Monday, November 19, 2007

Forgotten Kingdom

The first book I will review for my new blog is called Forgotten Kingdom by Peter Goullart. This man was born in Russia and lived most of his life in Asia. He spent almost nine years living in Lijiang in the Northwest of what is now Yunnan province. This book is one of about three in existence that describe this area before 1949. This book describes the huge amount of trade going on between Yunnan and India by way of Tibet during the second world war. Because China was busy fighting the Japanese, and then finishing off a civil war, it became cheaper to ship goods to Kunming and beyond by loading them onto horses in northern India and going overland into Tibet, repacking the goods and bringing them finally into Yunnan by horse or even yak caravan. The chapters detailing trade and the customs surrounding it in Lijiang are a treasure. Because the route through Tibet was no longer profitable after the war, this is a unique period in the Lijiang's long and illustrious history. Besides the international aspect of the trade, the author described the local trade in even more detail. Business is generally carried out by the women of the Nakhi people. They also do almost all of the work and absolutely all of the heavy work.
The chapters about the author's friends of various ethnicities and his visits to their villages and their visits to his home in Lijiang are equally as engaging. He describes three of the neighboring ethnicities in some detail, these include The Boa, the Lolo and the Minkia. There is a chapter on Tibetan Buddhist Lamaseries, and a chapter on the Dtomba Shamans, or the priests of the Nakhi native religion. This chapter explains a compelling and sad phenomenon prevalent among the Nakhi youth. The Nakhi people are great lovers, and young people often mixed with couples of the opposite sex at celebrations and during picnics and outings. However, for some reason they had also adopted the Chinese custom of arranged marriage, sometimes arranging marriages when children were still very young. When a romance developed with a partner who was not one's arranged mate, suicide often ensued with both young people poisoning or hanging themselves. The only way to enter the Nakhi paradise in the afterlife is if a silver coin is placed on the tongue in the moment before death, if one dies without this treatment an expensive ceremony is required to ensure the individual's entry into paradise and to avoid becoming a lost soul. Goullart ventures, not unreasonably, that the Dtomba romanticized suicide for the precise reason that the ceremonies were their main source of income.
This book is filled with this and many other fascinating stories about Goullart's time in Lijiang. from his work as an organizer of cooperatives to descriptions of what travel was like, his friends from simple farmers to bandit barons, and descriptions of the many Lamaseries, the violent Lolo people and the unique part of history in which all these events are set.

I have an edition published by the Yunnan Publishing Group Corporation. There is at least one typo or misprint per page, but it was a bargain at $3.50 US. I bought it in Guangzhou at the Xinhua bookstore.

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