The year 1949 opened inauspiciously. The dark clouds of civil strife, upheavals and hatred hovered on the horizon. The Nationalist regime was righting a rearguard action and its control was shrinking rapidly. Yunnan itself was in the balance. Its powerful and ruthless, though just and popular, governor had been replaced by a general, who had been born outside south-west China and knew nothing of its problems. He did nothing for this remote province except plunder the ex-governor’s fortune of gold and silver and put his nominees in the Provincial Government. At one time the province came near to open revolt and the Central Government appointed as governor the nephew of the former strong man. But it was too late — the damage had been done — and the uncle, smarting from humiliation and the loss of his vast fortune, threw in his lot openly with the Red regime already entrenched in Peking. Bands of Communist guerrillas roamed through the province, seizing a small town here and a village there. Although Likiang was still peaceful there was restive-ness in the air as caravans brought more and more news of troubles elsewhere.
I believe it was in March that the jolly, roly-poly Pacification Commissioner went to Yungpei, a prosperous town across the Yangtze River, some three or four days east by caravan. There was some dispute there and, as it was a territory under his jurisdiction, the commissioner thought that his presence and mediation would help to settle it. In a fortnight or so Likiang was stunned by the news that there was an uprising at Yungpei, engineered by an army officer named Lokyun. This Lokyun, it was rumoured, had interned the Pacification Commissioner and disarmed his bodyguards.
There was little reliable news, but in a week or so the caravan traffic to Yungpei ceased as the caravan men reported that their cargoes were being plundered there. The iron-chain bridge over the Yangtze River was closed to commercial traffic and a heavy guard posted at the Likiang end of it.
Lokyun himself was evidently a crafty fellow. He did not admit that anything was out of order at Yungpei. Telegrams, signed by the commissioner, sending orders to the Likiang authorities continued to arrive regularly as the telegraph line remained undamaged, but the Likiang magistrate and elders felt sure that these messages had been sent by the commissioner under duress.
Having evidently consolidated his hold on Yungpei, Lokyun made the next tactical move. A long message was sent to the Likiang Government ostensibly from the Pacification Commissioner, bearing as it did his seal. It informed the government that Lokyun, burning with fierce patriotism and righteousness, had taken over the government and affairs at Yungpei and had decided to ‘liberate’ at least north-western Yunnan from corrupt officials, both Central and Provincial, to introduce just and incorruptible local self-administration (under his authority, naturally) and to lay down a new deal for the poor and under-privileged. He (the commissioner) himself was persuaded of the integrity and high motives of Lokyun; he heartily endorsed this idealistic movement, and would assist it with all the power at his command. Furthermore, the message continued, the armed forces and people of Yungpei were filled with brotherly love and sympathy towards the brave and noble people of the sister city of Likiang, and were determined to help them to overthrow the present corrupt and ineffective administration and the dominance of powerful and rapacious landlords and merchants.
The rambling document concluded with the assurance that Lokyun’s liberation movement had nothing to do either with the Communists or Nationalists, but was a spontaneous growth generated by the discontent and misery of the oppressed people of Yunnan. The government and people of Likiang were respectfully requested to welcome the liberation force which would be dispatched in the near future and treat its members as their nearest and dearest brothers.
There was some confusion among the authorities and people of Likiang upon receipt of this lengthy message. Some people thought that the Pacification Commissioner was still in authority; perhaps it was a genuine document really sent by him of his own free will; after all, he was not a fool and, if he said the man was honourable and idealistic, it might indeed be so. Perhaps it was an emergence of another strong man on the provincial stage. Such phenomena in Chinese national and provincial histories were by no means rare. If Lokyun was indeed such a man, perhaps it might be better to join up with him at the outset and thus be in a favourable position when his rule over the province had been firmly established. Others, more sceptical, advised caution and a wait-and-see policy. After all, they argued, Lokyun was not a Nakhi and his army was composed of outside Chinese. Why should the Nakhi submit precipitately to a stranger’s yoke? Besides, Likiang was the biggest and richest city in the region and quite a prize if Lokyun’s forces, probably little disciplined, should decide to help themselves. Likiang had already experienced in its long history such ‘friendly’ invasions.
Cautious counsels prevailed and it was decided to find out more about the merits of the new movement. A telegram was dispatched to the Pacification Commissioner asking him to come to Likiang alone and tell the city more about the advantages and benefits of the movement and the virtues of its comparatively unknown leader. There was no reply for several days. In the meantime, the cunning Nakhi sent spies to Yungpei, who returned in a few days in great alarm. Yungpei had been thoroughly looted, they reported, all leading citizens were under detention and the commissioner was kept by Lokyun in isolation. Gloom descended on Likiang, and the people in the shops and streets talked of nothing but Lokyun. Soon a new message was flashed from Yungpei.
The Pacification Commissioner wired that, in response to the Likiang Government’s request, he was coming to Likiang with Lokyun as his most valued guest. As a mark of respect for so famous and honoured a city as Likiang, an escort of honour of some 10,000 picked troops would accompany them.
Great was the consternation in town. Many shop-owners disappeared from behind their counters, for being practical women they began collecting into the back room all their most valuable goods, and we could see that our neighbours were starting to pack. Small caravans of horses and women with heavy bundles streamed furtively out of town towards the Snow Mountain, lamaseries or Lapo where, they thought, their valuables would be safer in the hands of relatives and friends if the worst came to the worst. Then a big gathering of the people was summoned by the magistrate and other high officials. There was a long and heated discussion about Lokyun’s imminent arrival with so strong an army. At last a unanimous decision was taken. Likiang should not surrender; Likiang must fight; all Nakhi would fight-both men and women. A message to this effect was wired to the Pacification Commissioner, aimed, of course, at Lokyun, and messages also sent to the sister cities of Hoking, Chienchwang and Tali. Hoking, in particular, was asked to join in the resistance.
A mobilization order was issued asking every able-bodied Nakhi to come to Likiang from his village, bringing whatever arms he could find, his bedding and a small store of necessary provisions. Another message was sent by runner to Chungdien, asking the Tibetans to help. This last step was taken only after much deliberation, for the Tibetans were always a dangerous ally. Were the city defeated and captured by Lokyun’s men, Tibetans would help them to plunder it. If Lokyun was defeated, they might decide to remain in Likiang just the same and help themselves to whatever they liked. But they were fierce and fearless fighters and as loyal to the Nakhi cause as the Nakhi themselves. The very mention that the Tibetans were on the march seldom failed to put the fear of God in the hearts of an enemy. It was largely for this psychological reason that the decision to invite the Tibetans was made.
News and rumours of the invasion started to pour in daily, then hourly. At first it was reported that Lokyun was coming with 10,000 troops; next day it was 20,000; then it was 40,000, until a grandiose total of 100,000 was freely discussed in the streets. It was impressive to watch the inborn courage, bravery and magnificent warrior spirit of the Nakhi which now displayed itself. There was no longer panic or confusion; only confidence, discipline, order and affectionate solidarity. They treated each other as a brother or a sister, who had gathered together to protect the beloved family.
The first step was to remove the flooring and then to dismantle the chains of the great suspension bridge over the Yangtze. They were detached from the boulders, to which they had been anchored on the other side of the river and they clanged heavily as they dropped into the turbulent stream. A series of patrols were posted on the bank to prevent a crossing by the ferries which were removed to the near side of the river. The villagers began pouring in from plains and mountains. Some carried heavy antique muskets reminiscent of the Three Musketeers’ days; others had flint-lock guns; many carried bows and arrows, spears and swords, halberds and lances and other arms of bygone ages. Comparatively few had up-to-date rifles and revolvers. There were some firearms at the yamen and these were quickly distributed. Most of the pangchinmei came forward and joined their brothers and sweethearts. In addition to the baskets, in which they carried their men’s provisions and blankets, these girls also brought their own weapons such as rifles, spears, swords or just long, sharp knives. All the newcomers were hospitably quartered by the citizens and my house too became like a barracks. Of course, we all had to feed them, but it was not too onerous, and they were polite, friendly and uncomplaining.
Soon it was reported that the invasion units had been sighted on the other side of the river. Baffled and disconcerted by the Nakhi’s war-like measures and their hostile attitude, the invaders moved hesitantly down the river towards Hoking. Ultimatum after ultimatum poured into Likiang demanding unconditional surrender. The reply from the Nakhi always was, ‘Come and take us if you can.’ Only Hoking sent a cowardly message of welcome and submission, promising Lokyun open gates and hospitality. The stalemate continued for three days.
In the meantime the Chungdien Tibetans arrived. They were hefty and hearty fellows, ferocious-looking and very picturesque. A cavalry unit, armed with rifles, spears and swords, they swaggered through the town on their shaggy ponies. They invaded my house, under the pretext of needing treatment for most varied ailments, and consumed many a large jar of ara (white wine) which I had the foresight to prepare. My cook was in a panic and rushed to me almost hourly, urging me to send my things away to a friend of his in a village for safe keeping, or at least to let him bury my silver dollars in a pot under the privy. I told him not to make a fool of himself. He was free, I added, to do anything he wanted with his own fortune. But I was not particularly happy about the situation, though I had a good deal of confidence in the Nakhi and Tibetans and their magnificent determination to resist at all costs. If Likiang was to be lost, I wanted to share their humiliation and misfortune as I had shared, during so many years, their life and their happiness.
At last the critical moment arrived. Under cover of darkness, Lokyun’s forces crossed the river in specially constructed ferries opposite Hoking. From that point it was only a short march to that town across a mountain range. Both the Nakhi and Tibetans moved down the valley to Chiho, some forty li away, where the border between the ancient Kingdom of Mu and the former Minkia states (now Hoking district) lay. Likiang looked forlorn and abandoned. The shops were shuttered and few people appeared in the street. Every member of my ‘Children’s Co-operative’ went to the front, arming themselves, like the men from our village, with the steel axes which I had previously received from Kunming and with other tools and machinery sent as part of the American assistance programme to our Co-operative Movement. I sat alone in our abandoned office. All the clerks, Hozuchi and the old couple’s son went away to fight. Only my cook and myself were left.
Under the weight of an intolerable tension and anxiety I went to Madame Lee’s shop. It was shuttered, but the old lady was there. She was calm, though her face looked worried. She said the people were now waiting to hear how Hoking was treated by the ‘great liberator’ Lokyun. We did not have to wait long. As I came to her place next day and sat sipping wine, the runners from the south came into the city. Very soon the truth was known and the people gathered in small groups excitedly discussing the news. As many in Likiang had suspected, Lokyun was no liberator and no revolutionary. He was a brigand, a robber of utmost rapacity the like of whom had not been seen in Yunnan for many decades. On entering Hoking, he extorted enormous sums of money from the merchants and wealthy landlords. His men looted and plundered to their hearts’ content. The shuttered shops were smashed with axes and silks and satins were scattered knee-deep in the streets. In the streets the women had their gold earrings torn off their ears, the men had their rings snatched from their fingers and their jackets and trousers pulled off. Mirrors, clock, clothing, utensils and other articles were carried off in heaps and sometimes scattered by the roadside and in ditches. The whole town was left as a shell of its former self. So Likiang now knew what to expect. Even old Madame Lee was infused with a warrior spirit and picked up her big chopper threateningly when somebody talked of Lokyun.
Flushed with their ‘bloodless and easy’ victory over chicken-hearted Hoking, the robbers now advanced on Likiang, with most insolent threats. They abandoned all pretence and openly declared what they would do to Likiang when they had taken the city. They appealed to the cupidity of the poorer Nakhi, asking them to join up with them and afterwards share the loot.
When they reached the Nakhi defence lines a great battle ensued. It was not true that the brigands numbered 100,000 or even 10,000. Perhaps the regular band was in the neighbourhood of 5,000 Yungpei men. The rest were their camp-followers — relatives and friends, mostly women, boys and the like who picked up the loot, as it came, and assisted to transport it to the other side of the river whence it was forwarded home. They were like the ravens and ghouls which wait for the end of the battle to snatch what is left. The Nakhi men fought bravely and well, and the girls by their sides distinguished themselves by their ferocity and fearlessness. It was reported that one pangchinmei killed five robbers with her own hands. The charge by the Tibetan cavalry rounded off the Nakhi attack. The brigands were utterly defeated and driven back to the gates of Hoking. Lokyun escaped, but the fat Pacification Commissioner was captured and brought back to Likiang. The wounded returned to the city and I spent all my time dressing their injuries, and for a couple of days my house looked like a hospital.
The inglorious Hoking now requested the Nakhi to pursue the robbers across the river and to recapture their loot. However, it was decided not to take any action as Hoking had previously refused to support Likiang in united action.
When the Nakhi and Tibetans made sure that the robbers had gone they returned to Likiang and were welcomed with open arms. There was a series of feasts for the victors and they received all kinds of gifts. The Tibetans lingered for a fortnight, still not being sure of the situation. If they had something else on their mind, they did not show it. Anyway, they were pacified and made happy with feasts and wine and gifts of cloth and provisions. Finally they received a sizable present of hard cash which, to them, was a satisfactory recompense for their sacrifices. Well satisfied, they returned to their native Chungdien.
The defeated brigands and their leader Lokyun, in their frenzy, rushed across the mountains from Hoking and looted Chienchwang. Still not satisfied, they went further to Erhyuen, where they took the little town by surprise. Eye-witnesses told me afterwards how the bandits took every room in Mr Ma’s new mansion apart, looking for gold and jewellery. What they could not take away, they destroyed, and large bevelled mirrors were smashed just for the fun of it. They did not even leave our Butter-making Co-operative alone. They smashed everything to bits in the milk room. I really do not know what possessed them to take away the cream separator which was so useless to them and which had given me so much work; but they carried the heavy machine for almost five miles and then dumped it into a ditch by the lake. Mr Ma told me afterwards that he was sure they thought it to be a new kind of machine-gun.
The unfortunate Pacification Commissioner was, of course, very ashamed of the role he had been forced to play in this unfortunate affair. It was a very severe loss of face as far as Likiang was concerned, but it was not irreparable, for after all the town of Likiang had not been harmed. No doubt he was taunted and reproached by the magistrate and Likiang elders, but from all accounts their attitude was surprisingly lenient. The situation at Hoking was different. Hoking had been invaded, looted and devastated, and the people there laid all the blame on the commissioner. They now claimed that they had opened the gates of the city to Lokyun only on the strength of the written assurances signed by the commissioner himself; otherwise, like Likiang, they would have resisted. Besides, the commissioner was a Hoking resident himself and thus one of its trusted elders. Actually he was from a district near Tali lake but had bought a mansion and had long established himself at Hoking. Thus the Hoking people claimed that he had betrayed them doubly, both in his official capacity and as an elder and guardian of Hoking. They demanded from the Likiang authorities his extradition to Hoking for whatever punishment they decided. In the meantime they held his family there as hostages. This was vastly more serious than his position in Likiang. With the people of Hoking he had lost face utterly and irretrievably; nor could he offer any explanation to the Governor in Kunming. He had to go down to Hoking, and he went. His house was about ten li before reaching Hoking. He said he was tired by long travel and wanted to rest before entering the city. He retired to his study. An hour later a shot was heard. When they opened the door they found him dead, sitting before his desk with a bullet in his head.
I was very sorry to hear of the old commissioner’s passing. He was a kindly old man and he was very good to me and my co-operatives. Whenever there was any trouble or unpleasantness he always tried to smooth matters over for me and he was very helpful with documents and passes whenever I had to travel to Kunming. The destruction of my Butter-making Co-operative at Erhyuen and the devastation wrought on that pretty little place made me very sad, and it seemed like a personal loss. It seemed part of me — a real product of my own enterprise and sweat, and a really new industry in that part of the country.
Somehow things had changed and Likiang was not quite the same after this harrowing experience. The old sense of security and certainty had gone, and the people had lost some of their zest for work and even for play. Lokyun was gone but the damage he had done lingered. Hoking market was dead and so was Chienchwang’s and Erhyuen’s. People had lost money and goods, and somehow they seemed to have lost heart too. No one cared to buy or sell. There was unrest everywhere, petty robberies and a flood of rumours. The caravan roads, never too safe before, further deteriorated with the appearance of small groups of bandits — well armed and seemingly unafraid of anything. Some said they were the remnants of the Lokyun band; others thought they were something else. The telephone line to Hoking had been repaired, but the telegraph line to Kunming was still blocked by the retreating brigands. The arms issued by government to the villagers had not been returned. People said they expected more trouble. Why? Where? When? No one knew and yet there was tension and suspense. Something was expected, something new — something fearful perhaps.
Soon there were rumours in the street that Chienchwang had ‘turned over’. What it exactly meant people themselves did not quite know. They said that Paoshan on the Burma Road had ‘turned over’ quite a long time ago, perhaps a month or two. Now a group of men from that place had reached Erhyuen, ‘turned it over* and were at present in Chienchwang. Who were these men? Nobody was certain. Were they the Communists? No, they themselves said they were not. Yet they wore a sort of uniform, a very simple one of indigo blue colour, and had a peculiar cap on their heads. They proclaimed the end of the landlords, the supremacy of the poor people and the abolition of luxurious living. As a first step, it was reported, they requisitioned some of the best houses and imposed a strict curfew on the town. No one was permitted to leave without permission, and usually such a permit was withheld from the landlords. Passing caravans were searched by them and certain goods and arms were taken. They prohibited the use of sedan chairs to all men under sixty and some travellers from Likiang to Hsiakwan were brusquely pulled out of their chairs, made to pay off the bearers at the full rate to Hsiakwan and were told to continue their journey on foot. A committee of the poorest people had been elected and was ruling the place in close collaboration with this mysterious group of men.
Piecing these rumours and reports together I could not help feeling that I knew who the mysterious reformers were. The pattern of their work and actions was only too familiar. A dread foreboding filled my heart.