Documenting Mosuo Culture: The Fish Story and the Origin of Lugu Lake

The day after arriving to Lugu Lake, we said goodbye to my friend, the driver. He had to drive back to Lijiang. I decided to stay with the documentary team. I had never stayed in Lige village for an extended period of time before, so this was my chance to leave a good impression on the community before conducting fieldwork in the summer.

After breakfast, we visited a friend who was setting up a BBQ shop in one of the back alleys. Two of the team members noticed a local friend, a well-known elder in Lige, walking down the street with an empty basket. They asked what she was doing. She said she was going to collect pine tree branches for burning the next morning to the Daba gods (local religion custom) She invited us to join her.

IMG_1560Thorny Path

One of the guys ran for the video camera while we walked with her to the back of Lige village. The walk was surreal. One moment, we were in touristy Lige, but five minutes into our walk we left the town and began walking through dried up farmland and an apple orchard. It felt like we were back in LJZ. The drastic change took us all by surprise. We walked by a ecological water purifier station and then along a thorny path up a side of a mountain. The mountain was covered with pine trees. She began cutting branches from multiple trees. I stayed behind the guys and the camera as they filmed her. She was very photogenic and acted as if the camera wasn’t there. We followed her back home the same way, but this time with a basket full of pine tree branches: mountainside, horny bushes, dried up farmland, horses, alleyway, parking lot, main street, hordes of tourists, cameras flashing, alleyway, her home. She placed the pine needles on the lower hearth and invited us to drink tea and eat sweets.

The guys continued with the shot and asked her some questions: “Ama, does Lugu Lake have an origin story?” She nodded stoically and told us how Lugu Lake came to be:

A long time ago, there was a mute slave boy that shepherded animals for a landlord (1). One day, he stumbled upon a well that had a large fish stuck in it. The boy’s stomach grumbled out of hunger. The fish suddenly spoke to him, “You may eat my flesh, it will make you stronger.” The boy cut a piece of the fish and ate it. He could suddenly speak. The next day he shepherded the animals to the same spot and once again found the fish. He noticed that the fish was unharmed. The wound had healed itself! For lunch, he cut out another piece of meat. From hearsay, the landlord became aware that his slave boy could suddenly speak and that he was becoming stronger by the day. He asked the boy what brought about these miracles. The boy said he would show them. The next day, the boy brought the landlord to the well. The landlord saw the massiveness of the fish and decided he wanted it for the village (and for himself). He organized the entire village to pull it out.

Before they heaved, the fish said, “If you pull me out, terrible things will happen.” The landlord didn’t listen and continued. After much effort, they pulled the fish out, but then a flood of water spouted from the well. It was going to fill the entire valley! The mother of the slave boy quickly transformed a pig trough to save her and her child’s lives. As the two floated above the flood waters, the rest of the village sunk underneath a newfound lake. That lake is now Lugu Lake (2).

1) Traditionally, Mosuo society was stratified by classes: 1) slave, 2) middle class, 3)uppler class. My terminology is inaccurate. Also, I’m unclear if there is a fourth class. I need to look that up.

2) Each person has their own rendition of the story, this is my translation. I also added a few more details that were described by other informants.

We asked the elder how she knew this story. She said that the elders told her. Back then there were no televisions or radio, so their entertainment was listening to folklore. She still preferred that over modern entertainment. When she started making dinner, we thanked her for her time and went on our way. We planned to meet her tomorrow morning for the ritual burning of pine needles and incense.


The Flood

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