There were forty-five industrial co-operatives by the summer of 1949. They included wool-spinning, weaving and knitting societies, brassware and copperware societies, a Minkia furniture-making society, a dry-noodle society, a ploughshare-casting society, Tibetan leather and boot-making societies, and others. Two spinning and weaving co-operatives were run entirely by women and they were among the best. The chairman of one of them was an elderly woman of gigantic stature. She was illiterate but she watched all financial transactions with an eagle’s eye. She bought all the wool herself and the yarn was disposed of under her strict control and supervision. She ruled the members — twelve women and three men — with an iron hand and sometimes beat the men into insensibility for any delinquencies or excessive opium-smoking. But she was just and honest and the members adored her for her ability; moreover, they were making pots of money.
It was easy enough to supervise the co-operatives which were in town, but some were far away in villages or mountains, like the Copper-mining Society by the Yangtze, where I met the Black Lissu baroness, and to these I had to make long expeditions from time to time.
The Ngatze Iron-mining Co-operative was both a curiosity and an experiment. It was the largest and had forty-three members. There were Nakhi, Tibetans, Boa, Miao and Chungchia among the members, and one Chinese. That it survived for a number of years with such a membership was something of a miracle and it was an unusual experiment in multi-racial co-operation. Strangely enough, its members worked in considerable harmony and were consistently friendly towards each other and to me. It was presided over by a very energetic but roguish man named Taichizu — a Nakhi from Wobo, a few steps below Madame Lee’s wineshop in Main Street. He needed careful watching, but I was never able to prove that he was a crook and the members seemed to be content with his management. Perhaps he did a little opium traffic on the side with the Lolos, as Siaoliangshan was not far off, but after all, this was not such a serious crime in these parts. His co-operative was forty miles from Likiang and was not far from my Upper Ngatze Paper-making Society. However, the difference in location of these neighbouring co-operatives was tremendous. Tai’s mine was in a trench-like gorge perhaps only 4,000 feet above sea-level, and the Paper Co-operative was floating above it at 14,000 feet. I always combined my visit to the iron mine with one to the paper factory which by direct route was forty-eight miles from Likiang.
The trip to the Iron-mining Co-operative required some preparation. First of all, Tai and all the members there were very poor, and sometimes I thought they did not have a dollar between them. They had no bedding to spare, so I always took my own. Secondly, there was very little to eat there so that pork, vegetables and wine had to be brought from Likiang. It was really a two-day caravan journey, but as there was not a village or a hut between Likiang and Ngatze it had to be covered in one day. This made it a very strenuous trip. I always insisted on our departure from Likiang before dawn, never later than four o’clock, which permitted us, with a stop for lunch, to arrive at the iron mine about five o’clock in the afternoon. After five it became dark in the valleys and gorges and I was afraid of losing my footing on the path which weaved along a series of precipices.
Sometimes I rode on horseback, but more often I preferred to walk the whole way. Our little caravan consisted of three or four horses, carrying supplies and bedding, and two or three tribesmen from the co-operative, usually Tibetans or Miao who had come to town the previous day with their horses bringing pig-iron. It was a long and tedious walk towards the Snow Mountain, in front of which there was a long and smooth alpine meadow which nature provided as the airport for Likiang and where only the row of white stones to indicate the runway was made by man. Still higher, there was another long plain to cross. It was dotted with low shrubs, and basalt rocks as sharp as razors protruded through the grass and cut the animals’ hooves and men’s sandals unmercifully. At last the low ridges ahead closed into a spring in a hollow and the traditional resting place for the people and caravans going to and from Likiang. We built a small fire, warmed our babas and pre-cooked food, boiled tea and had a pleasant, long rest, taking time over our meal. Then the road passed through a pine forest carpeted with flowers. On one side there was Sepilome — the Cassia gorge — filled with trees which later rose to meet our road. It was mysterious and beautiful beyond words. Here it was called Mbergkvho or the Buffalo Horn defile, and on its left side was a vast cave in which, legend says, lived a letthisippu — a ghoul who appeared as a beautiful woman to guileless men, enticing and then devouring them. It was in this gorge that my office boy Hoshowen’s father had been chopped to pieces by robbers.
As the road climbed higher and higher the flowers increased in variety and beauty — lilies and dark blue tree asters, dark peonies, irises and ground orchids. At last we emerged on a vast plateau at Ngaba. Before us on the left was the whole Likiang Snow Range, its snow and ice-clad peaks glittering like a string of diamonds. Of these peaks the Gyinanvlv was the loveliest, with her glacier flowing down like a blue veil. Pines studded the great undulating plain, and peeping between them were the incomparable incarvilias with their blooms like crimson gloxinias. At 11,000 feet it was quite cold, and in winter Ngaba is covered with snow and the wind is so strong and icy that many poor people have died on the way. The road forked left to Taku, a pretty village on the Yangtze, and then right, where we soon entered a great forest. We began to descend, the forest becoming more and more beautiful. Moss hung like strands of hair from age-old trees; there were bright green clumps of bamboo and all kinds of creepers. It was cool and moist in the green darkness and alive with the sounds of animals; cascades splashed on the road and a distant roar of waterfalls shook the air which was heavy with the fragrance of giant rhododendrons in bloom and the scent of pines and spruces. Through the trees we could see for miles and miles below the torrents tumbling into green valleys and dark gorges, the vast expanse of forests and the emerald meadows on which here and there were the black dots of Lolo dwellings: and above all this floated the purple and white scintillating snow peaks, remote and inaccessible.
For many hours we crept down through this enchanted forest and came at last to the village of Ngatze, which was all an earthly paradise should be. It was particularly wonderful in winter months, when after the snow and icy winds of Ngaba — winter at its cruellest — you arrived here in a few hours to find roses smothering the houses, bees buzzing among the flowers and vivid butterflies fluttering everywhere. What a delight it was to pick from the vine or to eat a blood-red tomato, ripened in the warm sun, whilst right in front of you, through a gap in the green mountains, you could see a snowstorm raging between snow peaks. The village was in a green bowl, like a gem encased in a frame of forested mountains.
The road dipped down sharply once we left Ngatze. The deep thunder of a savage torrent somewhere in the deep trench into which we were almost literally falling came nearer, and zigzagging with infinite care we at last reached the mighty stream. Shaking the earth, it rushed, boiled and raged among the great rocks that hindered its path. This was the famous Gyipergyina — the Black and White Water, or Heipaishui in Chinese. Of all the mountain streams in Likiang it was the most powerful and the noisiest. We could see high up its parents — the White Water on the left and the Black Water on the right — combining their fury to give birth to this terrible child. It was still swollen by melted snows and rains and the roar was so deafening we could not talk to each other. Soon we reached the iron mine and were at home.
In spite of its ferocity I loved the Heipaishui and always looked forward to staying for a few days at the Iron-mining Co-operative. To me this powerful torrent was a living being and I spent hours listening to its thunderous conversation and contemplating its enormous energy and vitality. At night, when all other noises subsided, its thunder seemed to change. No longer continuous and muffled, its separate notes became distinct and I could hear the varied voices, the whispers and hisses, the groans, and even the gaiety all of which it was compounded. I used to watch the Heipaishui playing with the pebbles and stones, hurling them at the rocks; or undermining and shifting by degrees with almost human precision huge boulders the size of small houses, which, with all resistance spent, toppled and crashed screechingly on to the rocks below.
The work at the Mining Co-operative started early in the morning. Some men dug the haematite out of the pits on the hillside, where the ore was very rich and contained, I was told, about 80 per cent of pure iron. Entire hillsides consisted of haematite, but extraction by hand was so primitive that they worked only the richest veins. The ore was brought by baskets to an opening near the stream and there the men, sitting on the ground, broke the stones into small fragments ready for smelting. A great furnace, constructed of stones, bricks and clay, bound with wooden poles on the outside, stood near by. The fragmented ore was dumped into the open top of the furnace, followed by a layer of charcoal, then another layer of ore, and so on until the furnace was full. Finally the top was sealed and the furnace fired. A water-wheel slowly worked giant bellows made out of a huge tree-trunk. After a whole day’s burning a small window was opened at the base of the furnace and the blazing stream of molten iron slowly poured out on the ground, solidifying into a thin sheet of primary iron. This was broken into large slabs and dragged aside for weighing, breaking and then loading into another smaller furnace near by, which was worked on the same principle. Soon a small door was opened in the furnace and a man extracted with long iron tongs a blazing lump of iron and deftly put it on the anvil. Immediately a group of assistants joined him, and with heavy hammers they pounded the lump, in a minute or two, into an oblong pig which was thrown aside on the ground to cool. This operation was a monopoly of the Miao and Chungchia, who were considered great specialists at it. These pigs were then weighed and stored for disposal.
Such was the uncomplicated working of this co-operative. Once a week a small caravan of horses took the pig-iron to Likiang, where it was sold to my Ploughshare-casting Cooperative and a few other smithies, the rest going to Hoking, Chienchwang and Hsiakwan, where they cast good kitchen boilers, and made such things as horseshoes and nails, knives and scythes.
The Tibetan and Nakhi members dug the ore and fragmented it. The Boa looked after the making of the charcoal. The Miao and Chungchia beat the iron, and a lone Chinese, named Ahting, was a sort of an errand boy, bringing caravans to Likiang, buying provisions and doing all sorts of odd jobs. He was rather a scamp, and a portion of his income came from a widow at Ngatze village with whom he was living. The Tibetans were from Chungdien, on the other side of the Yangtze, and they were very simple folk, friendly and cheerful. The Boa and Nakhi were from the mountains around and were very primitive, rather suspicious and really wild and wilful. But the most primitive and difficult to manage were the Miao and Chungchia members who lived close by in the valley downstream.
The Miao and Chungchia were very closely related, and there was only a minor difference in their dress or their writing, and therefore I shall refer to them collectively as the Miao.
In my opinion, they represented the most perfect example of an outgoing, dying race. Like the division of the Lolos and the Lissu into Black and White, the Miao were divided into the Flowery, Black and White Miao. The Flowery Miao live on the borders of the Yunnan and Kweichow provinces and they get their name from the picturesque and colourful costumes they wear. It may be said that they are more approachable and less introvert than all other Miao. The other Miao are styled White and Black merely because of the colour of their clothes and are certainly the most primitive of all the Miao. The ones near the co-operative were the White Miao, with whom the retreat from the world and other people became almost fetishism at times reaching absurdity. It was not only the presence of a stranger, a foreigner or Chinese in their midst which frightened them, but even the mere news that someone was coming to their village sent them all scampering for cover in the surrounding forests.
When at first I went with Tai to visit their villages close by, there was nobody left in the houses but pigs and dogs. This ridiculous situation only changed much later when I became friendly with the Miao members of the co-operative. They were so shy at first that they scattered whenever I arrived. Then, reassured by Tai and other members, they began at least to remain in their place when I came up to watch them beat the iron. Then I melted the ice by inviting them for a drink after their day’s work. This they could not resist, and after a few such occasions we became, at last, quite good friends.
Then we decided one day to go to their villages and they guaranteed that their people would not run away. They went with me holding my hands, like children led by a nanny. I was told by Tai, and then noticed it myself, that if I smiled, everything was all right, but as soon as my face became serious, they were frightened and tended to run away. And so, when dealing with them, I always tried to wear a grin on my face.
We climbed over the cliff on to a broad shelf where their fields lay. There was a curious rock lying in a depression on which a small pagoda, constructed of straw and bark, was standing. It was a Miao shrine. The path dipped into a little valley where the Heipaishui spread, no longer a roaring torrent but a broad and shallow river with every stone and pebble visible in its clear waters. The Miao huts were very low and dark, and their women, in white petticoats, sat inside weaving hempen cloth on primitive looms. In some of the low trees near the huts, I noticed huge nests, and was wondering what kind of birds built them when suddenly I saw children’s heads popping out of them. ‘These are our children,’ my Miao friends told me; ‘they always sleep there at night. We are very poor and have no bedding. At night it is very cold so the children sleep there together for warmth.’ Indeed there they were — huddled in the dried leaves with only a rag between them to cover themselves.
The poverty of the Miao was unimaginable. There was nothing in the huts resembling furniture or utensils. There were some vessels made of bark, bamboo or wood but no beds and no bedding. The men themselves were in rags, semi-naked, with no protection either for modesty or from cold. Even the older children had no clothing at all; though the girls had a kind of a small triangle to act as a fig-leaf. Most of them had big bellies from eating bulky and indigestible food, and their skin, unlike the glossy and firm skin of the Nakhi and Tibetans, was a pasty grey and felt like an old, crumpled newspaper. But how could one help them? They rejected almost everything which could assist them to improve their lot. I offered them the seeds of various vegetables and corn. No, they said, they would not plant them; they did not eat such things; they did not know how to look after them and they would not grow there anyway. They were not prepared even to give them a trial. They accepted simple medicines gratefully — eye lotion, quinine, sulphur ointment — but even these they used lackadaisically and laid them aside in some dusty corner when improvements did not come at once. They needed money but had almost nothing to sell, except perhaps a chicken or two or the eternal pig. The work at the co-operative helped, but it was not enough. The money was needed not so much to buy food, of which they had just enough, poor though it was, but to buy a wife and arrange a wedding feast. That must be done. The wedding feast was the only time when all these villagers had plenty to eat and plenty to drink. These were the rare and important events when they could glimpse a ray of joy and happiness and forget for a day the unutterable misery of their existence.
Sometimes I brought them gifts. At first I made the mistake of giving them such things as soap or electric torches as I ordinarily gave to the Nakhi and other tribes; these the Miao put in a place of honour and never used them, as if I had given them an ormolu clock or a Sevres statuette. Then I took to bringing them old clothes, a pound or two of salt, cheap cloth, or cones of brown sugar and jars of wine, and for these they were pathetically grateful.
There was nothing the Miao could do. Centuries ago, pressed by the expanding population of China, they had retreated from Kweichow to these wild and empty valleys and gorges where they could hide themselves from their aggressive neighbours. But now they found themselves pressed again: and this was the last frontier. There were no more empty spaces, no further retreat, nowhere to hide.
Even going to Likiang they avoided the people on the road. Huddled in small groups they gazed fearfully at any approaching group of strangers or a caravan and made a long detour to escape meeting them face to face. A harsh look or a loud word sent them scampering in unreasoning panic. Sometimes they called at my house but never stayed long. The way my cook looked at them, and the people coming and going through my office, terrified them.
After two or three days’ stay at the Iron-mining Co-operative, I used to ascend to my Paper-making Co-operative at Upper Ngatze. Its manager, my good friend Aiya Aiya, usually came down the night before to fetch me. He was an extremely nice, capable young Nakhi and a very hard worker. To avoid the day’s heat, which was unbearable in the fold of these tremendous mountains, we started early in the morning. The Heipaishui was crossed by a stone bridge a little way upstream from the Iron-mining Co-operative. Then the path started climbing sharply along a low ridge running by another stream which was a tributary of the Heipaishui. This country was rather dangerous as it was a sort of no man’s land, covered with great forests, and peopled by many comparative newcomers such as the Szechuanese squatters, Tibetans from Chungdien, Miao, White Lolos and displaced Nakhi and Boa.
There were two tea-shops on the way and we rested there. On one occasion Aiya Aiya looked rather anxiously at another table where some tribesmen were sitting. I noticed that he was trying to isolate me from them. I asked him what was the matter. He said that many of the local tribesmen, including the Miao, were adepts in casting evil spells. It was accomplished not by occult methods but by throwing a microscopic pellet of poison called ndouk, by a flick of the finger, into the person’s cup of tea or wine. Without anything being apparently wrong with him, the man’s health steadily declined and he died in a couple of months. I pointed out to Aiya Aiya that I was not a likely subject for such poisoning as I had not done anything wrong to these people, but he was not persuaded. He said they had a different mentality from ours and often followed strange, irrational fancies, doing many abominable things just for the fun of it.
Further up the mountain we passed a village called Sadowa, populated by Szechuanese squatters who were peaceful farmers by day and, it was alleged, ruthless robbers by night. The climb from this village became more arduous and we entered a vast forest, which enclosed a little village in a hollow, surrounded by a thick fence made of tree branches. It was a leper enclave in which several families of the Szechuanese Chinese and others, afflicted with the dreadful disease, were living. Then, past midday, we made one last effort and climbed, at an incredible angle, through a thick wood, to the small platform on which the Paper-making Co-operative was situated. It was a long, rather low building begrimed with the smoke of wood fires which were burning in it day and night owing to the cold. In front there were three large and deep square stone tubs. Further down there were two huge vats with furnaces underneath and a shallow, stone-lined oblong pool. A small, surprisingly powerful and noisy, ice-cold stream rushed from the top of the mountain, past the building, revolving a wooden wheel connected to a crusher. In a tiny fenced field a few cabbages and turnips grew; a few big pigs and some chickens roamed at large and there were two fierce Tibetan mastiffs chained to the log fence.
The co-operative had eight members. Aiya Aiya was the manager and he was assisted by his old father who never left the place. The rest were mountain Nakhi and Szechuanese, one of whom was the technician. The material for the paper was a kind of mountain bamboo called arundinaria. It was slender, of purple colour, and grew in dense patches at an altitude of not less than 15,000 feet. Several members had gone early on the morning of our arrival to cut it and would be returning with large bunches of it slung over their shaggy horses. After lying on the ground for some time open to the elements, it was put through the water-power crusher and dumped into the oblong pool; lime was heaped on it and there it stayed until properly processed. When soft, it was loaded into the vats and boiled with chemicals. The resulting pulp was transferred to the stone tubs, where a juice from the roots of a species of dwarf pine was added; it was then ready for making into paper. A frame of horsehair was dipped carefully into the tub and lifted with a thin layer of the pulp which was deftly deposited on a clean wooden board. This congealed almost at once. Then another layer was added on to this initial sheet and so on until a stack was formed which was taken away and a new one started. All the time more pulp solution, water and root chemicals were added into the tub. The stacked paper was separated and the sheets hung on long poles in the building to dry with the help of braziers. When the sheets were dry they were stacked again in reams and were ready for sale. The paper was yellowish in colour, thick and too rough for writing on. It was used for wrapping and other household purposes; but its main use was in childbirth, fulfilling the function of sanitary napkins and towels. It was very cheap and the margin of profit on its production was extremely meagre.
I nicknamed the Paper-making Society the ‘Co-operative above the Clouds.’ The view from the place was breathtaking. It was like looking from an aeroplane. Its height was 14,000 feet and one could see for miles around: as far as the dark trench, where the Iron-mining Co-operative was, and to a series of mountain ranges which, like colossal waves, ebbed away and melted into the blue haze of distant horizons. Sometimes clouds came, but they did not reach us. They floated below like a limitless silvery sea out of which the peaks protruded like purple islands.
The furthest co-operative society I had was at Erhyuen, about eighty miles south of Likiang. It was in real Minkia country. Erhyuen was the capital of that small kingdom whose beautiful queen committed the ceremonial suicide by immolating herself on a pyre after her husband had been murdered by the Nanchiao king.
The road to Erhyuen branched off the main caravan trail from Likiang to Hsiakwan at Niukai, where there were so many hot springs. Erhyuen was a small town but very picturesque as it lay in a perfect amphitheatre of green, forested mountains behind a large lake which completely isolated it from the plain except for a narrow causeway, spanned at intervals by high camel-back bridges. Heavily loaded boats passed underneath the bridges along the channels cut through the vast growths of rushes and lotus plants.
The countryside around Erhyuen was green and full of lush pastures, and here I had formed a Butter-making Cooperative. It was under the patronage of a very influential and powerful local family, named Ma, which was very progressive, patriotic and was determined to improve, through the introduction of new industries, the lot of the local Minkia, with all of whom they were more or less related. It was wartime then and Kunming, with its swollen foreign population, hungered for good butter, which it was very difficult to procure from abroad. Some butter was of course already being made at Erhyuen, but it was made in the wrong way, was dirty and went rancid almost at once.
About twenty young Minkia men, all from good farming families, who had cows of their own, joined together. I wrote to friends in America and they promptly donated a good-sized cream separator, which was flown out to Kunming and which I brought, with great trouble, to Erhyuen. A very creditable churn was made by our Minkia Carpenter Co-operative and the cans and other containers were made by the Copperware Co-operative out of solid copper duly lined with tin. The Ma family provided a clean building for the purpose. The downstair rooms were devoted to butter-making and upstairs we lived together. It was impossible for the members to start the process of butter-making by themselves, for they had some very funny ideas about hygiene and machinery; so I had to spend more than a month at Erhyuen, working like a slave, and teaching them the art of making butter in European style.
Every morning I got up at six and after breakfast we received the milk from neighbouring farms. It came in hermetically closed cans and was duly weighed and tested with a lactometer. If too cold, it was slightly warmed. Then it was poured into the separator. I shall never forget that separator. Day after day I had to turn it for hours on end, for it was almost impossible to teach the boys to do it properly by not accelerating too fast and then maintaining strictly the same rate of revolutions. It was a month before they could grasp this essential fact and even then I was never quite sure of them.
I had great respect for cream separators, especially big ones; I have always thought them to be dangerous if not treated properly, and with all my efforts I tried to inculcate this respect into the co-operative members. The boys always agreed, but I could see from their faces that they still regarded this machine as a sort of a new and amusing foreign toy. However, the machine itself decided to co-operate with me in teaching them a lesson. One day I went out of the milk room for a minute, leaving the handle to be turned by one of the boys. I do not know what he did but he probably over-accelerated, and there was a terrific explosion. I rushed back to find a shambles. The milk bowl and plates were scattered all over the room in pools of milk, crockery was broken and the heavy centrifuge lay in a corner on the floor beside a screaming boy. It appeared that, as the boy had increased the speed erratically, there had been a big electric spark and the heavy, madly spinning centrifuge had jumped right up at the ceiling. It scraped the boy’s leg and burned a wide patch of skin almost to the flesh because of the high velocity of its revolutions.
After this accident they acquired respect for modern methods and things went much more smoothly; and soon we were making up to fifty pounds of butter every day. It was sent, in little barrels, by truck to Kunming, was cut there into 1-lb., 1/2-lb., and 1/4-lb. blocks, wrapped and sold at a store. The business was good and had every promise of growing.
The list of my most interesting co-operatives would not be complete without mentioning the big Leather and Shoe-making Co-operative which became the pride of Likiang. It was composed of twenty-three young Nakhi men, between eighteen and twenty-five years of age, with the exception of the manager who was thirty-eight. It was affectionately called by the Likiang people the Wa Wa Co-operative, that is to say, Children’s Co-operative. All the boys had worked as apprentices to some local shoe-makers and I used to know many of them long before the society’s formation. Influenced by my talks on co-operation and its advantages, they had decided to emancipate themselves and start a business of their own on the co-operative basis.
At first the society was rather helpless because they knew only how to tan one or two kinds of very crude leather and the shoes they made looked as shapeless as potatoes. So I sent one of them, duly selected by themselves, to Chungking to be trained at a really good Shanghai leather-tanning factory. He spent two years there and learned shoe-making as well. At last the poor man, disfigured by smallpox which he had picked up at the war capital, returned to Likiang with a load of chemicals and instruments which he had bought out of the proceeds of a loan I arranged for the society. Then things began moving and in no time at all the co-operative turned out rolls of beautiful leather of several qualities. The shoes were now strong and elegant, and yet the price was extremely low.
They were clever and willing, these boys. They had natural good taste and they turned to good account the copies of Montgomery Ward’s catalogue that I provided. They constructed perfect copies of what was worn at that time on Bond Street or Fifth Avenue and probably at one-twentieth of the price. They made excellent top-boots too and, in addition, footballs, revolver holsters, military belts and a host of other leather articles. They captured, almost in the twinkle of an eye, the patronage of the local beaux and military officers. The orders poured in. In a few months Likiang had undergone a considerable sartorial change. The men in town and in the villages simply had to have the elegant shining black and brown shoes of the latest style, and to go with them they also ordered equally elegant trousers of European style.
Some of the boys lived at the co-operative, others at home. They had no salary but only an allowance sufficient for the immediate needs of themselves and their families. At the end of the year, when the profits were divided, they all got a bonus in accordance with the work they had performed. A sum was set aside as a reserve fund and a percentage was carried to the ‘common-good fund’. This fund was used primarily for funerals and weddings, and it was settled that each member was entitled to one wedding paid for out of the common-good fund, and each year a limited number of weddings were financed in this way by drawing lots. The profits were good and soon the society opened its own store in Main Street. Large consignments of shoes, top-boots and footballs went to Kunming, Paoshan, Hsiakwan and even to Tibet. The loans contracted by the society from banks were repaid. The ragged apprentice members now emerged as prosperous and substantial citizens — well dressed, well fed and respected by their neighbours and friends. They were excellent publicity for what co-operative enterprise, properly established and conducted, could do for the craftsmen.