The Lisu of the Salween in 1909

 

As depicted in the Book "Across China on Foot", by Edwin Dingle. 1911

On my return journey into Yün-nan, I stopped at Lu-chiang-pa and left my men at the inn there while I traveled for two days along the Salwen Valley. My journey was taken with no other motive than that of seeing the country, and also to test the accuracy of the reports respecting the general unhealthy nature of this valley of the Shadow of Death. The people here were friendly, despite the fact that my route was always far away from the main road; and although my entire kit was a single traveling-rug for the nights, I was able to get all I wanted. Lao Chang accompanied me, and together we had an excellent time.

I might as well say first of all that the idea of this part of the Salwen Valley being what people say it is in the matter of a death-trap is absolutely false. With the exception of the early morning mist common in every low-lying region in hot countries, there was, so far as I could see, nothing to fear.

During the second day, through beautiful country in beautiful weather, I came across some people who I presumed were Li-su, and I regretted that my films had all been exposed. The Li-su tribe is undoubtedly an offshoot from the people who inhabit south-eastern Tibet, although none of them anywhere in Yün-nan-and they are found in many places in central and eastern Yün-nan-bear any traces of Buddhistic belief, which is universal, of course, in Tibet. The late Mr. G. Litton, who at the time he was acting as British Consul at Tengyueh traveled somewhat extensively among them, says that their religious practices closely resemble those of the Kachins, who believe in numerous "nats" or spirits which cause various calamities, such as failure of crops and physical ailments, unless propitiated in a suitable manner. According to him, the most important spirit is the ancestral ghost. Li-su graves are generally in the fields near the villages, and over them is put the cross-bow, rice-bags and other articles used by the deceased. "It is probably from foundations such as these," writes Mr. George Forrest, who accompanied Mr. Litton on an excursion to the Upper Salwen, and who wrote up the journey after the death of his companion, "that the fabric of Chinese ancestor worship was constructed," a view which I doubt very much indeed.

I am of the opinion that the Li-su may be closely allied to the Lolo or the Nou Su, of whom I have spoken in the chapters in Book I dealing with the tribes around Chao-t'ong. And even the Miao bear a distinct racial resemblance. They are of bony physique, high cheek bones, and their skin is nearly of the same almost sepia color. The Li-su form practically the whole of the population of the Upper Salwen Valley from about lat. 25° 30' to 27° 30', and they have spread in considerable numbers along the mountains between the Shweli and the Irawadi, and are found also in the Shan States. Those on the Upper Salwen in the extreme north are utter savages, but where they have become more or less civilized have shown themselves to be an enterprising race in the way of emigration. Of the savages, the villages are almost always at war with one another, and many have never been farther from their huts than a day's march will take them, the chief object of their lives being apparently to keep their neighbors at a distance. They are exceedingly lazy.

They spend their lives doing as little in the way of work as they must, eating, drinking, squatting about round the hearth telling stories of their valor with the cross-bow, and their excitement is provided by an occasional expedition to get wood for their cross-bows and poison for their arrows, or a stock of salt and wild honey.

Mr. Forrest, in his paper which was read before the Royal Geographical Society in June, 1908, speaks of this wild honey as an agreeable sweetmeat as a change, but that after a few days' constant partaking of it the European palate rejects it as nauseous and almost disgusting, and adds that it has escaped the Biblical commentators that one of the principal hardships which John the Baptist must have undergone was his diet of wild honey. In another part of his paper the writer says, speaking of the cross-bow to which I have referred: "Every Li-su with any pretensions to chic possesses at least one of these weapons-one for everyday use in hunting, the other for war. The children play with miniature cross-bows. The men never leave their huts for any purpose without their cross-bows, when they go to sleep the 'na-kung' is hung over their heads, and when they die it is hung over their graves. The largest cross-bows have a span of fully five feet, and require a pull of thirty-five pounds to string them. The bow is made of a species of wild mulberry, of great toughness and flexibility. The stock, some four feet long in the war-bows, is usually of wild plum wood, the string is of plaited hemp, and the trigger of bone. The arrow, of sixteen to eighteen inches, is of split bamboo, about four times the thickness of an ordinary knitting needle, hardened and pointed. The actual point is bare for a quarter to one-third of an inch, then for fully an inch the arrow is stripped to half its thickness, and on this portion the poison is placed. The poison used is invariably a decoction expressed from the tubers of a species of aconitum, which grows on those ranges at an altitude of 8,000 to 10,000 feet ... The reduction in thickness of the arrow where the poison is placed causes the point to break off in the body of anyone whom it strikes, and as each carries enough poison to kill a cart horse a wound is invariably fatal. Free and immediate incision is the usual remedy when wounded on a limb or fleshy part of the body."

Some time after I was traveling in these regions I made arrangements to visit the mission station of the China Inland Mission, some days from Yün-nan-fu, where a special work has recently been formed among the Li-su tribe. Owing to a later arrival at the capital than I had expected, however, I could not keep my appointment, and as there were reports of trouble in that area the British Consul-General did not wish me to travel off the main road. It is highly encouraging to learn that a magnificent missionary work is being done among the Li-su, all the more gratifying because of the enormous difficulties which have already been overcome by the pioneering workers. At least one European, if not more, has mastered the language, and the China Inland Mission are expecting great things to eventuate. It is only by long and continued residence among these peoples, throwing in one's lot with them and living their life, that any absolutely reliable data regarding them will be forthcoming. And this so few, of course, are able to do.

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