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Book Review: Forgotten Kingdom

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Heilongtan, aka Black Dragon Pool
Heilongtan, aka Black Dragon Pool

One of China's best-known stories is that of "Peach Blossom Grove", a tale in which a man gets lost and stumbles upon an idyllic town in which the people living there are wont for nothing and enjoy life in a truly egalitarian society. The man leaves, vowing to bring others back, but is unable to find his way back to the place that so captured his heart.

It would seem that Russian-born Peter Goullart found his own peach blossom grove in the town Lijiang. But rather than leave it, he stayed on for years. Luckily for later generations, he penned Forgotten Kingdom – Among the Nakhis of Likiang, an account of his experiences living and working in Lijiang in the 1930s and 40s.

Forgotten Kingdom is an unparalleled look at the turbulent times experienced by Lijiang and northwest Yunnan in the first half of the 20th century. It is not only recommended for readers interested in Lijiang and the Naxi people, but also anyone who is curious about the recent dynamics that have influenced Yunnan's northwest until today.

It would be fair to say that as far as northwest Yunnan is concerned, this is the ultimate "I was there before it was ruined" book.

Goullart seems to have been quite the linguist, speaking fluent Russian, French, English, Mandarin Chinese and Naxi, in addition to smatterings of Shanghainese and Tibetan. After growing up in Moscow and Paris, Goullart fled the Bolshevik Revolution and arrived in Shanghai in 1924, where he learned Chinese and worked as a tour guide for American Express, which was then primarily a travel company. He eventually became bored with city life and retreated to a Daoist temple in Hangzhou, where he studied Daoism under a monk who became a close friend.

After the outbreak of open hostilities between Japan and China in the 1930s, Goullart followed the Dao westward to Chongqing and Sichuan before – through a complex chain of events – being named by the Guomindang finance minister HH Kung as the chief of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives in Lijiang.

For the Daoist Goullart, this was the ultimate posting. He had visited Lijiang before and had long desired to live there. Now he was charged with bringing industry to the region in the form of rural cooperatives involved in work such as wool-spinning, butter making and other endeavors suited to the area.

Goullart on horseback in Lijiang
Goullart on horseback in Lijiang

Lijiang was nothing short of paradise for Goullart. It had mountains and incredible biodiversity. It was a linguistic Babel. It had perfected irrigation and was home to a remarkably harmonious society of well-off people that were generally happy. In many ways it seemed to be a real-life version of the ideal society of "Shangri-La" described in James Hilton's Lost Horizon.

Goullart's eight years in Lijiang allowed him to acquire a deep understanding of the area and its people, especially the Naxi – who he calls the Nakhi, using the old Romanization, as with Likiang instead of Lijiang.

Naxi are different from Han Chinese in many ways – for Goullart, one of the key differences was wine shops. Instead of only the men drinking together at a meal, everyone including women and children would drink at wine shops.

Goullart frequented three different wine shops in Lijiang, all run by women. Madame Lee's wine shop was primarily a Naxi wine shop, and an invaluable source of local insider information. Madame Yang's wine shop had a poorer clientele who were typically members of the tribes living in the surrounding hills and mountains. The customers at Madame Ho's wine shop were almost exclusively Tibetan.

Outside Madame Yang's wine shop
Outside Madame Yang's wine shop

While imbibing cup after cup of Lijiang's local wines, Goullart made many friends and learned much about the Naxi, especially how they view themselves and others:

In courting friendship with a Nakhi a good deal of sincerity, sympathy and genuine affection was necessary, and also patience. They were a very sensitive people. The Nakhi possessed no inferiority complex but neither did they suffer a show of superiority in anybody. They were not obsequious and did not cringe even in the presence of high-ranking officials or wealthy merchants. Unlike the Chinese in certain parts of China, they were not discomforted or disturbed by strangers of other races.

Goullart finds Naxi to be ideal hosts and views their society quite favorably. One aspect of life in Lijiang that he especially enjoys is that there are no cars driving through town, everyone walks, even the highest officials, which he found very egalitarian.

Much of the book delves into the Naxi and their unique beliefs. One of the things that initially strikes Goullart as different is the Naxi sentiment that certain towns were inherently "good" or "bad". Lijiang and all the towns and villages with which it shared its beautiful valley, was of course good. Heqing and Jianchuan were counted among the bad towns.

According to the naturally inquisitive Goullart's personal research, the Naxi came from Tibet and entered the valley where Lijiang is located from the north. He notes that some of their pictographs feature sacred Tibetan geography, including Lake Manosarovar and Mount Kailash.

They call the Tibetans their elder brothers and the Minkia [Bai] their younger brothers. Their ancestors are curiously linked with all the gods of the Indian pantheon and their claim that the majority of their ancestors and heroes came out of the eggs magically produced as a result of a series of copulations between the mountains and lakes, pines and stones, Nagarajas and human females.

By the early 1940s, Goullart acknowledged that much of Lijiang life had assimilated aspects of Han Chinese culture, but there were still aspects of daily life that were very much Naxi.

One aspect of Naxi culture that Goullart spent much time analyzing was the dominant role of women, who had once suffered greatly in Naxi society, before turning things around for themselves.

...silently and persistently like the roots of growing trees, they slowly evolved themselves into a powerful race until they utterly enslaved their men. They learned all the intricacies of commerce and became merchants, land and exchange brokers, shopkeepers and traders. They encouraged their men to loaf, lounge and to look after the babies. It is they who reaped the golden harvest of their enterprise, and their husbands and sons had to beg them for money, even if only a few pennies to buy cigarettes.

Some of Goullart's Naxi friends
Some of Goullart's Naxi friends

That said, Goullart still respected the Naxi men, extolling their numerous good points, such as their bravery in battle and their generally good demeanor. He felt that the majority of Naxi – man or woman – were good-natured and always ready to laugh or smile but also noted that they were gossips and had fierce tempers.

Goullart also admired the ability of the Naxi to frustrate Western missionaries who had come to Lijiang to convert them. What these generally uneducated missionaries didn't know was that the Tibetan church, which held considerable influence upon Naxi life, was just as organized as the Catholic church and equally unwilling to brook its members converting to other religions.

Naxis believed in an afterlife, but little was known about it, so it was encouraged to get as much out of life in this world as one could. As far as Goullart could discern, most Naxi succeeded in achieving this goal.

The happiness, which every Nakhi should strive after, was described as the possession of plenty of good fields and fruit orchards, cattle and horses, a spacious house, an attractive wife, lots of male and female children, barns chock full of grain, yak butter and other edibles, multitudes of jars with wine, abundant sexual strength and good health and a succession of picnics and dances with congenial companions on flower-strewn alpine meadows.

Despite being neighbors with the famous botanist and explorer Dr Joseph Rock, it seemed that Goullart did not spend much time with him.

The two men were quite different in their approaches to life and living among the Naxi. The uptight genius Rock was aloof, took his Western meals alone, behaved like a stereotypical academic and generally only socialized with the upper strata of society.

The equally intelligent Goullart wanted to know everything about everyone, was keen to make friends with anyone regardless of background and was willing to eat or drink anything put in front of him. From Rock's writings, it seems he was quite satisfied to live in Lijiang, but one can tell from Goullart's accounts of life in Lijiang that he was extremely happy to live there.

Goullart's exploration of Naxi culture was less scientific than that of Dr Rock, but is illuminating nonetheless. Over several small chapters, he offers the reader interesting accounts of Lijiang's lamaseries plus Naxi love suicides, poltergeists, marriages and festivals. All of these subjects are approached with Goullart's open mind, and accompanied by a reasonable degree of judgment and analysis.

As Goullart was an outsider far-removed from local social circles and town politics, people of all stripes routinely confided in him. This deepened his connections to the people and town of Lijiang.

Goullart typically portrays himself as a humble and well-behaved guest, but he does make the occasional faux-pas. One example is a little Tibetan boy who he encountered during his wine sessions at Madame Ho's wine shop.

As all little children in Lijiang drink like little fishes, I did not mind giving him half a cup. Later on, however, his mother asked me not to do it any more, for it appeared that he got drunk every time and created a lot of trouble in the house, trying to beat up his mother, father and the nurse.

Goullart also provides interesting glimpses of the smaller ethnic groups living in the region. He fancied himself a gracious host, but even he had his limits. Some Boa people once requested to stay at his home overnight, and he wined and dined them before putting them up in his guest apartment. The next morning, "All the walls were urinated through and there were 'visiting-cards' all over the floor". Goullart decided that he would not allow Boa to stay at his home ever again.

Goullart was a keen observer of the different tribes around Lijiang and northwest Yunnan and classified them into the categories of "outgoing" and "oncoming" tribes, the former being those moribund peoples who were unable to adjust to change and had little to no future and the latter the stronger, more spirited tribes who would be around for a long time. In his view, the outgoing tribes included the Boa, Miao, Lisu, Buyi and others. The Naxi were included among the oncoming tribes, along with Tibetans, Bai, Black Yi and others.

In the early 1940s, with the Japanese invasion pushing further into China and almost all supply routes cut off, Lijiang was the destination of caravans coming from India with goods for sale to those involved in the war effort, including booze and cigarettes for the Americans and British based in Kunming.

Goullart's examination of the methods used in this major logistical challenge is quite interesting, particularly the method of sewing goods inside wet leather that would become a vacuum-sealed package when the leather dried and shrank.

A view of Lijiang from above
A view of Lijiang from above

Alas, paradise cannot last forever, and Goullart seemed acutely aware that change, not necessarily the positive kind, was coming to Lijiang. As he ominously notes, "The year 1949 opened inauspiciously."

Rumors of the brigand Lokyun's violent sacking of nearby towns and villages were quickly followed by threats from Lokyun to surrender to his forces or face the consequences. Lijiang's residents approached the "bad" village of Heqing nearby to form a united force against Lokyun, but Heqing decided to surrender without a fight.

Heqing was pillaged by Lokyun's men, who then went on to Lijiang, where they were repulsed by the bravery of Lijiang's men and women. Despite their victory, Goullart noticed that a fundamental change had taken place among the residents of Lijiang.

Somehow things had changed and Likiang was not quite the same after this harrowing experience. The old sense of security and certainty had gone, and the people had lost some of their zest for work and even for play. Lokyun was gone but the damage he had done lingered.

The joy and fascination that characterized the bulk of Goullart's life in Lijiang aside, the industrial cooperatives that he had been sent to establish thrived. Many wealthy locals attempted to become investors, but Goullart was skilful in making sure that only the poor villagers who were the target of the projects were able to participate and benefit from the cooperatives.

A wool-spinning cooperative established by Goullart
A wool-spinning cooperative established by Goullart

It is somewhat ironic that it is the Communist Revolution of 1949 that forces Goullart to leave Lijiang – with an obviously heavy heart. He had succeeded in bringing a model of egalitarian, communal production to a remote part of China, only to leave it behind, knowing that it would not last in the uncertain new era that was now on Lijiang's doorstep.

Forgotten Kingdom, published by Caravan Press (2007) is available at Mandarin Bookstore and can also be purchased at Prague Café's Beichen location. It can also be ordered online at mandarinbooks.cn.

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It's a beautiful fun read of real an interesting group of people (before the influence of capitalists). Take your time to Lijiang and the tribal customs and activities before 'it was ruined"... I'm surprised Peter didn't end up dead from all the conspiracies and the finger-pointing he had to deal with. Good thing he's also an intelligent doctor.


Nice review Chris!


His other books, such as _Land of the Lamas_, are also worth reading.

a big Wow from me too,,great book,,pity those times are over

multi-dimensional view of the natural and true Lijiang, out of a hot tour destination like disneyland now. what he penned is really a warm pathway to the forgotten and disappearing kindom.

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