CHAPTER IV FURTHER AFIELD

Having entrenched ourselves in our own village, I was now determined to overcome the suspicions of the other Nakhi and also other tribes, to make them see the value of my mission and my work, and to win their friendship. It was not the Likiang society of rich merchants and shopkeepers that I needed, but the hearts of villagers and ordinary folk who eked out their living by small industries and trade. It was only through their friendship and goodwill, I thought, that I could build up my work and carry out my duty to the Government which had sent me. I was right; looking back now at the years I spent in Likiang I can say that I succeeded, and succeeded gloriously beyond my fondest dreams. From Hsiakwan to the Kingdom of Muli far in the north, and from Lhasa in the west, to Yuenpei in the east, I gained hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of friends and well-wishers.

One thing I learned well: a Nakhi’s friendship was not given freely or haphazardly, it had to be earned. Neither could it be bought with gifts, because gifts were reciprocated and the more expensive the present the more burden it brought to the Nakhi in his efforts to match the value by his return gift. And yet, giving and receiving gifts was an important ingredient in friendship and social intercourse in Likiang; but the gifts come later, when friendly relations have become firmly established. A Nakhi peasant especially rejoices when he has gathered a good crop, slaughtered a fat animal or when the wine he has made is of superior bouquet. In his joy and contentment he always remembers his friends. So he brings a small basket of potatoes or a joint of pork or venison or a small jar of wine. He does not expect an immediate and rich return; but in friendship, being a partnership, an opportunity always presents itself to give in return something that he appreciates.

In courting friendship with a Nakhi a good deal of sincerity, sympathy and genuine affection was necessary, and also patience. They were very sensitive people. The Nakhi possessed no inferiority complex but neither did they suffer a show of superiority in anybody. They were not obsequious and did not cringe even in the presence of high-ranking officials or wealthy merchants. Unlike the Chinese in certain parts of China, they were not discomforted or disturbed by strangers of other races. A European did not awe them or excite feelings of antagonism or hatred. He was not regarded as a white devil or a Western barbarian, he was just another person like themselves, and was treated accordingly without any particular consideration or curiosity. Whether he was good or bad, mean or generous, rich or poor, he was judged by his subsequent actions and attitudes and the people behaved towards him accordingly. Perhaps this indifference to racial characteristics was due to the extremely diversified population of this huge territory. The Nakhi were accustomed to the strange tribes constantly mingling with them. That a European might not speak Nakhi or Chinese did not make him an object of ridicule but rather of sympathy, for many other tribesmen did not speak either language. If a European, and for that matter anyone else, adopted a superior or patronizing attitude, nothing towards him changed visibly in the attitude of the Nakhi. He was treated civilly but with a greater formality, and soon found himself alone and isolated with only his servants to keep him company, except for an official invitation to attend a party once in a blue moon. He surveyed the lovely valley and the crowded city like a panorama, but he did not belong. The colourful life passed him by.

The Nakhi did not tolerate harsh orders or abusive language from anyone, much less from strangers. A particularly venomous word might lead at once to retaliation in kind, or by a thrust of the dagger kept handily at the belt, or a well-aimed stone. I had warned my cook, who was prone to fly into a rage, to be very careful about using his choice Shanghai invectives, especially to our native servants. Later on, when he had grown more opulent and arrogant, he was to suffer a lot on account of his loose tongue.

The servant problem in Likiang was very acute. Free and independent Nakhi did not want any menial jobs. There was no unemployment in the sense in which it is known in China proper or in the West. All the Nakhi, whether in the town or countryside, were small-holders first and merchants, traders or workers afterwards: all were devoted to their ancestral lands and farms. Those in the town who could not or would not attend to their fields and orchards in person, had farmed out the land to distant relatives or friends. However, poor farmer boys from infertile mountain districts were sometimes willing to undertake off-season jobs in the town, or when their families needed additional money for a particular purpose such as building a new house, buying extra horses or cattle, a wedding or a Shamanist ceremony. It was from a cadre of such youths that we used to get assistants for my cook.

At first we made our need of a servant known to some friends, then we were notified that a boy from one of the villages was willing to come out, and then the terms were discussed with the main condition that the boy should be treated with consideration and courtesy. Then the boy himself appeared accompanied by his father or uncle. They were good, hard-working boys, sometimes not too honest in small things, but that was overlooked for the sake of domestic harmony. Sometimes they left when they felt homesick, and sometimes they walked out when my cook could not refrain from saying something derogatory about them. ‘We are as good as you are,’ they would cry out. ‘We are not your slaves and we have a home,’ and off they would go. They were not poor in a conventional sense, for they had their farmhouse, a place to eat, a bed to sleep on and their friends to dance with when the sun had gone down beyond the mountains.

One sunny morning, a couple of months after my arrival, I was passing along a street and came to a little square with an old shady tree. Enormous pink roses cascaded from its branches, around which an old vine was entwined. The scent was overpowering. A group of Nakhi young men stood around admiring the blooms. They all stared at me smiling.

‘What beautiful flowers!’ I commented in Chinese. At once they started talking to me. I noticed that one of them had red and swollen eyes.

‘Come and I will give you medicine for your eyes,’ I said at last.

‘But we have not brought any money,’ they protested.

‘Who says I want money?’

‘Where is your house?’ they asked hesitatingly.

‘Oh, just over the hill in Wuto. Quite near,’ I reassured them, and we walked over. I administered argyrol and gave them a small bottle to take home. They were overwhelmed.

‘No money and such kindness!’ they commented. One of them was a tall, athletic youth with great liquid eyes and wavy chestnut hair. He looked intelligent and was particularly friendly. I gave him my card inscribed in Chinese. He said his name was Wuhan and the boy with the sore eyes was his cousin Wuyaoli. They lived in a village down the valley at the foot of the eastern range. They were students at the Provincial School, he added. With profuse thanks they went away.

A week later Wuhan appeared bringing a small pot of honey and a few fresh eggs.

‘I cannot accept payment for my medicine,’ I protested.

‘It is not a payment,’ he smiled warmly. ‘My mother sent these trifles as a present. She says you are very kind,’ he added. He said he liked me and wanted to be friends with me. Although he protested violently, I prevailed on him to stay for lunch. The reason for his protest, I learned later, was his tear that he would have to eat a European meal with knives and forks which he did not know how to use. When we sat own to an informal Chinese meal with chopsticks, he relaxed and, as the meal progressed, he began to use, haltingly at first, English which was taught at his school. Actually he spoke it quite well. In the end it was agreed that I should visit his home one Sunday.

I was very excited over the projected trip. It was to be my first visit to a Nakhi village as a guest. Everybody told me how difficult it was to gain an entree to a farmer’s home.

On the Sunday Wuhan came early to fetch me. We started at once and stopped only once at Madame Lee’s shop to pick up a jar of yintsieu for our lunch. Then we marched out of town and along the main road to Hoking, due south. Soon the road branched off to the left and we were walking between green fields and along fragrant hedges of roses and wild flowers. We met peasants with baskets of firewood on their backs, leading heavily laden horses to the market. They all knew Wuhan and greeted him. His village was fifteen li from the city and we reached it in a couple of hours, stopping on the way to chat with the monks of a Buddhist temple situated on a nearby hill. The village consisted of only a few houses, built like those in the town, but with tall racks in the courtyard for drying grain crops before threshing.

Wuhan’s mother was a sweet old woman and she was all smiles when I entered. She apologized profusely for not being able to talk Chinese. Wuhan led me into the central hall and seated me on a bench. He was an only son, his father having died long ago. They ran the farm, just the two of them, assisted by relatives and neighbours when needed. They had a couple of buffaloes, three horses, and pigs and chickens. A fierce little dog was tied in the corner. I was led upstairs where golden wheat was piled on the floor and lentils and peas heaped in little mounds in the corner. There were huge clay jars with rice, flour and oil, and pots of home-made white wine or zhi. Slabs of rock salt, like cartwheels, leaned against walls. From the rafters hung hams and chunks of salt pork. There were baskets with eggs by the window. They had everything in plenty for themselves and for sale. Soon Wuhan left me sitting alone and joined his mother in the kitchen. Other guests began drifting in — Wuyaoli and Wuhan’s other cousin Wukia, Wukia’s father and elder brother and a couple of schoolmates.

The meal, which took a long time to prepare, was served in the courtyard which was scrupulously clean. Nakhi villagers preferred to use low tables for family meals and the guests sat on narrow benches a few inches high. It was only on more formal occasions that the standard square tables of normal height were used. We started with small fried fish, like sprats, and beautifully browned potato slices. Everything was served in saucers. There followed pieces of roast chicken, then fried walnuts, salted duck eggs, stewed eggplant, sauerkraut, sliced ham and many other delicious things. Every time a new dish was brought by the mother I thought it was the end. But no, as soon as one dish was finished, something else was placed on the table. And all the time we were drinking, toasting each other and laughing. I drank the sweet yintsieu, accompanied by Wuhan. Others preferred zhi — the strong white liquor made of wheat. It looked and tasted like gin and was just as potent. I felt well filled and slightly tipsy. I asked the mother to stop bringing in more dishes, saying it was a right royal meal. She only smiled; in the kitchen something sizzled and more things followed. Finally the meal was concluded with stewed pork and chicken soup, accompanied by a big copper basin of red rice which the Nakhi eat as well as bread. The polished white rice is used only for feasts by the well-to-do town people, but the red rice has the better flavour; it is highly nourishing and not conducive to beri-beri.

After the luncheon some of the elderly people retired and Wuhan suggested to the others of the party a walk in the mountains. A few steps behind the house we entered into a dense pine forest interspersed with all sorts of flowering bushes, mainly rhododendrons of several varieties. There were also other curious and beautiful flowers. One plant we met was called lamalazakand it was like a miniature Christmas-tree studded with red and blue bells. Slowly we climbed higher and higher among the trees until Wukia proclaimed that this was a mushroom zone. Indeed, all kinds of mushrooms could be seen pushing out of the short grass and between the bushes. The boys taught me which mushrooms were edible and which poisonous. There were some short and fat and branching into clumps that looked exactly like pink coral. These were the akamus — the most-sought-after mushrooms. Some looked like hard-boiled eggs stuck into the ground, the cracked shell showing a glimpse of orange yolk inside: these were the alawous — highly edible. Burdened with the loads of mushrooms and bunches of flowers we sat down to rest or lay upon the Tibetan rugs we had brought. It was wonderfully peaceful in these lonely mountains. There were no sounds but the whispering of pines and singing of birds. I was assured that there were many Nagas and fairies living in this endless forest. Afterwards we descended to a little spring of water gurgling out of a huge rock. Pointing to a pleasant meadow above the rock, the boys told me how a neighbour of theirs went once to this spring at night. Drinking the water, he saw three dignified and resplendently dressed ancients with long flowing beards. They were sitting in the meadow evidently discussing something. The old men, however, noticed his presence. They beckoned him to come to them and said that it was not well for him, a mortal, to see them. Much distressed, the man returned to his village and told the neighbours what he had seen. Shortly afterwards he sickened and died.

We returned home as the sun was setting. Oil lamps were lit when darkness fell. Not the kerosene oil lamps but little brass shells filled with walnut oil, cotton wicks protruding from the lip. These were supported on the brass stands like candlesticks. In the kitchen smoky mingtze burned on stone stands. The dinner was served in Wukia’s home and was good too, although not nearly so elaborate as Wuhan’s luncheon. Afterwards a bed was prepared for me at Wuhan’s house. Tibetan rugs were laid on the bedsteads, sheets spread and a pukai (cotton quilt) provided. When the Nakhi retire for the night, they always shut tightly all windows and doors and place a charcoal-filled brazier near the bed. I admit that the nights in Likiang were cold, but to have a blazing brazier in a small, tightly sealed room was intolerable, and there was considerable danger of monoxide poisoning. I always horrified my Nakhi friends by removing the brazier and opening the door or window, risking, as they said, catching a mortal cold or the intrusion of evil spirits. Next morning there was a breakfast of sliced ham, fried eggs, babas and Tibetan butter tea. Then I walked home.

Afterwards I visited Wuhan’s home many times just for rest and relaxation or to attend some ceremonies which he had to perform as the head of the house. I was also present at his wedding a few years later. Soon his relatives, scattered in the villages further down the valley, began inviting me too. Thus my friendships grew, and I began to be received into homes across the length and breadth of the main valley down to the south, almost as far down as the border between the Kingdom of Mu and the Hoking country.

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