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Abeja Dispatch

Talk About a Bad Hair Day... How About a Bad Hair Dynasty?
July 8, 2000

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My hair flourishes like the T'ang Dynasty!
They say that history makes more sense if we can relate it to our present circumstances. It's easier to remember that way, too. So, to help you understand and remember the concept of the "dynastic cycle", let's compare it to something we can all relate to -- my hair. (Ok, it's a stretch, but stick with me, and it will all make sense in the end.)

Years ago, around 700 CE, a great dynasty ruled all of China. It was called the T'ang Dynasty. The area where we are now, in the Yunnan Province, flourished under the T'ang rulers... for a while.

Not quite so many years ago, say around 1996, I had long hair, beautiful curly hair. It flourished under my love and care... for a while. (See. Isn't this comparison helpful?... Well, OK, it's fun, anyway.)

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They say that ringing this bell in Dali three times brings good luck
The emperor of the T'ang Dynasty from 712-756, Hsuan Tsung, started off strong, really caring for his subjects and encouraging the arts and sciences. Kinda like I used to care for my hair. But then, like me, Hsuan Tsung became neglectful.

In 755, a viceroy named An Lu-shan led a huge and bloody rebellion against the uncaring emperor. The Chinese Empire, riddled with dissension, was plunged into civil war for eight years. It emerged peaceful, but divided into many smaller regions.

In 1997, I was living the chaotic lifestyle of a traveler and activist -- and my hair was riddled with knots. It emerged peaceful, but divided into many nappy dreadlocks. ("Why on earth is Abeja telling us all this?" you ask. Hang in there.)

In the mountainous Yunnan Province, far from the center of the T'ang Dynasty in Xi'an (where we'll be headed soon) the local people started their own dynasty. Ruled by the Bai, this new dynasty, the Nanzhao Dynasty, encompassed the whole area of Yunnan, and all the many different ethnic groups in the area.

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The Bai people, like this woman selling spices, controlled trade throughout the region
For 500 years, the Yunnan Province was not part of China. The T'ang Dynasty continued to rule in the Central Plains, but here, the people ruled themselves, proudly and independently. They spread their rule throughout all of what is now Southwest China and into Southeast Asia. They controlled all the trade that was going from China into Burma or India, and so the Nanzhao Dynasty flourished.

But, like all dynasties, the Nanzhao fell apart, was overthrown, and was replaced by the kingdom of Dali in the 10th century.

Like all great dreadlocks, they eventually got chopped off. They were just too hard to care for, and that look was replaced by something more manageable. So, when I started the World Trek, I had super-short curls. You can see the pictures in the "meet Abeja" section if you don't believe me. (The parallels between my hair and ancient Chinese history are uncanny, aren't they?)

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The gates to the old city of Dali have been restored in recent times
The capital of the kingdom was in the city of Dali, where we just visited. The old stone houses and winding streets still remain from those days, when the Kingdom of Dali, ruled by the Bai people, once again reigned peacefully throughout the region. Meanwhile, in Central China, the T'ang Dynasty fell and was replaced by the Sung dynasty... but that must be represented by someone else's hair because under my care, my hair has been growing longer and longer, since the Odyssey began. (We're almost to the point, now, so stick with me just a little longer!!)

From the very beginning of civilization, China has had to defend itself from invasions by nomadic tribes from the North. These nomads wandered -- hunting, gathering, and herding animals in the less hospitable Mongolian Plateau. Needless to say, they were a bit jealous of the cultured, settled people around them. And they were mean. And ugly... well, ok, I don't really know what they looked like, but history paints a pretty bleak picture of the "Mongol hoards." Led by Genghis Khan, they occupied land all the way from Europe, across northern China, and into Korea. That's a lot of land.

By the 13th century, Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson, was hungrily eyeing all the land to the south of him. He wanted to fulfill his grandfather's dream of conquering the world. The powerful Mongol army finally broke through the Sung Dynasty, and into the Yunnan Province. I'm sure it was not a pretty site. Very little remains of the once great dynasties and kingdoms that came before, as the Mongols destroyed everything while setting up the Yuan Dynasty throughout Asia -- the largest Empire ever in the history of the world.

And that's where we come to the evil parallel. Just as China has always feared invaders from the North (which is why they built the Great Wall, of course), my hair has always feared invasion, too. Never in my life, even when I was a kid, has my head succumbed to the nasty little beasties that lurk in all corners of the planet. Lice want to rule the world too, you know.


viceroy - a governor of a country, province, or colony; the local representative of a government
riddled - spread throughout
dissension - discord
uncanny - peculiarly unsettling; eerie
nomadic - relating to a person or group which has no fixed home; wandering
parallel - similar
succumb - to yield to superior strength or force
uncanny - peculiarly unsettling; eerie

But as the Mongols hungrily desired the fertile plains of China, the lice, lurking on public busses and the linens of cheap dormitory rooms, craved my tasty head of bouncing curls. They waited till I was sleeping to attack. By the time I realized that my itching wasn't just a case of dry scalp from the climate change, it was too late.

Trying to get a little lice comb through my thick hair would be impossible. I hate toxic sludge, so I didn't want to try the sometimes-successful option of using medicated shampoo for many days. The tragic ending to this strange story was inevitable, and a lesson to you about the down side of budget travel.

Unlike the Sung Dynasty and the Kingdom of Dali, I succeeded in defeating the evil invaders. But the price was high.

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Good-bye nasty invaders.  Goodbye hair
And so, you see, the purpose of this dispatch was not only to teach you a little about Chinese history, but also to explain why, from now until the end of the Odyssey, I will resemble a Buddhist nun. Bald is beautiful, baby! We World Trekkers don't need a man on the team! Abeja, the bald one PS-I've heard from many travelers who have been up north that the Mongols of today are very nice people. I am certain that they in NO WAY resemble lice.

Abeja, the bald one

p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Kavitha - What! Can Tourism PRESERVE an Ethnic Culture?
Yang-Yang - MAD About Air Pollution in China's Big Cities

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