Words of Wisdom: Yunnan Province, China

In the Jade Green Mountains near Lijiang live the Naxi, a group of people descended from Tibetan nomads. Women rule the roost among the Naxi, for they are matriarchal and have been that way for 1000 years.

Clearly, this is a wise and evolved society. Even their language is refined: adding the word "female" to a noun enlarges its meaning; adding "male" diminishes it. Thus, "stone" plus "female" equals boulder; "stone" plus "male" equals pebble.

The Naxi have many proverbs to guide them in their wisdom. The following have proved prophetic of our recent Chinese experiences:

1) Follow goats on fine days and sheep on wet days.

We disembarked from Lijiang airport on a fine day. We climbed into the back of a truck - all the taxis and buses had vanished - and rode out into the range of broad green mountains rippling before us. People in cone-shaped straw hats farmed terraced fields of rice, corn, beans and sunflowers. It was a beautiful, bucolic scene, as if painted in Chinese watercolors.

Then we arrived at Lijiang city, and realized we had followed the sheep.

Of the 1.26 billion people in China, 1.25 billion of them were holidaying along with us in town, where we competed for hotel rooms. This is how we found ourselves staying in The Honey Room, complete with packets of something called "Yirenbao - The Necessity for a Successful Person, to be applied on or around the private parts by scrubbing with the hands for two to three minutes."

It was a fine day and we did not follow the goat; we were not successful people.

2) Defeated by the snake, he vents his spite upon the frog.

One day we went into a restaurant situated in the courtyard of a small residence. A group of four middle-aged men and women played mahjong around one table, while family members stood by as spectators.

We ordered Naxi fried rice, a local specialty flavored with mung beans, then watched as a young girl brought out a bowl of water to wash the rice, picking it up in a circular motion with one hand and rubbing it against the rice in her other hand. We were intent on her graceful, hypnotic movements when we heard a loud


Her teenage brother slammed a string of three large frogs onto the ground beside us.


The frogs were still alive and tried to hop away. He stepped on their legs and hit them with a rock. He was having trouble getting the job done, and so called over one of the male mahjong players.

The man sighed, took off his suit coat, and - cigarette in mouth - asked for a cleaver. Then he went to work on the frogs, gutting and skinning them with delicate precision. The teenager was now relegated to the final act of the slaughter - using a large pair of scissors to cut the feet off the carcasses.

The cigarette never left the butcher's lips, and one of the bystanders slipped into his place at the mahjong table, for smoking and mahjong must continue under any circumstances.

When the frogs were fileted, the boy placed them into a plastic bag and put them on a shelf for later use. Both males then rinsed their hands under the tap – no soap - and returned to the mahjong game.

Our rice arrived, and we weren't all that hungry.

3) Hot going in means hot coming out.

Our appetites returned by the time we went to the hotpot restaurant, a type of eatery common in southern China.

We sat down at a table with a propane tank underneath and a burner on top. A waitress came over and fired up the propane and placed a deep wok on the burner. The wok was divided in two, with a fiery red, chili-pepper-laden liquid in one side, and a milky liquid with onions and ginger in the other.

While these boiled, we went over to the buffet line and picked out skewers loaded with spinach, garlic, sweet potatos, tofu, mushrooms, cauliflower, and other goodies. We dropped these into the hotpot, then waited for the most scorching meal of our lives to cook.

The items were three-alarm spicy when they came out of the wok, but just to make sure we got the point, the Chinese gave us a dipping sauce of chili peppers and seseame oil. We were sweating like pigs, our faces flushed crimson. The locals pointed and laughed at us, though they all were sweating too, with many of the guys peeling off their shirts to cool down. We ate and ate, dripped, and ate some more, a meal lasting about two hours in all.

Yes, we suffered for our gastric indiscretions the next day, wallowing in pain and munching rolaids. But when dinnertime rolled around, we were like lemmings and headed straight back.

The Naxi have more wise words, but we aren't really paying attention any more. Our sites are fixed on Cambodia now, a wild, renegade, jungle-y kind of place.

Jul 25 - Aug 1, 2002

No comments:

Post a Comment