Author: Zhou Chonglin Photos: Li Qingyang
All Because of the Road
In late October 2001, Sidengjie entered the list of World Monument Endangered Sites along with China's Great Wall, Shaanxi's Da Qin Pagoda and Monastery, and Shanghai's Ohel Rachel Synagogue. It was selected as the last remaining marketplace on the ancient tea horse road.
If not for the World Monument Fund, Sidengjie would not be so widely known today. For many years, it stood silent against the mountain backdrop. Only the endless arrival of the horse caravans broke this silence. Today, some people bypass the Dali-Lijiang highway and come here to relive these bygone days.
Throughout the ages, trade routes have been crucial to the prosperity of a region. When the route changes, however, that prosperity can fade into the past. It is this change that fascinates transportation researchers, as they answer the question of just how peoples' lives change as the new replaces the old.
Mountains and rivers shaped the beliefs of early mankind. However, these same mountains and rivers prevented people from learning more about the world. As we've learned, the vast breadth of the Puerh region, the surging flow of the Lancang river, and the perilous stretches of the Mujiang all combined to influence those brave members of the horse caravans to choose relatively safe and smooth routes. At some point, they came to Sidengjie and chose this area as a resting point. This area became a trading center at the crossroads between Sichuan and Tibet to the north and central China to the South as well as countries in South-East Asia, South Asia, and West Asia
The current generation of travel enthusiasts can open Google Maps and clearly see the gradual flow of the long and thin Heihui river and the verdant expanses of the Aofeng mountains. Photos uploaded by fellow travelers show in greater detail the wooden houses, earthen walls, and doors adorned with white and red banners.... Theatres, inns, and village wails combine in a fascinating union.
Shaxi historically possessed four roads to the outside world, respectively pointing north, south, east, and west. The road to the east connected to Puerh county and served as the most significant of the four roads. Tea, salt, silk, craftworks, and jade all passed through its tax office into Tibet. This tax office was also the most significant for outward trade from Tibet. The road south led to the Qiaohou salt mines and was used to transport salt from the mines. The western road led to Misha and contained the Maping tax office. Salt from the other three area salt mines at Nuodeng, Misha, and Laji-jing passed through this office. To the north is the Shaxi county seat of Jianchuan. The road contained the Mingjian tax office. Like the eastern tax office, it was used by successive governments as an outpost for tax collection.
Today's Mingjianshao horse caravan road was built later and cannot be considered an ancient road. Locals constructed the 200-meter long, 3-meter wide new-style stone path through the east side of the Mingjianshao valley. Only two horses abreast can pass along the path as its stone steps lead up through the valley to Mingjianshao. The old path is covered in horseshoe prints, and consequently locals refer to the path as "horseshoe road."
Of the four original tax offices, only Maping survives and is still in use. It lies approximately one kilometer from Sidengjie. However, walking along the rugged mountain path requires significant exertion as it leads through the hills. Today it contains Maguan village and two covered bridges, their ancient arches still intact. The upper-level shelter has been rebuilt, and horse traders still frequently pass through to this day. I've been told by friends that Maping elementary school has only a single working teacher named Zhang.
Here Because of the Road, Guests Traveling Northward and a Marketplace
In today's Sidengjie one can still see the Ming Dynasty Yujin bridge and stone roads. The recipient of the hopes and dreams of so many, Xingjiao temple, also still exists. Likewise, one still finds Qing Dynasty homes and wooden shops as well as the captivating Qing Dynasty stage, Not far off among the deep courtyards, an accidentally overheard tale can cause one to ponder for ages. Breathing the fragrance of the magnolias and sitting beneath a thousand-year-old locust tree provides great inspiration.
That beautiful stage in Duanjiadeng, Changle village's Kuixing pavilion, Sanjiao temple, Hongxing village's White Dragon Pool, the walls of the town temples along the way, Shiao bridge, the old residents watching over the pools, the orchids, bamboo, peach blossoms, magnolia, pomegranates... All of these are extremely satisfying.
During this period, the Ouyang family courtyard was awarded the title "Five Star Horse Caravan Hotel." Stepping into the classic ethnic Bai style courtyard, one cannot help but appreciate the richly ornamented buildings. It is easy to be drawn into the vigorously painted calligraphy. Time slows down and slips out of grasp. Brewing Puerh tea with the cool well water and high quality yixinig tea set, an afternoon slips away. The milk here is extraordinarily fresh. The Ouyang family milk cows surely must be getting old.
Players of China's Happy Farm must be familiar with these poetic names: musk, pilose antler, saffron crocus, fritillary, cordyceps, tea leaves, emeralds... In Sidengjie the enjoyment of virtual farming may not be available, but one can actually reach out and touch these actual trade items that have not changed over hundreds of years. That ancient counter is still there, I have often wondered about the trade conducted here and how the value of items is determined. How is bargaining carried out? If the buyer and seller do not speak a common language, what signals do they use? Do they use their hands to indicate numbers or do they have a complete trading culture of their own?
Stepping out of the Ouyang family courtyard, one arrives at the center of Shaxi - Square Street (Sifang Jie). Approximately 100 meters from east to west and 300 meters from north to south, the entire square is paved in red sandstone. All of the buildings lining the square are constructed with a shop in front and a courtyard in the back. Two ancient locust trees preside over the square. Square Street serves as the central square of the town, and looking down from above, it resembles an official stamp. Its name means "spreading power in all directions." As a commercial street, it includes roads spanning in all directions and serves as a gathering point for people and goods. Similar Square Streets can be found in numerous ancient marketplaces throughout Yunnan province such as the famous example in Lijiang's old town. Everything surrounding Sidengjie's Square Street can be described as "ancient : ancient temples, ancient stages, ancient alleys, ancient trees, ancient village gates…Today it carries a deep sense of nostalgia.
The hoof print in front of the eastern town gate is so large a small child could sit inside of it. If we don't consider the time involved, or the countless times it has been trampled, or if it were found in some other place, one could easily imagine it was made by the hands of a mischievous child. Engrossed in his "masterwork," he forgets to return home for dinner...
On a drizzly afternoon, the rain washes away my body odor but sets off the smell of the earth. The scent of mud, wild grasses, flowers, trees, as well as horse, cow, and dog dung is everywhere! Yes, this is a rural area. On this trip back in time, I imagined the area's flourishing scenes and the convenience of its towns and villages, but am briefly brought back to reality. Standing here in the rain, pressed against the earth, countless lives beneath me are revived. Let the ancient and cooling wind with the sound of the mountains and streams carry me into the sky! Let me float among the clouds and like a swallow circle above the eaves, chimneys, arches, and straw hats of the farmers. Let me chase after the playing children...
Certain things appear to be accidental, but very little in this world truly occurs by chance. The horse caravans selected this place. Perhaps they truly did come here by chance, but they arrived at a place with a long history of trade. Looking farther back into history, we learn that over 2400 years ago bronze smelting started in this area. In 1980 the discovery of the ancient graveyards at Aofeng mountain provided proof of this bronze culture. Because of their age, a higher level technology is required to restore them to their original form. The Aofeng mountain graveyards are located at the top of Aofeng mountain, 500 meters from Sidengjie. The exposed area of the graveyards is 540 square meters, with 34 funeral urns, 91 cremation sites, and 217 burial sites uncovered. Among the graves, 91 contained objects buried along with the bodies. Among the 658 unearthed items, are bronze, pottery, and stone ware as well as other items such as goat jawbones and seashells. These items date back to approximately the Warring States period (445-221 BC). These graveyards are an example of the bronze culture of the Puerh/Menghai region. Their discovery provides extremely valuable materials for research into Puerh/Menghai bronze culture and the history of Yunnan plateau culture.
First Came Xingjiao Temple. Then Came Sidengjie
More than 90% of the residents of Sidengjie are members of the Bai ethnic group. They built the only remaining Ming Dynasty Buddhist temple of the Azhali school: Xingjiao Temple, According to the New Gazetteer of Yunnan: "Xingjiao Temple is located 60 li from Chengnan (Jianchuan county seat) in Shaxi. It is also known as Yangsheng Convent and the site of Li Yuanyang's begonia chant. It was built during the 13th year of the Yongle period (1415)." Its simple architecture is similar to the earthen houses. It has stood tall for over 600 years, however, which can only inspire admiration. This is even more impressive in today's world of rampant shoddy construction. The relationship between Sidengjie and Xingjiao temple is clear from their names. In ancient times, Shaxi was known as Shazhui or Shatui, Today it is called Sidengzhen. Sidengjie was once known as Sideng, a name derived from both the Bai and Han Chinese languages. In the Bai language, "deng" means "place," When Xingjao temple was built during the Ming dynasty, the first character in Sideng was changed to mean temple (in Chinese, one meaning of "si' is 'temple"). Finally, "jie" in Sidengjie means "marketplace."
Prior to the Ming Dynasty, Sidengjie was known as Nantang. After General Mo Ying was garrisoned in Yunnan, Shaxi grew increasingly active and a market took shape. At the time, Buddhism was flourishing and the Heqing native prefect took note of the trading market at Shaxi, Funds were gathered and the temple was constructed. Its name was taken from another temple in central China and means "great revival of Buddhism." Nantang also changed names to Sidengjie.
Within the temple stands an ancient magnolia tree. Its luxuriant expanse covers half the courtyard. Careful observers may notice that the words of Mao Zedong are still displayed here.
The architectural style of Xingjiao Temple was likely chosen to watch over those roaming horsemen and appears somewhat complex. The second hall, the Hall of Heavenly Kings, contains a traditional central Chinese style Xuan-shan roof with multiple overhanging arches and gables. The main temple hall, however, is entirely constructed in the style of a Tibetan monastery without a single column in sight. Everyone has business to do and can find a place to entrust their hopes. Both strange and familiar, tolerant and accepting, this principle has sadly been cast aside by many people today.
The sculptures of yesterday are the cultural relics of today. Great works of art often go unnamed, and there is simply no way to locate the names of their craftsmen. Much like these rocky grottos, a spirit echoes forth to speak to you as you lightly call out but tells only the story of its weathered countenance. I'm speaking of the flowering rocks of Shibao mountain.
According to Fei Xiaotong, "In the North are the Dunhuang wall paintings. In the South are the Jianchuan grottos." Shibao mountain is not far from Sidengjie and belongs to the Lao-jun mountain range at the center of the "Three Parallel Rivers," which today is a national park. The unique Danxia (red sandstone) features of Shibao mountain are the result of rain and wind corrosion of the mountain sandstone, which have created its tortoise shell forms. The stones resemble lions and elephants or trees and bells. Continuously taking shape, they are known as the "flowering stones."
The Shibao mountain grottos are spread across three areas, Shizhong Temple, Shiziguan, and Shadengqing, and consist of 17 known grottoes with 139 statues of Buddha. These statues exemplify the Azhali Buddhist art of the Dali Nanzhao kingdom, containing statues of Buddhas including the so-called Venus of the East, open-hearted Guanyin, They also contain the largest and most ornate statues depicting court life, which uniquely show the Nanzhao kings traveling and holding court.
In 1961, this area was among the first to be named a Key Cultural Relic under the Protection of the State. The majority of these cultural relics were produced during the Nanzhao period (649-920). Adding to the uniqueness of this area, in the eighth grotto Ayangbai and the relics were produced during the Nanzhao period (649-920). Adding to the uniqueness of this area, in the eighth grotto Ayangbai and the female reproductive organ are enshrined together with Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and kings. In the Bai language "ayang" means "girl" while "bai" refers to the female reproductive organ. It is clear from the deep imprints worn into the ground in front of the statues that countless people have come here to worship.
Among the statues are those of foreign monks, which tell the story of frequent interaction between Shaxi and the outside world. All of these elements testify to the long history of Sidengjie as well as its status as an ancient trading post.
On the fifteenth of each lunar month, the eighth of the second lunar month, and on other traditional festivals, Sidengjie comes to life as residents of surrounding villages flock to Square Street in celebration. Likewise, each Friday villagers invariably arrive for the market. For reasons of time, I've always missed out on these events causing me no small regret. However, I am confident I will make up for it soon enough.