There’s a local saying in southeast Guizhou: “If you want to enjoy your New Year, don’t argue with the people at Jiuzhou”. The population must be a fiesty bunch then. I wondered if this was why my bus ticket included insurance coverage of up to ¥20,000 medical expenses, or ¥4000 for personal injury. Known as Huangping in Mesny’s day, I was off to Jiuzhou to see if anyone there had stories handed down from when the Miao and Chinese armies had fought over the town in early 1869. The Chinese had won, capturing not only Jiuzhou but also the Miao’s essential winter stores, only to have General Liu Heling’s pet monkey somehow set fire to some thatch and burn the whole place to the ground.
The road wound up onto a high plateau, where police had set up guard posts on paths heading into the hills, checking villagers’ bags for anything inflammable before allowing them through. It was Qingming, the annual excursion to tidy up your ancestors’ graves, which also involves having a picnic at the tomb, setting off firecrackers and burning paper money and models of cars, computers, iphones, houses and anything else that might be useful in the afterlife. But this year was unseasonably dry and sunny, and the hills were covered in shrivelled undergrowth and tinder; a stray spark from an ancestral fire and half the province would have gone up in smoke.
Jiuzhou was an attractive place, small, slightly disheveled and with a good scattering of old buildings – a European-style Catholic church, the shells of once-grand mansions, and the remains of guildhalls founded as club houses by merchants from distant Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. Jiuzhou was as far as you could possibly get by river into Guizhou; cotton, salt and other goods would be unloaded here and portered overland along the post road to the provincial capital, Guiyang. The town’s glory days were behind it though, and most old buildings were in bad shape, having been turned into factories or simply abandoned during the Maoist years.
We stepped off the bus and immediately ran into a friend of Li Maoqing’s, a Mister Wu, who was a consultant for a committee deciding how to restore Jiuzhou’s period architecture and was in the process of interviewing town’s elders to gather historical reminiscences. When he heard I was researching the Miao war, he generously invited us to join him for a meal before visiting Jiuzhou’s incumbent “oldest man” for a question and answer session. Chinese hospitality is often a test of alcoholic tolerance; in Guizhou it’s also about your ability to consume volcanically spicy food. A common saying across the province is “no chillies, no eating”; it’s hard to imagine how people got by before the Portuguese brought them to China during the seventeenth century. The most popular meal is sour hotpot, a communal dish of pickled vegetables, chicken and chillies simmered in stock on a table-top burner. The quantity of dried peppers used is so large that it turns the stock crimson, and experience teaches you to buffer the effects with bowls of boiled rice. I noticed that even Mister Li, himself a Miao, emptied his rice bowl twice before starting on the hotpot.
The meal over, we headed off, mouths throbbing, to the former site of the Zhou Family Mansion. It was more of a long, rectangular courtyard sunk between other buildings, open to the sky and with brick rooms built around the perimeter, but you could see from foundation stones how it had originally been laid out as a line of five connecting halls. We were seated on the inevitable low stools, the family gathered around. When the patriarch heard I was a writer, he cowered in mock terror. “Don’t let him write down what I say, they’ll hunt me down and chop my head off!” No, he had never heard of a foreigner fighting for the Chinese at Jiuzhou. All he knew was that when the Sichuan Army arrived, they had burned down his family’s home. I thought of General Liu’s pet monkey. People had rescued what they could, had salvaged some of the unburned house timbers, but there hadn’t been enough to rebuild the mansion. He swept his arm around: this was all that remained.
Mister Zhou knew no more about the Miao War. But had I heard about Du Zhouzhang, the grandfather of the famous Marxist scholar, Guo Moruo? Du, an Imperial degree graduate, had been a magistrate here when Jiuzhou had fallen to the Miao in 1856; afraid that his wives and children would be raped or sold into slavery he had killed his entire household. But a maid escaped the carnage with Du’s infant daughter, Guo Moruo’s future mother, and fled to Sichuan.