The Dai of Yunnan in 1917, as seen by Roy Chapman Andrews in "Camps and Trails in China"

 

Cap XXX

Near the base of the mountains a Shan (2) village nestled into the grass. The bamboo houses, sheltered by trees and bushes, were roofed in the shape of an overturned boat with thatch and the single street was wide and clean. Could this really be China? Verily, it was a different China from that we had seen before! It might be Burma, India, Java, but never China!

Before the door of a tiny house sat a woman spinning. A real Priscilla, somewhat strange in dress to be sure and with a mouth streaked with betel nut, but Priscilla just the same. And in his proper place beside her stood John Alden. A pair of loose, baggy trousers, hitched far up over one leg to show the intricate tattoo designs beneath, a short coat, and a white turban completed John's attire, but he grasped a gun almost as ancient in design as that of his Pilgrim fathers. Priscilla kept her eyes upon the spinning wheel, but John's gaze could by no stretch of imagination be called ardent even before we appeared around a corner of the house and the pretty picture resolved into its rightful components--a surprised, but not unlovely Shan girl and a well-built, yellow-skinned native who stared with wide brown eyes and open mouth at what must have seemed to him the fancy of a disordered brain.

For into his village, filled with immemorial peace and quiet, where every day was exactly like the day before, had suddenly ridden two big men with white skins and blue eyes, and a little one with lots of hair beneath a broad sun helmet. And almost immediately the little one had jumped from the horse and pointed a black box with a shiny front at him and his Priscilla. At once, but without loss of dignity, Priscilla vanished into the house, but John Alden stood his ground, for a beautiful new tin can had been thrust into his hand and before he had really discovered what it was the little person had smiled at him and turned her attention to the charming street of his village. There the great water buffalos lazily chewed their cuds standing guard over the tiny brown-skinned natives who played trustingly with the calves almost beneath their feet.

Such was our invasion of the first Shan village we had ever seen, and regretfully we rode away across the plain between the walls of waving grass toward the Nam-ting River. Two canoes, each dug out of a single log, and tightly bound together, formed the ferry, but the packs were soon across the muddy stream and the mules were made to swim to the other bank. Shortly after leaving the ferry we emerged from the vast stretches of rank grass on to the open rice paddys which stretched away in a gently undulating plain from the river to the mountains. Strangely enough we saw no ducks or geese, but three great flocks of cranes (probably Grus communis) rose from the fields and wheeled in ever-widening spirals above our heads until they were lost in the blue depths of the sky.

Away in the distance we saw a wooded knoll with a few wisps of smoke curling above its summit, but not until we were well-nigh there did we realize that its beautiful trees sheltered the thatched roofs of Meng-ting. But this was only the "residential section" of the village and below the knoll on the opposite side of a shallow stream lay the shops and markets.

On the hill high above our camp was a large Shan Buddhist monastery, bamboo walled and thatched with straw, and at sunset and daybreak a musical chant of childish voices floated down to us in the mist-filled valley. All day long tiny yellow-robed figures squatted on the mud walls about the temple like a flock of birds peering at us with bright round eyes. They were wild as hawks, these little priests and, although they sometimes left the shelter of their temple walls, they never ventured below the bushy hedge about our rice field.

In the village we saw them often, wandering about the streets or sitting in yellow groups beneath the giant trees which threw a welcome shade over almost every house. They were not all children, and finely built youths or men so old that they seemed like wrinkled bits of lemon peel, passed to and fro to the temple on the hill.

There is no dearth of priests, for every family in the village with male children is required to send at least one boy to live a part of his life under the tutelage of the Church. He must remain three years, and longer, if he wishes. The priests are fed by the monastery, and their clothing is not an important item of expenditure as it consists merely of a straw hat and a yellow robe. They lead a lazy, worthless life, and from their sojourn in religious circles they learn only indolence and idleness.

The day following our arrival in Meng-ting the weekly market was held, and when Wu and I crossed the little stream to the business part of the village, we found ourselves in the midst of the most picturesque crowd of natives it has ever been my fortune to see. It was a group flashing with color, and every individual a study for an artist. There were blue-clad Chinese, Shans with tattooed legs, turbans of pink or white, and Burmans dressed in brilliant purple or green, Las (3), yellow-skinned Lisos, flat-faced Palaungs (4), Was, and Kachins in black and red strung about with beads or shells. Long swords hung from the shoulders of those who did not carry a spear or gun, and the hilts of wicked looking daggers peeped from beneath their sashes. Every man carried a weapon ready for instant use.

Nine tribes were present in the market that day and almost as many languages were being spoken. It was a veritable Babel and half the trading was done by signs. The narrow street was choked with goods of every kind spread out upon the ground: fruit, rice, cloth, nails, knives, swords, hats, sandals, skins, horns, baskets, mats, crossbows, arrows, pottery, tea, opium, and scores of other articles for food or household use.

Dozens of natives were arriving and departing, bringing new goods or packing up their purchases; under open, thatched pavilions were silent groups of men gambling with cash or silver, and in the "tea houses" white-faced natives lay stretched upon the couches rolling "pills" of opium and oblivious to the constant stream of passers-by.

It was a picturesque, ever changing group, a kaleidoscopic mass of life and color, where Chinese from civilized Canton drank, and gambled, and smoked with wild natives from the hills or from the depths of fever-stricken jungles.

Chapter XXXI

We found the Shans at Nam-ka to be simple and honest people but abnormally lazy. During our three weeks' stay not a single trap was stolen, although the natives prized them highly, and often brought to us those in which animals had been caught. Shans were continually about our camp where boxes were left unlocked, but not an article of our equipment was missed.

The Nam-ka Shans elevated their houses on six-foot poles and built an open porch in front of the door, while the dwellings at Meng-ting and farther up the valley were all placed upon the ground. The thatched roofs overhung several feet and the sides of the houses were open so that the free passage of air kept them delightfully cool. Moreover, they were surprisingly clean, for the floors were of split bamboo, and the inmates, if they wore sandals, left them at the door. In the center of the single room, on a large flat stone, a small fire always burned, but much of the cooking was done on the porch where a tiny pavilion had been erected over the hearth.

The Shans at Nam-ka had "no visible means of support." The extensive rice paddys indicated that in the past there had been considerable cultivation but the fields were weed-grown and abandoned. The villagers purchased all their vegetables from the Mohammedan hunter and two other Chinese who lived a mile up the trail, or from passing caravans whom they sometimes entertained. In all probability they lived upon the sale of smuggled opium for they were only a few miles from the Burma border.

Virtually every Shan we saw in the south was heavily tattooed. Usually the right leg alone, but sometimes both, were completely covered from the hip to the knee with intricate designs in black or red. The ornamentations often extended entirely around the body over the abdomen and waist, but less frequently on the breast and arms.

All the natives were inordinately proud of these decorations and usually fastened their wide trousers in such a way as to display them to the best advantage. We often could persuade a man to pose before the camera by admiring his tattoo marks and it was most amusing to watch his childlike pleasure.

The Shan tribe is a large one with many subdivisions, and it is probable that at one time it inhabited a large part of China south of the Yangtze River; indeed, there is reason to believe that the Cantonese Chinamen are chiefly of Shan stock, and the facial resemblance between the two races certainly is remarkable.

Although the Shans formerly ruled a vast territory in Yün-nan before its conquest by the Mongol emperors of China in the thirteenth century A.D., and at one time actually subdued Burma and established a dynasty of their own, at present the only independent kingdom of the race is that of Siam. By far the greatest number of Shans live in semi-independent states tributary to Burma, China, and Siam, and in Yün-nan inhabit almost all of the southern valleys below an altitude of 4,000 feet.

The reason that the Chinese allow them to hold such an extent of fertile land is because the low plains are considered unhealthy and the Chinese cannot, or will not, live there. Whether or not the malarial fever of the valleys is so exceedingly deadly remains to be proved, but the Chinese believe it to be so and the result is the same. Where the Shans are numerous enough to have a chief of their own they live in a semi-independent state, for although their head man is subordinate to the district Chinese official, the latter seldom interferes with the internal affairs of the tribe.

The Shans are a short, strongly-built race with a distinct Mongolian type of features and rather fair complexions. Their dress varies decidedly with the region, but the men of the southern part of the province on the Nam-ting River wear a pair of enormous trousers, so baggy that they are almost skirtlike, a white jacket, and a large white or pink turban surmounted by a huge straw hat. The women dress in a white jacket and skirt of either striped or dark blue cloth; their turbans are of similar material and may be worn in a high cylinder, a low oval, or many other shapes according to the particular part of the province in which they live.

(1) Roy Chapman Andrews and Yvette Borup Andrews.- Camps and Trails in China. A Narrative of Exploration, Adventure, and Sport in Little-Known China.1918
(2) The Dai people were known as Shan before outside China before 1949 Revolution.
(3) Lahu?
(4) Bulang

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