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Day 85: Lijiang

Michael Palin - HimalayaI meet the most famous man in Lijiang outside the traditionally decorated, red lacquered portals of the Naxi Music Centre. 'Naxi Ancient Music' is written in English above this doorway, at which people are already gathering, asking when the ticket office opens. A man in his seventies, quite trim, whose quick, lively, intelligent eyes dominate his face is dealing with fans. He's darker, darker than most Chinese, dark enough to remind me, with his impish smile, of Desmond Tutu. His hair is black (blacker than might be expected in a man of his age) and brushed forward quite self-consciously. He's dressed in jeans, smart leather shoes, two sweaters and a jacket. His name is Xuan Ke and he is the conductor of the Naxi Music Orchestra.

Last night he and his orchestra were playing for the Prime Minister of Singapore. In the foyer of the theatre is a photograph of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, with flute, playing with the orchestra on a visit here.

This morning the great man has agreed to show me Lijiang, but as soon as we start talking I know that his own story will be much more interesting. He was born in 1930 and received an early musical training from American Pentecostal missionaries. In 1949, after the victory of Chairman Mao, which he refers to, wryly, as 'something called liberation', he became a conductor in Kunming. He wasn't a Communist, he says, but in a group allied to the Communists. Mao's Hundred Flowers campaign, eight years later, initially seemed good news for people
like himself. 'Let a hundred flowers bloom,' Mao declared, 'and a hundred schools of thought contend.'

It turned out to be a trap. Having encouraged intellectuals and artists to come out and help the party, Mao, fearing their criticism, turned on them and ordered them to undergo 're-education'. Xuan Ke was sent, at the age of 28, to forced labour in a tin mine.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 85: Lijiang
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Lijiang
  • Book page no: 196

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