重游滇西北（二） / Northwest Yunnan Revisited (Part Two)
纳西文（或东巴文）中的“虎”字 / The word for "tiger" in Naxi (or Dongba) script
Northwest Yunnan Revisited (Part Two)
In Lijiang we received an interesting briefing at the offices of The Nature Conservancy, which has been doing great work on various conservation projects in Northwest Yunnan since 1988. TNC's office there has been active for the past fifteen years, and their Visitor Center in Lijiang receives numerous specialist groups as well as ordinary tourists from around the world, educating them on TNC initiatives in N.W. Yunnan and elsewhere in China, in partnership with local and central government agencies.
Lijiang's Old City, where the TNC visitors' center is located, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Culture site. Not far away, the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Site is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Nature sites due to the unusual confluence of the upper tributaries of three of Asia's great rivers: the Jinsha, Lancang and Nu.
Over a stretch of roughly 300 kilometers (186 miles), where the Jinsha begins its flow into the Yangzi River (the Yangzi is 6,300 km. or 3,915 miles in length), the Lancang into the Mekong River (which totals 4,350 km. or 2,703 miles in length) and the Nu into the Salween River (totalling 2,815 km. or 1,749 miles long), the three rivers flow roughly parallel to each other, separated by only a few miles as the crow flies, yet with mountain ranges of up to 6,000 meters in height running between them. Further downstream, they divide and flow in different directions -- the Yangzi to the east where it empties into the East China Sea at Shanghai; the Mekong to the southeast, to the South China Sea south of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and the Salween south through Burma and Thailand to the Indian Ocean.
The area is the most biologically diverse temperate region on the planet, with 173 known species of mammals (nearly half of which are endemic to this area) and 417 species of birds. It is also home to a variety of minority tribes, including Yunnan's least populous minority, the Derung Tribe.
With TNC's kind assistance we took a side trip to the Loujun Mountain Park, which is home to a large population of endangered Golden Haired Monkeys. To drive there from Lijiang involved following the Yangzi River's upper tributary, the Jinsha River -- a pretty drive through farming country with a diverse population of minority people, including Naxi, Lisu, and Yi tribes.
Most rural houses in the area make extensive use of wood in their construction, especially for structural beams and rafters. At both ends of the roof, there is an iconic wooden carved figure attached to the cross-beam. The most frequently used icon here resembles a pair of fish. In both Han Chinese and minority cultures, this signifies abundance and good fortune. In some cases, above the double fish carving is the Chinese character for "water" (水), also carved from wood, which is intended to bring good luck, especially given the risk of fire to any home made largely of wood.
当地农舍常见的双鱼造型 / The Double Fish icon, common on rural houses in the area
As I got talking with young people who had grown up in the area, I was struck by the prominence of various American figures in local history: one individual who lived here for many years during the early 20th century, and one group who flew in and out of Yunnan during World War II -- both much better known among young people here than in America today.
The individual was the renowned botanist and linguist Joseph Rock (1884 -1962), an Austrian who emigrated to Hawaii as a young man, where he studied botany and became a U.S. citizen. He made his long-term home in Yuhu village near Lijiang, and wrote numerous articles for National Geographic Magazine between 1922 and 1935, based on extensive expeditions in Yunnan and other parts of Southwestern China. In later years he endeared himself to the Naxi people through his in-depth study of their culture and language, about which he wrote several respected tomes.
It is thought that Rock's National Geographic articles formed the inspiration for James Hilton's "Lost Horizon". He left after the Peoples' Republic of China was established in 1949, returning to Hawaii, where he spent the rest of his years, profoundly regretting not being able to remain in Lijiang, among his beloved Naxi people.
(Rock had a clear sense of priorities when it came to creature comfort during his far-flung expeditions, insisting on a full set of silverware to be arranged for each meal at camp, and a rubber bathtub for his warm daily bath.)
The airborne group of Americans were the renowned Flying Tigers, formally known as the 1st American Volunteer Group (of the Chinese Air Force). They were formed in 1941, just before the U.S. entered WWII, by U.S. presidential order, to assist in defending China against Japanese forces. They flew missions between Burma and various airfields in Yunnan after Japanese bombers knocked out the road link. They were mainly American military pilots and ground support staff.
Their famous shark-faced fighters, which numbered 60, earned the nickname of Flying Tigers, and the Walt Disney Company later developed a flying tiger emblem which was painted on the side of each fighter behind the ferocious-looking shark face.
The Flying Tigers faced their first combat mission only 12 days after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. In July 1942 they were regrouped as the US Army's 23rd Fighter Group, still under the leadership of General Claire Chennault, retaining the well-known nickname and insignia, and continuing their missions until the war's end in 1945. As recently as the late 1990s, the wreckage of downed Flying Tiger aircraft has been found in remote mountain locations in Yunnan, generating local press coverage and keeping their memory alive among local people.
(To be continued...)