Performing Mosuo Culture: Museum Tour and Flower Room Ballad Performance

I took the same bus as before from Lijiang to Lugu Lake. I sat next to someone who also was going to Lugu Lake alone, so we became friendly on the ride there. From what he was wearing and his discussion of topics, he gave off a “rich” vibe. I went in and out of sleep, listening to folk music on the way there. Before I knew it, we arrived. I split ways with my Han friend and told him I’d meet him in Lige later. I first wanted to check out the Mosuo Cultural Museum, and what I believed was also the research center. I payed 50yuan for a tour of the museum, which turned out to be a traditional home, turned-into museum. A young Mosuo boy started the tour and explained his culture with many generalizations:

It first began with a demonstration of how men climb up house walls to the girl’s room. He said, “every man does this, and this is how it is done.” He then climbs the wall like Spiderman and opens the window to the “flower room,” the young girl’s room. “Our society does not have marriage, instead we have relationships where men visit their partners at night. Everyone does walking marriage.”

I personally know that’s not true because I have Mosuo friends who are married. Also, I’ve been visited before in the remote village, and the men didn’t climb any walls because there weren’t any windows (at least for my case). They just came through the front door and walked up to my door. When I mentioned the use of cellphones in Lugu Lake and how that may affect this tradition, the boy just said, “we still do this exactly (climb walls).”

I felt like what he was saying was rehearsed to fulfill my expectations and not to teach me. What are the expectations that he assumed I had? From my previous research, I can guess that he thought my expectations were:
1) Mosuo are a romantic people–sexualized
2) Mosuo don’t have marriage in their society
3) Mosuo have large matrilineal/matriarchal families and women are most powerful

The boy tour guide wanted to make sure these expectations were met, whereas in reality, Mosuo society is more complex than these common expectations.

A young Mosuo girl then continued the tour to show me the living hall, where the family eats meals and the elders and children sleep. I talked with an older man in the living room that kept on telling funny stories about Dr. Joseph Rock. He was the first westerner to live and do research with the Mosuo, which was in the 1920s. He’s still remembered around the lake. Supposedly, Jospeh Rock brought a large chunk of soap with him to clean himself and his clothes…the soap lasted the entire time around Lugu Lake, which was more than two decades.

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Dr. Joseph Rock in Mosuo Garb–A Badass 

The next portion was a hall of pictures taken by Joseph Rock back in the 1920’s. He lived during a time when Mosuo society was stratified with the upper class, middle class, and slaves. Whenever he was pictured, he wore the upper class outfits. He took pictures of the data priests, who had large headdresses and often looked intimidating in the photos as they chanted spells and did ceremonies. He also had shots of festivals and everyday life.

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Mosuo Women in Traditional Garb in Early 1900s (Photo by Dr. Joseph Rock)

The next section showed modern day Lugu Lake through photos and real-life items, like grabs and tools. The Mosuo girl described the importance of the museum items…most of what she said I understood, but I’m still learning! At the end was a traditional medicine and gift shop. I was hoping to find a research center or a curator in the process, but to no avail. At least, I was able to observe how the Mosuo perform their culture to a tourist.

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Mosuo Cultural Museum Main Courtyard

I then shared a car with four other visitors to Lige. I was a bit nervous that no one would remember me from before…but thank goodness I was wrong! I was immediately welcomed by the hostel worker, who gave me a discount! I rested in my room for an hour and then met up with my Han friend for dinner. He was flaunting how he was staying in a room worth 1500yuan a night, which would be around $200. That’s really expensive in China! We bought tickets for the Lige cultural performance–Flower Room Ballad– that night, which was 220 yuan per ticket. That’s also really expensive! My friend treated me to dinner before the performance.

During dinner, he was talking about how this cultural performance is very important in continuing cultural heritage. It’s the best way to learn about old traditions since most of them have “disappeared.” I had opposite opinions. I know this performance hall was constructed by a private investor and has government relations. Though the performers are locals, what they perform is approved from the upper level–a Han perspective. Therefore, this performance is supposed to entertain and excite the audience–primarily Han Chinese–as well as fit into what they believe is Mosuo culture. They make sure the tourists see what they want to see. It’s also an opportunity for the audience to ‘witness’ walking marriage, since it can’t be observed in real life around Lugu Lake. Therefore, this is the audience’s chance to get a glimpse of sex life in Lugu Lake, which is a big reason why they came in the first place. Alas, I didn’t really speak out my mind. I let him do the talking, I was more interested in what he was saying.

He also believed that the airport that will be constructed by this year is going to “break” the environment and the culture. That’s why he came now. I also have mixed feelings on the airport, but I would prefer to have my opinions be from the locals than my biased perspective. After getting to know my friend better, I realized he was a good example of a male, rich Han perspective.

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Lining Up for the Cultural Performance

After I finished eating the tofu dish (he didn’t eat, his hotel owner cooked for him), we joined the line in front of the hall. We were filed in and seated on weaved basket stools. I pulled out my notebook and started taking notes.

Here are a few things that I jotted down:

  1. before the performance they played Mosuo pop songs, which were all in Mandarin
  2. the announcer used a wispy voice to describe Mosuo culture–sounded mystical
  3. performance indirectly described sex life in Lugu Lake–then performed karma sutra positions?

The ticket seller had told us earlier he’d like to treat us to barbecue after the performance. I took up the offer and dragged my friend with me to find him. We joined him to my friend’s barbecue shop. I was happy to know the BBQ boss remembered me. We also ran into another friend, YE, who then joined us at the table. I was so content to know I left a good impression before. We talked about the airport some more, sang songs, and ate barbecued foods. YE performed for everyone and was hilarious. He kept singing to me too, which was fun. I then sang love songs to him back, which added more energy to the crowd.

My friend kept on bringing up money, his expensive hotel, his plane ticket, money money money, which seemed to both the others. I also found it a bit annoying, but I kept silent to see how everyone reacted. One of the barbecue shop owners was very direct in saying how he’s too careless with his money. My friend would defend himself, but it didn’t seem to work. I bet the barbecue owner must get characters like him all the time…I’d get sick of them too!

Afterwards, I moved with YE to another barbecue place where I got to know local Mosuo women and his best friends, who were of the Yi minority. I sang some more and listened to the locals have singing competitions. I noticed one of the singers I was friendly with before was avoiding me. He confessed his love to me the previous visit, which I rejected politely, but it seemed to still affect him. I thought he was joking before. I think he’s 40 years old…why would he think I’d accept to do walking marriage with him? I wonder if this is a problem for female researchers in Lugu Lake?

When it got late, I said my goodbyes and went back to the hostel. I planned to go to the remote village again, LJZ, the next day. I would stay there for a week to observe a ceremony and see the family I stayed with before.

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2 thoughts on “Performing Mosuo Culture: Museum Tour and Flower Room Ballad Performance

  1. Helene Lundgren

    My name is Helene Lundgren and I will come to Yunnan with a friend around 15 april to do a travelarticle and about the Mosuopeople around Lugulake. Do you know anyone in the area of Lugulake?

    Happy Eastergreetings

    Helene Lundgren
    Stockholm

    • Hey Helene! How about you send me an email and give me more information. I am also pretty new to the area, so the people I know is kind of small. But I may be able to help! You can contact me at colleenkoconnor@gmail.com.

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