Beset by anxiety and uncertainty, with an undercurrent of fear, I sat at my desk. There was no desire or energy to work and indeed there was no work to do. No one in town or in the villages seemed to be interested in anything, much less in co-operatives. People whispered and talked in small groups and then went about their business listlessly. Suddenly, in my perplexity, I decided to go and find out from my trusted and intimate friend Wuhan what was really happening. He was well connected both in town and in the villages and surely he could enlighten and advise me. At that moment there was a sound of steps on my staircase and Wuhan himself entered. It was an almost unbelievable coincidence, a real case of telepathy. He said he had come to invite me to his village on the morrow as he was performing the Muan Peu ceremony. He had no time now to talk, he added, as he had to buy incense and other things for the ceremony and to hurry back home to make the necessary preparations.
I left the house very early next morning and was at Wuhan’s farm before ten o’clock. As was the custom, he spent the night fasting with some friends and dtombas at the holy place and was now fully dressed for the ritual. We proceeded to the holy place, which every Nakhi village has for the purpose of these sacrifices. It was a small clearing, and was enclosed by a grove of age-old trees surrounded by a broad wall of boulders and stones, at one end of which stood a long altar also made of rough stones. There on the altar, between two candlesticks, was a triangular ploughshare and offerings of grain. Special incense sticks of gigantic size stood on both sides of the altar. Wuhan prostrated himself several times before the altar, holding incense sticks in his clasped hands.
Such was the simple ceremony, but it was one of great importance and solemnity among the Nakhi. Only the elder male in the family was entitled to perform it — the father or, if he were dead, the son. Different clans of the Nakhi performed this ceremony at different times. Wuhan belonged to the famous Gvghugh clan, whilst some of the villagers were of the Gvdza clan.
In this sacred ceremony the head of the family made a sacrifice to Heaven, symbolized by the mystic Mount Somero, the Centre of the Universe, where God and His lieutenants, the lesser deities, dwell. The triangular ploughshare represented Mount Somero in a visible form. The bountiful Heaven was humbly thanked for the plentiful harvest of grain and other foodstuffs, the continued prosperity and the health of the family and the domestic harmony it had vouchsafed during the past year, and was implored not to withhold its favours to the family during the current year.
The same kind of ceremony was practised by the Black Lolos and other members of the Nakhi race, collectively known as the Chiang. The origin of the ceremony is as old as mankind itself and antedates all known religions. It was the same type of sacrifice with the same purpose as that related in the Bible when, at the dawn of the human race, Cain and Abel sacrificed the fruits of their labour, and when Noah, after the landing of his ark, thanked God in a similar manner. It was the harvest festival practised by all races at all times of their history. It was practised by the Emperor of China, who sacrificed in great humility at the resplendent Temple of Heaven in Peking, and it is practised now, although in a slightly different form but with the same intent, by the Eastern Orthodox Church during the evening service when the priest, blessing the bread, oil and wine, thanks God for His abundance, love and great mercies and invokes His blessings for the future. It was made a focal point in the beautiful liturgy of St John Chrysostom, ‘Thine from Thine to Thee from All and for All.’
A feast, at which the sacrificial food was utilized, always followed the Muan Peu ceremony, but only close relatives and members of the clan were invited. When the guests had gone and we remained alone I broached the subject of my worries to Wuhan.
‘Wuhan,’ I said, ‘we have been good and intimate friends for a very long time and I want you to tell me absolutely frankly what is happening in Likiang, what do you think will happen and what can I do? I feel worried and unhappy.’
He stared at the ceiling for a long time. Then he leaned towards me and began to talk in a lowered voice, although there was nobody around except his old mother and wife, neither of whom knew English or Chinese. He explained to me that the mysterious reformers at Chienchwang, Erhyuen and Paoshan were the Communist advance guards who came to infiltrate among the population and pave the way for the ‘liberation’ of that part of Yunnan ahead of the arrival of the regular Red armies which were moving from Szechuan and Kweichow. At the moment Likiang was already infiltrated and everything was ready for the coup; they were waiting only for the arrival of certain important leaders, who were coming in secret from Kunming. He said it would be a matter of a week or two, or perhaps even a few days, before the city officially ‘turned over’. He himself did not know much about communism or communistic principles and tactics. However, he thought, there might be trouble all around. In his opinion the best course for me would be to go to Kunming and stay there for a while to see what happened. We parted in sadness — a premonition, perhaps, that it was my last visit to this peaceful and happy farmstead.
I returned home in a very gloomy mood. Likiang was changing day by day; it was filled with an atmosphere unclean, murky and pregnant, and I was afraid lest it gave birth to a phantasmagoria of the things one desired least but was unable to avoid.
I stayed at home most of the time. Somehow I now had little desire to go out in the streets. The wine-shops of Madame Lee, Madame Yang and Madame Ho were no longer the open gates through which I had entered the life of Likiang, the nursery of friendships. No longer were they, for me, centres of interest and knowledge, even though through their windows new kinds of strangers were to be seen passing in the streets. They passed with grave and cold faces. There was a suggestion of ruthlessness and arrogance as they peremptorily parted the crowds to make their way. I wanted to do something and could not. I lost my appetite .and could not sleep well. Thoughts whirled in my brain day and night. Was this a new crisis in my own life also? Did I have to go on the road again? Where to, how and when? The idea of leaving Likiang, perhaps for ever, appeared intolerable. Nowhere in my turbulent life had I tasted such peace and such happiness as in Likiang. To me it was paradise. I thought I had worked hard to win it, and yet it seemed to be slipping away. I knew it was a paradise to me only and I never tried to convert those outside to my private belief or induce them to visit me. In spite of my long residence here and in China, I was still Western enough to realize that the idea of ‘earthly paradise’ was not the same in the West. In Likiang there were no hotels, no cinemas, few bodily comforts, no funicular to the top of Mount Satseto and no natives to ‘perform’ for a tourist’s fee; in contrast there was the ever-present danger of disease to constitutions weakened by too much hygiene.
My happiness in Likiang did not spring only from an idle enjoyment of the flowers and their scent, of the brilliance of ever-changing snow peaks and of a succession of feasts. Neither was it in the absorption in my work with co-operatives or in service to the sick and poor. It was in an even balancing of these two aspects of life, but to become perfect it needed the belief in the love and goodness of God and the friendship and trust of the simple and honest people among whom I lived. When these things had been granted me, I felt at last at peace with the world and, what is more important, with myself. I believe that this sort of happiness is perhaps a foreshadowing of the true paradise, unlike what is pictured by the theologians of many religions. Who would want a paradise resembling a cafe de luxe where the departed can enjoy food and drinks free of charge throughout eternity whilst contemplating the splendours of heavenly scenery? And it is no substitute for paradise to be eternally preoccupied with sickness, misery, filth and rags. Paradise is perhaps the transformation of both through wisdom and love and the knowledge that the work has been well done.
At last the dreaded day arrived. It was announced that Likiang had been ‘liberated’. A Communist Executive Committee was promptly established and took over. The magistrate was arrested along with a number of town elders. The head of the local militia, Captain Yang, fled and they arrested his third wife. All the scamps and the village bullies, who had not done a stroke of honest work in their life, suddenly blossomed forth as the accredited members of the Communist Party, and swaggered with special red armbands and badges and the peculiar caps with duckbill visors which seemed to be the hallmark of a Chinese Red.
I was introduced to the Executive Committee. It consisted of a number of newly arrived members of the Paoshan Liberation group. They were some of the dreaded Makung (Malayan Communists), Chinese of a peculiarly uncouth and brutal-looking type, reminding me of certain gangsters who were employed as truck drivers on the Burma Road. They had trekked into Paoshan direct from Malaya, passing through Chiengmai in Siam, which was the favourite route between Yunnan and Malaya for the Communist agents. Some of these to whom I spoke had a pretty good knowledge of Russian and evidently had had their training in the U.S.S.R. A few other members were, surprisingly, Nakhi whom I had not known before, and who had recently arrived from Peking where they had probably been trusted officials of the Red Government. They were quite civil and looked much more intelligent and cultured than the Malayans, and seemed to have more authority.
The debut of the new government was the shooting of Dr Lee’s brother, that wretch who had nearly poisoned me with chloroform at a party. Everybody had to go to witness this execution. I did not go as I am not a lover of morbid sights, and was later fined two dollars for non-attendance. Afterwards I had to pay many fines for this sort of offence. Next day there was a procession of the elders and others accused of opium-smoking and other crimes against the people. The wife of Captain Yang was among them. With bound hands they shuffled along, carrying on their backs huge placards announcing the nature of their crimes. It was a sorry and pitiful sight.
To celebrate the ‘liberation’ a mammoth meeting was arranged on the racecourse which everybody had to attend. After the meeting, carrying hundreds of banners and placards with the images of Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, the crowd passed through Main Street. Just at that very moment there occurred a terrific thunderstorm and they marched, drenched to the bone, while the hastily painted Mao Tse Tung and Stalin dissolved on their banners under the deluge.
To protect the revolution, the militia had been disarmed first and then reorganized into a new unit, a real little army, to which all the young men now belonged. Not to be outdone, and in the spirit of the new equality of sexes, many girls dressed in the soldiers’ blue uniforms, cut off their hair and became soldiers too, staying at the same barracks and eating together with the men. Yet there was no suggestion of immorality because love was prohibited along with wine and fine food. These recruits were given very little to eat and what there was was very poor. However, to forestall grumbling, the officers ate together with the men, and these tactics went well with the village bumpkins, but others were not deceived. The officers were members of the Executive Committee which held its sessions always in the dead of night; and these sessions were not held on empty stomachs, for sumptuous dinners, wine and even opium preceded the business.
Many of my village friends were among the recruits and they always found time to sneak into my house through the back door which was quite close to the barracks on the hill. They were as hungry as dogs and we always kept something for them to eat such as a rich soup or fat pork with rice. They had not a cent between them and I used to make them small loans, enough at least for cigarettes.
Three days after the liberation parade, Dr Rock arrived by chartered plane on one of his periodical visits. I had had no means of advising him beforehand of the political changes and he nearly collapsed as I greeted him with the words, ‘Welcome to the Red Paradise!’ He was treated civilly, although they searched his baggage, and the funds he brought with him were not confiscated. We spent the night at a village near the airport and went to town next morning. We felt isolated amidst this new set-up and saw each other almost every day to exchange the latest news.
Life in Likiang had changed almost beyond recognition. There were daily parades of boys and girls everywhere with the eternal singing of the tune of ‘John Brown’s Body’ and hymns of praise for Mao Tse Tung. Old Nakhi dances were prohibited and replaced by the new Communist dances which were neither attractive nor becoming. Many people donned the blue uniforms. Hired labour was abolished and all the village people had to work collectively. After their work, though tired and sleepy, they had to listen to interminable indoctrination talks at daily meetings and afterwards to dance the compulsory Communist dances. It was prohibited to eat chicken and pork and drink wine, except very occasionally. Poor villagers no longer found buyers in town for their eggs, poultry and pork, and even the firewood was not much in demand. They had to return to their villages without the money they hoped to obtain from the sale of their products for other pressing needs.
There was at the time in Likiang a group of very poor Lotien boys who usually came for seasonal farm work. Under the new regulations they could not be engaged as they were hired labour. They were desperate and starving, without money or food and clothed only in a few rags. I could not stand the sight of their suffering and despair and invited all of them to my house to stay for a few days. I fed them, supplied them with such clothing as I could find and gave them enough money to enable them to return to Lotien.
There were continual arrests, usually in the dead of night, decreed by the dread Executive Committee, and secret executions. It was reported that an old man at Boashi village was shot by a squad commanded by his own son.
The local merchants had been ‘fined’ and had to pay out thousands of dollars to the Executive Committee. These ‘fines’ or ‘contributions’ were not fixed and further levies were hinted at. The failure to pay up was a signal for the arrest of the victim and probable liquidation at a future date. Not a few merchants had already been arrested and their execution was pending; and the magistrate was also on the list. The inveterate opium smokers and elders were either locked up in jail or permitted to buy their freedom by further stupendous ‘fines’. The local jeunesse doree were also recruited into the militia and had to exercise and march on almost empty stomachs. All of them had been opium smokers and I can well imagine their sufferings.
The dtombas were proscribed and many of them lived in fear of their lives, expecting to be arrested any moment and executed. The lamaseries were desecrated, images and priceless tankas burned or smashed, sutras destroyed and lamas either arrested or scattered. The lamasery halls were declared to be the future seats of popular schools, as if there were not enough buildings elsewhere for this purpose. The temple of the god Saddok was likewise desecrated and everything inside it smashed. Lenin’s dictum, ‘Religion is the opium of masses’, was probably more zealously enforced in Likiang than it had been in Russia.
One day a group of the new officials appeared at my gate and, without much ceremony, confiscated all the machinery and tools donated by America for the benefit of our co-operatives. They also took all my accounts and receipts for the loans we had made to them. Afterwards they proceeded to the co-operative societies themselves and confiscated their knitting and sewing machines which I had previously sold them officially on behalf of our office. I tried to find out the reason for such drastic and precipitate action. ‘All this belongs to the people now,’ the officials said. ‘We are going to create our own people’s co-operatives on a grand scale. Where a co-operative society of yours had thirty members, ours will have 3,000 members.’ What could I say in the face of such economic absurdity? But I pointed out that, as it was, the present co-operatives were for the people and of the people and the machinery and tools were imported for them. That meant nothing. A couple of men, their eyes aflame with greed, attempted to search my private rooms and carry away my stock of medicines. Others, perhaps still retaining a spark of decency, dissuaded them. I told them they were at liberty to take anything they coveted, even my personal belongings.
After these incidents and several remarks, overheard from the Malayan members of the Executive Committee, that I was an agent of ‘Western Imperialism’, I at last decided that I must leave Likiang, and quickly, before the Russian advisers and the regular OGPU from Peking came. I talked it over with Dr Rock, who wanted to leave anyway for reasons of his health whilst the going was still good. We went to see the Executive Committee, and if there was any opposition to our departure from the Malayan members, it was quickly quashed by the Nakhi members who were clearly their superiors. Dr Rock and myself still had the affection and respect of the Likiang people and our prestige was high. The committee authorized our departure by chartered plane, but on the condition that it should bring from Kunming several thousand silver dollars which the government there owed to Likiang teachers. But communications with Kunming had been severed, so Dr Rock had to send a runner to Tali to send the telegram. We waited anxiously. A reply finally came that the plane would pick us up on the 24th or 25th of July.
I never mentioned to anybody that I was going away for good. I only said that I was going to Kunming to fetch the new consignment of medicine which had arrived there for us from the International Red Cross in Chungking. Even when packing I took with me only my typewriter and a suitcase with my clothing and a few books. I had to abandon my library, victrola, medicines and many other belongings. Dr Rock likewise left many treasures behind.
For two days I went round the town talking to friends and acquaintances, saying good-bye to them. Even to my closest friends I did not say that I was not returning, but they were not stupid and I knew they sensed it. I sat for a little while with old Madame Lee. She said her shop was as dead as a doornail and she did not know what to do now. Wine was prohibited and she did not dare to make new stocks or sell old ones. Cordially she wished me good luck and blessings in her own way. Madame Yang was upset and tearful; the committee was after a nephew of hers suspected of being pro-Kuomintang. She was genuinely sorry to see me go. The ‘merry girls’ appeared funny in their male military uniform; the soldiers’ caps gave them, however, a coquettish look. They were rather insolent and full of their own importance, but even they became sorry when I told them I was going away, and all said they hoped that I would return from Kunming soon. Madame Ho looked gloomy and worried. She had had to pay a heavy contribution to the committee, and they were likely to come for more any day.
Wuhan came in the evening. He was terribly worried. The village scoundrels, now in the flush of their power, were after him and his little fortune. His brother-in-law, gentle and inoffensive Wuhsiha, was strung from a tree on the accusation of his wife, who disliked him because of his inborn sexual weakness. It was shocking news. I bade him go back and not bother about seeing me off. We had a very touching farewell. Howenhua, a friend of mine, came trembling and reported that his old father, a landlord at Chiho, was shot by the village committee. Although Likiang still maintained its outward appearances, there was a naked reign of terror in the villages, especially at Boashi, which I had to pass the next day.
In the morning it was raining heavily. My cook was very ill. Hozuchi picked up my meagre baggage, put it on his basket and we started for the airfield forty-five li away. Only Wuhsien dared to accompany us; he was a devoted friend. But the downpour was too heavy, the roads flooded and I persuaded him to return. Hozuchi and I plodded on and on and reached the village by the airfield late in the afternoon. Dr Rock was already there. We tried our best to dry our drenched clothing by the fire. Outside the house was guarded by village militia as if we were criminals.
Next day we went to the field early. It was a bright, sunny day, and we thought the plane must surely come. The day dragged on until, about sunset, we returned to the village deeply disappointed. Just as we were on the point of unpacking our bedding, there was a roar and the plane landed. We rushed back to the field. Some newcomers were disembarking and there were many heavy chests on board with the silver brought for the schools. There was no time to be lost. The chests were dragged off the runway. We piled our baggage in and I said good-bye to the tearful Hozuchi, pressing some money into his hand. The field was ringed by the village militia and by the curious. I looked at the Snow Peak, perhaps, I thought, for the last time. Had I but known the future at that moment! For in December of 1952 this great mountain convulsed and split. Tremendous shocks rocked Likiang and the towns and villages as far as Hoking and Erhyuen and even more remote districts. For a whole week the earth heaved and trembled. The terrified people rushed to the fields and forests for safety and lived there in whatever clothing they had been wearing, at the mercy of the elements. Returning to the city they found havoc, and the houses which had not been levelled were plundered by robbers. Boashi and Lashiba, the two villages which saw so many bloody excesses by the Reds, were totally destroyed. Chienchwang had not a house standing; even its city walls collapsed. Hoking was also totally destroyed. No wonder the superstitious people thought it was a retribution for the destruction of the temple of Saddok, titulary deity of the Snow Mountain and of Likiang.
The sun had already dipped behind the towering peak of Mount Satseto, but its parting rays still painted in orange and gold the eternal ice and snows of its fan-shaped crown. Glaciers became dark blue in gathering shadows. The silver Dakota, resting on the flower-strewn alpine meadow, looked portentous and mysterious, a messenger of the gods sent from outer space. Like the fabulous Garuda, it had come to snatch us up, to take us into the unknown, and to plunge us into a new way of living…. So this was the end of the dream that had come true, to the happiness that passed all understanding.
The shadows were thickening. It was becoming cold. The terrific blasts of wind, which usually come after sunset, were already roaring down the great mountain. No time must be lost lest disaster should overcome the courageous man-made bird which dared to approach the Throne of the Gods. There was a last wave of the hand to friends, and local Nakhi peasants and lamas who were there to see us off. The propellers began to revolve. With misty eyes we fastened our belts. The plane taxied to the far end of the alpine meadow and then started with a roar. A crowd of Nakhi and Tibetans waved to us as we ran down the valley and rose into the air. Slowly we passed our beloved Likiang, with its tiled roofs and running streams, and started climbing to cross the Nanshan Range. The last glimpse was of the great River of the Golden Sand winding through its deep gorge amid the sea of mountains. Then it became dark.
Thus, due to political upheavals, ended my stay, of almost nine years, in the little-known and all but forgotten ancient Nakhi Kingdom of south-west China. Even during my youth spent in Moscow and Paris I had been unaccountably attracted to Asia, her vast, little-explored mountains and her strange peoples and, especially, to mysterious Tibet. The Fates, stern to me in many other ways, have been kind in vouchsafing me long travels in Asia which even now, I have a feeling, are not at an end. I had always dreamed of rinding, and living in that beautiful place, shut off from the world by its great mountains, which years later James Hilton conceived in his novel Lost Horizon. His hero found his ‘Shangri-La’ by accident. I found mine, by design and perseverance, in Likiang.
Singapore, Summer 1955