Documenting Mosuo Culture: Praying Rituals, Tourism and the Effects on Youth

I woke up by getting a phone call from one of the National Geographic guys. He asked if I wanted to join them in watching the elder from yesterday pray to the Daba gods. I did. So, I groggily got up, got dressed, and joined two of the filmmakers for breakfast. The other team member was sick in bed. The four of us agreed we had a cycle of sickness that switched each couple of days between us. I met them at the Lige peninsula for breakfast and waited for the elder to finish her round of boat rowing. She would light the pine needles after the morning shift. While we waited, we joked about things that I don’t remember, but I do recall that I laughed endlessly with these guys. Morning, afternoon, night continuous laughter.

We noticed the morning boats were moving towards the shore from the peninsula. We paid the bill and walked over to the lake shore to meet her. We approached her when she was dropping off some tourists after the sunrise boat ride. In the midst of parking the boat, a male tourists asked if she could fill an entire liter water bottle with pure Lugu Lake water. She filled it up and gave it to the man. She started tying up the boat as tourists closed in on her to take pictures. She was wearing traditional Mosuo garb and gave off a look as if she was as hard as nails–which she most likely is. She politely paused for the photos. When they were done, she grabbed the wooden oars and walked to her house to drop them off. We tagged along. Her granddaughter followed her and played with the rubble along the way. Her granddaughter is a little ball of energy that can find fun and interest in anything–including the trash and rubble that collects along the streets.

We waited outside the front door when the grandmother came out of the house gate with a handful of pine needles. We followed her to the shrine located off the Lige shore and filmed her as she prayed. She first put the needles into the kiln-shaped shrine, burned them, and prayed by chanting and walking around the shrine three times. We followed suite.

IMG_1497Filming Praying Ritual

After praying, she immediately shuffled through the rocky beach to her boat rowing friends and sat down. We sat with her and joined into the conversation with the camera off. The women talked about how tourism in the area has helped improve their lives. They make money now. They can buy things and travel. One woman said she utilized the money to travel to Tibet or other spiritual Buddhist areas to pray with his family. The discussion was fun as they joked with each other. Then a group of Shanghainese tourists swooped in with their Canon cameras–“the parade of canons”–and took pictures of the women.

One Han woman said, “Wow! Look at the light from behind her–the grandmother–this is a prize winner!” One of the boat rowers was agitated by the tourists. Everyday they are treated as if they are objects to be taken pictured of and lack autonomy of choice. She said, “Get away! We don’t like it when you do this.”

The Shanghainese smiled and said, “Well, why can they take photos of you and we can’t?” (At that point, Daniel was filming) The woman responded defiantly, “Because they are Mosuo and that is a Mosuo camera.” Since we showed interest in getting to know them, they respected us like their neighbors. The Shanghainese fake laughed. They then took a few more moments before they were satisfied with their photos. We asked the local women what they thought of the tourists.


Shanghai Tourists

“They are so annoying! They have such ‘sweet mouths,’ always just getting what they want without caring about us. We Mosuo like the talk to strangers, but they don’t. They only talk if they want something.” It was tense to watch the tourists and the locals interaction, but I’m glad I witnessed it.

After talking for over an hour, we excused ourselves to check on our friend, but planned on visiting them for lunch. We soon picked up some juice and walked over into the marshland where the local boat rowers set up a fire. The granddaughter was back, causing a hilarious ruckus among the older folk. We sat next to them as they set down fatty pork (or “mummified pork”) and vegetable soup for us to eat. They broke old cattail branches and used them as chopsticks. We ate as the grandchild would stare at us with ghost impressions.


Our Lunch–Used Cattail Chopsticks to Eat “Mummified Pork” Soup

After eating, I played with the grandchild by making funny faces and pretending to be a monster. I picked her up, pretending to take her away. She playfully screamed for her mother, which I responded with, “Your mother can’t save you now!” The mom laughed as I terrorized her adorable daughter.

We parted ways to visit the local theater. We heard there would be auditions, which we wanted to check out. We met up with a friend that was going to audition. He’s a local in his mid-twenties from a little village outside of Lugu Lake. He’s very handsome, good at singing and dancing from previous work experience performing in Fujian and Kunming. He only graduated from the third grade. We followed him to rehearsal.

All the dancers came one by one into the performance hall. They were handing out applications to the newbies. Our friend had to have someone fill the application for him because he didn’t know how to write or read.  He was the first one up. He had a stage presence about him with his perfect white smile and good looks. He sang a Mosuo song and danced for the crowd and received a loud applause and cheers. He was definitely the best of the bunch. The auditions turned into a practice for both the performers and the auditioners. We left soon after.

We met up with our friend who auditioned a couple hours later to get dinner at his house. He got a part in the show! We jumped into his friend’s van with a few other people and set off to his hometown, Zhudi, a nearby village. We drove down a dirt path till we hit his home, which was under construction. We walked through his front yard over rubble and piles of sand into the recently finished main hall. His grandmother sat by the lower hearth as we filed in. We light-heartedly chatted with our friend and the two guests staying at his home. The night became more interesting during dinner…


House Under Construction to be a Nice Guest House

His two buddies became more and more intoxicated during dinner. They shared with us how they knew each other and their brotherhood bond, explaining that the three of them and three other local boys were “blood brothers.” When they were younger, they poured droplets of their blood into a wine glass and shared it to portray their solidarity and love for each other. Another thing they mentioned is that in this area “to be a man” one must go to jail at least once. They joked of their experiences with glory and dignity. One had to persuade the jailer not to cut his hair by bribing him with his family’s meat supply–“how will you eat meat?”

The conversation suddenly took a sullen turn when they recollected the death of one of their blood brothers. The year before, they went out as usual to Yongning to sing karaoke and drink. After a night filled with fun, they all drunkenly drove motorbikes back home. Though they all got back safely, their blood brother never came back. They searched for their friend and found him dead on the street from a car accident. Their anguish was impossible to describe…

Since the blood brother died outside of his home, it was taboo to carry his body to the funeral ceremony, but his buddies would not stand it. They carried him against the cultural customs. During the funeral, the Daba priest warned the friends of the deceased blood brother’s unsettled spirit. The priest told them not to leave their house for an entire month to avoid joining him to the spirit world. One of the friends explained that entire month he never left his home, but his friend would visit him every night in his dreams. The dead blood brother would invite the dreamer to join him and play. The dreamer declined every time, telling him to go his own way and he his own.

However, that month one of the other blood brothers never did woke up after a night of drunken fun. The Daba priest said the blood brother took him to the spirit world. After that month, the spirit never revisited his dreams. The story gave me the chills.

Their experience highlights the life of a modern local boy growing up in a tourism developed area. Drinking, gambling, and paying for prostitutes is a large issue among young men in such areas. These families are making more money then they have ever had, but they don’t know how to spend it…these practices thus increase. The sad story of their friend is one example of tourism’s negative impact on society–the growing laziness and instability among youth.

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