Around a hundred years ago Mengzi (蒙自) was one of the most important cities in southern Yunnan. It lies, now as then, at the southern end of a long plain which extends all the way to Kaiyuan (开远). High mountains rise to the city's east and from the edge of the plain south all the way to Vietnam. Mengzi was the first major town on the trade route from Vietnam to Kunming. It was also a depot for shipping the area's minerals and tin to Kunming and other destinations north and south. While it was always involved with such trade, Mengzi's role dramatically increased with the establishment of a French presence in the late nineteenth century.
Beginning with the notorious Opium War in 1839, European powers began forcing their way into China's commercial networks. One concession led to another in the intervening decades, with Britain in Burma and France in Indo-China gobbling up territory that by the mid-1880s extended up to the boundaries of Yunnan. Political pressure on the ever-weaker Qing government led to the designation of Yunnan cities as "treaty ports" able to handle international trade. Foreigners were permitted to set up consulates and commercial offices — the British in Simao and the French, beginning in 1887, in Mengzi.
The French connection
This didn't mean a heavy influx of foreigners into the two cities. French travelers like Louis Pichon in 1892 and the Prince d'Orléans in 1894 reported but a dozen resident foreigners in Mengzi, only half of them French. The foreigners generally got along well with the Chinese, who viewed their presence as a return to stability after the era of Black Flag banditry that came with the final suppression of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (太平天囯). In their leisure the Mengzi expatriates went horseback riding on the plains, played lawn tennis and organized picnics and hunting parties in the wooded mountains. Evidence of the town's former glory lay around them in the form of public parks and buildings. Pichon reported, "Temples are everywhere".
French residents in Mengzi handled the trade out of their colony Vietnam, but for the first few decades it was not an easy business. From the border town of Hekou (河口) goods could travel by boat on the Red River (红河) only as far as Manhao (蔓耗) and then had to be transferred to the backs of mules and ponies for the 60-kilometer trek through the hills to Mengzi. Exports went the same route in reverse and mainly constituted tin and opium. Textiles and cotton were the prime imports.
More foreigners arrived after the French opened the railroad line through Mengzi in 1921. But the community never numbered very many, nor did French influence extend past the architectural style of a few buildings, and they never built a church. Today only the train station 12 kilometers outside the city at Bisezhai (碧色寨), and within Mengzi a customs house, consulate, garden park and prison, remain from the brief limited presence of the French in the heyday of European colonial empires.
These have survived since the French departure, however, and are among the city's top tourist attractions today. With their yellow facades, tile roofs and simple designs, they stand apart from the traditional Chinese and modern-style buildings in the neighborhoods around them. The former consulate is a long, two-story building with a low white fence in front of it and a taller white entrance gate. The French coat-of–arms, flanked by a pair of rampant lions is mounted at the gate's center.
A block away stands the old French customs house, a smaller, two-story building, the same color as the consulate, fronted by the same white fence and gate with the same coat-of-arms, and a balcony in the rear overlooking the lake. A few blocks away lies the former French prison, a long, single-story plain building — deserted now — lined with bleak little windowless cells. It's not particularly big and I couldn't find out how many prisoners it ever held at one time, or for what crimes. But part of the treaty granting the right of the French to a presence in Mengzi included criminal jurisdiction over non-Chinese.
Perhaps the foreigner community lived in Chinese houses, for no leftover French neighborhood exists. The extant French buildings are all public ones. With the onset of World War II and the closing of the railway, the French pulled out of Mengzi permanently. The garden park became a city park, but the other French buildings, aside from those at the train station, saw no contemporary use but somehow survived as a legacy.
Besides the buildings, the French also left an intangible legacy. Even though their commercial efforts never became very lucrative, thanks to their relatively brief presence, Mengzi was the first city in Yunnan to have such common modern institutions like a customs house, post office, telegraph system, international banking and foreign investment.
Hardly any of the temples Pichon observed have escaped the destruction of modern development and fiercely secular political zealotry. But in recent years Mengzi's prosperity has been returning, especially after the Honghe prefectural capital moved from Gejiu (个旧) at the end of the last century. Since Gejiu lies in a small, bowl-like valley blocked all around by hills, Mengzi, with its broad surrounding plain, offered more room to easily expand. Since the new designation, the city has tripled in size.
Much of the old town still survives, and the modern part of Mengzi, with its wide boulevards and multi-story buildings, is a recent appendage. Narrow, winding lanes and traditional shop-houses still characterize much of the eastern part of town. Its most attractive spot is the 32,000-square-meter South Lake (南湖), with lovely Qing Dynasty towers and pavilions standing on its islands and causeways.
The entrance is near the north end, not far from the French customs house. The largest building in the area, a graceful, three-tiered tower, stands just inside the entrance, beside a small connecting pond spanned by an arched bridge. From its third floor windows one has a view of the whole lake, as well as the mountains beyond, with a stray Miao village or two high on their slopes. A walk along this finger of land passes small pavilions with pink and white lotus flowers in the water leading to a park and a junction in the path.
One path leads northeast to another small island and its own pavilion. The other turns south past the garden and crosses another white marble arched bridge to a hexagonal, two-story pavilion — the second most attractive South Lake building. The tiled roofs of the buildings, with upturned corners, have rows of small, attached lamps that are turned on at night, while spotlights illuminate the walls.
This is the most tranquil part of the city and a beautiful refuge from the din of city life. Occasionally boats ply the water and a few people come to fish. Students also come here to study, just like the Qing dynasty scholars of old, who would stay for several days and nights at one of the quiet pavilions to study for the state examinations that could, if they passed, assure them a place in the imperial bureaucracy.
South Lake is also famous for being, three centuries ago, the birthplace of one of Yunnan's most popular dishes — Across the Bridge Rice Noodles (过桥米线). At that time a scholar was staying at one of the island pavilions to study for his examinations. His wife prepared his meal — rice noodles in chicken broth with thin slices of chicken and meat to be added and cooked to taste. But by the time she crossed the bridge to his quarters, the soup was cold. So she hit on the idea of adding vegetable oil to the broth, which kept it hot enough for him to cook the slices of meat. The soup's ingredients also include herbs, bean sprouts and other vegetables. Mengzi was its birthplace, but nowadays restaurants in nearly every city in Yunnan serve their own versions of it.
The mountains to the east and south of Mengzi more resemble those of Wenshan (文山), east of Honghe, than those to the southwest in the Ailao Mountains (哀牢山). Often they are grouped in clusters of steep, conical limestone hills, uninhabited and covered with thick jungle vegetation. The Prince d'Orléans dubbed one such set 'The Cone Chain'. Massive, menhir-like boulders jut up from the ground in relatively level areas. Other areas are dominated by numerous small basins with no water outlet, locally known as 'devil's punch bowls'.
The Yi and Miao of Mengzi
On Sundays Mengzi holds its regular open market, spread out over several connected neighborhoods in the old town. Han and Zhuang villagers from the plains typically arrive early to set up their stalls. Miao and Yi from the hills and the more remote plains villages arrive by mid-morning. With their presence the streets of Mengzi become a swirl of color, as the women of the Miao, and the more numerous of the two Yi sub-groups, are among the province's most flamboyant dressers.
A lavish use of embroidery and appliqué characterizes the components of a Miao woman's costume. It comprises a side-fastened, long-sleeved jacket, belt, apron, bulky pleated skirt hanging to the shins, leg wrappers and cap. Red and white are the primary colors and though the hemp or cotton skirt is usually dyed indigo, with batik patterns in white, its surface is liberally covered with thin appliquéd bands of cloth. Spirals and floral patterns make up most embroidery motifs. The long apron, also fully embellished, hangs from the waist to the hem of the skirt. On her head she wears a fitted, rectangular strip of embroidered cloth, with a row of pompoms at the front end, over the forehead, and down the back, which reaches to the neck.
One Yi sub-group lives in the hills southeast of Mengzi, but they are quite assimilated into the rural Han way of life. Older women wear a decorative, embroidered bib that hangs around the neck and fastens in the back at the waist. Except for perhaps a turban, nothing else distinguishes this Yi costume. The outfit is similar to Zhuang sub-groups in the county and over the border in Wenshan, although less elaborate.
A much larger Yi sub-group is scattered in the hills around Mengzi and in the mountains southeast as far as the northern districts of Pingbian County (屏边县). These Yi women wear a side-fastened, long-sleeved, waist-length black jacket over blue or green trousers, with an apron that covers the thighs. Over the jacket they wear a sleeveless vest that reaches to just below the breasts in front, and to mid-hip in back. The jacket sleeves, lower part of the trousers, the entire vest exterior, and sometimes the apron as well, are elaborately embroidered and appliquéd, red being the color most employed.
The women wear two kinds of headdresses. The more common one, both for daily use and for going to the market, is a rectangular cloth, heavily embroidered, tucked so as to stick up in front and back. It is placed on the head just behind a silver-studded band over the forehead. For special occasions, or simply to show off and attract young men, women sometimes also don a fan-shaped crown of mounted red pompoms. From either side hang long bunches of red tassels. Married women may also wear this stunning headdress, but as they get older they wear it in public covered by a large, tasseled kerchief. The Yi say this is because the woman recognizes that her youth has passed, and now not beauty, but experience and prudence, are her outstanding personal qualities.
A few Miao women in Mengzi run market day stalls selling clothing components to other Miao, including some modified traditional styles designed to appeal to more modern-thinking young women and girls. A few Yi and Miao women might also be selling medicinal herbs grown or gathered in the vicinity of their villages. Other than them, though, the Miao and Yi at the Sunday markets are buyers looking for good prices on essentials.
They are not particularly interested in the city's historical buildings or even, since they are animist, the temples and pagodas, much less the new modern neighborhoods. For them Mengzi is a place to shop and hope for bargains. The local residents will brush up against them in the markets and can probably distinguish who is Yi and who is Miao. But they rarely know anything else about them. For them the city's attractions are those around South Lake and perhaps a favorite restaurant in the new city. Travelers to Mengzi thus have a great advantage over those who live in the city or out in the county. They can appreciate everything at once.
Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.
Images: Jim Goodman© Copyright 2005-2022 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.