Marriages in Likiang, whether happy or unhappy, were always gay and colourful affairs. But however sumptuous they were in town, they could never be compared with even the poor weddings in villages. In the countryside there was more space and more leisure. Provisions, augmented by the gifts from neighbours and friends, were more plentiful, and therefore endless meals could be improvised without a thought of the heavy catering bills. The guests from distant hamlets could stay for days as, unlike in town, there was plenty of accommodation, if not at the bridegroom’s house then at his neighbours’. In town a marriage was a minor and impersonal event, confined to a short stretch of the street, whilst in the village it was an affair of great importance, in which every family was intimately interested and concerned. It was anticipated with eagerness and the preparations were made months in advance. It was a great social event which renewed and strengthened the ties of affection with other villages and it provided an opportunity of seeing old friends, separated by long distances. I went dutifully to the weddings in town but must confess that my particular predilection was for country marriages. The further the village and the more primitive the people, the more pleasurable was my anticipation.
The marriage proceedings in town began a couple of weeks before the actual ceremony. Sitting at Madame Lee’s bar I could always watch the little procession of the ‘sending the wine ceremony’. The bride’s family were officially given the date and hour of their daughter’s marriage by the representatives of the groom’s family. About ten matrons, splendidly attired in new black mitres, silk tunics tied at the waist by sashes, and silk trousers tied up tightly at the ankles, and
Wearing embroidered slippers with upturned toes, proceeded in a military formation, four abreast through the street, looking neither to the right nor to the left. They were followed by about ten pangchinmei, similarly dressed but with their strange black Chinese caps with red buttons and their hair arranged in long queues. The leading lady carried a burnished brass pot of wine, decorated with pieces of red paper on which felicitous Chinese characters had been written. Another carried, on a copper tray, a pair of jade bangles. Others carried on their trays a comb, a bottle of perfume, a toothbrush, a box of powder, and so on. Thus each matron and pangchinmei carried one or another article of toilette on a separate tray. They marched with great dignity and in silence through the streets, announcing to passers-by the approach of the happy day.
Before the marriage, the dowry was sent in procession to the bridegroom’s house. It consisted of furniture, bedding and kitchen utensils of burnished copper and brass. The men carried the heavy pieces on bamboo poles and the women carried the rest in their baskets. There were wardrobes, tables and chairs, a pair of brass spittoons, a clock, two heavy quilts with embroidered silk covers, one representing a dragon for the bridegroom and the other with a phoenix for the bride. Then followed the utensils — copper buckets, basins, houkous, samovars, dippers, jugs and pans. The long procession was concluded with a series of heavy wooden chests with four legs, painted pale red; fastened by heavy, beautifully chased padlocks, they contained the couple’s clothing for all occasions.
On the auspicious day the guests could be seen streaming towards the bridegroom’s house. The men, old and young, dressed in their best, sauntered singly or in small groups. But the women and girls always marched in military formations, platoon size, the matrons walking ahead and the pangchinmei bringing up the rear. Again each carried a copper tray with a gift prominently displayed in the centre, although it might be only a small red packet containing a couple of silver dollars.
On arrival at the house, each guest was courteously received by the bridegroom, dressed as a Chinese gentleman in dark blue silk gown and black silk makwa (jacket), wearing a Chinese cap or European hat, with a huge red paper rose pinned to his breast. Immediately each guest proceeded inside to a table, usually in the corner, where he handed his present to a man who kept a special register of red paper. If it was cash, the amount and name of the donor was carefully recorded. If it was a measure of rice with four cones of brown sugar, which was the usual gift among the villagers, the rice was weighed and sugar appraised for its size, and again a record made with the name, sex and village of the donor. Afterwards the guest was handed a cup of tea by the bridegroom or his father and was free to mix and talk with other guests. The ladies usually joined the bridegroom’s mother in an adjoining room. Then everyone waited for the arrival of the bride, who had to reach the bridegroom’s house at the time determined by an astrologer. She must never be late, but as there were no reliable clocks either in town or in the country, she usually appeared much too early.
The bride arrived in a palanquin carried by two Minkia men. She was dressed always in a pink silk dress, old Chinese style, with a complicated headdress of false pearl beads, pompons, mythological birds and all. All this finery was usually rented, along with the palanquin, from one or other of the marriage and funeral shops in town. Arriving early she had to wait in her palanquin, sometimes for an hour or two, before the auspicious hour and minute came. Whilst waiting she had to simulate the utmost modesty and she usually buried her face in a red silk handkerchief. At last the time arrived and she was extracted by two bridesmaids and led to the gate. Firecrackers were let off. She jumped over the fire lit at the threshold to join the bridegroom. Rice was thrown over them and then, accompanied by a bevy of pangchinmei., she was rushed into the decorated bridal chamber where she remained during most of the feast that followed. There was seldom any special wedding ceremony. The very fact of her entering the bridegroom’s house, for all the world to see, was a sufficient guarantee that she was the man’s lawful wife.
Tables and benches by the dozen, mostly borrowed from neighbours, had already been laid out with the traditional marriage fare, with chopsticks and cups for wine. The guests needed no prompting and in a moment everybody was sitting and eating. Women sat with women and men with men. From time to time the bridegroom and bride came up to each table. An usher accompanied them with a tray with the cups of wine. They bowed to the guests, who rose and emptied the proffered cups, and with another bow they were off to the next table. By unwritten custom the guests did not tarry over their meal. As soon as they had finished their last dish of rice, they rose; the tables were hurriedly cleaned and rearranged, and another horde of visitors took their place. This eating in relay continued for hours. Neither did the guests, who had had their meal, tarry at the house. They promptly returned home. Such was the usual run of marriage festivities in the city.
One of the finest wedding parties in the countryside I ever attended was that of my good friend Wuhan. I had waited years for this happy event, and I was thrilled when one day his mother told me that, at last, she had paid the last instalment on the purchase price of his wife and the couple could now be united in wedlock. I knew that this marriage party would be extremely joyous because of the unique feature of the forthcoming union. Wuhan already knew and loved his future wife and she loved him. As I have already explained, such a felicitous occurrence in the Nakhi marriage system was extremely rare. I knew also that Wuhan was a well-to-do and generous boy, beloved by his friends and relatives, and that he would see to it that his wedding would not be easily forgotten for the lavishness of his hospitality. Indeed his list of the invited was something to see. Even Madame Lee and her husband were included in the list, although there was doubt that this busy and important woman would be free to come. Every member of my household received the red invitation card, including the cook, and members of my office staff.
There were long consultations about the amount of cash each was to send as a gift, what to wear and how to arrange the attendance at the feast without totally deserting the house.
The prospect of staying at Wuhan’s village for two or three days and of meeting old friends and making new connections was very attractive. The villagers in that district had accepted me as one of their own and I knew I would be treated with easy familiarity and affection. I had warned Wuhan long ago that I wanted no special concessions or comforts and always wanted to be treated as one of his Nakhi friends. I told him that, like the others, I would bring my own bedding. He asked me to come early on the eve of the wedding day and sent a mule to fetch my baggage. As it was considered extremely elegant in Likiang for a bridegroom to be attired in Western garb for the wedding ceremony, I lent Wuhan one of my best suits, a shirt and a necktie. He was much taller than I was, but it did not make much difference in the village where the substance of the thing was of more importance than its fit.
Almost all the days in Likiang were glorious days. It was the land of the spring eternal, but the day I started on my walk to Wuhan’s wedding seemed to be even more brilliant than usual. The beauty of this paradisical valley was never static or stale. It was renewed every day and something fresh and marvellous was added to it. The Snow Mountain was not a dead and stereotyped agglomeration of crags, ice and snow; it was a living goddess with her own way of life and moods. It never remained the same for more than a few minutes. It veiled and unveiled itself, trailed the bands of white vapour around its base or shot a white plume of snow into the azure sky. Its crown, in ‘the form of a vast, opened fan, shot out the rays of gold and silver. The gurgling of rushing streams mingled with the song of larks and cries of herons. Flowers changed their colours and variety with each day and always the air was heavy with fragrance. Everything seemed to scintillate and sparkle in this wondrous valley; nature visibly breathed and moved and smiled. Every walk outside the town was an excitement and a revelation: there was intoxication in the warm breeze and a hint of dancing in the undulation of green mountains, the streams twisting and bouncing and birds and butterflies flitting in the air. The people too smiled, laughed and sang with the fullness of their joy and happiness in this secret paradise.
Wuhan’s home had been transformed into a fairy palace. Gone were the stables and barns and the old courtyard. Instead there was a series of cool and elegant rooms decorated with carved screens and rich Tibetan rugs. The wide benches along the walls were also covered with rugs. A wide striped awning was spread over the courtyard and the floor was a soft carpet of fresh pine needles. All the ugly corners and crevices were smothered with pine branches and garlands of wild flowers. There were coloured paper streamers under the awning and a big fluttering ball of blown glass hung in the centre. A temporary kitchen was constructed in a shack outside the back wall and the women were already busy cooking for the morrow’s celebrations.
The day before the wedding is spent by the bridegroom with his friends. This is his last opportunity to enjoy the freedom of a single man’s life and to be alone with the companions of his carefree youth. Tomorrow he will be a married man, with new interests and responsibilities. He will see his schoolmates less frequently, unless he remains at school, and their relations will be more formal. We slept upstairs where the room had been cleared of its stores of grain and provisions.
In the morning the flood gates opened and the people streamed into the house. There were old gentlemen with long white beards, richly dressed women, women in their ordinary blue tunics, small boys and girls, pangchinmei and young men. Some came walking and some arrived on mules or horses. Gifts of money poured from men, but women’s presents were, for most part, measures of rice or wheat, sugar cones, jars of white wine, eggs, fowl, joints of pork and cakes of yak butter.
The bride was brought by palanquin at about two o’clock in the afternoon. Firecrackers were let off”, she duly jumped over the fire, rice was thrown and the feasting began at once.
The first to sit down at the tables were the old gentlemen. By all the rules of etiquette I should have joined them, but I had told Wuhan before that I did not want to sit with them. Eating with them would have been an honour, but I knew from experience how ceremonious such gentlemen were. They talked little and in measured and calculated tones; there was much fuss about the procedure of eating and drinking — who should raise the cup first, how much to sip and what to eat first. All questions and answers had to be very formal and dignified. What I wanted were not the ceremonies or honour but the informality and hilarity of a congenial company. So I waited until the elders had been fed and then took my seat with Wuhan’s friends and relatives. We had a glorious time, eating, drinking and joking, and calling many times the groom and bride to drink ceremoniously with us. Wuhan’s beaming mother glided between the tables and had a lovely smile and a kind word for every guest. Afterwards we sat in one of the rooms sipping tea. Unfortunately an uncle of Wuhan’s on his mother’s side came in. He was an old scamp and his nickname was Shebaba (Father of Obscenities). He was totally drunk and accosted all and sundry with comments of incredible indecency. There was an uproar among the old gentlemen and many women rushed, screaming and laughing, out of the house. Amidst shrieks and laughter, Wuhan and his cousin Wuyaoli set on the old man, trying to lead him away, until at last he collapsed in a corner and was carried out to sleep off his spirits in a hayloft.
The crowd became less dense when the neighbours returned to their homes for a rest. After sunset we had another meal. As darkness fell, the tables were all put together, forming two very long parallel tables with benches on each side and lit by pressure lanterns. After a long wait the old gentlemen returned and took their seats round one table and the women seated themselves at another. Wuhan sat at the head of the table, cups were filled with wine, the old gentlemen toasted him and ate the sweets and fruits. Soon they all rose to go. Then I and other friends were asked to sit at one of the tables. Small boys wriggled in beside us, while the other table was taken over by the pangchinmei and small girls. There was a unanimous cry that the bride should join her husband. After a pretended resistance, she appeared from her chamber and sat by Wuhan. Then a great inquisition started which I can only call a torture by spirits. Every friend challenged Wuhan to drink with him. This he could only avoid by a superior knowledge of the famous drinking games which came to the Nakhi from China. The loser had to empty his cup as a forfeit, but poor Wuhan was none too clever at them, and he had to empty many a cup, particularly as the small boys proved to be very adept challengers. Meanwhile, as was the custom, unbelievable indecencies were shouted at the newly weds which they had to bear in good humour.
Soon the house began to empty. A great bonfire had been constructed outside in the meadow, and the girls, their cheeks aflame with wine, had already started dancing and soon the boys joined them. The dance was like a conga. The boy put his hands on the leading pangchinmei‘s shoulders, another girl put her hands on the boy’s and so on until a long serpent of bodies slowly undulated round the fire to the tune of rhythmical singing. They walked slowly and made a side step at regular intervals. There were no musical instruments and the singing was improvised. A boy or girl would start some funny story and everybody had to continue in turn. It was interrupted from time to time by a refrain ‘How pitiful that was!’ because the narrative related imaginary dangers which continually beset the hero or heroine of the ballad. On and on they went, shuffling through the night without stopping, a dancer falling out from time to time for a short rest and drink of cold water without disrupting the dance. It became sheer hypnotism, this monotonous marching and the throbbing waves of sound. Beyond the pleasure they clearly derived from the dance, there was another, subtler meaning to it which showed the good manners and delicacy of the Nakhi. These dancers, about a hundred of them, came from distant villages. They knew very well that all available accommodation in the bridegroom’s and neighbours’ houses was overtaxed. They had nowhere to sleep, but to have made this obvious by loitering in the house, sitting on the benches round the tables or dozing off in corners would have deeply embarrassed the bridegroom’s family; and in honour bound Wuhan would have had to try to find some place for them to sleep. The dance, tiring though it was, thus provided the fiction that they were not tired at all and preferred to spend the night on their feet. Indeed, the dance stopped only at dawn. The privileged guests, myself included, were concentrated on the first floor and in a few rooms downstairs. We spread our pukaisand rugs on the floor, undressed, and all slept together in closely packed rows. The Nakhi always slept naked, whether it was warm or not, but some of the boys stayed up all night playing mahjong or poker, and with the singing and laughter outside and the click of mahjong pieces there was not much opportunity for sleep.
A year or so after this happy wedding, when Wuhan already had a lusty little son in his arms, I had to go to my Copper Mining Co-operative on the Yangtze River, run by my friend Hoyei. I liked the visits there but I always dreaded the precipices that I had to pass on the way. The mine was ninety li (thirty miles) from Likiang and it was a long day’s journey. As almost everywhere in Likiang district, the trail was one continuous panorama of mountain beauty and grandeur. After sixty li of comparatively level marching, we came to a point from which the great river became visible. There she flowed, like a liquid emerald, in the abyss that made my head reel. Like a green dragon she twisted, turned and foamed in gorges that staggered imagination. The trail dropped straight down, at least forty-five degrees, and down we went with our struggling horses. It was more a delayed fall than a regular descent. So steep was the path in some places that I had to break my descent by clinging to wayside trees. It was wonderful to see how our horses took it. Any moment I expected one of them to collapse with broken legs during the hours it took to negotiate this dangerous stretch. Then my real terrors began. A hanging bridge over a roaring stream a hundred feet below had to be crossed, after which the path ran along the wall of a sheer cliff with a fall of a thousand feet on the other side. Although I was led by Hoyei I suffered from nausea and my legs felt like jelly.
The village where the mine was located was perched on a small shelf over the roaring river; up to it narrow steps were cut in the rock, but there were no railings or protection at all from a bone-breaking fall. After lunch I was persuaded to visit a new copper mine they had opened somewhere along the river. They said the trip was quite safe and I agreed to go. The path led along a narrow shelf two thousand feet above the river. Cajoled and supported by Hoyei and his friends I somehow walked a mile or so. At one spot the rock shelf had collapsed and the path crossed the gap on the trunks of the trees driven into the face of the cliff. I could see through the crevices the river foaming far beneath my very feet. Then the path abruptly ended on a tiny platform jutting over the river. I became so giddy that I should have fallen off over the precipice had not my friends seized me in time. I collapsed, unable to go forward or backward, and I still do not remember clearly how I was dragged, or carried, back to the village.
The inhabitants of the village were the mountain Nakhi — simple and hospitable folk mostly clad in skin garments. They were quite poor as there was little good soil around. Only down below, where the hissing river made a turn, was there a narrow lunette of green fields and groves of mitou — Likiang oranges — hanging like yellow lanterns on tall, dark trees. This type of orange, or perhaps it was tangerine, was an outstanding fruit of Likiang. It was very large, like a medium-size grape-fruit, with a puffy, pimply, and easily detachable skin. It was very juicy and had a very pleasant taste, quite unlike any other orange or tangerine.
Many people came to see me at the Copper Mining Cooperative and, quite unexpectedly, I was handed an invitation to a wedding feast the same evening. I was very glad to accept as I was assured that many strange tribes would attend. The Nakhi customs here were rather different from Likiang and, I thought, it would be interesting to see them.
The bridegroom’s house was somewhere by the river and it was quite dark when, mingtzes in hand, we descended to the river through the hedges of giant Euphorbias candelabra. There was another terror in store for me. For at least a thousand yards we had to jump from boulder to boulder, over the dark waters rushing and swirling between. I was quite exhausted when we reached the scene of festivity. The house was on a ledge, just above the river, and the bonfires, lighted on the bank, were reflected in the racing waters. There were crowds of men and women inside and outside as we arrived. The youths, in blue turbans and clad in skin jackets and pants, played on flutes and houloussehs — a kind of bagless bagpipe made of bamboo stems with gourds for resonance.
I was heartily welcomed by the family, but this time I had to sit down to the feast together with the old men. Fortunately it was a short meal. Afterwards Hoyei came up to me with the bridegroom.
‘There are important guests here tonight,’ Hoyei said, ‘and we want you to meet them.’ I followed them into an upper room. A very dignified lady in a blue skirt and crimson jacket sat at the table with her husband, an oldish man with a long moustache. She must be a Noble Lolo, I thought.
‘Please meet the baroness and her husband,’ Hoyei was saying. She rose, smiled and pointed to a place next to her.
‘We are from the Black Lissu,’ she said, ‘and this is my husband.’ I bowed.
‘We live at the castle on top of that mountain across Yibi (the Yangtze),’ she said, pointing. ‘Lately we have had much trouble. Those dogs, the wild Lolos, have attacked us and burned three of my people’s houses. Luckily we beat them off. I wanted to bring my sons and daughters here today but they cannot be spared. They are up at the castle defending it,’ she continued in a conversational tone. I sat down. She offered me a bowl of white wine and indicated the dishes of food of which I pretended to eat a little. She was very good-looking for her age which must have been forty-eight or fifty. She wore a high silver collar with a clasp and long silver earrings terminating with hollow silver bubbles in the shape of eggs. Her husband’s face was quite flushed from drinking and he looked very sleepy. Glancing round the room, I noticed several rifles stacked in the corner.
‘These are our arms,’ the baroness said. ‘We must always have them handy.’ Of course she was right. Only then I realized that the village we were in was just opposite the infamous Siaoliangshan where the outlaw Lolos roamed, plundering and burning: but the Black Lissu were their brothers in spirit and quite a match for them. I wondered how it happened that the bridegroom’s family were such good friends with this noble family: arms and opium running, I conjectured, as it was scarcely possible to raise such a question. The Black Lissu wanted arms just as badly as the Black Lolos, and they had the opium which the Chinese wanted. Fair exchange is no robbery, and it was on that principle, I was sure, that the intimate friendship with this dangerous couple was based.
The courtyard, which was very small, was just below the room.
‘Let us go and watch the dancing,’ said the baroness. I followed her. The snake-like file of youths and women was already undulating around the fire. There was no singing here but dance music provided by a dozen or so of the mountain boys playing on flutes and houloussehs. The music was soft and lilting and in no way different, in its rhythm, from a foxtrot.
‘Let us dance!’ decreed the baroness.
‘I can follow the music, but I am not sure about the steps,’ I protested.
‘Never mind. I will show you,’ she said, joining the dancers. I followed her with my hands on her shoulders.
‘Ouch, you stepped on my toe!’ she cried when I made a wrong step; and I apologized.
‘Disgraceful,’ she murmured. ‘Look at that woman fondling that boy. She could be his grandmother,’ she added, indicating with her head an elderly woman who was practically hanging on the neck of a handsome mountain boy dressed in skins. The people at this village were certainly uninhibited. Romance was rampant; and girls were dancing as if in a trance, clasping their boy friends around the waist and looking at them with melting eyes as if they were little gods. There was a blast of flutes, pipes and houloussehs and the boys rushed into the middle of the courtyard playing their instruments and executing a sort of Cossack dance, throwing their sandalled feet in the air. Then there was another dance which was exactly like the Big Apple, and like little furies the girls jumped on to the boys and were whirled by them until exhausted. It was already very late and everybody was getting drunk. I bowed to the baroness, who pressed me to visit them across the river where they were returning on the following day.
In the morning we went to see them off. Three rafts waited for them. Each raft consisted of twenty or thirty inflated pigskins, held together by a flimsy bamboo frame. The rafts had been brought as far up the river as was possible. The baroness and her husband lay down on one raft and their suite occupied the others. The naked men, swimming in the water and holding the raft with one hand, helped to direct its course. The current was terrific, and the rafts twisted and bobbed up and down but soon they touched the other bank at the intended spot. Horses and retainers awaited the party there and they started crawling up the barren side of the mountain towards the forest and their castle.
Such were the marriages in Likiang and round about. For a girl who did not love her husband it was the end of her golden days when, as a pangchinmei, she roamed freely with her friends, boys and girls, dancing and romancing. In Likiang no one really objected to romances between a Nakhi girl and boy, but the people were roused if the romance was with a stranger. The motto was ‘The Nakhi girls for the Nakhi boys and nobody else’, and everyone was free within the framework of the tribe. A Minkia or Chinese who tried to flirt with a Nakhi girl went in danger of his life, and as a matter of fact many were killed by the jealous Nakhi men. I remember a young Chinese, a refugee from the Japanese, who came to Likiang on business. Attracted by the apparent ease with which pangchinmei mixed with men, he started to court a pretty Nakhi girl. Soon afterwards, in broad daylight, he was ambushed by three Nakhi who concealed their faces with handkerchiefs. They shot him in the cheek and said, ‘This is the first warning. Next time it will be in the heart.’ The man left Likiang in a hurry.
When a girl becomes a matron, at once her long queue is cut off and she must always wear the black mitre of the married woman. She must sleep at a side room on the ground floor and is not permitted to run around with her former friends. The husband sleeps, almost as a rule, in the drawing-room. During the day his bed, adorned with rugs, serves as a day couch. Quite unlike China and other countries, there are no double beds and husband and wife are not supposed to sleep together throughout the night: if a neighbour found out that they did, they would be disgraced in the village. Even the pukais (quilts) are always made of single size and never double. This restriction does not apply to friends. Male friends, visiting overnight, always sleep together with the host, two or three in the same bed, and if their number is large, they are distributed in twos and threes in other available beds. Women do the same with their visiting girl friends. They all sleep totally naked and the room is heated to an appalling degree by blazing braziers. It is a lucky and much-valued guest who, as a special honour, is asked to share a bed with the grandfather of the house.