Heqing has never attracted much attention from travelers. The county lies between Dali and Lijiang, northeast of Erhai Lake. The city is closer to Lijiang (43 km) than it is to Dali (145 km). Heqing County is easily reachable from Dali or Lijiang by road or by rail, but the scenery, while pleasant, is not particularly stunning until the traveler crosses the high mountains at the northern end of the county and heads towards the snowy mountain backdrop of Lijiang.
Lijiang Airport is actually just inside Heqing County, but most passengers continue straight to Lijiang and give Heqing a miss. Day trips to Heqing are easy enough to organize, but visitors to Lijiang become so involved with sights there, even if they recognize the artifice of so much of what they see. They don't usually consider excursions anywhere else. Want to meet Bai people? They can do that in Dali.
The Bai people of Heqing
The population of Heqing County is predominantly Bai, however they dress somewhat differently and practice some different customs as compared to the Bai around Dali. The women favor more subdued colors in their dress. Heqing hosts no Third Month Fair nor any Torch Festival action but they celebrate other festivals. The Heqing Bai live in houses similar to those in Dali and broadly follow Bai traditions.
Heqing city is situated on a long plain, backed by mountains to the east and west and higher peaks to the north. Local mythology tells the story of how the plain used to be covered in water. A monk subdued the dragons that were causing the floods and enabled the first human settlement. More than a thousand years ago, in the early days of the Dali Kingdom, settlers founded the city. A pair of cranes landed on the first pillars they erected, congratulating the people for their victory over the dragons. This is how the city got its name — "he" for cranes and "qing" for congratulations.
The Mongols conquered Dali in the middle of the 13th century, though that probably did not affect Bai life in Heqing all that much. When the Ming Dynasty toppled the Mongols' Yuan Dynasty in 1366, Yunnan in effect became the last Mongol stronghold. That is until the Ming general Ma Ying defeated the Mongols near Songgui — south of Heqing city — in 1381. He drove their army out of the province altogether. The Bai of Songgui commemorate this with a Horse and Mule Fair on the 22nd day of the 6th lunar month.
Throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties, many Bai from Heqing sought work in Lijiang city. Naxi residents hired them for the manual labor jobs they considered beneath them, such as porters and construction workers. Village Naxi built their own homes, using stone foundations, wooden beams, tiled roofs and sun-dried, mud-brick walls in a style different from the typical Bai homes. But urban dwellings adopted the Han Chinese style. They used more wood, with fancy carved gates and other adornments. Lijiang residents employed Heqing Bai carvers, carpenters and masons for this work.
Eventually, migrant Bai workers settled in several villages in Jinshan district to the east of Lijiang city. This area is considered to have the best agricultural land on the plain. Nowadays Jinshan is an Autonomous Bai District, with houses in the Dali-Heqing style and people wearing clothes like those worn in Heqing. Bai traditions still being adhered to and their farming output exceeds that of their Naxi neighbors.
Heqing never played a central role in political developments until the 20th century. He Long's Red Army division passed through in 1935, winning hearts and minds as he went. He continued on to Shigu, crossed the River of Golden Sand and on towards Zhongdian to spend the winter. Until the Communists won the war in 1949, Heqing experienced conflict between government forces and pro-Communist guerillas and the rise of powerful bandit gangs that plagued the last years of Nationalist rule. Particularly annoying was that led by Lokyun, an ex-army officer who claimed to be a revolutionary 'third force,' opposed to both the communists and the government.
His gang seized Yongsheng that year and demanded submission from Heqing and Lijiang. Heqing's leaders welcomed Lokyun, whose army then seized all the rich people to hold for ransom and ransacked all of Heqing's houses. Lijiang people, suspicious of these 'revolutionaries', resisted. Aided by Tibetan allies, the Naxi thoroughly defeated Lokyun's attack and killed most of his soldiers. Lokyun regrouped eventually, but never returned to the Heqing or Lijiang area.
Nearly five decades later I made my first visit to Heqing. Having already been everywhere in the Lijiang Plain, I decided on an excursion to the original homeland of the folks I met in Jinshan. About 25 km south of Lijiang the road crosses into Heqing County and enters the long plain, running between a pair of small lakes halfway between the boundary and the city. Bai villages stud the area on both sides of the road, but the flanking mountains exhibit so sign of settlements.
Village houses look somewhat different from those of Naxi villages, though they use the same materials. They resemble those of rural Dali, minus the marble and with less use of stone, set close to each other, with a high back wall, usually windowless, Dali-style arabesques painted beneath the apex of each roof end and a small lion mounted over the roof's center.
For wealthier house owners, especially in the Bai neighborhoods of the city, the compound gate will feature carvings under the roofs, sometimes of vegetation or animals. The entrance door will have an arch above it, perhaps paintings on the wall and banners inscribed with Chinese characters hanging down at each side of the door.
Heqing then had two distinct sections, old and new. In between stood the venerable red-walled, three-tiered Yunhe Tower, originally erected during the city's foundation. The broad street south of the tower was filled with very ordinary style modern buildings, with the last traditional homes at the far end under process of demolition. But traditional Bai homes and shop-houses still dominated the two streets north of the tower. Noodle-makers, potters and carpenters plied their trades outside their houses in the small lanes of the quarter.
Bai women of all ages dressed in traditional style, basically consisting of a long-sleeved blouse, side-fastened vest, trousers, apron and cap or turban. The older women favored dark colors, mostly black and maybe a dark blue blouse. Younger women usually donned white blouses, lighter colored trousers and a red, maroon or black vest. Gray 'Mao caps' with bigger brims were the commonest headgear.
The Bai women of Songgui district, who frequent the city, especially for market day, dressed the same except for the headgear. Young and old wore a kind of large round black beret, with a jeweled starburst ornament s attached to the left side of the brim.
The most colorful people in the city were women of the White Yi minority, from Liuhe Autonomous Yi District in the mountains east of Songgui. Their distinctive clothing item was a calf-length, long-sleeved tunic, in various shades of blue with contrasting bands on the sleeves. It split at the waist, with a thin strip hanging down in front and the wider part draped over the back of the hips. They wore ordinary blouse and trousers underneath and a wide, multi-colored sash belt wrapped several times around the waist. On their heads they wore a black bonnet that hung over the back of the neck, with colored trimming on the brim.
They were also the most engaging people in the city. The Bai were polite and friendly everywhere; the Yi waved hello and approached me to have a conversation. Their command of Chinese wasn't much better than mine, so we were able to communicate. Compared to the shy and skittish Yi around Dali and Ninglang, this sub-group was refreshingly forward. They were overnight in the city for market day next morning. More of them came to town on the first buses out of Liuhe next day, all in traditional outfits, but often with non-traditional plastic pack baskets or bright yellow backpacks sporting the Marlboro logo.
Exploring the market
Market day began early and by mid-morning was already crowded. Bai villagers started arriving shortly after sunrise, some to set up stalls, some to purchase fruits and vegetables at their freshest. Most wore pack baskets of split bamboo, some with a wooden shoulder board, which was occasionally enhanced with painted designs.
Market day stalls, layouts and services spread throughout the old quarter and spilled over into the area around Yunhe Tower. Sellers set up on both sides of the streets, usually hawking a single item. It was summer, so lots of fruits—peaches, sour plums, apples, bananas, strawberries, mangoes and pears. The food market was full of rice, maize, vegetables and meat and, as in Lijiang, women were the butchers. Various wafers, breadsticks, candies, steamed buns and other snacks were available, though for drinks one had to enter a restaurant.
Articles of clothing were on sale everywhere. Some were modern items like trousers, jackets, t-shirts, shoes and baby clothes. Others were ethnic-oriented—Bai vests, long-sleeved blouses, plain and printed aprons, Bai caps, cloths for the brims and bolts of cotton cloth. Bai women here are not so jewelry-minded, confining their ornaments mainly to small silver earrings and jade bangles. Silver clasps and chain necklaces were available at stalls and much fancier stuff at the antiques displays.
Besides a range of merchandise, market day also provided services, like shoe repair and sewing machine work near the food market and tooth extraction, blood pressure readings and fortune telling in the new town. One man managed a stall with a board painted with twelve kinds of various air, land and water creatures (not the ones of the zodiac) in a circle and a movable dragon-headed pointer in the middle. I didn't learn whether it was a game board or some sort of fortune telling device.
Local Bai handicrafts were also part of the market scene; not the embroidered or tie-dyed items common around Dali, but more everyday use goods. Potters sold everything from teapots, cups and saucers to big storage jars, glazed and painted. A large section next to the food market displayed copper and brass pots, pans, vases, dippers and utensils. Bai metalworkers have a regional reputation for their wares and such items are not only part of a Bai household, they are exported up to Lijiang and Shangrila.
Other crafts were not Bai specialties, in fact common throughout the province, but part of everyday rural usage. In one of the old town lanes women sold rain capes made of palm bark fiber, quite in demand now that the monsoon had arrived. Around the corner from the tea market, the street leading east of Yunhe Tower was the basketry section. Stalls here offered carrying baskets of different types, conical steamer covers, brooms and winnowing trays. Most trays were ordinary size, but a few were two meters in diameter, mainly used in the fields. Some of the sellers wove new baskets while they tended their goods.
Market activity persisted until late afternoon, when folks running the stalls and layouts finally began packing up to go home. The basket makers heaped their goods into a tall pile that they carried on their backs. Other merchants piled their wares in big baskets or rice bags. Some toted these on their backs, while others put them in a tractor-trailer to return to their villages.
A town in transformation
When in Lijiang again a few years later I made a day trip to Heqing to satisfy my curiosity. The transformation was startling. The entire downtown area around Yunhe Tower had been completely rebuilt, but not in any boring anonymous modern way. Even the nondescript buildings of the new town had been replaced. Now houses lining the main streets were attractive two and three story buildings that showed obvious Dali influence, but in a distinctly different style.
Except for one street with all gray houses, the new constructions, designed by a Kunming company, featured whitewashed walls liberally embellished with black paintings under the roof apexes and on the walls. They had angled tiled roofs, sometimes in pairs, and upper story multiple windows with wooden frames. Arched doorways and other motifs reflected the inspiration of traditional Bai architecture.
Yunhe Tower had been renovated and the area around it cleared and made into parks. A classical two-tiered archway stood at the end of the street south of the tower. And a big new temple was under construction in the northeast quarter. Altogether, Heqing was a city that looked better than it did before its modern development. Nowadays, that's something rare.
Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights. There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam and western Yunnan.
All uncredited images: Jim Goodman