10 October 2011

Book Review: Slaves of the Cool Mountains, by Alan Winnington, *****

Author with released slaves in Yunnan

Beijing, 1956: foreign correspondent Alan Winnington heard reports of slaves being freed in the mountains of south-west China. The following year he travelled to Yunnan province and spent several months with the head-hunting Wa and the slave-owning Norsu and Jingpaw. From that journey was born this book, which Neal Ascherson has called 'one of the classics of modern English travel writing'. The first European to enter and leave these areas alive, Winnington met a slave-owner who assessed his value at five silver ingots ('Your age is against you, but as a curiosity you would fetch a decent price'), a head-hunter who a fortnight earlier killed a man in order to improve his own rice harvest and a sorcerer struggling against the modern medicines sapping his authority and livelihood.


This is a fascinating reportage of the author's stay in Yunnan province with the Norsu people. Here he found a China that few others had ever seen. Slavery was commonplace and matriarchy had been the norm for centuries. Slavery was rather sophisticated: one could be 50% slave and 50% free; a woman could belong to her slave husband for 50% and to his master for the remaining 50%; slaves could own their own slaves and these, in turn could own theirs!

Initially the Norsu tried to play the Communists and the Nationalists against each other, they were both Han Chinese and thus enemies. After the Communist victory, Mao's armies did not interfere much as long as the Norsu pledged allegiance to the central government, though by the end of the fifties slavery had all but disappeared.

The author writes a fluent prose and is emotionally detached from his subject, which guarantees as much objectivity as possible. He explains the arcane system of the Norsu society with ease. An interesting piece of the history of China that never got much attention before.

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