Starting in distant villages early in the morning, the streams of farmers began to converge on Likiang soon after ten o’clock, along the five main roads. The streets were jammed with horses loaded with firewood; people bringing charcoal in baskets on their backs and others carrying vegetables, eggs and poultry. Pigs were either carried, tied up, on poles by two men, or led by women, who held the leash in one hand and gently prodded the animal with a switch in the other. Many other kinds of merchandise were carried either on the backs of the people themselves or on their animals. There was the noise of hooves on hard stone, loud talk, shouting and much laughter. In the market itself there was great tumult with all these crowds trying to pass each other and jockeying for the best positions on the square. On the previous night sturdy stalls had already been pulled out of the common pile, or dragged from surrounding shops and set in rows in the centre. Women and girls brought heavy bales of textiles and spread bolts of cloth on the stalls. Haberdashery, spices and vegetables were displayed in separate rows. Shortly after noon the market was in full swing and was a boiling cauldron of humanity and animals.
Towering Tibetans elbowed their way through the struggling masses. Boa villagers in their mushroom-shaped cloaks waved bunches of turnips. Chungchia tribesmen in their coarse hempen shirts and trousers, with peculiar little queues falling from their shaven heads, listlessly promenaded with lengths of narrow and rough hemp fabrics. Nakhi women ran frantically after some wayward customers. Many strange tribesmen and their women simply stood and gaped at so many attractive goods and at the elegant people of Likiang.
At about three o’clock the market session reached its climax and then began to decline. Towards four o’clock the ‘cocktail’ session was in full swing.
Main Street was lined with dozens of ‘exclusive bars’ and thither thirsty villagers, men and women, turned their steps. Normally in China such a thing is unknown. Not that the Chinese do not drink, but wine in China is associated more with eating and the best time for drinking is considered to be at dinner with friends. The women in China do not sit down with men to drink, and therefore such meals are entirely male affairs. Generally, for propriety’s sake, Chinese women do not drink much in public, preferring to have a sip or two in the privacy of their rooms. The usual refreshment in China, when concluding protracted transactions, is tea without sugar or milk. After a tiring day in the market the numerous tea-shops in Chinese towns and villages are crowded with congenial parties of men and women relaxing over pots of tea. In this respect, the customs of Likiang were quite distinct. There were no tea-shops, and if anyone drank tea at all during the day it was brewed in miniature earthen jugs on the brazier concealed somewhere in the back room. Everyone, men, women and children, drank wine, white or sweet yintsieu. No self-respecting child above two years would go to sleep without a cup of yintsieu.
The ‘exclusive bars’ were neither bars nor were they exclusive. They were general stores where, in addition to salt, sugar, salted vegetables and haberdashery, wine was kept for sale, both to be taken away in customers’ own jars or to be consumed on the premises. The shops were uniformly small in Likiang and, in addition to the counter facing the street, there was a longer counter at a right angle to it, leaving a narrow passage from the door to the inner rooms of the shop. A couple of narrow benches were put before this counter and there the people sat sipping their wine. That the inmates of the house, including dogs, had to use this passage, sometimes. spilling the customers’ wine, was of no account. No one really’ minded such minor inconveniences in Likiang.
Anyone could have a drink at any shop, but some villagers acquired preferences for particular shops. These regular and faithful customers grew intimate with the lady owner, and always gave her the first option on whatever they were bring, ing to the market for sale. Similarly the lady favoured them with special discounts on whatever they wanted to buy from her. Actually such relations between the established clients and the shop owner were not so simple. The lady also acted as their broker, banker, postmaster and confidante. Baskets with purchases were left in her keeping whilst the customers went out for more shopping. Small loans were negotiated with her on the security of the next deliveries of whatever they usually brought to the market or against growing chickens or pigs. When clients could not pay for their drinks or pur-chases, credit transactions were permitted by the lady, who got her husband or son to record them in simple Chinese. Wallets with cash were sometimes deposited at the shop for safe-keeping by the farmers whose villages were not safe from robbers. As there was no postal service to remote villages, the wine-shop was a favourite accommodation address. Letters were duly forwarded to the recipients by safe hands. Confidential advice was sought by clients from the lady on the problems of engagement and marriage, childbirth and funerals. And, of course, every lady wine-shop owner was a Bureau of Information par excellence. She knew the curricula vitae of everybody within a radius of a hundred miles, and I doubt whether there ever existed a secret in Likiang that was not known to her.
I had humbly attached myself to three wine-shops. One was Madame Lee’s in the smartest section of Main Street, another was Madame Yang’s in the market-place, and the third belonged to Madame Ho in the Tibetan quarter of the city near Double Stone Bridge. I faithfully visited all of them almost every day, when I was in town. About five in the afternoon I descended to Madame Yang’s and stayed for an hour. At six I was at Madame Lee’s, and went to Madame Ho’s usually after dinner. However, I was not received into the inner circle of these ladies’ clients until a much later date, when they had become sure of my respectability and integrity. My debt to these clever and charming ladies is very great and it pains me that perhaps I shall never be able to repay it. The success of my integration into the life of Likiang and of work is largely due to the sensible advice and infallible information supplied to me by these women. Had it not been for their vigilance and timely warnings, I would have made many blunders which might have led to my downfall. Every day at their shops added a valuable page to my experience and knowledge of this difficult region and its people.
The wine supplied by the wine-shops in Likiang was not imported or bottled in glass bottles. It was made entirely by the home method at each particular shop and according to an age-old formula which was kept secret. There were three kinds. The clear white wine, called zhi, was made from wheat and it was equivalent in potency and taste to gin. The sweet yintsieu was made of sugar, honey, wheat and something else, and was amber yellow, clear, and tasted rather like Tokay or sweet sherry. The older it was, the better was the bouquet. Then there was the plum wine, reddish and rather thick, which reminded me of Balkan sliwowitz. It was quite potent and I could not stand much of it. I preferred the yintsieu of a special old vintage which was best at Madame Lee’s and cost a little extra, though the highest price per cup was only five cents. Anyone who wanted to take wine home had to bring his own jar or bottle. Bottles were very precious in Likiang, and an empty one might cost as much as two dollars.
Madame Lee was an old woman, very erect, stately and handsome, with aquiline features and large lustrous eyes. She belonged to the cream of Likiang society and was much respected both in the town and in the villages. Everybody knew her and she knew everybody. Her husband was a big, handsome old man with a long grey beard. He was purely ornamental and never interfered with the affairs of the shop; whenever she went out and he had to take over he felt utterly lost and was as helpless as a child. He could not even find the right jar of yintsieu and I and my boon companions had to help ourselves. The couple had a son who was a school-teacher: he was married and had a daughter and an infant son. The daughter-in-law was a husky, simple soul and dutifully stayed at the back of the house, working hard. It was the old man who looked after the little girl and nursed the baby, which was always in his arms and yelled when his mother took him away for feeding. Old Mr Lee also lent a hand in cooking, as was the custom with all Likiang husbands. He was always to be found in the back room, lolling on the bed or brewing tiny pots of tea, which he liked very much. Perhaps he did a little opium smoking too, but it was mostly for the sake of sociability.
Madame Lee was one of the most efficient and hard-working women I have ever seen. Besides presiding from morning till night over the shop, she also supervised the preparation of the stock-in-trade which consisted of a great battery of large jars with sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers, plums, peach, orange and quince marmalade, not to speak of wine. Everything was made at home with the help of the daughter-in-law. It was no surprise at all to meet Madame Lee carrying, early in the morning, a heavy sack of wheat or a basket of plums from a nearby village. Besides all these chores, there was the seasonal slaughter of pigs and the salting of hams, pigs’ heads and pieces of pork for home use and for sale. She sometimes complained that she was tired, but at the same time she said that she was glad still to be able to work at the age of sixty-three.
Everything Madame Lee made was first-class, clean and tasty. We could not live without her pickles, marmalades and jams, her succulent hams, Rocquefort-like beancurd cheese and palate-titillating sweet and sour garlic.
Likiang was a wonderfully free place, especially in commerce and industry. There were no excise taxes to be paid on home-made liquor or anything else manufactured either at home or at the factory, and no licences or permits to be taken out for selling it. People were entirely free to make what they liked, sell whatever they liked and wherever they liked, in the market, in the street or on the premises.
Although Madame Lee’s shop opened at nine or ten in the morning she was too busy to appear until later. The shop remained unattended and anyone could come in, help himself to whatever he needed and leave the purchase money on the inner counter. This was true of the other shops in Likiang, and I never heard of this privilege being abused by the people or of this money being stolen.
It was not easy to get a seat at Madame Lee’s shop in the late afternoon. In an emergency she permitted me to sit behind the counter on a small stool, facing the other customers. Men and women came to have a drink or two before starting on their trek back to the village: but in accordance with Nakhi customs, no woman sat down in company with a man. Women usually took their drinks standing in front of the shop and chatting meanwhile with Madame Lee. It was quite common for a woman to treat men to drinks; nobody tried to prevent her from paying the bill. As soon as his drink was finished, a man would go and somebody else would drop into his place. It was wonderful to sit at the back of the shop in comparative gloom, and watch through the wide window the movement in the narrow street, as though seeing on a screen a colour film of surpassing beauty. Sooner or later everybody who had attended the market session had to pass through Main Street at least once or twice. Old friends could be seen and invited for a drink or new acquaintances made. Any stranger could be waved to and asked to share a pot of wine, without any ceremony of introduction, and I was sometimes stopped in the street by total strangers and offered a cigarette or a drink. No such liberties were allowed for women, but now and then one of them, who knew me well, would slap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Come and let us have a drink!’ and she would have to take her drink standing up so as to avoid a local scandal.
With the deep blue sky and brilliant sunshine, the street was a blaze of colour, and as we sat and sipped our wine from Madame Lee’s porcelain cups, mountain youths, in the sheer joy of life, would dance through the street playing flutes like the pipes of Pan. They looked wild woodland creatures in their sleeveless skin jerkins and short skin pants. A woman would slowly lead on a leash a couple of truculent pigs whose progress was slow and erratic. They would get tangled with passing horses or try to push between somebody’s legs, and there would be screams, laughter and imprecations from the outraged passers-by. A caravan would appear suddenly from behind a bend and women shopkeepers would rush to collect and protect their wares. The horses, heavily loaded with firewood, jostled men and women with baskets and stopped now and then before the shops whilst their owners tried to strike a bargain.
The company I met at Madame Lee’s wine-shop was extremely diverse and interesting. Sometimes I sat in the company of a rich lama, a poor Boa, an even poorer Chungchia, men from Lotien, well-to-do Nakhi landowners from a nearby village and a Minkia caravan driver. At other times it might have been rich Tibetans, White Lolos, and other tribesmen similarly mixed up. There was no snobbery on the part of the wealthy or influential men and no subservience or cringing on the part of the poor. They all drank their fill quietly, smoked and talked, if they could understand each other. More often than not they invited me to a round of drinks and then I had to do the same. At the beginning I made some faux pas with those who looked very poor, by trying to pay both for my own orders and for the drinks they had stood me. The reaction in each case was swift and devastating.
‘Do you mean that I am not worthy to stand a drink to a friend?’ one man exclaimed indignantly.
‘Do you take me for a beggar?’ another fumed.
‘I am as good as you are, and if I stand the drink, I mean it!’ was the retort from a third.
Thereafter I was very careful not to offend the amour-propre of these proud and independent people. Nothing enraged them so much as an implication of superiority.
I must however, admit that Madame Lee was a little snobbish, and did not encourage drinking at her shop by primitive tribesmen or by men whom she considered to be notoriously bad or thievish. She had her own marvellous intelligence system and knew exactly who was who. Sometimes I brought some new village acquaintance for a drink, only to be reproved later on and admonished not to have any connection with ‘that crook’. At first I was sceptical of her judgment, but later on I learned to value her opinion very highly. If she said a man was bad, I invariably had proof at a later date to that effect. Gradually she pointed out to me all the more undesirable characters of Likiang and the countryside. Some of them were sons of rich parents who had become notorious rakes, opium smokers, gamblers and even thieves. Others were village bullies who also smoked opium, gambled and were not above burglary or theft when opportunity offered, and I sometimes lost articles at my house when these rogues called on the pretext of wanting treatment for some ailment. But she sometimes became quite enthusiastic about some exotic tribesman sitting at her shop. I owe many friendships to her introduction.
I never saw any brawling in Likiang wine-shops and certainly never at Madame Lee’s bar. But this is not to say that there were no quarrels in the town, for the people of Likiang were very sensitive and easily offended. Now and then a passionate quarrel would arise between two women or men in which their neighbours would take part. The women would shout dreadful things at each other and then burst out crying bitterly. Then the neighbours would step in and the parties would be speedily pacified and parted. Some quarrels, however, lasted throughout the day and night, with constant screaming, swearing and fighting. So many obscenities and insults were heaped on each other that it was beyond my understanding how the parties could ever look each other in the face again.
Occasionally something would happen to shock or amuse the town. Once, I remember, a stark-naked man appeared in the market and proceeded leisurely up Main Street. I was sitting at Madame Lee’s. He went from shop to shop, asking for a drink or a cigarette. Women spat and turned away their faces but nothing was done to stop him. The truth was that the brazen Likiang women could hardly be shocked by anything, but they had to put on some show of modesty and embarrassment in order to avoid acid and biting gibes from the men. A policeman was never to be seen in the streets, and it was only at the end of the day, when somebody bothered to rout one out from the police station, that the demented man was led away. He was not jailed, for there were no laws or statutes in Likiang about indecency in public. Such matters were largely decided by public opinion. One could always go a few hundred yards towards the park and see dozens of naked Tibetans and Nakhi swimming in the river or lying on the grass in the sun in full view of the passers-by and in front of the houses. There was a lot of giggling and whispering amongst the passing women and girls, but there were no complaints. A line, however, had to be drawn against nakedness in the public market.
Another embarrassing case happened at Madame Lee’s shop one afternoon when I had retired there after a busy day. I was sitting with friends, sipping wine, and Madame Lee was busy with her chores. A poor mountain man came and stood at the door. Madame Lee asked him what he wanted. He said that he wanted me to examine him and give him medicine, as I had already earned a reputation for medical knowledge and was known to keep a cabinet of essential medicines in my office. This I always refused to do when I was at the wineshops, as I did not want to turn them into clinics, thereby interfering with legitimate business. Madame Lee told him to come and see me on the following day at my office.
‘What is wrong with you?’ she asked casually. Before we could realize what was happening, the man let his trousers down to exhibit an intimate part of his anatomy. Madame Lee’s face reddened. Quickly she snatched a feather duster and struck the man.
‘Get out of here, you fool!’ she ordered peremptorily. But the damage had already been done. Madame Ho, who had a confectionery shop opposite, hooted with laughter. Madame Lee pretended to be very angry and reviled the stupid man. The story spread all over the town, and I was asked for full details about the incident at Madame Yang’s rival wine-shop and at Madame Ho’s.
Madame Yang’s bar was definitely of a lower order compared with Madame Lee’s. It was not even a shop at all, but rather a small space in the arched gateway of a new house that was being built. It was by a small stone bridge which crossed the clear stream of the upper canal, and the market square opened just below the steps of the bridge. Right in front was the busy street which led up and across our hill in one direction and to Double Stone Bridge in another. It was a very busy and highly strategic corner. A small low table stood near the wall just by the bridge and there were a few low benches. The rest of the space was occupied by stocks of new baskets, wooden buckets and tubs in which Madame Yang dealt. Behind was a courtyard and the house itself, partly finished. I used to sit at the table while Madame Yang sat on the stone step, sewing a garment or sorting out something. At first she had been very embarrassed to let me drink at her place. She thought it was very undignified for me, and bad business for her, as my presence might scare away her shy clientele. After a couple of weeks, however, everybody got used to me and I became a feature of the place.
Madame Yang was a shy, middle-aged woman. She was a widow and worked very hard to support her large family. But, by the very nature of her business, her profits were not big and she always complained of the shortage of capital. Once she had to ask me for a loan of fifty dollars, which I lent her. She specialized in catering to the poorest and most primitive tribes who lived in far mountain villages and hamlets, in Lotien and along the little-known Yangtze tributaries. She knew all the Boa, Chungchia and Miao, White Lolos and Lissu, and was friendly with the gnome-like Szechuanese squatters who lived in the forests of the Snow Range and in the strange village of Ngyiperla, in the awesome Atsanko Gorge, 11,000 feet deep, through which the great river roars in perpetual semi-darkness. The Minkia girls from Chiuho and Chienchwang were also numbered among her clients. She was very kind and had not the heart to beat down too much the semi-naked, shivering little men and women, who came sometimes from some far-off place, hardly known even by name to the local people, and whose only stock-in-trade was a small bagful of strange roots or a couple of crudely made little benches. I liked Madame Yang’s bar more than any other wine-shop in Likiang, because here I was in the very midst of the drama of the helpless and declining tribes, and could watch their hopes and disappointments, and, perhaps, help a little in an unobtrusive way.
It was a hard existence for these slow-witted and incompetent people. They had lost their grip on life long ago and now did not know how to recover it. They were hungry, unclad and cold, and nothing they did helped to fit them again into the world. Their efforts to survive were pitiful and futile, because nothing they made or produced was vital any more to the changing economy of the world. Likiang was their world and Likiang was no longer primitive. Who wanted their crude benches or herbs? And, if somebody did, it was for almost nothing. What could they buy for their home with a few pennies earned after days of marching through drizzling rain or in biting wind? Of course, these unfortunates were not the only people who came to Madame Yang’s. There were others, much more alive and dynamic in spite of their primitive dress and appearance, such as the mysterious Attolays from the Nanshan, who although clad only in skins, were tall, handsome, energetic and with a sparkle in their eyes. They looked like forest gods who had descended from their green glades for a spree among the mortals, and who could hardly restrain themselves from playing flutes and pipes, and dancing all the time.
At first the Attolays ignored me completely. They were very sensitive and as proud as the Black Lolos. I always wached them arrive for the market session. The men came first on splendid mules. The women followed afterwards, loaded with new baskets and wooden buckets for sale. They wore turbans and thick sheepskin capes with red woollen tippets on the shoulders, which the men sometimes wore too. This, I learned later, meant that they intended to stay overnight either at Likiang or at some midway village, using the capes as sleeping-bags. The women deposited their wares at Madame Yang’s and returned from time to time with likely customers. When they failed to sell all their goods in one day, they left the remainder in Madame Yang’s hands. Late in the afternoon both the men and women returned and enjoyed a drink. Afterwards the men rode off and the women started their weary trek on foot, their baskets loaded with purchases, topped by a heavy jar of the white wine, filled up by Madame Yang. They seldom reached their villages the same day and stayed overnight at Lashiba near the big lake.
One evening I was shyly offered a cup of wine by an Attolay, and as we talked I discovered that his name was Wuking and that he came from the furthest village in the Nanshan. His family was very large and one of his uncles was a colonel in the Provincial Army who sometimes sent them money and gifts. I soon came to know many of the Attolays through him, and he and his friends, sometimes accompanied by their womenfolk, used to stay at my house. My clinical facilities were a great attraction to them and were widely used. Wuking and his friends loved music and often danced to Western records, adding their flutes and pipes to the music of the gramophone. I always sympathized with the Attolay women carrying those heavy baskets full of provisions and wine whilst their men went swaggering on horseback. One day I asked one of their women, who had just lifted a heavy basket on to her back:
‘Madame, why do you have to carry all these heavy loads while your men always go home on horseback almost empty-handed?’
She turned to me. ‘What woman,’ she said, ‘would like a tired husband at night?’
I was always surprised to see the vast amount of wine carried by the women each evening to their villages. I pointed this out to a woman one day.
‘Ah,’ she sighed, ‘husbands must be pleased. Without a husband a woman is nothing, however rich and powerful she may be.’
The stone slabs of the market-place and the blocks of Main Street had been worn down and polished by centuries of walking. Poor Tibetans, in their top-boots with soft soles of uncured leather, walked like cows on ice. If a man tried to walk fast, he landed on the ground with his feet high in the air. The whole market shook with laughter and applause at such a misadventure. If a man fell off his horse, or was pushed into a canal, or a woman spilled her basket of eggs on the stones, the first impulse of everyone was to break into laughter. I was always surprised by this mirth over the misfortunes of others, but the people were not really cruel at heart and soon went to the assistance of the victim.
Nor, indeed, were all the incidents comical. Going to buy a box of matches once from Madame Yang’s neighbour, I saw in the corner of that shop what I thought was a Tibetan from some remote country, perhaps Hsiangchen. The man cowered and shivered, looking at me with terrified eyes. Some girls shouted a warning. As I leaned over the counter to take the matches, he gave a piercing yell and sprang at me with a dagger. It was due to the lightning action of the girls, who grabbed him, that I was not seriously stabbed. He had never seen a European in his life and thought I was the incarnation of a malignant yidam.
The shops around Madame Yang’s were filled with merry girls, who assisted their mothers or married sisters in running the shops and at the same time acted as exchange brokers in their own right. Between spells of business they sat on the doorsteps, knitting loud-coloured woollen sweaters or embroidering, in multi-coloured silks, the seven stars which every Nakhi woman, married or unmarried, wears on the back of her traditional sheepskin jacket — the small pelerine — which protects her back from the eternal basket she carries. The fur is inside and a woollen tippet of dark blue colour covers the shoulders on the outside. These pretty circlets are about two inches in diameter. Formerly there were two larger circles, representing the sun and moon, but they were now no longer worn.
These girls were carefree, impudent and eternally gay; and sometimes they were naughty. But at heart they were kind and their business acumen was prodigious. There was one group of about eight who formed a sort of club, always sitting and gossiping together. The youngest was Atsousya, about sixteen years old. She was pretty, very fair and puckish. Her cousin Anisya was about twenty. Her face was rounded and very white, with golden hair and green eyes. She was extremely sophisticated, and there was nothing that she did not know about the town and people. Another was dark-haired and bosomy, called Aszeha, with great smouldering eyes; then there was the heavy-featured and husky Ahouha and the gentle Lydya.
I did not know the others well, but always admired the beautiful Fedosya who presided over a spice stall in the market. She was already married and, with her black round mitre, which is the distinctive headdress of the married women, she looked exactly like Queen Nefertiti. I showed her the photograph of the bust of the famous and long-dead Egyptian queen and she herself admitted that the resemblance was remarkable. Madame Yang’s own marriageable daughter Afousya was in league with these girls. But Afousya was very busy, assisting her mother, and had little time to participate in the gossip or pranks of the other girls. She was a sallow-faced, unfriendly girl and always screamed at her mother’s clients at the top of her voice. I do not think she liked my presence at the shop and we always maintained a polite feud. Whenever she became too obstreperous I used to remind her that no husband would like a girl of her temper, which usually subdued her for a while.
Atsousya and Anisya always watched for my arrival at Madame Yang’s and begged me for a cup of the sweet yintsieu. Afterwards the other girls would come up and it was difficult to refuse them a drink too. Finally I found the drain on my finances too heavy.
‘Look, Atsousya!’ I said one day, ‘I cannot really stand drinks to all of you every day.’
‘But you are rich,’ she pouted.
‘I am not rich,’ I said, ‘and I do not think I can afford coming here.’
Anisya came up.
‘Let us make a compact,’ she said, ‘that one day you treat us and the next day we treat you.’ So we agreed. But it did not work out like that; so I promised to give them drinks on Saturdays only. Even this arrangement was not strictly observed and, when I was happy over some good news, I invited them to an extra cup or two. Ahouha’s grandmother, who passed in the evening from the market, was much flattered when I offered her also a cup of wine. She was eighty-five but still hale and hearty, and would give me a peach or an apple in exchange.
Like all Nakhi women and girls, Atsousya and Anisya were absolutely uninhibited and frank to a point of brutality. They were steeped in local scandals and related them to me with such gusto and enthusiasm that I, hardened as I was, could not suppress a blush. Soon they seized upon my sessions at Madame Lee’s shop.
‘You are in love with her, that’s what it is,’ they announced triumphantly one day. ‘Be careful! Her husband is very jealous,’ they warned. Silly as the joke was, the whole town picked it up, and some people winked at me knowingly when I said that I was going to Madame Lee’s for a drink.
Both Atsousya and Anisya could not believe that I was unmarried.
‘I am still looking for a wife,’ I jokingly assured them.
‘Atsousya, why not marry me?’ I asked her one day.
‘Phew!’ she spat. ‘It’s better to be a young man’s slave than an old man’s darling,’ she said.
‘Am I really so old and ugly?’ I insisted.
‘Of course, with your bald head and eye-glasses you look like eighty,’ she replied brutally.
‘What about Anisya?’ I continued.
‘Anisya has a husband already and the marriage will take place soon,’ she confided to me.
Indeed, in a few weeks’ time Anisya disappeared, and only much later I caught a glimpse of her in her married woman’s attire. She looked unhappy and was much thinner. In a month’s time she resumed her old place by the bridge.
‘What happened?’ I asked Atsousya.
‘I’ll tell you,’ she said, ‘but don’t tell her I let you know.’ Then she whispered, ‘Anisya is being divorced.’ I was surprised.
In a week or two one of my friends, Wuhan, who also knew the girls, told me that there had been a court case about the divorce. ‘Why do you want to separate from your husband?’ the judge asked. Anisya boldly stepped out and said, ‘Your Honour, my husband is only a small boy and I shall be an old woman by the time he grows up. I cannot wait.’ As this was more or less the truth, the judge granted the petition at once. Then, stepping down from the dais, he approached Anisya, and according to Wuhan said, ‘Anisya, all my life I have been waiting for a woman like you. I am a widower and I want to marry you.’ The marriage took place in a fortnight and this time Anisya abandoned our little circle for ever. But sometimes we saw her, as a richly dressed young woman, the wife of a judge, passing through the market and greeting her old friends.
After six o’clock the market gradually emptied, and at seven the shops put up their shutters. The market stalls were gathered into a pile again. The streets became deserted, and it was time for dinner.
It was only after eight o’clock in the evening that Main Street began to fill up with people again, and the shops reopened. Some had ordinary oil lamps flickering with reddish light; others were lighted with pressure lanterns or carbide lamps. Pine torches were put up at intervals, while crowds of people promenaded to and fro, cracking sunflower or pumpkin seeds. On bright moonlit nights the street was jammed. Unmarried girls, locally called pangchinmei, in their best dresses and adornments, walked arm in arm in rows of four or five girls, just wide enough to block the street. In this way they charged up and down the street, giggling, singing and cracking their sunflower seeds. The unwary young man was soon engulfed by these Amazons and led away to an unknown fate. The more sophisticated boys lined the walls and doors of the shops and made comments on the marching beauties. From time to time a group of girls paused before one of them, there was a scuffle, a brief and ineffectual struggle, and off he was led, imprisoned in the ring of giggling and screaming furies. The destination of these prisoners, probably only too willing, was the park where dancing continued till midnight on the meadows by the river around the brightly burning bonfires.
Madame Lee’s shop was usually open at night, but with a different clientele, made up mostly of the local blue-bloods, who refreshed themselves with wine before venturing into the perils of promenading, unescorted, on the street. The ordinary villagers and Tibetans, awed by these elegant, love-making crowds, walked slowly, also in rows and with arms linked. They usually scattered when the girls’ brigades crashed purposely into them. There was some screaming and laughter, but no one really minded. The silvery moon smiled down from above, and fragrant smoke floated up to it from the pine torches. Later the market square was slowly transformed into an encampment by the erection of several large tents. Stoves were set up and benches and tables spread out on the stone floor. Delicious odours began to rise from a mass of pots and pans.
I would sit in one of these tents sometimes till midnight, browsing over a bowl of dumplings or noodles and watching heavily armed Tibetan caravan drivers or tribesmen. Eating in these tents was considered by the more sedate townspeople as a little dangerous. Sometimes bandits were present in exotic disguises, and brawls between drunken men were not unusual. On a very dark night, one of the girls near Madame Yang’s shop would give me a bunch of the brightly burning mingtze to help me to find my way across the hill.
Down in the Tibetan quarter was Madame Ho’s bar, high-class and exclusive in the sense that she catered mostly for the Tibetan trade. Her house was one of the most palatial mansions in the Tibetan section. Two of her sons were in Lhasa where they had a prosperous import and export firm. The youngest son, who was at school, was a silly and cheeky youth and always teased me with tactless questions. Her husband was a podgy, middle-aged man, who smoked opium most of the day and was seldom seen in the shop. Her greatest help came from her grown-up, apple-cheeked daughter, also called Anisya.
Madame Ho was a plump and motherly middle-aged woman, full of gaiety and risque jokes. Her shop was a replica of Madame Lee’s and she kept it really as a retreat from ennui, in addition to her legitimate business. Her house was one of the largest in the town and it had three separate courtyards, neatly paved with stone slabs and decorated with flowers and shrubs in huge porcelain pots standing on carved pedestals. The whole house was exquisitely carved inside, spotlessly clean and beautifully appointed, and there were spacious stables attached to the main building. She had taken me early under her wing and afterwards assisted me to solve many of my problems. Her information was in no way less reliable man Madame Lee’s but, unlike that prim old lady, she loved to discuss scandals, and punctuated her lurid recitals with pithy comments on the parties involved. The result was that I always left her shop with my sides aching from laughter. She showered me with gifts, sometimes a cut of ham or a pot of specially brewed wine or some new cabbages she had received from Atuntze. I repaid her with free medical advice for her children or with seedlings of American flowers or vegetables especially beetroot, though the Nakhi did not like them to eat saying that they were too sweet for a vegetable. One evening Anisya appeared with flaming red cheeks, and I remarked that she used too much rouge. It was not the rouge, Madame Ho explained, but the juice of beetroots which Anisya had applied to advantage. The crazy fashion spread, and afterwards the beetroots were cultivated by Anisya and her friends not for eating but for the sake of the cosmetic value of their juice.
The best time to go to Madame Ho’s bar was after dinner. It was then crowded with the Tibetan merchants who stayed at her house. She always made a point of introducing me to them. These were very pleasant encounters and we always talked late into the night. Obsequious Tibetan servants appeared from time to time bringing some delicacies to go with the wine. Once there appeared a lama from Tongwa, with a big caravan and many trapa servants. He was as gross as he was powerful, and was, in addition, a great flirt. He scandalized even free and easy-going Likiang and the pangchinmei scattered, screaming and laughing in mock fear, when he tried to charge into their groups in the park. He even made eyes at Madame Ho, while drinking wine with me, and this reduced her to loud laughter. I teased Anisya afterwards. ‘Why don’t you marry him, you would be an abbess?’ I suggested.
‘Why don’t you marry Madame Lee?’ she came back at me like lightning.
Many rich caravans arrived at Madame Ho’s house with introductions from her son in Lhasa. The caravan owners were courteously and cordially welcomed by Madame Ho and allocated spacious and comfortable quarters. Their horses and personal servants were also comfortably disposed of in the same building. The rest of the caravan drivers and horses either stayed with neighbours, if there was room, or camped along the road leading to my village. Further arrivals were treated in the same manner until the house was filled. But no merchant was permitted to feel cramped. The Tibetans like ample space, and several rooms for the exclusive use of two or three merchants was the rule. A profusion of expensive ornaments in silver and brass, burnished braziers and plenty of costly rugs were necessary to keep up the dignity of a Tibetan merchant and ensure his comfort. Good food was essential too, and it was served to each company separately in their apartments. The servants were left to their own devices in the matter of board.
Once in a while Madame Ho would give a regular feast for her merchant guests, to which I was usually invited. The food was ordered from a caterer and was stereotyped. But soon after the meal had ended the caravan men came, accompanied by their women friends. A small bonfire was lit in the courtyard and little tables were placed in the corners with jars of white wine and cups. Singing and clapping their hands, the men and women, confronting each other, went into lively dances. From time to time they refreshed themselves with a cup or two of wine. Faster and faster went the dancers the more they drank, until the dance became confused and changed into open flirtation. Similar dances went on in all encampments, and all through the night snatches of rhythmic singing floated into my windows.
Besides this spontaneous dancing by caravan men, there appeared from time to time small troupes of the Khamba vaudeville actors. They consisted of two or three women and about the same number of men. They had, as a distinctive mark, strings of beads suspended from their belts and they carried one-string violins, pipas (mandolins), flutes, tambourines and small drums. They went from house to house, and for a small fee, fifty cents or a dollar, they gave a lively performance, lasting about half an hour, of singing and whirlwind dancing. For a larger fee, they could drum and dance tor a whole day if required. They stayed at Likiang a month or two, depending on business, and then moved on elsewhere, here was real artistry in their performances. The Tibetan merchants who stayed at Madame Ho’s did not pay for accommodation or food, although they remained usually for a month or two in Likiang. But Madame Ho earned a commission on the sale of their goods, probably from both sides, and that took care of the expenses of her hospitality. Once or twice a year one of her sons came himself from Lhasa with a caravan. The goods, if not sold at Likiang, were dispatched by caravan to Hsiakwan. But Madame Ho did not accompany them there herself, for no Likiang business woman ever cared to extend her operations or travel so far.
The arrival of the members of a certain matriarchic tribe, living about seven days by caravan north of Likiang, always created a furore in Likiang. Whenever these men and women passed through the market or Main Street on their shopping expeditions, there was indignant whispering, giggling and squeals of outraged modesty on the part of Likiang women and girls, and salacious remarks from men. They were the inhabitants of the Yungning duchies across the Yangtze at the apex of the great bend. The Nakhi called them Liukhi and they called themselves Hlihin. The structure of their society was entirely matriarchal. The property passed from mother to daughter. Each woman had several husbands and the children always cried, ‘We have mama but no papa.’ The mother’s husbands were addressed as uncles and a husband was allowed to stay on only as long as he pleased the woman, and if he didn’t, could be thrown out without much ceremony. The Yungning country was a land of free love, and all efforts of the Liukhi women were concentrated on enticing more lovers in addition to their husbands. Whenever a Tibetan caravan or other strangers were passing Yungning, these ladies went into a huddle and secretly decided where each man should stay. The lady then commanded her husbands to disappear and not to reappear until called. She and her daughters prepared a feast and danced for the guest. Afterwards the older lady bade him to make a choice between ripe experience and foolish youth.
They were a handsome race, tall and stately, with finely formed bodies and attractive faces. They were not unlike the Noble Lolos but, whilst the Lolos resembled more the classical Romans with their stern and aquiline features, the Liukhi were more of a classical Grecian type, warmer and softer and much less harsh in appearance and deportment. Like the Lolo women, their women wore long, full skirts of blue colour, red sash and a black fur jacket or a peplos, and hats or turbans. Sometimes they went uncovered, their hair done in Roman style, held in place by hair-nets. With their lips heavily rouged and eyes painted, they walked slowly, or rather undulated, through the streets, swaying their hips, smiling and casting an amorous eye on this man or that. That alone was enough to incense the less sophisticated Nakhi women. But when they walked slowly along hanging on the neck of a husband or a lover, and being held by the waist, this was too much for even the brazen Nakhi women, who spat or giggled nervously.
The Liukhi men appeared to be vain creatures, always preening and examining themselves in the mirror. They put rouge on their lips and powdered their cheeks and sometimes called at my place not so often for medical treatment as to inquire if I could give them some perfume, powder or cheap ornament. Turning around in front of me they would inquire whether they looked attractive enough. This was not so much a sign of effeminacy as of vanity and a desire to keep themselves spruce and smart-looking in a luxurious way that appealed to their womenfolk.
The Nakhi men were on the whole impervious to the charms of the Liukhi women. They were not insensitive to their wiles or beauty, but they knew well enough that most of the Liukhi tribe was infected with venereal disease, and it was only this dread of almost certain infection that made the Nakhi and other sensible men give a wide berth to the Liukhi enchantresses.
Only twice was my path crossed by Liukhi women and in both cases it resulted in a mild scandal. Once, passing Madame Yang’s shop during the day, I was called by a well-dressed Liukhi woman who was sitting there drinking. She invited me to have a cup. I sat down. She said that she was from Yungning and that her name was Kwaisha. She was in Likiang on business, selling some gold and musk. She paid for my drink, for which I thanked her and then went away, not thinking much more of the encounter. In a few days she came to my general office and, in the presence of all my staff, told me that she thought she had syphilis. I explained to her that if that was the case, she must have an intramuscular injection in the small of her back. Before we realized what she was doing, she had lifted her skirts and lay prone, naked on our large office table.
‘Madame,’ I said to her, ‘please get up and cover yourself,’ and then I explained to her that the injections had to be made in a special room and only if she came escorted by some female companions.
She came back later and was duly treated. Some time afterwards Madame Lee told me that Kwaisha came to her shop and got so drunk that she collapsed, and with great difficulty was removed with the aid of two Tibetans. I never saw her again but heard from Madame Lee that she had got entangled with a group of Tibetans, and was killed by a stone thrown by one of them during a quarrel for the possession of her charms.
On the second occasion two Liukhi women came into my office leading an old man. The elder one said, ‘Please cure him. He is our uncle.’ I examined the old man, who was very repulsive. He had ichthyosis — a rare and very difficult disease about which I knew little and for which I had no adequate medicines. I explained the situation to the women through my chief clerk, Prince Mu. The elder one stepped forward and said, ‘You must cure him! You must! As a reward, I will pass the night with you.’
‘Madame, I assure you that I can do nothing in that case,’ I said, ignoring her offer. She appeared exasperated.
‘Look!’ she said again. ‘Both I and my sister will spend the night with you.’
I began to feel like St Anthony of Padua. The neighbours, who had drifted in, and my office staff could hardly contain themselves.
‘Madame,’ I said firmly, ‘I am sorry I can neither cure the old man nor accept your generous offer,’ and walked out of the office, leaving it to my people to get the disappointed women out.
For weeks afterwards I was teased in the market and in the wine-shops, for it was a scandal after the Nakhi’s own heart.