In 1992, Porter left his home in Hong Kong to tour the small towns and major cities of Yun-nan, studying each of their local cultures and larger impacts on the trajectory of Chinese history. Here, he shares his encyclopedic knowledge of the nation’s beautiful legacy while introducing new insight about the province’s landscapes, people, and recent state of affairs. He visited Bulang Mountain, where the local people had no written language of their own, so they sent their children to live as monks in nearby Tai temples to learn Tai script. He saw women in Lijiang who wore traditional sheepskin jackets that bore seven frogeyes without clear explanation. In Dali, a small town turned urban center, he recalls a massive museum built to show off the city’s new wealth, only to have half of its halls left empty and unvisited.
The first of a series of three China travel memoirs to be published by Counterpoint, Bill Porter’s book tells the incredible story of a spread of land with a thousand years of human history. His remarkable insight and unparalleled understanding of China place this book at the forefront of East Asian travel literature.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It was my introduction to karma: applying to Columbia University to study for a PhD in anthropology in 1970 and checking all the boxes in the application for financial aid, including a box for a language fellowship, and writing in the word "Chinese" because I had just read Alan Watt's The Way of Zen and thought it made wonderful sense, and it had Chinese characters in it. Who would have guessed? And so I ended up collecting a small library of books about the Middle Kingdom. Among my favorites was a historical atlas put together by Chang Ch'iyun. Chang was one of China's most famous geographers. He was also the first Chinese to receive an advanced degree from Harvard, and at one time he served as the Republic of China's minister of education. When the Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949, he joined them. To keep himself busy in his new home, he founded the College of Chinese Culture, where I once spent a semester in academic confinement. It was there, during his annual tea for graduate students, that he introduced me to his atlas and the set of books he wrote spanning fifty centuries of Chinese civilization.
Chang's approach to historical writing was to place events and people in a spatial as well as in a temporal context. It wasn't simply an intellectual conceit. At one time or another, he traveled to every corner of the Chinese empire to provide himself with a better understanding of the stage on which the drama of his country's history took place. Nowadays, historians are lucky if they see the trees outside the library window.
In the spring of 1992, I got out Chang's atlas once more, and I noticed that the last area of traditional China to come under Chinese control was the Southwest, the land the Chinese dubbed Yunnan, or South of the Clouds. Ironically, it was the Mongols, not the Chinese, who finally brought that area into the Chinese orbit and opened it up to outsiders as well — outsiders like Marco Polo. As I looked at Chang's map, it didn't take long for the thought to occur to join Marco Polo. And it didn't take long for the thought to become a plan.
The first step was easy. I was living in Hong Kong at the time and bought a ticket on the Lichiang. The Lichiang left Kowloon every other day from the China Ferry Terminal on Canton Road. She was a twenty-meter-long hovercraft with a seating arrangement like that of an Airbus. I boarded her at seven thirty, and she left right on time at eight o'clock, just as the sun was rising from the godowns at the east end of Hong Kong Harbor.
We headed west — a familiar route. But this time I wasn't headed for Macao and a weekend of gambling at one of Stanley Ho's casinos. Halfway to the former Portuguese colony, the Lichiang turned north and entered the labyrinth of waterways that made up the Pearl River Delta.
The boat's windows had been clouded by years of exposure to the sea and the sun and were too dull to see anything. But there was room for a few passengers to sit outside on the stern, and I joined them, watching the boat's endless spray as it hung in the morning air. Along the shoreline of banana trees, palms, and sugar cane, village women stopped washing their clothes just long enough to note our passing. Sampans turned their prows toward our wake to keep from being swamped.
An hour later we turned into the West River and began churning upstream to Wuchou, four hundred kilometers and ten hours away. At forty kilometers an hour, the Lichiang was fast, considering she was carrying 120 passengers. It was a Hong Kong group. As soon as the island's skyscrapers were out of sight, the mahjong sets appeared, and TV screens began chronicling the latest Cantonese romances and bankruptcies. After I tired of watching the boat's wake, I came back inside and stretched out on a row of empty seats at the back of the cabin. I was just beginning what I expected would be a six-week journey, and I was already feeling tired. I slept all day. The last rays of the setting sun woke me just as we reached our destination.
As far as Chinese towns go, Wuchou wasn't old. It was first built 1,400 years ago, back in the T'ang dynasty, when the Chinese decided they needed a more permanent presence in order to control the trade goods that poured forth from that region — and not only trade goods but people too. While I was standing in line after disembarking, I met the local representative of China Travel. He was waiting for his tour group to clear immigration. I asked him if there was a monument to Emperor Shun in Wuchou. It was as if I had asked him the whereabouts of the moons of Jupiter. He had no idea what I was talking about.
Admittedly, Emperor Shun lived a long time ago, a couple hundred years after the Yellow Emperor. Around 2200 BCShun led an army into the Southwest to establish Chinese control of trade routes between China and Southeast Asia. During a battle with the tribes in the Wuchou area, Shun was killed, and his body was buried on Chiuyi Mountain — halfway between Wuchou and Hengyang to the north. Hengyang was where Shun had left his two wives. When they heard the news, they both jumped into the Hsiang River and were transformed into its twin spirits. But that was in Hengyang, and I was in Wuchou, where the only talk was talk about trade — trade and tourism.
I wasn't surprised. Wuchou was, after all, the gateway to China's southwestern provinces of Kuanghsi, Kueichou, and Yunnan, and the entrepôt through which all river-borne trade between Southwest China and Kuangchou had to pass. Although Emperor Shun's attempt to gain control of that gateway had been unsuccessful, his descendents eventually succeeded in establishing a town there during the T'ang dynasty, long before Marco Polo's time. The town thrived on trade, and in 1897, as a result of the Burma Convention, Wuchou became one of China's treaty ports and was opened to foreign traders, who came to buy indigo and furs. The town was also the main conduit through which the medicinal herbs and rare animals of Southwest China passed on their way to Kuangchou, Hong Kong, and the rest of the world.
Heading the list of creatures on which the town's trade thrived were snakes. There was an area at the north edge of town where hundreds of thousand of snakes were kept prior to heading down the West River to the kitchens and pharmacies of Kuangchou. But I arrived too late in the day. Even if I had arrived earlier, there wouldn't have been much to see. I was there at the end of February, and snake season was several months away. Still, I wasn't disappointed. Walking down the street north of the riverside hotel where I spent the night, I passed dozens of restaurants with cages full of vipers.
In addition to snake traders, Wuchou also attracted dealers in the more exotic and endangered species of Southwest China. In one restaurant, an eagle paced hunchbacked in a tiny, ridiculous cage. In another cage, a pangolin lay curled into a ball, dreaming its last pangolin dreams and hoping no one would notice it. But someone had. A table of visitors from Kuangchou were discussing its fate with the chef.
While I dined elsewhere on a less exotic plate of fried rice, I considered the route I had outlined for my journey. I planned to travel through the northern tip of Kuanghsi, then west through the provinces of Kueichou and Yunnan. Along the way, I hoped to visit some of the tribes that still clung to their traditional ways of life. At least that was the plan. Twenty years earlier, I had been a student of anthropology, and I was now looking forward to meeting some of the people I had only read about.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of foghorns, as the barges and boats moored below my hotel window began casting off and heading out into the West River. The West River was formed by the confluence of two rivers: the Hsun, which led further west to Kuanghsi's new provincial capital of Nanning, and the Lichiang (or Kueichiang), which led north to the province's old capital of Kueilin. Summer rains lifted the level of both rivers by as much as twenty meters, and summer was the only time of the year that Kueilin could be reached by boat. Since I arrived in late February, I had no choice but to take the daily bus, which left every morning at seven o'clock.
Reluctantly, I climbed aboard. I was still feeling the effects of my ten-hour boat ride and braced myself for the ten-hour bus ride. The road was a narrow two-lane highway, and I expected the worst. But it turned out to be one of the pleasantest ten-hour rides I had ever experienced in China. For the first few hours, the road was lined with eucalyptus and acacia forests and the occasional hillside of cedar or pine. It was also a quiet bus, a bus full of nodding heads. It wasn't until after six hours into the trip that a few of those heads joined me in gawking at what was one of China's most painted and photographed landscapes. Westerners who looked at traditional Chinese paintings usually thought the mountains they portrayed were products of the artist's imagination. Yet there they were: hundreds of baby mountains, mountains that never made it out of childhood. Unlike in the paintings, however, they were naked, picked clean of anything resembling a tree by villagers in search of firewood. Large Chinese characters in white paint covered the rocks at their base, proclaiming them closed for reforestation. Better late than never.
Finally, nine hours after boarding the bus that left Wuchou at daybreak, I got off an hour short of Kueilin in the town of Yangshuo. Since there were still a few hours of daylight left, and since I felt like seeing some of the scenery close-up, I dropped my bag at an old, crumbling place called the Hsilangshan Hotel, rented a bicycle, and pedaled out of town and into the countryside. Eight kilometers and thirty minutes later, I parked my bicycle at the foot of Moon Hill. I was just in time for the sunset.
From the base of the hill, it was a ten-minute hike to the natural arch just below the summit. The arch made the hill look like it had a hole through it in the shape of the moon, hence the name. I walked through the moon, and from the other side I enjoyed one of Yangshuo's most celebrated views: a landscape of tiny mountains in a sea of rivers and rice paddies set off by the last rays of the sun. Two local women were selling souvenirs and soft drinks. After washing away the dust of the trail with an orange soda, I looked through the souvenirs and spotted a copy of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. It had been issued after the Communist Party's Ninth Plenary in 1969, and in the back was a list of the participants. What caught my attention was that the book's owner had crossed off the names of those who had later been purged. I paid 10RMB for a testament to Lin Piao's last days of glory, and after returning to my bicycle imagined myself pedaling for the Russian border.CHAPTER 2
Yangshuo wasn't much of a town. It was dwarfed by Kueilin, its more famous cousin an hour to the north. Like Kueilin, it was in the middle of the region of limestone hills that filled every Chinese tourist brochure. After Beijing's Forbidden City and Great Wall and Sian's Underground Army, the karst landscape of Kueilin was the most popular destination among foreign tourists in China. Kueilin, though, was not what it once had been. It was bombed to smithereens by the Japanese during World War II, and was later rebuilt in Great Leap Forward gray cement and white tile. It now featured the standard overpriced tourist facilities and services that catered to large tour groups, which were okay if you didn't mind being treated like a sheep.
Yangshuo, meanwhile, still possessed the charm that Kueilin had lost several decades earlier — assuming it had possessed any charm in the first place. Still, one couldn't expect to be alone in Yangshuo. During the peak season between April and September, tourists and travelers out-number locals. But that, too, was one of Yangshuo's charms. There were four places in Southwest China where travelers were likely to stay longer than they planned. In that respect, Yangshuo was joined by Hsishuangbanna, Dali, and Lichiang, all of which were in Yunnan, and all of which were on my itinerary, assuming I could get past Kueilin. Another advantage of a stay in Yangshuo was that I didn't have to pay much more than I would for a bowl of noodles for a banana pancake and a cappuccino, both on the menu the next morning at a place called Mickey Mao's.
With such a delightful beginning to my day, I wondered what would be next. There was a lot to see. I began a few blocks away at the river that flowed past Yangshuo. It was the Lichiang. A cruise along its glassy water was the most popular river cruise in China, more popular even than a cruise through the Yangtze Gorges. The reason for its popularity was the landscape. Between Kueilin and Yangshuo the Lichiang wound past hundreds of tree-covered limestone hills (unlike the denuded ones to the south). If the river was high enough, which it was during the summer, visitors boarded tour boats in Kueilin, cruised downriver to Yangshuo, then returned to Kueilin by bus. But the charge for the six-hour trip was steep. It was 30 bucks during my visit in the spring of 1992, which was one more reason to stay in Yangshuo instead of Kueilin.
From Yangshuo, there was a boat that left every morning heading upriver, and it cost a mere 6 dollars. It only went halfway, but for most people halfway was enough. I decided to avoid the cruise business altogether and to strike out on my own. Anytime I traveled without a crowd, it was more of an adventure. And when I got home, it was the adventures I remembered.
Once again I rented a bicycle at my hotel and pedaled back to Yangshuo's riverside park. For less than 3 dollars, I hired a flat-bottomed boat to take me downriver to the village of Fuli, from which I could then pedal back to Yangshuo through the countryside. It took about an hour to make the six-kilometer journey downriver. The river was as smooth as glass. And on the way, I saw the same sort of limestone crags people saw in their big tour boats upriver. But I was alone, or nearly alone. I shared the river with the occasional fisherman steering his long, narrow bamboo raft through eelgrass in search of deeper water where his cormorants could dive for fish.
The man poling me downriver said the fishermen also fished on the river at night by torchlight. He said they raised their cormorants as chicks and taught them to chase live fish with a string tied around their leg to prevent them from escaping. When they were big and docile enough, they joined a half dozen other cormorants on the gunwale of the fisherman's boat and took turns diving for fish at the fisherman's command. But there was now a string around the bird's neck to prevent it from swallowing its prey. According to my boatman, after about five years of this, the birds became increasingly unwilling to dive for fish they weren't allowed to eat — as if it took them five years to figure this out — and they ended up as cormorant stew.
On the way downriver, I spotted a lone kingfisher perched on a snag along the shore. There was no string around its neck, and I couldn't help but wonder whether I was a cormorant or a kingfisher.CHAPTER 3
After pedaling back to Yangshuo, I returned the bicycle, checked out of my hotel, and caught the next bus heading north. I would have preferred to avoid the tourist trap of Kueilin altogether, but I couldn't avoid its bus station. I arrived just after twelve and bought a ticket on the afternoon bus to the mountain town of Lungsheng, where I hoped to visit some of the hill tribes in the province. Since I had a few hours to kill, I thought I might as well see a few of the sights. Just outside the bus station, I caught a local bus and got off where a limestone hill shaped like an elephant was extending its trunk into the Lichiang River.
The story went like this: a long time ago, a herd of elephants wandered into the Kueilin area to eat the bananas that grew there. When the villagers saw the elephants, they thought about how much less work they would have to do if they could tame the beasts. After several fatal attempts, they finally succeeded. When the emperor of China heard about this, he ordered the villagers to bring the elephants to the capital so that he could use them in his army.
When the villagers refused, the emperor wasn't pleased, and he led his army to Kueilin and killed all the people he could find. In celebration of his victory, the emperor mounted the biggest of the elephants. But as soon as he climbed on top, the elephant tried to throw him off. In desperation, the emperor sank his sword into the elephant's back. But this only made the elephant madder, and it threw the emperor to the ground and trampled him to death. When the emperor was sufficiently flat, the king of the jungle walked down to the river to quench its thirst, and it has been there drinking the Lichiang's water ever since. The emperor's sword was still sticking out of its back, although the weapon had since turned into a pagoda.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "South of the Clouds"
Copyright © 2015 Bill Porter.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
4. The Chuang,
5. The Yao,
6. The Tung,
8. The Miao,
11. The Puyi,
12. Shuttlecock Cave,
13. Tsaohai Lake,
15. Stone Forest,
16. Cheng Ho,
19. The Chinuo,
22. The Pulang,
23. The Yi,
24. Chickenfoot Mountain,
28. Final Leg,