Shaxi Old Theatre Inn
Duan Jia Deng Village, Shaxi Town
Jianchuan County, Dali, Yunnan, 671302, China
+86 872 4722 296

Shaxi Yunnan history and the Tea Horse Road

  • Shaxi Shibaoshan temple graves - Hai Yun Ju - Shaxi Yunnan China

Ancient graves and early copper mines clearly show that Shaxi was a base for bronze smelting as far back as 400 BC, known in China as the Spring and Autumn period, and the Warring States period (770 BC - 221BC).

The Southern Silk Road, better known as as the Ancient Tea Horse Caravan Road predated its more famous northern counterpart by at least 300 years, The first written records of the route are from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which was locally known as the Nanzhao Kingdom period (649-920), but trade had been taking place long before this time. From the hillside plantations of Simao and Xishuangbanna the muleteers brought pu'er tea; Burmese traders, often accompanied by Indian monks bought hides and animal bones, for use in in Chinese medicine. Salt, an essential commodity before the advent of refrigeration, came from Qiaohou, south of Shaxi, and from Yunlong across the mountains to the west, along with silver from Misha, and nearby Heqing. As well as felt, silk and precious stones came that most valuable of medicines, opium, perhaps Yunnan's largest cash crop at the time. All of these and more were traded with Tibetans for items such as musk, rare fungi and exotic medicines, found in the frigid mountains to the north.

  • Tea horse road ancient bridge - Shaxi Yunnan China

The main village of Sideng became an important staging post for the caravans, and the whole valley flourished in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The market square became famous throughout the southwest, and attracted traders from a wide range of cultures that only enhanced the profitability of the Tea Horse Road. Hani from southern Yunnan brought tea and rich cloths. Naxi from Lijiang brought timber, Muslim Hui bought yak furs and horses. The wealth generated by all this trade is clearly evident in the ornate local architecture, with their imposing gate towers and spacious courtyards. At the center of all this, stands the Qing dynasty theater, directly across from the 400-year old temple, dedicated to as wide a range of faiths as the merchants and pilgrims that turned this remote village into a vibrant trading hub, which lasted well beyond the end of the Qing Dynasty (1614-1911).

The caravan routes finally died out around 60 years ago, when the newly formed People's Liberation Army began its advance on western Tibet, and requisitioned every pack animal they could find. The centuries old trade routes came to an abrupt end by 1950, when the communists' ban on private markets put the last nails in the coffin. The locals quickly reverted to agriculture and passed the last few decades in relative isolation.

  • Shaxi Prince Festival - Old Theatre Inn - Yunnan China

More recently, the World Monument Fund added Shaxi's market square to its Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2001. By this time squatters had taken over much of the village, and many of the buildings had decayed to the point of collapse. In 2002, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (ETH) and the People's Government of Jianchuan County jointly established the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project (SRP) to protect and revitalize the cultural and natural heritage of Sideng Village and the Shaxi Valley. With USD1.3 million in funding from the World Monument Fund they hired a Swiss conservation expert Jacques Feiner, who had previously made his name at Yemen's old city of Sanaa, one of the earliest centers of population in human history. His approach has been to restore rather than rebuild, using traditional techniques and materials wherever possible. Apart from the restoring the temple and the stage, the entire market plaza was drained and relaid, which has led to a number of major awards, including a UNESCO Award of Distinction for cultural heritage preservation.

Bai religion

  • Shaxi old town Xingjiao Temple - Shaxi Yunnan China

Considering their crossroads location, it is hardly surprising that the Bai have adopted practices from Han Chinese ancestor worship, as well as that of Indian Buddhism. In most villages, the cult of Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy, a female fertility deity, is combined with worship of the Benzhu or Village Lords. This was probably influenced by the Chenghuangmiao or Gods of the City temples, (common to every Han Chinese city until 1949) so that every village has its own local god, often a historical figure such as the first ancestor to settle this area, a great sage or a local hero. It is very common to find Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian and Benzhu temples or shrines within a single Bai village, or even within a single temple complex. The mythologies surrounding these cults are extremely rich, as every deified character has his own history and legends. Iconography is therefore extremely varied to reflect these many tales. Many are rough-hewn hemp and papier-mâché images, often to be found riding fearsome beasts such as dragons or tigers in order to show their strength. Their role is to protect the village and its population. Worship takes the form of Bai language chants, local song and dance, and traditional Bai foodstuffs made as offerings. At the doors of these temples, are warrior guardians, usually at the sides of the main entrance.

While Yunnan was an independent state, the Bai were enthusiastic in their adoption of Tantric Buddhism. This particular sub branch later became known as Azhali Buddhism, from the Sanskrit acarya, or "teacher."

In Shaxi the most popular form of temple is the 'kuixinge', many of which also incorporate performance stages. The kuixinge is devoted to a god of learning, a distinctive 'tutelary spirit' which the Bai traditionally hold in very high esteem. Perhaps the finest example of this is at the Old Temple Theater, outside the old town the village of Duanjiadeng, and restored as part of the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project.

In the more remote areas, there are still vestiges of Bai primitive animism. It is not difficult to find places where different gods are honored, such as the God of the Mountain, the God of the Crops, the God of the Hunt, the Dragon King or the Mother Goddess of the Dragon King. The Bai believe that spirits can cause illness, but can also protect them. In some of the villages there are female shamans, sometimes with enough power to enter into trance, who still play an important role in the spiritual life of Bai villages.