The Mile-High Club

We are off to Lijiang, home of the Naxi people, regarded in China as the cherries on the cake of nutcases, a quasi-Tibetan tribe famous for believing that they are descended from the survivors of the war with the snake people from space. Their God of Pestilence is depicted holding a steaming, fresh turd in his hand, and their shamans like to dip their hands in oil and set light to them so they can run around indoors throwing fire at people. They have the world’s only living pictographic language that causes all their sacred texts (and they have 20,000 sacred texts) to read like comic books, and their panoply of ceremonial artefacts includes “sacrificial puppets”. Their God of Banging is called Dsu, and the Ho-bpo ceremony involves praise to the Lord of Spunk. 150 years ago, they were still cannibals, although supposedly they have stopped doing it now. I am not making this up.

I try to interest the crew in my study of Naxi pictograms, but they display little interest in the symbols for “wizard” and “vaginal discharge.”

I am having trouble catching my breath today. It is after lunchtime before the director reveals that we are more than a mile above sea level, in the foothills of the Himalayas. So it is not my imagination; the air is thinner. Lijiang is nestled inside a curve of the “Golden Sands” river – it is 25 miles to the east, and also 25 miles to the west, and eventually it changes its name to the Yangtze. But here we are high, high up. Shangri-la, or rather, the town that purports to be Shangri-la, is only a few miles north of here. Peter Goullart, who was the local consul here in the 1940s, wrote in his autobiographical Forgotten Kingdom that matters get worse another mile up, where the thinner air makes it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, leaving all the Tibetans and related tribespeople permanently irritable.

The history of Lijiang is difficult to reconstruct, but a few historians have read between the lines of the Dongba recitations and the chronicles of the locals, and come up with the following. The Naxi themselves were once nomads on the desolate northern plains – this we can deduce from references in their most ancient funeral rituals to yurts and herds. This area was not even considered part of China until the Mongols conquered it. When Khubilai Khan’s troops arrived, a family of Naxi chieftains in Lijiang swiftly saw which way the wind was blowing, and willingly collaborated. They were instrumental in the Mongol conquest of the area, and maintained a constant war footing thereafter. Long after the Mongols packed up and went home, the Mu clan were sending raiding parties into the mountains and valleys, demanding tribute from the locals and proclaiming themselves as the rulers of everywhere from here to Tibet.

The Chinese hated Yunnan. The air was too rarefied, and the locals too odd, and they very happily left the Mu clan to it. The Mu chieftains, soon rebranded as princes, were sure to send some appropriate gifts to the coronation of each new emperor, and were thanked in turn by the conferral of official titles. When the Mongols retreated before the resurgent Ming dynasty, the Mu chieftains clung onto their power, for the same reason, which was that the Chinese really couldn’t stand the idea of such a desolate place, and were happy to leave the locals to it.

The Mu did not die; they faded away. In the 18th century, the Chinese reverted the Mu’s status as hereditary leaders, and instead incorporated them into the magistrate system of appointed governors. A few generations later in 1729, when the time came to appoint the next representative, Beijing surprised everybody by not appointing a Mu man at all. The princes had been dethroned, although apparently overnight, their demise had been coming for decades. Early in the 20th century, the consul Peter Goullart reported a banquet in Lijiang where the head of the Mu family was not even afforded a place at the high table. Instead, this shrunken, opium-addled old man was left to eat with the B-list. Now there is little to remind us of the Mu, apart from the stone bridge in Lijiang old town that was supposedly built at their behest, and a couple of mansions and monasteries endowed with what had once been their wealth.

Every conquest of territory downhill pushes other people further into the heights. The Kam once lived in the lowlands, but were shunted into the hills by the Mu conquest – the word for Kam in Chinese is Dong, and originally meant Good for Nothing, or perhaps The Hidden – the former definition has been deviously removed from modern dictionaries. Their famous songs sidle shame-facedly around the fact that they cannot read – a fact which we regularly encountered when filming there, when some of our interviewees were unable to write their own names on their release forms.

But as the Naxi pushed the Kam, the Kam pushed the Miao, who were driven even further into the heights, often living without fire or fresh water. But if the Miao were shunted, they also displaced someone. At the scrag end of history are the Yi, a people who even today have a fearsome reputation.

And then there are the amazonian Hlihin, reported in the diaries of Peter Goullart from the 1940s, when their brash, tough womenfolk would swagger into town with a couple of their husbands meekly in tow, on the search for new bridegrooms. Goullart treated several of them in his clinic, and reported that they were invariably suffering from advanced syphilis. We’re not going to visit them, either – in fact, I have seen no mention of the Hlihin in modern accounts, and wonder if they even exist anymore.

When the Red Army came through Lijiang on the Long March, the locals asked them who the emperor was these days. They had literally had no news from the outside world for fifty years.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E05 (2017).

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