Jim Goodman has been traveling and conducting research in Asia since the early 1970s. After stints in Korea, Nepal, India, Thailand and China, he has settled in Chiang Mai. Over the course of his life in Asia Goodman has travelled extensively in Yunnan.
He has written several books concerning the province's minorities, their cultures and their histories. One of these, Yunnan South of the Clouds is a historical and cultural guidebook to Yunnan unlike any other. He is also author of Joseph F Rock and His Shangri-La, which examines Yunnan during the early Twentieth Century through a foreigner's eyes and Grand Canyon of the East about the Nujiang River valley.
Goodman is currently working on several other books, one of which chronicles his various trips to Yunnan in the 1990s. His newest work The Terrace Builders will be released later this month as an ebook. For more information, check out his website (requires proxy). GoKunming chatted with Goodman over email to find out what life was like in southwest China 20 years ago and what he is up to now.
GoKunming: When and why did you first come to China?
Jim Goodman: My first visit to Yunnan was in the summer of 1992. At that time I was working with the Akha minority in northern Thailand and was curious to visit their original homeland in Xishuangbanna.
Relatives of some of my Akha friends lived in southern Yunnan and I wanted to visit them. I also made a short trip to the northwest, for I had read several books about the Yi, Naxi, Mosuo, Bai and others while doing research on the Long March.
GK: Could you share an interesting story from Yunnan pre-2000s?
Goodman: Choose just one? Well then, here is one from the mid-90s that can't be repeated, from Ninglang County. I was up in the hills northeast of Ninglang City with my Yi friend Shen Zila, a teacher at the middle school, to see the Torch Festival. Among the Yi people there were two young women who were Black Yi, and thus wore a different set of clothes than the White Yi, who comprised just about all the rest of the Yi there at the time.
I wanted to have a photograph of the different costume, and knowing how shy the Yi women were, I asked Shen to arrange it. He spoke to them and they were hesitant at first, but then he promised I would send back the photos, or bring them back next time, and if they didn't believe him they could ask people from Yangpinzi, a village near Ninglang where I'd been several times. One of the girls had relatives there and so she said if the people in Yangpingzi trusted me they would too.
But all this commotion had attracted much attention from others in the crowd, who began gathering around me to look at the camera. After Shen had secured the girls' agreement there was a big crowd between me and the girls.
Anyway, I took full body shots from about thirty meters, then kept the camera to my eye as I moved in for portraits from a closer distance. As soon as I finished the aisle closed and everyone in the crowd gathered around me to stare at the camera. They'd never actually seen one before. Too bad it wasn't a digital camera, actually. Would have been even more interesting to see their reactions to the instant result.
GK: You've been in and out of Yunnan for 20 years, what keeps you coming back?
Goodman: What excited me about Yunnan from the beginning was that the ethnic minorities were in the process of reviving their traditional cultures, following an end to decades of attacks on them. I thought this rejuvenation might not last too long, due to changes induced by modernization and development, but here was a chance to observe and record the process while it still existed.
I found the situation analogous to that facing the North American Indians west of the Mississippi River before the Civil War. And I saw my own role in Yunnan comparable to that of George Catlin in America, who recorded the cultures of the American Indians before they were all conquered by white folks.
Much has changed in Yunnan since I first came, but ethnic minority traditions still survive and so I feel I can never really finish my work. Just about every time I come to Yunnan I observe or learn about a place that I want to come back to on a future trip.
GK: You are working on a book about your own experiences in Yunnan in the mid-1990s. Where were you then and when do you expect to publish the book?
Goodman: At that time most counties were just opening to foreign visitors and some ethnic minorities were meeting foreign outsiders for the first time in their histories. That's what made the encounters so interesting for me.
I was mainly concentrating on northwest Yunnan the first few years, but I visited other places as fast as they opened. The experiences I had then in Yunnan's northwest are almost impossible to have again. Commercial tourism has affected practically everything, especially the relationships with foreign visitors.
So I would like to write all about what it was like then. In a way it will read as both an interesting travel adventure and hopefully impart knowledge about the cultures that fascinated me and the values they can teach us today.
The work will deal mainly with places in northwestern Yunnan — Chuxiong, Ailaoshan, Shiping County as well as Xishuangbanna and also include accounts of life with the Newars in Bhaktapur, Nepal and the Akha of northern Thailand. It was my experience with Newars and Akhas that prepared me for my research in Yunnan.
I won't be able to put too much time into it until I finish my current book on Vietnam, but once I do start the work should progress rather quickly. The only real research I have to do is review my notebooks from that period. Realistically, within two years I think I can finish it.
GK: The book on Vietnam is entitled Delta to Delta: The Vietnamese Move South. Can you tell us what it is about?
Goodman: In the mid-15th century what we know as Vietnam today was divided into three separate polities: the Vietnamese state of Dai Viet in the north, Cham kingdoms in the center and Kampuchea Krom in the south. My book tells the story of how the Vietnamese gradually expanded south, from the conquest of the Cham state of Vijaya in 1470 to the final unification of the country in 1802.
GK: How are you researching it and when do you expect to finish it?
Goodman: There is a lot of previously published material available on Vietnamese history. I have already used much of it in writing the history of Hanoi. This also helped as I wrote about Cham history and culture, though much less published material is available on the Khmer in Vietnam.
I can also find out a lot through the internet. Some of the information is contradictory, but I have the advice of a couple of scholar friends to help me sort it out. I have also visited the places I am writing about and toured all the museums.
GK: Has anything surprised you during your research for the Vietnam book?
Goodman: Originally I thought I would just be writing about the political and geographical expansion of the Vietnamese. But as I began researching I found that Vietnamese migrants adopted many ideas and practices of the Cham and Khmer when they moved in next door, so to speak, and so the story is also about the extension and enrichment of Vietnamese culture.
GK: Philip Short, in his book Pol Pot, says the fundamental difference between the Khmer and the Vietnamese are the influences of India — Theravada Buddhism — and China — Confucianism — respectively. What do you think about that assertion?
Goodman: That's basically correct. It's also the fundamental difference between the Burmese, Thai or Lao and the Vietnamese.
GK: How were the Vietnamese connected to or interacting with Southern China, Yunnan in particular, in the 15th-19th centuries?
Goodman: Vietnam had a change of dynasty in 1400, when the strongman at the court, Hồ Quý Ly, overthrew the Trần ruling family and founded his own dynasty. A couple of Trần princes escaped the purge, went to China and asked the Ming Emperor Yong Le [永乐帝] to restore the Trần Dynasty. The Chinese used that as an excuse to invade and occupy Vietnam in 1408.
They deposed the Hồ family, but instead of restoring the Trần family, declared Vietnam to be a province of China again and imposed a particularly harsh rule, featuring forced assimilation. Vietnamese under Lê Lợi expelled the Chinese in 1428. The Ming regime then made peace with the Vietnamese and accepted their independence.
The Qing Dynasty's relations with Vietnam were quite normal until the late 18th century. Then they decided to intervene in another civil war in Vietnam by backing the Lê king against the Tây Sơn revolutionaries who had taken over most of the country. The Qing sent in a huge force to occupy Hanoi.
The Tây Sơn forces were far south, but they rallied and marched on Hanoi during the New Year holiday, caught the Chinese unprepared and annihilated them. The Qing recognized the new government and later the Nguyen Dynasty regime in Huế after the final defeat of the Tây Sơn regime.
Then about a century later, when the French were fighting to take over Vietnam the Vietnamese government hired Chinese Black Flag mercenaries, based in Hekou, who had formed after the end of the Taiping Rebellion, to help defend Vietnam against the French. The Black Flags fought bravely and actually were instumental in repelling the first French attempt to take over northern Vietnam.
This had come about because of a French entrepeneur named Jean Dupuis' attempt to force free passage on the Red River into Yunnan. He took a load of guns into Yunnan to sell to the government in Kunming, which needed them to deal with the Muslim Revolt. Later on Dupuis succeeded in arousing support among a few ambitious French colonialists for an attack on Hanoi, the better to secure the Red River trade route into Yunnan.
The leader of the assault on Hanoi's citadel at that time was Francis Garnier, who'd been on the Mekong Expedition in the late 1860's and was the one most optimistic about the Red River being the road to southwest China's supposed riches. The Black Flags beat the French the first time, even killing Garnier. But a decade later the French were too strong for them and by defeating them conquered northern Vietnam.
Throughout this period the border was ill-defined. The same ethnic minorities lived on both sides and presumably passed freely back and forth. I don't really know how much trade was carried on between the two sides, but I think Vietnam got its zinc, for zinc-based coins, from Yunnan.
GK: You have at least three other Yunnan-based books in the works. Can you tell us briefly about each one?
Goodman: The next one I will prepare for publication is The Terrace Builders, about culture...basically the land and people of the Red River counties, including a little of northern Vietnam. It's about the ancient irrigated terraces and covers the Hani, Yi, Dai, Miao, Yao and Zhuang of the area.
I have also completed works on the Tibetans and Mosuo of the northwest and another on Xishuangbanna. The former was originally the second half of Children of the Jade Dragon, while the latter I finished working on only last year. If I cannot secure a deal with a publisher for either of these by the time I put out The Terrace Builders, then I will prepare ebook editions of these as well.
GK: Several of your previous books have been published in the traditional way, in print. Now you are working instead in digital format. How do you find it so far and have you left hard copies behind entirely?
Goodman: I turned to ebook publishing because it seems that publishing physical books is about to become an obsolete industry. Publishers are ever more reluctant to commit themselves to a new project nowadays, fearing they will be undermined by digital publications. The advantage of making books available in digital format is that an author can potentially reach a much greater audience.
The difficulty is letting that potential audience know that one's book is available. So I've just started with this and am still getting into publicizing the works through social media and websites. But I think ebooks are the future and I'm confident that in the end it will prove much more beneficial to me. And at least with making ebooks I can publish a good portion of all that information on Yunnan I've accumulated.
I haven't totally given up on hard copy books, for they will always look nicer, as far as layout and that. For the next Vietnam book I'll let my Hanoi publishers put out hard copies, though I will retain ebook rights.
GK: Your travels in Yunnan, both for research and travel, have taken you pretty much to all corners of the province. Do you have a favorite place and is there anywhere you want to visit but haven't yet?
Goodman: I can't pick a single favorite, but I can list a few places that I especially enjoyed. Fifteen, twenty years ago Ninglang County topped the list, for the special relationships I developed with the Yi and the Mosuo.
But Lugu Lake is no longer the Lugu Lake I knew and loved, though probably the Yi villages are far less affected. So nowadays the list would include Fugong because of the wonderful scenery on both sides of the river, the hospitable Lisu and Nu and the chance to ride rope bridges.
I can also include Yuanyang County, still, for the minorities in the markets and the spectacular terraces, even though the new viewing towers put up there kind of spoil the integrity of the landscape. I had similar good experiences with the folks in Jinping and Lüchun Counties, too. Always got treated like a very special guest in all the villages I visited, even when I was a surprise guest that no one there knew personally.
And Menglian County, where hardly anybody goes, full of friendly minorities, especialy the Wa and Aini, more traditionally dressed than elsewhere. As far as cities go, my favorite is Weishan, for its authentic look and feel. Downtown Jinghong is still pleasant for me because of the palm tree-lined streets, Dai food and architecture and generally relaxed atmosphere.
If possible in the future I would like to explore more of Lincang prefecture, because in recent years I discovered the Limi Yi in Wumulong and very old-fashioned Lahu in Nanmei district, west of Lincang City. Also, I've not been through much of Wenshan, either, especially the southern districts. In short, I don't know how many more times I will visit Yunnan, but I will never lack for new places to explore or old ones to explore even further.
Painting image: Wikipedia
All other images: Jim Goodman