This is a travel book that unfurls like a lotus flower. It has happiness at its heart but is grown out of hardship in the steep-sided valleys of south-western China.
The decade is the 1940s and the location is the province of Yunnan, geographically cut apart from the rest of China and still webbed with tribes, traditions and traders.
The author, Peter Goullart, is from Russia. He was born just outside Moscow in 1902, two years before the death of his father. In 1917 the Russian Revolution forces him and his mother to flee, first to Vladivostok and then, when that city falls, on to China.
Peter Goullart stays in China for the next thirty years, with nine of the happiest years spent in Likiang where his task is to establish the co-operative movement. The Forgotten Kingdom is about that time.
“I was now one of the last of a small group of foreigners who tried to work in an executive capacity in the field with the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives. All of them, but myself, had left of their own free will or had been outmanoeuvred into giving up … Thus I was now one of the ‘Last of the Mohicans’ and, as Taoism had taught me, it would be important to practise Inaction.”
The book is filled with people-centred encounters, and observations on lives lived to different rhythms.
“Likiang had no cars, carriages or rickshaws. Everyone walked, rich and poor, generals and soldiers, without distinction of caste or class … The uniformity of locomotion had a wonderfully levelling effect on all classes of the population and promoted true democracy in relationships.”
There is disease and misery, there are bandits and monasteries, there is industry and celebration. Our host leads us through them – an explorer guide, observant and local – on the edge of the great tide of trade that sweeps through the mountains to avoid the blockades of the Second World War.
“Few people have realised how vast and unprecedented this sudden expansion of caravan traffic between India and China was, or how important. It was a unique and spectacular phenomenon … it will always live in my memory as one of the great adventures of mankind.”
Energised by this commerce Likiang thrives and so do its inhabitants, the Nakhi. Slowly, the author, with his genius for tact and friendship, becomes a part of the communities he serves.
“Continuous manual work was the women’s lot. They did not revolt; they did not even protest. Instead, silently and persistently like the roots of growing trees, they slowly evolved themselves into a powerful race until they utterly enslaved their men.”
Peter Goullart lives in the town for nine years. Intrigued and entertained he passes on the every day details that so often get overlooked by history. The extraordinary is everywhere.
“There was not a family that did not number a suicide or two among its members.”
“It is a lucky and much-valued guest who, as a special honour, is asked to share a bed with the grandfather of the house.”
So are the adventures, although told with such brevity they seem merely routine. The incident below is given just ten lines.
“They said the trip was quite safe and I agreed to go … I still do not remember clearly how I was dragged, or carried, back to the village.”
This writing style and the content make for a little miracle of a book, one that explores difference with clear-eyed affection and wisdom.
It is a tribute to a place and its people as they were before the rest of us got there … a fine, literary headstone for the “little-known and all but forgotten, ancient Nakhi Kingdom of south-west China.”
Forgotten Kingdom – Nine Years in Yunnan, 1939-1948 by Peter Goullart
This edition published by Eland Publishing Limited in 2017
61 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QL
ISBN 978 1 78060 111 3
UK price £12.99
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018