Review: Journey to Xiamacun

By Mason Philip Smith (Provincial Press 2008)

Review by Craig Dietrich

Early in 2008 I received an email from my friend Ma Tongchun inviting me for lunch at his ancestral farm northwest of Kunming, Yunnan. So in May I returned to China, accompanied by Brian Dorsk a friend from Cape Elizabeth.

Before proceeding to Xiamacun, “Mr. Ma” accompanied us to Heijing, on the rail line between Kunming and Chengdu. This is one of the best-preserved, and little-touristed, towns in Yunnan. For over 1,000 years the surrounding hills were mined for salt. At its peak in the Ming Dynasty, Heijing provided more than 70% of the imperial salt. It is still small, with a single main street running parallel to the Longchuan River. The town combines a strong sense of history with a pleasing lack of commercialism. Popular with visitors from Kunming on weekends, it is a gem, a place lost in time, rarely visited by Westerners (although Marco Polo knew it).

We stayed in the Wu Family Courtyard, a small hotel, formerly the home of a rich salt merchant. In its prime the mansion had 99 rooms and 108 doors. Arriving by train, we found a two-horse “horse taxi” waiting to take us to the town gate. A second horse taxi took us on to the Wu Family Courtyard, on a small hillside in the center of the town. Locals said that Brian and I were the first foreigners to visit in months.

Chicken cooked in hot salt is a “five-star dish” in the local cuisine, and as suppertime approached the chef invited us to watch him prepare it. His kitchen occupied a room across a small garden from the main inn. We found the chef and an assistant standing before three huge wood-fired woks. In one of them they were heating 30 pounds of salt. He held a freshly killed chicken as the assistant was passed a large shovel back and forth through the salt. When the salt was hot the chef buried the chicken in it with the shovel, piling a large mound atop the bird. Forty-five minutes later, he uncovered the bird and brushed the last of the salt off. He cut it into pieces and then wrapped the meat in foil, leaving the bird’s hard baked head peering out. We ate most of our meals in the courtyard under an arbor of bougainvillea. Breakfast was usually noodles garnished with chili peppers in the southwestern tradition. On the second morning I ordered scrambled eggs and fresh tomato pieces. The eggs arrived hard as a rock, and Mr. Ma quickly plunged into the kitchen to show the chef how to cook soft scrambled eggs.

Brian and I roamed Heijing for two days, visiting the old salt works, the street market and the alleys and byways. Everywhere the locals greeted us warmly and never objected to being photographed. At a middle school at recess time, we were mobbed by students wanting to try their English and asking to be photographed. In the market Mr. Ma would buy a huge watermelon, which he carried to the hotel for the chef to carve for our evening’s dessert.

I saw a man in an open doorway painting something with an artist’s brush. I said, “Ni hao,” smiled, and entered. He was painting guitar-like instruments in bold colors. I indicated I would like to photograph him. He nodded and put on a colorful jacket. After posing in his doorway with a brilliantly painted instrument, he then posed blowing on a reed-like flute. Imagine my surprise the next day when I encountered this very man in an alley on the other side of town wearing a conical straw hat and yellow vest. Straw broom in hand, he was sweeping the street.

Leaving Heijing, we boarded the train for Lufeng, the closest town to Mr. Ma’s ancestral village. Xiamacun is reached by a half road-half trail path passing through fields, across rock ledges and over crude roads. We could walk for two hours, or ride a horse taxi for an hour, or secure a vehicle that could handle the route. Mr. Ma telephoned a relative, who called someone else, and in a half hour we had a silver Mitsubishi SUV and driver courtesy of a local official. On the drive to Xiamacun, we passed miles of rice paddies, and since it was the May planting season, villagers were stooping in the flooded fields, transplanting rice. Water buffalos were plowing in the paddies. Further on there were rows of tobacco plants covered with plastic, resembling silver snakes meandering over the hillside. The earth was red and the houses in the villages we passed were adobe brown.

Xiamacun is one of five villages in Laomapo (“Old Ma’s Mountain Slope”). Formerly there were three Ma villages: upper, middle, and lower. Xiamacun means “Lower Ma Village.” Settlement began around 1630. Arriving, we parked the SUV and walked down a lane into the village. Eight families inhabit the hamlet in houses hidden by high walls. You can walk through the entire place in three or four minutes.

We first encountered Ma Zhuxiu, 75-year-old second cousin of Ma Tongchun, standing in her doorway. Her son died three years ago at 50, so she lives with her daughter-in-law, grandson, and great grandson. Then we came upon Ma Ruhu, “Ma The Tiger,” the village leader. Leaning on a hoe, he invited us to visit his home, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to accept.

At the gate of the ancestral home, we were greeted by Ma Xiaoli, daughter of Ma Tongchun’s youngest brother, and her two-year-old daughter. Her husband Feng Xingyi was at the market seven kilometers away. Soon we were meeting the others who live there. Mr. Ma’s brother Ma Dechun and his wife Guo Zhengzhi, and seventy-nine year old matriarch Ma Conghuan. Ma Conghuan sat in the doorway of her bedroom repairing a jacket. Under the pile of quilts behind her was the black coffin she bought, so that the family will not be burdened by her funeral. From the front porch, we could look across the courtyard. On the left was a two-story bedroom structure; a hand water pump stood in front of it. On the right was a kitchen building. And beyond the gate at the far end of the courtyard, we saw a shed for a donkey and pigs, to the left of which loomed a large-dish antenna. Down the lane was the outhouse.

The living room walls were covered with photographs and posters. Couches lined the walls, and there was a large bureau facing the doorway. They had placed a microwave oven, a large screen television, an amplifier and sound system on various tables. The center of the room was largely taken up with a large, low, square table, surrounded by a collection of short stools and chairs. While we went off to see the rest of the village, Ma Dechun, alone in the dimly-lit kitchen, prepared a nine-course lunch in one wok. Returning to the living room we were joined by the rest of the family and our driver. What a lunch it was: soybean sprouts, cabbage, fried tofu, preserved pork, potato fried with egg, chicken, white cabbage, squash, and chicken soup. Ma Dechun had prepared two large bowls of each item. For liquid refreshment there was tea and Sprite. Of course there was plenty of chili sauce to spice up the food.

As we chatted and ate, I was surprised to see the small Ma Conghuan eating non-stop. Her chopsticks flying, she ate and ate and ate. She celebrated her 79th birthday on June 23 by doing what she always does, collecting vegetables for the pigs and cutting grass for the donkey. Her son Ma Tongchun said: “It was an old country lady’s birthday day in the Yunnan mountains.” Following the meal we gathered on the front porch for picture taking and Ma Conghuan, calm and aging, was the center of interest.

All-too-soon we had to leave. Nine thousand miles is a long way to go for lunch, but was not about lunch. It was about fellowship with people from a very ancient culture, and it is about ever so briefly experiencing their way of life. Another Chinese friend recently said to me: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” The journey to Laomapo Valley and Xiamacun was certainly full of such moments.

Philip Mason Smith’s latest book, Journey to Xiamacun, based on the trip discussed here, has been published. It contains 80 pages and 79 images, telling the whole story of Mason’s visit. The price is $29.95 plus tax. For more information contact the author at

[From September 2008 CAFAM Newsletter]

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