Han–Tibetan Cultural Integration

Ethnography of Benzilan Town in Northwest Yunnan

by Li Zhinong (Author) Ding Baifeng (Author)
Monographs XIV, 264 Pages


With its unique geography and its historical significance as an important town along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, Benzilan Town has come to represent the fusion and transformation of ethnic cultures in the border of the Han and Tibetan cultures in northwestern Yunnan Province. Through three research trips to Benzilan Town, the authors conducted a comprehensive investigation of the history and culture of the Benzilan people from an anthropological perspective.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Prologue
  • 1 Ancient Villages in Hengduan Mountains
  • I. Geographical Location and History of Local Government
  • II. Collective Memory of Tusi (chieftain) Shiyi
  • III. Population and Livelihoods
  • References
  • 2 Geographical Determinism of the Ancient Tea Horse Road
  • I. The Princess Passing by
  • II. The Story of Benzilan on the Ancient Tea Horse Road
  • III. Business Stories in “Little Hong Kong”
  • IV. Fragmented Description of the Town of Wooden Bowls
  • V. Embracing Non-natives
  • VI. “Government Employees” in Benzilan
  • References
  • 3 Spiritual Destination in Three Aspects
  • I. Piety and Faith under Curling Smoke of Mulberry Firewood
  • II. The Personal Experience of a “Cangba”
  • III. The Custom of “Secondary Burial” in the Interaction between Tibetan Buddhism and Confucian Culture
  • References
  • 4 Three Forms of Public Life
  • I. Worshiping Sacred Mountains
  • II. The Humorous Tea Party of Lasi Festival
  • III. New Year Pork Feast and “Eating Xiaoshui”
  • References
  • 5 Clothing, Food and Singing and Dancing
  • I. Flamboyant Attire
  • II. Inheritance and Change of Traditional Diets (Contest between Coca-Cola and Butter Tea)
  • III. Benzilan Guozhuang Song and Dance
  • IV. Three Generations of Guozhuang Artists
  • References
  • 6 Marriage and Women
  • I. Polygamous Families in Benzilan
  • II. “Namage” and “Basige”
  • III. A Complete Tibetan Wedding in Benzilan
  • IV. A Case Study of Women’s Social Life
  • References
  • 7 Two Telling Stories
  • I. The Tibetan Language School Deep in the Mountain
  • II. The Story of the Capable Zhaba
  • References
  • Postscript

←vi | vii→

List of Figures*

Figure 1.1 View of Benzilan Town

Figure 1.2 The succession of the title of Tusi (chieftain) Shiyi

Figure 2.1 View of Benzilan Village

Figure 2.2 Chengxinyuan Great Hotel in Benzilan

Figure 2.3 One of the bustling streets in Benzilan

Figure 2.4 Making tsampa boxes

Figure 2.5 Tsampa boxes

Figure 2.6 Wooden bowls with sliver

Figure 2.7 Wooden bowls with gold

Figure 3.1 The opulent sutra halls

Figure 3.2 “Cangba” A Wo

Figure 3.3 Indispensable Faqi for a “Cangba” to perform Dharma activities

Figure 3.4 Sina Peichu, the fourth successor of the “Cangba” family

Figure 3.5 Cremation burial

Figure 3.6 Water burial grounds

Figure 3.7 Secondary burial

Figure 3.8 The graves

Figure 4.1 The image of sacred mountain in Niuhongdingma Sutra Hall in Benzilan

Figure 5.1 Women’s clothing in Benzilan

Figure 5.2 Blender for making butter tea

Figure 5.3 Galai

←vii | viii→

Figure 5.4 Cola, beer and Mao Liang replace the butter tea

Figure 5.5 The individual serving system

Figure 6.1 Polygamous family

Figure 6.2 Partial representation of distribution of marriage types in Bairen village over several generations

Figure 6.3 Partial representation of distribution of marriage types in Gelangshui village over several generations

Figure 6.4 People of Bairen village telling stories of bride kidnapping

Figure 7.1 Interview of the president of the Tibetan language school

Figure 7.2 Lurong is thinking

Figure 7.3 Cili Peichu was one of the students at the Tibetan language school

Figure 7.4 Zhaba in the home sutra halls

Figure 7.5 Zhaba on the roof

Figure 7.6 Zhaba was going to pilgrimage sacred mountain in 2009

←x | xi→


Snowflakes were flying all over the sky. The shabby coach, tied with tire chains and topped with bamboo baskets, cartons and plastic woven sacks, struggled up northward along the thin-ice-and heavy-snow-covered National Highway 214. Along the way, other passengers in the coach looked at us from time to time, speculating curiously about our identities. In the summer and autumn, almost all non-natives taking this coach are tourists to the Baima Snow Mountain and the Meili Snow Mountain. But it was the Spring Festival now. Our unexpected intrusion caused much surprise and curiosity among the village residents on the same journey. Outside the coach window were boundless snow-covered landscapes. The Benzilan Village was not far ahead. It is a Tibetan village located in the Jinsha River valley at the foot of the Baima Snow Mountain, and also the only entry point into Xizang autonomous region from Yunnan province.

In the 1980s, the renowned sociologist Mr. Fei Xiaotong, put forward a new concept of ethnology on the basis of the rich body of scholarship in this academic field, denominating the six river basins (Nujiang River, Lancang River, Jinsha River, Yalong River, Dadu River and Minjiang River) in geographical terms collectively as the “Xizang-Yi Corridor”. As a unique geographical unit, this region is a passage area naturally shaped like a corridor. It borders to the north the Gansu-Qinghai Loess Plateau, to the south the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, to ←xi | xii→the west the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, and to the east the Chengdu Plain. The Xizang-Yi Corridor roughly encompasses the convergence zone where western Sichuan, northwestern Yunnan, the eastern edge of Xizang, southern Gansu and southeastern Qinghai intersect. The ethnic groups inhabiting this region for generations mostly speak languages from either the Sino-Tibetan language family or the Yi language family. That is why Fei Xiaotong referred to this area as the “Xizang-Yi Corridor”. For thousands of years, many ethnic groups from all over China have either passed through or settled here, making this a culturally rich area, where the cultures are noted for their long history, diversity and complexity. With its unique geography and its historical significance as an important town along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, Benzilan Village has come to represent the fusion and transformation of ethnic cultures in the border of the Han and Tibetan cultures in northwestern Yunnan Province.

Along our journey starting from the county town of Shangri-La, we could see, from time to time, several giant crows flying with dancing snowflakes over the mountains on both sides of the road, passing by our coach windows, cawing bleakly. As the coach passed the Napahai Wetland, the villages on both sides of the road gradually faded away. What we saw now were a few Tibetan watchtowers standing far or near, prayer flags waving under the vast sky, and lonely Tibetan highland barley shelves standing on the desolate snowfield … A sense of desolation welled up in our hearts! As we were approaching Nixi Township, the snow was getting heavier and heavier, and on the road the snow was getting thicker and thicker, making visibility extremely low. Outside the window, the grayish-white snow-capped mountains appeared faint, as if it was something from a dream. Our driver Pasang, who had been driving on this road for more than ten years, also became more and more careful. The coach crawled with difficulty along the ruts on the potholed snow-covered road. After climbing over the narrow pass of the Nixi Snow Mountain at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters, which was covered with heavy snow of more than one meter on both sides of the road, we came to the road where the accumulated snow was gradually thinning. Only then did our driver pull over the coach and take off the tire chains.

While zigzagging down a stretch of steep winding mountain road in the Jinsha River valley, we felt that the temperature gradually increased, and saw that the snow on the road gradually melted. Our coach immediately sped up. Yet, the mountains on both sides of National Highway 214 became grimmer and grimmer. Except for some small thorny bushes and shrubs, there was hardly any tree visible on the mountain. As our coach wound down the mountain to the bottom of the valley, the running water of Jinsha River came to our sight. ←xii | xiii→However, it was the dry season then, and so the water flowed placidly in the broad riverbed, clear and limpid. There was not a single sign of the water rushing and roaring as we had imagined. The shore was covered with thickets, sand and cobblestones, among which a few plants of the cactus family could be seen sporadically. According to meteorological records, the dry-hot valley of Jinsha River in Benzilan area received an annual precipitation of 280 millimeters only, and was thus referred to as the “Southwest Drought Center” in geography. When Jinsha River was in sight, Benzilan Village was nearby. In the near distance, two bridges standing across the Jinsha River, about fifty meters apart from each other, were clearly visible. The road sign “Helong Bridge” came into sight.

This place was originally named Fulong Bridge. It was renamed Helong Bridge to commemorate the victory of the Second and Sixth Army Groups of the Second Red Army led by He Long and Ren Bishi in passing through Yunnan Province during the Long March. In early May 1936, the Second and Sixth Army Groups of the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, led by He Long, Ren Bishi and others, broke away from the encirclement, pursuit, obstruction and interception of the Kuomintang (KMT) troops and prepared to march to the areas of Derong and Xiangcheng counties in the then Xikang Province. As the two army groups entered the Shangqiaotou Village in the then Zhongdian County and were ready to pass through Deqin County, so as to cross the Jinsha River, they found no boats or rafts. Thus, they gave up crossing the river and tramped over the Zinala Mountain, marching up to the north along the river. When the red army passed through the small bridge by the Shangqiaotou Village and entered the mountainside of the Zinala Mountain, they were obstructed by the armed forces gathered by the riverside Living Buddha at Benzilan Village. The two army groups routed the obstructing enemies and passed through Yunnan Province, successfully joining forces with the Fourth Front Red Army in the then Xikang Province. During the battle, more than ten officers and men, including Tang Fulin—the Chief of Staff of the Fourth Front Red Army, sacrificed their lives.


XIV, 264
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (November)
Han–Tibetan Cultural Integration: Ethnography of Benzilan Town in Northwest Yunnan Li Zhinong Ding Baifeng Benzilan Town Ancient Tea Horse Road Tibetan-Yi Corridor history of Benzilan County Tibetan Buddhism the Hakkas Tusi
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. XIV, 264 pp., 33 b/w ill., 15 tables.

Biographical notes

Li Zhinong (Author) Ding Baifeng (Author)

Li Zhinong, PhD, is currently working at the Institute of Southwest Frontier and Ethnic Studies of Yunnan University, where she is engaged in research on Tibetan political and cultural history. She is in charge of many national projects, such as "Research on Inter-ethnic Relations and Building a Harmonious Society in Tibetan Areas of Yunnan." Ding Baifeng graduated from Qinghai Normal University with a bachelor’s degree in history and stayed in the university to join the workforce. He received his PhD in historical geography at the Northwest Institute of Historical Environment and Economic and Social Development of Shaanxi Normal University. He has published many monographs and more than 20 academic papers.


Title: Han–Tibetan Cultural Integration
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