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The Slaves of the Cool Mountains: Travels Among Head-Hunters and Slave-Owners in South-West China

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Twentieth-Century Slavers

Black-cloaked and black-turbanned, the former slave-owner looked at me from hooded eyes – an aristocrat appraising a bit of common human merchandise. He pondered, took a good swig of rough corn whisky and said: 'Your age is against you, but as a curiosity you would have fetched a decent price here until recently. I'd say five silver ingots. Ordinarily a slave of your age would fetch one ingot at best.'

The man who reckoned my curiosity value as a slave at £7 10s was a nobleman named Buyu Heipo – one of the traditional absolute rulers of a little-known group of people called the Norsu who live among the highest mountains in south-west China. Much has been written about these people, known to the western world as the 'Lolos', but it was written from hearsay – vague reports that contradicted each other. Nobody dared to penetrate the lofty mountain area where these proud and warlike people lived, with slaves and serfs to do their bidding – a by-passed pocket of human history. From outside, it was only known that from time to time the Norsu swept down from the heights through passes 'narrow as a bird's flight' and ravaged the nearby lowlands, returning with struggling men, screaming women and bewildered children to replenish their stock of slaves.

My own determination to visit these people was spurred by a small item in the Chinese press. This scrap of news announced that a number of slaves had been released in the Cool Mountains, where the Norsu live. It said that more would be released in increasing numbers until all slavery was abolished there. Intriguingly, the paper reported that the slaves had been set free as a result of negotiation and agreement with their masters and now had new homes and the means to produce and live in freedom.

This press item buzzed in my head, confirming what I had long idly speculated at the back of my mind: that slavery still existed in south-west China. It might still be possible to go there and see the actual process of freeing the slaves, sift out the facts from a sea of legend and dissolve the literary 'mystery' that has been built around these people. Such a trip offered most fascinating possibilities because if only a cupful from that ocean of contradictory rumours about the Norsu people were true, their manner of life must be an extremely curious one to be still existing in the twentieth century.

At that time, the end of 1956, although I had read a great deal about them, I scarcely knew where the Norsu actually lived, and since the reader is no doubt in the same situation, a few words about that might not come amiss.

Yunnan Province is the south-west corner of China and borders on Vietnam, Laos, Burma and India. Its northern border marches with Tibet and Szechuan and is one of the most isolated areas in the world. Yunnan has always attracted the inquisitive traveller because it contains some twenty quite different national groups of people, all with widely differing social systems and customs, preserved throughout the centuries. This is partly because of the nature of the place and partly because of the way in which imperial China penetrated it. The province is a high plateau covered with higher mountains. Its mean altitude is 5,000 feet above the sea and communications are the poorest, mostly ancient pack-animal trails hung on the sides of mountains. In its higher parts it is temperate, a land of 'perpetual spring', but it is slashed by mighty rivers running into Vietnam, Laos and Burma. At the river levels the climate passes from temperate to tropical, a sudden change unbearable to the plateau dwellers and this partly accounts for their isolation from each other as well as from the rest of China. A profile of the mean altitude drawn from the China Sea to Tibet would show a series of five gigantic steps, the last being the roof of the world – the Tibetan plateau. Fourth of these steps, just below Tibet, is north-west Yunnan, and this is where the Norsu live, guarded through centuries of isolation by the high terrain and surrounded by the giant loop of the fast-running Upper Yangtze River.

Controversy is plentiful about the origin of the Norsu people. Only one thing is certain: that they are a branch of the great Yi-chia – 'original people' – which is found in various parts of Yunnan and Szechuan Provinces. One story is that the Cool Mountains Norsu moved there about 170 years ago as a result of a dispute over a two-tongued sheep which could make a remarkable noise audible for several score miles. A bitter feud over the theft of this valuable creature led to this branch fleeing over the border into the Cool Mountains where they enslaved the small local population. This is the least credible version of their antecedents. Some Norsu claim that they came long ago from Tibet. More credence could be placed in this if the languages had anything in common, for the Norsu are tall like Tibetans, darkly acquiline of visage and the younger men have smaller waists than the girls. Still others say that the Tibetans are a degenerated branch of the Norsu. What is most likely is that many centuries ago when the Chinese Emperors unified China, some of the Yi-chia fled northwards across the bend of the unnavigable Yangtze River and settled in this impenetrable mountain fastness, where they enslaved what few people lived in those heights and remained isolated until the past few years.

The name 'Lolos' by which the Norsu have become known in the western world is simply an example of picking up from the old Chinese rιgime a term of contempt used to describe a number of differing nationalities in Yunnan, in much the same way as some British people use the contemptuous term 'wog' for persons who couple darker skins with a failure to dress for dinner. Nevertheless, innumerable scholarly books have been written, largely by missionaries and based on local hearsay only, about the lives and habits of the 'Lolos' whom they have never visited.

Attempts to visit the Cool Mountains were made but they failed. Both the British and the French competed to penetrate the whole of Yunnan Province. While the French did actually succeed in building a narrow-gauge railway from Vietnam to the capital of Yunnan – said to have cost a Chinese life for every rail laid – it was not until the Second World War and with the help of the Chinese that the famous Burma Road was built to link that city, Kunming, with Burma. But many attempts to survey the whole province were made by British agents with economic, political and military possibilities in mind.

In all these attempts, the Cool Mountains remained unpenetrated, unsurveyed and unknown. Even the famous British War Office map of Yunnan compiled by Major H. R. Davies, corrected to 1908, shows this area blank and across it, overstamped in red, the word 'Lolo', itself enough to show complete ignorance of the area. Why Major Davies failed to get much co-operation, at any rate from local people, might be explained in his own words, detailing his travels through Yunnan: 'I took up my stick amidst looks of incredulous amusement from the spectators, and gave the head mule-man one or two whacks over the head.' The major should have known that when embarrassed, especially by another's folly, the Chinese usually smile. And again: 'It is in any case far easier to kick a [Chinese] man downstairs than to clear an inn yard.' The major seems to have been an imperialist with an epithet.

Another British War Office agent, Lieutenant Donald Brooke, made an attempt to survey the Cool Mountains in 1909. His body was sent out in two pieces without comment.

To give an impression of the aura surrounding this place, I cannot do better than quote a passage written in 1925 by Harry A. Franck, the American traveller, explorer and writer:

'It goes without saying that I should gladly have given my best hat to have visited the 'Independent Lolos' at home now that I was passing within a hundred li (33 miles – A.W.) of them. But quite aside from any hesitancy to leave my hide among them, that would have been impossible. Not only do they control the few ferries across the Golden Sand (name of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River – A.W.); the Chinese authorities on the eastern side are diligent beyond their wont in keeping visitors from crossing ... There is a certain intercourse between the Norsu of Kweichow and their independent relatives beyond the turbulent, rock-strewn northern sweep of the Upper Yangtze; some go back and forth, and even bring back wives from over there – like our immigrants going back to the 'old country' for their brides; but neither foreigners nor Chinese usually find the way open. Once a British photographer eluded the watchfulness of the Chinese authorities and got across, but he was killed, and only one of his coolies, who had been left for dead, came back to tell the story. Then there is the better known case of Lieutenant Brooke, who also left his bones among them.'

Between the majority people of China, the Hans – those people whom most foreigners think of as the Chinese – and the other minority nationalities in Yunnan Province (there are more than twenty distinct nationalities in Yunnan, with over 100 branches and speaking some seventy languages and dialects), no love was ever lost.

The Hans spread south and west over the centuries, dominating the lush lowlands and forcing the smaller, local nationalities into the less fertile areas, often on the hills. Little enough was known in Peking of what was going on. These outlying 'barbarians' would be made to pay a nominal tribute and occasionally kow-tow to the throne, but how much was actually extorted from them by the representatives of the throne was nobody's business.

The Norsu people never submitted. They remained in their mountain fastness, occasionally invaded by a force of sufficient strength from the lowlands and retaliating always with more than interest when their warriors swept down to capture slaves and loot. These harassments were on a fairly small scale until the Chinese Revolution of 1911 and the chaotic days of the warlords.

Matters got much worse from 1918 onwards when the scale and frequency of raid and counter-raid rapidly increased. A single case which I was able to authenticate fully will be enough to give the atmosphere. In the early 'twenties a Han who was both a big landlord and a militia officer in Yung Sheng plain on the southern edge of the Cool Mountains, took 400 armed people on a raid, looted a whole Norsu area, burned houses, killed a few people and retired with some cattle and horses. The Norsu planned revenge.

One night not long after, 1,000 Norsu warriors struck back, burned houses for a distance of seven miles, captured 300 slaves, 1,000 cattle and vast loot. This Han landlord escaped the raid but lost his property and influence. For the next few years he acted as a slave-trader, selling his own people to the Norsu, a man or woman for a few of the blue-looking, adulterated silver ingots which the Norsu prefer to money, until he too disappeared into the Cool Mountains to finish his life in chains, it is said.

Major slaving raids became common-place throughout the rule of the Kuomintang in China. As late as 1948 and 1949 raids were taking Place in which several hundred and even a thousand people were driven up the passes into slavery.

This was the place I now intended to try to visit. Nothing much had been reported about what was going on there since the Chinese People's Republic had been founded in 1949, Certainly nothing definite until that small news item about the freeing of the slaves in one part of the Cool Mountains in December 1956, and it was almost a year later that I was able to get away from other work and try to visit the Norsu, not knowing what the prospects were.

I escaped the cold Peking winter by plane and on the same day landed in the perpetual spring of Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, where the camellias were in bloom.

My heart sank when I learned that even in 1957 there was still no way of getting to the Cool Mountains except by walking or riding a horse for at least a week up and down mountains on an ancient track that was said to be bad going even for a Yunnan horse-trail. Not that I feared a week's trekking, but it meant organising a pack-train for bedding and food and possibly tents, riding animals, interpreter, someone who knew the way – a host of problems outside my power both practically and financially. Local people made well-intentioned efforts to dissuade me on the ground that the journey was hard and not worth it. 'Slavery is so backward and there are so many new and interesting things to see in Yunnan. Why pick this?' Why indeed? But my journalist's nose had scented a rare story and I felt I must go if any way could be found.

I never would have been able to go but for the help of the Kunming office of the New China News Agency, an old friend Li Ping-tai from the Peking office of the same agency and another who turned out to be in charge of work among the smaller nationalities for the Communist Party of Yunnan Province. An arrangement to split the costs was soon made, the wires were set buzzing and, a few days after reaching Kunming, we were able to set off in a borrowed Land Rover on the first stage of what became the most interesting trip I ever made. There was myself, Li Ping-tai, Li Chao-yang, a reporter from the Kunming branch of the agency, and Li Chili-ping, a young and enthusiastic Szechuanese escort, with a vast sense of humour, a carbine and a terrific appetite for red pepper: Big Li, Li Two and Little Li.

Half-way down the Burma Road, by some magnificent hot-springs, a road leads north, through the famous old walled city of Tall, near the place where Major Davies boasted of beating the mule-man, and soon climbs on to a plateau about 8,000 feet above the sea. There, under a great peak of perpetual snow, lies the little town of Li Chiang – the last point we could reach on wheels. From here, over those impressive peaks that stretched away like distance itself, it must be by foot and hoof.

In this town we must spend a day or two collecting pack-train, riding horses, food and a guide, and send telegrams ahead announcing our future arrival to local authorities on the way. We bought rice, hardtack, pungent Yunnan ham, pickles, dried shrimps and red pepper, things that would keep and give enough flavour to help down the rice; tea and butter, rich rancid yak butter that is blended with tea and salt into a drink more sustaining than food in rarefied mountain air.

Most of the inhabitants of Li Chiang belong to the Nashi people, a minority who still retain strong traces of the matriarchal system of marriage which is common in these parts. The women are said to rule their men with a rod of iron, though I saw no public signs of this. They wear stiffened, bonnet headdresses exactly like the Dutch women and long, flared skirts. But for the snow peak hanging overhead we might have been in Holland, what with women's bonnets, long skirts, cobbled lanes hardly wider than outstretched arms and the lacing of little brooks beside the streets where ducks paddle furiously upstream and float sideways down. The city is a junction of several ancient trading trails leading far north into the wilds to Szechuan and Tibet.

Our ma-bong was finally signed on: the word seems to mean both the muleteer and his pack-train in these parts. Old Chen was a tiny, tough and horsey character who drank like a fish but still managed to harangue his animals over 35 miles of unspeakable track every day. Perhaps I got that wrong, and because of the latter he both needed and was able to do the former. He provided three spavined, angular pack horses known to him as Little Flower, Date-coloured Cow and Shorty, to carry our bedding, baggage and food for animals and men. He had also raked together a collection of slightly less mangy riding animals, ranging from a tall grey mule to a powerful-looking chestnut mare which was provided to carry my extra weight.

Our ill-matched cavalcade set off, led by Little Flower, clattering through Li Chiang's cobbled alleys at dawn, past open-fronted shops where men and women hammered silver, nailed shoes, stitched, wove, ironed, bought, sold, ate and drank – out into the mountains.

Copyright © Alan Winnington, 2007

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