‘China’s Last Aboriginal Village’ Devastated in Great Fire

February 15, 2021 Updated: February 15, 2021

A sudden great fire swallowed up nearly the whole village of Wengding, located in Cangyuan county, Lincang city, southwestern China’s Yunnan Province.

It is known as one of the few villages remaining in China where the aboriginal Wa people reside.

On Feb. 14, around 5:40 p.m. local time, a severe fire hit the “heritage” section of the village, according to China’s state media reports. Since the community was full of thatched houses, the fire spread swiftly and uncontrollably.

Residents and tourists staying there were evacuated. By 11:15 p.m., the open flames were extinguished, and the remaining fire was being cleared.

No casualties were reported, but only four of the total 105 houses survived the fire.

“Basically, everything is burned down,” local villagers told Taiwan’s Central News Agency. Most of them didn’t have enough time to save their belongings. The majority of residents have been moved to a newly developed area of the village.

An investigation into the cause of the fire is underway.

Prior to the fire, the village was known as the best-preserved community of the Wa people, an aboriginal ethnic group. 

Wengding literally means “a mist-and-cloud-shrouded place” in the Wa language.

The village is hidden in a valley, with a tribal history of more than 400 years. Before 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party took over China, the village was primarily an agrarian society, with villagers practicing slash-and-burn farming.

Yang Jianguo, head of the village, told Chinese state media Beijing News that years ago, the local government informed them of its plan to boost local tourism and asked village leaders to persuade residents into moving to the new area, which began construction in 2012 and was completed in 2017.

“At that time, nearly every household was against the plan,” Yang recalled.

“Later, the government sent staff to our village, who talked to us and pushed the project forward. They said each household who would agree to move out could choose one member to ‘work’ in their old house, earning 60 yuan (about $9.30) a day, ” Yang continued. 

All except 17 households agreed to move to the new site. 

Afterward, visitors swarmed in, which brought villagers financial returns, but also disrupted their traditional lifestyle, said Yang.

When the fire erupted on Feb. 14, most people who worked in the heritage section of the village had returned to their homes in the new area after a day’s work. 

Yang and his fellow villagers tried to use a fire hydrant to put out the fire but found that extremely limited flow of water came out of it; and soon, no water at all.

Tang Min, founder of a Shenzhen-based center for helping to revive disappearing ancient villages in China, told Beijing News that Chinese tribal architecture features bamboo and wood structure, which is easier to catch fire but easier to be extinguished as well.

“As long as people respond quickly, large sections catching fire are very unlikely,” Tang said.