In 1999, I was single again. I'd gone through an expensive divorce. I had just published both Daughter of China and They Said That. I was looking for a new project. At that time, just as I was prepared to return to work on a long book on The Boat People Priest, I was approached by Erche Namu Yang, who was living in San Francisco, and asked to co-write her autobiography. I found the idea promising and a bit intriguing. She was a member of the Mosuo ethnic group from Yunnan Province, near Lugu Lake. She managed to make her background sound very exotic. I ran the idea past my agent, Sandra Dijkstra and she liked it and asked for samples. The problem was at that time with Namu's halting English. She talked loud and she talked fast but she often did not make herself credible or comprehensible to me. So we decided together to get a third person involved, a translator. At first it was my former student Xiao Ling from Anhui province. She was living in the area and was completing her PhD from Brown University. She had taken up residence in Berkeley and Namu was living in San Francisco at the time. So Xiao Ling came with me to a couple of meetings with Namu. It became clear right away that the two did not hit it off. Ling didn't really trust Namu and found her stories, even in Mandarin, not to be credible. At this point Namu had a "lawyer friend" draw up a series of contract regarding the book to be. She went through various wild fluctuations as to how "the profit" was to be divided. This was prior to any product existing. So finally I managed to get her to make out a contract for a 50/50 split of all profits form whatever work we came up with. At about this time I met Emily Wu, who wanted me to write her life story, a story that eventually became the book Feather in the Storm. I told Emily that despite the promise of a book about her girlhood I was committed to working with Namu on her story. I said I still needed a good Mandarin translator. So Emily signed on with me. We went to San Francisco and met Namu again and had a tape recorded session. On the way home to San Jose Emily asked me how well I knew Namu. I told her not that well, but well enough to work on this project. Emily said that several times during the interview and recounting of Namu's childhood, Namu said to her in Mandarin, that the two of them, Emily and Namu, could write the story and cut me out. Emily asked me if I had any idea of this: she said Namu was planning to cut me out of the story during some stage of the writing. I laughed and told Emily that this was quite impossible since Namu was incapable of writing the story herself and I was confident that only I could do it, given the amount of time I had put into transcription and composition and, with translators helping, translation. Still, Emily told me, I should not trust Namu. She was planning to steal this book, she said. It was a warning I should have heeded.
Namu at this stage, to hurry along the work, came do my house in San Jose, and she stayed here in a separate bedroom for about 10 days. Emily came here daily to work on interviews and translations. Namu brought along her newest boy friend, whom, she said, was a Norwegian Diplomat in Beijing. She said he looked just like Brad Pitt. You can see the photos of him on my photographs on face book. Brad Pitt? I am afraid not. I should have been suspicious at that time that she did not have a good grip on reality, but again, stupidly, I let this pass. In our working Emily again told me that almost daily she and Namu chatted about Namu's plans to dump me and steal the manuscript. Emily said she was trying to get Namu to stop thinking like that.
After a couple of days the Norwegian diplomat returned to SF and then to Beijing and Namu stayed on here at my house working. We did somewhere around thirty hours of taping. She also gave me a packet of her childhood photographs and photos of her living and singing with the Yi people chorus of Yunnan province.
At this stage, with Namu staying at my house and Emily working her own job, but coming over at the end of every day to work with me on this book new problems developed. Some of these problems had to do with truth. Namu had only the most remote grip on the concept of truth. I kept trying to tie down some facts to write the story. How many brothers and how many sisters had she had? The number changed day by day. She was always asking, How many do you think I should have? My response was that surely there must be some number she could count that was reliable. There was none. What year was she born? This changed daily, changed sometimes by as much as a decade. She became much younger as the days passed. This meant that she had entered college, sometimes, at the age of 5 or 6. This did not make sense. Ok, she changed the college dates then the birthdate again. How many uncles or aunties did she have? How many should I have, was her response. For a long time I thought this was a problem merely of translation. But my translator from Mandarin to English assured me that the problem was not in the translations but rather in the veracity of the teller. The story was being made up and then unmade up as it went along.
Despite these enormous and even comical difficulties. I did put together a 32 page story and proposal for my agent and for my colleagues at SJSU. I also submitted it to Smithsonian magazine, with whom I had published before. Smithsonian wanted more evidence that the story was true, a cross reference. It was pretty wild and about a little known culture.
But the manuscript had seen the light. A scholastic seminar at SJSU of about 65 people loved the story. And so did my agent. I did not need to feel, I felt, that it could be stolen now.
But with the Norwegian diplomat gone, and long periods of the day to work or think, Namu proved she had another life, also. Many lives. I began receiving some telephone calls for her at my house. I have caller ID. The calls were curious in that the caller ID showed that they were coming from a very well known and high profile Silicon Valley CEO. I thought it impossible that someone else could have the caller ID that this individual had.
The next day and then the next and then the next, for five days, following the call, a stretch black limo showed up at my house, drove into the driveway and picked up Namu about 11:30 each day. The driver, in a black uniform, was to drive her to her appointment with "Mr. X."
I was of course skeptical that such a wealthy and high profile person was spending his private lunch hours at his home up the peninsula with Namu. One afternoon she was returned home, and the driver walked her to the front door.
The driver, a young guy, was so nice, I decided perhaps I should tip him something. I took out a $10 and handed it to him but he didn't take it. Then he said the magic words. "Thank you but Mr. X has taken care of everything." I put the money back in my wallet. Namu never commented on this except to say the man was who I thought it was and it was a source of income for her. She had no other source of income in the area at that time.
Of course the sources of Namu's income seemed never to be in doubt to the Chinese who knew her here. She had performed regularly in a Karaoke bar in SF that catered to Chinese and to Chinese and Japanese tourists. She was living in a condo off Battery Street down near the Embarcadero in SF, with a grand piano in it. It obviously did not belong to her but was furnished by another "friend" for her use.
As we neared the end of telling Namu's story, which we gave two working titles, Leaving Lugu Lake and Leaving Shangri-La, Namu felt there was some misunderstanding still because of the language difficulties. We were using only Mandarin and English. She said there were things she needed to say that she could only say in the Mosuo language. She wanted to use another person, another translator, who had lived in the region and who understood the people and the language.
All along EMily kept reminding me, cautioning me, that Namu was going to steal this manuscript because she wanted all the money. I kept dismissing this, telling her it was all on the hard drive of my computer, and I had the cassette tapes myself. Theft was too difficult, I felt, But Namu kept talking to Emily about it, a two way split between them of the money from the sale of the book. But Namu could not write herself and had no agent, and some people had already seen the manuscript so I thought it unlikely, or more than unlikely.
I remained confident the book could be completed and would also be a best seller. But it was taking more time, much more time, that I at first imagined. I had brought int two translators to work with me, Xiao Ling and Emily Wu, and still the work dragged on and the actual story was elusive. The problem, the three of us agreed, was not with the story itself but with Namu's concept of honesty and truth. Or rather I should say her absence of it. Everything and anything could either be true or false, even dates and even dates of birth. It was really frustrating. In her narrative people who should have been in their 40s were suddenly 15 or not yet born and people just born were suddenly courting her and so on. She seemed completely and unwilling to work from any basis at all of truthfulness. Indeed, I should say the very word itself was alien to her.
But I had signed an agreement with her to finish the book and to divide the royalities and advance and I had agreed also to pay the translators. At this stage Namu grew frustrated with the lack of a payday. So one day she had a bright idea. Bring in an anthropologist translator who happened to be living in San Francisco at the time with her husband in the Castro. This was Christine Mathieu. Christine had lived with the Mosuo near Lijiang and she had learned to speak the language, Namu said. So Emily Wu and Xiao Ling and I all went to San Francisco to meet Christine and see if the language problem could be resolved. Christine spoke English, French, Mandarin and Mosuo and maybe more languages. I remember the first time we went to her home, all of us had a nice time and we took some photographs which I have posted online. We went to a restaurant and had breakfast.
The proposal was made, perhaps by me at that time, that Christine work on interviewing Namu in Mosuo and making transcripts in either Mandarin or English which we could then use to check facts and write the narrative. Namu was surprised and somewhat delighted by the process and so was Christine. Christine, however, used an Apple Mac at that time and there was going to be some problem, we felt, with e mailing the manuscript back and forth between SF and SJ. But I had been keeping, as a back up, hard copy prints of everything that we had taped and edited. I did not volunteer this information and it became important over time.
During our first interview session that day, Christine kept a good sense of humor. Later she told both Emily and me that Namu was frustrated with the process of writing, nothing new. But already she had proposed to Christine that Emily and I and Ling be "cut out" of the process and that Namu take the manuscript and that she and Christine work on it. Christine said this was nothing new and that truth and trustworthiness were notably absent among the Mosuo people of Yunnan. We had several translation and transcription sessions at Christine's house. And before long, Christine told me that she was finding Namu intractable and that, given the fact we had all of the transcripts betwen the two of us, it was now possible that we could cut Namu out of the writing process and change the story from first person to third person and be done with the problems presented by the main subject. I told Emily about this, she thought it not fair, but that we should proceed with the book. Yet never forget this was turning into a snakepit.
Next what happened is perhaps coincidence. I had been keeping back up hard copies of all the materials on hard copies and on floppy disks. Suddenly something very very strange began to occur. All of the emails of the manuscript revisions I was exchanging with Christine began arriving with serious viruses embedded in them. I actually lost three back up floppies. I took them to SJSU to try to recover the information but it was not possible. I told Christine that she was sending me attachments that had viruses that were destroying some of the material. She said she wasn't and that it was just my imagination and that she had checked her computer and there were no viruses. Thank God I was making backup copies with the handwritten revisions on them.
I still had all of Namu's pictures, photographs, from her days as a girl with the Mosuo and the Yi growing up in Yunnan. And I had a contract. And I had given a lengthy seminar paper to at a crowd of historians at a seminar at SJSU. And I had submitted 110 pages of the MS to my agent in southern California. I thought that losing this project was improbable and unthinkable even though strange things were happening.
I went to Thailand for 10 days in the summer of 2000 to work on a final copy of the MS. When I returned Namu had left the US, she said. I sent her e mails saying I was getting the final copy ready. She wrote back that she was no longer interested in the project and that it was taking far too long. She told me she would contact me when she returned to the US in order to finish the project.
So I had the rough drafts, the photographs, the signed contract, the e mails that went back and forth. I did not worry. If she wanted to wait a few months this was not a pressing problem. I did not know until later that she had returned to the US after only a few weeks, had been in contact with a Chinese writer in Alameda and had asked that writer not to tell me that she was back in the US. Of course this would have sent up several red flags. But that writer went along with Namu. No more comment on that.
I did not hear back from Namu for the next 24 months. I did not worry, still, since I thought that stealing the manuscript, although often talked about, was just unthinkable. I began working with Emily Wu on her autobiography which became Feather in the Storm. But suddenly near the end of 2002 Emily and I and Xiao Ling read an advertisement for a new book coming out by Erche Namu Yang and Christine Mathieu entitled "Leaving Mother Lake." Our working title of course was "Leaving Lugu Lake" or "Leaving Shangri-la." There was nothing for us to do at the time but wait. I notified my agent of what I thought was happening.
The book became available at the end of 2002. I got a copy and read page 1 and 2 and there were my words. Exactly. Unchanged. I called my agent in Los Angeles. She called a copyright attorney. We had a meeting. I faxed down the first chapter of the book and the first chapter of the MS I had written. They were almost word for word the same.
The attorney thought about it and asked what I wanted. Clearly my work had been stolen. But what could be done? He asked if I wanted my name on the title page? I said no, I wanted nothing to do with it. He asked if I wanted payment of royalties. I said yes I did. He said that it did not look like their would be substantial royalties. He said that the defendant in the case could leave any country and go to any other and so the case involved an international aspect and might be very expensive to litigate. Also there was not that much money involved. He said if I wanted to make a point for writers I could pursue it. But it would be a net loss for me as to income and as to time. My agent gave me wise advice. She said my MS had been stolen and that I should merely get over it. I had been deceived. Don't be deceived again. She told me to forget "Leaving Lugu Lake" and to get on with the "Feather in the Storm" story. Put Namu and her moral vacuum behind me.
I thought about it for a time and then decided to do just that. I had been robbed fair and square, I guess I could say. Still I have the MS and the missing photographs. The original book appeared without photographs because I have the hard copies of them. Namu in college, Namu with the Yi Chorus in Lijiang, Namu with her mother. So some day soon I will scan them and put them up on this site.
Also I had learned about friendship. Xiao Ling and Emily remain dear friends and co workers and they are witnesses to the truth of all of the above. It seems strange because it is strange. But the lesson learned was never to be so trusting again.
Transcribed Tape One prior to writing the book. Discussion with Erche Namu Yang on why she wanted to tell her story.
Before I came to America, all of my impressions of this country were from movies and television. I found out very soon that the America in the movies is not the real America. Not at all. A friend picked me up at the San Francisco airport and drove me into the city. I stayed with her in an apartment near Golden Gate Park. Having lived in both Shanghai and Beijing, I found America to be so quiet. There were no large crowds on the street during the day. Even in Union Square, the numbers of people were small compared with what I had experienced in China.
But the thing that struck me most about America was the way that people are all strangers to each other. Even people who live in the same building or on the same block don't know each other, don't speak to each other. Everyone here seems to be a stranger to everyone else. Nobody knows his neighbor. You walk down the street or walk through the park and people don't look into each other's eyes, don't say hello, don't smile. Everyone looks at the ground or at the sky or at the buildings. And yet they live side by side. The Mosuo are such a friendly people and we always greet our neighbors and even strangers. I found that the isolation of Americans from each other not only disturbed me. It frightened me. It took me many months to get accustomed to this coldness of Americans toward each other.
When I wanted to go for walks at night and see the city, I was told that part of the city was dangerous! This, too, surprised me. I was unprepared for it. My friends said that at night they went to clubs and bars to meet other friends and to dance and drink. Among the Mosuo we met and danced outside. So this, too, was new to me. I don't drink alcohol. I never have. I learned to make wine for young men, but never tasted it myself. Few Mosuo women like the taste of alcohol. So I went to some bars and clubs with my friends. But my English at that time was almost nonexistent. I knew how to order tea in English. I remember the first time I ordered tea in a club, the bartender said to me, almost in a shout, "If you want to drink tea, why do you come here?" I had no answer. But my impression of Americans as unfriendly was reinforced by his question.
Because of my poor English I had a lot of trouble shopping. One morning I walked to a market to buy some cooking oil. It was my first time in an American supermarket. I was confused totally by the labels because most of them didn't seem to tell me what was inside. I found the section of the store that sold dish washing liquid. I bought a large plastic bottle of it, paid for it and brought it home and then tried to boil it for cooking. It did, after all, look like cooking oil. I could tell by the way it bubbled in the wok that it was not oil. I solved my problem by carrying a large dictionary with me to the supermarket from that day on.
After I moved to San Jose, I liked to go to Valley Fair shopping mall on the weekends. I didn't have any money to buy things, but as on my first trip away from home, I liked to just sit and watch the people spend their money. It was strange and entertaining and educational. People did not greet each other. There were thousands and thousands of strangers walking back and forth in the mall without anyone greeting anyone else or even smiling. I sat on a bench for hours without anyone ever smiling at me. I watched people buying things and I was struck by the fact that everyone was well dressed and seemed to have everything they could possibly need and yet they bought and bought. When stores had sales they were always filled with shoppers spending lots of money. It was almost like a religion. People bought anything and everything. They carried large packages to their cars and drove away. In the next weeks I would sometimes see the same people doing the same thing again. I just couldn't figure it out. At night I thought about this and all I could conclude was that America is a very strange and complicated place for a Mosuo girl.
Of course I wanted to meet some men my own age here. I wanted to date but had no idea how to meet someone. Eventually I met a young man in a park near the home where I worked as a babysitter. He was jogging and stopped to talk to me. Our conversation was carried on awkwardly since I was still learning English and could only speak in simple sentences. He told me he was a lawyer, he was single and he wanted to know if I would have dinner with him -- that night! I told him I did and gave him my address.
That evening I dressed in my most beautiful dress. He came to get me and was wearing jeans and a tee shirt. As you can imagine, I felt a bit strange and out of place for the rest of the evening.
Once I left the Mosuo people I had been warned about young men taking advantage of the openness of my people with regard to the ritual of courtship and sex. For that reason I had remained celibate while living among the Chinese. And before I came to America I was warned again and again about both the looseness and the casualness of Americans in sexual practices and about the diseases transmitted here. Among the Mosuo we had no sexually transmitted diseases. So, for me, even a kiss might be dangerous and I was determined to have no physical contact with an American. I did expect, however, to have fun on a date.
Well, we had dinner -- a beautiful dinner. We went for a drive around the valley and then he brought me home. He walked me to the door and then, as we said goodbye, leaned forward to kiss me. As he did I turned, opened the door, said goodbye and went inside.
I watched out the window as he returned to his car and simply sat in it for several minutes. Then, after about five minutes he came to the door again and knocked softly. When I answered he smile and said, "Namu, would you mind paying for half the dinner?" That was my introduction to dating in America. I must confess, however, that things over the years did improve. They had to.
I wanted romance at that time. I needed it. I missed it badly. But I found during that first date and several times later that there is very little that is romantic in American dating. I had been spoiled by the Mosuo boys. They would sing and dance and recite poetry. They would play the guitar or the violin and pour out their heart. And, in the end, if your own heart was moved, you shared a wonderful romantic evening with them.
But here, I found that too often young men want to buy you dinner and then have sex. It was like a commercial exchange -- almost like shopping. This is not romantic, this is mundane, and this is, I think, all wrong. Again and again I wanted to ask American men, "Where is your heart. Dinner, dancing and fucking? Is that it?"
But I found many Americans mistook that for romance. It was sad. I had never been in such a beautiful country before as this one. I had never heard so many beautiful love songs before as I heard in this country. But the songs here seemed to be a substitute for the real thing. Among the Mosuo the songs enhance romance, are part of it. Here they are separate and they are sold on cd's at the malls where nobody smiles and says hello.
But don't get me wrong. I love America! I have become an American citizen. I will live my life here. I will meet a romantic young man some day and marry. I know it. And we will have many children and sing love songs to each other. I will tell my children stories of my own childhood, tell them of my mother and my grandmother and of all the strong brave women of my people. And I will be happy.
But the dream that is dearest to my heart is this one. Some day I want to return to the hills where I grew up, where I tended the horses and the yaks. I want to build a small temple there. I want to put the names of my mother and my grandmother over the entrance to the temple. And when the Mosuo people are all gone and those beautiful hills of my Shangri-la are populated only by outsiders and tourists, I want people to visit that small temple and to see those sweet names and to remember, just for a moment, who we were, how we lived and loved and what the world has lost.
FIRST ROUGH DRAFT OF ERCHE NAMU YANG AUTOBIOGRAPHY AUGUST 28, 1998.
Return to Kingdom of the Daughters
The color of the lake had changed. That was the first thing I noticed as I entered the valley for the first time in ten years. On the first day of my return, I saw that not only had the lake changed. I had returned by car on a road built by the Chinese government. The houses I saw were different, taller and bigger than when I left. Electricity was brought into the village. But around the shore of the lake I saw discarded beer bottles and plastic containers and wrappers on the shore or floating in the water. I feared that my motherland had been raped. This was so ugly. When I left, it was so beautiful, the water was blue and clear and reflected the mountains and the sky, and the trees were full and lined the lake and endless miles of flowers. But now there were bottles and tourists walking around the lake in groups with guides. Then as I walked into the village I heard some of the villagers speaking Chinese, because they wanted to do business with the Chinese tourists. Some were renting horses to the tourists so they could travel around the lake. Before I left the village, when you were young and you saw older people, elders, you had to stop your horse, speak to them, greet them, wish them well, and then mount the horse again. Now the young generation was in business, they didn’t care about anyone who couldn’t pay them. They rode past the elders and the lamas in the village.
When I approached my home I realized my mother and I still had problems also. My mother was traditional. She had attempted to leave her home town before. She had attempted to escape with some of the young communists. She had also attempted a Chinese marriage with one husband. She tried, she also, she was very beautiful when she was young. She was very talented. When a daughter took control of the home, but the woman had to be a very strong and talented and intelligent and giving person. The elder woman in the family customarily chose the woman to run the household when she was gone. As my grandmother grew older, our household was filled with aunts, I had four mothers, and many brothers and sisters. But grandmother had to choose one to become the Dabu, the female leader to head the household. So, this woman is very important. The mother has to watch and see which of the young women is the best to be Dabu because she will keep a balance and harmony in the household. The home manager. The other women would follow the leadership of this woman. She was in charge of the management of the household. At the same time, people, family, had to agree with her. This was the only form of government of our people. Our entire culture was based upon ths family system. We had much respect for elderly women and men and for children. And love. This was how our society had always worked.
But now I saw that everything had changed. My mother tried, but she didn’t succeed in leaving. The Red Guard came to Lugu Lake, there were so many people who came. Never before were so many Chinese in the village. They were white skinned, wore nice clothes and were quite beautiful. The people were happy to see them. They brought a performing troop and held performances for the people. Even though there was a language problem, they were nice to each other and managed to communicate. The Mosuo invited these people into their homes as guests. Before then, in 1960, they asked some of the people to leave the village and join the Communists. My mother’s mother wanted her to be the Dabu of her home. But my mother wanted to leave but her mother didn’t want her to go. She defied her mother. She was very stubborn. She went to a city and discovered that the Communist group was disbanded, so she returned to the village, but not to her own but another village one day’s walk from her own village. There she had three lovers and she had three children with them, six children altogehter. And for so many years she raised the children by herself, finding everything for herself. Life was difficult.
She regretted running away from her mother’s house. She wanted to go back to the old tradition. She raised the kids, wanted to have a big family, with many children and sisters around her. But then I ran away, too, like her. And my brother ran away also. My brother wanted to take up residence with a woman. My mother refused, said she didn’t want im to get married like the Chinese. She said she regretted it. She asked him to live like our Mosuo tradtionl. “We have more love, more peace and more closeness, with the family together.” But when I returned my brother and mother were fighting. My brother was a notorious lover in the village. He had a good sense of humor and was quite popular with the girls. My brother was like a film star, a celebrity in Lugu Lake. My brother was the Brad Pitt of Lugu Lake, they said. They now made references to Hollywood movies. Wherever he went the girls chased him, gave him belts and hand made shoe liners. This was something we made to put inside shoes to make them more comfortable, hand made, but these were sewn with beautiful designs. They sewed them with tigers on them for him. So everywhere he went, the young girls had presents for him. So he told my mother he had fallen in love and he wanted to marry a girl. But when he announced this, six girls in the village said they were carrying his child. So, this complicated the situation. My mother had a big problem with him, they were always fighting. When I went back my Mom wanted me to help her reason with my brother. He wanted me to reason with him. She wanted me to sit down and intercede with him.
The tourists lived with the Mosuo families. The people built bigger homes, made them into guest houses and hotels and restaurants and shops, like a city. I grew up with my best girl friend and I went to visit her and see her life, what it was today, too.
I knew my life was like a kite on a string. No matter how high or how far I flew, there would always be a string connecting me to my homeland.
Lugu Lake is deep blue in color. But it had changed. My return home made me feel like a guest in my own home. I had been away for nine years. Sometimes I had been America, Europe, Hong Kong, Taiwan, for my music and my life. I always remembered Lugu Lake. I was like a bird from the mountains who had flown far. Whenever I landed I always remembered this place. I always imagined it and missed it. It was where I learned to live, to cry, to smile, to walk and to sing. In the mountains around Lugu Lake. There the boats, the swine trough boats that carried us across the lakes.
The villages around the lake and the small temples, I remembered. My sisters, my aunts, my friends. Everytime I remembered it, I was always happy. No matter what happened, I knew I had a place to return to. It is difficult to find the words to describe it.
The more of life I experienced, the more I missed the quiet, warmth and love of Lugu Lake. There we had no hate, no fighting, no prejudice, no anxiety, no divorce, no marriage, no family problems. There people were always loving, the samily always supportive, and the lovers always passionate. We never had to pretend or calculate or worry about material things. There we blended all things in life together perfectly. I often have this feeling, this sentiment and romantic and warm feeling when I think and dream of my homeland.
The year I wanted to walk out of the mountains, I also experienced pain and regret in my heart. I had many misgivings. I always thought that outside the mountains the world was much more beautiful. And then, when I traveled, I found a mix of love and hate and success and failure and I thought often of my home town, my village. I wanted to return to the peace and tranqulity of the place to massage and enrich my soul.
People as long as they are trusting, they cannot be controlled by others. I found I lost control of my own destiny. But my homeland was always in my heart and guided me. I wasn’t controlling my life once I’d left. Now I wanted to go home.
The timing was perfect. The international department of a Beijing television company called me in San Francisoc. They said they’d been looking for me for three years. They had gone to Yunnan to make a documentary on China’s minorities. They went to the Mosuo and were asked to find me. They told them I was in America. They began looking for me and finally three years later they found me. A story about me appeared in a Chinese-language paper in San Francisco and from that story the Beijing TV station found me. They said they wanted to do a documentary with me, showing how my people lived and how I’d left the area. They wanted me to introduce China to the Mosuo culture. When someone wanted to do something about or for my people, I would do anything. I always would do it. I sold my business in San Francisco and returned to China.
The mountain was still the same mountain was we approached. But I saw some of the hills denuded of trees. Flew to Beijing, then Kunming, then Lijiang, and then two days on the bus, one hour in boat and one hour walk and we were home.
The mountains were denuded of trees, I noticed. We Mosuo have three fireplaces in our homes. The women go into the mountains each day to cut wood. They didn’t replant the trees. And by now the mountains had no trees, were bare. I wondered what had happened.
We had often taken trees from the top of a mountain called Dog Crossing the Hole, because it was between two other mountains. From there we could see all of Lugu Lake and the entire area. It was the best Go Zhuan Dung. Every time I stood on the mountain, I could see the entire area. I was filled with emotion. The mountains stretched on to the distance. And the lake, no matter how many thousands of times you see it, uyou can never get enough. It is peaceful pool in the middle of the mountains. From here, from this place, I’d left my village. I crossed this same mountain when I left my village. And in this place, I had cried when leaving. Here I had sung to other girls in the mountains. But now I was coming home again.
Always when I crossed it, I wanted to sing a song I learned in America -- the “Red River Valley.” in Chinese. I had heard it in America. When I returned I wanted to break into song -- all the songs I’d learned in these hills and sung to them through my early years.
We found a boatman to take us across the lake to an island where the temple had been built. We landed on the island in the lake, and went ashore. This was the custom when returning from outside the valley.
The villages were changed. Before we had fireplaces and the smoke drifted into the air. But now there were so many new homes --new model Mosuo village with three and four floors. All around the lake. Before there was only a village. Now they were spread along the edge of the lake. I felt happy at first, thinking perhaps that a degree of prosperity had found my people. I thought the bigger homes was a small change. People were more wealthy and perhaps the houses were more comfortable for them, with larger families inside.
But other things made me uncomfortable. I saw in some of the houses, hairdressers, discos, karaoke within some of the homes, all of it catering to the tourist business. There were restaurants and guest houses. It seems so ugly to me. The shore of the lake was polluted now with beer bottles and plastic folating in it and washed ashore. No one was caring for it. I felt my village was sick with the same sickness I had seen in some of the cities.
Now Lugu Lake was being transformed into an Amusement park. I saw plastic bags, beer bottles, floating in the water. I had this strange feeling about it all, uneasy and sick. I felt I was watching my mother land being raped. But all I could do was look at it, but do nothing aboutit.
Everyt time I came home, I went to the lake and visited the temple. I had to stop and walk three times around the temple. The first time I circled the temple I repeated the words that “I have returned.” The second time around I said over and over again I have left the unclean things from the city outside the valley and I return home pure. The third time I had to say that I am here for my mother and father and my village. Say it to myself, repeating it with closed eyes as I circled the small temple. It is a shrine which was established by the lamas. It is a buddhist holy spot constructed of rough-hewn rocks. White stones, they were covered with buddhist scriptures. And when you leave, and sometimes when people returned carrying a staff they left it at the shrine.
Tibetan Buddhist flag in the center. This is my first stop when I come home and circle it three times. Then take boat to the island and a big temple and go inside the temple to pray. The three things to do before I return to my home. Then, took the boat to the island to the Leavebee Island, in our language. I burned joss on the temple. This had always been the custom of my people. Two monks lived on the island in the temple.
Every time I left my home town, my other always took me to the island to pray and whenever I returned I went to it to pray.
Around the lake, as I approached I saw many of my sisters with a group of tourists. They were wearing their best costumes and posing for pictures. They were renting horses to tourists, taking tourists in boats around the lake. I was excited about saying hi to them. But as I approached, they glanced my way but then turned back to the toursits again. They turned back. But, they seemed preoccupied. They said hello but then turned back to business. They had become unusually cool, uncharacteristically cool. When I passed they turned and looked at me again.
I felt like a stranger in my own land. They treated me like a tourist. “What is happening here?” I wondered. Why are they looking at me that way? It is not like their shy or jealous or unfriendly. They seemed so dispassionate, as though I’d never known them. I still don’t understand. It was as though someone had stolen their souls, as if they were simple dressed up to play a role of the person they had been.
This experience I was to have often. In America, once when I returned to America and was a citizen, a customs agent said to me, “Excuse me, Miss, can I ask you something? I said of course. And he said, You look Japanese. I said I am Chinese. Why do you have an American passport? He asked. Don’t get me wrong, he said, and then launched into an apology. And in Beijing I had the same experience. They met outsiders, non Hans, Mosuo girl, they show this exaggerated interest. Wow, you’re a Mosuo. Like I was an animal from the mountains. Exaggerated emotion, but false emotion. They seemed to be cold and even mocking me when they said that, I sense it. They felt superior as though I was an odd thing in their midst, something that didn’t fit it and I made them feel superior.
The American, in the airport. They seemed not really to be looking at you as an individual, but as a tyupe. I was so happy, I love America. No matter what happened I loved America. But I thought I should be proud to be what I am. But when you finally come back and you are happy to see it and they turn their back on you. It is difficult to describe the feeling. Not that they are jealous. But just see me as an outsider and that I am closed off from their world. Wow, how did you get an American passport, as if I was really lucky. You are a Mosuo, do you eat rice? You wear clothes like that? Just like I am a country bumpkin.
But I never thought that this would happen to me in my homeland, the place I missed day and night and this hurt me like no one else. And then also I had this distance suddenly.
While I was sitting in the boat to the island. I felt already like a tourist. I didn’t feel like I grew up and lived here any more. I already felt the distance. The people were very nice to me, but nice to me like a customer. It didn’t seem genuine. When I was little we joked and laughed together and shared all secrets. But now there was something closed. I wondered if I had changed or if they had.
I was confused.
On the island, this temple, I went inside. And I never prayed for wealth or power. The more of that you see the less important it is. I only prayed for safety and health. I came back from the temple and felt happy, I felt clean. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining. All the problems I’d seen from the lake to here, the plastic and the paper, I thought, was behind me. So I wanted to take a picture. But the boatman came to me and said you cannot take apicture here. I asked why and he said You have to pay. There were tourists. They looked at me with strange eyes.
The crew that was with me said, Is this the place you were missing. There were five people in the film crew. This hurt me? They seemed to suspect that my memories of this place were flawed, that what I’d told them could not be true.
Still I clung to my feelings of happiness at being back at Lugu Lake. We came ashore near my village. There were two men carrying wood. I said hello to them in Mosuo. They seemed shocked at first. Then they came to chat with me. They said they were angry at what was happening. One old man, in a Tibetan hat and clothes, a strong old man, When I was young, I rode a horse through these hills and traded withoutsiders, he said. I never have seen anything like the young Mosuo today. They rent a horse, go to the village, they see the lama and the elders and they never dismount. In the old culture there was respect for the elders and the lama.s They rent them for the tourists and run them for the tourists. They have dropped tradition. They do things today for money. This is the new god. They want to make money and old people and lamas are of no value. Another guy said, Some people have motorcycles now. They drive it around here. They make noise and they scare the animals. Another man said, Why does the young generation always talk about money money money. We don’t have quiet any more. Before, everybody was like a family, like one big family. Everyday we saw people from another village or herders from the mountains or horsemen and we gathered by the fires and ate and joked and danced. Everyone was busy. We had meals together. We had a good life, the young women invited men into their flower chambers for their lovers. We had this love, this country life. But now the homes are filled with tourists and everybody has to act. They are always taking pictures, asking us to do something or to dance or sing for them. Everyone now is a performer. Even our own houses and yards are not our own. The older generation can’t speak Chinese and can’t communicate with these people.
I told my son if you want to build me a house build it far from the lake. I went to a disco one day, in one of the houses. They weren’t dancing happily. They were dancing formerly, slow dancing, But when the Mosuo people die they carry the body like that to the fire place. Their lover’s aren’t dead yet. Why do they dance like that. They dance without happiness. What is wrong with them.
I listened to what they said and saw around me. Some I agreed with. But some also I disagreed with. I thought that for all human beings at some age look back with nostalgia to the past. But the world is always changing now. Minorities also have to change. They can keep some of the traditional ways, but not to change is impossible. China and the rest of the world is changing. If you try to preserve all traditions you may lose everything. I thought we could not preserve all of the old life, mother copie grandmother, daughter copies mother. The whole thing is change. How can we change, what form will change take. We have to control it and use it. How do you understand the traditional and adapt it to the outside culture. How do you take what is good and resist what is bad. This we have to be careful of. If you think everything that is new and from the outside is good. Then you don’t need two or three years and there will be no more real Mosuo people. You will only see actors and waiters and servants among the Mosuo. They will not have a traditional and they will not really be Mosuo. Their souls will be gone. But if you don’t change, you will always be poor and exploited, too. How do you find the correct way, the middle way between traditional and modern culture. How do you strengthen your culture by adapting and energizing the Mosuo culture. I told myself that this hope has to be for the younger generation. The older ones only think of old things. The younger generation that is changing must discriminate. How keep the tradiaional way and how do you adapt to Chinese and western ideals and values. How do you expand the circle of your world and do what is necessary to survive. The outside culture was dominating everything. The Mosuo have a great sense of humor. And they are intelligent. They should be able to adapt. I did when I journeyed to Shanghai. I learned the language and the customs of the Chinese, but my heart remained unchanged. It was n’t too late, I thought. But there wasn’t much time. And to me it was still a question as to if this could be done. The young seemed on a one way street and they accepted everything from the outside and losing who they were. My land was becoming an amusement park where everyone was an actor and no one was authentic.
My mother’s name is Latso, a mountain flower. I found my mother and father lived in the same home. But there was a great distance between them. My mother came to meet me with my younger brother. They spoke to me but not to each other. I had approached home and imagined my mother coming to me and crying and then running to me. She would be so surprised to see me. She would cry and embrace me. I walked toward my home. I was very excited. Also, I thought she said something with double meaning. No wonder you are here. No wonder the birds were signing to me this morning. The people with me were shocked. They didn’t get it. I knew. My mother was angry. But not at me. I looked at my two brothers. They were embarrassed and felt a little sorry. They picked up my suitcase and we walked home. We met outside the house.
My mother came to me and held my hand. We walked into the house. She looked old. I could see her gray hair beneath her cap. I had not seen her in eight years. She had wrinkles around her eyes. And, the hate even could not cover her grey hair. And her hands were calloused and wrinkled also. I know she had a hard life at home. My heart hurt.
We sat by the fireplace. She began smoking cigarettes, one after another after another. I cautioned her about smoking too much. She looked at me, she looked at me without blinking, and said, Smoking, no big deal. This is one of my few pleasures. Some people smoke opium. Some people gamble and lose everything. This is nothing.
From her words I already knew that at home they were going to be a big argument. Something had gone wrong. I knew there was going to be a storm. Coming. Things were not all right. I felt and felt the anger in the air. Before a rain storm. Before it rained. I already feel, I want to know what is wrong, what has happened. What is the point of this.
The first night my mom and I stayed in her room, with two beds, with a fireplace. We sat by the fireplace and she began talking about the family problems. She said my brother, Erche, a young man, and he is married and has one child. He got married. But I don’t want him married. I tried to get him to break up. But he can only keep this one wife. They were married legally by the Chinese in the city. They went to the city to get married. But this is not a happy situation. My brother is supposed only to love his mother. Now he has begun arguing and he has begun drinkingl. They were fighting a cold war with each other. He was from my mother’s sister. When he was very young, my mother’s sister exchanged him for my second sister. Because at that time my mother didn’t have a son. So they my mother wanted a son instead of a daughter. Because all of her friends had sons. She wants to exchange with a sister.
So Erche and this girl at first had a walking marriage. They had one child and then wanted to get married. She wanted them to get divorced. So many people including my brother don’t understand why she was so difficult and opposed marriage. But underneath Mother had suffered so many things.
The year she left her own mother, to join the Chinese communists, she had a fight with her own mother. Her mother didn’t want her to leave the big family, but she had to go. Then she had a troubled relationship with one man. Her mother had a problem with that too. Her mother was very tought and strong and smart, too. My mother start to stay with this man. We never called him our father. In the big family you have people doing many tasks. But mother had to take care of the six of us on her own. She never had an easy life. She had to give birth to her children with little assistance. And now she is old and worried about what might happen to her. She believed that walking marriage was the best. Couple marriage is not good. She wants to keep her children at home and to keep the one big family, because you suffer from life much if you marry. She had no room in her heart for discussing marriage. My borther is a warm person, and he didn’t like the way my mother did things. But he was bothered by her criticism. He became quiet when she berated him. So my mother and him keep this relationship which is in limbo.
My brother Hong Wei also good looking, good humor, very talented. He was the celebrity of Lugu Lake. They had been showing movies on video in the village since the tourists arrived. They had showed the movie “Thelma and Louise” and showed it in the village.
My mother believed that my brother should help take care of the family, but he always went out and began building a house for his wife or he wanted to bring his wife into the family home. She said if he brought the wife into the house she would move out. She said he didn’t listn to the culture. All men should have a walking marriage, she said. Under the sky there are so many women. Why did he have to marry this one woman. She thought her son was not really give her face, she thought he was destrying and breaking up the family.
But brother thought my mother was too old fashioned. The world is changing. I can’t keep the old ways. I travel to the city. My brother Erche also goes out a lot. He wanted also to marry a girl and had two daughters with her. My mother could enjoy more the grandmother’s life, he thought, if he brought his wife home. So the problems at home became deeper. My brother was thinking he wanted to leave, like me. He wanted to go to Lhasa and start a new life. And become a Lama. But he went to the train station, bought a ticket, but then couldn’t leave my mother. So he threw away the ticket and came home. In his heart, he could not take her from his heart.
From my point of view. They were both right. They had different opinions about life. They had different experiences within the culture. My mother was young and left home to join the communists. In the end she had to live away from her own mother. When she was old she had a difficult life. She wanted to go back to the old traditional road. For her experience, for all her life, she understand that walking marriage was best.
But my brother saw the outside world, heard new ideas. I went to his room and above his bed he had pictures of movie stars like Jackie Chan and motorcycles from magazines. Every night after he finished dinner he went to his Asha’s room, got on a motorcycle and then return hom. He was very young and passionate. My mother was so worried. She was hurt and so was he. She wanted me to talk to him and to talk him out of his marriage. But brother thought that as a sister who had seen a lot and traveled, that I would agree with him. I’d lived in America and should understand what he feels. But I could not make both of them happy. All I could do is give them support, what I call a mental massage.
My home village is now is being changed from the roots. It is like taking the skin from your body. I felt my village was hurting and I wanted to cry for it. The young were at war with the old. I knew it was not just Lugu Lake. This was happening to minority groups in all developing countries. This was a universal problem.
Before I left, my brother left me. I sent him money and he went to Yinyuan and bought a small truck. There was now a road. He cut wood every morning and and also took people back and forth to town. My brother also worked, he had gone into the business of selling wood. I think, one of the reasons the mountains were bare of wood was beause now people took it in trucks and sold it in the city.
When I left this big empty house only my mom was left. She got up by herself every morning by herself, made butter tea, fed the pigs, cut wood for the fire. I knew a strong woman like her, this kind of work was still difficult for her. But in the middle of the night she was a very lonely woman and she thought of all of her children. So that night I began to cry for her. I didn’t know how this was going to end. Where did the future lie. Where were the roots for the future, I wondered? I have to go back to my roots. Ten years earlier when I went to Shanghai my brother rose early and made butter tea for me. My two sisters, one went to city, and the other one also went away to school, leaving my mother alone.
Ten years earlier she made me butter tea and breakfast and boiled me eggs to take on the road. In the morning the sun came out and she walked with me when I left. Then, I looked back from the mountain, I saw her. There was a path through the mountains. I looked back at her and saw her body was so small and frail. I continued and when I was far away I looked back and saw her standing in the winding path watching me. Again and again I turned and saw her. Finally, I saw the village coming awake and my mothers image, mama’s image, standing in the path, every now and then moving a few steps so she could see me a bit longer.
In my memory, she brought all the kids, she sacrificed for each of her children and then watched them follow the path over the mountains and out of the valley. She waited and then each of us came back. But we left again, and returned home as visitors. I think she it had nothing to do with being a person, she wanted the traditional culture back, she wanted to turn back the clock, shut off the passes again. And whenever I think of her standing on the path saying goodbye to each of her children, I think of the Mosuo songs she taught us. Older people, elders, they had this sense of the whole thing. They knew what was happening. And they wanted to turn back time but they could not.
We had a song, that when the little bird can fly. They leave they nest. They cannot be too quickly to fly to the top of the mountain. Their wings are not strong enough. They think they can, but they will fall. My mother sang those songs for us. Your wings are not strong enough. You must wait. Don’t rush to fly to high. You are not strong enough and you don’t know it.
Another song spoke of the horsemen who traded with the outside world and brought us goods. They left the village many times but they always returned home. The feeling was that the village and the people will always be inside you. My brother could not leave my mother. He wanted to leave home and travel and see the world. But he could still not leave this piece of sky. This is the place where god intended us to live. This is the place where we grew up. Look at this very beautiful place. In my heart I cannot for long be at peace. Still the same mountain and the same lake. But the people had changed. I deeply felt that the wind from outside had begun to erode all that we valued. Lugu lakes surface was not dimpled by the outside world. In my heart I began to cry. We want the warm wind, a friendly wind that blows the boats to a shoreline. We needed a kind wind so we could find our own way. Let us slowly find a comfortable way to the present and the future, our own way.
There are two birds. A crow. And then another bird you put them to carry letters, they are carrier pigeons. You can color the feathers of one bird, but it cannot become the others. The crow cannot become the carrier piegon, we said. When he returns to the blackbirds he will also be expelled.
Erche Ma was my best friend. Night and day we went to the mountains and herded yaks and sheep. At night we slept together to stay warm. In the hills we hunted for wood together and sang together. Her father was Yingzou. He worked in the cultural section of the city. He was very lively, loved dancing and singing and played many instruments. Erche ma had two sisters and a brother. Her parents lived together. Her father was the only son in his family. So if he was going to have a walking marriage his family could not have children. So his mother thought he should find a woman and bring home. This was an exception to the marriage. Mosuo’s usually kept the baby and stayed in their own home. The exception was if you have an only child, a son, he can bring home a woman.
When I was home my mother told me about the village and who had died, who had children since I’d left. The animals, who had become rich, who had so many pigs and horses and animals and so on. Everything about the village.
My mother I told about my life in America and my travels. My mother listened very quietly as I spoke. She had no idea what most of the things I spoke of were. I found my mother and I could not really communicate well. While I spoke she kept quiet and smoked cigarettes and drank her tea.
The fireplace burned wood. Then one night she told me Erche Ma had also moved out from her home and opened a shop in the town. I wanted to see how she had survived in the city, what her life was like. I wanted to see her again.
So the next morning I decided to visit her. The sun had just come up and the people had begin getting up to work, and I walked down a country road to the city. I saw a lot of people and passed them on the road. Many people stopped me and asked me about my life. There were many smiles that morning. I smiled at them and they seemed more comfortable with me. They were a bit reluctant to talk to me condluding I think that I was different. It was the same eyes I had seen on the first day back at Lugu Lake. I still felt hurt. I felt like a woman who had a disease.
In the Mosuo tradition they said that some people catch a strange disease and their face turns another color. This is very difficult to describe this. This is like a witch thing. But the people, when they describe others. The Han Chinese also belive this. It has to do with worms. They take 100 worms. The chinese believe in this too.
They take this worm and you put on a plate with 100 other worms. And eventually one survives and you use that one for bewitching other people. In china a lot of minorities believe in this. In the mountains they have a lot of worms. People think that this kind of worm become scared.
Mosuo people say witch things called Dubo. That means the witch family, has snake, the wasp, the mouse and centipedes. So, the witch family, they have a lot of these, or worms and other animals. These animals have spirits. They put the worms on one plate and they bit and squeeze each other and after 100 days, the last one to live, that is the magical one, with the ability to cast spells for the witch.
They didn’t look at my like I’m a witch, but they look at me as though I am a witch. They believe in the ability to cast spells. They make something bad happen to you. Some say if man uses his saliva, sweat or a blood from a woman’s period or faeces, they can use this to feed the worms. People believed these stories and were frightened by them.
People accused of being witches, the witch people, they always bewitch people who are eating, drinking or smoking. When she look t you, you will feel a strange taste, some bitter taste from their stare. And then the spell is cast on you. But then you must instantly spit on the floor and the spell will be taken back. But if you don’t see her look at you, and it is too late, then you have problems.
One week later, you have diaharrea but you are constipated. You go to the mountains to look for traditional medicine. If you eat this traditional medicine, then you have to live on the top of the nearby mountains and live there. This is a special root used to break spells. Then you have to empty your system of every bit of food in it.
Your nails turn totally black and you die. People also said you can also be taken when you are eating, as soon as you know the witch is there, you have to say If you bewitch me I will kill you. Then the witch cannot cast the spell on you. People talk so much about these things. Nobody wants to have a relationship with the witch families. There are two or three families identified as witch families, and they move off and live in the mountains. They can stay in their own village in their own area. They are isolated. Others live far away from them, as though they have a disease.
This is handed down from generation to generation. They deal with their own people and intermarry.
Then I was young I heard a sad story, one day a girl in our village. She was extremely beautiful. Many boys wanted her and came to her room. But she unlocked her door for anyone. She was very difficult. So a couple of young boys plotted with each other. They never were able to sleep with her. So they decided to tell everyone in the village she was a witch. They made up the story. They said one night they went to her room, wanted a walking story, and they peaked inside and saw the girl holding a large snake. This is the story they told. They said they ran away and asked the Lama to get their soul back, they were afraid they had lost their souls to her. And of course, very quickly, everyone heard this story. This beautiful girl, she started to feel so lonely. Everyone stayed away from her. She was deeply hurt. One day she went into the mountains and hanged herself from a tree. When the daughter died, the mother went insane. Every time from the 15th day of the month, they always have a full moon. She always during the full moon, the mother always went into the mountains chanting and crying and singing. Looking for her kid. And she scared us. At night we didn’t want to go out.
No matter how beautiful the girls in the witch family were called on. Some of them married among the Chinese. They married some of the men who came into the area looking for mushrooms. Then they moved far away, out of the Lugu Lake area. There life was ruined in the area among the Mosuo.
Every time I saw people look at me, they looked at me as though Iw as from a witch family. I started to think of this girl, who was separated, but accused of it. After the girl died the boys confessed that they had lied.
They also had village boy jokes. So I started to worry that one day they would say that I was a witch. I was never sure how much they envied or disliked me. The family of the girl eventually disappeared. When they went away the house was burned down by the otehr villagers. That is the dark side to the Mosuo.
So I walked to my girl friend’s house. When I arrived in her village, I saw these little shops throughout the village. This was another village. She opened one of the little shops. But the shops were all the same. Finally I found her shop, a very small Mosuo house, and nobody came to her shop. I finally found her. She had jut come in from feeding the pigs to tend her shop. She said, “Oh, you are back.” She gave me some apples and pumpkin seeds and we sat down to speak. But I found also she was cold. She looked very old and tired. I had only seen her a couple of minutes and her baby started screaming. She brought out a seven year old kid. She had a 12 year old also. This year was a coming out party for the boy. This is a traditional celebration, at the age of 12. Boys did it at 9, 12 or 18 years old. When they were 18 they burned his bed and he could go out looking for girls. But for girl it is 9 or 12 or 13. The lama determines which day is the good day and which is the good year for you. You have three choices.
She always looked around when I was speaking to her, as though she was not paying attention. We had little in common and we had been so close when we were children. I knew that the two of us could talk about much except the pass. It seems that there was a deep valley between us that neither of us could cross. So after a short time of awkwardness near her I went home. I asked my mother abouther. Erche ma, her mother, wants kids to not go out, to stay in the big family. But Erche Ma fell in love with a man who wanted her to move out from her family, and open a shop in the town and then live with him. So her mother disagreed. So there ere many problems in her family. This problem was happening with every family. So the mother and the daughter didn’t speak to each other for a long time. Others tried to intercede. But Erche Ma moved out and broke up with her mother. Only now the relationship is being healed.
When she moved out her mother told her she would never be able to move back and she would have to take care of her own children and her own life and she could have nothing to do with her family. So she went to the new village and had her own family. For so many years she was by herself. Difficult life. Then her husband went to the town often, ran around saying he was doing business. But actually he was after women. Erche Ma stayed at home and took care of her two children and raised the family. Before I came home, she told me about her husband. I saw him wearing an army uniform, but he wasn’t in the army. He said he was Sichuo studning Kung Fu. I think Erche Ma was angry with him and kicked him out. So she had to work hard to feed and cloth her family. She worked in the shop most of the time and rented her shop to someone else. At night she went to the disco in the village, the dancing place, and cleaned the floor and played the music to earn more money. She used this money to help her family. Before I left Erche Ma’s father came to me. He was still very smart. He had helped me. When the Chinese from the Cultural Bureau came to the village, he was the one who told them about me and my singing. And he took me to the city. He was a real true friend. He let me see the world outside the mountains. Every time I came back I went to see him. This time too I went back to see him. He wasn’t home at that time. His wife and grandmother were there. When I was there we sat down and talked. And then he started talking about me, about he had helped me before, and now he is working in the cultural bureau and he said he needed a camera. So I gave him my video camera. Before I left he said, Erche Ma’s son was going to have this celebration. The next day I went to Erche Ma’s house and brought her two presents. One for the son, another for the grandmother. The lady was really old, and she was blind. She sat every day by the fire place. I felt very sorry for her. The party was for her whole family. There were dozens of guests invited. I saw her running around taking care of the guests. This was a happy occasion. It was like a after hard work. She talked to everybody, smiled, and was happy. Totally different from the previous day when I had seen her. The lamas came and blew on the sea shell and the lama started to read and people began to play thei rinstruments. Her son sat in the center of the room, Erche Ma looked at her son with a beaming face. Maybe she felt sorry for her hard work. Sometime in the afternoon they finished. He had then to take the kids to the relatives to visit. I walked with her, and when we wlaked she was very, asked me, do I have chldre. I said no I didn’t yet. She said, if you have kids, she said, what am I going to do when I am old. I felt like, this to me, and she talked to herself too. She had a double meaning. She said, you should have one, it is difficult. But there is a lot of pleasure. If you have kids you will feel safer. With kids, when daddy left, I am tied up, taking care of them, the two kids, but as long as they are healthy and nice, I am afraid of nothing. My hope is to send them to school and no matter how difficult I want them to have a good life. I found that in her life, everything revolved around her two kids. The rest of her life is only for these two kids and working. To send them to school and to get married and to have children. Then her life cycle put on a very heavy burden. And that is the closing circle of her life.
I started thinking after seeing her. I started thinking about myself and my desire for a career. My real home, my mother’s home. Every minute there must be a fire going there. My own home, in Beijing, America, Hong Kong, those are just places to stay. But they are not my home. As the Chinese proverb says, that people inside the city want to go out, and those inside the city want to go out. This has strongmeaning for me. Me, my brother and my sister. We are all leave and we all live with this cup of sadness. Some people want in and some want out. There are so many sad stories like this. It is like a bird in a cage, sitting there. And outside the cage they see the world, they never listen to the bird singing in the cage, it is crying and not singing because it is happy. For the truth i’d traveled so many years, with so much experience, and I also received much, but only in material things. The things I enjoyed at home they could not dream of them. But so many people they impress me only for the material things. But inside my heart, how much i’d been through and so many things I see that I culd not tell about. And of course from this I learned experience and I learned love. My own life, in my total experience, the most serious thing i’d learned is that everyone in time must face the truth. Your nationality, your religion, where you come from. In the four seas you can all be? People will really treat you like brothers and sisters. If you look back over time, how many people really treat you like sisters. People always make mistakes about me. They look down on me. I walk down the street, in another country and they see you and judge you by your features. They look at you as though you are refugee who has escaped to their country. From their eyes you can tell. No matter which culture or which place, they all have their own certain groups and ideals. You want to get in or get out. I remember reading a book about a European writer, who touched my heart. He spoke of the blackbird who wanted to be a pigeon. And he colore his feathers. And he joined them but they turned him out. But when he went back to his own group, he was also not accepted. This is a touching story to me. I know, I learned how to respect people of all cultures. We don’t have to color our feathers, like those birds. We also don’t have to reject those not like us, and then this world can become a happy colorful world. We have to fit different situations and understand this life. For many years I felt I could fly. But people are people and relationships are not easy to understand. The whole thing is you have to use your normal heart to treat people you deal with.
The son was 13 and it was the coming of age ceremony. And it was the year of your birth sign. And that determined when he would have his coming of age ceremony. He would find the good date for him to have the coming of age ceremony. At 9 or 12 or 18 you could have this. It all depended on which was the lucky day for you, determined by a Lama.
We were very poor. But also very free and had much happiness in the mountains. In my short life experience, my childhood, the memory always influenced my life. Some memories, some things I will never forget. I hear old people say to me, that when my mother was having me, she really suffered a lot. It was in the middle of the night she went into labor in her house. The house had a fireplace in the middle and the fire was burning, and near the fireplace we have a small Tibetan shrine where every day we put some offering. We had no electricity and the fireplace provided the only light in the night. For a long time mama was in painful labor. The people think this is already her third child and this should be easy. But she felt like this child in her womb was heavier than her first two children. There was no quiet that evening. my mother felt me moving all the time. I was heavier than them and was always moving. My mother felt it was different. I had two older sisters. It was very painful and she was very excited about having a son. Mama’s friend, Duma, stayed with her that night and prepared all the things for the birth. My mother began screaming in a very high voice, and she sweated profusely and her face flistened. The screamed like mad and she could no longer sit on the pillow. She lay on the floor and clenched her teeth and ground them and she made frightening sounds. Finally, her water broke, and Duma told her with all her energy to push push push, my mother started crying and I could not come out. Her energy was used up. Finally Duma told her one more time. And finally I was born in the middle of the night. My cry immediately was louder than the other children. My crying was louder and stronger than my sisters. I could be heard throughout the village. Duma helped wash my body and then gave me back to my mother. My mother saw I was another girl and she was disappointed. But I had dark hair and a very red face. She felt sorry, she said, she had wanted a boy and she held me tightly. I continued crying, as if I wanted the whole village to know I was there. I cried night and day. My crying made all the village people uncomfortable. Everybody said, Latso
Everyone became angry. My mother had no choice. She could not sleep. She had to work hard. It was driving her crzy. She went to the lama and he said, you have to, in early in the morning, prepare several good dishes, and then go to the nearest crossroads, where two paths intersect, and bring the dishes there and wait with your child. And the first person you see, you ask them to eat your meal and then ask that person to give your daughter a name. And then so my Mom went home and cooked some chicken and rice and some vegetables and before dawn the next morning, she took me to the nearest cross road. And then I kept crying. She couldn’t stop me. Before the cock crowed in the morning rooster crowed in the morning, she took me to the road. So a lama passed by and she asked him to take the food. The lama then was asked to give me a name. Arche Namu was the name, or precious stone. And in the sky there are seven stars, the seven girls in heaven, in the stars, seven together, that means girl from heaven, the youngest one is called Namu.
My mother’s family name was Yang, she kept a family name. I was given this name, and I still cried for two more days. My mother thought it worked, I didn’t cry for two days. But ion the third day I cried more and louder. My poor mother, finally, in frustration, decided to give me to another family who needed a girl. She could not sleep. She was exhuasted and couldn’t stop the crying. So she decided to give me to another family. But I continued to cry. For more than a week the next family kept me but in a week they gave me back. They couldn’t stand it either. Another family loved children and they believed they had a cure for my crying. They were wrong. I continued to cry and mom took me to the temple again and asked the lama what was wrong. He said maybe there was a ghost in my body. For a little while she adjusted to my crying. The lama had no solution to the problem. They left me there and read scriptures from Buddhist texts but even they could not stand it and sent her home. My mother again was frustrated. Right now I think about it. Maybe I developed my beautiful voice from all that crying. When I was born mama was getting poorer and poore. She had to work alone and care for three kids. No matter how hard she worked we never seemed to have enough. She could not do it. Most Mosuo had big families. So it was difficult for her taking care of the lambs and the pigs. She had run away and was embarrassed from running away and would not go back. And she and her husband broke up. The house was built by the community along with my mother. Everyone helped a bit. But she was at a disadvantage. Village of Luoshi. We had enough to eat, but the work was so hard. We always had enough to get by. But mama had to work too hard. She didn’t have enough time to weave the cloth for our clothing. So the kids grew up very fast in our family. Mama was too busy so she had my sister take care of me. And then after I three or four years, I already can go everywhere, running through the village, along the lake, run in the mountains. A wild child. But I never had shoes. Every day I went to take care of the yaks. I had to take care of them in the mountains with the snow. So, my feet and my hands were always calloused and the callouses broke. And they would bleed in the cold. I remember the callouses opened because it was too dry and too cold and I had no shoes. Sometimes it was really really cold and so I went to the yak, and they pee for a long time and it is warm. So I put my feet under them when they peed, and every day I’d do that two or three times to warm the feet. But soon they’d itch became painful and I had then to put my feet in cold water. We grew up like this. I tended them first when I was five with my sister. Really young. There were about totally 300 yaks for the whole village and we took care of them. My uncle was good at tending the yaks. He was good at milking them. So every morning I had to help him milk the yaks. We milked into this wooden container and then churned it to make it into butter. And some was saved as milk. Some were babies and some were old and they could not be milked. About 50 or 60 would be milked and my uncle would turn it to butter. We milked them in the mountains.
Every month my uncle had to bring all this butter to distribute to the families in the village. Butter was, to us, like coffee to many westerners. We made butter tea in the morning. The yaks were also used for meat. This was on holidays and special occasions.
They wandered in the hills. Every morning my uncle gave me one potato and some tea by a fire he built. Then I walked with the yaks in the mountain, and we found a place for them to graze. We had to move the herd each morning. Sometimes we’d sleep in a tent and sometimes we’d find hollowed trees and sleep in them and sometimes just sleep on the ground at night. There were also sheep we tended in the hills. Sometimes I’d also sleep with the sheep when it was cold. In the morning, each morning, I’d have tea with my uncle. He lived with me. I lived with him.
I learned about my uncle’s life from my mother. He was a big man with very dark skin, and very unhappy eyes. He was very quiet and was always smoking. He had a sad life, my mother told me. Wore a Tibetan hat. He didn’t talk much. Very quiet, staring off into space as though he was thinking of something. I loved watching him smoking, he’d blow smoke rings as I sat beside him in the morning. It was very peaceful with him and I felt safe. I watched him and wondered how he could be so quiet. Whenever I asked him a question or said something to him he always seemed to answer with just a single word.
And I when I got up, he’d already be awake by the fire and gave me bread and a potato and butter tea. And this was without speaking. He’d gather the yaks for milking. He milked the yaks and when we were finished, he’d give me a small piece of butter, one big potato. Some times rice. And then sometimes a little bit of ham. Sometimes I would ride on the yak, and I had a horse to ride in the hills, too. Lunch time if I found a nice spot that was green, i’d leave the yaks there and find a peaceful spot and make a fire and make myself tea.
I was gone most of the month and then returned home for two or three days. Then when they carried the containers of butter, we used a big tree that had special leaves and we’d pick them and wrap the butter in the leave. On the back was a white fiber and we would wrap the butter in the leaves, wrapped it and then distributed it to family depending on how many yaks they had and this was distributed to them on a regular basis. These were stored on blankets on the backs of the horses.
We never cut these trees down because they were high in the mountains. So you, thenthe mountains can be both beautiful and scary. On wram days there were flowers everywhere. I picked them and there were small lakes in the mountains. I used the water as my mirror. I talked to myself all the time. When you are on top of the mountain and I became sunsick sometimes, we called it sun drunk. So when you are near the sun, you get burned and sun drunk. And if I was near the water, I was afraid of falling in a lake at those times. I am still afraid of water. I cannot swim.
I found in the mountains I discovered something. There was a tree that grew near the water. It had beautiful yellow flower. I picked these flowers. And I discovered there was an oil in them that was like a soap, like lanolin. I felt my hands became very very soft from handling them. So I used it as shampoo also, and my hair was really light and really beautiful. So I used this flower to wash my hair and body. I brought some of them back to the village and from then on the village people used them for washing clothes and washing hands.
This tree that had leaves that we used to wrap the butter in. The leaves were huge. And strong with fibers on the back. When they dried, they could keep for three or four months. When they dried they became like cloth. On the back they had a network of fibers. One night I began to pull the wife fibers from the leaf and I found I could lift them all together from the leave, like a cloth. I dried them in the sun and they were almost like thin paper. Then I did this with dozens of leaves, and let them dry. Then I began menstruating. I was alone in the mountains when that happened. I had no idea what was happening. I had nothing to use for the bleeding except this sheet of fiber. And it worked. It was absorbent. And it worked perfectly. I told my sister about this. She at first made fun of me and thought it was silly. She grew up with village girls. The used cloth for that purpose. But I grew up away from the village girls and with my uncle who spoke only three or four words every day.
The village girls used very soft material for the purpose.
So I used these fibers. I knew nothing about what was happening. I felt this blood. I was wearing trousers and jacket at that time, like all the young girls. I felt the blood and I thought perhaps I’d injured myself riding the horse, since I rode without a saddle. I went to the horses, and looked at the horses back to see if there was blood on him and there wasn’t. I knew something wasn’t right.
We have special respect for horses and yaks. They work hard and are loyal to the family. I was so scared. I didn’t know what was happening. I washed in the lake and then used some of this paper. Then I remember I bled for eight days. I started to think I was really sick. I was frightened because I had nobody to talk to about this and I was afraid to mention it to my uncle.
I did tell my girl friends about this paper and then the girls began using it. And still today some of the people use it.
During these years I never attended school and so never learned to read or write. All I learned was pretty much from my uncle.
My uncle was a religous man and he prayed each day. He had a lover when he was young. They were very much in love. And in my village, whenever it rains we go hunting for mushrooms after the rain stops. She she went into the mountains looking for mushrooms. There was a log across a mountain ravine, an old tree as a bridge. But it was too old and when she was crossing a ravine it broke and she fell and was killed. It is a tough job being in the mountains. But he wanted just to be all alone after that. His heart was broken.
He wanted quiet but I was talkative and loud. So it was a strange combination. I was not exactly welcome. From the time I could talk I seemed to talk more than everyone else. So my mother sent me to the mountain to tend the yaks.
I had one set of clothing and the turban when I was growing up and tending the yaks and horses. No one worried about my religious training at that time. There were no doctors there for us either. When we didn’t feel well we slept. That seems to be the cure. We had no tooth brushes and I never brushed my teeth. We still had white teeth. Rinsed my mouth with water after eating, but had never seen a tooth brush.
I loved to work in the hills. I was very fast and capable. Very strong. In the mountains. I was much like my mother in that regard. And then washing clothes and talked too much and everyone thought my mouth had a lot of honey in it. And when I came down to the village I talked sweet to everyone because I hadn’t talked to anyone for three weeks or more. So people loved to have me around because I was so talkative.
Village people also have our fun. We live in nature, we are free and can do whatever we want to and enjoy life, not like in the city but completely different things. We had mountains, birds, fish, animals and horses to ride. It was fun and fulfilling, I thought at that time. But of course I knew so little of the outside world.
In the spring, Lugu Lake was extremely beautiful. The sky was pure blue and the migrating birds came over the lake and stopped and nested there. And we went hunting for their nests in the boats and looked for their eggs. There were always hundreds of them. And fishing we used nets, but in some parts of the lake the fish were in schools and we could catch them by hand, or in shallow waters. And every night we listened to the birds cooing and that was the music that put us to sleep. And the next morning, early, we’d go looking for the nests and the eggs. So these were the things that occupied us when we were young. And the young and old people all loved singing. We sang every day and composed songs about our lives and about the world around us. I composed songs about my mother, about the hills and the mountain and the lake and the village, about my uncle, about my life. And sang them and practiced them and when I saw my mother sang them for her, too.
We had competition to see who would find the most eggs. Then we the young people loved to sing. And in the night time when it was dark, if anybody started to play a flute, everybody heard the music and then people came together and built a large fire and the dancing and singing began. You never find a village with fighting, anger or screaming. They used beautiful voices to sing to start the celebration. When we were dancing, there was no competition, and I could not yet wear one of the beautiful skirts that the women wore, colored, and when they danced the skirts looked like a large white mushroom. I wanted to grow up faster, as fast as I could to wear clothes like that and to sing and dance. So, in my village, when we were working, people would be in the mountains. So in the mountains this is how we woud have a conversation. This is one of the beuatiful parts of our culture. We were naturally good a writing poems. When we sang we sang for the trees, the lake, the water, the skys, the birds. We sang for our mothers and sisters and brothers, and we composed these songs when we were small and continued as we grew up. We’d practice them in the mountains and communicate with each other that way over distances. We’d sing and the song echoes through the mountains and then someone would sing back. It was our telephone to each other at night and during the day if we became lonely or if we merely wished to communicate. So the Mosuo people are all good singers. This is a highly valued talent. We would carry on our long distance conversations like this with our songs. So singing and good arhymes were very important to us.
So I had to sing in the mountains also so my uncle might find me at night. In the morning he’d go looking for new grassy areas for the yaks to graze. Then I’d sing in the evening and he’d come find me. He had to go exploring for new areas for each grassy area. I took care of the animals and he found the new spots for the herd in the mountains. He was very busy each day.
And then, I will talk about this Yi family. Father and daughter. One evening when I’d come back from the mountains, I found out and I brought back butter and distributed it. My mother made me some dinner, I ate it and was with my sister in our house. And we heard something outside. We looked outside and saw an elderly man. He seemed exhuasted, he could hardly walk. It seemed that at any moment he might fall down. He was dressed very poorly. He looked like he was about to faint. His clothing was tattered and covered with holes. My sister and I were shocked when we saw him. He stared back at us without saying anything. I reocgnized his clothing as being one of the Yi people who lived at the top of the mountains. The Yi in the mountains we heard were suffering because many of their crops had been destroyed by hail that year. Their rice and corn and potatoes had all been destroyed and already a lot of people, we heard, had starved to death in the mountains. They only can make potato and corn. And they depended on good weather to live. Often they suffered from bad weather. This old man had come down from the mountains and he looked nearly starved. So I went back into the house and into the kitchen and got some rice and some ham and brought it to him The old man sat down on the ground and ate the rice very slowly. I gave it to him and he ate all the rice. Then he even licked the bowl when he was finished. Then, he finished the rice and vegetables, and he kept the piece of ham, and put it in his pocket. And then he used the Yi language and said “ha shasha,” which I recognized as “thank you.” Then he left the village.
One year later the old man returned. This time he was with a young woman he introduced to us as his daughter. She had a pumpkin face, which we thought was very beatiful, very round and red. Also, I noticed that when she smiled she had dimples, and I thought she wsa very beaitufl. They brought one horse with them and he was carrying several packages. The old man asked his daughter to bow to my mother. Then he took the pakcages from the horses back. He gave us mushrooms, bear paws, they have lots of bears in the mountains and they hunt them. These were highly prized by them. These were very expensive and prized. And then the old guy carried his daughter to me, my mother spoke the Yi language, because we sometimes saw them in the hills. He wanted his daughter to meet me and remain friends for life because, he said, I had saved his life. He said that if I had not fed him that day he would surely have died on the way home. He had not eaten for three days. He said even the wind would have knocked him down.
So he said, I would always have a friend in the mountains.
But this girl had a sad life sstory, I found. Even today I think about it.
In the Yi tradition. They arranged marriages while children were still in the womb. They would pinch the stomach of a pregnant woman and say, if you have a daughter and I have a son, they will be married. These were arranged before the child was born. Then this was binding on the children. So, this girl’s uncle, thought,if this girl’s uncle said yes, she had to marry the uncle’s son. As long as you get engaged, and even if the son is born and an idiot, you must marry him.
Anumo was the name of this Yi girl. At about the time I was 12 years old, Anumo became married. The Yi people have this custom, but it does not make sense. The woman has to marry someone far away, the more far away they are, the more pride they have, they say. And the price is higher. You also have to discuss a price. The more expensive, higher price, if she marries someone far away and you also get more respect from other people . She was engaged to someone near Yanyuan. Before she was to be married she had never seen the guy. The morning she was to be married she dressed very beautiful. On the way to her future husband’s village they had to pass through our village and they spent the night with us. We were sitting by the fireplace, the girl and me. She started crying. I felt really bad for her but I had no idea what to say. I thought she should be happy because she was getting married. But it was difficult speaking to her. That night she didn’t want to sleep. That night I went to my bed and she went to the window. She sat at the window and the Yi people play a mouth harp. She began to play it very softly, with a slow sad sound to it. She played it all night long and I could not sleep either. I knew something was wrong. I could hear her crying from time to time. It also sounded like she was talking to herself, but I didn’t understand. I could not exactly understand her, but I felt she trusted me so she was crying in my room.
The next morning very early, a large group went with them, they left, and. Before Amony left she turned to look at me and looked into my eyes. Even today I cannot forget. To this day, my mother said, If you don’t listen to me I’ll sell you to a man far away, near Amony. And my mom really scared me when she said that, send me to a far away place.
But two weeks later, Amony came back. This was part of the custom of the Yi people. When a woman Anumo. When a woman married, if a bride did not like the husband or his family, the husband’s family had really to watch her in the household. It was a tradition for the Yi women to flee their husbands. If they run away three times, that means that the husband has to give more gold to get them back again or he has to let her go. And the marriage is broken. He also had to carry her over his shoulder back, no matter how far away it is. That is why, if a woman goes to a man’s house, the man’s family might not want to pay money for her again, so it is important not to let her make it back to her village. The third time she made it back, she would really be very expensive. If she could make it home three times she could boast of it the rest of her life.
Anumo ran home and she spent the night at hour house. She was walking. Our house was only one half a day into the mountains from our house. I helped her wash her feet and relax so she could make it into the mountaqins. We started to talk while she rested and ate. She told me she did not like her new husband. They had no converssations, she sad. She missed home and missed her mother. Then she started singing. I didn’t understand the words.
The Yi people have such sad songs. They sing one line and then they sigh. And then sing another line. Their songs can be really really sad. And then after that, she spent part of the day with us. And then I wrote one song about her. I used the music she used, and I called it “Mama’s daughter.” And that night, in the middle of the night, three Yi men came to our house. I knew they were looking for her. Someone told them she was at our house. So they came to our front door. When I saw them through the window, I helped Anome climb out the back window of the house and flee from them. Then we invited the men into the house to delay their pursuit of her. We offered them tea and pretended like we knew nothing about her. My mom and me, people told them she was at our house. I saw her disappear in the darkness running toward the mountains. The men were tired and angry and we fed them and gave them tea. Deep in my heart I was happy because when the sun came up in the morning and the men woke up I knew that amone was home and safe and that this was her first time in running away. I was happy.
But she had to do it two more times successfully in order to get out of the marriage. Several months later, in the evening I looked out the window and I saw her approaching our house. But this time, the men were right behind her. And before she could make it to our house they caught her in the village. The people knew where she would be going. I saw her face in the window.
We had to remember not to take this too seriously since it was also part of their tradition. But I never saw her again. I always prayed she’d make it, though, on a second or third try. But I never saw her again. But this last time I went back to visit my mother, I learned that the entire family had moved from their mountain home. And I have no idea which part of the mountains she lived in anymore.
When I was in music school I wrote another song called “Clouds crossing the sky,” and when I wrote this song, I could see this mountain road, with Anome sitting there playing her mouth harp and singing her sad songs, sighing beteween the lines. Once I sang this song for my classmates. They said, this song is too sad. But still I didn’t think they could understand this story and this girl’s life. But I never knew what happened to her and I will always remember her sighs and her song.
Yi music is very beautiful. Very distinct. They have skirts, long with 100 pleats in it, they say, and colored like a butterfly the stripes, with a basic white pattern. With a band wrapped around their heads, but they Yi people are distinct from other minorities in that they also cut their hair.
The Wife of the Last Leader of the Mosuo
If the weathter is good, we are happy and the crops are good and the animals are healthy. Our life is simple. We have no fight with the world, no fighting or disagreement or rapes. When the apples are ready we bring in the apples. When the rice is ready we eat rice. They go to the mountains and tend the yaks and fgather butter. We don’t want more and we don’t want less. We have enough. Even though we have few material things, the people are close. If one family has problems others pitch in and help. We never lock our doors and seldom close them. If you find something dropped on the path you go from door to door and ask who has lost it. When we go out we have one road. One road goes out of the village and one comes back. We never saw cars. We only had contact with the outside world with hour horsemen. Only the horsemen traders were our contact.
They brought colorful tings from the city and from the mountains they brought musrooms, pumpkin seeds and other products. These horsement were in our eyes, very worldly people, very cosmpolitan. They had contact with the wider world and they had respect. They saw the other people. The mountains were so big and the roads so long, they went into the mountains and came back days later. Then went to Yanyuan. Whenver they returned it was a big important event for the village people. Everyone left what they were doing and ran to see what the men were bringing back this time, what new products from the outside world after their long journey. They went in a group, and the horsemen were always popular. The families decided who the horsement would be. Three or four families were responsible for providing the horsemen. They were always only men. And it was a big exciting event. When I was a kid I always loved to watch the horsemen return. The things they brought from outside were so beautiful, scarves, and small mirrors, and ear rings and other jewelry. I always wanted to be like one of the horsemen and see the outside world
One day, a group of people arrived. They wore army clothing but they had no insignia on them. They had red patches on their shoulders. They came into the village. They had loudspeakers to make their voices louder. We didn’t understand Chinese and so we didn’t understand what they were saying. But they were so loud and enthusiastic. But it was interesting to watch them. Everyone came outside the door to watch them. We figured it was a group that was out hiking and had discovered us. They were very serious, it seemed. A lot of the older people came to them an invited them inside for tea or food. But they said, they thought we were trying to bribe them with sugar or to influence, and so they refused to come inside the houses. They came to make revolution and not to eat food, they said. The next day, the put huge red banners everywhere in the village, including the temples and the houses. Big character posters. And then, they started, our houses were built of wood. They wanted to burn down some of the big houses of some of the people. They selected some to burn. But we were terrified because if one house sets fire, then all the others will catch fire. So they tried to set fire and we put them out. Then they went to the buddhist temple and they broke the statue of Buddha, I never saw this. And then they ordered the people, when they broke up the temple everyone watched them and watched them tear down the shrine. Nobody could understand them and everyone was afraid to stop them because nobody understood who they were or where they were from or what the meaning of all of this was. Everywhere they went a big crowd followed them. But they broke up the temples. People thought they must be insane because they would obviously would not go to heaven and they didn’t even want to. So this was fascinating that they were not afraid of the future and of going to heaven.
The Mosuo really didn’t understand them and these people didn’t understand us. They were just insistent on finding the biggest houses. Then they called a big meeting and brought out dunc caps and put them on the owners and denounced them and gave long speeches. We didn’t let them burn the houses. Then after giving long long speeches they let the people go and moved on to others. This to us was like theater. At night they built a big fireplace outside and they denounced the “bad” people. They gave them hats and they denounced them still by the light of the fire. But we had never seen this situation before. So we just watched it in amazement.
And then this went on year after year. They kept coming back. They came twice, the first time I saw them but the second time I was in the hills.
It was during that time that I saw this old lady who was denounced by them. A couple of years later they came back. Nobody tried to stop them and nobody fought with them. When they first arrived we thought they were interesting.
A couple of years later one day. They came again. People said, a group is coming. Then they called a big meeting for all the villagers. And this time I saw they had one lady, very short and thin, and one of the Red Guards, said to her, they had a dunce cap for her. He said to her, “Were you the leader’s wife. You eat good food. You live ina big house. How could you take the money from these people.” She said, she spoke Chinese, I don’t know anything. I know I stay int he leaders house and have good food to eat. How do I take that food from the people. I don’t know. I grow my own food. The Red Guard said, The Valley people are always like this. A lot of people started screaming and denouncing and chanting slogans at this woman.
Only later when I studied the history of communism in Shanghai did I understand what was going on/ But at the time it was all very confusing to us. I am sure, in the village, even today, people are not sure what happened. And then they started to yell and chant and then that was it. Then the meeting was finished. Then I was with my mom. I didn’t understand. I went to my Mom and asked her what was going on. My Mom had this fire place and we had no light in the house. And I didn’t understand anything. And then, we went back home and we were sitting by the fireplace drinking tea. My mother always drank butter tea in the middle of the night and I asked her why they did this to her good friend.
My mother told me her story. I remember I didn’t really understand it. But she tried to explain because it involved the outside world.
This woman was from Sichuan from the city of Ya’an. In 1942, this leader, La Bao Shen, and there was a big Liu Wen Hui, was the big army leader there. And he asked this man in the Mosuo to meet with him to help establish security in the region. In 1943 he went to Ya’an to get some guns. We also had some problems with the Yi people at that time who were coming down from the mountains to live by the lake. He wanted to guns to defend ourselves. So the man who was the gun dealer. But the gun dealer had a beautiful daughter. And then when he went to get the guns, the guy who was in charge of the gun business, this gun dealer, he had a daughter. He was the father of this girl. When La Bao Shen saw this girl, he wanted a Chinese woman to be one of his wives, he wanted someone who understood reading and writing and speaking Mandarin and to keep accounts. An educated woman. So at that time this girl was in a woman’s college in the town. She was the most beautiful girl in the whole school. And her father was a businessman and worked with the army, so he was a prominent man. So our leader saw her and wanted her for his wife. So he sent friends to ask for her hand in marriage. But the girl did not want to leave at that time, but her parents insisted. So they had a big wedding at the Ya’an hotel. The next day she was sitting in a sedan chair to be carried back to Lugu Lake. They walked for one month through the mountains.
She had been a college student. She became known as the wife of the last leader. After him there was no leader of all the people. The Chinese had selected him but there was no successor to him. He was the leader for us to the Chinese. So actually she was his third wife. But the other two wives were not really married to him. They had a walking marriage. My mother said to me that when she came to Lugu Lake she had red jacket and a white skirt and rode a black horse, and she had two pistols she wore in holsters. She was very beautiful. Of course, that kind of person with her clothes, was like a dream to the Mosuo.
But she at first was unhappy in Lugu Lake. After the war, then came the revolution.
Then after the war, she wore this army cap. With the red star in it. Dressed very poorly after that. Every night she spent by the fireplace with the Red Guards telling them all that she had done wrong. Forcing her, bending her down, binding her arms to tell everyone what she did wrong.
One night I went looking for vegetables. I was walking near the lake carrying a sickle to cut some vegetables, walking by the lake, and I saw her passing by, she was unhappy. So I told her, Don’t go with these people. Because they hurt you. She said, Don’t worry, I will come to see your Mama tonight and talk to her about it. This was the first time I had a conversation with her.
But after that they took her to the city and put her in jail. So she disappeared after that. Her husband was dead by that time. She had many children and they were left behind. She was released five years later and returned to the village. Her children were raised by the other villagers at that time until she returned.
She had three children with the leader.
Now the two of them are good friends in the village.
5> The Rules of the Walking Marriage
A walking marriage has a long history among the Mosuo. It is not easy, but it is very sweet and very romantic and very exciting to my people. There are countless romantic and funny stories about it. Every Mosuo men and women is romantic. And they all have many love stories rather than one, as in the rest of the world. In the Sichuan, the people call the walking marriage. The men have to climb into the flower chambers of the young girl. The flower chambers are on the second story of the house, and the men have to climb up to the flower chamber. To the balcny. In Yunnan they call it the walk-walk marriage, which means you walk to your lover at night and walk away in the morning. One way to explain is to walk to the marriage or climb to the marriage, to your spouse. That means you walk to the house of the woman.
In my village, to say you are going to take a walk-walk means you are going to make love.
It is better, I believe than the Chinese or American systems. And it always remains romantic.
It is a beautiful rite. Every night, the middle of the night is like honey. Around Lugu lake. The mountains are huge blue and green background. This is the backdrop for the walking marriage. The mountain paths, you can always see the young men with their horses, boots and tibetan hats and their colorful belts, and their colorful clothing. They visit the Asha house, the house of their prospective lovers. They don’t just tie up their horse. They tie him up and give him some food. They come into the village. If they arrive too early they stay away from the houses and feed their own horses. Then only when it is very dark do they approach the flower chambers of the young women, by moonlight.
At this time everyone else is totally asleep. Then the young men go to the flower chambers of the girls. But they have to be very careful. If the young woman desires the young man, too, then there are few problems and the practice is easy. But they have to secretively approach. They sing soft love songs. They also have secret signals. They throw pebbles at the roof or make a sound like a cat or a bird call. And if it is the over, then they unlock the door for him, unbar the door for him.
The woman also often wants to see how determined the young man is. We don’t have a lock, so we put a piece of wood across the door. Some of the boys have a way to deal with this, they try to find a way to move the board, forcing it. But the girls find a way to keep it closed. So the young men try to find a way to talk to the girls and try to learn to deal with them. The girls are always together in a group talking and the guys are always together in a group talking.
In the mountains we have these trees that have a hollowed out trunk. Most Mosuo family have dogs. The dogs stay under the flower chamber. So they put this wood, core, and they put rice and corn into a pice of porous wood, and throw it to the dogs so they have to chew on it and then they quiet down. So they have to take care of the dog first, put rice or meat inside the wood and throw it into the yard and the dogs go after the food. Then the young man has to approach the flower chamber and climb up to it. Then the guy comes to the gate. Most of the doors are made of wood, and it is noisey when you open the door.
They have to bring some oil to put on the door hinge so it won’t make noise. They get oil from bears, and put it on the door hinge not to make noise. Then they use a knife to slide through the door and move the wood barring the door.
But a determined young girl can keep a man out. They say, I am very cold. They stand outside the door and try to talk their way in. The mosquitoes bite me, I can’t stand it any more, beautiful girl open the door for me.
When I was young, I had an experience with this. One of my girl friends who was six years older than me, had me stay with her in her flower chamber. I really liked her and found her to be very beautiful. I was not 13 yet and so did not have my flower chamber. Her name is Jetsama. One night I stayed with her. I slept on the floor beside her bed. There is only one bed in the flower chamber. One night I was alseep and I heard some strange noises. I also heard pebbles hitting the door and the balcony. And I heard them hitting the wood roof also. So I asked Jetsama about this. And she pretended she was sleeping. I was afraid my voice was too loud. She was afraid I would talk and wake up the entire family. She said, it is a cat on the roof. Dont worry. Go to sleep. But I knew this was not a cat walking. So I opened my eyes, and I noticed the door slowly moving. I was so scared I covered my head with a blanket. But then I was still curious, so I peeked out from the blanket. I looked out and saw no one was in the door. Then, I heard whispering from Jetsama’s bed in the dark. Still, I thought I understood what was happening, but I could not make out the whispering. I was too scared. Finally, I was tired and I fell asleep. The next morning I asked if an Asha had come to the room, and she said, No, I think you are dreaming. I said, OK, if you don’t want to tell me the truth, that is OK.
Two nights later I went to sleep with her again and the young man came to the room again. The same ritual was followed and this time I saw him come to her bed. So when I heard the noise from the bed, I had prepared something. I preparted a piece of wood to bar the door from the outside, and then I went home.
The next morning Jetsama and her lover could not open the door. They made noice and her mother had to come and unbar the door. His name was Nombu and all the young men laughed at him because he had to beg her mother to open the door for him in the morning. Then they made fun of him for weeks after that. They said he had been choked by the girls milke, he had become drunk from her milk and could not find his way out.
The walking marriage is supposed to be secret. You must arrive very late at night and leave very early in the morning. For a long time Nombu could not be among the other men because he was so embarrassed. The Mosuo people seem never to tire of this marriage. The girls never say no to the guys, but just give them different signals. The girls tell the guys to come and to sing for her or play the flute for her. But there is only one she will open the door for. So that is what makes life in the country very exciting. The competition. But you have to be secretive. Then after that Jetsama and Nombu has an open relationship and he came to the house to have tea with the family. After that she thanked me for the opportunity. I had changed her life style, and this is always a choice. But after that they broke up, because she found a lover she liked much more. And Nobu never went to her house again and she never opened the door for him again.
I heard so many stories told by the girls. They were so proud to tell of their experiences. And it was so exciting. And so I wanted to grow up faster and some day have my own flower chamber and entertain my own lovers.
The Red Guards also had difficulties with the walking marriage and wanted to end it. Although they accused some of the people of being rich, this wasn’t true. Hnone of the Mosuo were rich but there were some distinctions in what some families owned. Yet this was never the source of a problem among us.
But Mosuo people work very hard. There had been a revolution for so many years. But here in our valley there was still free love. They said, if you do not change this dirty thing, how can you be part of a Communist nation. If you don’t change this practice, how can the Mosuo people progress into the future.
So they started hiding somewhere, and as soon as they saw the Asha, they captured them and put them in a big room and questioned them, interrogated them and accused them of crimes. The people, of course, had no idea what the Red Guards were talkinga bout. We didn’t know what was wrong with them, and they had no idea what was wrong with us. They wanted to have the people sign marriage papgers and live together like a couple.
Then one evening the Red Guards were hiding and they saw a young man enter the flower chamber of a young woman. The girls name was Sun Na. They said she was the most beautiful girl in the village with the most beautiful singing voice. Already she had been seeing the same yhoung man in her flower chamber for three years. Then one day the Red Guard caught them. They were in bed and she only had a blouse on at the time and they dragged the couple from the bed and brought them outside. They called an assembly of the villagers and they had her stand there all night naked from the waist down while they accused her of sleeping with several different lovers. Many of the villagers were forced to watch this and they began chanting buddhist scripture. They knew that this was wrong, was evil.
The young woman was finally freed. But she had been completely humiliated. The next day she rowed a boat to the middle of Lugu Lake and jumped out and drowned herself. She was from a family that was not rich.
All of her relatives then began looking for the Red Guards and swore revenge. But when the Red Guards heard that her body had been found, they immediately fled also. But before they left they went to an island in the middle of the lake and destroyed the Buddhist temple there -- for the second time the Red Guards had done this. Then they left.
Because of her death the people were very upset. And after that all of the couples that had been forced to marry moved back to their own families and burned their marriage certificates.
But there was great sadness in the village after that. It was like the whole village was dead. For many months there was no walk-walk and no singing or dancing. It was as though something had died in every family in the village.
Coming of Age
Every Mosuo girl has to go through a coming of age ceremony. It significes that you have grown up and are now an adult, you have to say goodbye to your youthful day dreams after that. Mosuo girls at the age of 13 are already mature. The boys put on beautiful coats. The girls get their own flower chamber after this.
Just before my 13th birthday. My mother gave me this very big ceremony. It was near the time of the Chinese Spring Festival. Almost close to the Festival my mother began preparing for my ceremony by making a turban, and new skirt and blouse and vests. She had to have the right materials for it. Everybody every year can only have a limited amount of material. So she started sewing herself at the time from cotton and silk and linen.
Then also they used horse hair for making vests and belts. It was close to the festival time that all of my clothing was finished.
For the grown up ceremony, the Lama and Daba have to be invited to pray for you and to pray for your grandparents and great grandparents. But at that time there was the cultural revolution, so we could only do it with our own family. I was so scared at the time, yet also excited by the prospect of becoming a grown member of the family. And also all of the relatives were coming to see my bare baody. But this is something every Mosuo girl has to experience.
I went to the lake and cut lily pads for the horses, and I jumped in the lake and washed. I bathed every day preparing for the ceremony. You have to be washed perfectly. The lake at that time was very cold. But I still kept washing. I had to wash everything clean. I looked at my body in the water and felt good about myself.
The night I will never forget. I didn’t sleep the night before. I was too excited. In the firelight I could see my mother preparing the food and wine for the next day, tea and salt and meat and other little shrines around the fire place for the ceremony. There also had to be incense and flowers. We had a cemetery where we had to visit. We also had a Buddhist shrine for the passed elders. But at that time every family had to have a picture of Mao in the shrine also. And two very white sea shells to be blown by the lamas. The night my uncles, sisters and mother were around the fire drinking tea and eating pumpkin seeds. That night my mother told me the story of when I was born. And she told me all about the coming of age ceremony.
Every year, every December 31, Mosuo people don’t sleep. They stay up all night on that night. The family gathers and eats and talks at that time. My mother told old old stories about the past and the family. So she said that the night, every year, at the end of the year, the God in the sky, they have to give this people and the animals. The night he said, assigned to the white swan, God said who wishes to live for 1,000 years. And the swan answered. Then he came to 100 years and the eagle answered that it wished to live 100 years. When he counted to 60 the dog answered and god gave him that life time. And when he came to 30 the people were sleeping and woke up and he gave the humans the life span of 30. But the human thought that 13 was too short a life. So God told them he could not give them more, but he said that if they wished a longer life, if you have talent you can bargain with another animal and change life spans with them. So a lot of animals didn’t want to change. Only dogs offered to change their life span for a life time. So people and dogs exchanged lives, people got 60 and dogs got 13 years. So at the age of 13 we have this ceremony.
Every year the last day of the year he gives people their age. It depends on who answers faster. 1000 for the swan, 100 for the eagle, 60 the dog answered and at 13 people were sleeping and awakened and then had to live those years. This is an old story. So they changed with the other animal, the dog. So that determines, roughly, the life span. That is why the 13th year is important for us.
So we were sitting by the fireplace, listening to my mother tell the story of creation and the life span. When I was young my mother told me these stories of creation. I loved to listen to my mother’s stories.
She also told me the story of the Mosuo people. Since we live in the mountains, one mother and daughter, they lived together and worked together, they plant and harvest crops together, they cut the trees. Every year they have a very hard life. One day the mother died and left one little girl. She missed her mother very much. The little girl continued to work hard but missed her mother very much. She returned to the place again and again where they cremated her mother. Every day she mourned her mother. When you die you still have your soul, there is something immortal. The soul felt sorry for the girl. One day the daughter was lying near the spot where they cremated her mother. That day the tree began to talk, “My poor girl. Every day your mother sees you but you cannot see me. Don’t bring food to me every day. As long as you take a stone back, put it beside the fireplace and then each day, just put a little bit on the stone fo rme. So you do not have to bring food for me to this place.” That is why in the Mosuo place we have a stone shrine near the fireplace. This is the practice that this girl brought to the Mosuo. Every day before you eat you place food there for your ancestors. So whenever we come home, we put a present first on the stone, for the people who have lived before you.
When she told me this story. I loved listening to the stories of our people. This is the only time I can be quiet, I was enthralled by these stories.
I read a lot when I went to the University. I was extremely curious about the myths and history and behavior of people.
And when the rooster crows in the morning and that means the day is breaking. My sister and I went to the lake to get water and we carried it back. You have to go before the sun comes out to get the clean water. The first one to get water in the morning, gets what we call lucky water. So every morning before it is light my sister and I go to the lake to get this water in the morning. Sometimes we have to take torches with us to get the water. The morning my mother went to the lake and carried the lucky water back home. Then she began reading Buddhist texts. Then when the sun came out from the mountains, my relatives began to show up at our house. My mother was so proud. This was her second girl for the Mosuo people. My relatives and village people came in and sat down and she brought out the food she had cooked, which was supposed to show everyone what a talented cook she was. So you could see the happiness on her face on this day.
Today is the day for me, of course. Relatives, we have to meet all the relatives at that time and they fill they house. My uncle made butter tea and my brothers and sister served food to the people in the house.
Then the Lama came and blew the long horns to start the ceremony, then they blew on the sea shells to make other sounds and chanted. And then my mother asked them to bring a dog into the room. They gave the dog food and thanked him. At that time the life span of me and the dog was exchanged. Then they read the lucky words for thanking the dogs. The Mosuo people never eat dog and treat them kindly for sharing their life span with us.
My other then had a very respected elder woman in the village to come and help with the ceremony. She sat in the Center of the room. Near the center beam that holds up the house. Then she takes my two bare feet and she touched one of my feet to the center pillar and another foot she touched against preserved meat. This meant I would never in my life have to worry about shelter nor about food.
Then this lady undressed me, taking off all my clothing in the center of the room. Then she commented on my beauty. She said when you were young your mother tried to give you away two times, but you could not stay away. You belong in this house because you are such a beautiful girl. This is what she said when she was undressing me. Then an elderly man said, “Just beautiful is not enough. Name has a good heart and a good voice too. She sings very beautifully. In the future she will become famous. She will be different.” Another Lama said, “Latso, does your family only make beautiful girls?” Then they started singing and at that stage I began to put on my new clothing. As they sang this lady dressed me. My mother then brought out a jade bracelet that had been in our family for several generations and put it on my wrist. Then the relatives all gave me gifts and sang other songs.
Then I was taken to the upstairs fireplace and the downstairs fireplace. I prayed at each of the fireplaces. I prayed to my two brothers, the lamas, my mother, my relatives, bowing my head to the floor for each of them. While I was doing this I saw a tall handsome man come into the room and sit down with the other relatives. He seemed to me different from everyone else in the room. My mother whispered to me that I must bow and pray before this man also. I knew when I looked into his eyes before bowing, that this man was my mother’s lover, the man who was my father. So I did a very special prayer for him. He took something out from his bag and gave me a very expensive gift -- silver ear rings, and rings and a scarf and a beautiful dress. I looked at him and saw my own face in his. And when he looked then at my mother and I could see the love in their eyes. She had a lot of deep emotion in her face. When this was finished, my mom prepared dinner for everyone in the garden. Then, each village, each family had one representative. And then, in the middle of the night, all of the young people from the village came to the house and we built a large fire outside and we began dancing in front of the house. In the Center of the party was me, dancing and very happy. And I saw a lot of the young men in the village looking at me. I expected them to come calling on my flower chamber in the next days. Nights. My mother made this special wine from corn. And we drank several very large glasses of it from a water jug. We finished several barrels of the wine. All night long my mother was talking, very happy about what was happening.
My mother had prepared a flower chamber for me, on the second floor in the east of the building. But it seemed easy for young men to come to the room. Downstairs was the stable, and if they wanted to get to the room, they could climb up easily from the stable to my balcony and window. So that night before I went to sleep I closed and barred my door and window and then brought three dogs downstairs beneath my window.
My mom had prepared the flower chamber for me. It was an old room that had been used for something else. New bed, flowers all over the room, new blankets and two bottles of win and a small fireplace.
I had not learned much about sex. I had spent too much time alone. But I was scared now at what was going to happen. So I was afraid, I’d spent too much time in the mountains.
So I really admired my girl friends, they really grew up and were mature at the age of 13 and began entertaining their lovers at that age. But I didn’t know for sure how to deal with the young men, so the whole night, I was half asleep and heard pebble son the roof and heard boys singing. And I didn’t answer because I was too afraid. It was a very strange night.
I didn’t answer. I was too afraid at the time. After the ceremony my mother also had to take me to other villages to visit other relatives.
We went to the Yunnan area to visit other relatives. We lived on the border of the Sichuan and Yunnan area. After that some guys asked me why I didn’t open the door. They said the dogs made too much noise. My mom took me to visit other families. I saw during the trip how beautiful the region was. We sang was we traveled. My moma rowed me in the boat and I sang for her. I sang songs about her. She said I should sing love songs. So I said I didn’t know any and she taught them to me. The words were beautiful. We were on Lugu lake and my mom was rowing. And I watched my mother’s face. I imagined that these were the kinds of songs that she used to sing for her lovers. The sky was blue and the lake was blue and the two of us were singing old love songs from the Mosuo. Today I think about this and think it was really sweet.
The Outside World
In the summer of that year, the flowers were in bloom and all of the birds were migrating back. It was 1983 and I was 13 working in the mountain at that time caring for the yak and the sheep and going to the lake harvesting the vegetables. I watched the birds flying each day and wanted to go with them, to sprout wings and go somewhere else. I wanted to travel with the horsemen and see more of the world. I was always the first one to run down to the village to see the horsemen but we had little to trade with them.
Then one day a group of three people came to our village from the County Cultural Bureau. They returned with the horsemen. They were looking for some country singers. This time people were happy because they brought in some strangers. They said that if you could sing you could travel far away from the village. They talked about stars and superstars and that meant nothing to us. These three Chinese men wanted to have the people sing for them. So many of the villagers sang for them. They became very excited when they listened to us.
They brought with them this big black box that could remember people’s voice. We surrounded this box and then they made it remember people’s voices and songs. It was incredible to us.
People from other villages came by to see this box. And again and again they demonstrated the memory of this box. The Chinese men recorded the songs of the people and then later they’d play it back. We were just amazed.
This was the most amazing thing we’d ever seen. That night we built a big fire and everyone took turns singing for them. Everyone also was still amazed at the way the box could remember. One 60 year old man sang a long story of our history. The old guy asked how the box had such a good memory. He said I just sing the song once and it remembers every word of the box. I tried to sing fast to confuse it but it still remember. And other man said, I am so old, I have never seen anything like this. If I tell people in my village about this they will never believe me.
A young man offered one yak for the box. They said no. So he offered a horse also. That is a lot of money. He said that it belonged to the government. Where can I buy it. You have to buy it from Japan. Where is Japan. It is an island off the coast of China. The young man was upset. He said, why does it have to be an island. If it was on land I could walk to that place and buy one.
Everyone was so happy and excited to sing and we danced all the dances for them. When they went back to sleep these men were still sleeping by the fireplace. After three days of auditions and performances they picked me and two other girls to return with them to Yanyuan to sing in a contest there.
My mother was so excited by this. She got out many of her best clothes for me to take with me on the trip with these men to the city to sing. She was very proud. And at the same time she was upset that I was leaving. Yet she knew this would bring honor to our family and to our village and people too, so I should do it. And then in two days, my mother made a very beautiful new traditional outfit for me. So I went to the city. One of the horsemen guided us as we left, and he was to bring back the horses we rode on. The day before we left people from the village came to our house to hold a big dance and to bring food for us to take with us. My mother was very proud of me that night, as was everyone in the village. This was a big event. We had no jealousy or anger with each other at that time, so everyone shared in the joy of the selection and they expected big things of us. Everyone was better because of this. The entire village supported us. When you grow up in this kind of place you never have to worry about your performance or to have anxiety. Very truly people support you. If you are happy you sing. If you are unhappy you cry. This kind of place, I grew up in. When I first visited the outside world I had difficulty with the people because I was too straightforward and too honest -- and blunt. And too nice and innocent also. I didn’t think people would take advantage of me the way they do in the cities. It is a different way of life, altogether.
But still today, I don’t want to change. This is part of the personality of my people and I don’t want to change.
The morning we left, all of my girl friends walked with us out of the village. We all rode a horse and we were like heroes. My mother reminded me to be nice and to be careful. She reminded me always to say thank you to people. And for our tradition, people never carry the reigns of the horse, in our culture old people don’t do this for young people. But now my mother did this for me. This kind of love is unusual. She treated me like a village hero. Truly, from the bottom of my heart, wherever I went in the world, I did meet all kinds of people, rich and famous people, stars in the film and the performing arts, who had many friends. But they had no friends like the ones I had in my village the first time I left. It was a beautiful and loving parting that we all experienced.
The mountain road circled and doubled back as it went through the mountains. When we were near the top of the mountain I turned back and could still see my mother watching me leave. So, I can I know she’s a, I could still tell it was here in the distance. Her daughter was leaving and she soon could not see her any more. Soon I would be only in her heart. Her face was to the wind and I kept looking back until I could no longer see her and she was lost in the distance.
When we were in the mountains, normally, we thought it was a lot of fun. But to ride a horse like that for so many days up and down the mountain paths, was very difficult. We developed pain in our feet and our backs. Our feet became numb. I realized at this time that the horsemen were bow legged. The horsemen who rode the horses for so long their legs seemed to bow. It was very uncomfortable for the girls especially. So the girls began to walk and lead the horses rather than ride them. The three Chinese people joked about us. They laughed and said that all the peole in the outside world will think that Lugu Lake girls have bow legs. We drank water from the mountain streams and ate the food the village people gave us. We made a fire at night and slept out in the open the first night. The Chinese leader said, look, this is a million star hotel. But we had no idea what he meant since we’d never stayed in any hotels and didn’t know the star rating. When he tried to explain it to us we still didn’t understand. A couple of days we walked and then we came to a Yi village. When we were riding along the top of the mountains, we stayed in tents at night. But sometimes in the middle of the night you could see millions of stars, wo we slept outside. And then we also heard the waterfalls, like distant music. And we talked to the Chinese men who told us all sorts of fantastic stories about their world. We were excited by this. I was thinking, at that time of my life, I was very happy, I had not seen that much and didn’t have many needs. It seemed so easy to be happy. My heart was completely filled. But years later, one of my friends wrote about that time.
Next morning early, we walked and walked up and down the mountain trails until we came to an Yi village. We were welcomed by them.
I feel happy to find them and to be welcomed by them. It was on the fourth day of our journey. We could see from mountain to mountain, and people could communicate, but because of the deep ravines, people could see and talk to each other, but they were still half a day apart on the trails.
We were on one side of a mountain and saw the village on the other side, but it took us two days to get there. Because the mountains were very steep at that time. So it took us six days before we eventually got to the road to take us to the city. We finally came to a road. But in the meantime we stopped with the Yi.
They were very nice. They invited us into their house and prepared tea for them. We sat by their fireplace. We were so tired and happy to be inside.
The Yi man brought back a big sheep with him, alive. He put it in front of our face and let us look at it, in the face. Then the sheep made a noise and I recognized it from tending the sheep. The sheep wanted something salty. This Yi man, held the sheep near us, said a chant in the Yi language, and then a very quickly with his hand, took out his knife and he very carefully cut it open and cut out it’s heart and gave it to one of the Chinese men and asked him to barbecue it on the fire place. I was completely shocked by this. The Chinese man explained to us that this was the highly respect for a guest to prepare a sheep’s heart for them. Only if they have a guest from far away, they take a four-footed animal and, and they never use a two footed animal. That is how they honor their guests. And with their friends they are very generous. If they become good friends they remain loyal for life, they said. They will do illegal things for you, even.
But if you have a problem with them, they carry a grudge for generations. So they honor their words. If you have no problem with them, they are good and faithful friends. So they barbecued the sheeps heart, put salt on it and each of us had once piece for dinner. Then they used a large wok to cook the sheep, and cut it into small pieces and cooked it in a wok. Many Yi girls came in and sang for us, too. One of the girls sang a song I recognized from Amoni.
The next day we walked for another five hours and we found a very nice road. We were so happy then. We waited and heard a loud noise from behind us. The horses got very uneasy. This was the first time I saw a car. I thought it was an animal with such big eyes, running so fast. I had never seen anything like it. We trembled and it roared past us. And it left us in dust. And then we saw it running so fast. We thought it would be wonderful to have animals that fast in our village.
We walked down the road with our horses. Then we dismounted and waited. Finally a gree jeep appeared and pulled up for us. We unloaded our horses and packed our stuff in the jeep. And we said goodbye to the horsemen who began his journey back to our village.
So we got into the jeep. The girls were in the back. We were so happy we didn’t have to walk. But when the car started to run, we could smell the exhaust fumes. And the road was dusty and bumpy. At first we were very happy. And then we started not to feel well. Then suddenly all three of us were throwing up, all of the meal from the Yi village, all over inside the jeep. We became very sick. I threw up next to the driver, on his shoulder. And the driver stopped the car and cleaned out the inside and the girls sat beside the road. The Chinese said what a waste the Yi feast was for us. I hated the car from that time on and didn’t want to sit in it.
We got back in the car and as we drove thought we were going to die. It took us several hours before we arrived in Yanyuan.
They took us to a guest house to stay. We had never seen anything like this before. It had glass windows. It was just like a dream. Beautiful clean floors.
The most incredible thing was there was a light bulb in the ceiling with a cord attached to it. We pulled and the light came on and pulled again and light went off. When we saw this we decided we had to bring these back to our village. We stood there and pulled it over and over and over again until one of the Chinese men came to us and told us to stop it or we’d break it. So he frightened us.
Then we decided to take it back home and put it in our houses so we wouldn’t have to build a fire.
Then we discovered the toilet. We stayed on the third floor. We thought it was a waterfall device. We flushed it and the water came. We flushed it over and over and over again until again there was a knock at the door and the Chinese man asked us to stop. When they explained to us it was a toilet, we couldn’t figure out where the waste went. It was one of the great mysteries of the city to us.
At the dinner table they brought us rice that was whiter than anything than we’d ever seen before, and tea. The next day they took us to a market where we saw things for sale and saw people handling money. We had never seen anything like this before, people trading colorful pieces of paper for goods. We also saw girls chewing gum and this too was a mystery to us. The Chinese guy then bought us some ice cream. I thought, this is summer and this is cold, where do they get the ice for it. We had no idea what a refrigerator was.
But the tour guide for us, the Chinese man, said we gave him a very bad headache.
We had to perform that day. There were fifty singers from different minority groups in the country -- Meo, Naxi, Yi-- were all there. The competition began. The three of us dressed in our traditional clothing. When the TV hostess introduced us and explained. We had no idea what she was saying since our Chinese guide communicated with us only in Yi. No one else there spoke our language. They pushed us to the stage and said it was our turn, and they drew a circle and stood in it and then they told us to sing. And then the lights came on, and we couldn’t see anything. Slowly we began to see the audience and make them out. Then one of the guys started playing the flute -- they brought one guy with us to play the flute. We started singing then the Lugu Lake song. So we sang and performed. And when we’d finished the audience applauded and we didn’t know what to do. But the people didn’t want us to leave. So this was my first experience. They asked us to sing another song. And so we did.
We returned to the guest room and the man who kept it congratulated us and took us to a place to eat a dessert which, again was ice cream.
We won first prize and they gave each of us a little red certificate book. And the newspaper referred to us as the “Lugu Lake Girls.” People noticed us and greeted us and waved and we got a taste of what fame was. But the idea of singing as a career still we thought was ridiculous, since every one in Lugu Lake sang. If you sang well, then they said you had a good voice, but you still cooked and cut wood and tended the animals. But in the city, we found, if you did good people greeted you and gave you a prize and bought tickets to see you. I noticed this, and began to tell myself that I liked life in this city. It was fascinating.
We talked about gifts to bring back to their lovers. They were older than me and they had lovers in the village. But I was thinking about singing more, continuing this. They were thinking about going home already and I was thinking about staying longer. So, I thought, sometimes, beautiful dreams can come true. Sometimes opportunity makes dreams come true.
After that the guide told us we had to go Dalian to perform. And two of the girls thought they were going to leave their lovers further behind. Sichan is the next town we performed in, the wider competition.
But then we the two of them were not very happy. First they didn’t like the idea of riding in the car again and they had not seen the Aisha again for a long time. So we parted at that point. I was younger and had no lover at home. Two of the girls they threw up and they could not sleep on the beds. But I was no longer car sick and enjoyed it. And in the car I started singing and the driver began giving me fruit and candy to sing more songs. And I sang most of the way. When I was in the mountains I sang for the mountains, the yaks, the waters, the greass and nobody gave me a thing. I could sing from morning to night. Then I’m sitting in a car, someone tells me what a beautiful voice I have and giving me treats.
So in the new city there were many cars and people. The leader warned us not to walk far because he was sure we’d get lost and it would be very difficult to find us. So he worried about losing us in the city. In the countryside, of course, we were never lost, but here it was different. We could run everywhere we anted. And we always found a way back home. The first time we saw the hotel with the carpet, red carpet. In my home town there were only small pieces of carpet for the elderly people. Here they had it on all the floors and on the stairways. Then we were just got back to the hotel for a short time and someone came to our room and said they knew we were from Lugu Lake and they wanted to do an interview with us. They carried this black box with them that had a pig’s face -- a television camera. This was the first time we saw this pig face box. And then we saw a monitor in another room with our pictures on it. “How can we become two?” she said with shock when she saw the picture. “How can they do that to us. If we let them, they’ll take our soul.” Suddenly we were all panicked. We thought we would die when the turned off the pig face. They said this was no problem, suddenly, and were sympathetic. Our Chinese guide talked with us and tried to explain to us what was happening. Finally, reluctantly, we let them film us.
In the city our performance was before a much larger audience. We felt a bit sick from the car ride, and we were also very tired, we felt because we said and heard too much. We watched the other performers. We walked on the street but could not buy anything because we had no money. We won first place again. We didn’t need to practice because we knew the songs so well. This was a big city, and we understood money now and we thought they would give us a financial reward and we could buy things for our friends. But instead of money they took us to the airport and took a picture of us in front of an airplane. That was our prize. Then we were taken back to the train station, to watch the trains arrive and leave and took more pictures of us. We were tired of this, though.
We were impressed by how long the train was, and how loud it was, and stronger than the cars. Stronger than a thousand yaks, one of the girls said. We heard the yaks make noises in the mountains and make echoes. And it was quite powerful. But the voice of the train was louder than anything we’d heard before. We couldn’t wait to tell our parents about it.
Beijing I Will Be Back
After performing in the city they sent back the two girl friends and the flautist to Lugu Lake. But I wanted to go on. I was excited by the city and the competition was to continue. But the other girls didn’t want to. I agreed to go on to the national singing contest for minorities in Beijing. I decided to go on alone without them. I was a little homesick but I also found it to be exciting. They had me sing with a Tibetan girl. This time it was more professional so we had to go to rehearsal. We stayed in the same room and she sang in Tibetan. We couldn’t communicate well with each other.
We communicated with the Yi language also, so each of us spoke a little bit of Yi. Because I talked to my mentor and guide in Yi also, but still did not understand Mandarin. I was, however, picking up some of the Sichuan dialect, but I found it very difficult. In two weeks I learned a little bit of it and got along better. Everybody from different areas and spoke different languages, but we had so much fun together. Then we went to the two days and one night trip and came to Beijing. When I heard the Beijing mandarin spoken I thought it was so beautiful. When we arrived in Beijing at the train station, I was shocked because of the size of the station. So many people were here, as many as all the Mosuo, I thought. I had never seen so many people together before. And it was crowded. As we left the station people stepped on my heel and pulled my shoes off so I had to carry them.
And we had never seen a city so big, either. They took us to a hotel. In Beijing, the competition was very intense. But again I won the first prize myself. I sang the Yi song, “My mother’s daughter.” They paid me 200 Yuan for the performance. All in 1 yuan notes, but it looked like a very large pile of money to me. I’d never seen so much in my life before.
They brought reporters and tv crews to me for interviews. I felt really proud. I didn’t know what I was going to do with so much money. I needed to buy something for my mother, but I didn’t need all they gave me. In my home town I could buy two horses with this money and I began dreaming of that, and perhaps also a cow for more milk. But how am I going to keep this much money. I’d never held so much before. I didn’t want to leave it in the hotel room. Carrying it I thought was much safer. So I asked this receptionist in the hotel, a needle and thread and sewed the money inside my underwear. We had to go to tourist sights for the next two days. And I was continually touching the money on my stomach and the man asked, do you have a stomach ache and I said no no. The horsemen had always warned of thieves in the cities and dishonesty, and I didn’t want to lose the money because I knew it would make my mom’s life better. So I saw the great wall and the summer palace. I performed at the great hall of the people.
I saw all the great historical monuments. I loved it and I promised myself that some day I would return to the city.
I returned to Lugu Lake. The village sky is extremely beautiful, but I began to see it wasn’t high enough for me. I wanted new things. And I decided soon after my return to run away. I had seen the outside world and had new curiosities and dreams.
But I was taken by train the Chengdu from Beijing on the train. The train crossed some beautiful mountains on the way back to Sichuan province. I watched out the window and saw the beautiful moon at night and began thinking. At that time, I was still just a kid, but maybe I was too poor. Maybe I had bigger dreams by seeing bigger possibilities. I felt like I experienced so much for my age. My head was swimming. These were things I could never have dreamed of. I felt shaken, I felt like I had awakened from some sort of sleep, I had seen so many wonders of the world and was now thinking of seeing more of it.
I had never been to school and had never spent a day learning to read or write. So there was no possibility of me going to school any more and if I returned to the city I knew that I was too much of a bumpkin to make it. When I got back to Chengdu I was congratulated and given a banquet for doing good for the province. And back in the other cities it was the same. But the next day in Yanyuan the crowd was gone and some of my hometown horsemen arrived to pick me up. And the city was still asleep and there was nobody in the street, and so I got on one of the horses and we began the long difficult journeys back through the mountains to my home village. I felt like a hero back in my village. It took five days to return. Already people had gathered when they saw us coming to congratulate me for all the face I had given to the village and the people.
I tried to tell people about all the things I’d seen -- the trains and cars and the planes. But even the horsemen could not understand what I had seen or what had happened. Nobody had ever been to Beijing before. I knew they thought I must be dreaming up some of these things. They were just too incredible. They had big gatherings where i’d tell them of my experiences. I told them about TVs and bathrooms on the third floor with the waterfall and the light with the string and gum and money. In the middle of the night I was sitting with my mother by the fireplace and I gave her the 200 yuan and told her it was the prize money. She didn’t know what it was. But I explained to her what she could buy with it. She tried to count it but there was more than she could count. She didn’t use it, she stored it with the lamas at the shrine. She put it in the temple. It was considered lucky to keep the money stored at the temple.
I became a special person in the village after that. Instead of sending me into the mountains they gave me a job working in the local school. I started working in the school as a cook for the teachers and the students. The job was a special job, considered. Every morning I had to go to the mountain to get wood for a fire and then to make breakfast for the teachers and then cook lunch for the teachers, tend the pigs during the day and make dinner for them at night. But I had the teachers eating the food. The teachers were regular teachers. I did this for one month and I became restless. Every day was the same thing, doing breakfast lunch and dinners. And if I had never gone to the city, I would be really happy with this job. I went out and came back and this job made me already unhappy. And before when I looked at the village I loved it, but now I remembered the lights of the city and the sounds and I thought this was gloomy. Now I felt less and less happy. More and more I wanted to leave. And when the Asha’s came to my room and looked at me with their hot eyes and passionate songs and I wanted to get out of the village. My heart remained somewhere outside Lugu Lake. I was cooking. I thought I could be singing or dancing on the stage in Beijing or some other city. Nobody seemed to appreciate my talent now. I thought the world was not fair. Some people got to enjoy the life in the city and some people had to live like this in the mountains. I began to wonder about my mother and wondered why she stayed there. Now I have regrets about those thoughts. I found myself also dreaming about ice cream I had eaten on the outside. Each night I dreamed of ice cream and tasted it and could not explain it to the other girls. I talked with the girls who had gone with me to Yanyuan and asked them if they ever dreamed about getting out and they said they didn’t.
I still cooked but my mind was on other things. And that, as a result, I began to overcook the rice or put too much salt on the food and the teachers began complaining and said I wasn’t doing a good job. They complained to my mother and asked her to talk to me about it. She told me that many people wanted the job and I was lucky to have it and I should try to do a good job. She told me if I disappointed her she would punish me. She told me later that she thought I had changed because of my travels.
I became angry with her and we argued. And she told me that I was a dreamer and nobody in Beijing cared about me. When I came to represent my people they gave me attention. But she said if I went alone no one would care. I told her I could make a living and make a life for me outside the village. My mother suddenly slapped my face. Each of us was shocked by the gesture and stood facing each other without speaking for a few moments. I immediately packed a small bag and left the house. I ran away. Mother tried to follow me but without saying anything. I headed into the mountains. I could hear her behind me and heard her crying. I ran to the top of the mountain trail and I had to rest. My hands and feet were shaking at that time and I felt that my heart was empty. I looked back down on the village. I wanted now to follow my dream. I realized if I turned around and went back now I would lose face. As when my mother ran away and could not return to her village. I looked up to the top of the mountain in the distance and it looked so lonely. And I told myself, I would not let my mother lose face by leaving and that I would not fail in making a life for myself.
Surviving in the World
Now I think about it and find it was foolhardy and brave. Today if I was asked to walk alone in the mountains I would not do it. But I felt my mother had pushed me into a corner. And I was blinded by my own dreams. I had lived in the mountains with my uncle and left the area once, but I thought I could make it out alone now. I am sure my mother expected me to be frightened at night and to turn back. But she was not aware of how determined I was. Later I read romantic stories about the mountains. But I concluded that those writers lived in the city and used their imagination to describe how peaceful the mountains were.
I left my home at the age of 13. I was in the mountains for a couple of days and found the experience no longer beautiful. I was an angry and tired young girl. The beauty was not apparent to me any more. Now I found it very frightening. I had to eat what I found in the mountains, plants. I also has brought with me half a dozen eggs. Now I had to survive on my own. I packed a couple of outfits. I had no friends and no guides. I also had no place to sleep at night in the dark. I walked very fast. I found the shadows of the trees at night to be very scary. The trees grew together in areas and covered the sky. I saw monkeys here and there in the forests. I started to sing when I was afraid. I became thirsty and I could not eat the eggs because I wanted to keep them for the day I was desperate for food.
Before the day became dark I had to find wood to build a fire. The mountains had so many trees and dried wood. I knew the fire would leave embers. I found a small lake and got some lilies and wrapped the eggs in them and put them under the embers in the fire and cooked them that way. In the mountains we had tigers, bears, monkeys and all kinds of things. I knew that when I lived in the mountains, that all the animals were afraid of fire. So I built a big fire for myself that night and slept close to it. And at night it was also extremely cold in the mountains and I heard the animal noises. The next morning, early, I began my trek again. For three days I didn’t meet another soul. On the third day I came to a Yi village. I found an old Yi man and woman sitting outside their home. They noticed me because I was one little girl alone. They made some tea for me and some potato and fed me. Then after I ate I was so tired and I fell asleep in their house and I fell asleep there. He covered me with a blanket. I began to miss my mother and my home and I began crying. The Yi lady brought in water and washed my face and washed away my tears. In the morning I had breakfast with them. These people seemed all alone, this elderly couple. I said goodbye to them and went on my way again.
Later I asked the horsemen if they had ever seen this old couple, but they had never seen them. It was my good fortune to find them. I always was lucky and it was my luck to find these people near the mountain top who gave me food and a place to sleep. I might have turned back if I had not met them. So they were generous to me in the way that I was generous to the old starving Yi man years earlier. So perhaps I was repaid for my good with good from others.
I finally walked and found the road to Yanyuan. I met two horsemen from my village. They asked why I was alone and I told them I was going to the city to go to school. I also told them to tell my mother that I was safe and i’d made it to the city. This made me feel good because I knew that my mother would not have to worry about me any more. The horses had bells on them. When I heard the bells disappearing I felt very lonely and hurt again. But I also knew my mother would have th e news that I was safe.
I found this track of the traders, and I was lucky. Then a driver came by in a truck carrying wood to the city. I hailed him and asked him for a ride to the city. I stood in the middle of the road and made him stop. I told him I had walked for four days and needed the ride. He tried to ride around me. But I wouldn’t let him go. I asked him, please give me a ride. He had me get in back of the truck on top of the wood. And the wood was rough and the road was bumpy and within a few minutes of the ride I was feeling sick. I thought I would faint. Finally he looked back at me and saw how miserable I was, and he stopped, felt sorry for me, and asked me to come down and ride in the truck with him. So I got to ride in the cab with him. There were two other men in the cab. I was frightened at first because we were crowded. Nobody wanted to ride on the wood. One of the men wanted me to ride on his lap. I said, Why don’t you get in back and cuddle with the wood. They laughed and thought I was a funny girl. It was much more comfortable in the truck, of course. The men wore Tibetan hats and the driver whistled when he drove and I found him to be a nice man. I sang when he whistled and he said he liked that. He asked me to sing another song. He gave me some cookies he had with him. And they had some meat wrapped up in paper and I ate with them and drank tea that they offered me. I was starved. He said, You really can eat also, can’t you? I ate like a starving person.
When I told him I was running away, he said I had a tiger’s heart or I’d lost my head going alone in the mountains. He grudgingly admired me. He took me into the city and gave me 1 yuan and I could rent one bed in a guest house. The next day he was going to Xichang and I asked him to give me a ride, saying I didn’t know anybody in the city. So he took me to Xichang the next day. He came to the guest house where I stayed and picked up my bag and they took me to the bigger city.
I was very happy on the way because of the help I was getting. And I was making it to Xichang, but I knew nobody in the city and I had no idea what I was going to do. It seemed though that I was always dealing with situations like this. I was on my own so often making decisions about my life. But I experienced good luck and good fortune in the people I met. So I walked nearly to Yanyuan and then too the truck from there to Xichang.
And then I also believed tht I had a destiny. I believed that God had a special destiny planned for me. This driver was very kind, he spoke Yi. He sold his wood. Then he took me to a small restaurant. He said, I’m going to buy you some noodles, then I have to leave you here. I thanked him. I said I would remember him. He said, Thanks for what. We are all from the same place, from the mountains. After dinner we said goodbye and he got in his truck and headed home.
At that time I sat beside the street and tried to remember what to do or decide what to do. I had been here before for the singing contest. I didn’t know where the people were who had run the contest. I wanted to find the men from the Cultural Section of the government, I didn’t even know his full name -- just his last name. So I walked around the city. I was very lucky walking around the area. I found the cultural bureau and found him. He recognized me, “Oh, Little Namu from Lugu Lake. What are you doing here?”
I started crying. I told him I ran away and about my trip and told him I was alone and without money. I asked him if he could help me. “He said, does your mother know. Yes, we had a fight and I ran away. He said, if you have a problem, and you ran away, your mom will go crazy. I will call Yanyuan and let them tell your mother. I told him that I met the horsemen and told them I was safe. He asked me to stay with his family and then he would try to solve my problem the next day. That night I stayed with his family. The next morning I thought that I would stay in his house and help and would not leave without a place to stay. But he returned and said he’d found a job for me. He told me me he’d found a spot for me in a Yi singing and dancing troop for 30 Yuan per month. I thanked him. My luck was consistent. I told him I’d really work hard. 30 Yuan, in my home town, where I took care of yaks and did hard labor, I would never have made that in a year or two. I thought this was enough. But I didn’t understand how expensive life could be in the big city.
But in my situation I was ready to take any job at any salary to stay in the city. Liangshan Yi Minority Singing and Dancing Group. That was my first job in the city.
I will be grateful to him for the rest of my life. Again, I was lucky. All the people I met were nice and kind and good to me. And they all helped determine my fate.
And then, the city was filled with Yi people and I had to sing Yi minority songs and I’d listen to them often. So I had to learn their language and songs better. I picked up the Yi sounds very easily. They said I sang very well. So for a short period I started to sing, I learned a lot of Yi songs and some of them I still remember. Their music is so unique it is impossible to forget them. Liangshan is called the city of the full moon. Again and again they sang these sad songs, and I always thought of Anome and the old couple in the mountains that helped me. Yi songs are haunting in their melody. But the Yi people had always helped me. This was inside my memory and a part of my life.
I sang with the Yi performing troop for three months. Whenever officials showed up we sang and we traveled to the villages to entertain them. We lived like gypsies. We lived in this village and we lived in large guest house, all together in Xichang. Everywhere we went we cooked our own food and lived very frugally. We sang and didn’t have a stage. We just stood or sat on the ground, very close to people and did our performance. I really liked that. We sang in a special way, when you are a minority. We didn’t sing to the people, we sang to the sky and to the clouds and the moon and the stars. You don’t sing face to face, we sing to the sky and so the whole feel of the music is very different. And very distinct. It is a whole different approach to music.
We sang for beauty and love and skys and lakes and stars. We sang directly to them. And to the heart.
One day I was listening to two of the girls in the group talking. For me, what I overheard again changed my life. For me, I think this is my life has to be, already, have to travel a lot. I loved and wanted to travel. I was washing clothing one day, and a couple of the dancing group members were washing clothes and talking, and they said that a Shanghai school was looking for minorities to attend the school. At that time it seemed that everything came from Shanghai -- shoes and clothing and everything. It seemed a magical and far away place to me. And when the horsemen came back they always had these goods from Shanghai. And then, for the Shanghainese school, I could never pass a test because I didn’t know how to read or write. But I thought if there was a music school, I had a chance because I could sing. So I talked to the leaders of the group and told him I wanted to go and try out. He said, You haven’t been here one year yet, and you want to go. Have you lost your mind. He tried to talk me out of it, but he said if I left I had to pay my own way, go by myself. I returned to my room. I had only 30 yuan for my expenses. This was not enough.
But then I still had the jade bracelet my mother had given me when I went through my coming of age ceremony. Then, this had been in my family for so many generations. If I sold it then it would be gone. And if I didn’t sell it I could not go to Shanghai. I decided to sell it.
I tried to sell it to one of the Yi girls, but she could not afford it. I wanted to sell it for 140 yuan. We walked around the city, and I found a Tibetan trader who bought and sold jewelry, and I sold it to him for 140 yuan. It gave me all kinds of good feelings at the time. My friends took me to the train station and helped me buy a train ticket to Shanghai. I bought a standing room only ticket, and rode with the farmers and the peasants for three days. I was exhausted when we arrived in Shanghai.
Shanghai, I was like this dirty potato when I arrived. I was filthy and exhausted. I got off the train and saw everyone was so beautiful. They could tell in looking at me that I was from the countryside. I didn’t fit in. I was like a potato in rice.
I left the train station. So many people, so crowded and so big. I had this little bag with my money in it. The girls dressed so beautifully. I watched them. Everybody had clean clothes and they were slim. I was this dark-skinned mountain girl, I listened to everybody, I understood non of their language and it was all strange sounds to me. I didn’t know what they were talking about.
I was wearing black pants with a strip down the leg and a small black jacket. In Liangshan it was fashionable. But after my train trip and sitting on the floor I was really filthy and really embarrassed. Before I thought I was really beautiful but now I felt really like a bumpkin.
I carried my little bag and walked among the people. I tried to ask directions from people but couldn’t make myself understood. Finally I found a taxi driver and showed him the flier from the Shanghai Music Conservatory. He took a very long way. He charged me 14 yuan. I felt so hurt and realized by the long ride he had taken me in circles to get me to the school. But there was nothing I could do about it. This was from the blood and sweat of my work and from the jade bracelet of my family.
Before I came here, I had dreamed about it. Many famous people were from Shanghai. There were many famous performers, poets and singers were from Shanghai. I thought the school would be a huge institution. But when I went there, and found it, I went to the front gate, and I had just been cheated by the taxi driver. Then I came to the front gate and it was really a disappointment. It was a normal door without a big gold sign on it. This small sign was on the door telling what it was. A small square sign with small characters. Then I was thinking...i went inside and looked for a plce to stay on the campus. I was hoping that my life would change here. I found a beautiful house on the campus, with large trees around it. And then also I could hear piano music and voices from the rooms and I knew that I must study here.
I wandered around the campus, fairly lost. There were so many students there, they had no bed for me at the guest house. They told me I could stay there but I had to sleep on the floor. They gave me one blanket. I managed to communicate through some words of Sichuan dialect. I thought it was better than sleeping outside. I went to the shower and cleaned myself, ate a piece of bread and fell asleep.
The next morning I went to the audition place. So many people and all waiting. Inside the audition room I heard the music. They gave us numbers. My number was 200 and during the entire morning they only had 30 auditions. I had no idea when I would be able to be auditioned. I was unsure what to do. I was always hungry at that time, cause I was still growing. I felt my stomach grumble and I got tired of waiting.
I watched the people audition. People brought sheet music. They called your number and you handed them the sheet music and then yu sang. Finally I was hungry and I could not wait any longer. So I watched from the window in the door one of the auditions. I saw the teachers also were getting bored, too. I thought if I came in later and they were bored, my life was over. And I was getting tired. So I waited for the girl to come out, and when she left, I walked into the room without them calling another number. I was angry and they had not called my number. I had no sheet music. I walked to the middle of the room and broke into one of the Lugu Lake songs for them. And I could see their faces brighten up. I had their attention. I looked into their eyes when I was singing. I could see that they were paying attention and they were interested in me. They asked me some questions about me and I told them and said I wanted to study there. I sang ‘the song for the mountain’ for them. Then when I sang I knew they liked me. But they asked me so many questions. When I got up from the testing place, all the students were staring at me, wondering at my audacity. I returned to the guest house. The next morning one of the teachers came looking for me. I was the first Mosuo student they’d ever seen. And I got a room in the guest house. The next morning I was picked to study at the school.
They had to take pictures of us for the school for the student identification. And I had to fill out papers. So they asked my name and I gave it. They wrote in in Chinese, Erche means two cars Namu. But I didn’t know how to write Chinese at that time, so I got a strange name.
So I became “two cars” Namu was my name. When they asked my birthdate, of course, I had no precise idea. I didn’t know, and so there was a girl before me and I told them them it was the same as her birthday. It was August 25, 1966. I still had to wait two months. They put me in a special group. I had to study Chiense for one year and they gave me 30 yuan for the scholarship. But for two months all the other students had gone home, I hadn’t enough money to go any place so I just stayed in the guest room and waited for the school to start. I didn’t have enough money to go out and was afraid if I went out I would get lost.
I wasnted to preserve my money so I bought only bread and I walked up and down the nearby streets looking at the clothing. There was a nice many in charge of the guest house. We sat outside the building in the evening because there was no air conditioning. He told me the story of Shanghai and the foreigner concessions and the triads in Shanghai. They were fascinating stories and every day he told me new stories. I listened but most of the time I didn’t understand what he was talking about. When he realized this he began to teach me Shanghainese. I learned rapidly and we worked on it for several hours every day. I learned quickly.
One day I was sitting outside drinking my tea and eating my bread and practicing my language. Then this teacher came to the house. He was a teacher at the school. He asked if I was the new student. I told him my home town was too far away to go. I told him I studied singing. He said, he was a teacher and composer at the school. He was from Korea. I told him I was from Lugu Lake, a Mosuo. He was also a minority and a teacher at the school and I thought I had a friend in Shanghai.
Then he started to ask me some questions. He asked me if I wanted to come out with him and perform with him. He asked if I had my traditional clothes and he told me to get them and said he would pick me up at 4 the next afternoon.
So the next morning, I got my clothing out. He showed up to pick me up. He asked me before then to sing a couple of songs for him and I did. The next day in the afternoon a big black car came to pick me up, and the car was so comfortable. Inside it had air conditioning. I hadn’t ever felt this before, I asked about it, and he showed me how it worked. They took us then to the docks and thre was a boat waiting there for us. The teacher, Jin, introduced me to the other people. They were all performers. They got on another boat to an island, a lot of high government officials use this boat to go to the island. I felt this was really special. Things were happening very rapidly to me. I was very impressed.
We went then to perform. They had a lot of famous performers on the boat going to perform. There were eve movie stars. There was a big buffet to eat, people gave autographs. I didn’t know anybody. I walked around and found a big buffet. I of course was very hungry -- banana, apple, cakes. While they signed autographs and talked I stuffed myself. The teacher came to me and saw me eating. Oh, he said, inside they have more food to eat. But by this time I was filled with deserts. He said, I am glad to see you are embarrassed to eat.
So we performed for some army people on this island, and stayed in this very nice hotel on the island at the mouth of the river going into Shanghai.
I was eating good food and sitting on a very comfortable bed. I asked Mr. Jin if we could stay for a couple of days and he said we had to return. But I realized then that I could have a good life like this singing. Again, I was being rewarded tor my talents in singing. So I got 40 yuan for singing that night. I was totally shocked. This was more than a month of my scholarship. I got to eat and got 40 yuan, enough for one yak in my home town. I saw the opportunity toget rich. The audience loved my performance.
He took me a second time and this time I earned 40 yuan for my performance and I felt like I was rich already. I wrote a song about my experience in Shanghai and the new life and the new world that I was in there.
Finally, in 40 days, school started. I was given a dormitory room with 5 other girls. It was 1983. I saw all the beautiful girls studying at the school with beautiful bags and possessions. And there were also many minorities there from Tibet and Sichuan and Xinjiang. They all stuck to their own groups. Within the groups people helped each other. This was very natural for the chinese to help each other.
Before school started I really worried about my language classes. It ws good cause most of my classmates were from minority areas, and their Chinese was not that good either. I knew I had to do good or they would send me back after one year. So I studied very hard. After school I went to the library to study. One afternoon I fund a Chinese writer, Cheng Yiao. She was very good. A romantic writer. She was one of the first writers to describe love, “The Lady with the Purple Dress.” And I adored it. In the whole book some of the words I didn’t understand, but I loved her words. I totally was into it. I read it again and again with a dictionary until I could read the whole thing. I read it three times before I understood all the words. She was a Taiwanese writer. And then I wanted to read her other books, but they were not in the library. They were not in the bookstores either, and I was told yer books were rare in China because of the subject. San Mao was another Chinese writer I discovered. She was married to a Spanish guy in Taiwan. She always wanted to run away. She studied Spanish and she moved to Spain and her husband died there. She wrote a book about her life. I thought about this story, the one she wrote, I only can read a couple of her books, and found they too were difficult to find. She described Spain and the people and the desert and the Turkish people. Exotic worlds. She was totally woke me up. Reading was a revelation to me and I found the magic of these words to me. Then I had a chance to get a letter from one of my hometown boys. And we began to correspond with each other. Then we wrote to each other and then talked to each other and how we dealt with people and what we wanted to do for ght culture of our people. A Buddhist leader told him what my address was. Namu Gatusa is his name. He was studying in Yunnan at in Kunming in a university. So he also made it out of Lugu Lake. We wrote to each other and I found I was falling in love with him when I read his letters. I found the power of the write n word and for the first time the power of love also. I felt very close to him and loved his letters. He also helped me to study my Chinese and he increased my vocabulary so I could write my feelings to him. But sometimes it was still difficult to tell him how I felt.
These books were romances. Sometimes I copied long passages from the books to him when I wrote. And I sent it to him, when I couldn’t find my own words. The words, I found described my feelings and so I copied page after page and sent them to him. He read them and he was impressed and said my Chinese was really good. After while he also read the book and found I was copying from it.
I did well in the Chinese class and gained confidence in my language skills. I had Chinese 4 hours per day. Then I had piano and singing and the history of the Chinese Communist Party.
In the history class students didn’t often show up. But it was one of my favorites. I sat in the front row and was enthralled by this. She talked about the cultural revolution and told us which professors committed suicide and which profs daughter killed herself here, and the story went on and on filled with violence and lunacy, I thought. I sat and listened day after day after day. When only I was in the class she sat down and gave her lectures.
When she came to the story of the cultural revolution it was too much for me. And so I asked her to change the story for me and make it happier. It was only then that she realized that I thought she was making up stories about the past. I didn’t believe people behaved that way. I asked her if she believed it and she showed me books that said it was true. I asked her how people could do such crazy things. She was uncomfortable with my questions.
The teachers at the school were also wonderful people, I found and they had been through hell. They started with the story of Mao and the long March. The long march was the great heroic episode in Chinese history. But I thought it was all made up and wondered how people could do things so terrible to each other. The teacher felt sad about it because she had a friend who committed suicide. Sometimes I told her, OK, change the story now and make it happier now. I know it was funny because it was just the two of us. The other students had lost interest in the subject and only I attended because I thought it was made up.
I passed the Chinese the first year. The summer vacation I went to visit a friend and I met this young woman who was the daughter of the Mexican Ambassador to China. She was studying in Shanghai at Fudan University. She came to our school for a party. And we met and became great friends. We talked at first about foods and I told her how I loved spicy foods and of course Mexican food was like that, too. So we became friends. We went to the shanghai restaurants and coffee shops. She was studying. Her name was Anne. We became good friends. Very interesting girl to talk to. I spent the weekends with her. She invited me to a Christmas party at the Mexican embassy in Beijing. We took a train there together. And I was able to stay there for the holiday and celebrate Christmas. I became good friends with her parents at that time.
So my life was quite different from most other students in the school. On the other hand, I was from a little village, and in my room I was the only country girl. The others were all from the cities.
The girls from Shanghai looked down on us. They were always saying, “We Shanghaineses never do that.” or we never speak that way. Always correcting me. There was a bias, I found, of the city people against those from the countryside.
So my first year ended successfully. In the city my two girl friends said. And then I started singing at clubs in Shanghai. Theresa Deng is a very famous singer in Taiwan. She was a popular singer. Her father had been killed by the communists. Everyone called her Xiao Deng. And she was very popular. I had the chance to listen to her music and found it so beautiful, and so romantic. I tried to copy her style. I had never sung a song like that. Also, I was at a music conservatory. But I heard if you sang in a club you could make a lot of money. I was still living on 30 yuan a month. So I learned some Xiao Deng songs and went to sing in some clubs. Every night I sang in three different clubs. I auditioned for these at the clubs themselves. Finally the school found out and said I was losing face for the university students. I thought they would not kick me out of school because I was earning money to live on. But I knew that after that many students sang in the clubs.
I made more money than my teacher. I took my singing teacher out for dinner and he was impressed at how well I was doing. I began to take my teacher out for dinner to entertain her.
We were all young and energetic at the school, we had hope and great expectations. We had few worries because we were all poor. The only thing that bothered us was because I had never really studied when I was a child. So for my hard study, I was in the middle of the class. My profession was between me and the state. I didn’t need to be number one, always. I went to sing in the clubs, I discovered more possibilities in life. It is not if you are good in school that determines alone your future. But it is talent and determination, too. You have to fit into the world outside the school, I discovered.
School was a very clean place. But people from the big city often had a prejudice against individuals from the countryside, and especially from the minorities. They considered themselves superior. And they seldom hesitated to show that they were better people, they were very arrogant. They separated themselves from us and stayed together and had their own parties. I always got along with people from Tibet, we always had this big mountain heart, drank buttered tea, danced and sang songs together. And every weekend we went to the Bund and a park by the river.
We minority students got to see the courtship of the Chinese students and thought it was funny. One student whose name was Dawa always said that the Shanghai people were too slow. He said they should go to Tibet where you walk all day and see one person. In Shanghai it was too crowded and lovers could never be alone. Even when you talked, other people overheard you, he said. We thought it was very strange.
Antoerh guy from Tibet named Nima, a tall guy with curly hair who looked a bit like a movie star, no matter where he went the girls looked at hm. And because I was from Lugu Lake I loved spicy foods, and he got peppers for us for our food. He went to the kitchen and got pepper from them to put more of it on our food. So we got along. He called me his little sister. Even today, I remember the moon festival in our school. Even though we had a lot of minorities that didn’t celebreate the moone festival, it was very important for the school. They had a banquet and moon cakes and one day break. We sang and had a party and danced. And it was really fun. Even though we were poor we weren’t counting our money. I had a wonderful time at the moon festival that first year.....