The country bus from Kaili dropped Mr Li and myself above a tight little valley, with a dark ridge rising 2km to the north. Below was Zhaitou village; founded back in Ming dynasty, it once sat on a post-road at the boundary of Chinese and Miao territory. In 1855, at the start of the Miao War, the chieftain (Wang) Guan Baoniu set up base here, building defensive walls along a ridge at a place called Dingpatang and holding the area unchallenged for over a decade. But in 1868 the Hunan Army retook Zhaitou for the Chinese government, winning their first major victory against the Miao.
Zhaitou was poor and functional, a mess of rectangular brick houses left bare or covered in white tiles – a bathroom turned inside out. A few traditional wooden homes clung to the slopes above, bunches of corncobs and chillies drying under their eaves. All around were terraced hillocks, their tops darkened by pine trees.
Wading across muddy green fields in front of the village, we met a woman gathering cabbages and asked if she knew any old poems about the Miao War. No, but others did; she walked us into Zhaitou shouting out “Who knows the most old songs?” Sadly we heard that Granny Yu Ying had died just a few months before at the age of 98, having first burned her encyclopaedic collection of folktales. But Granny Me Ou also knew a few of the old songs, so we sat down with her on low stools in the lane outside her home, surrounded by a knot of fascinated children (I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it was clearly something to do with the size of my nose). Granny Me Ou recited a ballad about the death of Wang Guan Baoniu:
“The Han Chinese came to Dragon’s Pond,
They arrived at Dingpatang,
They came to the place called Liang Mo Xing,
And killed Guan Baoniu,
Everybody’s heart sank down,
All our hearts were broken,
Even the chickens were silenced.”
The last line might sound laughable, but for anyone who has spent the night in a Miao village, kept awake by the incessant cluckings and gruntings of livestock, it’s pretty moving.
We set off to find Dingpatang. As always, nobody seemed to have a clear idea of where it was, or even if Dingpatang was a specific place or just a general area. It was an hour’s walk; it was just up the road; you could drive there; no, you had to hike over the hills. Then a man, happily drunk despite the fact it was only noon, called us over to his shop and introduced us to 79-year-old Mr Wan Guoshen. Incredibly, Mr Wan turned out to be a local historian who had written the definitive account of the Dingpatang conflict for the Cultural Bureau. Would we like to hear about it?
The Hunan Army’s first campaign at Dingpatang was a disaster: the Miao dug hidden pits filled with poisoned bamboo stakes across their path and the Chinese were beaten. But in January 1868 a new commander was appointed, Xi Baotian (席宝田). Xi enlisted the help of a traitorous local called Wan Maogou: Wan revealed that though Dingpatang itself was impregnable, Zhaitou village was vulnerable; attack here and Guan Baoniu would rush down off the heights to defend his home town. So the Hunan Army torched Zhaitou using fire arrows and ambushed the Miao forces as they descended onto the plain, fatally wounding Guan Baoniu. When his corpse was disemboweled, the Chinese found only bark and grass in his stomach, and were impressed: they realised that the Miao had fought hard to defend their homeland despite being nearly starving.
So where exactly was Dingpatang? Mr Wan pointed up the road to where the steep crest, blocking the view north, was topped by pine woods and a radio mast. A muddy footpath climbed to the summit, where there were a few vegetable plots, slippery red soil and clumps of soaking wet grass – but no sign of the defenses that Guan Baoniu had built. Descending the far side, we met a labourer outside a brickworks and asked for directions. Old fortifications? Yes, he used to collect firewood near them when he was a child; follow the road down to the first house on the left, and they were up in the woods on the slope behind.
On we trudged, downhill through the rain, to where an old man was standing outside the house as if expecting us. We ran through a litany of greetings. “You’re English? We fought you! At Guangzhou, at Tianjin!” I was taken aback until I realised that he must be talking about the Opium Wars, over since 1860. Good, he knew his history, maybe he knew about the battle at Dingpatang and the old wall. Yes, there had been a wall right there, just across the road by the outhouse; but he had broken it up years ago to make soil for his potatoes. He waved his arm in an arc to take in the scene. The whole plain in front, soggy green fields cut by an elevated highway, had been the Dingpatang battlefield. The heaviest fighting had been over there, where the expressway ran behind that little hillock, near the motorway sign. He used to find musket balls scattered all over the place when he was a child. Did he still have any to show me? No; like old Chinese coins, they had all vanished long ago.
His wife arrived on a bicycle. How about the fortifications up in the forest? “No”, his wife broke in “it’s all gone now, people took the stones away to build houses”. She looked guilty.
[Many thanks to Mr Li Maoqing for interpreting from Hmong throughout my trip].