Sunday, July 20, 2008

A visit to Danzhou, Hainan, & its temples

Live reporting from Hainan, China:




We drove almost 250km to Danzhou City 儋州 in the northwestern part of Hainan to visit a number of historical sites.  Although Danzhou is one of Hainan's most historical regions as well as earliest Han settled areas, it is today a backwater.  The region is sparsely populated and still covered by huge stretches of tropical rainforests.  Although Hainan is today a major tourist destination for Chinese domestic tourism, the tourist hordes are largely concentrated in Sanya and the southern coast, and to a lesser extent selected spots in the central highlands and eastern coast.  The western coast of Hainan is total virgin ground.


The earliest spots of Han settlement in Hainan was the Danzhou region, where the governorates () of Daner (儋耳) and Zhuya (珠崖) was first established in 110 BCE by Emperor Han Wudi, the former so-named after the supposedly large ears of the local tribes.  For the next thousand years or so, the military-administrative headquarters of the Chinese empire, at least during the years when they were in control of the island, were at Danzhou in the north and Yazhou (崖州) in the south.  From time to time, Chinese rule would be overthrown by local Li (黎族) tribes and then reinstated by Chinese troops arriving from the Mainland.  In fact, the first period of Han rule only lasted less than 20 years.  Han Dynasty troops were expelled from the island in 86 B.C, after 6 rebellions.


Han rule in Hainan was established by General Mayuan (马援), whose title was Fubo Jiangjun(伏波将军).  His legendary conquest (probably accompanied with brutal suppression of local tribes) of southern China and Hainan is commemorated by descendants of Han settlers in many temples across Southern Guangxi, Western Guangdong and Hainan.  He has become a local deity in these regions where people pray for his blessings in daily life and earthy aspirations.


The town of Baimajing 白马井 is today a sleepy town on the coastal region of Danzhou, whose inhabitants depend on port, agriculture and fishing for livelihood.  According to legend, Mayuan's white horse found a spring of fresh water just as the Chinese army ran out of water and were terribly desperate – in fact, Han records had written that the conquest of Hainan was very difficult not only due to the ferocity of local tribes but also due to disease, heat and lack of water.  A garrison was then set up here and eventually a temple built to commemorate the discovery of the well and also Mayuan's arrival in this region.


We found the town dusty with lots of new roads being constructed and had to make a huge detour, while trying hard to avoid the many buffalo carts which together with trishaw seemed to be the predominant form of local transport.


We found the Fubo Jiangjun Temple and the White Horse Spring / Well in the eastern end of town.  Next to the well were two ancient intertwined banyan trees surrounded by groups of local women of all ages and youths of both sexes preparing octopus as baits for shipping boats.  Some of them were slicing the octopus into small pieces and others were systematically putting them on fishing hooks which were connected together to huge green nets  Adult men were either dozing off or playing mahjong under another nearby tree – Hainanese men are traditionally known to be chauvinistic towards women who often have to shoulder a lot of work, even those which are very manual and labour-intensive in nature. However, this might not be a fair statement for this group of fishermen, for they had probably spent the whole night in the rough seas.


The well looked to be more a spiritual spot than a working everyday well (and even less, a tourist attraction).  Although the walls around it did looked somewhat dilapidated, one could see joss sticks, offerings and ritual flags in a small altar next to it. 


The temple is much better maintained although it was very unceremoniously squeezed between rather ugly and run-down residential houses.  As we walked in, we saw the caretaker assisting two female worshippers in their prayers and foretelling their fortunes using the "qian".  There were also a number of ritual flags with early Chinese characters though I did not see any of the typical tanki spikes or daggers we see in Singapore.


The temple caretaker and worshippers were speaking in the Danzhou dialect, which is totally different from Hainanese.  In fact, there were tones and words that sounded a little Cantonese to us, and yet those among us who understood Cantonese could not understand what they were speaking.  According to a book I bought, it said that the Danzhou dialect was evolved from the ancient official army language brought here by soldiers from northern China during the early days of Chinese conquest, and here it mixed with local tribal languages to form what the locals called Danzhouhua (儋州话) or guanhua (官话).  A book described it as a living fossil of sorts - 活化石, as it was ancient Mandarin mixed with ancient tribal languages.  Some anthropologists even consider Danzhouhua as a non-Chinese language of its own with close links to other Southern Chinese minority tribes.  During the next few hours while in Danzhou, we would ask locals whether they speak Hainanese which is actually based on the dialect spoken in Wenchang (文昌).  The answer was often, "No, we only spoke Danzhouhua or Putonghua," a reply that seemed to shocked Dad and another Singaporean-Hainanese visitor, who had before this assumed that all inhabitants on the island of Hainan.


It may be interesting that to the east of Danzhou is the city of Lingao (临高), where the inhabitants are officially classified as Han Chinese but whose language linguistists consider as closer linked to Zhuang (壮族) of nearby Guangxi Province.  Zhuang is in fact closer to Vietnamese than Chinese. 


We walked to the back of the temple, facing a waterway that leads to Yangpu Bay (洋浦湾), and here we found a a small one-room Tudi Gong Temple (土地公庙) and an ancient pagoda.  We also came across a colourfully decorated boat with not only the Chinese flags but many triangular ritual flags with the Chinese word ma (), which is the surname of General Mayuan. 


It was an interesting visit but really getting very hot and humid.  We returned to the car and drove to Zhonghe Town (中和镇) which was the ancient city of Danzhou where the regional capital was once located. Modern day Danzhou City is located 50km inland in a place once known as Nada (那大).


Zhonghe, about 20km away, is yet another sleepy town with buffalo strolling on its main streets.   Surrounded by padi field and whose many streets are built on stilts, it is difficult to believe that this town played host to one of the greatest poets of Chinese history 1000 years ago.  Aa huge billboard greeted visitors outside town, with a painting of Su Dongpo (苏东坡), and his quotation "I am a native of Daner, though born in Western Shu" (我本儋耳人,寄生西蜀州).  Su, originally a native of Western Sichuan, then known as Shu, was exiled to Hainan, then a frontier land and the equivalent of Siberia of China where dissidents were exiled, after offending the Song emperor.  He made many local friends here, to the extent that he was very sad when he was allowed to leave Hainan after some years, and made this statement exclaiming that he considered himself a native of Hainan although born in Sichuan – a honour for many native Hainanese given that Hainan has always been at the periphery of the Empire and here was one of the greatest Chinese poets ever who made a statement like this despite his pathetic circumstances in Hainan.


When Su first arrived in Hainan, the magistrate (or governor) of Hainan was very honoured to have such a renowned visitor, although Su was a political exile of the state.  Instead of letting him suffer in then hot, humid Hainan not helped by the primitive conditions that prevailed in what was essentially a wild frontier land, the magistrate put him up in the comforts of his official residence, which is now a tourist attraction most delightfully known as Dongpo's Study (东坡书院).  Instead of spending all his time fighting hostile tribes and dealing with quarrelsome Han settlers, the governor found himself most fortunate in being able to indulge with the classical Chinese pleasures of drafting poems  and admiring the talents of the greatest Chinese poet of his time (and perhaps of all era).  The magistrate, who lived by the traditional Chinese saying, "The Mountain is tall and the Emperor is far away", decided that no one would find out that he was treating the great poet with utmost respect and comfort despite the latter being officially a prisoner in exile.



Unfortunately, an inspector of the Emperor came to Hainan three years later and was scandalized by the comforts Su was enjoying in Hainan.  He reported the fact to the Emperor, thereupon the magistrate lost his position and Su drove from the official residence.  Su, who now lost everything he possessed, had to spend the next few years in a primitive hut built in a grove of coconut palm.  This was a difficult period of his life, when he suffered enormously in pathetic conditions, although he strived hard to educate local scholars as well as Li tribesmen who lived in the vicinity.


Today, Dongpo Study is a tourist attraction, although it attracts few visitors.  We walked around its landscaped garden, which is unusual in that you have the usual traditional Chinese pagodas and lotus ponds, but flanked by rather unChinese coconut trees in the foreground – coconuts being the most common tree in this subtropical part of China.  Here, we came across a few locals watching a CD of Danzhou Diaosheng (儋州调声) performance.  This is the local pride - a performing art, where choirs sing songs in Danzhouhua, with their arms joined together, sometimes interlocked, sometimes with hands held together, swinging.  The songs are often about romance and are often sung for matchmaking or flirting purpose.   A pretty girl with her wide open smile told us, "this is our local specialty, we Danzhou people are proud of it."


Next to the Study is a Chinese temple, where worshippers kowtowed to the statue of Su Dongpo and offered joss sticks, often in the hope that their children would fare well in the exams.  Su, like Confucius, have become a deity for scholarship in these parts.


We had lunch and then drove to nearby Jinin Temple (济宁寺) where Lady Xian (冼夫人) is worshipped.  Lady Xian was a tribal leader of the Li and other Southern Chinese tribes during the era of North and South Dynasties in 6th century AD.  At the age of 14, she helped reunite Hainan with China after the island was lost to the tribes during the Han Dynasty, and repeatedly crushed many rebellions either by the tribes or by Han-Chinese local military commanders and governors.  She lived till 81 years old and had maintained peace and law and order in much of southern China while the ruling power in the north came under three different dynasties (Liang, Chen and eventually Sui 梁、陈、隋).  She is today portrayed by the Chinese government as a patriot and upheld as a national hero and proponent of inter-ethnic unity.


More interestingly, Lady Xian has become a goddess to many Hainanese living in northern, western and central Hainan including the provincial capital, Haikou (海口), though not so much to the people of Wenchang and Qionghai (琼海), where most overseas Hainanese came from.  In many of these regions, Lady Xian is the most important deity and people prayed to her for all sorts of wishes.  It is said that some people revere her so much that they would not even address her by her name, and call her the "Venerable Old Lady" (太夫人) instead.  During the second lunar month every year, huge parades are held in many villages in Hainan, in which shamans marched around with long metal spikes through their cheeks not unlike tankis in Singapore and Malaysia, together with many worshippers dressed up as soldiers in ancient times, in ceremonies described as the "Expeditions of Lady Xian" (冼夫人出征).


Statues of tribal leaders surrendering to Lady Xian

Although we are not Danzhou natives, the people at the temple were pleased to see us.  They said, "many people from Haikou and Sanya come here and pray for peace and prosperity.  Lady Xian will bless you!"  They were even happier when we told them we are from Singapore. They said, "We are all brother Hainanese, wherever we are from. Lady Xian will be most pleased."  We knelt down to kowtow to the statue of Lady Xian and offered some donations and joss sticks.



With this, we sped towards Wenchang and the ancestral village, Taijia.


1 comment:

Brian Lee Evans said...

Thank you for your informative and detailed travelogue as to white horse springs, Danzhou and that area. I was the first American-born businessman to visit Hainan. I visited with my honorable agent, Mr. George Chan,(inventor and co-inventor of the integrated agriculture method of sustaining low energy food production, who was a friend of the Governor of Guangdong Province at that time. I visited the areas you describe, but was not honored with a full description of the history. As the first American without Chinese roots, I was mistrusted, of course. The government leaders finally figured out I was not part of the CIA when I declined driving over the worst roads in Hainan to visit Sanya--where I was later told, the China submarine force was located. That was in 1986 and onward. I helped many of the Hainan delegations later, when they visited the U.S.. I was able to establish a few firsts; namely, first U.S. China joint venture agreement in the history of Hainan,which was witnessed by Nora Sun (the granddaughter of Dr. Sun Yat-sen), and the first land lease (Dongshui Gang). Unfortunately, the Tianxin Square incident occurred, and then some Thailand business interests, and some from Taiwan, attempted to block American (me) interests from starting in the Island. I am happy to say that my participation, and my honorable agent, Dr. George Chan's conversations with the then governor of Guangdong helped a little in causing Hainan to become a Province.
Looking forward to visiting and communicating with the Dongshan and Hainan government leaders again, as I have plans to visit and help again within the next few years, and am studying again to assure I can help at a good level.
I am open to receiving information and greetings from my Hainan friends and others interested in Hainan.
Thank you again. Xie Xie Nin!!
Brian Lee Evans
Hainan name: Yi Wan Xia (10,000 times 100,000,000 shrimp).
my e-mail: