This book largely describes the writers’s experiences in and around Lijiang, among the Nakhi people. It is an especially interesting read for those fascinated by Chinese minorities – like myself. While visiting Lijiang, I experienced the city as a major tourist destination. As Peter Goullart had lived in Lijiang before the cultural revolution, I was very curious how he had experienced it. He described Lijiang as an unspoiled (though primitive) paradise – which is why this work is the ultimate “I was there before it was ruined” book. Back then, the locals were in fight against certain developments. For example, they were against constructing an improved road to Lijiang, which in their eyes would contribute to the ‘destruction’ of their peaceful town.
Apart from being a competent narrator, Peter Goullart seems quite the linguist, speaking fluent Russian, French, English, Mandarin Chinese and Naxi, in addition to smatterings of Shanghainese and Tibetan. After growing up in Moscow and Paris, Goullart left for Shanghai during the Bolshevik Revolutionin in 1924. It was here where he learned Chinese and worked as a tour guide. Following the complications between Japan and China in the 1930s, Goullart traveled westward to Chongqing and Sichuan before – through a complex chain of events – becoming named the chief of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives in Lijiang. He was charged with bringing industry to the region in the form of rural cooperatives. For example, Goullart introduced the wool-spinning wheel (p71), butter making. At that time Chinese co-operative law prescribed a minimum of seven persons to form an industrial co-operative society. Goullart required at the least seven separate families to join together. Their representatives could be either a man or a woman, but required to work with their hands – “I was very strict about this” (p72). The formation of co-operatives by the members of well-known local rich families was not permitted. By the summer of 1949 there were 45 industrial co-operatives including wool-spinning, weaving and knitting, brassware and copper-ware, furniture-making, dry-noodle, plough-share-casting, and Tibetan leather and boot-making (p220).
Goullart portrays many different minority groups he met along the way, including Tibetans, Miao, Lissu and Lolo tribes, and especially the Naxi – who he calls the Nakhi, using the old Romanization. All with their own typical dress, language, physique, intelligence and superstitious beliefs.
Goullart frequently visited three different wine shops in Lijiang, all run by women. Madame Lee’s wine shop was primarily a Naxi wine shop. Instead of only the men drinking together at a meal, everyone including women and children would drink at the wine shops. This made Madame Lee’s an invaluable source of local insider information. Madame Yang’s wine shop had a poorer clientele who were typically members of the tribes living in the surrounding hills and mountains. The customers at Madame Ho’s wine shop were almost exclusively Tibetan.
While there was plenty of mischief, deceit and danger, Goullart considered Lijiang to be paradise. His descriptions and anecdotes of the eight years he spent living in Lijiang are vivid and colorful. It was a real page-turner that ends on a sad note, when the author once again found himself having to leave a country due to political upheavals.