Tunbao. Stone alleys, ancient ways

Obscure fortified villages where Ming Dynasty folklore still thrives.

In the mid-14th century, Mongols were gradually losing their influence over Eurasia. Weakened by natural disasters, rebellions and internal strife, the Yuan Dynasty that ruled over China was soon to fall. In 1368, the Mongol emperor fled from Khanbaliq (present-day Beijing) and the city was overtaken by an army led by Zhu Yuanzhang, the man who claimed the Mandate of Heaven as Hongwu, the first ruler of the Great Ming. But the fighting continued for years. In 1381, Hongwu sent a 300 thousand strong army to subdue the southwest. Remnants of the Yuan have been wiped out and pushed out of the territories that today encompass Guizhou and Yunnan. Garrisons were established to protect the land and the emperor commanded the families of the soldiers to join them.

Six hundred years have passed. Anshun prefecture of Guizhou Province have pockets of fortified villages, where the descendants of these people still live. On one hand, the ancient culture, including architecture and clothing, has been preserved. On the other, their ways gradually developed into their own, unique Tunpu Culture.

I visited two areas inhabited by the Tunpu 屯堡 – the town of Tianlong and the cluster of villages known as Yunfeng.

TIANLONG

The term Tunpu (modern spelling: Tunbao) consists of two words: tún 屯 “garrison” and bǎo 堡 “fortress.”

Indeed, the first thing you notice when entering Tianlong Town 天龙镇 are dwellings and alleys built of stone. Use your imagination and you will see the ghosts of ancient generals on their horses!

As its name suggest, Sānjiào Temple 三教寺 combines worship of Buddha, Tao and Confucius.

Di Opera 地戏, unique to Anshun, is a “living fossil” of Chinese performance art.

Outside of the town, on a hill that casts shadow on the nearby fields, a historical building can be spotted. It’s Tiantaishan Wulong Temple 天台山伍龙寺, a combined hilltop fortress and Buddhist temple built in the Ming Dynasty.

The ancestors of the Tunbao people came here as soldiers, but also as farmers. Today numerous crops are cultivated here. What caught my attention was the number of different kinds of beans.

But what is really unique to the region, is the horse meat roast jerky 马烧腊. If you think of Chinese roasts, duck, goose and pork first come to mind, especially in their Cantonese incarnations. But here, it is made with horse meat. Local lore obviously links the history of the dish to the military past of the region. After all, it was an army camp set amidst innacesible mountain country.

Meat is cured with local herbs and spices, then boiled before being roasted. The ready product is sold on streetside and roadside stalls. Eaten on its own or as a drinking snack, it is usually just simply sprinkled in chili powder and salt.

There is not much information on the internet, but if you want to more know, try to google “马烧腊”or “安顺马烧腊.” It is one of those things that you must travel to the source to try it.

YUNFENG

Yunfeng Bazhai 云峰八寨, is a group of several enthralling villages sprinkled among patches of peaceful fields and craggy karst hills.

Yunjiu Mountain 云鹫山 is the local landmark here, topped by a small but stately temple.

At the foot of the hill, next to the parking lot and stalls of horse meat vendors, is the entrance to Yunshantun 云山屯村, a village organized along a pathway that snakes around the mountain. Stone stairs lead up to the settlement and beyond it, up to the temple.

On the other side of the hillock lies another village, Benzhai 本寨 (本寨村). Its location is less special – the terrain is flat, but more charming – built up with imposing stone structures. It is also more tranquil – visited by smaller crowds of tourists. It was almost deserted while I was there.

Also in the area is the Anshun Tunpu Culture Museum 安顺屯堡文化博物馆. Handsome-looking, you might find it disappointing, but it’s still worth a visit if you have spare time. It focuses on local customs, opera, food, folk festivals and traditional Tunbao singing. The captions are in Chinese only.

Tunbao are an ethnic group on their own, yet they are part of the broadly understood Han nationality and are officialy classified as such. It brings to mind another, much larger group, the Hakka (or Kejia), who also trace their ancestry to the Han Chinese that moved from the North to the South. Yet, while the Hakkas exceed 100 million people (!), the Tunbao number in just about 300 thousand. Next to the size of the population, the fact that they live in Guizhou where they are surronded by many different non-Han ethnic minorities, leads to the situation where they are overlooked by researchers and toursits alike. Unjustly so.


Directions:

Anshun City 安顺市 > Pingba Distict 平坝区 > TIANLONG town 天龙镇 (also known as Tianlong old town 天龙古镇 or Tianlong Tunbao old town 天龙屯堡古镇)

Anshun City 安顺市 > Xixiu District 西秀区 > Qiyanqiao Town 七眼桥镇 > YUNFENG 云峰 area (also known as Yunfeng Tunbao 云峰屯堡 or Yunfeng Bazhai 云峰八寨)

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