THE NOU-SU (OR I-PIEN)
There is a class of people around Chao-t’ong who are called Nou-su, a people who, although occupying the Chao-t’ong Plain at the time the Chinese arrived, are believed not to be the aboriginals of the district. What I actually know about this people is not much. I have heard a good deal, but it must not be understood that I publish this as absolutely the final word. People who have lived in the district for many years do not agree, so that for a mere traveler the task of getting infallible data would be quite formidable.
No tribe is more widely known than the Nou-su, with their innumerable tribal distinctions and hereditary peculiarities so perplexing to the inquirer into Far Western China ethnology.
The Nou-su are a very fine, tall race, with comparatively fair complexions, suggesting a mixture of Mongolian with some other straight-featured people. Of their origin, however, little can be vouched for, and with it we will have nothing to do here. But at the present time the Nou-su provide a good deal of interest from the fact that their power as tyrannic landlords and feudal chiefs is fast dying, and it may be that in a couple of decades, or a still shorter time, a people who, by obstinate self-reliance and great dislike to the Chinese, have remained unaffected by the absorbing spirit of the arbitrary Chinese, will have passed beyond the vale of personality. Even now, however, they own and rule enormous tracts of country (notably that part lying on the right bank of the River of Golden Sand) in north-east Yuen-nan. Some are very wealthy. One man may own vast tracts bigger than Yorkshire. In this tract there may be one hundred villages, all paying tribute to him and subject to the vagaries of his vilest despotism. From his tyranny his struggling tenantry have no redress. So long as the I-pien (the local name of the Nou-su) greases the palm of the squeezing Chinese mandarin in whose nominal control the district extends, he may run riot as he pleases. Social law and order are unknown, justice is a complete contradiction in terms, and whilst one is in the midst of it, it is difficult to realize that in China to-day—the China which all the world believes to be awakening—there exists a condition of things which will allow a man to torture, to plunder, to murder, and to indulge to the utmost degree the whims of a Neronic and devilish temperament.
Slave trading is common. If a tenant cannot pay his tribute, he sells himself for a few taels and becomes the slave of his former landlord, and if he would save his head treads carefully.