Posts Tagged With: Fieldwork

Doing Fieldwork in China: Chapter 6 — “‘An Open Lhasa Welcomes You’: Disciplining the Researcher in Tibet”

Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen. Chapter 6:  “‘An Open Lhasa Welcomes You’: Disciplining the Research in Tibet” by Emily T. Yeh

I like the first quote in this chapter:

‘An open Lhasa welcomes you.’

‘An open Tibet celebrates the 50th anniversay of the peaceful liberation of Tibet.’

‘An open Tibet welcomes you.’ –Street banners, Lhasa, summer 2001

My Thoughts:

For aspiring Tibetologists or China researchers planning on working in sensitive areas (Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, other places), this chapter is for you. Yeh is also an American Chinese. She discusses her perceived identity in the community and how her assistants manipulated her identity during interviews for different reasons.

Yeh first introduces “the politics of fear,” a scare tactic commonly utilized by the Chinese government in sensitive areas around the country to control its population, and even anthropologists. She became so engrossed into the local community, that she subconsciously got affected by the fear of always being listened to (on the phone or in public) and being watched (by undercover police, etc.) that her local friends also believed. “I found myself constantly under self-surveillance,” she writes. This “politics of fear” is a common trend that the anthropologist should be aware of before entering their desired fieldwork site. Locals may not be willing to talk to you in fear of being watched, especially if you are known to be American or at least “look” American (aka white).

Yeh also goes into detail about how her Chinese heritage was able to unintentionally “conceal” her in the crowd. Her friends and informants would bring this up and oftentimes try to assist her in getting fake IDs or allowing her to illegally stay in their homes because “no one would know,” they would say. Even her official affiliation would not mention she was American in paperwork and just use her Chinese and Tibetan name. When conducting interviews, her assistant would lie that she was actually a distant Tibetan relative, so to make the interviewee more comfortable and (blissfully) ignorant of their interviewer’s connection to the United States. Yeh did not find his ethically accurate to lie about her identity, especially when conducting research, but many of her assistants would argue it was for the best of her informants, who would get in trouble with the government if it was known they spoke with an American researcher.

There’s a lot of red tape when conducting fieldwork in sensitive areas. Yeh’s Chinese heritage was able to assist in bypassing some of this red tape, but for the non-Asian researcher, this would be a completely different story.

In Lugu Lake, I am different. I have blue eyes, light-brown hair, pale skin, and 5’8”. Wherever I go, people stare, whisper, and laugh. I am treated different because I am viewed as an outsider. At least, Lugu Lake isn’t considered a “politically sensitive” area. I also am fairly fluent in Chinese (and learning the Mosuo language), so that it’s easier for me to gain respect with the local people. Though I do face difficulties for being psychically different from the local population, I think the researcher that has the most difficulties in building rapport within a community is Chinese Americans who do not speak Mandarin fluently. Native Chinese somehow connect Asian Americans who do not speak fluent Mandarin with someone forgetting their history and heritage. They also sometimes rudely treat them as stupid.

It’s a phenomenon that I fortunately have never experienced, but I bet there are blog posts or other writings on how to deal with this challenge.

Yeh’s chapter focuses on the idea that sometimes the researcher has no control over how their identity will be read and interpreted. For her, she didn’t know if her interviewees would acknowledge her American citizenship with her assistant’s obscure introductions. And if they did realize she was American, who would they interpret that in responding to her questions? For me, my main issues is being taken seriously. I’m still fairly young and I am a woman, which may get in the way of being respected by high male officials. It is out of my control how a cadre or local will identity me, but it is in my control to gain their respect through daily interaction.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: | Leave a comment

Doing Fieldwork in China: Chapter 5 — “In the Footsteps of the Communist Party: Dilemmas and Strategies

Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen. Chapter 5:  “In the Footsteps of the Communist Party: Dilemmas and Strategies” by Mette Halskov Hansen

My Thoughts:

In China, researchers (and anthropologists) face a number of challenges that are not often encountered in other parts of the world. Obstacles such as, “political restrictions on research topics, limited access to data, closed areas, and control of researchers’ movements,” which force the China researcher to move outside of the box of Malinowski’s traditional method of “participant observation.”

In the Mainland, there’s “officially approved fieldwork” and then there’s the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach that’s sometimes a necessary option:

Officially approved fieldwork means that you acquired a letter of introduction or affiliation with a university, organization, or cadre that allows you to do fieldwork, especially in rural areas. This is necessary if you plan to interact with the area’s local government and plan to connect with locals who would require proof of such paperwork.

Then there’s the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, where the researcher ignores all ties with the local government and just dives into the local community. For me, I considered my preparation to fieldwork as not official research, but rather just getting my bearings of the place. When, in all honesty, I still treated it as informal fieldwork. I still took daily field notes, had informal interviews with locals, and traveled to remote areas to better understand Mosuo culture and tourism in the area. If I did bring unwanted attention, I would have explained that I was either, “getting to know the area (了解地方)” or “I’m a tourist (我是游客).” For the first half of my research, I used the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to build rapport with the community.

Why did I chose this approach in the beginning? It was because my university insisted that I found an assistant (陪同) before visiting Lugu Lake. I agreed that I would like an assistant, but the university office wanted me to find one immediately. At the time, I did not know anyone and did not want a stranger following me around. So, I decided to go without asking a couple of times to get to know the community and area. Now that people have gotten to know me by myself, I feel more comfortable having an assistant tag along. I worried that if I brought along an assistant before, then that would have made a larger difference gap between me and the locals. I feel like they would have treated me more formally, when I just wanted to be friends with them. I would have been seen as just another anthropologist. Now I am friends with many in the area who treat me more like a local, than a tourist.

Hansen mentions when he was in the field, he had to combine official and unofficial fieldwork into his research design. This is definitely prevalent among most China researchers (including myself!). Now I’m at the halfway point of my Fulbright research grant and am currently waiting on getting official approval from my university to do fieldwork in Lugu Lake. I also have an assistant, who was a friend I made while taking graduate courses at Yunnan Nationalities University.

Hansen’s notes on his experience with assistants:

Working with officially appointing local assistants in China I have experiences the great advantages of immediately access to a local ‘informant’ and contact, while at the same time having to struggle with the potentially serious implications of working with some body who could inform on the interviewees (and on me, although with much less serious consequences). 

Most important when finding an assistant (陪同) is patience. Take your times and find someone who you enjoy being around and fully supports your research.

In the end, China researchers always have to keep in mind that they must follow in the footsteps of the Communist Party (at least on the exterior) to gain official acceptance from the higher ups. This includes: writing proposals that gloss over sensitive issues and paint the party in a positive light, conducting formal interviews that are politically accurate to get uncontroversial information (and then conducting informal interviews in private to hear what they locals really have to say), and writing two different papers for China journals (uncontroversial article) and foreign journals (what we would consider isn’t controversial, but the Chinese government would.)

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: | Leave a comment

Doing Fieldwork in China: Chapter 4 – “Field Sites. Research Design, and Type of Findings”

Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen. Chapter 4: “Field Sites, Research Design and Type of Findings,” by Maria Heimer

My Thoughts:

Chapter 4 “focuses on the role of selection of field sites plays in the the fieldwork process, and its relation to the case study method and to research design.” Most researchers write proposals to receive grants or funding to go out into the field. Each proposal holds all different kinds of research method designs that the researcher believes will fit well into acquiring end results. There is no “right” research design, but there is a common trend of methods among social scientists. The author looks at three main research design methods that researchers in China most often utilize in the field:

  1. one-field-site approach = staying in one place for an extended period of time to conduct research on one topic (this is very useful for ethnographic research)
    • “When you study one case in depth with an established truth firmly in mind, however, the fieldworker needs to have a good idea what he or she is going to find at the outset, skipping the exploratory stage.”
  2. all-of-China-field-site approach = studying all across China for an extended period of time to conduct research on one topic (this focuses on breadth, instead of depth.)
    • This approach is “suitable for macro-analysis but it is less appropriate for conducting the micro-analysis that will help us to understand [cultural] mechanisms.”
  3. one-case multi-field-site approach = focusing on one topic but visiting multiple field sites (in close vicinity) to acquire more comparisons (this is very useful for ethnographic research as well)
    • “Authors can gain a deeper knowledge of one phenomenon by probing for similarities, while downplaying variations across place (or across regime types). Having said that, such comparisons can be helpful for identifying the essential characteristics of a phenomenon under study.”

The author does not try to hide her favoritism for the third kind of research design–“one-case-multi-field-site approach.” Fortunately for me, that’s the approach I am using for my research! In order to get a deeper understanding of my research topic, I’m conducting a comparative analysis on the development of tourism around the Lugu Lake area. That means, I investigate the touristy towns alongside the lake and adventure out to the remote villages that receive backpackers to add breadth to my observations, but also add depth as I find the similarities and differences between the two different kinds of locations.


Touristy Lugu Lake

During my last visit, I was fortunate enough to catch a double rainbow over the Lige Peninsula! I was only able to capture one though.


Remote Mosuo Village–Backpacker Central

When defending my Bachelor of Philosophy thesis at the University of Pittsburgh, one of the reviewers emphasized on the importance of conducting comparative research. The use of cultural comparisons is integral in growing the breadth and depth of knowledge that is shared among world of Anthropology [and beyond!]. He wanted me to compare my thesis (focusing on how the Mosuo are portrayed in the Chinese media) with other groups in South East Asia or Indonesia. At the time, I did not have the time or  expertise to successfully add that to my senior thesis, but he pas persuaded me to focus on the importance of comparisons for my current and future research.

I agree with Maria Heimer and my reviewer that when writing out your proposal, try to incorporate comparative analysis methods into your research deign. This comparative analysis can be like my current project (investigating different villages in the Lugu Lake area) or like my good PhD friend at the University of Pittsburgh (traveling to Taiwan, China, and Brazil to observe the process of commoditizing precious stones).

Of course, whenever you write your proposal, always go over it with your advisor. This blog is just from the perspective of an amateur anthropologist. If you have any questions though, always feel free to leave a comment or send me a message.

A last bit a advice, after formal or informal interviews, always be sure to cross-check your results. Don’t just trust the one person you talked to, even if it fits well into your proposed topic, you need to make sure other people in your field site share the same opinions.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: | Leave a comment

Doing Fieldwork in China: Chapter 3 “Fieldwork as Coping and Learning”

Chapter 3: “Fieldwork as Coping and Learning” by Elin Saether

This chapter is about the process a young researcher goes through when being introduced into the world of fieldwork. He mentions “most students who decide to work on a topic related to China will try to locate China scholars locally, nationally, and maybe also internationally. The first approach is often an email where the student presents the project and asks for advice. This can be seen as the first meeting with the insider/outsider dichotomy.” I admit I did this exact thing when I moved to Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. I was planning on doing my first fieldwork trip, but I was nervous because I did not know anyone at Lugu Lake. I emailed top Mosuo experts and got a couple replies back. Most giving similar advice:

  • Recommended a town to start off at—Lige or Luoshui Village
  • Not interested in sharing informants, but supportive that you will find your own (broadening knowledge about the place)
  • “Good luck!”

To be honest, I hit the ground running, but at least I had a destination in mind, Lige Village. When I visited the town, I tried to keep myself very available and friendly, talking with as many people as I could. This came to an advantage because I coincidentally befriended the informant of an anthropologist. Because she liked me, the anthropologist trusted me to join them to do fieldwork in a remote village.

Upon entering the field, the “insider/outsider” dichotomy suddenly shifted from me vs. Mosuo experts, to me vs. locals. I was not one bit a part of their society. With my pale skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Though I was so physically different from them, I took advantage of my language abilities to connect with them on personal levels and immediately started studying the Mosuo language. Even though I was aware I would always be an outsider in Lugu Lake, I wanted to at least lessen the gap and build a positive reputation. This feeling of being different is hard to cope with at first, but the moment the locals start treating you like a friend or someone that lives in the community; somehow you forget all that hard work. It was worth it:

I remember the documentary team and I were filming boat rowers on one of the beaches of Lugu Lake when a gaggle of Shanghai tourists fluttered by with their flashing Canon cameras. They pointed their lens in different angles to capture the local women. A Mosuo woman spoke up: “Leave! We don’t like it when you do this.” One of the Shanghai women gave a fake smile, “Oh, then why can they [us] film you and we can’t?” Without any hesitation, she responded, “because they are Mosuo and they are using a Mosuo camera!”

I felt proud that we had earned the trust of some of the villagers, to the point that they treated us like “insiders” and not “outsiders.” This was accomplished by interacting with these woman many times a week, playing with their children, and simply just being visible in the community. When you befriend someone, be sure to keep up with it. Say “hello,” “have you eaten yet?” and join them to eat or to drink at a bar. It’s all a part of the process. Who knows, maybe that one person you befriended will become your most trusted informant and best friend?

How do you start fieldwork? For everyone it is different. My tactic was to build rapport with the local community and learn the language before diving into the theoretical aspect of my research. I can say I was really fortunate in befriending the French anthropologist who introduced me to fieldwork in the Lugu Lake area and then joining a documentary team sponsored by National Geographic. Because of these two coincidences, they helped me build a foundation for my place in their society, as well for my research design. From these experiences, I have built strong relationships with the people of Lige village, which is integral in the next phase of my research that I will be conducting in July 2013.

The author makes a good point to say, “during fieldwork, the learning process is often hidden, which means it is difficult to identify progress.” I agree with this statement. Fieldwork is an accumulation of different methods: observations, interviews, “tacit learning,” and learning through failures. With these methods, it’s normally difficult to recognize what you have gained in knowledge or progress each day. I mean, you do not get any physical evidence of your achievement, like a recorded tape with the day’s interviews. Instead, you have sights, smells, interactions, feelings all jumbled up in your memory. This is why writing at least every night about observations and conversations is important because even if you did not notice anything interesting in these encounters, at least in the future you can analyze your notes to find deeper meaning. Also be perceptive of newspapers, the news, what you hear people saying on the streets, restaurants, and bars. All of these minor interactions also can contribute to your research. Even though your research may have a very focused topic, but recognizing big news and social issues in the major society can help give you a much broader understanding of how its affecting the community you’re studying (i.e. modernity, globalization, politics, etc.)

Fieldwork, especially in the beginning, is a coping and learning process, but each step you make, it begins to make sense and you get better at it. A good first step is to look for guidance among your peers, advisors, and experts in the field. This will take away the mental block that’s tearing away at your confidence. This will take you away from the “dipping your toes in first” technique to just “diving” right into the new waters that is Anthropology.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: | Leave a comment

“Doing Fieldwork in China”–Chapter 1: My Thoughts on the Introduction

I’m currently reading “Doing Fieldwork in China,” edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen. Even though I’ve already thrown myself into the field, I still have a lot of reading, learning, and experiencing to do before calling myself an expert. I decided to read this book to get a broader understanding of how expert researchers manage to conduct fieldwork on the Mainland. For each chapter, I’m going to write my own response and relate it to my own experiences.

This book was written by experienced China researchers, this blog will be from the perspective of an amateur anthropologist:


Doing Fieldwork in China–“Introduction” by Stig Thogerson and Maria Heimer

My Thoughts:

The introduction gave a brief summary of the history of foreigners conducting fieldwork in China. Before the CCP was established, there was a vivacious social science community conducting fieldwork on “finding ways to convert the Chinese population [to Christianity],” “living conditions in Beijing,” “comprehensive field study in Hebei,” and “measuring the bodies and skulls of east Asian ethnic groups.” The topics seem outdated when we compare it to contemporary studies. However, “racial stereotypes and generalizations,” as well as Eurocentric research goals were common practice during this era.

When the CCP was established, fieldwork became nearly non-existent on the mainland, except among the refugee communities in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and United States. Only until after the Mao period did fieldwork reenter Chinese society–however, this time it came with ambiguous restrictions that are still present today. This is where the modern China researcher comes in.

The introduction brings up two important themes that are highlighted in the book:

1) The Presence of the Party-State
The presence of the party is self-imposing while conducting fieldwork in the countryside, especially when it touches on a sensitive topic, like ethnic tourism, ecological justice, water resources, or ethnic tensions, etc. For me, I tried to stay under the radar of the local government at first to build close relationships with the local community and rich outside investors around Lugu Lake. I wanted to develop “guanxi” in the area, which I hoped to later utilize when contacting the local government. For me, this strategy was successful because I was able to meet the local tourism bureau members at a fancy dinner, hosted by the town’s richest man and now my close friend. The members were enthusiastic to hear about my research after my friend introduced me in a positive light.

2) Collaboration
This theme highlights building a close relationship with a local who will assist you with translation and/or research. My university required me to find an assistant immediately before I could conduct fieldwork in Lugu Lake. I treated this as an obstacle. I want to first form a close and trusting relationship with someone before sharing my research. This requirement could mean I would need to trust a stranger to join me, as well as need to pay this assistant everywhere I go. This problem occurred right before the Spring Festival break. I once again slid under the radar and just started going to the field by myself to familiarize myself with the area. I’m still keeping my eyes out for someone I trust to collaborate with. I already have a few locals who are willing to teach me the language and help me translate.
An experienced China researcher I met mentioned that my university required that I find an “assistant” because they wanted to keep a close eye on me and my research–basically, to make sure it fits in line with the party’s interests. I’m not sure what’s true, but I thought it was an interesting comment.

I’m looking forward to reading the next chapters! To those experienced, not experienced, or currently learning, like me, I’d really appreciate reading your own perspectives and experiences doing fieldwork around the world. Let’s share the obstacles we’ve encountered and triumphs we have conquered while doing research.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: | Leave a comment

My Thoughts on Interactions with Foreign Journalists in the Field

During the month with the documentary team, I encountered three separate foreign journalists coming to the lake to write an article about the Mosuo. The first was a Swedish woman (and a male friend) writing for a Swedish Women’s Magazine. She saw a documentary about the Mosuo and wrote a pitch that got accepted by the editor. When she organized the trip, she then contacted me and the documentary beforehand to see if we could meet up and introduce her to the local community. I was enthusiastic to help. I was excited to hear someone was interested in writing about the Mosuo people and their culture. During our last week filming, she met us at the hostel we were staying at. She asked if we wanted to join her to the local hot springs to interview a woman that’s working towards preserving Mosuo traditional culture by running an art workshop. She did not speak Chinese, so we would be her translators. Though we were busy in our final week of filming, we put this trip into consideration.

She also asked if one of us could help her conduct an interview with a Mosuo woman. My friend, Zhouyang, had come back from Lijiang the other day to look into running his own guesthouse and had been visiting a Mosuo household outside of Lige. I planned to join him again that night to get to know the family more. I invited the Swedish journalist. The three of us visited the home in the late afternoon to interview the oldest sister. She invited us in and sat us in front of the house temple. She brought with her a woven basket filled with carmel popcorn balls and rice crackers and sat down with the two of us. Zhouyang had gone exploring to check out the property.

The Swedish woman began with broad questions that I translated: “Can you explain Mosuo culture to me?” “How are woman powerful in this society?” and then became more specific: “Are you the matriarch of this household?” “Were you children born through a ‘walking marriage?'” “Do you want your sons to have ‘walking marriages?'” The Mosuo woman responded honestly, but did not give long, in-depth answers. Some questions she didn’t know how to respond. This is a problem that has popped up for me and the documentary team as well. The local men normally have more interesting opinions compared to the women. I don’t really know why. I was enjoying the conversation, but I noticed the journalist seemed disappointed. I realized it was because she was not content with the woman’s answers.

I thought about it and soon figured out why…the woman was not saying the “right” answers:

  1. The Mosuo woman was not the matriarch of the household, rather it was her brother. She said she didn’t want to be because of all the responsibilities.
  2. She didn’t mind if her sons married, it would bring a young woman into the household, which the family lacked.
  3. She didn’t know how to describe her culture
  4. Tourism is good. It had brought only good to the town.

After these answers, the journalist was obviously not happy. Although, there were two points when she gave out an excited, high-pitched “Ooooh?” That was when the Mosuo woman answered with:

  1. They were born out of walking marriages.
  2. Women have the final say in decisions

At the end of the interview, I felt like I learned a lot about this household and gained one more opinion about tourism from a local. However, she was not happy with the interview. I was a bit irritated by her reaction because she was seeking answers, instead of keeping an open mind. She had watched a documentary before coming to Lugu Lake that described the area as the “Kingdom of Women.” Her expectations were stubbornly set and she seemed to not accept my explanations of how the society has changed. With this way of thinking, she would not be depicting modern Mosuo life, rather just adding to the hundreds of other articles that talk about the same things: “walking marriage,” matriarchal families and primitivity. She would be using another orientalistic perspective to create a difference gap between the reader and Mosuo culture. When I realized I was contributing to an article that would give a false depiction of their contemporary society, I immediately regretted helping her. I do not want to help her write an article that I would not be proud of. We left the house and walked back to Lige village. I decided I would not help her any further.

It doesn’t end there…

The next day, a German journalist and his team approached me and the documentary team while we were eating lunch. They asked if any of us spoke Chinese and could be a translator. The guys said that I was their perfect (wo)man, but I first asked more about their project. Turned out the team was sponsored by German Playboy to write an article about Mosuo culture. Of course, the moment I heard Playboy, I became very suspicious, but to be honest, also a bit amused. I talked it over with the guys, and they said that Playboy does write well-thought out articles. I first jokingly asked how they knew, but then thought over about what they said. I decided I would give the Playboy journalists a chance.

We met the next night where I asked what his pitch was to Playboy. He said, “So, I’ve read that Lugu Lake is the ‘Kingdom of Women,’ but I’m here to see if Lugu Lake is also a ‘Paradise for Men.” My stomach suddenly dropped. I responded with a hesitant laugh. “Oh, yeah?” The documentary team and I both agreed that it definitely is not. Though there is “walking marriage,” this does not mean this place is the land of one-night stands and one can have multiple partners. At that moment, I did not regret helping them because I thought I could show them it’s not true. They seemed like smart guys and would use this truth as a way to make an interesting, in-depth article. Not sure if it played out that like though…

We sat with my friends, local youth. Their first question that I translated was: “Do you have ‘walking marriages’ now?” In this culture, talking about “walking marriage” with both sexes present is taboo, but my friends were open-minded and responded to such questions indirectly. Then they asked: “Do you have multiple partners?” Two of my friends became heated by this question because they get it all the time. The media portrays Lugu Lake as a place where one can get laid. This Playboy team also got disillusioned by these false portrayals of Mosuo culture, which they told me they read on the internet (of course). The entire table said they had never simultaneously had multiple partners and that one has to breakup first before pursuing another lover. The German journalist’s facial expression showed he was not content with these answers.

He responded that a driver that drove them around the area that day said he had over 30 partners in his lifetime. The man was in his thirties, they said. I translated this to the locals, who then scoffed: “And they believed him? All those drivers are liars just to excite tourists.” The journalist had a hard time believing who was telling the truth, but I could tell he wanted the driver to be right…that would work well into his article. My local friends wanted me “to talk sense” to these guys, which I tried by translating exactly what they were all saying. I hope this conversation with locals made them think over their pitch and how it could be changed to depict Mosuo culture in a more accurate light. There are already enough articles out there that sexualize their culture–why add another one into the plethora? This also leads to an ethical question: Should they accurately describe Mosuo culture, or should they write an article that would sexually excite their intended audience? I fear they will choose the latter.

Through these two negative experiences, I unfortunately am more suspicious of journalists. I understand they already made a pitch and need to follow it to get paid, but to what costs? They get money, but how about the local community that gets inaccurately depicted? These journalists were only at the lake for 3 days to a week. How can one even write an in-depth article in such little time? I’m going to avoid working with journalists from now on unless they intend to stay in the lake for an extended period of time or have actually researched Mosuo culture well beforehand.

[I never did read their finished articles. This is just my experience while helping these journalists and my thoughts afterwards. Maybe they did make interesting articles, but at the time their potential was not apparent. Please feel free to comment! I would love to hear other opinions, especially from journalists out in the field.]

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Documenting Mosuo Culture: A Modern Mosuo Love Story

A Modern Mosuo Love Story

On the last full day of filming, we interviewed with a couple we have become very close with this month. They are ethnically Mosuo from villages outside of Lige who got married just last November. They bashfully sat down for the interview. The wife was shy and awkward in front of the camera. She kept a little distance from her husband and kept looking away to the side. The husband who is more extroverted put his arm around her shoulders and jokingly said, “Hey, we’re married aren’t we?” He pulled her closer to him. We laughed as he lovingly bullied his wife. When we thought the two were comfortable enough, we began the interview. We started with their love story:

The wife, Namu, came from LJZ, the village we had visited weeks previous. It’s far away and very remote. For the village, it is common for young women to come to Lugu Lake in their teenage years to do parttime work. Namu came to Lige village in her teens (around 16 or 17?) and worked in a BBQ shop next to CR, her now husband. She would help clean his shop everyday. Through these daily interactions, they gradually fell in love. During that year, Namu moved to Lijiang for a better paying job. Ci’er bought her a cellphone so to often check on her. However, it turned out that Namu got sick that entire month, as well as broke her phone.

Namu all of a sudden stopped telling the story and looked away. A tear trickled down her cheek. CR continued the story:

While suddenly being out of contact, Ci’er became worried. Without any way of telling her, he took the long ride down to Lijiang to find Namu sad and homesick. She was so happy to see him. He drove her back to Lugu Lake. From then on, they have been together in Lugu Lake.

Namu cried because she was so touched by CR’s concern and love for her. They decided to get married. This wasn’t because they didn’t want to have a “walking marriage” relationship, but because they wanted to stay together. Their villages are so distant from each other that it would be impossible to visit at night. Marriage was the best option.

Namu’s family was very traditional and at first did not want her to get married. This would mean she would not come back and lead the household as the matriarch. When CR visited, he was not warmly welcomed. However, he worked hard to build a good relationship with her family. Even though it would be difficult, he wanted nothing else but to marry Namu.

Namu was so touched by the story again that she began tearing up. CR’s eyes were also brimming with tears. Namu got up and walked outside to compose herself. Her husband continued the story:

“After many visits, they finally agreed and let us marry. They even like me now. We got married last year in my village. Now we have a baby on the way!”

Namu soon came back and sat down. CR looked at her round stomach and smiled. We asked if they have anything they want to say to the baby:

“What would we say?” Namu replied.

“What do you want to tell the baby before s/he enters this world?”

Namu looked down at her stomach, rubbing it gently. She didn’t know what to say in Mandarin, but whispered something gently in the Mosuo language. CR also spoke Mosuo towards her stomach. After looking at her stomach, they smiled at each other and then us.


Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Documenting Mosuo Culture: Story of a Mosuo Orphan

A-Pu was born in a village outside of Lugu Lake in 1990. His mother soon left him with his grandmother and never returned during A-Pu’s childhood. He grew up embarrassed for being motherless, which led to him being very introverted. When he turned thirteen, the year one goes through their “coming of age” ceremony, his mother appeared for the first time to witness it. For being nonexistent during his entire life, he barely talked to her during the week she visited. She left soon after. When he was fourteen, a male tourist stayed in his home during his travels. The two became very close, becoming A-Pu’s first parental figure. He asked A-Pu if he’d like to join him back to his hometown, Hangzhou, and work at his bar. He agreed. He packed up his things and left Lugu Lake for the first time. He spent most of his teenage years in Fujian province working as a bartender and ethnic performer, as well as experiencing modern society outside of Lugu Lake. He then moved to Kunming and performed for a couple years before moving back to Lugu Lake to develop his home into a guest house. He grew through these experiences. He got past his unfortunate past and has become a very out-going, friendly person.

I got to know A-Pu while he auditioned to be a performer in the Lige village theatrical show. His house is currently under construction to be a guest house. He shared with me his dream is to make an international guest house that will attract people from all over the world. Even though he doesn’t know how to read or write, he wants to learn English so that he can be the boss. We will be language partners in the summer, so I can help him live his dream, and he can teach me the Mosuo language.

One night, we visited a bar and invited A-Pu. The bar owner is Han but loves to sing Mosuo songs. He started singing a sad-sounding ballad in the Mosuo language, which I did not understand. A-Pu’s expression suddenly turned sullen, but started singing along with the singer. When they finished, he turned to me and said that the song is about a young boy missing his mother. He sang to a mother that he wished he had, not to one that left him.


A-Pu Waving to Us After the Performance

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at