Posts Tagged With: Mosuo

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.


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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

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


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.


Little Mosuo Girl Playing in the Marsh


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.


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.


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.


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.


Motorbiking Back to Lige Village

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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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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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Documenting Mosuo Culture: Day 4 in Remote Village–“The Meaning of Life”

We planned to leave after lunch. After eating breakfast, the team asked to interview the wife of the household. We sat in the living area, streams of light shone through holes from the ceiling in front of her. As we conversed, we learned more about her past: She grew up in Ninglang in a Han family and moved to LJZ after getting married to her now Mosuo husband. The husband entered the room soon after and joked about how she was the one that pursued him. She was trying to defend herself, but only ended the spat with laughter. She also described what life was like for her in the village over ten years ago. She said the village was much more underdeveloped. At first she couldn’t bare living there and often went back home. She didn’t even care about learning the local language until she bore her first son. Through that first child, she gradually became a part of the society because through him, she learned how to speak the language. Now you wouldn’t even guess she is Han when you see her chatting with her neighbors in the local dialect.

We moved outside and talked with the husband. His answers were so matter-of-fact. The one answer that really gave me a deep impression was asked by Daniel: “To you, what is the meaning of life?” He laughed, “I don’t know, what meaning does life have? I work in the fields everyday. I was born, had kids, and took care of the old. Life is like that. I don’t think of anything else…money isn’t important here. We help each other, unlike the cities or Lugu Lake. Here I live my life like this and don’t think about anything else outside of this way of living.” He didn’t say this sadly, rather with frank honesty.

The people of Lugu Lake have been introduced to the outside world beyond the Himalayas through tourism. The desires of the locals have expanded to things now being introduced to their society: fortune, travel, and higher education. The biggest reaction to tourism development being the thirst for profit. This desire for money is not present in LJZ. The husband is representative of this way of thinking.

We had lunch and wished the family goodbye. I would be back again to finish Daba ritual tablets for a local family in the summer, but the film team didn’t know when they’d be back. Being in the village was a profound experience for the lot of them. They decided to come back in the future. There’s something magical about the place.

IMG_1465Family Photo

I’m glad I went to LJZ with them because I saw the place in a completely different light. I got a deeper understanding of some villagers’ backstories and ways of thinking, learned more Mosuo language, and made a new set of friends. We bounced along wet roads back to Yongning where we’d reach our second home–Lugu Lake.


One Last Scene Before Hitting the Road

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