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Chat with a ‘Crouching Tiger’
in a Lijiang Teahouse
Just outside the downtown of Lijiang, beside a crystal-clear creek, stands the House of Green Snow Teahouse where visitors can find in its owner, Yu Yong, “one of the dragons and tigers hiding in Lijiang” ready to talk over a cup of tea about the art and history of this ancient city in the land of the Naxi people.

Located at the foot of the lofty Yulong Snowy Mountain, Lijiang in southwest Yunnan Province has been described as a veritable den of hidden dragons and crouching tigers because of the numbers of painters, musicians and writers who have found a home in this small town, often working in obscurity.

As a sculptor, Yu Yong, 45, is one of them -- although he turned from creating art to operating a teahouse to support himself after his arrival here three years ago from Taiwan. At the same time, his new business afforded him the opportunity to collect and preserve traditional Naxi handicraft and to establish the first private museum of Naxi folk antiques in Yunnan.

“In regard to my running the teahouse, I can only say that the drinker’s heart is not in the cup,” said Yu who holds a Canadian passport and at a vigorous 45 wears his hair long and loose. “In the beginning, a couple of old sculptors in Beijing who are familiar with my mentor encouraged me to come to Lijiang to do more work on stone sculpture. However, once I ran out of money, I thought that probably owning a teahouse in the ancient town was not a bad idea to sustain my art career. That is the reason I used ‘art and tea’ to advertise my teahouse.”

The mentor of whom Yu Yong spoke was Li Lincan -- former vice president of Taiwan's Imperial Palace Museum, a renowned art historian, painter, and expert on the study of the Naxi people -- whose own story comes to life in the calligraphy inscribed on a board in prominent view in the teahouse: “House of Green Snow.”

When Li Lincan first visited the area in 1939, he was fascinated by the sight of green snow at Yunshanping with an elevation of over 9,000 feet above the sea level in the Yulong Snowy Mountain. At the time Li was an art student at the South-West Associated University (a university formed by combining Peking, Tsinghua and Nankai universities during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression). Attracted by the ancient and mysterious Naxi people living in the neighborhood of the mountain, Li devoted himself to working on Naxi history, culture, language and religion. After immigrating to Canada in his old age, Li invited Zeng Shaojie, well-known epigraphist and calligraphist, to inscribe House of Green Snow luxuezhai on a horizontal board to hang in his study. As Li’s last disciple, in 1992 Yu Yong came to Lijiang to present his advisor’s books to the local government. Seven years later, in 1999, Yu brought Li’s inscribed luxuezhai board with him to Lijiang and the House of Green Snow Teahouse.

Yu Yong, who majored in chemical engineering before meeting Li and who also was influenced by Zhu Junshan -- a professor from Ontario College of Art & Design in Canada -- told the story of his mentor over a cup of tea at the House of Green Snow. Folk music played in the background on a spring night.

During the first two years of his running the teahouse, Yu went from village to village to collect nearly 500 traditional Naxi handicraft articles. Sponsored by local cultural relics institutions, Yu held an exhibition on traditional Naxi folk craft in 2001, showcasing 133 photos and 218 antiques including wood carvings, stone artifacts, bamboo vessels, copper ware, earthenware as well as building materials like bricks and tiles.

One of Yu’s favorites from the collection is a copper pot coated on the inside with pottery. According to Yu, an expert on studies of ethnic handicraft in Yunnan has made two special trips to the Luxuezhai to see this pot that combines the advantages of earthenware and copperware.

Yu took out a piece of wood carving and held it to the lamplight.

“This is called xuanyu (hanging fish) or xuanshan (towering hill) by the local people; it is a component part used in roof truss. Thanks to my previous major in chemical engineering, I spent a whole month cleaning it with a bamboo spike in a quite professional way,” Yu said.

Yu Yong spoke of his gaining inspiration from the heroic exploits of He Zairui, a Naxi calligrapher and advocate for the protection of historical relics as well as former vice-chairman of the political consultative conference in Lijiang.

“These are He’s notes taken during his survey of the Dading Temple in the 1960s,” said Yu, pointing to manuscripts yellow with age. “They were used by his relatives as toilet paper in his home village. Before I bought them from the hands of the villagers, apparently many of them had been destroyed in bathrooms.”

Through reading He Zairui’s manuscripts, Yu Yong was impressed by the researcher’s rigorous scholarship and high sense of responsibility. Besides a detailed description of the Dading Temple, He Zairui left accurate surveying data and suggested that the local government allocate 10,000 yuan (around US$1,250) for the renovation of the temple. These are precious documents demonstrating that as far back as the 1960s He Zairui had worked out a comprehensive plan on how to salvage and preserve cultural relics in Lijiang.

“Unfortunately, following the advent of the Great Cultural Revolution in 1966, all his plans came to naught. He helplessly watched archaeological sites and relics including the Dading Temple destroyed overnight.”

Today, Yu Yong sees a new threat to the cultural heritage of Lijiang in modern development and tourism.

“After Lijiang was placed on the World Cultural Heritage list in 1997, tourism has given great impetus to the development of the economy in this ancient town,” Yu Yong said. “For the past couple of years, many things have been created in Lijiang such as the “movement of engraving on a wooden plate” that does not come out of the Lijiang culture at all. Tourists have come to Lijiang not for the bustling commercial air; if so, Xidan or Wangfujing in Beijing would have been their better choice,” Yu Young said.

Yu Yong added that he once joked that Naxi should be spelled “Xina” (in Chinese, “Xina” sounds like assimilation) since the Naxi people know how to select the essence of other peoples while keeping their own independence.

“Nevertheless, the longer I reside here, the more I am concerned how long this independence can last. In my opinion, military or economic aggression can be resisted, but all-pervasive cultural infiltration is unable to be coped with. Thus, if you ask me what have been brought to Lijiang by tourism, my answer is: wealth, a wide vision, and disaster.”

It was already past midnight when Yu Yong said good-bye to his last visitor at the antique door of the House of the Green Snow Teahouse who wondered if the proprietor ever regretted abandoning his art career to engage himself in the protection of folk customs and cultural relics.

“No, never,” Yu replied.

(By Shao Da, china.org.cn staff reporter, edited by Sara Grimes, May 23, 2002)

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