Let us not accuse modern man of having killed God — that crime is not within his reach — but of having killed the gods. God survives untouched, but the universe withers and decays because the subordinate gods have passed away.
– Nicolás Gómez Dávila
Secreted deep within China’s mountainous Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, the village of Manjing clings delicately, like a trailing patch of aquatic moss, to a bend in the Luosuo River. In the long-lost days before China’s so-called Great Leap Forward, Manjing was a typical lowland Dai village, verdant and densely settled, flanked by a fuelwood forest of cassia trees on one side and a towering holy hill on the other. Its temple yard garden, home gardens, and well-kept paddy fields teemed with rice, sugar cane, shaddock, and wholesome herbs like water hyacinth, heart leaf, and dropwort, all bursting forth with the wild abandon afforded by southern Yunnan’s subtropical conditions. The 200 or so families that made up Manjing constructed stilted, gambrel-tiled homes, all closely clustered together, sheltering under the protective spiritual aegis of the village temple. Beyond the confines of the town, it was said that demon ghosts (phi phong) and wandering souls haunted the trackless vales. On a more earthly, though hardly less exotic, plane of existence, ostentations of peafowl strutted, screeched, and roosted in canopies, lone tigers concealed themselves in primeval foliage, and herds of wild elephants roamed freely through the forest glades. While the Dai people worshiped water (nan) and the land (nanling) above all else, the villagers of Manjing fostered a special reverence for their pachydermal neighbors, and so it was that they named the holy hill situated due south of their community Baixiang Shan, or White Elephant Hill.
Beautifully garbed with magnolia trees and mango trees, bark cloth trees and sacred bodhi trees, White Elephant Hill accommodated not only a riot of flora and fauna but also a mysterious and sometimes menacing devata, a guardian spirit which required routine placation through animal sacrifice, lest it unleash upon the villagers below all manner of natural disasters, ranging from typhoons, hailstorms, droughts, and freak cold-snaps to earthquakes, grassland fires, bacterial blights, and bubonic plagues, to name only some of the arrows in its expansive quiver. Such an ancestral deity, the French Sinophile Albert Gervais observed in L’ombre du Ma-koui (1936), “plays an active role in human affairs, can be good or wicked, generous or greedy, virtuous or lewd, can give excellent advise or kill the beloved son on whom all family hopes rest. It can save a sick person, thwart a crime, or impregnate a nun who has made a vow of chastity, it can bring peace to a province, or it can contaminate the people with its poisoned breath.” This particular genius loci, in this particular corner of Yunnan province, was known to have little patience for trespassers seeking to hunt game, log wood, or pick fruit in the labyrinth of tangled trees that comprised its sacred demesne, and for centuries it zealously patrolled the overgrown hills around Manjing, flourishing during the reign of the independent kings of what was then called Sipsong Panna, and weathering the region’s gradual incorporation into the empires of the Great Yuan, Great Ming, and Great Qing dynasties, when the southerly province became known as Xishuangbanna. Only in the 20th century, with the arrival of godless communism, did Manjing’s spectral guardian meet its match, and even then it did not relinquish its hold on White Elephant Hill without a fearsome struggle.
Xishuangbanna rightfully belongs not to China, but rather to Zomia, the almost impenetrable Southeast Asian Massif region described by James C. Scott, in his magisterial The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), as a sort of vast refugium for “runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.” To bring this far-flung province into the modern, scientific socialist fold, the national and prefectural authorities in Beijing and Jinghong undertook to collectivize the villages, impose land reforms, assemble production brigades, mandate struggle sessions, plaster walls with big-character propaganda posters, abolish the traditional Dai aristocracy, demolish temples, and fundamentally alter the region’s demographics by dispatching urban youth to Xishuangbanna as part of the “Down to the Countryside” rustication movement. Still, the Dai heartland hardly represented a Marxist utopia, as villagers clung fiercely to their ancestral beliefs, the holy hills remained pristine, and the region came to languish under conditions of near famine. In 1970, a “More Land for Grain” campaign was proclaimed, accompanied by the slogan “Claim Wasteland to Plant Grain,” and White Elephant Hill was declared to be economically unproductive wasteland, fit only for conversion into swidden fields.
Only in the 20th century, with the arrival of godless communism, did Manjing’s spectral guardian meet its match.
Nearly 40 years later, when the researcher Gaëtan Reuse conducted fieldwork in Manjing and its environs, memories of the events that followed remained fresh in the Dai villagers’ collective consciousness. Reuse’s informants recounted how the blasphemous villagers who attempted to graze their livestock on the grounds of the holy hill “came out of the sacred forest badly burnt and died afterwards.” A subsequent attempt to slash and burn the woods came to naught, for the devata extinguished the intruders’ torches with a divine wind. The next communist foray was more successful, but the fire that consumed the base of the hill mysteriously petered out before it reached the crown, thereby preserving a modicum of space for the ancestral spirit. The four villagers who had been tasked with laying waste to the sacred grove, Reuse learned, just so happened to die soon afterwards, with two of them succumbing to a sudden disease and the other two perishing “in an incident involving shotguns.” The elders of Manjing then “stepped forward and declared that the intact top had to remain untouched.” Though its allotment of undisturbed forest was much diminished, the devata of White Elephant Hill had, against all odds, maintained its hold on Manjing.
The villagers had salvaged something of a moral victory, as did their neighbors in nearby Mengxing Xiazhai, who lost one of their holy hills, Đong Gam, but barely managed to preserve another, Đong Shé. Nevertheless, the combined effects of collectivization, the Cultural Revolution, and the More Land for Grain campaign had exacted a terrible toll in the prefecture. Elsewhere in Yunnan, the Lolo-speaking Hani people suffered a similar fate, their sacred trees cut down, their sacred stones hauled away, their ancestral altars reduced to ash. Since the departed ancestors and gods of the Hani repose in the forests encircling their scattered villages, the wanton destruction of those groves must be considered a singularly monstrous profanity, a crime against the land and the dead every bit as grievous as any crime against humanity. All across Yunnan, only paltry pockets of sacred space remained, thousands of years of tradition had gone up in smoke, and an entire way of life had been upended, but at least the village committees had some good news for the Dai and Hani peasants. The preceding decades of cultural genocide, terror, and famine had been inflicted on their region with a great purpose in mind — the defeat of the Nationalists and the repudiation of the reactionary bourgeoisie — and now the people of Xishuangbanna could finally rejoice in their newfound freedom from feudalism. There was, naturally, a catch. The peasants of Manjing, Mengxing Xiazhai, and elsewhere would have to leave behind their old, anachronistic smallholdings and begin toiling on the massive monocultural rubber plantations that had spread like cankers all over their ancient holy hills. Instead of placating their ancestral devata, they would henceforth be paying obeisance to the commissars and company foremen who now controlled their earthly fate. Such is the spirit of Progress, which, like an unappeased malefic deity, has a poisoned breath all its own.
At precisely the same historical moment that the Chinese Communist Party found itself struggling to subdue the stubborn peasants of Yunnan, the United States was engaged in its own “hamlet pacification” campaign across the border in Vietnam, albeit in an effort to stave off, rather than establish, communist rule. In the hopes of furthering this effort, Harvard University’s Samuel Huntington took to the pages of Foreign Affairs and in his 1968 article “Viet Nam: The Bases of Accommodation” argued that the American and Saigon governments should dispense with various metrics for victory — “statistics on kill rates, infiltration rates, chieu hoi (defection) rates, hamlet pacification categories and voting turnouts” — all of which had only provided grounds for misplaced optimism. Instead, Huntington suggested, the focus should be on overturning traditional conceptions of land tenure, given that
Government control was found to be greatest in those provinces in which “few peasants farm their own land, the distribution of landholdings is unequal, no land redistribution has taken place, large French landholdings existed in the past, population density is high, and the terrain is such that accessibility is poor.” This seemingly perverse product of statistical analysis is bolstered by other substantial if less systematic evidence for Viet Nam as well as by much experience elsewhere. The appeal of revolutionaries depends not on economic deprivation but on political deprivation, that is, on the absence of an effective structure of authority. Where the latter exists, even though it be quite hierarchical and undemocratic, the Viet Cong make little progress.
The key to victory in Vietnam, then, would lie “neither in the quest for conventional military victory nor in the esoteric doctrines and gimmicks of counter-insurgency warfare,” but instead in “forced-draft urbanization and modernization which rapidly brings the country in question out of the phase in which a rural revolutionary movement can hope to generate sufficient strength to come to power.” In order to achieve this “forced-draft urbanization,” as the anthropologist Eric Wolf summarized it in Europe and the People Without History (1982), Vietnamese villagers needed to be “propelled toward modernization by driving them into cities through aerial bombardment and defoliation of the countryside.” More poisoned breath would emanate from the gaping maw of Progress, this time courtesy of the tactical use of Rainbow Herbicides — Agents Pink, Green, Purple, and Orange — that were sprayed over the jungles of Southeast Asia as part of the Trail Dust program.
Both Beijing and Washington had evidently arrived at similar conclusions — the peasantry simply could not be trusted to join the modern world of their own accord. If suasion failed, then force would be required, including measures as drastic as the destruction of sacred groves or the systematic defoliation and napalming of the countryside. For Oswald Spengler, cultural decline, our common “downward path,” was largely a result of the forced-draft urbanization that has come to define so much of modern life. “The giant city,” the German historian lamented, “sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country…. In place of a type-true people, born of and grown on the soil, there is a new sort of nomad, cohering unstably in fluid masses, the parasitical city dweller, traditionless, utterly matter-of-fact, religionless, clever, unfruitful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman.” All modern regimes, liberal or socialist, have this compulsion, although the manner in which they act on it differs in degree and kind. Here in the United States, monocultural farming, big-box stores, self-inflicted manufacturing decline, and synthetic opioids tend to do the heavy lifting. In China, more intrusive techniques are possible, for instance the implementation of the Xueliang (“Sharp Eyes”) Program, which subjects rural districts to surveillance by tens of thousands of security cameras utilizing sophisticated automated facial recognition algorithms, and the establishment of a centralized population database that allows for refractory citizens to be blacklisted from even basic services like public transportation, all part of an comprehensive system of social credit and debit. Ancestral temples are methodically leveled, folk religions are massively disprivileged, and environmental degradation reduces picturesque towns to necropolises, once-flourishing landscapes to calcined, toxic hellscapes. There is no longer any refugium from what Bertrand de Jouvenel called the Minotaur, the modern centralizing state best exemplified by the present-day People’s Republic of China.
The ancient villages of Xishuangbanna continue to bear the brunt of the China’s relentless assault on aspects of traditional life. Back in 2008, members of the Dai community in Menglian county’s Meng’a Village organized to protest their exploitation at the hands of rubber companies, only to be fired upon by public security bureau officers, beaten with rubber truncheons, and detained en masse. Such behavior is hardly unknown in a pretended workers’ paradise — recall the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre, when the Soviet military and KGB officials fired on unarmed striking workers at the Novocherkassk Electromotive Building Factory — but the Menglian Incident demonstrated the extent to which Xishuangbanna is being bled dry by state-run rubber concerns. Religious persecution likewise proceeds apace, as the Yi, Mien, and Hani ethnic groups are targeted for their adherence to “illegal religions” and “evil cults” like shamanism and various Christian sects. In Dai villages across the prefecture, walls now feature signs with awkward slogans like “Strengthen the management of religious affairs according to law, and actively guide the religion to adapt to socialism,” “Ethnic groups should cooperate with the power of national unity to create a harmonious civilization in Xishuangbanna,” and “Advocate civilization, respect science, oppose cults.” None, of course, dare oppose the real cult at work, the cult of Progress, which continues to erode centuries of tradition.
Manjing village, for its part, has been reduced to a pale shadow of its former self. The Kunming–Mohan highway now bisects the town. Concrete structures are displacing those of bamboo and brick. Few adults, let alone children, can read either the old or new Dai script, and Dai heritage is increasingly confined to places like the Ganlanba Dai Minority Garden, a sort of ersatz ethnographic Epcot Theme Park where Han tourists can gawk at stilted bamboo homes, gleaming Buddhist temples, and natives clad in sarongs and coronets, visit food stalls serving fried bamboo worms, and partake in the annual Water Splashing Festival. Dances and oral literature have been “improved” by the government agencies like the United Front Work Department, the better to foster sentiments of national unity, while propaganda posters depict, as the anthropologist Louisa Schein put it, “literally infantilized minority children, again in full festival regalia, some holding toys and some holding musical instruments, along with one or two Han, were shown playing gleefully with, holding the hands of, or even embracing a fatherly Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, and Zhu De.” Whatever ancestral spirits remain in the holy hills are restricted to “biodiversity corridors” that shrink ever narrower in the face of intensive rubber monoculture, which now covers more than 6,000 square kilometers, almost one-third of the prefecture. (READ MORE from Matthew Omolesky: A Hateful Business: Modern Monoculture and the Era of Hollow Expectations)
According to Dai poets, the astonishingly fertile land of Xishuangbanna was born from an all-consuming conflagration, when
A huge fire destroyed the world
Everything was exterminated, nothing left in the land
Just water left everywhere
In time, a kindly god passed by, and scattered lotus seeds over the surface of the deep, seeds that sprouted and bloomed in spectacular fashion. Firstly the four golden petals of the sacred lotus gave rise to the four cardinal directions, and then mountains, the pillars of this reborn world, gradually emerged from the waters. Five rivers formed themselves, attracting parades of elephants and herds of wild water buffalo, while rattan started twining around the burgeoning trees. Eight Sanglu Sanglai gods, satisfied with nature’s progress, wafted down from the heavens, divided themselves evenly into male and female cohorts, and set about repopulating the world. As for their descendants:
People went through mountains to search for wet land
They stacked the wood to make fire
They heaped the embankment to make the rice field
And assarted the wild hill to make the dry field
They took three bunches of rice shoots to cultivate
And took three bunches of straw to cover the roof
Their native country would be known as Sipsong Panna, or the “12 rice-fields,” and though Lannathai, Burmese, Mongol, and Han dynasties would come and go, Xishuangbanna would remain in this largely unspoiled state, at least until the middle of the 20th century, when fire again swept the sacred hills. This time, however, it would be the oozing, grey-green Amazonian Pará rubber tree, not the iridescent native lotus, that would be propagated and cultivated, thereby laying the foundations for an altogether uncertain future.
One of the great hills that formed when Xishuangbanna emerged from the ruins of the old world, Baixiang Shan, still looms large over the village of Manjing, but it does not stand alone. Just east of White Elephant Hill, sloping gently down towards the Luosuo River, is the smaller Xiangfa Gongzhu, or Princess with Perfumed Hair Hill. Another epic Dai poem relates how the hill received its curious name:
The Princess with Perfumed Hair was born after her mother drank water from an elephant footprint. She lived in the forest with her father who was king of the white elephants. She eventually married the son of the zhaomeng [hereditary lord] of the meng [small princedom] of Lun. When they arrived in Manjing the fragrance of her hair grew stronger and spread well beyond the border of the meng of Lun. Soon zhaomeng from all over Sipsongbanna gathered near Manjing. They all wanted to kidnap and marry her. A Sipsongbanna-wide civil war ensued. The princess was hidden in a hole in the hill that now bears her name. As everyone was busy fighting, she was forgotten and died on the hill.
Before communism came to Xishuangbanna, this poem would be recited during important rituals. Today, only the oldest denizens of Manjing recall the melancholy but instructive tale. Slowly but surely, the significance of these holy hills is being consigned to oblivion, just as the princess of the white elephants was forgotten as her would-be abductors sank into their ruinous internecine struggle. Yet as long as the holy hills and sacred groves of Xishuangbanna remain, however fractured the terrain around them, there will likewise remain a sanctuary for all those ancestral spirits, wandering ghosts, elephant kings, and perfumed princesses who together await the arrival of a more reverent and less godforsaken era.