd and cabbage soup, perhaps a tiny fish, plenty of chillies and red rice. Afterwards people relaxed on the mats; more wine went around, mandolins were produced and sweet nostalgic songs were sung late into the night. I loved these plaintive rhythmic songs.

The most frequent Minkia visitors to my house were Akounya’s father, her two brothers and their friends. They felt quite at home and after dinner always came up to my room to have more drinks and to listen to my gramophone. They liked opera records best, and of these they preferred La Traviata above all others, and pretended that it contained a number of Minkia words. They asked me to tell them what La Traviata was about. To have explained it to them literally would have been easy, but they would have lost much of the meaning of the libretto. At last I had a bright idea and, as the opera progressed, told them the following story:

‘A beautiful Minkia girl from your village went one day with her friends to the crowded Chiuho market. There she met a handsome Minkia boy from Chienchwang who also came to the market together with his companions. He persuaded her to accompany him to Chienchwang where a marriage would be arranged. She went. There was much rejoicing on her arrival. But her parents-in-law were cruel to her. She was disappointed and decided to flee back to her village. Her aria betrays her sadness at the inevitability of the parting. The man sings about the loss of his beautiful bride and of the purchase money he paid for her.’

My friends were delighted with this interpretation and said they could now themselves feel the emotions expressed by the singers. The music, they said, was clearly Minkia music. Crowds of Minkia came afterwards to hear the records. The only thing, they said, that they could not understand, was how foreigners could compose so true an opera about Minkia life.

I said that many years ago an Italian explorer, who also was a composer, travelled through these parts and wrote the libretto and the music. I pray that the spirit of Verdi will forgive me for the liberties I took with his opera for the sake of the pleasure and joy that it gave to these simple people.