Monday, August 31, 2015

The Forgotten Kingdom

What better time to re-read Russian-born traveler and explorer Peter Goullart's 1957 'Forgotten Kingdom' than right before the drive to Lijiang (丽江). A refresher of how Lijiang was and what it meant to the explorer when he lived there for over eight years from 1939 to 1949.

We were caught in a horrendous traffic jam on the way from Shangri-la/Zhongdian down to Lijiang, turning a usual four-journey into six hours. The winding mountain road is two-lanes only- one up and down. So when a traffic accident happens on either side, traffic is backed up all the way. Till rescue vehicles and tow trucks arrive. That means it's a minimum two-hour wait. Since nothing moved, we switched off the engines, got out of the car and stretched. Might as well read a book.

I loved the stories. Hahahaha. He talks about the now-patriachial Nakhi (the Naxi tribe, 纳西族) ethnic people's characteristics, similar but culturally distinct to the still-matriachial Mosuo (摩梭). The narrative is factual, gleaned from the author's observations. There's wit and humor, but it doesn't offer a deeper voice to his inner thoughts, in spite of him seeking solace in the simple life in the mountains and its religions.

The ending of this book, while expected, was sad. Everything about China as my grandfather knew it had changed after October 1949. Author Peter Goullart, along with botanist and fellow explorer Austrian-American Joseph Rock had to leave China. Joseph Rock returned to his adopted hometown of Honolulu in Hawaii; Peter Goullart moved to Singapore to continue his work and writing till his death in June 1978.

To marry a Nakhi woman was to acquire a life insurance, and the ability to be idle for the rest of one's days. Therefore, the market value of a Nakhi bride was very high, and as the Nakhi men outnumbered women by five to four, a man was lucky to find a wife at all. A single woman of almost any age would do; there were youngsters of eighteen married to women of thirty-five. What did it matter, the boy was secure for life? She was his wife and mother and, moreover, she kept him in clover. What more could a man want? 
Thus the women in the little Nakhi world were despised creatures in theory but powerful and respected in practice. Men were the privileged beings, but weak and of little account in the economic life. Even in physique they seldom appeared the equals of their husky mates. When young, they sponged on their mothers and sisters and spent the time in picnicking, gambling and dalliance. When old, they stayed at home, looking after the children, talking to cronies and smoking opium. Like drones, they would have quickly died of starvation had their wives stopped the money-making.

No comments: