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A short history of Tengchong – a key trading post on the Southern Silk Road

By in Travel on

Guyong street
Guyong street

From ancient times until the advent of modern highways and railroads, the main means of long-distance trade and international commerce by land was the caravan. Consisting of sometimes hundreds of animals, carrying both trade goods and their own provisions for the lengthy, arduous journey, caravans began connecting China economically with places as far away as Europe from the early Han Dynasty. Because the main item exported from China was silk, the caravan routes became known as the Silk Road. The most famous route ran from northwest China all the way to Europe. Another, less traveled but not as long or grueling, was the Southern Silk Road, running from Sichuan through Yunnan and on to Burma and India.

Han Dynasty authority in Yunnan was intermittent and under the Tang and Song Dynasties, Yunnan was an independent state – the Nanzhao Kingdom during the Tang Dynasty and the Kingdom of Dali during the Song Dynasty. Neither of these states exerted much control of their southwestern territories, relying on autonomous local rulers to keep the peace. When the Mongols conquered Yunnan they set up an administrative center in Tengchong, but the area was still lightly populated and relatively lawless until the Ming Dynasty drove the Mongols out in the late 14th century. With Yunnan now part of China, the Ming encouraged Chinese settlement in the province.

A house in Heshun
A house in Heshun

Traffic on the Southern Silk Road revived and as Tengchong was the last major stop inside China before crossing into Burma, immigrants arrived in droves and established businesses that thrived. The city's setting was part of the attraction. At an elevation of 1640 meters, with a mild climate year-round, it sits on a broad plain with mountains standing in a horseshoe shape around it – the opening to the south. The land produced grain, sugarcane, tea leaves and oil crops. Around 400 years ago tobacco cultivation began, generally on the slopes of the volcanoes north of the city. The very high-quality tobacco nowadays is usually blended with other Yunnan tobaccos.

A house in Heshun
A house in Heshun

Tengchong was also a transit point for silk and other items from Sichuan and Yunnan. The city's main import was Burmese jade, which the city's craftsmen carved and prepared for export all over China. The jade business is still part of the city, augmented in recent years by Burmese amber. The city holds a Jade and Amber Bazaar every five days, attracting merchants from both China and Myanmar.

As their businesses prospered, some merchants left home to expand their business abroad. This was particularly true in Heshun, ten kilometers to the south. Heshun is a town famous for its high percentage of residents who became Overseas Chinese. Retaining connections with the homeland, they endowed their families, and the town itself, with funds for nice houses, as well as parks, pavilions and even a library. With architecture classical but influenced by foreign styles, obvious prosperity, quiet atmosphere, lack of slums, pleasant parks, views and pavilions, Heshun is a popular excursion out of Tengchong.

Heshun translates as Peace and Harmony, an appropriate name for a town that exemplifies those concepts in its layout and atmosphere. It lies on a knoll above a clear shallow stream, holding about 1300 houses and 7000 residents. Nearly every family has at least one relative who is an Overseas Chinese. In fact, the number of Heshun-born Overseas Chinese is nearly twice that of the town's current residents. Over the centuries it has earned a reputation for producing talent – scholars and educators, writers and artists, philosophers and rich merchants.

A pavillion in Heshun
A pavillion in Heshun

A road winds around the base of the knoll and branching lanes lead to the houses, pavilions and ponds. A classical gateway marks the entrance to each neighborhood. The houses are usually whitewashed, with sloping tiled roofs and upturned corners. All of them look like the domiciles of fairly wealthy families. A few exhibit a mixed architectural influence, with standard Chinese style roofs – the corners turned up higher than usual – and very Western-like doors, balconies and windows.

The only non-Chinese style building in town is the large library on the campus of Yiqun Middle School. Set up in 1924, sponsored by Heshun's native Overseas Chinese, it contains over 60,000 volumes, including some rare ancient texts. The town's other public buildings all reflect the traditional style, embellished with carved beams, painted rafters and vertical boards of poem couplets, inscribed by famous calligraphers.

A pond in Heshun
A pond in Heshun

Some of these structures stand in the parks and rest-stops, of which there are several, often beside ponds. The town has plenty of places for strollers to take a break and enjoy the serenity and scenery. The ponds may be active at any time, with children playing or women washing clothes, using stone anvils mounted at the edge of the pool. The women do their laundry under roofed shelters built long ago as a gift by newlywed husbands before they set off on their business travels. Yuanlongtan, about 1.5 km behind Heshun, has the most limpid water and lies in front of the town's largest temple compound, sprawling up the wooded hill behind it.

Back in Tengchong it is difficult to find traditional architecture, as such neighborhoods are scattered between concrete high-rises and are slowly but inevitably disappearing. The city does boast one outstanding natural attraction not far from the center—Dieshuihe, a waterfall that plunges 40 meters over a sheer cliff. Inscribed in stylized calligraphy on the side of the cliff are four characters that describe the waterfall as "a sword that sweeps away the dense miasma."

The words take on a poignant irony when one knows that in 1879 Qing Dynasty troops, fearing a revival of the Muslim Rebellion, massacred hundreds of Tengchong Muslims by hurling them over the falls. The incident, not mentioned on any signpost in the vicinity, makes Dieshuihe a kind of historical attraction. Another is the city's former British Consulate, a large, forlorn-looking building built from 1921-31 and abandoned when Japanese troops invaded Tengchong in 1942.

Dieshuihe waterfall in Tengchong
Dieshuihe waterfall in Tengchong

British involvement in Tengchong began with an expedition led by Augustus Raymond Margary to explore trade routes from Shanghai through China and into India. While he was traveling a little north of Tengchong, in February, 1875 bandits waylaid his party and killed him and his ten Chinese workers. Great Britain then demanded compensation from the Qing government, while local authorities countered that the British had not informed them in advance of Margary's trip. Well aware of the Qing Dynasty's decline and weakness, the British forced one of its 'Unequal Treaties' on China, this one called the Chefoo Convention.

Under its terms the Qing government agreed to pay compensation to the victims' families, arrest and try the killers, grant British citizens the right of extra-territoriality and make revisions in its trade policy favorable to Britain. Ten years later Britain took control of northern Burma and Tengchong eventually became a trading post for goods coming out of British India. Prosperity returned to Tengchong and prevailed until the Japanese occupation of Burma.

After the Japanese War came the Chinese Civil War, the establishment of a Communist system, the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution, which reached into even remote cities like Tengchong, and finally the Reform Era. From then on former businesses revived and thrived, while industrialization and exploitation of the county's natural and mineral resources accelerated. The construction of new highways across the province rendered access to Tengchong much easier, an asset which sparked growth of a tourist industry.

While it doesn't have the towering snow mountains of the northwest or the tropical environment of Xishuangbanna, the county is unique in Yunnan for its many volcanoes, some of them still active. Relatively young volcanoes, geologically speaking, form a partial ring around the county capital. Adventurous visitors can take a long hike up the side of one to see the crater and view other mountains from a high perspective.

Rehai hot springs
Rehai hot springs

Most tourists were Chinese from big cities and unlikely to make such an endeavor. The geothermal feature more interesting to them was the presence of hot springs. Several of these lie scattered around the county, but the biggest is Rehai—the Hot Sea—about 20 km south of Tengchong.

Visitors here take a leisurely walk through the forest on a trail beside a creek. The hot springs pop up at frequent intervals, sometimes within the creek, or spewing from a fissure in a rock shaped like a toad's head, and sometimes out of a nearby pool. A few bubble out of man-made stone cauldrons, decorated with carved animal figures. The most impressive is the Big Boiling Pot, 3 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep, its steam, at 90 degrees celsius, gushing up several meters into the air.

The Rehai springs contain many minerals good for the health. They are effective in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and skin diseases. Near some of the larger hot springs in the nine square kilometer park are bath houses and steam beds where guests can indulge in such treatment.

A Lisu lady in Guyong
A Lisu lady in Guyong

Tengchong's other alluring attraction is the presence of the very traditional Hua Lisu ethnic minority, living in the highlands northwest of the city. Hua means 'flower' and this Lisu sub-group is so named for the bright, 'flowery' colors of their traditional apparel, especially that of the women. Lisu tradition claims the Lisu had a kingdom in eastern Tibet before the Tibetans migrated there. Afterwards they gradually moved south through Sichuan into western Yunnan.

They are divided into several sub-groups, but share the same language – part of the Yi group of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group and related to Yi, Hani and Lahu. They have no written system, but the Lisu preserve their history in songs, which can sometimes take an entire day to sing. The Hua Lisu, one of the largest sub-groups, moved into the mountains of Tengchong around the beginning of the 16th century.

A Lisu lady in Guyong
A Lisu lady in Guyong

Security was an initial problem, for Ming Dynasty rule had not established control very much beyond the Southern Silk Road route. Bandits ruled the rural and remote areas. Finally, in the early 16th century the Ming Court dispatched Minister Wang Ji to conduct a pacification campaign in southwest Yunnan. To augment the forces he brought with him, he recruited local residents who had suffered from cross-border bandit raids, especially the Lisu, and gave them military training.

The campaign was a success, though Wang Ji died just before its conclusion, and law and order was established on the frontier. Other than being conscripted for government labor projects from time to time, the Lisu remained pretty aloof from the plains, practicing swidden agriculture, hunting and gathering and a basically subsistence economy. Over the centuries some of them moved to lower altitudes, straddling or flanking streams, and raised different crops on fixed fields. They were also involved in the logging industry in the past.

Hua Lisu village
Hua Lisu village

The easiest place to meet them is Guyong town, 52 kilometers northwest of Tengchong, on market day. Guyong sits on an elevated plateau a few hundred meters higher than Tengchong. The town is Han-dominated, as is the immediate rural area, but the hills are just several kilometers away, full of Lisu villages, and some of them show up in Guyong on market day.

They stand out at once for the attraction of their colorful clothing, both men and particularly women. Men might wear a turban or a broad-brimmed hat, plus a long jacket, usually white or pinstriped gray, boots and a sash over one shoulder of discs cut from cowry shells. The women wear long-tailed blue coats with silver clasps in the front and brightly colored flaps at the back, knee-length pants and puttees or black rattan rings around the calves and a belt with embroidered tassels holding a long black apron with colored trimming.

A Lisu lady in Guyong
A Lisu lady in Guyong

Their jewelry comprises many strings of beads, a stiff round collar ornamented with silver studs, buttons, shell discs or cowries, with silver pendants suspended from the bottom of the collar, plus other pendants that hang from the belt or apron. The traditional headgear is a round cap of a row of cowry shell discs, with colored cloth on top and in flaps over the back.

The most interesting time to visit Tengchong's Lisu is during the Sword Ladder Festival, on the eighth day of the second lunar month. They stage it in honor of Wang Ji, their commander in the pacification campaign. His soldiers revered him and said he was so brave he could walk across a bed of hot coals and climb a ladder of swords. This was a way of saying 'very very brave' but the Lisu took it literally. Every year brave volunteers run over a 'sea of fire' at night and the next day climb a ladder of 36 machetes, the sharp side up. Their only reward is the prestige from doing it.

Bridge in a Hua Lisu village
Bridge in a Hua Lisu village

Lisu villages have a better material life now, with roads, bridges, schools, easy access to the market and other improvements. They are more integrated into the modern world, yet the Sword Ladder Festival proves that they cling to certain old traditions, especially those that are so tied up with their history and identity, that are quintessentially Lisu.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights. 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 founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam and western Yunnan. Recently Goodman has also started a Facebook group called Yunnan Discovery where he frequently posts pictures of Yunnan.

All images: Jim Goodman

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