Documenting Mosuo Culture: Visiting Zeibo Village to Interview an Experienced Anthropologist

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Tourist Looking Out to the Lake

Prologue to the visit to Zeibo:

This last week, we’ve filmed multiple varying characters around the village: from outside investors, BBQ owners to little Mosuo children. While getting lunch with the town’s richest, most economically powerful man, “Bald Lu”, I received a call from an expert Mosuo ethnographer. I emailed Dr. Shih over two months ago asking for advice before coming to Lugu Lake and then emailed him last month when I heard from my professor he was in Kunming. I was not expecting him to actually call me!

After talking with Bald Lu, we immediately set off to meet Dr. Shih in Luoshui, the main tourist hub around the lake. We rented a van and crammed the team, a journalist, myself, and the equipment into it. We met at a youth hostel on the lakeside. When I went inside, he greeted us with a big smile. He was a shorter man, wore thick black glasses and a North Face fleece jacket with a striped dress shirt underneath. We sat ourselves next to him and his friends. He asked about us: how they got the National Geographic sponsorship, how I became interested in the Mosuo, etc. We asked him about his 20+ year experience doing fieldwork in Lugu Lake. He thinks the lake is changing substantially with the influence of globalization and tourism.

We had to split ways that day, but we planned to meet in a couple days. In the days that passed, we stayed stationed in Lige interviewing locals and participating in everyday life. One afternoon, we followed an adorable Mosuo girl, filming how she spends her days in a modern Mosuo society. We also interviewed local store owners and BBQ shop owners. The team is trying to portray “the crossroads” the Mosuo of Lige have encountered through the introduction of tourism and modernization in contrast to their traditional lifestyle. Tourism inspires development in different facets: economic and cultural. The Mosuo of Lige are facing this transition from traditional way of living—large matrilineal households, “walking marriage,” agricultural economic system, etc.—to modern/Hanified society—male dominated household, nuclear families, and a money-based economic system.

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Little Mosuo Girl Playing in the Marsh

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Having Fun While Filming a Time Lapse—Aliens have Landed

Culture is always in transition, but tourism speeds up this process. The Mosuo locals have accepted and embraced this new modern lifestyle, so it cannot necessarily be criticized by scholars for “destroying” the culture…it’s a culture in transition, just like any other culture which has encountered a new, dominant force in history. National Geographic wants to catch this transition on film to make its viewers understand this culture intersecting this crossroads of tradition and modernity.

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Cross-cultural Exchange—Teaching Indian Dance to Local Performers (and Me!) 

The Visit:

A few days later, we joined a local friend to take a trip to Yongning, a small city outside of the lake. He would drop us off at Zeibo, where Dr. Shih was residing for his fieldwork trip. After the short trip to Yongning, our friend took us on a roundabout ride around the valley basin. We passed the base of Mt. Gemu while drudging along bumpy, dirt paths. The path straight to Zeibo village was closed off for construction, so that’s why we went off the beaten track. I laughed with the driver as we bounced up and down the entire way.

We finally made it to the village. It was nestled at the bottom of Lion Mountain (which is the other side of Mt. Gemu, or maybe another name for Mt. Gemu?) and between miles upon miles of flat farmland in the valley. We called the professor who soon met up with us. We followed him as he showed us the way to the Mosuo home he was staying in. We sat and chatted in a spacious courtyard. From the courtyard, you could look up and see a magnificent view of the mountain. The ground was arranged with different plants and flowers, as well as shaded by a hundred year-old pear tree. Its long branches and thick leaves kept us cool from the sun. It was a very comfortable environment.

We ate rice cakes and munched on sunflower seeds while waiting for lunch. We planned to interview him after the meal. While chatting, I asked Dr. Shih for advice that would be useful for an aspiring anthropologist. He said:

“It’s important that I figure out what my career goals are first: professor, educator, government, UN?. Anthropology is a huge commitment, so one must get their goals and life in order before devoting their entire life to this line of work.” I agreed. Am I ready for such a commitment?

While eating lunch, he brought up how the Mosuo traditional culture is “disappearing,” and that it is a terrible phenomenon. I didn’t know how to feel about that. Like I mentioned before, culture is always in transition. To say it’s horrible that a traditional culture is assimilating into modern Han society is only one way of viewing change. I think this perspective is narrow and does not help the development of a community. In the end, it’s up to the community to decide whether cultural change is positive, negative, or both. It is not up to the anthropologist, but the anthropologist can assist if the community wants to promote cultural preservation or heritage methods.

Even though my research focuses on cultural preservation techniques, I’m not treating tourism as a bearer of bad news. I don’t feel comfortable saying something is necessarily good or bad in this society because I’m not technically a part of it…I’m an outsider with a biased, Western mindset. I need to base my thoughts on the locals reactions before throwing my perspective into any conclusions. Maybe Dr. Shih has these opinions from his informants?

After the interview, he and his local informant of over 20 years showed us around the village. They walked us to the Tibetan temple that sat at the top of the village along the mountain side. It was beautiful. I casually walked behind the group as the team filmed the professor and his informant.

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Following the Anthropologist to the Local Tibetan Buddhist Temple

After following Dr. Shih, we decided to head out because sunset was soon approaching. We planned on hiking back. We said our goodbyes and walked down the road to Zhudi. However, our friend began to feel ill, so we started looking for some form of transportation for him. We saw a vegetable seller in the distance with a large truck. I immediately ran over before he left to ask if we could hitch a ride. He said he wasn’t going to the Lugu lake area, but the locals became interested in me and my friends. When I told them our friend was sick, two local men were gracious enough to get their motorbikes and drive us back–three people per bike.

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Hiking Back to Lige Village–Equipment in Hand

I squished in the middle of the driver and one of the guys, while holding onto the camera. We drove off up the mountain range, bending left and right up the windy  road. We overlooked the valley at the top of the mountain and saw the entire valley shining with plastic and growing crops. We soon crossed the mountain range to find a dried up lake. The driver said it dried up only last year, a drought has plagued the Lugu Lake area for years now. After talking with the motorbike driver, for most of the trip, I silently looked out at the scenery that we passed while whizzing along the bumpy paths. Mount Gemu’s looming shadow shaded our ride for most of the trip. I felt at peace. We arrived at Lige village right when the sun set behind the mountains. We thanked the drivers and gave the two some money (even though they didn’t want it). It was a good day.

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Motorbiking Back to Lige Village

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One thought on “Documenting Mosuo Culture: Visiting Zeibo Village to Interview an Experienced Anthropologist

  1. Deb O'Connor

    Awesome!

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