Kunming-based Fan Wen (范稳), author of a trilogy set on the border of Yunnan and Tibet, has launched a new novel exploring the history of the Yunnan-Vietnam railway that linked Haiphong with Kunming in 1910. Bisezhai Village (碧色寨) portrays the clash of cultures between the French, then colonial masters of Indochina just south of Yunnan and the driving force behind the new railway, and the indigenous Yi people (彝族).The completion of the railway through the mountainous terrain was an incredible engineering feat at the time, and its famous gravity-defying Wishbone Bridge (人字桥) is still firmly intact with nary a repair to date. Estimates are that the project cost more than ten thousand Chinese laborers their lives.
Annie Zhao, a recent emigrant to Kunming, has written a brief book review of Bisezhai Village. Click here for the review in Chinese (中文书评), and for the English version, see below.
Bisezhai Village by Fan Wen (《碧色寨》，范稳著)
Reviewed by Annie Zhao (赵敏)
With the arrival of the train and yangren (foreigners), huge changes occurred in Yunnan’s tiny Bisezhai Village. Its tranquil life was disturbed and the Spirits of the Yi people were enraged. Yangren brought Western industrial culture and their alien matches, soap and machine-woven cloth, and took away train car after car of mined minerals.
When I had just arrived in Kunming, hearing author Fan Wen introduce the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway was like listening to a fairy tale. Only after I read his novel did I learn that the scissors-shaped Faux-Namti Bridge—long impressed on my memory—was actually a part of this railway. Many times I’ve wondered: why does one see French people everywhere in Kunming and Dali? Coffee culture is so popular in Kunming, Lijiang, Dali and Xishuangbanna that you can get a cappuccino, cafe latte or espresso anywhere, as well as genuine Western pastries. The French really treat Yunnan like home, taking a leisurely cup of coffee, studying Chinese, hanging out in a bar, and making girlfriends, all to their hearts’ content.
The Kalos brothers, who sailed from Crete aboard The Australian and came to Bisezhai in the hopes of making their fortunes, served as construction site foremen and later founded their famous Kalos Trading Firm (哥胪士洋行). Each brother eventually experiences an unhappy romantic episode. Which goes to show: Caucasians who were drifters in the West could become masters in a place like Bisezhai.
I hadn’t realized that Bisezhai Village had such a glorious past, and wondered, are there still any ashen remnants from those bright-burning days? I did a web search and found a novel entitled Bisezhai Romance (碧色寨之恋). A brief synopsis: the novel recounts a love story between Lisa, a 17-year-old French girl, and a Chinese in his thirties, Zhou Yiran. Actually, I’ve no interest in the claim that “for the first time, a Chinese male wins the chance to take the initiative free of any restraint.” What piques my curiosity about the novel is this: during a period when whites populated the upper classes, how did a French maiden fall for a Chinese man? This setting is rather similar to L’amant by Duras.
Dulu is a Bimaw (毕摩, shaman) of the Yi people. In Fan Wen’s Bisezhai, Dulu summons forth wild beasts that attack the yangren’s trains. Throughout the story he doesn’t use the yangren’s tap water, nor does he take their trains or accept the underhanded ways in which the yangren use modern civilization to “bewitch” the Yi. In the end, Bimaw Dulu is convicted as a “traitor” by the KMT government.
Nowadays Tusi (土司，tribal chieftains) no longer exist, and I wonder if the Yi still have their Bimaw. My company’s boletus mushroom processing plant in Chuxiong is less than a fifteen-minute car ride from the Yi Old Town (彝人古镇). Lanterns burn bright there nightly, and every evening a Torch Festival is enacted. Of course, this is a commercial performance. Yi men dressed in tiger patterns and dazzling Yi women surround the plaza and perform traditional numbers. The place of honor on the horse-drawn carriage transporting “The First Torch of the Night” is auctioned off to the audience. A middle-aged fellow from Shaoxing in Guangdong wins with his 1,000 renminbi bid, and climbs into the carriage to begin the torch-lighting ceremony. Then everyone forms a wide circle and dances to the music broadcast over the loud speakers. An elder wearing black clothing and ox horn accessories is also in the carriage. I assume this is their Bimaw.
Because Putianhu Tusi ceded one meter of land to the French railway company, a railroad track stretches all the way through Bisezhai, disturbing the hitherto tranquil lives of the local Yi. At night, the Tusi morphs into a tiger and beds his four concubines.
My reading of Bisezhai Village leaves me with this: in southern Yunnan is a little town called Bisezhai, and once upon a time here, there was a saga of migrant workers from the north undergoing misery as they laid railroad tracks; here, there was short-lived grandeur, and a railroad once linked Vietnam’s Haiphong with Kunming. Dubbed the Yunnan-Vietnam Railroad, it was owned by the French Empire, bombed by Japanese planes, and later expropriated by the KMT government.