The End of the World
Courtesy of Wikicommons.
â€śChâ€™iaotâ€™ou is a market of about 100 families and gives the impression of being the end of the world, as it is near the limit of settled Chinese penetration in those parts, and beyond is nothing but tâ€™ussu ti, the wild tribal territory of the Sawbwas.â€ť
In April 1941, British diplomat M. C. Gillett passed through the end of the world, or at least the end of Chinese civilisation. Some days earlier, on the 15th April, Gillett left the British consulate in Tengyueh, Yunnan Province to start a 900 mile tour of the rural lands. The whole trip took about three months and the goal was to â€śobtain first-hand information about the countryâ€ť, liaise with Chinese officials, meet the â€śscatteredâ€ť British expatriates and â€śshow the flagâ€ť.
1941 was the third year of the Sino-Japanese War, a conflict which had run into stalemate after initial fighting had forced the Chinese Nationalists to relocate their capital to Chungking. Britain itself was also at war, fighting the Germans and Italians in Europe and North Africa. In the midst of this global conflict, Gillett set off to explore the villages of one of the remotest parts of China. To say he was a world away would be an understatement.
Although a diplomat by profession, his report is filled with anthropological observations of local tribes, such as the Lisu: â€ś[They] are a well-built race of average heightâ€¦ As regards features the men often have an almost european [sic] castâ€¦ The women are not attractive.â€ť
Â© The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Overall, Gillett found the Lisus â€śa likeable and friendly raceâ€ť with an â€śimprovident habit of turning as much grain as they can into beer.â€ť This wasnâ€™t always the case, however. â€śThirty years ago the traveller met with intervillage feuds, savagery, surliness, sometimes poisoned arrows and, on one occasion, death. Now one hears hymningâ€¦â€ť
Although pleased with the transformation the Lisu had undergone, Gillett had mixed feelings about the Christian influence in the area. â€śI am no particular friend to missionaries: I admire their sincerity but deplore their bigotryâ€¦â€ť
It was Christian bigotry which caused the decline of their native song, Gillet laments: â€śFor the Demon Sex raises his ugly head in the Lisu songs, which the worthy Missionaries regard as horribly immoral.â€ť On one evening he was lucky enough to chance upon a Lisu â€śsing-songâ€ť, which featured a man playing guitar while another man and three girls danced in the middle. â€śThe Lisus have quite pleasant voices to our way of thinking, and the singing was quite beautiful, wild and entirely suited to the mountains.â€ť
I wonder if Gillett reflected on the course of the war during this fire lit evening? It must have seemed so distant. While the worldâ€™s great civilisations were blowing themselves apart, Gillett sat in remotest Asia listening to the â€świld, melodious chorus of those â€śheathenâ€ť Lisus echoing up the valleys.â€ť
This Foreign Office file and many others will feature in our forthcoming collection, "1938-1948: Open Door, Japanese War and the Seeds of Communist Victory".