An early traveler in south-west China: Xu Xiake

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Sunday, March 22, 2009

There's a lot of bragging rights attached to be a traveler, rather than a tourist, and seeing a place long before others.

Xu Xiake can claim such bragging rights throughout Yunnan, as he was one of the first travel writers to describe places across south-west China.

He lived some five centuries ago, grew up in the eastern part of China, and developed an interest in history, places and travel. And boy did he travel. He visited surveys in 16 of China's provinces (some provinces are larger than countries in the rest of the world), and rather than rely on previous accounts of journeys and places, he would approach each place fresh - and also find previous geographical studies were unreliable and in some cases made up.

Xu wasn't one for jet-setting around either. To ensure accuracy and detail, he went mostly on foot, climbing mountains and trekking long distances without using boats or wagons. A pioneer of the slow travel movement, he was interested in the natural world and preferred the road less traveled, the woods less populated. He also re-visited in different seasons the same place to build up a sense of place over time. In doing so, he came across beautiful scenes and magical moments, something he tried to capture in his writing.

His observations include studies of the karst hills and caves in south-west China, new information on the sources of rivers and waterways, records of plants, volcanoes and peoples.

While he revealed mysterious, one mystery remains: how did he die? He was poisoned to death it seems, in 1641. His death, and the publication of his travelogue 'The Travel Diaries' in 1776, meant he quickly became regarded as the patron saint of travelers in China (quite a feat in an atheist nation).

Stories are told to this day about how he trekked around Beijing, Hebei, Shandong, Anhui, Henan, Fujian, Hubei, Jiangxi, Hunan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan and Zhejiang. He was robbed three times and when a monk he was traveling with was murdered in Yunnan during one robbery, he then carried the monk's ashes "crossing 72 mountains, 15 hills, 10 caves, 38 wells and 25 rivers" - both his and the monk's final journey. After being poisoned, he could no longer walk, and he died half a year later at age 56.

He spent two years in Yunnan, from the Tibetan northwest to the borderlands with Burma.
In fact, his Yunnan trip takes up 40% of his diaries. While his earlier writing to more familiar places in central and eastern China was more in the style of the day, devoted to famous sites, his Yunnan diaries include more detail about the journey, it's harshness, the remoteness, and his unfamiliarity with the exotic, as well as his sense of being an explorer yet also grappling with his own cultural identity (this is according to Julian Ward's Xu Xiake). So what can we say about Xu's travels to the periphery of China?

Well, one of the things Xu writes about is contact with the Naxi ruler in Lijiang. Yunnan had only just re-entered Chinese control at the start of the Ming dynasty and so Xu found himself in a place both familiar and very strange.

Michael Harbsmeier reckons travel diaries have three features: the outward journey getting away from the familiar, initiation and adventure, and finally, return and re-integration. Well, as Xu's diaries ended suddenly before he started back home, we get the first two features, but not the closure.

Around this time, other Chinese literati had also traveled to Yunnan, and being in strange settings, instead opted to ground themselves by seeking communion with Nature. There was also a sense of Han superiority and the need for local people (savages, barbarians, backward folk) to get more civilized. Even the terms used to catalogue ethnic groups noted whether they were shu - cooked or civilised - or sheng - raw or wild. There are some parallels with modern travelers, missionaries, and NGOs in Yunnan in dealing with peripheral peoples.

Over the centuries, much of Yunnan had been a law unto itself, with various Emperors and military leaders setting up tribal chiefs in return for loyalty and a bit of gold (sounds similar to US foreign policy via the CIA) - known as 'using the barbarian to rule the barbarian' idea, while trying to assimilate the borderline peoples into the greater empire.

Xu got to know the local tusi, Mu Zeng, and the Naxi people (who were seen as a buffer between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans). The Mu family were given authority by the Mongols, and by the Ming dynasty the historical records note that the rulers knew poetry and writing, 'respect the rites and preserve righteousness', and helped put down rebellions from Tibetans and other ethnic groups. In short, the Naxi and their rulers were good and reliable. And Mu was regularly sending the distant emperor gifts of horses, silver and even labourers - he earned the title Loyal and Righteous.

Mu Zeng had also introduced Lamaism Buddhism to the Lijiang area, building temples on Mt Chickenfoot. Xu and Mu met in 1639, and Xu was impressed. Not only on how long the Mu family had ruled but also the ruler's palace, describing it 'as spendid as an emperor's palace'.

"The Mu family have lived here for two thousand years, their mansions are as beautiful as the ruler's. Should the imperial army come near, the family meekly submits to being tied up. When the army retreats, they reassert their power, consequently, the Mu family has not suffered the ravages of the imperial army for generations. Moreover, thanks to the unique prospering mining production, their region is the wealthiest of the all the non-Han regions."

While in Lijiang Xu stayed at Mu's private residence the Jie Tuo Lin - special virtue forest - a Buddhist temple in an auspicious place amid forest north of Lijiang.

Xu noted the physical surroundings, the architecture and the power of the Mu family during his two week stay in Lijiang.
While Yunnan was not always the best place for him (it was the first and last time he went, as he died soon afterwards), he did like many places. Scholars have noted centres of power and sacred places, and how travelers take with them the centre of power and authority but also look for new places, places where the Other resides, amid chaos and disorder.

Just as I write this, my local friend tells me how Mu didn't want to let Xu in at first, because he robes were dirty.
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