This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chapter 24: LIJIANG: Music and Matriarchs.

Lijiang had obviously come on a bit since 1924, when Joseph Rock described it as 'a conglomeration of mud huts and a market place4. Now there was a Chinese half of lawn, predictably concrete and noisy with tractors, metal saws and distorted pop music. But the mountain peeped out from the end of the main street, and the high-altitude glare lent the place a cheerful if somewhat eye-straining lightness. The local kids looked gangly and knockabout, they spoke hick mandarin and wore un-Chinese clothes like baggy jeans and Kicker-style boots. Meanwhile, in the alleys of the old town, elderly Nakhi women moved around slowly and silently, carrying baskets on their backs, or crouching over the clear stream, washing clothes. They wore blue smocks and black bonnets, and looked fit and sprightly.

The last time I had been in Lijiang was at Christmas, when I had shivered round a brazier in one of the cafes with a handful of westerners, singing Christmas carols. Now it was pleasantly warm, and those cafes had been bulldozed to make room for a huge public square commemorating Mao. 'Only the Party can give wholehearted leadership to the people!' said the red and yellow slogan beneath a large statue of the Chairman. But to me, the Great Helmsman, arm outstretched, seemed to be saying 'Have a nice trip!'

Lijiang 1994

The area around the square has dominated by slight young Nakhi women who sat astride large motorbikes with sidecars, which served as the town's taxis. One woman was dressed completely in leather, another wore leopardskin trousers. Further down, a line of children from a junior school snaked along the pavement. They were Nakhi kids but looked Chinese from the way they held onto each other's coat-tails, and because of the dab of rouge on their cheeks.

Lijiang had been the base for several explorers earlearlier in the 20th century. Joseph Rock made his headquarters in a village called Nguluko to the north of the town, and he valued the bravery and loyalty of his Nakhi bodyguards. Peter Goullart, a French-Russian who helped set up industrial cooperatives lived in Lijiang until he was kicked out in 1949. Goullart made several journeys to the 'Cool Mountains' north of Lijiang, and wrote several books on the lifestyles of the Nakhi, Yi and other local minorities. Likewise, the left-wing British journalist. Alan Winnington, used Lijiang as a base in the 1950s, to report on the progress of reforms in 'New China' among the former slave societies of the Yi people. Lijiang would also serve as the 'base' for my more modest trip.

First, I went to see an expert on local history, Mr Xuan Ke ('as in Ravi Shankar'). He was a local Nakhi who held court most nights in a room above a courtyard in the old town. The room was full of memorabilia, books, old furniture and photographs of old Lijiang. Western visitors would sit around for an hour listening to him describe Mosuo suicide rituals or Nakhi dances.

In his jeans. Hush Puppies and sweatshirt, the bouncy Xuan Ke looked much younger than his 64 years, and quite robust for someone who had spent 20 years in a labour camp (his support for Nakhi culture had been deemed anti-Chinese) - Xuan Ke's main interest was in Nakhi music. Since his release from the labour camp he had been leading a renaissance in Nakhi culture, one of the highlights of which was the re-forming of the original Lijiang Nakhi orchestra.

This was an ensemble of old men who played a Nakhi interpretation of 15th century Chinese chamber music. Performances were held on alternate evenings in a makeshift theatre in one of the courtyard houses of the old town. I went along to one of the performances, compered by Xuan Ke, and attended by about 50 western tourists.

'I will tell you the story in broken English about our Nakhi orchestra, that has did not have a chance to practice between 1949 and 1987.' said Xuan Ke. Behind him the ensemble of geriatric men in Mao caps and proletarian blue jackets adjusted their flutes, gongs and banjos. 'By the way, we are called Nakhi people, not Naxi as written by the Chinese. Naxi sounds too much like Nazi,' he said. He introduced the various members of the orchestra, starting with the oldest. Mr Zhao, 86 years old. 'In the old days Mr Zhao went on the mule caravan through Tibet to India, twenty times. These other old men often had fathers who were officers in the Kuomintang army, so they have had a bad life,'

Lijiang 1994

He ran through the other old members: an accountant. a hunter, a factory manager, each giving a little nod as they were introduced. Then Xuan Ke turned to look at the photos on the wall. 'Our master musicians are very old. When they die, we turn them into black and white,' he said. 'These men are like me,' continued Xuan Ke. pointing to three not-quite- so-old musicians in the orchestra. 'They are sheep. That means they were horn in the year of the sheep, 1930. We are all 64 years old. How do I look so young? That is because of the 20 years in prison, when I was trained like an animal to do hard work.'

Xuan Ke explained the music they played was from the Ming Dynasty, between 1000 and 1500 AD. The music had been introduced to the region by a Chinese general, and had remained unchanged while mainstream Chinese music had evolved under Mongol and Manchurian emperors.

The first piece of music was quite unlike the feisty local folk dances: to my ears it was a random clutter of cymbals, drums, flutes and erhu. Six teenage girls sang along in a plaintive chant. 'How did we keep this music unchanged and not the Chinese?' Xuan Ke asked rhetorically, when the tune had ended. The old men sat behind him, smoking, picking their noses and stroking their long grey beards.

'Firstly, because this is religious music used for ceremonies, and so we don't want to change it. More importantly though, Lijiang is so remote and isolated.' 'In 1944, when I was 14 years old, I travelled to missionary school in Kunming. It took 11 days, first by donkey to Xiaguan, then by shaking truck. There was no gasoline, the trucks ran on charcoal. Lijiang was very isolated. At that time, fighting the Japanese, there were a lot of American pilots, the Flying Tigers, in Kunming. One day, the general, Joe Stillwell, came to Lijiang. My father spoke to him because he was the only one in Lijiang who could speak English!'

'The third reason why our music did not change is because Lijiang is a housewife’s kingdom.' he continued. 'Everything here is done by the wives: 95% of the butchers here are women. Men lose face if they do hard work/ I thought about those Nakhi women in the square, riding the big motorbike taxis. "The tradition here is for the Nakhi men to enjoy smoking, drinking, painting, and playing mahjong. If a man is seen carrying a basket, everyone will laugh at his wife! So, Lijiang is a nice place for gentlemens, but in this way, the gentlemens have also lost their power - the women have the key to the bank,'

The next piece of music had only half a title: Old Man Sitting By the Peaceful River Doing... "We don't know.' said Xuan Ke, 'It is from an old manuscript, and the worms ate the last words of the title, so we will never know what that old man was doing.'

Half way through the tune, a young girl in the orchestra stood up and played a halting flute solo. At the end, she sat down, impassive to the applause. 'This young girl is only 16 years old.' said Xuan Ke. 'She has been playing the bamboo flute for only three months, but already she captures the soul and the colour of the instrument, don't you think?' 'When we first started, the young people of Lijiang used to laugh and say 'Your orchestra is old and ugly!' But nowadays the young Nakhi students want to learn more about this music. Why? Because they see all you westerners coming here and they think it must be something good. They always look up to the west.'

Xuan Ke pulled a face. "The students want to escape from karaoke.' he sneered. 'You know what karaoke means in Japanese? Empty orchestra. Empty, tike the young generation. Their brains are emptied by this new weapon from Japan. All the words are nonsense,' He mimicked a pop song; "He chase after her... Oh, terrible.' And the audience laughed. 'But now we are capturing more students, and that is important."

Before the last song, Xuan Ke explained that this 'Dong Jin' religious music was originally intended as therapy, to promote harmony and inner peace. And thus it was essential that we learn to 'receive' the music rather than Just listen to it. The key was knowing the four music "receiving points of the body, namely the end of the left eyebrow, the middle of both hands, below the navel, and the soles of the feet.

'You must concentrate on each of these points in turn. in a clockwise direction,' said Xuan Ke. And there were a few other rules to follow: 'Close your eyes, but don't refuse the light in. Close your mouth, but with a smile. Keep the tongue touching the sky strongly. And don't think of anything else. Yes, keep everything away from your mind, especially MTV and dramatic rock singers,' he sneered. 'If you practice this way, you will notice a warm feeling rising in your body. You will feel you are floating comfortably with the music.' I tried it during the last piece of music, but nothing happened. It still sounded like a random jumble of hollow drums and strings. Perhaps it was the uncomfortable ankle-high stools that prevented my concentration.

Lijiang was not a good place for picking up information about Muli- I asked around in the local cafes, but most people had never heard of the place, Muli was over the provincial border in Sichuan, and might as well have been in another country. The manager of Ali Baha's cafe ('Open Sesame: 8 o'clock') was more helpful than most. I asked him whether it would be dangerous for me to walk alone through country areas. 'Not really. The Yi people to the north are quite poor, so you shouldn't let them see your money, or get them angry. But you shouldn't have any trouble!' he reassured me. I had become paranoid after reading the traveller's notes in the local cafes. One person wrote of a drunken card game he'd had with Tibetans in neighbouring Zhongdian, which had ended with knives being drawn. Another traveller told of being smashed in the face by a rock thrown by an angry peasant while trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge: the traveller had refused to pay a 'guiding fee' after being led hack to the track when he was lost.

And in Lijiang, an American woman had been run over and killed by a motorbike. Her companion complained of having to bargain with a local truck driver to take the critically-injured woman to the hospital. In the end, I fell back on the information I had already brought with me: the sketchy 1924 maps from Rock's National Geographic articles, and the crumpled photocopied page from a Chinese atlas. I would try follow Rock's route to Muli from Lijiang, 100 miles northwards over the hills, via a town called Youngning. But first, I would tackle the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, it brought back happy memories of my own meetings with Xuan Ke and the Nakhi Lijiang Orchestra


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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.