Ruili, Yunnan’s “City of Sin”

yunnan junkies.gif
Young junkies shoot up in the streets of Ruili

A few weeks ago, when I asked readers to suggest places to see in Yunnan someone suggested Ruili. I had never heard of it before, but this article told me all I need to know. This place is a living, breathing AIDS factory. Truly scary. (And no, it’s not on my itinerary.)

The Discussion: 22 Comments

Ruili is a backwater border town known for its legal and illegal border trade with Myanmar. I did not see anything like the photo scene here. One big legit trade is in precious and semi-precious stones-sold at street stalls and I assume at fancier digs.

I was introduced to a old woman who had had her feet bound in the old Chinese tradition. She was gracious and allow me to photograph her with her feet in view.

January 28, 2005 @ 6:24 pm | Comment

She really had bound feet?? I thought that practice ended with Mao’s ascent. Of all China’s customs, foot binding is the one for which I have the least admiration.

So, should I go to Ruili?

January 28, 2005 @ 6:41 pm | Comment

The old woman might have just been very old. In 1979 I saw a number of elderly women with bound feet. The practice was forbidden after 1949 as far as I know…

January 28, 2005 @ 9:19 pm | Comment

My grandmather on my mather’s was one of those last women who had their feet bound. She was the youngest of four concubines my grandfather had. She passed away in the late 80’s.

And yes, this tradition was completely banned after 1949.

Whether Ruili should be on your itinerary, Richard, IMHO, depends what you would like to see.

January 28, 2005 @ 10:04 pm | Comment

Feet binding ended with Mao? Richard, please, never talk about that again. This is the textbook case China uses to prove that Western media is ‘demonizing’ China. And you will only give them a hand by mentioning that. In fact feet binding was gone with the Qing dynasty, long before Mao, and it was never truely Chinese tradition (Manchurian rulers imposed that on Chinese).

Yunnan is arguably the most beautiful province of China. Don’t miss out. Just go.

January 29, 2005 @ 3:28 am | Comment

You have just about everything wrong there bellevue. Foot Binding if I am not mistaken originated sometime during the Sui-Tang era and has been a popular practice among Chinese elites up until the around the 19th century. It did not dissappear with the Qing era nor was it imposed by the Manchus. The early Manchu rulers were not particularly fond of the custom and the practice was discouraged among them. (Many sources will say the Manchu elite did not practice foot binding at all, but this is only somewhat true. Social peer pressure and the demand to conform did lead some to adopt this han custom, as it was a status symbol). However by the 19th century, growing liberal attitudes and new concepts of modernity were spreading throughout China and footbinding lost its popularity. By the time of the Republican revolution, the practice had become somewhat uncommon, generally observed mainly among the rural gentry and less among urbanites though it had not completly dissappeared. The communists simply finished an ongoeing historical trend, by terminating the practice altogether in 1949.

January 29, 2005 @ 5:17 am | Comment

Her feet were really bound. I didn’t pay for the scene. I have heard that the practice was not wiped out instantly by Mao’s edict.

There are better places to go in Yunnan than Ruili. I went there to visit some of the national minority peoples. Which I did and learned this one group had been Christianized and had a bible written in their own language, not Chinese characters.

If you are looking for places to go in Yunnan places like Xishuangbanna, Lijiang, Lugu lake, going north past Lijiang to gets you to Tiger Leaping Gorge and beyond to areas where some Tibetians live.

January 29, 2005 @ 5:33 am | Comment


I may be wrong at its origin, but you gave too much credits to Communists. For example, Hakka women rarely bound themselves even in Qing dynasty, because they were considered laborers in the rice field, and how could they do farm works with san cun jin lian? For same reason women in my native countryside didn’t do that, I heard from elders. That all happened long before Communists came to exist.

To think the year 1949 had anything special is just absurd. None of my female relatives born prior to 1949 had their feet bound, not even my grandmother: she has got jie fang jiao (bound at first but liberated in half way). And it’s under ROC.

January 29, 2005 @ 6:13 am | Comment

Thanks for the history, Jing. I had thought it ended with the Qing Dynasty, but I see it’s not so clear-cut. One of the beggars that I DO give money to here in Shenzhen is Granny Liu, who has feet about 3 inches long, and appears to be 90+ years old. I sort of assumed she was one of the last.

January 29, 2005 @ 6:18 am | Comment

I’m not giving the communists any credit bellevue, you are simply vacillating around the entire issue. Your claim that im giving the communists too much credit is ludicrous, especially in light of your given examples. Your average Han did not engage in foot binding anymore than the Hakka. Note the operative word I had used when discussing this practice in my last post; “elites”. The practice was relegated only to those who had the sufficient resources and status to essentially cripple a viable female worker. Foot Binding would have been even rarer to observe among the Hakka because they have traditionally held a lower position in Chinese society. That the practice was rare among the Hakka(and the entire Chinese population to begin with) is hardly an indicment of the inaction of the CCP.

Secondly just because no one in your immediate family had their feet bound does not reflect all of Chinese society at large during the specific era. (refer to posts left by ESNW on this very same issue)

As for my use of the 1949 date, it was simply a matter of historical convenience. I don’t know or care to research the specific dates in which every single province or village fell under communist authority. I assume that the practice had been outlawed by the communists as early as the Jiangxi Soviet, but the year in which the PRC established provides a neat date with which to pin it on.

January 29, 2005 @ 7:38 am | Comment

I found Ruili really rather nice, though not terribly exciting. It’s not like people are going to leap out of the shadows and force a used heroin syringe into your forearm.

Ganlanba, Jinghong and all that sort of Laotian border area are pretty cool, in a relaxed, lazy Mekong-banks type way.

January 29, 2005 @ 10:32 pm | Comment

Jing: points well taken. That’s why it’s more than shocking to find a un-doctored photo of living people with bound feet. I once thought last such person already went down to history.

That said, besides feet binding, there are other taboos for foreigners: pigtail queue, opium smoking, and rickshaw riding. Chinese deem those practices as national shame and resent anyone mentioning that. Maybe I confused feet binding with pigtail queue, which is a true Manchu imposed habit.

January 29, 2005 @ 10:58 pm | Comment

Bellevue, I’m curious about something so I was wondering if you could explain something. On many of the t.v. shows here, they show men in pigtails. Was that the social norm for those days? Or am I missing something?

January 30, 2005 @ 1:16 am | Comment

Haikou homie:

I guess you probably watched one of those Qing Gong Xi (Qing dynasty drama) TV soap operas which has dominated China’s screen for a few years. Man’s pigtail was Manchurian tradition, and they imposed that on Han Chinese male after their 1644 conquest of China (correct me if wrong) as a sign of being subject. That was abolished after 1911 the Republican Revolution. Even HM Aisin Gyoro Puyi the last Emperor cut that off. The pigtail got reincarnated in China, thanks to TV studios!

January 30, 2005 @ 3:47 am | Comment

Richard – I highly recommend a trip to Zhongdian, not too far from the borders with both Tibet and Sichuan. What is the attraction at Zhongdian? Well, about 15 minutes out of the town, you will find the closest thing in China (outside of Tibet) that looks like the Patola Palace. An entire Buddhist Lamma monastic village, named Songzhanlin. You will need to allow an entire day there – there are so many fascinating temples in the one area to visit, and you will get a good chance to communicate with the local monks – try to meet a local in Zhongdian who can speak Tibetan as well as English, and then offer to hire them for a day to be your translator. This is what I did. The village is home to about 800 Lamas, and every single building is just a treasure. Go and see it before it becomes too much of an attraction – before it becomes too commodified, before it becomes a mere simularcum, another Disneyfied theme park. I was there two years ago, and there were very few tourists there back then, but a new main road was at that time in the process of being built so as to link Zhongdian with Lijiang.

You won’t be disappointed. Also, I discovered, quite by accident, a small primary school in the old part of Zhongdian itself. I walked into the premises quite back accident, met the principal (who was a short little Tibet man, his face half-covered in dirt, and I remember he was dressed in a rather old and tatty suit. Anyhow, he allowed me to teach there for a day. I offered to do so free of charge of course. The students were mostly ethnic Tibetans, and they were certainly much more poorly nourished than my students in Jiangsu province. Many of them clearly hadn’t washed for weeks – you should have seen the dirt under the fingernails of some!

Anyhow, these kids had never seen a foreigner before, and English wasn’t even on their curriculum. But I tell you what – they were smart kids. I had them all saying the days of the week in English within only one hour – I tested each student individually again at the end of the day, and they all knew it. I taught them all of the basic English vocabulary to express human emotions (happy, sad, angry, etc) which they loved, the body parts, and they all learnt how to introduce themselves in English. They learnt a lot in the space of only a few lessons.

I walked away thinking, wow! these kids have a great potential to learn a language like English – if they can learn this much in only a few lessons, imagine how much progress they would make if they had a regular English language teacher!

Tourism, I think, will become a more important part of their local economy in the years ahead, so learning a language like English could certainly benefit some of them.

Anyhow, I had a ball – those kids had such an infectious enthusiasm for learning. Just find a local school Richard, walk in, find the principal, introduce yourself, and offer to teach for a day. You will be a welcome break in routine for the students. You will need to hire a translator for the day though, to assist you in the classroom.

Have a great trip Richard.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

January 30, 2005 @ 7:21 pm | Comment


Just a short note to say thank you for your story. I love it. You are an adorable imperialist (like your ancesters).

January 31, 2005 @ 5:35 am | Comment

Dear Bellevue,

You certainly are quite a character!

I am an imperialist in some senses I guess – in that I like to colonise my ideas and viewpoints around the world, and with all of the arrogance of a 34 year old idealist.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

January 31, 2005 @ 6:31 pm | Comment


I’m 80% serious about it 🙂 and I used that word in a positive light. Anyways, you taught them English.

My favorite story of imperialism came from colonial India. A British officer in India came upon the scene of a Suttee, a Hindu rite where a live wife is burned upon the funeral pyre wood of her dead husband. Told that such practices were an “Indian tradition”, the officer responded that it was a British tradition to hang people who did such things.

I know your Marxist doctrine does not allow you to think the way I do, but do you know how bitter the alternative is?

China’s leading dissident Liu Xiaobo once asserted, that it takes ‘300 years of colonisation’ to make China democratic and free. With the hard work of imperialists like you, we might have saved 200 years!

February 1, 2005 @ 7:15 am | Comment

Interesting thoughts Bellevue. But as I keep trying to tell you and Richard and others, I do not follow any doctrine. Once again, you are confusing Marxist thought with Leninist or Stalinist or Maoist political doctrine – revolutionary ideology which merely borrowed a few ideas from Marx.

The irony, is that I have rarely ever used Marxist thought in the way of presenting my arguments on this website, and yet, still, people continue to trivialise my views by sticking this label onto me: using such phrases as “your Marxist doctrine” or “your friend Lenin”, etc.

I don’t agree with most of what Lenin had to say, and I have never used or even referred to Lenin on this website, and yet, quite out of the blue, Richard, not so long ago, in an affort to trivialise my views, referred to my “friend Lenin”.

Anyhow, I do take your point that teaching Chinese students English is a form of imperialism. You are quite right, in some senses. I appreciate this observation of yours, because, to tell you the truth, I have never really thought of myself as an imperialist, and I have never really thought of my teaching of English as being an act of imperialism. But I think you are right, it is a form of cultural imperialism, and English as the global language is part of th cultural logical of late capitalism – ie. of capitalism in its globalised stage of development.

You aheb definitely provided me with some food for thought here Bellevue.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

February 1, 2005 @ 7:02 pm | Comment

NO no no Mark, I’m not confusing those different ideals. That’s why I would never associate you with Stalinist or Maoist – you cannot be farther from them. And I call you Marxist only in a Habermas sense. After Karl Marx, people tend to see history differently, and no one can change that.

I was methodically taught ‘Imperialism is the final stage of capitalism’ (Lenin) in high school. Now that I have a new look at imperialism itself, Lenin’s reaching sounds more like a blessing than a curse.

February 2, 2005 @ 4:20 am | Comment

I was just wondering how you managed to change the original caption of the above photo from “Blood samples being taken from intravenous drug users for HIV testing in ruili” to “Young junkies shoot up in the streets of Ruili.” An interesting transformation, seeing as I get the impression that you yourself are angered by the blatant misuse of the media in China.

Otherwise, a great website.

May 27, 2005 @ 12:46 am | Comment

Hi Everyone,
I have just visited China, so I decided to post a note on this website. It was rather interesting there, and I went there purely because of my studies on foot binding. I spoke to quite a few chinese women that still have their feet tightly bound, and I also got a few photo’s (send me an email if you want to see some of them). I had a fantastic time over there, and have improved my speaking skills immensly.

September 5, 2005 @ 4:41 am | Comment

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