The Last Mongols in Yunnan

Tonghai County (通海县) in central Yunnan has a number of attractions that make it worthy of an excursion from Kunming, just 130 kilometers away. I’m local,so I know the town too well.It is definitely worth discovering.The county seat, Tonghai City, lies at the base of a wooded hill a few kilometers southwest of Qilu Lake (杞麓湖). It still has an old quarter next to the hill, featuring a three-tiered Qing Dynasty tower and narrow streets of old-fashioned shop-houses — door gods at the compound gates and caged songbirds suspended in cages from the eaves.

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Tonghai Old Town

From the old town a walkway leads up the hill. Called Xiushan (秀山), the hill has for centuries been a Buddhist sanctuary. The walkway winds through thick forest to several secluded temples dating back to the Tang Dynasty, passing open vantage points along the way. 

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Xiushan Mountain

These afford views north of the broad plain, the modern part of Tonghai sprawling below the old quarter and the distant minarets of the Hui town of Najiaying (纳家营) on the north side of Qilu Lake. The view south encompasses the hills of the Yi district Lishan (里山). One of these, a few kilometers southeast of Tonghai, contains a limestone cavern called Fairy Cave (仙人洞).Ancient temples, caves, traditional urban quarters, even Yi villages are not unique to Tonghai, but common to many places in the province. What makes Tonghai special is the existence of three villages at the base of Peacock Mountain, a large hill several kilometers west of the city.

This is Xingmeng Mongolian Township (兴蒙蒙古族乡), the only place in Yunnan home to the descendants of the Mongol conquerors of China. Their presence here, a very long way from Mongolia, Outer or Inner, is a living historical vestige of an important story in Yunnan’s long history — how it became part of China.

In the thirteenth century the territory of what is now Yunnan belonged to the Kingdom of Dali. It was the successor to the Kingdom of Nanzhao, which used to battle Tibet and Tang Dynasty China for supremacy in the southwest. tong4

The Kingdom of Nanzhao fell to internal coups shortly after the Tang Dynasty collapsed. The Song Dynasty that eventually won out in the post-Tang succession struggle decided to adopt a non-aggressive attitude towards Dali in order to maintain trade links. The item prized by the Song Court was the Yunnan pony.

The state’s greatest security threat was on its northern frontier, where the enemy comprised mounted nomadic forces. Song China needed horses for defense and therefore required good relations with Dali so that nothing interrupted trade on the traditional Tea Horse Road from Yunnan to Tibet. Not threatened on any of its frontiers, nor ambitious to extend them, the Kingdom of Dali enjoyed a long period of peace, even after Genghis Khan’s Mongols conquered the northern part of China.

The Song Dynasty held off the invaders for another century, so the Mongols decided to attack China from its weak, southwestern flank. This entailed subduing the Kingdom of Dali on the way. In 1253, Kublai Khan led a massive expedition through Sichuan’s mountains and crossed into Yunnan at Yongning (永宁) in the northwest. Easily subduing the local Mosuo and Pumi, he left Mongol officers in charge of the district and headed south towards the Lijiang plain, home of the Naxi.

The Naxi, confronting a force many times bigger than their own, opted to help the Mongols cross the Yangtze River on inflated goatskin rafts and joined the campaign against Dali. Kublai pitched his tent near the old stone bridge in what later became Lijiang’s old town and prepared his next campaign.Dali put up a spirited but futile resistance, yet Kublai left the dethroned king in charge of the area as his local official. He also left a small occupation force and then moved on to take control of the rest of the erstwhile kingdom.Leaving an ally in charge of the province — now firmly incorporated into the Mongol Empire — Kublai Khan then returned to the Mongol capital to get involved in a succession struggle for several years before coming out on top. Following that he conquered the rest of Song China, from the north rather than the southwest, and in 1279 set up the Yuan Dynasty in Beijing.

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Mongols

Yunnan remained under the control of the Khan’s Central Asian Muslim governors, backed by Mongol army units, throughout the Yuan Dynasty. When it fell in 1368 Yunnan remained the last Mongol stronghold south of the Yangtze River for another thirteen years while the new Ming Dynasty consolidated its control over the rest of the country.

With that accomplished, the Ming Emperor dispatched an army to expel the Mongols from Yunnan. The Ming troops crushed Mongol forces near Qujing in 1381, then hunted down any remnants remaining in the province until they were confident they had killed or expelled every last member of the race. From that point on Yunnan was part of the Chinese Empire.

One small group managed to evade the Ming army, escape to the hills, change their way of life, live in disguise and wait until the political climate improved for them to acknowledge they were Mongols. This is the small, tightly knit community that settled in Xingmeng. Over the centuries it survived first on fishing, then farming, and finally, in modern times, on both agriculture and the construction business. 

Despite their lifestyle changes, they maintained the social customs and traditions origianlly brought with them from the northern steppes. Today most women still wear traditional jackets, vests and caps, often adorning them with silver clasps, buttons and pendants. They live in sturdy houses with high, thick walls, separated from each other by narrow cobbled lanes.

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Kublai Khan

Today they worship at the Guanyin Temple but also, in Xingmeng, have their own Sansheng Temple (三圣寺), which honors and houses large sculptures of the three great empire builders of their past — Genghis Khan, Ögedei Khan and Kublai Khan.

Local legends incorporate supernatural elements into the community’s historic shifts in lifestyle. One story tells that when Ming troops had all but eradicated the Mongol presence, the last seven fugitives sat on the shore of Qilu Lake pondering their future. Suddenly an old man emerged from the waters, standing on a rhinoceros skin. 

Inviting the survivors onto the skin, the man pointed to a huge fish supporting a temple. Back on shore the men realized that because the words for ‘food’ and ‘temple’ were similar, the old man had been telling them that fishing could provide them food. They began drawing on the fish and eels of Qilu Lake for their sustenance.

Settling at Xingmeng, the last Mongolian men married Yi women and inculcated in them their language and customs. Their tiny community began to multiply. Then years later, the Buddhist god Acala arrived at Qilu Lake, subdued a dragon responsible for flooding the plains, and dug a hole at the lakeside. Excess water dropped through this hole, eventually emptying into the South China Sea. Acala then subdued more dragons and removed them to the hills to ‘dragon pools’ —springs used to irrigate new fields.

Since then, goes the story, the Mongolians of Yunnan have been farmers, though they still trap eels and small fish in the canals that connect Xingmeng with the lake. In recent decades, the men have worked much of the year in the construction business, enjoying a high reputation as carpenters, stonemasons and bricklayers. Consequently they are out of the area most of the time and Xingmeng’s residents, except for the busiest times in the agricultural cycle, are mostly women and children.

Since the turn of the century Xingmeng has been gaining attention as one of the more unusual tourist destinations in Yunnan, drawing over 10,000 visitors annually. Near the entrance to Xingmeng a new, Mongolian-style building houses the Ethnic Culture Garden and the number of Mongolian-themed restaurants has grown. 

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Madam Festival

The glitzy additions are all near the village entrance, though, and a leisurely walk through the narrow lanes still offers exposure to a rural atmosphere that hasn’t changed much, other than with the introduction of electricity, for centuries. 

Only in 1979 were Xingmeng’s people officially recognized as part of the Mongolian nationality. The male leaders of Xingmeng at once dispatched a delegation to Inner Mongolia to invite Mongolian teachers to come instruct their children in the language and the customs of the steppes.

Bilingual signs, in Chinese characters and Mongolian script, began going up over the entrances to shops and public buildings. Young men took up traditional sports like wrestling and archery. Women proudly wore their ethnic clothing again, so long suppressed during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. It was a great time to be openly Mongolian once more.

Yunnan’s Mongolians have their own locally evolved customs as well as those they retained over the centuries. They speak a dialect that is closer to the local Yi patois than to anything heard in Inner Mongolia. Their greatest cultural event is the Nadaam Festival. Modeled on the Nadaam held in the Mongol homeland, Xingmeng’s celebrates the populace’s recognition as one of Yunnan’s minority nationalities, while also honoring Kublai Khan. 

During the festival, Xingmeng’s Mongolians dress up in their best clothing, which mimics that of the northern steppes. The district and county governments subsidize the expenses, guaranteeing a grand show. 

They stagetong5 wrestling tournaments, archery contests and equestrian performances — all the kinds of events that entertained their ancestors before and after they conquered China. From the enthusiasm and ethnic pride on display, it’s as if the Yuan Dynasty never really fell.