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The frontier people of Yunnan's Dehong Prefecture

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Dai farmer and his son riding water buffaloes outside of Ruili
Dai farmer and his son riding water buffaloes outside of Ruili

Dehong (德宏) in southwest Yunnan is an Autonomous Dai and Jingpo Prefecture. Only about 20 percent of Dehong consists of plains and valleys. The rest of the prefecture is hilly or mountainous and has forest cover of around 60 percent, the highest rate in the province. The population tops one million, with the Han a slight majority. The Dai dominate the plains and valleys, while the Jingpo constitute the largest ethnic minority in the hills, especially in the western part of the prefecture. Han Chinese only seriously began migrating to Dehong after the eradication of malaria in the early 1950s and largely, but not entirely, reside in urban areas.

The Dai people are not the only indigenous folks in the plains, nor are the Jingpo the only hill people. As for the Han, some also have farms in the plains, while others work in the coffee and tea plantations in the hills, such as in Dachang (大厂), east of Lianghe (梁河). Such Dehong features become apparent when taking a trip from Tengchong (腾冲), just north of Dehong in Baoshan Prefecture, to Ruili (瑞丽) in southwest Dehong.

Nandin Xuanfu, the former palace in Lianghe
Nandin Xuanfu, the former palace in Lianghe

Lianghe, the first city on the route, is an easy ride through the plains from Tengchong. But even when I visited two decades ago the city was thoroughly modernized and almost entirely Han-inhabited. The only Dai elements consisted of a couple small restaurants, a pagoda with an inverted bell shape built around 1980, and the palace of the former Dai ruler.

The latter is the city's main attraction, originally built in 1851, when Lianghe was known as Nandin. The palace — called Nandin Xuanfu — consists of seven connected courtyards, with gardens, pools and red brick buildings with dark gray, tiled roofs. The doorways from one courtyard to another are circular or oval, a feature seen in many temples across the prefecture. Here the district's chaopha — or the 'Lord of the Sky' in the Dai language — lived in sumptuous splendor, while lesser members of the aristocracy owned smaller houses still in marked contrast to the simple dwellings of the commoners.

Achang woman returning from the fields
Achang woman returning from the fields

The Dai in Dehong speak a different dialect than the Dai further east, and use a different alphabet than that used in Xishuangbanna (西双版纳). They generally live in houses of gray-brown brick with tiled roofs that sit on the ground. In rural villages some build homes, one or two stories, with walls of plaited split bamboo, with roofs of tin or thatch. Like other Dai, they are accomplished rice farmers, with irrigation canals that intersect the fields and provide a source of fish. Dehong rice is especially tasty, and that grown in Zhefang District (遮放) in Luxi County (潞西县) was one of the tribute items demanded by the imperial Qing Court. The prefecture is also famous for its pineapples.

Dai villages lie west and south of Lianghe, but to the north and east sit settlements of the Achang minority nationality. The Achang in Yunnan number a little over 40,000, nearly all of whom live in Dehong. Another 2,000 or so reside across the border in Myanmar. Chinese historical records indicate the Achang were living in Dehong as early as the thirteenth century.

They speak a Tibeto-Burman language and under imperial China enjoyed a measure of autonomy. But their chieftains were subordinate to the Dai chaopha, who could make tax and service demands on the Achang as he wished. Consequently, Dai culture has had a strong influence on the Achang. They live in the same kind of gray-brown brick houses, practice Theravada Buddhism, with a temple in each village, and dress similarly.

The men wear a side-fastened, long-sleeved, dark jacket over trousers. The married women dress in the same black sarong as the local Dai women, with a long-sleeved blue or black jacket, also similar to that of the Dai. The main difference is the headgear — a tall, tubular, brimless black hat. Unmarried girls wear no hat, but tie their braids over their heads. They also wear trousers instead of sarongs.

Yunyan Pagoda near Yingjiang
Yunyan Pagoda near Yingjiang

The other major Achang concentration is in Husa District (户撒), Longchuan County (陇川县). Besides boasting the finest Achang Buddhist temple, Husa is renowned for its swords. The tradition is a very ancient one among the Achang and they are so skilled at it that other peoples around them rely specifically on Achang-made swords rather than creating their own.

The sword is like a machete, used to chop bamboo and wood, in defense against wild animals and bandits and as a part of local military gear. The Lisu use Husa swords in their Climbing the Sword Ladder Festival. And Jingpo men brandish them upright during the ceremonial dance of the Munao Festival.

Dai women cycling home from the fields west of Ruili
Dai women cycling home from the fields west of Ruili

The Lisu and Jingpo minorities are especially prominent in the mountains of Yingjiang County (盈江县), the next one west of Lianghe. Yingjiang city is 50 kilometers distant, after crossing a mountain to get to it. Like Lianghe, its population is mainly a Han, but with some minority touches, like a Jingpo statue and Munao Festival house and arena, Dai elephant sculptures and a few Dai restaurants. Jingpo swarm into Yingjiang for the Munao events, but rarely otherwise. The Lisu live in the northern mountains and seldom venture to the city. Dai villages constitute the city suburbs, so they are often in town during the day, the women in black sarongs and carrying their goods in baskets at each end of a bamboo pole.

Yingjiang was built around a reservoir a few kilometers west of the Daying River (大盈江). A long, straggling Dai village lies between the city and the river. A path at the end of the cemetery, where the Dehong Dai bury their dead, leads to the Yunyan Pagoda (允燕塔). Rising from a square base, it consists of a white mound with brass spires, topped with filigreed silver crowns, the central pagoda towering above forty smaller ones. A nearby temple features a modest assembly hall and a five-tiered, pale red pagoda in a very different style from Yunyan. The resident monks, as in Myanmar, wear red robes.

Lisu woman in Zhangfeng
Lisu woman in Zhangfeng

The road out of Yingjiang to Zhangfeng (章凤镇) — the administrative seat for Longchuan County (陇川县) — runs for 136 kilometers. It crosses the Daying River and runs along the eastern shore until entering Longchuan County, crossing high mountains then gradually descending into the plains and Zhangfeng, seven kilometers from the border town of Laying (拉影).

Longchuan is about the same size as Lianghe, but had more of a non-Han feel to it back then. Foreigners could only stay in one hotel, a few blocks from the central market, but sited alongside a plain with a good view of the mountains to the west. Dai, Bai and Achang restaurants were nearby and at the latter of these I tried the Achang specialty — guoshou mixian or over-the-hand rice noodles.

The noodles are made from reddish hill rice, served with ground pork, peanuts, chili, coriander sauce and soup. Achang folks take a handful of noodles and add the other ingredients, which gives the dish its name. I and other non-Achang diners however, used chopsticks.

Also near the hotel stood the finest religious monument in Zhangfeng — the Dai-style Three Elephants Pagoda (三象塔). All white, its base sits on a small island underneath the sprawling branches of a huge pipal tree, with the central spire rising above three sculptures of trumpeting elephants. Other pagodas in the suburbs and beyond were the Burmese kind, with several tiers of tin roofs, each level smaller than the one below.

Jinghan (景罕), 12 kilometers northeast of Zhangfeng is a nondescript town that was formerly the county capital. Just outside town is the hilltop Guangmu Pagoda (广母佛塔), accessible by a flight of about 300 steps. On a white mound with a bronze spire, its original construction dates to 1632 and marks the spot where Dehong Dai believe Buddhism was first established in the prefecture.

Rural Dai temple, Longchuan County
Rural Dai temple, Longchuan County

Every five days Zhangfeng hosts an open market day, attracting people from both sides of the border. The Dai, Jingpo and Lisu from the mountains to the northeast all show up, hawking hill crops, deerskins, split-bamboo baskets and other items. A few De'ang women may also make appearances, recognizable by their bright, multi-colored jackets and headscarves, woolen tassel earrings, striped sarongs and perhaps, like some Jingpo women, rattan rings around the hips.

From the Mon-Khmer linguistic group, the De'ang population is only half that of the Achang. A few scattered De'ang villages lie in the hills near the Myanmar border, but most of Dehong's De'ang live in Santaishan (三台山), especially in the hills south of the main road on the way up to the Buddhist cave temple at Sanjiaoyan (三角岩寺). They live in stilted wooden and bamboo houses with thatched roofs and, like their Dai neighbors, practice Theravada Buddhism.

Jingpo men in Zhangfeng on market day
Jingpo men in Zhangfeng on market day

The last of western Dehong's cities is Ruili, 37 kilometers south of Zhangfeng, the largest of the four. From the eighth through the twelfth centuries it was the capital of Mengmao (勐卯古国), the most powerful kingdom in the immediate region. The Mongols conquered it in the thirteenth century and the Ming Dynasty reasserted Chinese suzerainty less than 100 years later. The area retained a measure of local autonomy until the twentieth century and in recent decades has become important because of its commercial ties to neighboring Myanmar.

Ruili has all the hallmarks of a prosperous border town, with skyscrapers and expensive hotels towering above the rows of royal palm trees on the main streets. It rises late, with few shops open before 10am, and stays active late, with most people having dinner after dark and the warren of shops and stalls inside and outside the covered central market busy until midnight. Many Burmese wander through town, including individual merchants hawking ornaments to Chinese tourists who came to Ruili specifically to buy jade.

Jiele Pagoda, Dehong's finest
Jiele Pagoda, Dehong's finest

The other Ruili feature drawing Chinese tourists two decades ago was its proximity to the Myanmar border. They could take a short trip from Ruili to Jiegao (姐告), step across the border to the other side and be able to say they'd been to a foreign country, even if for but a few hours. The main road, Highway 320, ran another 34 kilometers southwest from Ruili to Nongdao (弄岛) at the extreme end of the prefecture.

The road ran more or less parallel to the Ruili River, a branch of the Nu that, after crossing the boundary, becomes the Salween. The road runs in a straight line, but the river is somewhat winding, so that pieces of Myanmar territory lie between the river and the boundary line. And at Jiegao, a chunk of Chinese territory lies south of the river.

The land is relatively flat on this route, featuring a succession of Dai towns, villages and farmland, a rural relief after the bustle of Ruili. Every Dai hamlet has a temple, usually a modest wooden one, but occasionally grander, with multi-tiered pagodas in the Burmese style, flanked by tall bamboo poles with long, narrow cloth banners fluttering from the tips and great banyan trees in the courtyards. Hansa Temple (喊撒寺), a few kilometers from Ruili, and Leizang (雷奘), on a hill north of the highway and further down towards Nongdao, are two fine examples.

The most famous is Dadenghan Temple (大等喊寺), which is situated 20 kilometers southwest of Ruili, near Jiexiang (姐相). On stilts, with red wooden walls and silver-colored roofs and pagoda spires, with a covered entrance corridor, it is typical of the Dehong Dai Buddhist style. It was built in the eighteenth century and is supposed to house bone relics of the Buddha. According to local legend, the Buddha stopped for a night here on his mission to preach the religion throughout Asia.

Dadenghan Monastery
Dadenghan Monastery

East of Ruili, Highway 320 runs to Wanding (畹町), the last major town before the boundary of Luxi County (潞西县). It's not much to look at today, but from the hill behind it, especially from the Thousand Buddhas Temple (千佛寺) on top, one has a commanding view of the city and Myanmar beyond the bridge. Wanding had a brief flare of importance in the Second World War as the terminus of the Burma Road, established after the Japanese seized eastern China and the government removed to Chongqing. Tons of supplies, food and weaponry crossed into Yunnan from the British colony of Burma, until the Japanese conquered the region and closed the road.

Returning to Ruili, I made two last stops at Mengling (勐令) and Jiele (姐勒). The former town hosts a patch of old banyan trees, with multiple roots descending from their lower branches. One is called the Snake Tree. Jiele's attraction is its pagoda, the finest in Dehong, originally erected in 1500 and restored ten times since, most recently in the 1980s. The central spire, rising above several subsidiary golden spires, stands on a white base with the top part covered in dark orange tiles, unique in the prefecture. With views of Dai farmers riding their buffaloes on the way back to Ruili, it was a fitting way to close my exploration of Dehong — a day of history, culture and everyday rural life.

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.

The Snake Tree near Mengling
The Snake Tree near Mengling

Images: Jim Goodman

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Some of Goodman's books are also for sale at Mandarin Books

Jingpo people are more often called Kachin in English.

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