Into the Meo Country

IN THE SENSE that least is known about them, the Meos are the most mysterious of the twelve principal races of Indo-China. This Mongo¬lian people is to be found at altitudes higher than 3000 feet over the whole of Indo-China north of the 21st parallel of latitude. They are utterly incapable of bearing, even for the shortest time, other than cool and temperate climates. Being self-supporting, they rarely come down to visit the markets of the plains and valleys, and when obliged to cultivate fields below the 3000 feet line, they always return to their villages to sleep.
The Meos’ territorial aspirations are purely vertical. By their disas¬trous method of cultivation, which completely exhausts the soil in a few years, they have been forced steadily southwards from China. In migration, as in the year 1860, when they crossed the frontier of Indo- China, they will fight their way savagely and effectively across low-lying country, only to split up and disperse immediately the mountains are reached. An ethnographical map of northern Indo-China is pock¬marked with groups of Meos. Since 1860 they have travelled about four hundred miles and are now filtering slowly southwards down the Annamite Chain, where from time to time a new group is reported on a mountain top. They are said to have been attacked in recent years by government forces in northern Siam, but it is unlikely that anything short of extermination can stop their slow silent movement through the mountains. Europeans who have studied them superficially believe them to be of Esquimaux origin; a theory which is offered to explain their horror of warm climates. These authorities report that they possess legends of eternal snows and of arctic days and nights. But the short description published in 1906 by Commandant Lunet de Lajonquière says nothing of this, and no other scientific account of the Meos has appeared.
Besides the Meos’ predilection for mountain tops they have other claims to distinction. They are utterly independent and quite fearless. Their passion for freedom compels them to live in the smallest of villages and, apart from such rare events as the invasion of 1860, they will not tolerate chiefs or leaders. If forcibly brought to lower altitudes they are soon taken ill and die. They are normally pacific, but if compelled to fight are apt to eat the livers of slain enemies.
The Meos are the only people in Indo-China who are not in the slightest concerned with evil spirits, although they admit their existence. Their complete indifference to all the ghouls and devils that plague the races surrounding them has invested them with enormous prestige, which they are careful to cultivate. They like to encourage the belief, prevalent among the Thais, that they are werewolves and can turn into tigers at wish. They have no funerary cults but celebrate a funeral – or any other event providing the slightest excuse – with orgies of drinking. Husbands and wives keep their own property. Children are given the greatest degree of freedom; and sexual promiscuity before marriage – even with strangers – is general. ‘Sacred groves’ exist – there is a celebrated one at Dong-Van in Tonkin – to which Meo girls resort, and offer themselves freely to all comers. It is said that large-scale maps, upon which the locations of such groves have been scrupulously plotted, are the prized possessions of most French garrisons in Tonkin. Besides breeding fine, white dogs, they are experts at taming monkeys and birds, particularly a kind of minah which they teach a wide repertoire of imitative sounds. The Meos will only part with their animals for an enormous price – payable in solid silver which they immediately convert into massive jewellery.

But the first village beyond Muong Kassy, perched on a bare hilltop and reached laboriously up a long winding path, proved not to belong to Meos but the ‘black’ Thais – so called from the distinctive dress of their women. It was like climbing up to an eagle’s eyrie and finding crows in possession. A rare species of crow though. Checking up on the ethno¬graphical map, you saw that these were the only black Thais in Laos, although you could follow their tracks in isolated, coloured blobs right down from the frontier of Yunnan where they had crossed over from China. The Thais are the aboriginal stock from which both the Laotian and Siamese nations developed, but the black Thais are the only tribe with a taste for the high mountains, with the hard life and the freedom.
Their village was a philosopher’s retreat. Ten or fifteen huts clung to the flattened summit of the hill, silhouetted, whichever way you looked, against white mist. Ten paces away the slopes went plunging down and were dissolved in vapour. Across the sky was a wavy, unsupported line of peaks. A few ravens flapped about the thatches, and babies, peering at us through the stockades, howled with horror at what they saw.
The headman received us in his hut, which marked the village’s centre. He was dressed in Chinese-looking clothes of some coarse, black stuff, wore a black turban and was smoking a foot-long pipe with a bowl the size of a thimble. We had seen a number of fine white Meo dogs bouncing about in the village and Dupont, speaking Laotian, asked if he could buy one. The chief sent out to see if anyone would sell a dog, and while we were waiting produced a large dish of roasted chicken, already dissected in the Chinese style. This provoked such a lengthy exchange of protestations that the chicken was cold before Dupont decided that we could politely eat it. He presented the chief with some army rations in exchange, and this, too, set in motion a chain-sequence of reiterated offers and mock refusals. Dupont asked if there were any ceremonies taking place in the vicinity. The chief replied that a marriage fair had been organised in the next Thai village, but that you had to cross a range of mountains to reach it.

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