Almost everybody in Liangshan knows the story of the American slave.
During World War II, it went, an American aviator crash-landed near a village. The villagers had never seen a plane before, and they’d never seen a foreigner. Some believed he was an animal. But as they surrounded him and pulled his hair, rubbed his skin and heard him speak, they decided that he was, in fact, a human being.
The village elders said he was a gift, sent by the gods to become their slave. They shackled his feet and forced him to grind corn and tend livestock. He lived in the village for 10 years, until Mao Zedong’s Communist forces stormed the area in the mid-1950s.
For centuries, this...