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20 years in Yunnan with Jim Goodman

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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.

A Dai village circa 1992, Xishuangbanna
A Dai village circa 1992, Xishuangbanna

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.

Yaks on Yao Mountain, Ninglang County
Yaks on Yao Mountain, Ninglang County

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.

Black Yi women, Ninglang County
Black Yi women, Ninglang County

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.

A Lisu farmer and his pony, Lumadeng
A Lisu farmer and his pony, Lumadeng

GK: You've been in and out of Yunnan for 20 years, what keeps you coming back?

Lisu woman, Fugong
Lisu woman, Fugong

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.

Meili Snow Mountain
Meili Snow Mountain

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.

An Aini woman in traditional dress, Xishuangbanna
An Aini woman in traditional dress, Xishuangbanna

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.

Lijiang's Dayan in quieter days
Lijiang's Dayan in quieter days

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.

Terraces below the city, Luchun
Terraces below the city, Luchun

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.

Lugu Lake as seen from Lion Mountain
Lugu Lake as seen from Lion Mountain

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.

Dai Monks in Xishuangbanna
Dai Monks in Xishuangbanna

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.

Poklong Garai, one of the best preserved Cham temples in Vietnam
Poklong Garai, one of the best preserved Cham temples in Vietnam

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 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.

Qing imperial painting depicting the capture of Dali during the Muslim Revolt
Qing imperial painting depicting the capture of Dali during the Muslim Revolt

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.

Massive earthen terraces, Ailao Mountain
Massive earthen terraces, Ailao Mountain

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.

Tibetans drying wheat, northwest Yunnan
Tibetans drying wheat, northwest Yunnan

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.

Huayao Yi woman in traditional dress
Huayao Yi woman in traditional dress

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.

Peninsula town on Lugu Lake
Peninsula town on Lugu Lake

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.

Rope bridge over the Nu River
Rope bridge over the Nu River

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.

City wall gate, Weishan
City wall gate, Weishan

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.

Miao children in traditional dress, Ailao Mountains
Miao children in traditional dress, Ailao Mountains

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.

Fisherman on Erhai Lake, Dali
Fisherman on Erhai Lake, Dali

Painting image: Wikipedia
All other images: Jim Goodman

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Ok, I will be the bad guy. Dude or lady?

Jim is a good source of information about anthropological matters and when he occasionally visits Kunming you can see him at Sal's or the Box before it closed; maybe another bar has replaced it.


How pointless, childish, and unintelligent of you.

I'm really looking forward to these new books becoming available. Jim's existing work is incredibly detailed and very readable. "The Exploration of Yunnan" goes in my bag anytime I take a trip.

I don't doubt Jim is a nice 'guy'. But come on. Couldn't you have posted a better picture? Looks like a drag queen.

Completely agree! The Exploration of Yunnan and it's updated version Yunnan South of the Clouds are quintessential resources for those of us who live and work here in Yunnan. Even as a researcher who has been coming here on and off over the past 8 years I never leave home without Goodman's guide and always find his information continually useful.

Just recently I in fact got a review back on an academic paper in which I cited him on the history of missionaries in the northwest and was told his book was an unreliable source by a reviewer, to which I responded to the editors that I completely disagreed. Goodman is by far the best non-academic person publishing on the Southwest; the Peter Hessler of Yunnan! His biography of Joseph Rock available at Mandarin Books is also incredible useful seeing as how the original biography of Rock by S.B. Sutton published in the 70's is now long out of print and incredibly expensive.

"How pointless, childish, and unintelligent of you."

I guess really ""! someone was going to ask ..It might as well be me! hahaha Also, I am kinda serious..Is Gokunming trying to mess with him? Is it a Halloween pic? I am not a hater, But come on! cheetah print sweater? super big earrings?

I agree. At of ALL the pictures in the last 20 years, you post this one.That is too funny.

The usual suspects weighing in with their usual rubbish.

Don't shoot the messenger, @bjtokm was only saying out loud what a lot of people were thinking.

@Kirkpatrick Don't get your panties in a bunch. (Pun intended)

Liumingmeister wrote: "I don't doubt Jim is a nice 'guy'. But come on. Couldn't you have posted a better picture? Looks like a drag queen."

Maybe he IS. And I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that.

True that. I just think that a better picture could've been chosen.

Maybe he submitted that photo and wanted that photo to be used.

From the information I've gathered, photos posted of interviewees on GoKunming are self-submitted- so any snarky comments you make are directed at the interviewee directly. That said, it is pretty sad indeed that you care more about someone's appearance than you do about the content of a very informative,intelligent, and interesting interview. What a sad, sad person you are! Thanks for proving what we already suspected!

Ja, yunnan at the 20s must have been a strange places !

Incredible that someone can read such an interesting interview and get such a rare and unique perspective on Asia and Yunnan, and can only respond with 'Dude or lady?'


Glad to see some people are trying to claim some moral high ground. The funny thing about morality judgements are that are subjective and shift with time, as such should be avoided. But then this is open forum and anything goes.

I knew I would be the bad guy here,,expected some name calling and the like..also thought that a couple people would agree with me...so most of the comments are exactly what assumed they would be!

What i did not expect was the number of hippocratic responses...Alot of people are talking about how "shameful" is it to ignore this super informative interview and just talk about the guys photo.(cheetah sweater) Yet all any of these people can talk about is my stupid 3 word post!

Time to "grow up" a little bit?

Which means no one is really interested in actual moral high ground..They are much more in to the appearance of how open minded they are! ...pretty much reverse racism (sexism) !

I know Jim personally and he is definitely no drag queen!!! That's his hair style and his personal preference. BTW, Jim is happily married. And you should see him on his big bike roaring down the streets of Chiang Mai and beyond.

Didn't this website employ a moderator? Typical to see so many completely irrelevant comments out there on the most interesting interview that I have ever read on this website.

Thanks for these interesting stories and updates. I'm looking forward to read Jim's new books!

Interesting that you have nothing to say other than its "interesting! hahah!! this is what i am talking about!! Fine ...I guess its up to me again!..What i found interesting is the early 90s talk, about meeting people that have not meet westerners in there lives! Think about how much life has changed in china in the last 20 years ...whatever Jim's like to wear, he is a lucky man To see things that will not be seen again!

@bjtokm Liumingke1234 abcdabcd Dazzer

All those other pics are from Jim Goodman too, but your first impulse is towards making light of his pic, or defending/supporting those that do.

It's human nature to base impressions on people based on their photos. His photo isn't any less relevant than any of the other photos in the article. My impression of him is that he doesn't look like a run-of-the-mill average guy. Eccentric is a word that comes to mind. And if he was an average bloke, maybe he would not have done the work that he did.

'The funny thing about morality judgements'

This isn't about 'morality judgements', it's quite simple really; it's about making offensive comments about someone's appearance on a public forum and having those comments rightly criticized.

You wonder if bjtokm would say the same thing to Mr Goodmans face, and of course, the answer is a resounding 'no'. The anonymity provided by internet blogs means that some people get away with making childish, offensive comments like the one above. It's just sad really.

Perhaps bjtokm could post a picture of himself/herself and expose his own appearance for the public to comment on. Somehow i doubt that will happen. I wonder why?

Bjtokm - I agree with you and your comments as your are merely pointing out the obvious, the pink elephant in the living room, the emperor with no clothes, or the man dressed in drag. I see no judgement made on your part. You just were the first to make an observation. The name calling began when others started calling you childish and unintelligent. As for the ridiculous comment about you putting your own picture online, I find that comment irrelevant and absurd. I am sure if you posted your picture online you would not put a picture of you in your underwear, or naked or dressed in drag. You never mocked the appearance of this person you just asked a very obvious question.

25 comments and guess what distracted most people from the wonderful article and valuable information presented; the picture!

'I am sure if you posted your picture online you would not put a picture of you in your underwear, or naked or dressed in drag'

Has it ever occurred to you that he likes to dress in drag? That maybe that's how he wants to dress and express himself? Some posters here exhibiting some serious predjudice.

'You never mocked the appearance of this person you just asked a very obvious question'

Seriously? Nothing at all obvious about the question. The one obvious thing is that Jim is a man. His name is Jim FFS. He is referred to as a man in the article, and clearly looks like a man in the picture, so yes, to ask the question 'Dude or lady?' is obviously mocking his appearance. If you can't see that, then, well, you're blind.

The guy probably has American ancestry? As in Native American.

"Don't shoot the messenger, @bjtokm was only saying out loud what a lot of people were thinking."

Yeah, he was being that one obnoxious person out of 100 Chinese who scream "Laowai!" at you on the street. Trust me, if you're not ethnically Asian, the other 100 people noticed that you were not Chinese, but they kept their mouths shut.

Part of becoming an adult is learning when to keep your fucking mouth shut (or in this case your fingers off the keyboard).

And now the potty mouth/fingers has joined the debate.
Whoopy doo!

if you argue on the internet, you've already lost. get on topic.

Part of being an adult is telling people to keep there fucking mouths shut!!!hahahaha. Way to show us, Dan ...so mature! maybe you could open a clinic and teach the rest of us how to act!

I agree with Bluppfisk! nobody wants to talk about the topic!! Most of you are all mesmerized by the cheetah sweater and my fist comment!

Also ...Fact ...If i meet Jim I would 100% ask him about the Cheetah print!! For one, Its awesome!! Two, How often do you see a dude rocking a cheetah print ?? Three, Its funny, I bet Jim has a better sense of humor then the GoKunming crew!

hahaha, mesmerized!

Such offensive comments. Such repulsive trolls. Isn't it time the editors moved to exterminate them?

not to be offensive or defend anyone's comments, but surely anyone who dresses in an eccentric fashion realizes that it's going to elicit strong reactions from certain people.

Another troll speciality. Blaming the victim.

Not sure who you are calling a victim? But I would find that more offensive than anything that was said in these posts! Nobody is a "victim" here.

More typical troll tactics. Ask stupid questions. Make idiotic and illogical statements. Attack people then pretend to defend them. When are the editors going to do something?

Nobody is trolling. You're just trying to oversimplify a situation. The way he dresses is an issue and you expect people just to ignore it. Obviously, there's been way too much focus on it and not enough on the material he's put out, but it doesn't change the fact that the way he dresses is an issue.

Some people are bothered by the way this man dresses. They're just saying what's on their mind.

If this man reads the forum, then he'll know that some people don't really approve of the way he dresses. But then it's up to him if he wants to completely ignore other people's opinions or change the way he dresses to be more accepted by everyone.

And he very likely already knows that some people don't approve of the way he dresses and doesn't care. Which may be something to be admired because a lot of people hide their true selves to fit in and because they're afraid of being judged.

ah shut up.

Yes, yes. All shut up so the troll can continue with his dumb ass comments.

Brilliant story, good work GoKM! It explains who it was when I was in Chiang Mai and saw this crazy looking dude blasting around on his bike... Will definitely have to look his books up being completely unfamiliar with them.

The agenda is very clear as it is clear to what is happening in the last few decades all over the world; To normalize the abnormal. For those who still have the courage to call a spade a spade, I applaud you. For the corwards who hide behind political correctness, you have that right, just as those who state the obvious have a right to free speech on this forum. If this was an article on the Rocky Horror Picture Show coming to China, then the attire is appropriate. This person obviously wanted attention, well he got it. Once again the same issue comes to surface. All humans have the right to do as they please as long as they are not harming others. Clearly, this man has the right to dress as he pleases because he is NOT harming anyone. People have the right to keep private what is private just as they have the right to make public those things which are private. It is obvious that this man knew exactly what he was doing when he submitted this picture. The agenda is clear whether you agree or not. He wanted attention and he got it. If he usually dresses like this in public as some people here have already mentioned than it is not the first time and he knows exactly what he is doing and he does this on purpose and with a goal in mind.

For those begging the moderators to do something, their agenda is also very clear.

Yep, their agenda seems to be censorship, in order to force thier own set of values (PC) on others. I think I heard this refered to as being a 'rigid liberal'. PC has become the new puritanism, and goes against the spirit of liberalism that gave birth to it. One of the great freedoms of living in China is freedom from PC. Long may it continue.

This looks like the suicide of a website to me. Who is going to agree to an interview with Go Kunming and expose themselves to a load of abuse from bigots who moved to China so they could smoke over their hamburgers?

Jim Goodman reminds me of another expat American I ran into, while walking the wrong way around the Jokhang in Lhasa. He took me aside from the crowd and pointed out my ignorance. Later we had a long walk and informative chat. John Vincent Bellezza seems to belong to the same school of slightly eccentric but extraordinarily interesting people as Jim Goodman, who exist outside the rigid world of academia and carry on the tradition of amateur explorers; the world amateur coming from the root of the word for love. It is their love and passion for the subject, which sets them apart.


I wonder if the two are aware of each other.

Pot and kettle spring to mind.

I guess on another forum you rant about freedom of speech, while trying to limit others' by crying for censorship on here. Then you call other people bigots.

Do you even think about or read your own postings before hitting the save button? Or just shoot from the lip?

Jim Goodman has written several books on the area you've chosen live in. You guys can't even put a grammatical sentence together but you claim your God-given right to vilify him online. Pathetic.

I didn't vilify him. I don't think anyone else did either.

and p.s. check yer own grammer furst

or woz it jus a tiepo u maid.

Wow, that response caught me by surprise.

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