I thought I was going to continue yesterday’s post about writing, but my mind took a detour and ended up in China’s southwest frontier, where horses roam the wild plains, staggering peaks tower into the sky, and dreamy mists rise from ancient lakes …
But first, I would like to say something about our little heralded National Library. Until recently, the last time I used our libraries was more than a decade ago, back in school. How things have changed!
First of all, the reference libraries have a superb, updated collection that surprised me with their diversity and breadth. My (deep inhale) novel-in-progress has many scenes set in Yunnan, a place I’ve visited often, but the history buff in me wanted to make sure I’ve gotten the facts correct. To my amazement, the reference library had a whole shelf of recent publications on the history of the Southwest. There’s even a large Chinese language section which I plan to start on next. And what’s more, many of the books that can’t be loaned out have been scanned, and are accessible online, right from your home!
The study areas get ridiculously crowded over the weekend, I suppose because it’s exam season. But on weekdays, there’s plenty of space to spread out your books and maps on the large tables, plug your laptop into the convenient electric outlets, and spend the day writing, with lots of natural light flooding in from the tall floor-to-ceiling windows.
I feel like I’ve discovered a national treasure (or public good, in economic terms), and best of all, it’s free!
We’ve gotten hopelessly distracted. I wanted to talk about China’s Southwest, or what is loosely termed 云贵川, short for Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan. Most people, especially in the West, probably think of China as a giant colossus, a coherent entity united by its ancient wall against outsiders, bright red Communist flags flying from the ramparts. When the truth is China as a nation can be unwieldy, amorphous, and full of cleavages wrought by history, culture, and most of all, geography. As the great first line from Romance of the Three Kingdom reads: 分久必合，合久必分. What remains apart for long must come together, what remains together for long will fall apart.
The study of Chinese history is very much a story of unity and disunity. We can choose to see the cultural and linguistic similarities forged by centuries of sinicisation 汉化 policies dating back to the Qing empire, or even earlier, with Qinshihuang circa 200-300BC, which have created the image of a virtually homogeneous, ethnic Han nation. Or we can choose to see the differences, such as contrast between the prosperous water kingdoms in the old Kingdom of Wu and the parched grasslands in the north, a geographic and climatic cleavage that persists even today.
Until the Qing dynasty, and apart from a brief period during the Mongol conquest, distance ensured that the Southwest remained at arm’s length from successive Chinese empires. When the Manchus under Prince Dorgon stormed the gates of Peking in 1644, their immediate priority was fortifying their presence in the north. The Southwest, thousands of kilometres from the capital, was far from their minds.
But Wu Sangui’s rebellion in Kunming forced the Kangxi emperor’s hand. The war of attrition impoverished the Southwest; no wonder that the Kangxi emperor, in the middle years of his reign, expressed concern about its incorporation within the Qing empire:
“The four provinces of Guangxi, Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan are all border areas where soil is meagre and livelihood difficult. It is different there from the heartland areas where commercial traffic is heavy, and a vast variety of livelihoods are available.” – Kangxi Emperor, 1693, Da Qing Lichao Shilu
Recent publications by young historians C. Paterson Giersch and Yang Bin posit that the Southwest as an integral part of China—as we know it—is in fact very much a recent construct, with its roots in the expansion and conquest of the early Qing emperors. Yang Bin takes it a step further, suggesting that Yunnan’s history as written to date is too sinocentric (from a Chinese historian, no less!) and ignores the intricate links and many layers of ties that have bound Yunnan to Southeast Asia for centuries. Dai Yingcong also puts forward an interesting thought, that the Southwest and in particular Sichuan, rose in importance because of its direct proximity to Tibet.
Which brings us to the question that’s been on my mind, for years really. Why does Yunnan occupy such a special place in the Chinese imagination? For many Chinese, Yunnan represents escape. It’s a place far away from the competitiveness in the cities, the humdrum and materialism of everyday life. To them, its almost like Yunnan exists outside China.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many such people I encountered in my visits to Yunnan. It’s as if the place exerts a magnetic pull over all these lost souls, drawing them to its mystical mountains and magical lakes. In Lijiang I met Xiaotan, a girl in her mid-twenties who was reconsidering her marriage to a university classmate in Shenzhen. Little did she expect, on her departure, to be approached by Dora.
“Will you bring this back to Shenzhen for me?” Dora asked.
The box held a diamond ring, a promise made in earlier years to a man who was still waiting for her in Shenzhen. After a year in Lijiang setting up her own fashion design shop, Dora was certain she never wanted to leave again. She had found herself, south of the clouds, west of the ocean.
Read more: (excuse my poor citations, it’s been years since I’ve done this!)
Yang Bin, Between Wind & Clouds: The Making of Yunnan (Second Century BCE to Twentieth Centry CE)
C. Patterson Giersch, Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan Frontier
Dai Yingcong, The Sichuan Frontier & Tibet: Imperial Strategy in the Early Qing