National Geographic : 1951 Apr
Portrait of Indochina BY W. ROBERT MOORE AND MAYNARD OWEN WILLIAMS T O UNEASY old Asia, war is not new. Today it trembles with forces more portentous than any since the Mongol hordes overran much of it and galloped west ward beyond Moscow. Now Indochina, like Korea, is a trouble spot. In mist-draped Tonkin mountains, piled against China's southern frontier like craggy peaks portrayed in famous Sung paintings, there is fighting. Here Annamese underground forces, led by Moscow-trained Ho Chi Minh and bearing arms supplied by Communist China, are carry ing on an organized guerrilla campaign against the French and the recognized government of Viet Nam (pages 463, 487). News dispatches carry such strange-sound ing names as Langson, Caobang, Locbinh, and Laokay, for French troops stationed in Indo china have been forced to abandon outposts guarding the slender mountain passes that stretch like fingers from the flat open palm of the rice-rich Red River delta. Human Geography in Paintings The accompanying 16 pages of paintings by Jean Despujols give a geographical and human portrait of this embattled land. Having won the Indochina Prize for paint ing, founded by the Economic Council of the Indochina Government, this talented French artist, now an American citizen, spent two years in that country just before World War II. In those two years he produced more than 300 canvases and sketches (page 465). His oils, water colors, washes, and drawings capture the atmosphere of Indochina's steamy jungle, depict its coiling roads that thread between mirrored paddy fields and rugged cliff, and portray the tribal mixture of peoples grouped in this section of Southeast Asia, an area little larger than Texas. To find many of his subjects, he penetrated the least accessible parts of the country. He traveled from the plains of Cambodia, through tumbled hills of Laos, and to Tonkin moun tain peaks where perch the isolated villages of gaily dressed hill folk-the Meo, Man, Lolo, and Thai. He made friends with tribal chieftains and villagers among the Moi tribes in unpacified districts on the southern Annamese Cordillera, experienced a coastal typhoon, shot hazardous rapids of the Mekong and Nam Te (Noire), and sweltered in tropical humidity that made the drying of his paintings well-nigh impos sible. In Despujols' scenes no enemy is more for midable than the tiger (pages 470, 474). His models reflect Oriental calm, rather than wide eyed fear. His canvases give the peacetime look of Indochina, now darkened by the shadow of war. To us, writing these words, Despujols' paintings picture our friends and places we know, for we have roamed Indochina in peacetime and since war came.* Lissome Women and Dragon-robed Mandarins To us, exotic Hanoi, Hue, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Saigon are vivid spots that recall golden-skinned people crowding teeming market places, trousered, lissome Annamese women and dragon-robed mandarins treading Chinese-styled courts, and patient farmers bowed to the good earth be side the Red River and the mighty Mekong. In some places their homes have been flat tened by fighting or by scorched-earth tactics of Ho Chi Minh's followers, the Viet Minh. These places also recall the hospitality of open-hearted Cambodians whose noble Khmer ancestors raised the majestic temples of Ang kor, and of friendly Lao princes and com moners. To understand the land and its people, consider first the why of Indo-China. India and China were its cultural parents. Behind the massive towers of mysterious Angkor, thrusting in ruin above the jungle near Tonle Sap, or Great Lake, in central Cam bodia, looms the age-old culture of Brahmans imported from India (page 490). Brahmans also tutored the Chains, whose brick towers and a mere 100,000 people are all that remain of a once-powerful kingdom in the coastal region that is now part of Annam. Farther north, Chinese culture pat terned the court life of Hue. Mention the word "mandarin" and to most persons it connotes an official of Imperial China. But in its origins the word is Indian Sanskrit and long since traveled north along Indochina's old Mandarin Road, which the French relabeled "Route Coloniale No. 1." Hindu Brahmans, who sparked the native genius of the early Khmers, and Chinese officials, who lent their culture to the Anna * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "By Motor Trail Across French Indo-China," by Maynard Owen Williams, October, 1935; "Strife-torn Indo china," October, 1950, and "Along the Old Mandarin Road of Indo-China," August, 1931, both by W. Rob ert Moore.