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Exploring Yunnan's Wenshan Prefecture in the 1990s

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Twenty years ago I had an assignment to revise and update the Yunnan and Guangzi chapters for the Insight guidebook to China. This was my only trip to the country in which I ventured beyond Yunnan. Certainly the scenery along the Li River from Guilin (桂林) to Yangshuo (阳朔) is a spectacular sight, but the rest of the destinations, like drab and gray Nanning (南宁), were not so impressive.

Moreover, the local Chinese were unlike what I'd become used to in my five years of journeys through Yunnan. They were polite, but my conversations were always brief, ending shortly after they learned what my occupation was — researching ethnic minorities in Yunnan. They knew nothing about minorities even in their own Guangxi, didn't want to and just couldn't understand why I found "those kind of people" at all interesting.

Since no one in Nanning could recommend any minority-inhabited areas anywhere near the city, I decided, having finished my work there, to curtail my exploration of Guangxi. With the remaining time on my visa I would visit a place in Yunnan where I had not yet been — Wenshan Prefecture in the southeast. I bought an overnight bus ticket to Babao (八宝) because I'd seen a nice photograph of the hills there in a big Yunnan picture book.

Arriving about noon, I checked into a guesthouse in the center of the old town and had a meal in its restaurant before I started wandering around. While I was eating I heard the only other customer, a Chinese man, ask the manager, "What's the foreigner doing here?" "Probably the scenery," the other replied. "Also for the minorities," I told them. "If you are interested in ethnic minorities," said the manager, "then when you finish your meal, go out the door and turn right at the first street until you are past the hill. Then turn right again. There's a Zhuang village there. You will like it. They still keep the traditional statues over the house doorways to keep away evil spirits."

What a different attitude towards minorities that was compared to my encounters with Han people in Guangxi. Anyone could have told me how to get to the nearest Zhuang village. But here was a Han resident informing me not just of the directions, but also of a particular minority cultural trait he thought would pique my interest.

In my time in Babao I found the Han people quite appreciative of their Zhuang neighbors, considering them a prime asset of the district, as well as the Miao and Yao, who lived further away but were frequent visitors. They have had a longer and closer relationship with the minorities than the Han have in Guilin, Liuzhou (柳州) and Nanning. Consequently, they view them not as inferiors, but instead as interesting equals.

I took the manager's advice and soon entered Babao's scenic hill area. A Zhuang village lay at the base of the nearest hill. The mud-brick houses with tile roofs — as the manager had promised — contained a niche above the doorway holding a snarling, lion-like creature. Two women in a lane were busy laying out the warp threads that would be mounted later on a loom. The women's clothing wasn't particularly attractive — medium blue, side-fastened jacket over black trousers and a white turban on the heads — but all the Zhuang women wore it.

The villagers were full of smiles upon meeting me and soon folks invited me in for tea. They hadn't had many foreign visitors back then, if any, and my presence was a sensation for the children. They followed me all through the village, bursting into animated discussion whenever I stopped to take a photograph. The hill behind the village had a staircase to a viewing platform at the top, but the children didn't ascend it with me.

This is the best view of the landscape Wenshan people call 'Little Guilin'. Looking east, the limestone hills, generally between 50 and 200 meters high and in a variety of shapes, rise above a perfectly flat plain, with a river meandering among them. Zhuang villages of 50 to 60 houses, densely clustered, lay beside many of the hills, their rice fields filling the spaces between. The hills can have very smooth sides, looking like cones or gumdrops or crouching cats, covered with green vegetation, but too stony to make terraced farms.

The same river also runs through the town, crossed by stone bridges, straight and arched, that add to Babao's atmosphere. It rained throughout my first night there, making an excursion to the waterfalls the next day impossible, for no vehicle would chance taking the unpaved road. But it was market day that day, when those bridges were active with rural folks coming into town. The rain was occasionally heavy, but mostly just a drizzle that ceased by afternoon.

Local residents and villagers set up early, with stalls selling clothing, shoes, household goods, toiletries, cosmetics, noodle dishes and snacks, as well as vegetables, grain, bee larvae, tools, fishing nets and baskets. Zhuang villagers also brought huge bamboo storage baskets to sell and the men carried small pigs in bunches, tied up and suspended from each end of a balanced pole. By mid-morning, Miao from the surrounding hills arrived, some selling traditional women's clothing components and accessories.

Two kinds of Miao turned up. Women of the more numerous group wore plain, side-fastened jackets in various solid colors, occasionally with some sleeve decorations, over bulky, pleated, knee-length white or black skirts. Long, rectangular, fully embroidered and appliquéd panels hung from the waist to the hem, front and back. Another group wore ankle-length pleated black skirts, the top half covered with colored strips, with long-sleeved black jackets embellished with colored strips on the sleeves, hem and lapels.

Yao from one of the Landian (蓝靛) branch sub-groups also attended market day. The women dressed in hip-length black jackets and trousers. They wrapped their hair inside black caps topped by an engraved or embossed silver disc. A bright belt around the waist and strings of beads and pink thread tassels around the neck added color to the outfits. Children dressed the same as adults, but wore round caps with a broad band of colored strips around the base and tassels attached to the top.

From Babao, Highway 323 ran straight west through the middle of Wenshan via Yanshan (砚山), then past the prefectural boundary, terminating at Kaiyuan (开远). The scenery consists of low, rolling hills, pleasant but not outstanding. The main changes I noticed en route were among the minorities. Zhuang villages in southwestern Guangnan County (广南县) comprised stilted, wooden houses, though the women dressed like those in Babao, except for a few stripes on the sleeves.

Two styles of Zhuang minority dress in Haizibian, Yunnan
Two styles of Zhuang minority dress in Haizibian, Yunnan

After crossing into Yanshan County, around Ameng (阿猛) I found the Zhuang women wearing very different, much more colorful ensembles. These consisted of short green jackets with broad bands of mostly red trimming on the sleeves, lapels, necks and hem, and a wide cap with the front heavily brocaded, a skill for which Zhuang women have long been famous. Yao women dressed in black like those in Babao, but with a large white collar on the jacket and embossed silver plaques just below it. Ameng was holding market day when I passed through and Yi minority women were also in attendance, wearing short, black, side-fastened jackets with colored bands on the sleeves and all around the lower half of the jacket.

Yanshan City lies at the northern end of a long, elevated plain, mottled with limestone hills, a few of which pop up within the urban area. A medium-sized, modernizing city with wide avenues and new buildings, it had a park on the eastern side where stood big sculptures of the city mascots — a pair of chickens. Elderly folk practiced taiqi exercises there in the evenings. It was a relatively quiet city, without the loud karaoke bars that marred my evenings in Babao.

In the center of Yanshan stands a rocky hill called Chengzishan (城子山). The Hui minority quarter lies south of it and an unusual mosque is at the foot of the hill, its central green domed tower flanked by a pair of thin minarets with sharply pointed tops. A viewing tower on the hill gave me a view of nearby Tinghu Reservoir (听湖水库) and the broad farms growing pseudo-ginseng, a local specialty. A park at the base of the hill provided a late afternoon venue for men to meet, relax, and listen to the caged songbirds they brought with them.

I took a day's excursion to Haizibian (海子边), in the narrow strip of territory between the eastern and western chunks of the county, sited next to a natural body of water called Bathing Fairies Lake — Yuxianhu (浴仙湖). It is bounded by low hills on the southern shore, contains several small islands, a Zhuang village at the near end and a Miao settlement at the far end, with water clean enough to be drawn by villagers for domestic use.

Apparently attempts had been made to turn it into a resort, for groups of floating cabins lay just offshore and the village's Qing Dynasty temple had been turned into a hotel, with the former monks' quarters transformed into rooms for guests and a subsidiary building made into an entertainment hall for ethnic minority dance shows. An arched bridge stood next to the boat landing and a fancy pavilion offered views of the lakeside scenery.

No one was lodged anywhere at the time, nor were any of the floating cabins occupied. In such a picturesque setting, with friendly and colorfully dressed Miao, Zhuang and Yi in the area, I was surprised it wasn't filled with tourists, or at least city day-trippers from Yanshan and Wenshan. There were no restaurants or bars in the vicinity, though, and most shops in Haizibian were closed except on market days.

I hiked the trail along the shore to a Miao village near the end of the lake. All the women wore their traditional outfits of pleated batik skirts and bright jackets, heavily embellished with strips of embroidery and appliqué. I watched a weaver at work and was invited inside next door for tea, liquor and snacks. Then I wandered around the village and its mud-brick, tiled, one-story houses before returning to the trail along the lake back to Haizibian and flagging down a minibus going to Yanshan.

My time then was too limited to stay longer. So I added Haizibian to the list of places in Yunnan I wanted to further explore one day. Ten years later, while heading for Kaiyuan, west of Wenshan, I detoured to Haizibian to stay a couple nights and get a second look. I wanted to stay in the old temple converted into a hotel, but it was locked, the rooms shuttered and the entertainment hall turned into a storage room for crops. I had to settle for a room above a small shop.

The resort not only had not revived, it was in ruins. The bridge was mostly under water, the boats gone, the floating cabins dismantled and the few restaurants and viewing pavilions on the shore empty, stripped of their glass and furniture. Nevertheless, the lake was still beautiful, village architecture still the same and people just as friendly as on my initial visit.

Luckily for me, it was the peak of market day when I arrived. All of Haizibian's fifty or more shops were open and local ethnic minorities set up stalls on the streets to sell products from their villages. Besides the nearby Miao, the market attracted many Yi and Zhuang people, whose women all dressed their traditional styles. The Yi here are a branch of the Sani, who also live in neighboring Qiubei County (丘北县). They wore blue jackets — white if unmarried — with contrasting colored bands around the sleeves and along the lapels.

Yi (left) and Yao (right) minority women in Ameng, Yunnan
Yi (left) and Yao (right) minority women in Ameng, Yunnan

Zhuang women dressed much more colorfully than those in Babao and Guangnan. Their jackets had two colors, blue and brown or black for the older women, black and brighter shades for the younger ones, with embroidered bands around the sleeves and along the hems. Over the jackets they wore long bib,s with the top part or edges lavishly embroidered. Some wore plain black turbans, others a headscarf with a brocaded front, like around Ameng, or a tall cap laden with triangles of silver studs.

In the late afternoon I walked along the lake and discovered that everything else about the area was unchanged. Villages still looked the same. No development projects had added new factories or buildings. Ox carts still carried people around, not motorbikes. Rural life carried on as it always had. It's easy to imagine the eventual resurrection of a resort scene here. More people are traveling than ever before, searching for the natural and the authentic. Unspoiled destinations are getting scarcer all the time, even in Yunnan. Bathing Fairies Lake won't remain neglected forever.

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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I lived in Wenshan for a year 2009-2010: Local minority tribes would gather at the town center and play cards, play music, dance, and sell various herbs and vegetables every night. Now living in Lijiang, that no longer happens, it just seemed life was more public then, now people are less inclined to socialize in public.

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