Member Monday: The Elephant Hunter of Yunnan

Today’s member contribution is a story that takes place in Asia. It involves a controversial issue: ivory hunting. The story is about a small, poor family and is a well-told tale. The family participates on a small scale with an ancient tradition, but this tradition has global consequences.

Please continue reading after the story for more information.


The Elephant Hunter of Yunnan

By David Saechao

A harmonious spring morning in Huibu. The tea trees, hiding beneath the lush evergreen tropical landscape, were breathing comfortably beside the rising sun. Some of the villagers from the adjacent mountain were dispersing from their homes and anxious to tend their crops a few li away. But among the cluster of thatch grass roofs, one family remained in their home.

At the behest of our village leader, the tall and articulate Mr. Fu Wang Pan, we were invited to a ritual

I followed my parents as we hiked the narrow dirt path all morning and weaved our way to the other mountain. Upon reaching the first house on the slope, we were welcomed by a group of young females dressed in black turbans and black robes with red ruffs sewn from the neck down. They were sitting quietly beneath a tree, embroidering Mien designs. We greeted them on the way up.

My father opened the big door as we kicked off our straw sandals and stepped onto the dirt floor.

The high priest, adorned in a red brocaded robe and black ritual hat, was reading from a Taoist ritual text and chanting the final petitions before the ancestral altar. A butchered pig had been laid onto a table, towering the small cups of rice wine beneath it. On the wall, the priest had hung ceremonial paintings of the Taoist pantheon of gods.

Settling in the living room, my father joined Mr. Fu Wang and other men from the village.

I followed my mother into the spacious kitchen to look for Liu, who along with her mother, older sisters, and the other women of the village, was engrossed in preparations for the ritual meal. Liu was bent down on a stool and cleaning a large bowl of freshly-picked bamboo mushrooms. She glanced at me for a moment and smiled.

I proceeded to the patio, where several children were joyfully playing. The firepit outside exuded intense flames and illuminated the thin slabs of pork belly that had been laid out on a stubby table. I put on the pair of mittens hanging beside the table and placed an iron grill over the flames. As I sat down on a convenient stool, Liu’s eldest maternal uncle approached the pit.

We were exchanging pleasantries when I noticed Liu. She was holding a steaming bowl of rice porridge and must have sensed that I was hungry from the long hike. Barely making eye contact, she handed me the porridge and walked away. The uncle noticed her kind gesture.

“Younger brother Lu, when are you going to marry my niece?”

“Good sir,” I replied timidly. “I haven’t yet spoken to my father.”

“Why wait? Liu is a pretty girl. As a matter of fact, our Mien tribal chief has informed us that highlanders from the north will be resettling in Huibu. I am sure there will be bachelors among them.”

“Why do they want to come here when there are so many mountains in Yunnan?”

“You are not yet old enough to understand,” the uncle chuckled. “In time, you will understand that we all have to leave—sooner or later.”

Shortly past noon, two long tables and chairs were brought into the living room. Liu began placing pairs of bamboo chopsticks and wooden spoons in front of each chair. Other women were moving back and forth from the kitchen with bowls of cooked dishes. When the table was finally set, Liu’s father hailed for the men to sit.

I sat down next to my father and picked up a slice of pork belly. The village leader waved for Liu and her older sister Lai to bring him a bottle of rice wine and small cups. Liu knew that I would be drinking the wine as well and joked to me that she would fill my cup to the rim.

“How goes the elephant hunt brother Yao Fong?” asked the village leader.

“It goes well,” my father replied. “I am leaving in the morning with my son Lu.”

“You know, merchants from Kunming have stated that demand for ivory is higher now than ever.”

“That is good to hear. However, the herd has migrated further south, and I am not the man I used to be.”

“Both you and I,” exclaimed the village leader as he raised his cup of rice wine. “Here’s to a successful hunt.”

The next day at dawn, I met Liu under a tea tree near our plot. She had her hair tied back in a dragon’s knot and was wearing a grey tunic embroidered with Mien designs on the collar. She looked beautiful, imparting the same graceful composure that enamored my spirits when we first met. I put my hands beside her waist to pull her closer and could feel her gently tugging my hand.

“How long do you think you’ll be gone?” she whispered.

“Three days, maybe four. It depends, my dear.”

She gave me a look of apprehension—and rightly so. Not more than five years past, an elderly man from our village, while returning home from his plot, was stomped to death by a wild elephant. The priest in our village believed that the elephant had been possessed by malevolent forest spirits.

“Come back safely. We should announce our engagement before the rice harvest.”

“Don’t worry.”

I moved my hand up to brush her delicate, tan skin. Liu grabbed ahold of it and sunk into my palm, arousing emotions that made me flutter. We embraced for a short while before I kissed her and said goodbye.

I returned home and found my father in the kitchen wrapping dried meat and filling several gourd containers with water. He instructed me to retrieve two spears from our old Mandarin robe cabinet near the stove. As I opened the cabinet, a mist of dust flew in my face. The two long, leaf-shaped spears were decorated with red horsehair tassels.

“Father, I want to marry Liu Wang.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. I want her to come live with us.”

“I know. I have already spoken to Mr. Fu Wang.”

I was happy to hear that. All four of my older brothers had married several years ago, and I knew that my father was waiting for me to do the same.

“Can we perform the engagement ceremony when we get back?”

“Patience, my son,” he cautioned. “We have to make sure that we perform the ceremony on a fortuitous day.”

Meanwhile, my mother had woken up and was getting ready for a day’s work. She joined us in the kitchen and inspected my basket.

“Do you have everything you need?” she asked, handing me a long knife.

“I think so.”

“Of course we do,” my father interjected. “We have enough food and water to last a fortnight.”

I hung the knife to my side and strapped the basket onto my back. My mother helped me straighten one of the straps, which had wrapped around a silver button on my black trousers.

My father was waiting for me outside. I stepped out, and we departed up the southern mountain.

By sundown, we had crossed three mountains. My father was delighted to find a flat patch of land and announced that we would be camping there for the night. I left momentarily to gather some firewood; when I returned, he had taken out a few pieces of meat.

After dinner, I lay next to the fire on a thin cotton sheet and gazed at the full moon and the seven sisters in the sky. I thought about Liu and the kiss we shared earlier that morning. Although the night was eerie, my father’s snoring was a comforting sound. I was nearly asleep when I heard a rustle behind me.

A pair of eyes were glowing through the bushes and glaring in my direction. I did all that I could to temper my fears. For a moment, I wanted to alert my father of this elusive creature, but it vanished, as quickly as it appeared.

I woke up the next morning to find my father examining the earth.

“Did you see something last night?”

“I don’t know what it was,” I replied.

“It was a tiger, and it looks like it is moving south. You did well son by not panicking, for it might have attacked us.”

It was rare praise.

Making our way down the mountain, we came upon an ancient road. There was a rumbling from beneath our feet, and at a distance, an imperial brigade appeared. I looked at my father for reassurance, but he was focused on the road.

Several of the armed infantrymen were carrying flags of the imperial dragon emblem. At the posterior of the brigade, a horse-drawn carriage was guarded by cavalry. My father immediately grabbed my hand and pulled me down to genuflect.

“What is your business here?” asked a horseman as the carriage passed.

My father calmly looked up, as did I.

“High chieftain, I did not know it was you,” my father answered. “We are hunting for elephants.”

The high chieftain was of Dai Lu ethnicity and worked as an official for the imperial government. He possessed a higher rank than our Mien tribal chief. “You must know that the largest herds are moving south beyond Yunnan. Beware, however, if you choose to cross into those mountains. Taiping bandits have taken refuge.”

“I understand. Thank you for your words of caution.”

The next morning, we found ourselves at the gate of Yunnan. I followed my father up the forest as we slashed our way through the vegetation. We searched desperately for wild elephants, but they remained cloaked behind copious layers of trees and bushes.

With no luck thus far, we crossed into the next mountain. There, we discovered a pristine plateau and a dark tunnel within the forest that had been forged before our arrival. We entered the tunnel, and my father’s stern movements signaled that we were close. He held his hand up and pointed at a palm tree, where we found cover.

Suddenly, the majestic wild elephant was within our grasp, and just as we had planned, it had strayed from the herd. My father looked at me and displayed a restrained smile, knowing it was male. He then whispered that he would approach the elephant head-on, while I should attack its flank.

The elephant had its trunk curled up and was pulling on palm leaves. It was unaware of our presence.

I positioned myself several steps behind it and put a firm grip on my spear. At the same time, my father had his spear down and was closing in. Despite his old age, he was stronger than most young males. He thrust the spear at the elephant’s ribs, piercing the armored skin. It let out a vociferous roar that shook the forest.

The wild beast was weakened but moving erratically, attempting to remove the spear from its flesh. I waited for the right moment and thrust my spear at its buttocks. My father yelled at me to move back.

Frustrated, the elephant charged at my father, who took off running. I sprinted toward them, but as I caught up, it had gotten on top of him. Instinctively, I reached for my knife and rammed it into the elephant’s neck. I stepped back and watched the monstrous beast swerve aimlessly before falling to the ground.

I was petrified to see my father laying there mutilated. Some of his internal organs had erupted and were splattered on the ground, which compelled me to look away. But as the rush of guilt crept up my spine, I got down on my knees and lifted his head slightly.

Sitting there alone, I pondered what to do with his body. Tradition would command that he should be taken back to the village, though I knew that that would not be possible. I did my best to clean him up with water from the gourd containers, before constructing a platform next to his body. I lifted him and found a piece of white cloth from his basket and placed it over his face. Tears began to fall as I lit the platform.

The elephant laid there with one of its tusks poking into the ground and the other sticking up. I took my knife and cut both tusks off the elephant. Knowing that it would be a long road home, I cut off a piece of its flesh.

I returned to the village with the elephant’s tusks sticking out of my basket. My mother saw me walking up the mountain and came out to meet me. She noticed my dejected demeanor and began crying, knowing that my father was not returning.

Later in the day, my paternal uncles paid my mother and me a visit to inform us that they had arranged for my father’s funeral to be held on the next fortuitous day.

Liu had heard about what happened and came over to offer her condolences. I led her to my bedroom, where we sat on the ground. As was the proper practice, men were to remain stoic, but I could not hold back the tears. I buried myself into her lap and released a cry that I had repressed since becoming an adolescent.

As I regained my composure, I conveyed my intentions.

“Dear, I want to start a family with you on the mountain where my father fell.”

“But how will we live?” she responded.

I paused for a moment and took her by the hand. “The mountain there is rich and uninhabited. We shall build a new Mien village beyond Yunnan.”

“As your wife, I’ll follow you wherever you should go.”

“Can you stay with me tonight?”

“Of course.”


Editor’s note: While the type of ivory hunting described in David’s story is a long-time right of passage in some cultures, the widespread poaching of ivory supplies a market that threatens many species of animals with extinction. The sale of ivory such as supplied by elephant tusks is illegal in California and indeed, in most of the world. We at Writers Forum believe that ivory needs to stay where it belongs: on the elephant.


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