The aboriginal inhabitants of the Likiang plain were the P’ou or, as the Nakhi called them, the Boa. The conquering Nakhi, coming from the highlands of Tibet, scattered the P’ou and pushed them into the surrounding mountains, grabbing the rich plain for themselves. The Boa were very primitive, and it is said that they had even practised ceremonial cannibalism in the remote past, consuming their dead as a mark of respect. In comparison with the Nakhi they were little civilized, and possessed a mild inferiority complex. They did not like to be called Boa to their face, and when asked who they were, they almost invariably answered that they were Nakhi. Also, when mingling with the Nakhi, they were careful to see that they were not discriminated against in the matter of courtesies or etiquette lest an impression be created that they were an inferior race. Being mountain people, they always wore black semi-stiff cloaks, made of wool matting descending to just above the knee, and blue cotton trousers. The cloaks were of a perfect bell shape and I was always surprised on seeing the Boa approach, for they looked like huge moving mushrooms. For long walks they wore straw sandals which cost very little and were thrown away on arrival.
I had several friends among the Boa from Mbushi (Pig’s Flesh) village in the Nanshan mountains near the place where I had met the robbers on the way to Likiang. One of them was a young man named Wuchang, short, stocky and fat with a face like the full moon. He was always extremely polite and very dignified and used to bring me every time he came to Likiang a couple of big turnips or rutabagas and a tiny pot of honey which he presented to me with the air of a grand duke presenting a diamond tiara to his duchess. Then he took ceremonious leave, went to the market to dispose of the rest of his turnips and came back in the evening to have dinner and, usually, to stay overnight. Once he came when I had a party of Nakhi friends to dinner. Somebody must have said something uncomplimentary about his being a Boa because he cried bitterly afterwards the whole night through and I had much difficulty in reassuring him that no offence was meant. He said he was much insulted by these proud town people. His greatest ambition was to invite me to his wedding, but, alas, I had to leave Likiang before it took place. But once, on my way to Shihku on the Yangtze River, I had to pass his village where there were no springs or streams and the only water they had was in the pools left after the rainy season. Wuchang received me in his poor dwelling as though I were a count and he a refugee feudal king who had to take a temporary shelter in this mean hut. Sometimes Wuchang’s neighbours came with him to visit me. Wuchang disapproved of some of them and always whispered to me warnings to have nothing to do with them. I did not pay much attention but soon had occasion to regret it. A few weeks afterwards one of these undesirable Boa came in the evening, after the market, together with two friends. They looked primitive indeed as they glanced at me sideways like trapped animals. They all said that they wanted to stay overnight and would leave early in the morning. So I dined and wined them and led them to the guest apartment in the other wing. I gave them no bedding as the Boa and some other tribes-people always preferred to sleep on the floor, using their cloaks as blankets. Early next morning my cook rushed up to me almost blind with rage.
‘Come and see! Come and see!’ he gasped.
I entered the guest apartment. Our guests had already gone. All the walls were urinated through and through and there were ‘visiting-cards’ all over the floor. I never again permitted any Boa from that village, except Wuchang, to stay at my house.
In addition to the Nakhi, Boa and Tibetans, the Likiang valley and mountainous regions around were a hodge-podge of many other tribes, including the Black and White Lolos, Black and White Lissu, Minkia, Attolays, Miao, Chungchia, Sifan, Chiang, the most interesting of which were the Black Lolos and Minkia, who played an important role in the life and economy of Likiang.
In my long travels and sojourn among the tribes of China and Tibetan borderland, Turkistan and Siberia, Indo-China and Thailand, and other areas of south-east Asia, I have come to the conclusion that all the existing tribal peoples belong to two strictly defined categories — the outgoing and the oncoming. By the first category, I mean those who seem to have outlived their life span on earth, and to have lost their vitality. They have exhausted their evolutionary urge and have no more will or desire to make progress in life. They are not interested in improving their lot or in learning, or in fact in anything that goes on outside their sheltered nooks in the mountains. Even the age of aeroplanes and motor-cars, of improved methods of cultivation and miracles of modern medicine leaves them cold. They have no urge to investigate these wonders nor do they relate them to themselves. They just want to be left alone, to eke out their own primitive existence. When hedged in by their aggressive neighbours they surrender their lands passively and just retreat quietly and shyly into deeper recesses of the protective mountains. They resist feebly and ineffectually the efforts of governments and missionaries to draw them into the vortex of civilized life. They will even don foreign clothes and meekly go to church services in the mission, but only in response to gifts, persuasion and pressure. Their heart is not in it. They are static and cannot be pushed or elevated in any manner; and when the civilizing process becomes too rapid or violent they just cannot stand it and they die. Their role on earth has ended and they are bound to disappear, and disappear they will, in a few decades probably, under the surging onslaught of more aggressive and civilized races bent on expansion into the remaining corners of the planet in their search for more space. Either they will quietly die out or gradually they will be obliterated by intermarriage with other, more virile races. It is to this category of the moribund tribes that I would assign the Miao, White Lissu, Chungchia, Boa and many others, scattered throughout Asia from Kamchatka to New Guinea. Their struggle with the world, if a struggle it has been at all, is over and their doom is near in spite of all the spoon-feeding by governments and kind-hearted missionaries.
Tribes of the second category may also appear, at first glance, static or dormant, but the illusion disappears after a careful observation and analysis. First of all it must be noted that even their physical characteristics are vastly different from those of weak tribes. As a rule they are tall, strong and handsome people. They are very energetic in their own sphere of activity: there is nothing cowardly or shy about them, for they are aggressive, ruthless and cunning, if not actually clever. They may be awed at first by the wonders of civilization, but quickly get accustomed and try to put them to their own use. They are not afraid to mix with or travel among the people of an advanced civilization and are always ready to learn two tricks to the one practised on them. They are not averse to modern education and schools. They are always prepared to accept the benefits of modern medicine, new methods of agriculture and new varieties of vegetables and domestic animals. They learn the ins and outs of present-day commerce and are interested in politics in so far as they concern their borders and immediate livelihood. They are brave and intelligent and make excellent soldiers. There is little doubt that such vigorous tribes are coming into their own in the world and that they will play an important role in future events in Asia. If some of them have appeared dormant in the past, it was due to the isolation imposed by the lack of communications, the tyrannic despotism of their unenlightened rulers and, perhaps, the results of venereal and other diseases. As education spreads and medical facilities improve, there will be an immediate and spectacular resurgence of these virile, fresh and handsome races on the world stage. The world may yet be enriched by their music and dancing, their luxuriant artistic talents and their invigorating and passionate approach to life. To these tribes of the future undoubtedly belong the Nakhi, Tibetans, Minkia, Black Lolos and Black Lissu. The latter are but a sub-tribe of the Black Lolos and should not be confused with the White Lissu or White Lolos.
The home of the Black Lolos is in the Taliangshan, which is a mountainous country five hundred miles long and roughly one hundred miles wide which separates the vast Chinese province of Szechuan from the newly created province of Sikang. The Black Lolo always means the Noble Lolo or, as they call themselves in Chinese, Hei Kuto (the Black Bone). Actually the word Lolo is derogatory and should never be used to their face. It is best to refer to them in conversation as Hei Yi (the Black Yi), for an unwary choice of the word may mean instant death. I prefer to call them the Noble Lolos because they were, as a whole tribe, the most noble-looking people I have seen in my life. They are very tall and are of regal bearing. Their complexion is in no wise black but, like certain mulattoes, of a chocolate and cream tint. Their eyes are large and liquid, with a fire always burning in them, and their features are aquiline and almost Roman. Their hair is black, slightly wavy and very soft; and its arrangement is a distinctive feature of all Lolos. It is gathered through a hole at the top of their dark blue or black turbans and hangs as a limp tail or, more often, springs up like a miniature palm-tree, supported by a sheath of black strings. The hair of the Lolo is sacred and no one is supposed to touch it under the pain of death. They believe that the Divine Spirit communicates with man through the exposed lock of his hair which, like upstanding antenna or the aerial of a wireless set, conveys the spiritual impulses, like waves to a receiver, to the brain.
The formal dress of a Black Lolo is a black jacket secured by a leather belt adorned with mother-of-pearl. The trousers are immense and are so joined together that the seat hangs almost to the ankles. Usually of silk of gay colours — scarlet, blue, poison green, yellow or violet — they are tied at the ankles with woven ribbons. When formally dressed, the man must also wear as an earring a piece of amber the shape and size of an apple with a cherry of coral hanging beneath. An ankle-long cloak, called tsarwa, woven of soft grey or black sheep wool, thrown over the shoulders, completes the picture. The women also wear the tsarwa over their dress. When I first encountered the Noble Lolo women my immediate impression was that I was in the presence of a group of Italian princesses and countesses of the Renaissance period. In their long flowing skirts, their jackets of lovely faded brocade, their black picture hats, their high silver collars and great mother-of-pearl earrings falling to the shoulders, they stood before me so tall, handsome and haughty, with their smouldering eyes and that slight smile playing on their aristocratic, chiselled faces, that my first impulse was to bow deeply and kiss their hands. It was only my training in how to behave among the Lolos, painstakingly given me by my sponsors before I was allowed to proceed on my trip through their dangerous country, that saved me from such a foolish action which would probably have ended in my death. A deep bow was enough.
The Noble Lolos have no king and they do not live in towns or villages. Each clan occupies a well-defined section of this vast land and each member family lives in its own castle, located usually on top of a hill, some distance from neighbours. The head of the clan, in accordance with its prestige and importance, has a title of prince, marquis or baron. The castle is nothing like the medieval castles of Europe. It is simply a wooden stockade, heavily buttressed with stones and earth, and it has a stout gate. It is located on a hill for defence, and guards are on the look-out day and night for the approach of an enemy. The buildings inside are singularly unimpressive and consist of a group of mean low huts of interlaced bamboo or branches with plank roofs. Inside everything is scrupulously clean; and even a small pin could easily be found on the meticulously swept earthen floor. The furnishings are equally austere — a square table, a few benches, a chest or two and a round stone hearth sunk into the floor, over which a kettle is usually boiling. There may be a large armchair in the main hut, with a tiger or leopard skin spread on it, and some shields and spears hanging on the wall behind. This is the throne of the ruling head. There are no bedsteads, for the Lolos sleep on bare floor around the fire, wrapped in their tsarwas. It is a truly Spartan existence.
The Noble Lolos in the Taliangshan lead a settled, pastoral life. But, to paraphrase the Gospel about the lilies of the field, the Lolos do not plough or sow or gather anything into their granaries with their own hands. In conformity with their Spartan life, their social organization is a replica of that of ancient Sparta. Both men and women are warriors to their finger-tips, and all the qualities and virtues which made Sparta such a distinctive nation of the ancient world are praised and practised by the Noble Lolos with equal fervour and strictness. So ferocious and ruthless are the Lolos in battle, so contemptuous of death or torture, so cunning in their strategy and terrifying in their lightning and stealthy attacks, that they are feared more than any other people in the whole of western China and down to the borders of Siam.
Since they are the aristocracy, the caste rules are enforced with utmost severity and important deviations are occasionally punished with death. No agricultural or menial work is permitted to the Noble Lolos — men or women; they may not even serve at table. Men practise the art of warfare from childhood. Womenfolk spin wool, weave tsarwas, sew garments, embroider and look after the household. All work is done by the “White Lolos, who are the slaves — the Helots of ancient Sparta. It is they who cultivate the fields and gather the grain, rear animals and do the household chores. It is also their duty to act as go-betweens between their masters and the Chinese merchants in matters of commerce which, although despised by them, is nevertheless necessary to the well-being of the master race. Horses, cattle, grain and skins of wild animals are sent to local markets by the Noble Lolos through their White Lolo intermediaries, with the perennial instructions to be always on the look-out for any guns or ammunition, for which they are insatiable customers.
The Black Lolos like nothing better than to have punitive expeditions sent against them by the Chinese. By treachery or ruse they lure detachments of soldiers into the forests or defiles where they kill them from ambush and take their arms. Since early times, the Chinese have frequently had to take up arms against the Lolos. No battle against them has ever been decisive, and they have never been really conquered or dispersed. The famous Chinese General Chukoliang, who, during the era of the Three Kingdoms, carried out many successful expeditions into the western regions of China, fought many battles with the Lolos. They impressed him with their unparalleled bravery and savagery and, as he confessed in his memoirs, his victories were abortive; at one time he even had serious doubts about the human status of the Lolos and thought them to be ferocious beasts in human form. It is related that to satisfy his doubts he had one of the captured Lolos cut open and found nothing but grass and roots in the stomach. Evidently this discovery persuaded him of the futility of further warfare against these strange people on whom no military punishment had any effect and who made treaties, only to break them when the troops had been withdrawn.
Although China has consistently claimed suzerainty over the whole region of the present Szechuan and Sikang provinces since the beginnings of the Chinese Empire, the Lolos have never recognized any authority but their own. Since only the fringes of their country have been visited either by Chinese officials or foreign explorers, nothing much is known about its topography or its population. On maps the Taliangshan country is a blank space marked ‘Independent Lolos’.
Even with the aid of modern weapons and aeroplanes the conquest of the Lolos would be extremely difficult and costly, if not altogether impossible. There are no towns or villages to shell or bomb. The isolated ‘castles’ represent not the slightest value either to the conqueror or to their inhabitants. They are purposely built that way — to be abandoned at a moment’s notice. The invaders would not know where to go or where to find the Lolos as there are no roads to indicate the way, whilst the Lolos themselves know every nook and cranny of their own mountain fastness. Their tactics, bravery and treachery would certainly force an invading army into providing them with a ready arsenal to replenish their needs in arms and ammunition. They are as elusive as the will-o’-the-wisp and are ready to inflict death in many ways other than by use of arms. They are past masters in the use of the much-feared Yellow Poison, and it is nothing to them to poison all streams and wells used by their enemies with this slow-acting concoction.
Even at the present time, it is reported, the Lolos still remain unconquered. The new Chinese regime has demanded the surrender of their arms and their submission to the new government. Instead, the Black Lolos have arranged the withdrawal of all their clansmen and their families who lived on the outer, exposed mountain slopes, to the main ranges of the Taliangshan. At a great conclave a king was elected to lead them, a drastic and almost unprecedented measure which is only resorted to in a very grave emergency, when the existence of the whole race is at stake.
The White Lolos are not related racially to the Black Lolos. Originally they were of Chinese and other tribal stock, captured and enslaved by the Lolos. The process of the enslavement of fresh victims has by no means stopped, and it is this gnawing dread of such a fate which keeps in constant suspense all the Chinese living on the fringe of the Lolo-inhabited mountains. When I arrived in Yuehsi, ancient Tang capital of what is now South Sikang and northern Yunnan, I at once noticed this tension. Even when walking in the streets of this small but heavily walled town, Chinese shopkeepers and others looked nervously over their shoulder at the few Lolos buying and selling on the market. No Chinese ever dare leave the protective walls after sunset or before sunrise.
Leaving the town at dawn with my little caravan of two horses and a Lolo soldier in attendance, I noticed a Chinese youth passing through the heavily guarded gate. He carried a long knife in each hand and was shouting hysterically, ‘Come! Come! I am not afraid! Come!’ I thought he was mad and asked the Chinese sentry what was the matter with him. The soldier explained to me that the boy was on his way to the next village and was demented with fear of the Lolos. The narrow valley, in which the ancient town lay, was hemmed in on both sides with mountains where the Lolos lived, and to protect itself the village had strongly fortified stone towers to which families retired for the night.
Although the White Lolos were the serfs and had to work for their masters as required, I did not notice any signs of cruelty in the way they were treated. There was not much difference in the standard of living between the masters and serfs, as the former did not live in any great luxury. There was no difference in their diet, and when the Black Lolos had a feast everybody in the household had his share of food and wine. The distinction was emphasized in the difference of caste, and their functions. The nobility fought and plundered, and protected the household. The serfs did the field and household work and were afforded protection. No Black Lolo might marry a White Lolo, and did so only under pain of death. Romances between the castes were strictly taboo, because the purity of the Black Bone had to be zealously guarded. Punishment for disloyalty, and even for a breach of discipline, was swift and just, irrespective of caste.
Many White Lolos, through their perseverance, application and successful trade with the Chinese, have become more or less emancipated and established themselves as a sort of an intermediate caste in the no-man’s-land between the commerce-hating and exclusive nobility and the profit-minded Chinese community. They managed to remain in good grace with the first and formed enduring friendships with the latter. These fortunate individuals could intermarry with the Chinese if they wished and maintain a household in a Chinese town whilst retaining a pied-a-terre in their lord’s castle. Some of them have grown rich and powerful and a number have reached high rank in provincial military forces. Of course they were always careful to insinuate that they were actually members of the noble families themselves.
A few Chinese in the Lolo-dominated valleys of Sikang and Yunnan took the trouble to cultivate the friendship of these White Lolos and, through them, gained entree into some noble households. But such instances were very rare and there was always an element of danger in going on such visits, which in any case had to be confined to those Black Lolos who did not live far from the main roads. A Chinese visitor daring to penetrate too far into the mountains always ran a risk of being intercepted and captured by those who were unfriendly to the family he was visiting. I had a Chinese friend in Sikang who was on friendly terms with the Black Lolos on the Yehsaping plateau, and introduced me to several families there. ‘For friendship have a Lolo; for business choose a Chinese,’ he was fond of saying and, as I found out later, he was entirely right.
In social intercourse the Noble Lolos insisted on great formality. No Black Lolo would speak to a stranger or, much less, receive him in his house without a formal letter of introduction: and without a proper letter of introduction a foreigner’s life was in considerable jeopardy, especially if he knew nothing about the strict Lolo etiquette. Even with an introduction, no Lolo would take much notice of a foreigner unless properly dressed and well mannered. Any superiority complex, any undue familiarity or a mistaken notion that no ceremony was needed in dealing with such ignorant and uneducated savages would speedily prove fatal. A visit to the Black Lolo was therefore a hazardous affair. They might appear to be savages to someone from London, Paris or New York, but in fact they were no more so than were the Three Musketeers or the Knights of the Round Table. They exactly represented the persons and milieu of that glorious but now forgotten period. Although that colourful age has long departed from Europe, it still survives intact, by a freak of time and space, in the remote and inaccessible Lolo land. The country, the people, the customs and the dress are a faithful replica of the Middle Ages with its castles, knights and ladies, robber barons, chivalry, gay dances, minstrels, knaves and serfs. As one would have had to behave if introduced into a castle of that era, so one must now behave when in this land of enchantment.
These Noble Lolos are not entirely uneducated. They have their own writing. It is hieroglyphic, but the characters are only half as complicated as the Chinese. They are in the form of circles, half-moons, swastikas and rhombs, and are written in the same sequence as European writing. Every Noble Lolo man or woman can write a letter and there are many books in manuscript form. Not many of these books have found their way into the outer world, for they are jealously guarded and seldom sold.
Secondly, they have a well-established code of chivalry and social intercourse. Men and women have complete equality in everything. Any girl may marry or have as many romances as she likes, provided it is within the caste. Elderly or important ladies are treated with utmost courtesy and respect, and take precedence over their husbands when receiving guests or sitting down to a feast. Bows are exchanged; the handshake is just tolerated, but not so the friendly back-slap or anything like it. Once a man has been properly introduced and behaves himself as he should, his person is sacred and the whole clan feels responsible for his welfare and safety. The hospitality shown to a guest is incredible. Nothing is too good for him to eat or to drink, and rich gifts are piled on him when he departs. The Noble Lolos’ generosity to their friends knows no bounds; but they are extremely modest in receiving gifts themselves, and it is impossible to persuade them to accept anything that is really valuable like a diamond ring or a gold wrist-watch. Such gifts are politely but firmly declined with an excuse that it is too valuable or of no use in their simple life. Utility articles, such as matches, silk thread, packets of needles, a jar of wine or a packet of medicine are accepted gratefully and with enthusiasm.
A great feast is as a rule given for a guest, with rich and tasty food, much wine, beautiful dancing, minstrel singing and exhibitions of fencing. Wine is drunk out of a big jar placed on the floor in the middle of the room, from which it is drawn by each person through a long bamboo tube. As the level in the jar sinks, additional supplies are poured in. Lolo singing is unusual and very beautiful; some of the men have voices of great range and power. Dancing and music are almost Western, the music reminiscent of Hungarian tunes and the dancing, in which I have never seen any women take part, is quite like czardas or Caucasian sword dances.
The Lolos’ achievements in the realm of vegetable gardening and animal breeding were always puzzling to me. One would think that these people, so primitive in many respects and isolated for centuries in their remote mountains, would exist almost entirely on the roots and plants found in their forests, and on the flesh of wild animals, shot or trapped by them. It was a surprise to me to find that they planted and ate white and blue potatoes which compared favourably in quality and size with those produced in Europe and America. These potatoes, when grown by Chinese in West China, were originally small and diseased, and it was only after they had borrowed Lolo potatoes that they were able to improve the size and quality of their own crops. Lolo cattle were magnificent. Their bulls and cows were big, well fed and glossy with a peculiar greenish-red sheen. Their ponies were much sought after by the Chinese. They were of medium size and extremely hardy, and especially well suited to riding in the mountains. Sleek, lively and phenomenally intelligent, they could do almost anything but speak, being extremely sensitive to their owner’s wishes.
I was presented with two ponies by my Lolo friend, Szema (Prince) Molin, before I started on my trip through the Taliangshan. One was a red and white stallion called Hwama (Flowery Horse), and the other was a small grey one which carried my two suitcases and bedding. I had been warned not to use a whip unless I had to, and not to rely too much on the reins, but preferably to talk to the horse all the time and to indicate direction by touching the sides of his neck. Indeed, the little Hwama himself knew quite well where to go, when to trot or even gallop, and was extremely careful when descending precipitous rocky slopes or fording roaring torrents. Whenever I spoke to him, he replied with a gentle neigh. So human was this little horse and such a good, faithful companion that I felt his loss as keenly as that of a great friend when I had to sell him to the Governor of Sikang before my departure for Chungking.
The Lolos sometimes arranged horse-fairs in the neighbouring Chinese towns or settlements, which were invariably attended by the highest Chinese officers and wealthiest merchants anxious to secure good Lolo ponies and mules. There was wild feasting during those fair days, when the Lolos showed off their skill by galloping standing on the horse, picking up objects on the ground and displaying other tricks so well known in Europe from performances by the equally dexterous Caucasian Cossacks. The prices which pure-bred Lolo ponies fetched were out of proportion to those normally paid for other horses or mules. And they were not easy to get, as the Lolos kept the best animals for their own use.
Another interesting animal which the Lolos bred was their hunting dog. It was a lean, middle-sized dog, usually black, of such cunning and intelligence as to be considered almost fabulous by the Chinese. At night these dogs became good watch-dogs and gave an instant alarm of a stranger’s approach. The Lolo chickens were, in their enormous size and weight, also a cause of envy, and it was the wish of every Chinese to be presented with a rooster by his Lolo friends.
The question of where the Lolos originally obtained the stock of such excellent animals and the seeds of superior potatoes even before the arrival of Europeans or missionaries, has not yet been answered.
The secret of the Noble Lolos’ superior physique lies in the good food they eat and the fine country they live in. Beef, pork, mutton, chicken and fish are no rarities in their daily menu and a variety of Irish stew is particularly good. All this is eaten with buckwheat pancakes and washed down with pink buckwheat sparkling wine called zhiwoo. The only sweets known to Lolo children are fresh honey and brown sugar.
Since they live above five or six thousand feet the climate is always moderate and the air is pure and invigorating. Most of their country can best be described as a vast park with century-old oaks and flower-covered meadows, purling brooks and small blue lakes; though sombre forests clothe the steep mountain slopes. There are no snow peaks in the Taliangshan range, but snow covers the ridge in winter. With the castles perched here and there on the mountains, the gallant knights trotting on their sleek chargers, stately ladies passing on horseback with a small band of retainers carrying bows and arrows, and young girls running behind; and with the oak-trees and the meadows and the trill of nightingales, one feels transported by magic into the France of early Middle Ages.
Such is the country of the princes of Black Bone — beautiful like the legendary Arcadia, but mysterious and very dangerous. And with my two ponies and the little Lolo soldier, Alamaz, whom Prince Molin had detailed to accompany me, in a mother-of-pearl studded leather jacket and enormous trousers and armed with a bow and arrows, I felt small and insignificant when meeting the brilliant cavalcades of the Noble Lolos. Alamaz, trembling with fright, always begged me not to speak, not to look and not to smile. But I am of a naturally cheerful disposition, and I always bowed to the passing knights, and they smiled back to me. Only once was I cornered in a dry river bed by a mounted man, who knew a few words of Chinese.
‘Money, money!’ he demanded.
I showed him the few Chinese bank-notes I was carrying.
‘That’s nothing!’ he snorted, and rode away.
On the last lap of my journey which, Alamaz warned me, was the most critical, we turned aside to let a magnificently clad elderly lady, on a sleek black mule, pass with her large retinue of warriors and maidens. I bowed and she stopped, and addressed me with a smile. Alamaz translated in his halting Chinese. ‘The lady is going to Luku too.’ (Luku was the market-town where the Taliangshan road terminated.) ‘She suggests that we join her party, and she guarantees protection.’ I bowed again, thanked her and we fell behind the cortege. Once or twice we rested and she offered me a drink of zhiwoo from the horn she was carrying in her saddlebag. Finally she saw me safely into an inn at Luku. One of her warriors later came to collect a fee for her protection, a demand which I had not expected; but as it was evidently the local custom, I paid a few dollars, which were gratefully accepted.
The Lolos were not entirely confined to the Taliangshan, which was their ancestral territory. But it was only there, as I found out later, that they led a settled existence and were, so to speak, at their best. They also inhabited the vast region between the Kienchang valley, which formed the western border of the Taliangshan Range, and the Kingdom of Muli. The Duchy of Tsoso and other districts around Yenyuan and down to Yuenpei were all Lolo country. They also lived in the Siaoliangshan (Lesser Liangshan) — a mountain range following the Yangtze River along the bank opposite the Likiang district. Many of them had spread along the mountain ranges which abutted on Siam, and the Lolos, who periodically make raids into Siam, are known there as Haw Haw.
Those of the Lolos who lived in the forests of the Likiang Snow Range were White Lolos, and those who stayed in the Siaoliangshan across the river were a mingling of the White and Black Lolos, with many Black Lissu scattered amongst them. As I found out after my arrival in Likiang, the Black Lolos of the Siaoliangshan were quite unlike those I had met in the Taliangshan. They were absolutely savage and ruthless and, as far as I am aware, no one going there, with or without an introduction, has ever been spared. They had no habitual settlements and were used to roaming from place to place, burning the forest just to plant a single crop of buckwheat or of poppies. I could not find out for certain whether the Black Lolos on the Taliangshan grew poppy, and I had not seen any; but it is an established fact that the Lolos elsewhere are the principal growers of this profitable crop.
Opium made from the poppies was sold through the agency of the White Lolos and certain trusted Chinese merchants who worked hand in glove with the Chinese military. This was a vast and fabulously profitable trade for all concerned, and the main revenue of the Yunnan and Sikang militarists came not from taxes or even gold diggings but from opium. The wars waged between the generals were for the control of sources of supply of opium or of opium traffic revenue. The political reasons concocted for such hostilities were excuses primarily intended for the Western diplomats at the capital. The strictly worded and marvellously expounded laws prohibiting opium smoking and trafficking were equally deceptive and the high officials who presided over the enforcement of these laws were often themselves the greatest smokers. A poor farmer, wishing to make a small fortune with four or five ounces of the illicit drug, might be caught and shot as an example, but a caravan or truck loaded with tons of opium and escorted by a heavy military guard always reached its destination in safety.
A Chinese trader, normally a rather timid and law-abiding creature, becomes an intrepid adventurer ready to sacrifice his life and risk the welfare of his family if he scents the possibility of getting a good parcel of opium at the original grower’s price. He will go anywhere, suffer cold and hunger, risk encounter with robbers and wild beasts to obtain the black gold. He may even go into the dens of some of the Black Lolos; but whether he returns is a matter of fate.
There was an interesting case in Likiang while I was there. Hearing of an accumulation of the drug among the Lolos of the Siaoliangshan, two Chinese and a Nakhi procured official blessing and left on an expedition with some local soldiers in sufficient strength to intimidate, as they thought, the savages and secure the loot. What actually happened, once they had crossed the Yangtze, no one really knows, but a week or so afterwards the corpses of the three merchants were found on the Likiang side of the river, and the corpses proved to be only their skins stuffed with straw and grass. Of the soldiers there was no trace.
The reasons for the exceptional ferocity, lack of faith and uncontrolled lawlessness of the Siaoliangshan Lolos were to be found in the loss of caste and home, after their expulsion from the Taliangshan. As I have explained, the Noble Lolos’ sole occupation is that of being warriors. Probably to keep themselves in practice and to avoid going soft, they engage in warfare among themselves on any slight pretext. When one clan defeats another, they may make peace if the matter has not been very serious, but if the offence has been grievous and contrary to the general custom of the Lolos, all other clans may join together to punish the wrongdoers. When defeated they are usually driven out of the Taliangshan paradise, to become declasse, mere outlaws, without caste, without friends and homeless. They usually flee either to the Siaoliangshan or to other wild ranges of mountains, where they undergo a psychological change, losing all their codes of chivalry, mutual trust, loyalty and fair dealing even towards members of their own clan, not to speak of outsiders. Like beasts of prey, boiling with rage and humiliation, they rove and rave through the mountains, plundering, killing and torturing their victims to their heart’s content. An outsider’s visit to such a clan of outlawed Lolos is not possible, for they do not care for any laissez-passer or letters of introduction, and the only transactions, if any, that can be done with them, must be done through their White Lolo slaves or associates. A visit therefore to the Siaoliangshan, though comparatively near Likiang, was out of the question for me.
A number of the White Lolos from the Snow Range, and possibly from the Siaoliangshan, used to come to my clinic. They had a standing agreement with the Mu King to patrol the forest lands around the Snow Range infested with Szechuanese squatters, who were always suspected of robberies and murders. I do not know how useful the White Lolos were on these patrols, but they were certainly very destructive to the forests, burning them right and left without rhyme or reason. They always complained that they were very poor, and in appearance they were more filthy and grimy than other primitive tribes. Some of them pretended to me that they were Black Lolos, but their height alone and the wizened Mongolian faces precluded any possibility of so noble an origin. However, my medications and the white wine which was provided on their infrequent visits evidently made a deep impression on them and filled them with gratitude and friendliness. They enjoyed seeing me sometimes in the forests of the Snow Range on my way to the co-operatives or on occasional picnics, and sometimes they brought an egg or two or a small pot of buckwheat honey.
It was clearly the knowledge of my cures among these people that led to a rather delicate incident. Without any previous notice or warning, a real Siaoliangshan Black Lolo walked into my apartment one afternoon, accompanied by a couple of retainers. Even before he spoke, I recognized the aquiline features, flashing eyes and the upstanding lock of hair. He was very tall and had a sword and a dagger at his belt, and was dressed all in black. He said he was from across the river (I knew only too well what place he meant), that he was ill and wanted medicine. He would pay me, he added. I examined him and diagnosed a touch of malaria. I asked him where he was staying. He said that he had come to Likiang under a guarantee by Captain Yang, commissioner of the local militia, and that he had his baggage with him.
I served wine and we drank and talked. It was soon dinnertime, and as he made no move to go, I invited him and his retainers to share my own meal. After dinner I gave him a good dose of quinine and told him to rest until the next dose. He looked over my apartment with interest, and then announced that he would stay at my apartment over-night as he wanted me to check personally on the action of the medicine. This caused me some anxiety as I feared the consequences if he became dissatisfied with the efficacy of my medicine. On the other hand, I was well aware of the sense of insult which would be caused by refusing hospitality to a Black Lolo. A bed was prepared for him, with clean pillows and linen, and placed in the same room as mine. He undressed completely, put on the belt with the dagger around his naked waist and placed his sword under the pillow, with which he could quickly express any sense of dissatisfaction of the medicine. However, all went well, and he left early the next morning with profuse thanks, saying that he felt much better. I supplied him with some more quinine to take at home, and had to refuse the offer of a silver sycee. He was the last Noble Lolo I saw.
The Minkia people called themselves Pertse or Pervountse and the Nakhi called them Laebbou. They intermingled with the Nakhi both in the town and in the southern and eastern parts of the plain. They had their own villages or lived together near one another in Nakhi villages. Like the Nakhi and Tibetans, they were also a gay people, but voluble in the extreme and rather irresponsible. In facial appearance it was difficult to distinguish them from the Chinese. Men wore the same clothes as the Chinese, but women wore their own picturesque dress. Their Maung Khmer language sounded like Chinese but was sweeter when sung, and sing they did from early morning till late at night, whether working or not. They were very romantic and indulged in flirtations at all times. It was nothing serious — just a joke, a wink or a burst of song. The girls usually took the initiative in teasing or wooing their coy and sheepish men. Born coquettes, they always managed to create a situation where a man had to speak to them whether he wanted to or not. Purposely pushing a man with her basket, a girl would reproach him for being awkward, another would scream that he had stepped on her toe or tried to upset the bottle of wine she was carrying. There would be some repartee and finally the whole group would sit down, have a drink and sing.
The main trouble with the Minkia was that they were all very mean and much more calculating than either the Nakhi or Tibetans. Both men and women worked, but the women worked the harder. Whilst the Nakhi women also worked hard, they did it in a truly capitalistic spirit, expecting a good profit from every transaction or unusual exertion. They never carried anything too heavy for them and what they carried was for their own commerce. Their Minkia sisters did not possess such brilliant business ability, they were real transport animals carrying goods or objects from one town to another for a small fee. They developed an even stronger physique than the Nakhi women (which is saying much) as they always tried to carry heavier and heavier loads, which were paid for according to weight. They became champion carriers, some of them carrying anything up to 140 lb. It was nothing for a Minkia woman to carry a heavy cabin trunk from Hsiakwan to Likiang, and they would carry their disabled husbands or sick parents on their back thirty or forty miles to the nearest hospital.
But the greatest renown of the Minkia did not lie in the ability of their women to carry their husbands or of their men to run the caravan traffic to the Burma Road. It was their uncanny skill in masonry and carpentry that made the whole tribe famous throughout the Yunnan Province and far beyond the borders. They built speedily and well anything from a humble village house to a palace or a great temple. The precision and excellence of their work would be a credit to any Western architect. Steeped in the tradition of centuries, passed by example and word of mouth from father to son, every Minkia was a born artist. Every house, wayside shrine or bridge, though conforming to a set style, yet was an individual work of art. But it was in carving stone and wood that the artistic genius of the Minkia race found its finest expression. Even the meanest house must have its doors and windows beautifully carved and its patio adorned with exquisite stone figures and vases arranged with striking effect. The subjects of the carvings were always mythological, and perhaps their symbolism had already been forgotten, but their felicitous meaning was always plain. The process of stone and wood carving was laborious, but the execution was perfect, no detail being left unfinished. In Likiang only really poor Nakhi built their houses themselves.
It was the Minkia who were invited to build and decorate the houses of the rich in Kunming and other important cities. The beautifully carved and gilded tea-tables of the Dalai Lama’s household and his famous carved and painted stables, I was told, were executed by specially imported Minkia artisans. The King of Muli and other lama potentates always placed orders with the Minkia for tea-tables and other carved objects according to their own specifications.
If it is true that the Minkia had migrated into Yunnan from Angkor Thorn, this seemingly inborn propensity to artistic work in stone and wood is strong supporting evidence of the migration. Their facial features too, when they are pure-blooded Minkia, bear strong resemblance to the carvings on Angkor Wat. Their language is Maung Khmer and, although strongly adulterated with Chinese words and expressions, is nevertheless a distinct one. The name of the city Tali is not Chinese, but a perversion of the Khmer word Tongle, which means Lake. Tali is situated by a large lake.
Of all the tribes of Yunnan the Minkia are the closest to the Chinese, having adopted the Celestial Civilization almost in its entirety. They have no writing of their own and Chinese is used in all written communications and records. The intermarriage with the Chinese is extensive and unhindered either by tradition or jealousy. As a matter of fact, it is rather difficult to trace or identify a Minkia of really pure blood. It is only against the background of the morose, supine and rather unfriendly Yunnan Chinese that the Minkia become easily distinguishable by their inborn gaiety and levity. Not that Minkia women are judged as dissolute by their Chinese sisters, but no Chinese woman would dare to be so easy-going and friendly with men. Certainly few, if any, Chinese women would exchange double-edged jokes with a group of men or take part in drinking bouts.
My friendships with the Minkia were extensive and agreeable, but, looking back, I now realize that at no time were they so genuine or selfless as with the Nakhi. There were always strings attached to their gifts, and invitations to visit their ‘homes were very infrequent; they usually preferred to enjoy my hospitality. There is no doubt in my mind that they were a calculating and purse-tight people. The quality of their hospitality, with a few exceptions, left much to be desired; once or twice I was stupid enough to accept Minkia invitations, only to find the doors of their village padlocked on arrival. Afterwards I never went out to Minkia homes unless accompanied there by the host himself or his deputy.
However, I often went in the evening to visit groups of the Minkia carpenters whom I knew. They were always working till nightfall on some new houses due to the building boom in Likiang, and would be eating their supper when I arrived. As a rule they sat in a circle on a half-completed first floor and I was always very careful when climbing up their makeshift ladders. To them such hazards appeared non-existent. Their women always came to visit them, bringing some homemade delicacies such as pickled cabbage or turnip, and would stay in town for a day or two until replaced by other relations. Of course these visits to husbands, brothers or lovers were not the primary object in travelling to Likiang. They either had been hired to bring some loads up or had come with their own merchandise to sell. And it was so much nicer and less expensive to spend the night with their own folk, as a kettle bubbled on the hastily constructed hearth and sparks from the fire flew up into the uncompleted roof. There were straw mats or wooden stumps to sit on while a jar of white wine was passed around and a big pot of beancurd and cabbage soup, perhaps a tiny fish, plenty of chillies and red rice. Afterwards people relaxed on the mats; more wine went around, mandolins were produced and sweet nostalgic songs were sung late into the night. I loved these plaintive rhythmic songs.
The most frequent Minkia visitors to my house were Akounya’s father, her two brothers and their friends. They felt quite at home and after dinner always came up to my room to have more drinks and to listen to my gramophone. They liked opera records best, and of these they preferred La Traviata above all others, and pretended that it contained a number of Minkia words. They asked me to tell them what La Traviata was about. To have explained it to them literally would have been easy, but they would have lost much of the meaning of the libretto. At last I had a bright idea and, as the opera progressed, told them the following story:
‘A beautiful Minkia girl from your village went one day with her friends to the crowded Chiuho market. There she met a handsome Minkia boy from Chienchwang who also came to the market together with his companions. He persuaded her to accompany him to Chienchwang where a marriage would be arranged. She went. There was much rejoicing on her arrival. But her parents-in-law were cruel to her. She was disappointed and decided to flee back to her village. Her aria betrays her sadness at the inevitability of the parting. The man sings about the loss of his beautiful bride and of the purchase money he paid for her.’
My friends were delighted with this interpretation and said they could now themselves feel the emotions expressed by the singers. The music, they said, was clearly Minkia music. Crowds of Minkia came afterwards to hear the records. The only thing, they said, that they could not understand, was how foreigners could compose so true an opera about Minkia life.
I said that many years ago an Italian explorer, who also was a composer, travelled through these parts and wrote the libretto and the music. I pray that the spirit of Verdi will forgive me for the liberties I took with his opera for the sake of the pleasure and joy that it gave to these simple people.