Descending from the pass, the loveliness of the valley hit me with staggering force, as it always did when I made this journey to Likiang in spring-time. I had to dismount and contemplate this scene of paradise. The air was like champagne; the weather, warm but with a tinge of freshness that came from the great Snow Range dominating the valley. Mount Satseto sparkled in the setting sun, a dazzling white plume waving from its top. Storms were raging high up there and the powdered snow was whirling up into the air like feathers on a cap. Below, everything was serene. Pink and white groves of blossoming peach- and pear-trees, interspersed with feathery bamboos, all but concealed white and orange houses of scattered hamlets. Roses were everywhere. The hedges were a mass of clusters of small double white ones: big white, pink and yellow climbing roses hung from trees and roofs: dwarf single roses spread themselves on meadows and clearings. The scent was overpowering and exciting. The fields were green with winter wheat, and between them ran deep, crystal-clear streams of icy water. Dark water plants waved in them like strands of hair. The water from glaciers divided and subdivided into innumerable streams and canals, and made the Likiang plain one of the best irrigated areas in the world. The gurgling of these swift brooks, the singing of larks and other birds was like the music of gods. The road twisted in and out of hamlets.
Likiang itself could not be seen: it was hidden behind a small hill, on the top of which a red and white temple was clearly visible. Crowds of peasants of the Nakhi tribe that predominated in Likiang were returning from the market: smiling men and women led horses, and we could hear their chattering and singing well ahead. Many of them knew me and their greetings were spontaneous and joyous, their faces red from the customary drink they had taken before returning home. Wine in clay jars was carried on horses and by women in their baskets, to be consumed during the cold evenings in the mountains. A group of young men, clad in short pants and jerkins of deerskin, appeared from behind a bend, playing on reed pipes and singing. They were the Attolays -a mysterious tribe living deep in the heart of the Nanshan range — who greeted me affectionately. There was a jumble of sounds ahead — tinkling of bells, clanging of iron, shouts, and tramping of animals. It was a Tibetan caravan coming from the city. Soon its owners came up on their broad, shaggy ponies. They were two Tibetan gentlemen, resplendently clad in red silk shirts and heavy coats tied at the waist by sashes, and wearing gold-embroidered hats.
‘Aro, konan ndro? (Where are you going ?)’ I greeted them in Tibetan.
‘Lhasa la (to Lhasa),’ they grinned. Then, in perfect English one of them said, ‘Have a cigarette, sir!’ and offered me a packet of Philip Morris.
They went on slowly and soon the caravan came up. We pulled to the side of the road to let it pass. Unlike the Minkia caravans between Hsiakwan and Likiang, Tibetan caravans proceed unhurriedly and there is little danger of violent collisions. The horses and mules do not carry the heavy loads, of 140 to 180 lb., into Tibet, but only 80 to 100 lb.; unlike those in a Minkia caravan, the animals are unshod to prevent them from slipping on stone trails. The distance covered by a Tibetan caravan in a day is very short, twenty miles being the limit. The animals are looked after with loving care and always appear sleek and well fed. Light loads, short stages and plenty of fodder are imperative if the animals are to survive the trek of three months between Likiang and Kalimpong via Lhasa. There is no road, only a trail climbing and twisting up and down the steep mountains through dark rocky gorges, fording roaring glacier streams, sometimes wading in mud in tricky mountain bogs. Even with this care, mules and horses arrive at their destination exhausted and with hooves cut to pieces, and it takes a long time for them to recuperate.
The caravan we met was like any other typical Tibetan caravan. The leading horse wore a mask profusely studded with turquoise, corals, amethysts and small mirrors; red ribbons were arranged around its ears; and it carried a triangular orange flag, with green serrated border bearing a legend in Tibetan meaning ‘Likiang-Kalimpong direct transit.’ Each unit of twenty animals was accompanied by a walking Tibetan with a rifle, and a huge mastiff with a red woollen lei around his neck.
As we passed through the villages on the outskirts of the town the women in the wine-shops waved and called us to have a drink. We had a cup of wine in each not to offend them. Greeted by neighbours, we slowly climbed half way up the hill and passed through the gate into a flower-filled courtyard. We were at home.
Our house was old but still in good condition, and spacious. All houses in Likiang had two storeys and were built with three or four wings, or more. Big or small, the architecture never varied. The lower part was of sunbaked bricks, whitewashed on the outside or coloured in orange, yellow or even light blue, according to the owner’s fancy, with elegant borders traced in black or blue. In the centre there was a stone-flagged courtyard with three stone-lined raised flowerbeds. The lower rooms in the middle of each wing had four or six doors all beautifully carved in filigree. Other rooms had either carved or latticed windows. The back of the rooms was wainscoted in wood to conceal the ugly bricks. The upper storey was one vast room, sometimes quite low, and it could be partitioned into as many small rooms as one wished. Since few Nakhi liked to stay upstairs, it was usually used as storage for provisions, crops and goods. There was no ceiling and, as the wooden walls never quite reached the roof, breezes circulated freely. It had a few windows in the outer wall and a continuous series of windows facing the courtyard which could be opened by tilting them upwards. As there was no glass but thin rice paper pasted on the lattice-work, like windows in Japanese houses, there was little protection in the evening, when the blasts of cold wind roared down from the Snow Mountain. The roof consisted of heavy clay tiles and the corners slightly curved upwards in the usual Chinese style. All tiles were of grey colour, but sometimes the monotony was broken by white lines along the border.
It was extremely difficult for a newcomer to Likiang to get a house to himself. At best, the offer was to share the house with the owner by taking one or two wings. This was very inconvenient on account of kitchen arrangements, children and prying eyes.
When I first came to Likiang I made it known that I must have a whole house for my office and myself. Weeks passed and then, by accident, I heard of one; but there was a fly in the ointment. The owner was adamant on one point — her distant relatives, an old couple, who acted as caretakers, and their only son must continue living at the house. I had to accept. I was gratified to find it so speedily but, knowing the housing situation in Likiang, I became suspicious both of the hasty offer and the very low rental. It was true the house was far from the centre, but it was a large house conspicuously located on the main road from Lhasa and would have been very convenient for an inn; yet it had remained empty for a very long time. Discreet inquiries amongst my newly made Nakhi friends and those of my Chinese cook from Shanghai, elicited the fact that the house was haunted. And more sinister particulars were whispered into my ear.
It appeared that the house had been a prosperous inn owned by an elderly widower. He married the present owner who, it was related to me, was pretty, vivacious and a notorious flirt. Evidently she had other ideas about married life as, in a couple of years’ time, the elderly man died in convulsions at night in one of the rooms on the ground floor. Bitterly weeping, the young widow assured people that he died of overeating. But, as he could not speak at all before he died, neighbours had a different notion. They were sure that his death was due to the classic Nakhi poison, the deadly black aconite boiled in oil. The onset of this merciless poison was characterized by a paralysis of the larynx. In convulsions the victim could only stare frantically at his helpless friends without being able to utter a word. There was no known antidote. The young widow, with a small son, was left alone to enjoy her gain. The inn continued to do its business, but its popularity declined. The Nakhi are superstitious people and few local travellers, hearing the tale, wanted to stay at so inauspicious a place.
One night a weary military officer from Kunming stumbled into the inn. The enchantress cooked him a delicious meal and poured out for him many a bowl of strong clear zhi. Flushed with wine, the man talked, and continued talking far into the night. He was retiring from his business, he said, and he had money; as a matter of fact, big money in his saddlebags. On the morrow he would continue the journey to his village, which he had not seen for many years, and where he would settle down, buy land and build a nice big house -perhaps as big as Madame’s; yes, and perhaps marry. The lady was very interested. It was late and there were no other guests. He drank more and more. He became amorous and she suggested a supper before retiring. She went into the kitchen and returned with a large bowl of delicious stewed pork, heavily seasoned with chillies, warm baba and appetizing titbits. After the meal she escorted him to his room. Late next morning she appeared very agitated. She explained to neighbours that one of her guests was still in the room and, in spite of her repeated calls for breakfast, there was no answer. They entered the room. The man was dead. There was an investigation, but nothing came out of it. Who cares much about a lonely stranger dying on the way, perhaps of a heart disease?
As no Nakhi would take the house, my arrival was God-sent. My cook implored me not to take it, saying we should all be dead in a year’s time. I only laughed and went to see the lady in her famous noodle-shop. She was presiding over a stove with two enormous cast-iron Chinese boilers out of which she ladled greyish noodles into bowls for the customers sitting inside the shop. She was middle-aged and her face was of an unhealthy greenish-grey colour. Her dress was filthy and the shop itself fully matched her sloppiness. But her eyes were remarkable — bold, roguish and full of cunning. Although willing to get rid of the house almost at any cost, her inborn greed overcame her. She named an exorbitant rental and for one year only. Next year it would be double, and so on; certain rooms were to be reserved for her use; the old couple had to stay; the house could be used for her receptions on certain festive and ceremonial occasions and any additions I might make would become her property at the expiration of the lease. I launched my counter-attack. I said I was a high government official and that, if I wanted to, I could apply for a requisition order; then she would get nothing. Besides, I continued, the house was haunted and, therefore, useless to anyone else. But I did not mind staying there because I was a Taoist initiate, had much experience in dealing with the spirits, and, through a series of seances, could rid the house of its ghosts and evil influences. However, it would be a slow business, and I intended to stay a long time. I was surprised to see how quickly she climbed down. She was beaming. She told me that the idea of cleansing the house of ghosts and influences through my intervention was the best news she had heard for years. She herself proposed a very low rental, only forty dollars a year, much less than I had expected, and a contract for six years, renewable for another like period. On my part I agreed to the old couple’s staying and to her use of the house for ceremonial occasions. Thus the deal was concluded and celebrated with a long drink of zhi on both sides.
I had the house cleaned, scrubbed and washed. The central room, where the unfortunates had expired, I made my general office. I partitioned the upper storey, facing the street, and made it my bedroom and my private office. The upper storey in the adjoining wing was made a guest-room.
A short climb along the stone-paved road led to the red temple on the top of the hill and to a wonderful view of the town and plains. Likiang lay snuggling between this hill and the foothills of the northern range opposite. It continued around the hill, spreading into the eastern valley and the main plain which sloped gently southwards. It was a sea of slate-grey roofs, with glimpses of orange, white and red walls of houses and official buildings. The square market-place below was packed with people and a babel of voices could be heard clearly. Trees and gardens were visible among the roofs and here and there a stream glistened in the sun.
The name Likiang means in Chinese the Beautiful River. This refers to the great River of the Golden Sand, more popularly known as the Yangtze, which flows to the west and east of the town and forms the vast loop in which Likiang is situated. The river is only twenty-five miles from the city in either direction, but it takes days to reach the apex of the loop in the north. The Nakhi call the town Ggubby. The epithet Beautiful River was more than deserved by both the river and town. Unlike most Chinese cities, Likiang had no wall. It was a large place as towns go in the sparsely populated Yunnan province. There has never been any census, but I reckoned that some 50,000 people lived in the town area. It was really a federation of closely knit villages and each street was called by the name of the village; for example, Main Street was Wobo village and the road on which I lived was Wuto village. The officious Chinese affixed to some streets such appellations as Chung Shan (Sun Yat Sen) Road and Chung Cheng (Chiang Kai Shek) Road, but no one paid attention to such innovations. Every town in China had streets with such names now probably changed into Mao Tse Tung and Stalin Streets.
Likiang was the seat of the Northwest Pacification Commissioner and the Magistrate, and enjoyed, therefore, a considerable standing in the Chinese officialdom. There was an efficient Police force, but policemen were seldom visible in the streets. If there was a brawl, it could always be settled by the intervention of the interested bystanders or neighbours. If it was a case of theft from a shop or house, it could always be reported direct to the police station at one’s convenience. If it was a pilferage from a food or sweetmeat stall, the culprit could always be chastised by the injured party, usually a woman, with a screaming barrage of most obscene words. Likiang was not civilized enough to have professional pickpockets or bank-robbers. Thousands of dollars in bank-notes or hundreds in silver were casually piled into open baskets by traders at one end of the town, the basket was hoisted on to the backs of women, slowly paraded through Main Street and the market and safely delivered at the other end of the town. Naturally everyone looked enviously and admiringly at the progress of this untold wealth within arm’s reach, but that was all. Only when a wife was stabbed by her husband, or vice versa, did the police run to the scene of the crime.
The descent from our hill down to the market below was gradual, along a cobbled street with a stone-flagged path in the centre. The street was lined by dilapidated shops in which beautiful brass padlocks, in native style, were made; or those of Tibetan boot-makers, and the sellers of food. The mean exteriors concealed handsome, carved living-quarters behind.
Further down, the road descended in steep curves, which I used to tell my friends was the ‘danger point’ on my walk to or from town. Here, on the steps of their houses, sat sturdy Nakhi matrons spinning wool, knitting, selling fruit or just gossiping. I have always addressed the ladies, of whatever race they might be, as Madame. It has always worked in China and, I thought, why should not I continue the practice in Likiang? A few days after we had settled in our new house and my walks to town became a daily occurrence, some of these women began greeting me every time I passed with ‘Zegkv bleu? (Where are you going?)’ I always smiled in return and said, ‘Madame.’ A few days later I addressed one of these women again as Madame. She rose and advanced towards me threateningly.
‘Every time you pass here you call us Manda! (fool),’ she exploded. ‘If you call us Manda again, I am going to give you a good beating,’ she raged. The others roared with laughter. I gathered my dignity and tried to explain.
‘Madame,’ I said, ‘I address you thus out of politeness. In Italian it is Ma Jama, which is the same as in Chinese Ma Ta Ma (Mother Big Mother). Even among the Nakhi, elderly ladies are addressed as Dama.’
Whether they understood or not, I continued to call them Madame and every time some of them pretended to be angry with me. ‘Again he called me Manda,’ one of them would scream. ‘Wait, we’ll get at you!” they chuckled. Indeed they kept their word. Sometimes they would snatch my walking-stick or pull me by the seat of my trousers. But whenever this happened, they were repentent at once and consoled me with an orange, a couple of walnuts or a drunken plum (plums soaked for months in strong wine). On dark nights they escorted me half the way up the hill with burning mingtze (pine torches).
At the foot of the hill the road divided. One branch continued along the canal, skirting the hill, and the other crossed a small stone bridge and entered the market-place. The market was a large square paved with cobble-stones in the centre and great stone slabs along the sides. It was probably the only market-place in the whole of China which was thoroughly washed every day, but this was done with the help of nature. Early in the morning the sluices of the canal which flanked the hill and was, therefore, slightly higher than other streams flowing through the city, were opened and about a foot of water was allowed to rush through the place for an hour or so. All rubbish was swept away by the water into a lower stream of the Likiang River at the other end of the market.
Likiang was covered by a network of these swiftly running streams which flowed at the backs of houses and, with the bridges, created an illusion of a miniature Venice. They were shallow and too swift for any navigation and, anyway, there were no boats in Likiang, but they served the town well, providing fresh water for all purposes. The streets of Likiang were paved with stone slabs or stone bricks and were scrupulously clean. Sweeping was frequent and thorough and the refuse was swept into the streams, which also received the rubbish from the houses. One might think that these streams and canals would get clogged and polluted in no time, but the water rushed unceasingly, crystal clear, and nothing but pebbles were seen on the bottom. The force of the current was so great that all and everything was immediately swept down the stream out of the town. It was only further down the valley, where the current became slow and opaque, that one noticed how unclean the river was. Whilst the people were indifferent to the dumping of rubbish into the water in the city, they were careful about upper reaches of the river and tried to prevent pollution by all available means. This was not difficult as the river originated in a beautiful park, a quarter of a mile away, at the foot of the Elephant Mountain — a name derived from its resemblance to a sleeping elephant. Here, out of the mouths of subterranean caverns, rushed sweet, ice-cold water from the glaciers of the Snow Range.
From the market-place one street branched off to the left and led to the houses of prominent merchants and to the yamen with its vermilion walls and red pillars. It was a long street and it merged gradually into the road leading to the Yangtze River. The street to the right was Main Street. Like all the streets in Likiang it was narrow and was paved with stone bricks closely fitted together. It was lined by a continuous row of shops, some bending backwards, some forwards, others leaning sideways on one another, as though frozen in an undulating and swaying movement of a ballet des boutiques. There were no pavements. Tibetan and Minkia caravans, going and coming from the busy market town of Hoking, thirty miles to the south, had to pass through this street and were a terror both to pedestrians and shopkeepers. Swinging loads scraped the shelves in front of the shops, sweeping the wares into the road, and scattering the baskets and pottery on sale by the roadside. The polished surface of the street was like ice, and the animals, with legs spreading, would sometimes crash to the ground, causing injury to some unlucky passer-by.
The shops were rather dark and mean. They had no plate-glass windows but only wooden counters, facing the street, with shelves below for the display of goods. Yet, considering that it was war-time, they were well stocked with all kinds of merchandise. Tibetan caravans were pouring in the goods from Calcutta, both for local consumption and for re-export to Kunming, at a prodigious rate. Best makes of British and American cigarettes were available and all kinds of textiles. Even new Singer sewing-machines could be bought. Of course, the prices were very high as the caravan is the most expensive mode of transport in the world. One shop had a small stock of imported beer at twenty-five dollars a bottle; few could aspire to buy such nectar. Matches cost fifty cents a box and were used only in emergencies. Some households always had a few live embers left in the stove from the previous day and neighbours would call in the morning to borrow a burning piece of charcoal. All the shops burned incense-sticks all day long at which smokers could light their pipes or cigarettes. Mountain people disdained matches even if offered. They always carried flint-locks and a supply of fluffy moss of which a tiny bit was placed on the tip of a cigarette or on to a pipe to catch the spark. Once I was trying to build a fire in rain and wind and had spent nearly two boxes of precious matches when a sympathetic mountain dweller came along and had the fire burning in no time at all.
The shops opened towards noon and the market-place began to function only in the afternoon. In the morning both the market-place and streets were deserted. Very few people had watches and there were few clocks. Even wealthy houses kept clocks more for decoration than for ascertaining the correct time. Indeed, there was no correct time. At the magistrate’s yamen the clock might show nine o’clock, at another place it might be eight or ten. Who cared? People judged the time by the sun. When the sun was well above the eastern mountains it was time to get up and cook breakfast. When it was high in the heavens it was the time to go to market. It was quite impossible to make exact appointments, and if you had told a man to come at eight he might turn up at ten or eleven, or even at noon.
The shops were run, with very few exceptions, by women. They knew exactly what you wanted, where to find it, and what last ditch discount could be granted after a vociferous bargaining. They were shrewd and aggressive and knew how to clinch a bargain. When the woman had to go away, she asked her husband to take over. He was usually to be found at the back of the shop nursing a child and his emergence was a calamity to the business and a trouble to himself. He did not know where matches were kept or where to find the pickles or in which jar was the required wine. In most cases he gave up and requested the customer to call again later when his wife had returned. Even professional male assistants in some big shops lacked ability and salesmanship, for they were inattentive and rude and, when an important deal seemed on the verge of being lost, they rushed and called their master’s wife to arbitrate.
The payment for merchandise was made in pangkais — Chinese silver half-dollars which were minted in Kunming specially for this region. Their value in the terms of American money was about eight pangkais to a dollar, but everybody had to look twice at the pangkais, for some of the newer vintage had more copper in them than silver and they were either rejected or accepted at a ruinous discount. During the last few years, preceding the fall of the Nationalist regime, Chinese paper money found its way into Likiang. It was brought by Hoking traders and government banks. These bank-notes were accepted reluctantly and not by everybody. Comparatively few people could read Chinese characters and one bank-note looked to them as good as another, and to simple mountain tribesmen some cigarette wrappers appeared like bank-notes. Many country folk were victimized by unscrupulous pedlars from Hoking and Tali. Ten-dollar notes were passed as hundred-dollar ones and hundred-dollar ones as thousands. I was constantly stopped in the street by peasants asking me to tell them whether it was a ten-dollar or a hundred-dollar note they had. Anyhow, the silver dollar always remained the basic currency and prices were calculated accordingly, and anyone with paper money always tried to convert it immediately into silver dollars. Exchange brokers flourished and they were invariably women.
The Tibetans, Lolos and other remote mountain tribesmen preferred to settle for their purchases in gold-dust, nuggets or the silver ingots they always carried with them. This procedure was most convenient and nobody suffered. The merchant, a woman of course, and the buyer would go to a goldsmith’s shop near by; the gold would be analysed and the required portion weighed or a quarter or a half of the crescent-shaped silver ingot sawn off. Gold, silver and coins were not kept in a bank, as there were no banks in Likiang worthy of the name. They were kept in strong wooden chests, padlocked with heavy native locks, in the inner rooms of the house or, particularly in the villages, buried in clay jars in a secret place under the floor.
One of the streets off Main Street led to the Copperware Square. It was lined entirely with coppersmithies and the din was terrific, with every smith in his shop beating on a vessel with all his might. Likiang copperware was beautiful, heavy and extremely durable. It was all hand-beaten and hand-burnished and it possessed a wonderful lustre. The square was literally ablaze with the vessels. The gold content was high, for the copper was mined in the rich gold-producing area along the River of the Golden Sand, a day’s journey from Likiang. There were classical Likiang water buckets of rounded form with stands; jugs and tea-kettles of all sizes; and fluted trays with brass inlays and borders, which were used for sending as ceremonial presents. The samovars, of which each household must have at least one to provide the eternal boiling water for interminable tea sessions, were different from Russian models, having only one big handle and a long spout instead of a tap. There were also innumerable houkous, large and small, of which, like the samovar, each house, rich or poor, must have at least one.
The houkou and, to a lesser degree, the samovar were the symbols of Nakhi happiness and enjoyment of life. Without them no social function, wedding or funeral, or picnic, could be complete. The meals, during the cold days of winter, would be cheerless indeed without the warm companionship of the houkou and samovar. The houkou is a Chinese-style stove, like a large bowl with a lid and on a stand, and with a chimney through the centre. Water is poured into the bowl, charcoal burns in the chimney, and raw vegetables, meat and etceteras are put into the water and soon a delicious stew is ready. As the people eat, more water and ingredients are added, as well as more charcoal, so it can supply hot food for as long as is needed. The houkou, under different names but basically the same, is most popular from Lhasa to Shanghai and from Harbin to Djakarta: the Japanese version of it is the sukiyaki.
An elegant street not far from the Copper Square led to the palace of the Mu kings. A triumphal gate across the street marked the beginning of this aristocratic quarter. The palace itself was a rambling structure in Chinese style and was used as the District Primary School. Adjoining it there was a series of walled houses where the ex-king, his family and other royal relatives lived. A great stone arch, elaborately carved, was in front of the royal compound and bore two Chinese characters, ‘Loyal and Righteous’, bestowed on a king by a Ming emperor in the seventeenth century. The title of king or chief, still used by the people in reference to the head of the Mu family, was really an honorary one. During the Manchu dynasty the feudal status of the king had been abolished and Likiang became a fu magistracy. For a period the Mu kings continued to rule as hereditary fu (senior) magistrates, but even that was taken away from them and a succession of Chinese magistrates began. The Mu dynasty traced its origin as far back as the glorious Tang dynasty and produced many heroic and just rulers, interspersed with a few bad ones. Towards the close of the Manchu dynasty the royal family of Mu was well on the road of degeneration. They had absorbed the then new-fangled fashion of smoking opium and other elegant vices of the Chinese court and their downfall was acid. Deprived of the revenue from their vast estates, the members of the royal family resorted to selling, one by one, their accumulated art treasures and the precious mementoes of their ancestors, to satisfy their insatiable craving for opium, and it was alleged that some princes had sold even their furniture and wives’ wedding dresses. All the prestige and standing of this illustrious family had gone with the wind.
The king whom I met occasionally was a sorry-looking individual, pale, emaciated and dull, and was considered a nincompoop. He was seldom invited to big social functions, and even then was allocated a secondary place at the festive table. Other members of the family hardly presented a better appearance, although some of them were brilliant Chinese scholars. I had engaged a Mu king’s cousin as the chief clerk at our office and he remained with us until my departure from Likiang. Sometimes he was absent for days and he never appeared at the office before the afternoon: but he was continually asking me for advances on his salary and trying to collect secretly, for himself, interest from our co-operative societies. He even stole an office clock and other articles and did everything in his power to squeeze a dollar or two from any source by hook or by crook. Yet I could not dismiss him: I tried, but found it impossible, for he was indispensable. His presentation of the accounts and his reports in Chinese for my head office were perfect, for he was a brilliant writer of Chinese official documents and knew all official usages and approaches.
It was only after I had opened our office in Likiang that I realized how few Nakhi or Minkia knew Chinese really well. Several men had been recommended for the post of the chief at my office. They had the highest credentials as teachers in high schools, secretaries in local government and so on. Each was given a fair trial, but their letters and reports were returned by my headquarters as incomprehensible gibberish, hardly worthy of comparison with a Chinese schoolboy’s essays; and neither head nor tail could be made of the accounts. I was sternly ordered to find the right man. If they only knew how difficult it was! Finally I got hold of Prince Mu and everything went well. But what a smoker he was! Opium was the essence of his life and he was ready to do anything, and he did, to get it. His wife used to come secretly to get what salary remained and she always complained that she and her children were starving. Everything that could be sold at the house had already been sold. When he came in the afternoon, after his long morning smoke, Prince Mu would plunge into work with gusto. There were no problems that he could not solve. He was one of the most educated and intellectual Nakhi I have ever met. He knew Likiang’s history and affairs as few people did. He was an expert on Chinese history and official life, and a brilliant conversationalist. He was polished, urbane and charming, yet he was lost to all decencies when the craving came.
In the vicinity of the Mu royal grounds there were many mansions of the local rich, with streams gurgling in front or between the buildings and roses spilling over the walls. The houses were two-storeyed, with six or eight wings. All the woodwork was lacquered in sang-de-boeuf or maroon colours, and the beautiful carving was gilded or silvered. The stone-flagged patios were full of flowers and blossoming bushes. The Nakhi were passionate lovers of flowers and always carried a blossom or a bouquet in the street. They planted roses, dahlias and cannas by the side of their homes and along the edges of the road and were always on the look-out for new varieties of flowers. I used to receive from America flower and vegetable seeds and my courtyard was a blaze of colour. Many were the requests for a seedling or a blossom. Sometimes my little garden was simply pillaged by the crowds of visitors: I did not mind that but I was really annoyed one day when they dug up and carried away my incarvilia and black aconite which I had brought from the Snow Range. They were native flowers, and all that they had to do was to take a walk to the mountain and get them there by the thousand. I wondered afterwards whether the black aconite was stolen for a hurried murder or suicide. Potted plants such as cineraria and calceolaria were much admired and coveted. Once I presented a pot of calceolarias to my friend, Madame Lee, who owned the best wine-shop in Main Street. She exhibited it on her counter and crowds of admirers viewed the flowers every day; women promptly christened the blossoms ‘Testicle Flowers’. Particularly venerated were the peonies. There were certain exclusive gardens where they could be seen at their best: the enormous blooms were shaded by paper wrappers and, when enough had opened, a drinking party was usually organized by the owner in their honour.
Beyond the big houses the town terminated abruptly in a series of green fields, divided and subdivided by flowing streams. Likiang had no slums. There were no special quarters of the town where the poor predominated. There were no ramshackle one-storey buildings, no hovels made of kerosene tins, straw or packing-cases, and no mean, dirty and unpaved lanes. There was no West End and no East End, one part of the city was as good and aristocratic as another. Pigs were kept by each self-respecting household, but their pens were a convenient distance from the house: true they were permitted to wander all over the town, but they were well-mannered and respectful animals. They took care not to hinder traffic too much and slept mostly along the kerbs of the street where the sun was warmest. Pig manure was eagerly collected and sold at a good price as fertilizer for the fields: the pigs seemed to know this and the streets were seldom soiled. These highly intelligent animals left the houses, including mine, early in the morning and went to neighbouring meadows to forage for additional food, or to sleep in the sun. They returned late in the afternoon, grunting, and tried to poke the door open with their snouts. Whenever they were needed earlier, they could always be recalled by the owner shouting ‘Nonna!‘ at the top of her (or, on rare occasions, his) voice. As in China, the pig was the mainstay and pride of the Nakhi economy and an acceptable companion to the housewife in the country when all the others were out. It always grunted so appreciatively, its little eyes twinkling, and punctuated its sympathy for the hard-working woman by gentle prods with its snout.
Thus Likiang, well paved and well watered, had no dust and no bad smells. Cooking and heating was done by means of charcoal and pine firewood. These two products were the greatest items of commerce on the market and a considerable source of income to the villagers. Mingtze — the rosin-impregnated pine splinters — were another important item, always necessary for illumination, and for lighting the home fires. As there were endless pine forests all around it was easy enough for any villager to gather them and to bring them to town for sale, either on horses or on his, or his wife’s, back. In the morning there was always a column of fragrant pine-wood smoke rising above the city.
Likiang had no cars, carriages or rickshas. Everyone walked, rich and poor, generals and soldiers, without distinction of caste or class. No millionaire had a chance to show off his Cadillac or Rolls-Royce and no Chinese general could roar in his armoured limousine through the peaceful streets of Likiang. The uniformity of locomotion had a wonderfully levelling effect on all classes of the population and promoted true democracy in relationships. A walking governor or general did not look nearly so formidable and inaccessible and could be greeted informally and intimately even by the humblest farmer.
Outside the town there was the outline of a motor highway to Hsiakwan, built years ago, but it had never been finished: there were no bridges, and torrential rains had washed away many sections in the mountains. The road had been initiated by the Provincial Government at the instigation of the Central Government, but the plan was successfully blocked by the Nakhi themselves through their powerful representatives in Kunming. The Nakhi did not want too much of Western civilization just yet. They said that the highway would bring much more trouble than benefit into their peaceful land. The little town would be swamped by hordes of Chinese crooks and loafers, in the guise of small traders, drivers and mechanics just as Hsiakwan was. Native business and industry would be ruined by keen competition and home life disrupted by evil influences. There would be greater interference by the Chinese military authorities and other government departments with their peaceful and free existence. A form of regimentation might be imposed on them and, of course, the worthless paper currency. Alas, they were right, as future events have shown. The people of Likiang were not ignorant of the West. Many of them had been to India and Burma as traders. They had powerful commercial connections with Kunming and many Nakhi units were serving in the Chinese army. They were definitely in favour of building a powerful hydro-electric station for the town and nearby villages as Likiang had no electricity, and they welcomed aeroplane connections with Kunming, but not the ruinous effects of a new road.
There were no big factories in Likiang, but there was gratifying industrial development in a small way in later years through the advent of the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives. There were scattered all over the town many small factories where wool spinning, weaving and knitting was done by hand. Elegant European-style footwear and sports goods, all made from local materials, were displayed in many stores. The Minkia furniture shops could turn out anything from mahjong tables to ultra-modern wardrobes. Tibetan boots and saddle-bags were made by the thousand; in fact, the really fine Tibetan boots were not produced in Tibet but exported there from Likiang. In addition to these there were the copperware and brassware and the lovely hand-chased brass padlocks. By its huge trade through Tibet during the war and its newly developed industries, Likiang became very prosperous, and new buildings began to spring up overnight everywhere.
During my preliminary survey trip to Likiang I had found the people to whom I was introduced charming and hospitable, and there had been feasts and a picnic meeting organized in my honour. Thus, upon my appointment, I proceeded to the City of the Beautiful River with my head in the clouds. I chafed at every delay on the road, and even the fast caravan appeared to move too slowly, so anxious was I to plunge again into the atmosphere of welcome and geniality I had experienced. I was absolutely sure that, upon arrival, I should be surrounded again with friendliness and helping hands and my work be child’s play, but alas, I realized only too quickly that my first impressions were wrong. The Nakhi proved to be truculent, unfriendly, mildly hostile and extremely suspicious, at the first arrival of all outsiders who were to take up permanent residence, whether they were of high or low rank. I found that to be received as a passing guest was one matter, but to settle and work among them was a totally different proposition. They especially distrusted all government officials coming from the capital, Chungking, as I did. They always thought that such men came — and came only for one purpose — to investigate their resources and wealth and make secret recommendations for additional taxation or the introduction of reforms curtailing their privileges or liberty. Every official, they thought, comes to take something. That there should be one who was ready to give something and help them, without expecting a rich return, was unthinkable and absurd. This new official, they said, intends to stay. He is a high officer, outranking the magistrate, so we must be civil to him but no more. Let us stand together and unobtrusively block his work, whatever it may be, and when he finds himself in difficulties, he will go away of his own will. Such was their reasoning.
It was only some considerable time afterwards that I fully understood how cunning the Nakhi were. By no means were they the simple, innocent and child-like tribesmen which, some writers aver, still exist in some remote corners of the world. There may indeed be such tribes in existence but, in the light of my own long residence in this area, which more than qualifies for remoteness, and my subsequent travels in south-east Asia I have come to the conclusion that nowhere can there be found the sweet and innocent natives of the romantic travelogues. An explorer or traveller who has stayed among such people only for a few weeks or months cannot assess accurately the character of such ‘children of nature’. It is only by living among them for a long time, and associating closely with their mode of thinking, understanding their joys and sorrows and following their customs, that one may finally arrive at a glimpse of the truth.
My disenchantment had started soon after our arrival. We were lucky to be permitted to stay, for a while, in a room at the house of Dr Rock, a resident of long-standing and much respected, and it was only by a fluke that I found my haunted house, after all other accommodation had been determinedly, though politely, refused me. Afterwards we had immense trouble in obtaining office furniture. There was nothing in local carpenter shops, and when we asked the carpenters to make us desks and other office furniture of the simplest design, they turned their backs on us. But with the greatest difficulty and much expense we had the furniture made by the Minkia carpenters in Chienchwang.
The next step was to win over and establish friendly relations with our immediate neighbours. The credit for this auspicious development went largely to my Shanghai cook, Lao Wong, whom I had brought with me. He was a tall, burly fellow, heavily pock-marked. Like all illiterate people, he was sagacious and, what is more, he was a born diplomat. But he spoke only that peculiar dialect which is used in Shanghai by the Chinese who come from the northern bank of the Yangtze. He had been frightened and dazed by the caravan travel and by his arrival among the ‘barbaric savages’ of the Western Regions of whom he knew only through that classic and interminable Chinese opera ‘Hsi Yu Chi’ (Travel to the Western Regions). He was much upset when we established ourselves in the haunted house and trembled at the least noise, expecting to be seized and strangled by two horrible ghosts. He planted burning incense sticks in every room and corner of the house before retiring for the night. Fierce-looking, skin-clad mountain men, with long daggers at the belt, who passed to and from the market, threw him into a cold sweat. However, seeing that neither he nor I had been stabbed or clubbed, he soon gathered courage and started going out.
Most of the Nakhi spoke a little Chinese, but to the end of my days in Likiang they never ceased to assure me that they could never understand what my cook was talking about. Undismayed he talked and talked. He was so voluble and his voice was so shrill, I could hear him from the top of the hill as I returned from the town. His constant visits to one and every neighbour, his talks and little gifts to children soon melted the atmosphere. Neighbours began to drop in for a light for their kitchens in the morning, to borrow this and that or simply out of curiosity. Afterwards they would bring some peaches from their gardens or a few potatoes, a bunch of wild flowers or a rose. Soon we knew all about them and they about us and our doings. At last we felt we belonged, at least, in Wuto village.
Down the street, just before the gate which marked the boundary of the city, there was a great, richly ornamented mansion. It belonged to a Mr Yang, a very rich Minkia merchant who considered himself a Nakhi by virtue of his lifelong residence in Likiang. He had many sons and daughters. He himself had retired long ago, but two of his sons had separate shops in Main Street and were doing well in textiles. They had branches in Hsiakwan, Kunming and Lhasa. The two younger boys, by his second wife, were at school. My cook made fast friends with the two merchant sons, and soon I was informed that Mr Yang desired to make my acquaintance. I presented myself one morning. He was a handsome old man, stately and dignified, with an aristocratic face and long white beard and was immaculately dressed as a Chinese gentleman, in long gown and black silk makwa jacket, and he wore a black cap with a red button. He rose to greet me from a chaise-longue in which he was resting. It was on the patio; the air was filled with the scent of flowers, and there were rows upon rows of rare orchids and primulas and petunias in pots on marble stands. Roses and other flowering shrubs were everywhere, and there were brilliant goldfish in the marble-lined pond and in glass bowls. I was offered tea and wine of rare vintage. The old man was smoking a long silver-tipped pipe and sipped tea; slowly and unobtrusively he was looking me over. We chatted lightly and then I related the purpose of my mission to Likiang. He listened but said nothing. In a short while I rose to take leave; Mr Yang rose too and, gently taking my elbow, led me into one of the halls. A splendid repast was laid out on a round marble table, with ivory chopsticks, silver pots of wine and silver cups. His sons and grandsons came in. I protested that it was too great an honour to be invited to a meal on my first visit, but I was gently pushed on to a chair and we all began to eat. The room was tastefully decorated with old Chinese paintings and scrolls. All the furniture was of blackwood; there was rare porcelain on stands and Tibetan copper jugs inlaid with turquoise, and a burnished brass censer out of which fragrant smoke curled in a spiral to the painted ceiling.
Mr Yang liked me and invited me again many times. Sometimes it was a formal dinner at which one or two passing dignitaries were present, at others it was a festival meal, and once it was the wedding of one of his sons. Often we would just talk together of Likiang and its people, of local customs and of the war which still raged far away; and often he would send me a gift of some fruits or a rare delicacy, or a joint from a newly killed pig. It was a gentle and enduring friendship, We understood each other even without speaking, and could be content to sit back and enjoy the peace of the little garden. He had early perceived that I was a Taoist and he himself had attained that mellow state through the lessons of his long life.
During one of my visits a few years later he led me to the back of his house and showed me a small pig in a separate pen.
‘This pig is being specially reared for my funeral,’ he said, chuckling. Then he led me to a disused corner room, opened the door and showed me a stout coffin, newly painted. I felt very sad, but he was smiling.
More than a year passed. I had gone to Kunming and returned after a month away. My cook was very excited when I stepped into the house.
‘Mr Yang has been asking all the time on which day you will return,’ he informed me. ‘He will invite you to lunch tomorrow,’ he added.
I entered the old man’s house next day with foreboding. He was very glad to see me, but I noticed how frail he looked. His face had a strange luminosity. His two elder sons were with him, ‘I was ill after you had left,’ he greeted me. He invited me to see the pig. ‘But I am too weak to walk,’ he said. ‘My son will show it to you.’ The pig had grown enormously. It was now an exceptionally fat animal.
‘My sons are now with me day and night,’ said Mr Yang lightly, but I knew how ominous this was. The old man was propped on the pillows and we had luncheon en famille, though he hardly ate anything. The leave-taking was emotional.
‘I am glad to have seen you again,’ said the old man. ‘Good-bye! We may not perhaps see each other again,’ and he feebly squeezed my hand. Next day at noon my cook rushed upstairs into my room.
‘Old Mr Yang is dead,’ he announced with a show of emotion. I was shocked. Unloosing his tongue, Lao Wong flooded me with the details of his passing. It appears that the old man felt suddenly that he was going. His family gathered around him and dressed him in ceremonial robes. Then he spoke to all of them calmly. After that he lay down his head on the pillow and motioned to his son. As he breathed his last the son placed a small silver coin on his tongue. Immediately he was put into the coffin.
According to Nakhi custom, when a man is about to expire small silver coin must be quickly laid on his tongue. If this is not done, the man will never gain admission into the paradise where his ancestors dwell. Therefore, when a person is ill weak or very old, there is always one of the family watching by the bedside day and night. Turns are taken by the members of the family, and woe to the son or daughter who does not perceive in time the moment of passing. Because of this belief, it is considered a calamity to die suddenly in an accident or a fight. The lost souls of such unfortunates are doomed to perpetual wandering in purgatory, until their entrance into the paradise is secured by special — and expensive — Shamanist ceremonies.