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Qujing and Zhaotong: A 1990s look at northeast Yunnan

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Throughout the 90s I made repeated excursions to Yunnan province, fascinated everywhere I went. By the end of the decade the only area I hadn't visited was the northeast — Qujing (曲靖) and Zhaotong (昭通) prefectures. Little information was available because neither place drew tourists in significant numbers. Those looking for something different from the ordinary Yunnan itinerary might venture to the Colored Sand Forest (彩色沙林景区) or the Duoyi River (多依河), home to the Buyi minority, all in Qujing. Zhaotong was only a stopover for those coming to Yunnan from Sichuan or Guizhou.

A new highway had opened in 1999, so the journey from Kunming only took two hours. Qujing lies on one of the broadest plains in Yunnan and is the province's second largest city, after Kunming. The prefecture was one of the earliest settlement zones for Han immigrants, long before Ming Dynasty officials sponsored migration.

The city was clean and well laid out, but nearly every building was new and built in a modern style. No traditional neighborhood of wooden shop-houses flanked the business district, as they did in Yuxi (玉溪) and Kunming. The residents seemed to be all Han and I spotted several old-fashioned elderly women wearing turbans, embroidered bibs, plain aprons and embroidered shoes. Some attempt had been made to give the city a Chinese look, with traditional pavilions and bridges in the parks and the impressive recreation of the South Gate, erected in the mid-90s.

The gate, with its massive, two-tiered tower, stood at what was then the southern city limit, in a park decorated with flower gardens and a fountain flanked by a stream. The wall extends about 40 meters to each side of the entrance, with watchtowers at each end. At night, lights illuminated the fountain and gate.

The main east-west street — Qilin Lu — is named after the city's mythical mascot the unicorn. In fact, the city is more commonly referred to by residents as Qilin (麒麟). At the eastern roundabout stands a statue of the Unicorn Fairy, holding a pitcher of pouring water. Further up, at the western roundabout, was a statue of the Sani Yi heroine Ashima, riding a horse with her brother Ahei behind, using his bow and arrow against the enemy.

For me this was an odd statue to see, being familiar with the Sani story already. Both figures wore the faces of grim and resolute determination, very much in the old Socialist-realist style. According to the myth, the two were actually fleeing in terror from a demon chief who had tried to abduct Ashima. He subsequently used his magic power to thrust up the stone pillars of the Stone Forest (石林) and then sent a flood through it to drown her and her brother. And anyway, that all happened in an area far from Qujing and no Sani Yi lived in the prefecture.

While its connections to the famous Sani myth were suspect, Qujing historically was the site of two important events in Chinese history, both taking place in Baishijiang (白石江), just north of the city. During the third century Three Kingdoms wars, upon the death of the western state of Shu's leader, Liu Bei, revolts broke out in Nanzhong (南中), corresponding to today's southern Sichuan and most of Yunnan. The Shu chancellor, Zhuge Liang, led his Southern Expedition to quell the revolt, but in a manner that would win the hearts and minds of the people.

His final opponent was the popular tribal leader Meng Huo. According to legend, and the fourteenth century Three Kingdoms novel, Zhuge Liang captured Meng Huo six times. When the latter refused to admit defeat, Zhuge Liang let him go and tried again. On the seventh capture Meng Huo submitted. The victor offered him palatable terms. Meng Huo acknowledged Shu sovereignty and agreed to send regular tribute. In return, he remained in charge of internal affairs.

This was the forerunner to the modern policy of autonomous areas in places dominated by non-Han peoples. A broad stone relief sculpture of the event stands at Baishijiang today. The central panel depicts Zhuge Liang and Menghuo toasting to their agreement. Other panels render scenes of bull fights and other Yi minority customs.

Over a millennium later, the Ming Dynasty launched a campaign in 1381 to expel the remnant Yuan Dynasty forces from Yunnan, their last refuge in China. Dispatching 300,000 Han and Hui troops against the Mongol forces, the final battle in January 1382 took place on the same field at Baishijiang. The Ming side annihilated its opponents. The last Yuan survivors held out briefly at Liaokuoshan (廖廓山), a wooded hill that is now the city's largest and finest park, outside the southwest corner of the city. That was the end of Yuan resistance.

No memorial of any kind exists around Baishijiang commemorating this event, which marked the final triumph of the Ming Dynasty over all of China. Two relics of earlier periods, however, in the form of inscribed stone steles, stand in pavilions in the courtyard of the city's Number One Middle School. The earlier, dated 404, is famed for its calligraphy, supposedly a transition from the ancient style to the contemporary. The other, erected by the King of Dali in 937, records details of the state's eastern expedition and lists its tribal allies.

Among its natural features, Qujing Prefecture is the site of the origin of the Pearl River, 47 kilometers north of the capital in Luyi County (鲁依县). The source is a spring, the waters directed into the Huashan Reservoir (花山水库). It wasn't very impressive, but other places in the prefecture, particularly Luoping (罗平) in the southeast, certainly are. The most extensive scenic area is near the junction of Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces, marked by steep limestone mountains, with one range named the Sea of Ten Thousand Forested Peaks. The lovely Duoyi River Valley lies nearby — with its numerous water-wheels and friendly Buyi ethnic minority — as Lubu Lake (鲁布湖), a reservoir created by filling in a gorge.

About 12 kilometers east of Luoping is the county's most famous natural attraction — the Jinji Peaks (金鸡峰), a broad cluster of small hills dotting the plain south of the highway. They are not very tall, averaging 200 meters, nor irregular in shape. But spaced close to each other over a wide and utterly flat plain they make an appealing sight, especially in February and March when the canola flowers — also called rapeseed — carpet the plain in bright yellow. Hordes of tourists show up to photograph the landscape.

After another 20 kilometers or so the highway comes to a junction turning north and then winds through pleasant rural scenery several kilometers before terminating at Nine Dragon Waterfalls (九龙瀑布), the widest and most visited falls in the province. The cataracts spill over two broad ledges each about ten meters high and perhaps 20 meters apart. Forested hills provide the backdrop.

A different kind of mountain attraction exists west of Luoping, in Shizong County (师宗县). Lying 30 kilometers from the county seat, it's called Mushroom Mountain after the abundance of wild fungus growing there, especially in rainy season. In the center of Shizong itself stands the White Pagoda, with nine tiers and a column of dark, arched windows on each of its eight sides. In the western suburbs lies Xihua Temple (西华寺), a large complex of buildings originally built in 1610.

The next city west, Luliang (陆良), had some quiet, old-style neighborhoods with tree-lined streets and wooden shop-houses back then. In the southern suburbs is the Dajiao Temple, a Ming Dynasty compound erected four years after Shizong's Xihua Temple. The complex itself is a modestly decorated building. But it contains one of Yunnan's most interesting towers — Thousand Buddha Pagoda (千佛塔). Seven stories tall on a hexagonal base and pale yellow-white in color, the pagoda gets its name because of the thousand square niches on its exterior walls, each of them containing a small Buddha image.

To get to Zhaotong from Qujing, I traveled via Weining (威宁) in Guizhou, with a stop at Xuanwei (宣威) en route. Lishan (黎山), at 2,678 meters the highest mountain in Qujing Prefecture, towers just north of the city. Xuanwei remains famous for its ham, but was not particularly interesting otherwise. Neither was Weining and its cement buildings and endless construction. Weining is a Yi, Hui and Miao Autonomous County, but I didn't see anyone dressed in clothing associated with any of the three, neither in the city nor on the road out to Zhaotong next day.

After the boring streets of Xuanwei and Weining, I found Zhaotong a pleasant city. At that time the southern and western quarters were all modernized, but traditional architecture, markets and lifestyle still dominated the northern and eastern quarters. The city had a strong Hui presence, indicated by the mosque standing above the neighborhood houses at the southeast entrance to the city. A tall sculpture of a black-necked crane, the city mascot, stood on a pedestal near the main bus station.

The former old town, little of which remains, comprised wooden shop-houses down narrow lanes, brick and tile private dwellings, shops selling the whole range of split bamboo handicrafts — from furniture to winnowing trays — and ceramic vessels. Though the buildings lacked the carved embellishments once replete in Kunming's old town, they did create a sense of Old China.

Traffic was largely pedestrian, plus some three-wheeled pedicabs with bright yellow frames and fenders. The traditional feel of the area was augmented by the old-fashioned clothing style favored by the elderly generation of Han — women in big turbans, side-fastened jackets and long aprons, men in ankle-length, side-fastened coats, slit on the sides, with long wispy beards on their chins. They were the only ones in town dressed in traditional style, save for a few Miao women marketing herbal medicines and Hui women in white headscarves.

The old town and new city meet in the north at the Qingguanting Park (清官亭公园). Just inside the entrance is the modest but attractive Qingguan Pavilion, of gray brick and red wood, beside a big tree next to a small pond. It was built in 1809 and is the one major historical structure extant in the city. A stream from this pond passes into an adjacent park under an arched bridge with a long pavilion and rest-house beside it.

Most of the prefecture's population is Han, both in the towns and the countryside. Besides the Hui in the towns and in some plains villages, the more mountainous districts are home to Yi and Miao. They are not as colorful as their counterparts elsewhere in the province and have assimilated much into modern Han culture. Most Miao and some Yi became Christian after vigorous American missionary efforts during the Nationalist period. Coincidentally, at that time the province was under the control of Long Yun (龙云), an Yi warlord born in Zhaotong.

North of the city the mountains rise quite steeply. Having time for but one excursion I opted for Daguan (大关), 63 kilometers northeast. But that was the year new roads were under construction all over Yunnan and the normal route to Daguan was closed. My ride instead was a long bumpy, 170-kilometer detour before finally, 12 hours later, I arrived in Daguan. The city is on a spur beside a river, but 300 steep meters above it. No parks or old quarter existed, but the location was superb, backed by high mountains, the slopes studded with Miao villages.

The reason to be in Daguan was to see Huanglian Falls (黄连瀑布), several kilometers south of town and a wonderful morning walk with views of steep, majestic, jagged mountains all around. Paths in the park led in several directions among the different cataracts. A few of these tumble from high precipices. Others seem to have been artificially directed, like the one that passes over a ledge where one can walk and see the waterfall from underneath. Another path leads to a cave with three elephant statues at the entrance and illuminated stalactites within. One path leads to a viewpoint high above the cataracts, while another branches off to nearby Miao villages. The area is thickly forested and full of flowers in the spring.

Following this pleasurable stroll, I took an overnight bus back to Kunming, over the same slow, grueling detour. Our early morning stop was somewhere in northern Qujing Prefecture. Before me stretched a landscape of relatively barren auburn hills and rich reddish soil freshly plowed in the nearest fields. It was not the best place to see this Yunnan phenomenon, yet a reminder of other attractions in northeast Yunnan. There were still scenic spots and ethnic minority districts I had not yet visited. As with every other part of Yunnan, a first look just provoked ambitions to see more.

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

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