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Archive → March, 2012

Fieldnotes from the ‘Kingdom of Women’: Visit to Lijiang, Lugu Lake and Yongning

Lugu Lake (泸沽湖)

It has been some time since the events and fieldwork described here took place and I was wondering whether it was worthwhile posting at all. But after requests from avid readers (thank you!) I’ve decided to dust off the cobwebs and write up my notes. Indeed, one of the very reasons I began this blog was to engage in a form of ‘thinking out loud’. I have found the process of combining fieldwork with this blog to be very rewarding. To go public means that I have to think carefully about how to write in a way that most people will find engaging (my apologies if I don’t sometimes meet this objective). It also forces me to be as accurate as possible (not that I’m usually ‘inaccurate’!) and to follow up on various points or insights in my notes by providing a broader context. And most of the time I’m learning something in the process as well. In this connection I believe it is important for scholars to communicate their work to a broader public and I have done so as much as possible through public lectures, working with schools, conducting study tours, and so forth. This blog is simply the digital age extension of that process.

Readers of will know that I have two major research projects underway. The first concerns the cultural heritage of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道) in Yunnan Province (云南省). The second, and not unrelated by any means, focuses on the emergence of China’s hiking culture (what I like to refer to as the world of the ‘donkey friends’ 驴友). At the moment the cultural heritage project is getting most of my attention as I have a few important writing deadlines and grant funded projects to complete this year. One project I’m quite excited about is sponsored by the Australia-China Council and involves linking schools in Perth and Yunnan via the Internet to share knowledge about cultural heritage, the object being to raise awareness of the importance of custodianship. Part of the project involves me traveling to visit  schools in Puer, Lijiang and Shangrila in June. More details forthcoming in the near future.

Southwest University for Nationalities (西南民族大学), Chengdu, Sichuan.

I want to report here on fieldwork conducted in Lijiang (丽江) and Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) in early January 2012. The trip actually began in Chengdu, Sichuan, where I was invited by the Tourism Studies Department at the Southwest University for Nationalities (西南民族大学) to give a paper on hiking and community-based tourism (thank you Xiao Laoshi for the arrangements). The presentation was titled ‘Small is Beautiful’ and discussed the experiences of Australian tourism authorities in developing a strategic plan for inbound backpackers linked to both popular (and cheap) attractions and the need for regional Australia to employ seasonal labour. This was compared with the challenges of developing community-based tourism in western China at a time in which the economic model seems to be dominated by mass tourism and commercial scale. This was my first real visit to Chengdu (having passed through very fleetingly a few years ago). Chengdu is the true metropolis of western China (that is, ‘western Han China’ with a real sense of the cross-over of Han and Tibetan, and other minority, cultural zones). It is also apparently the capital of the ‘donkey friends’ and has an entire shopping strip dedicated to outdoor equipment. Although I didn’t see the sun for five days (they say ‘Sichuanese dogs bark at the sun’ (蜀犬吠日) because it only makes rare appearances), and I nearly didn’t survive the traffic (no offense, but some of the most dangerous driving I’ve seen in China), I will be sure to return when the next opportunity arises.

Through the kind introductions provided by a dear friend (who would like to remain anonymous) I had the good fortune to also meet in Chengdu one of China’s master painters in the tradition of Chinese landscape painting (国画大师), Mr Li Huasheng (李华生). Master Li Huasheng is a famous painter of traditional Chinese landscape painting (国画). Now in semi-retirement he likes nothing better than to get in his van and drive out of the city to 'picnic'. Here we are 'picnicking' on a somewhat chilly and overcast day on a yet to be completed highway. Master Li has lived an extraordinary life experiencing many ups and downs in the Chinese world of art and state/party control, so he has a lot of insights. Although his work now is quite 'modern' he fits well within the tradition of the 'hermit scholar/artist'. One of China's 'living treasures'.

Accompanied by master painter (in the modern form), Mr Li Yunfei (aka ‘Chris’, also one of the world’s most distinguished art journalists specialising in China and East Asian art), I then traveled to Lijiang just in time to experience New Year’s Eve in the old town (World Heritage listed). I’ve become quite interested in Lijiang (technically the name of the old town is Dayan, but for the sake of convenience I will follow current preferences in nomenclature).  I’ve written numerous times about Lijiang and Shuhe on this blog.  For people in the field of cultural heritage management and studies, the old town of Lijiang is an example of what not to do. Some even argue that the crass commercialism of Lijiang old town contravenes the UNESCO World Heritage convention itself and it should be revoked (and indeed I believe UNESCO did come close to making such a reversal at one stage). The old town is now basically a ‘theme park, shopping mall and bar district’. I totally sympathise with these views and hope that China’s other famous ‘old towns’, such as Pingyao, Shaxi and Weishan (the latter two are both in Yunnan) can avoid becoming like ‘Lijiang’.

I took part in the Second Annual Tea Friends Tea Tasting Event in Lijiang at the Qiuyue Teahouse. The focus was black teas from Fujian (and of course some fine black tea from Yunnan). The event was also simultaneously held in nineteen other locations across China. Each location interacted with the others via a dedicated Weibo site (something like Facebook/Twitter). Awards were given to the location that ran the best event on the day. The event offered some great insights into the ongoing development of contemporary Chinese tea culture.

Having said that, however, from my perspective as a scholar of contemporary Chinese society, there is a lot going on in Lijiang that I find quite fascinating. For instance, did you know that Lijiang is regarded as the ‘one night stand capital of China’ (中国一夜情之都)? This has much to do with the rise of a youth leisure culture and the development of Lijiang as a ‘romance travel destination’ (very popular as a honeymoon destination). There is even something of an urban legend which has incorporated the love story of a local Naxi man and Korean woman into the overall image of Lijiang as a ‘city of love’. The couple set up one of Lijiang’s first backpacker (背包客) hostels and café in the early 1990s in the old town. I remember meeting them many years ago and having the backpacker staple of banana pancakes. That hostel/café has now transformed into a enormous bar and cabaret venue that can accommodate up to 300 people.  You can see from this example the dramatic transformation that Lijiang has undergone and in particular how the domestic tourism market is now the driving force (the spendthrift foreign and Chinese backpackers couldn’t even afford to step into the establishment nowadays!).

Mr Yang is a villager from Shuhe (not far from the old town of Lijiang). Given that Shuhe is rapidly developing into a major leisure/recreation centre in the style of Lijiang (thankfully not as noisy), Mr Yang and his fellow villagers are possibly the last generation of Shuhe farmers. Shuhe was an important staging post on the Ancient Tea Horse Road famous for both its cobblers/leather workers and caravans/muleteers. Here Mr Yang is pictured at his ancestral graves in the hills behind Shuhe. Some of his ancestors were well known and well educated lamas (monks in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition), one of whom was apparently a teacher to the famous Joseph Rock. Even the hills aren't safe and the villagers have been at odds with government and developers who want to move the graves to build a resort.

Yet there is still something of a ‘backpacker’ presence in Lijiang. Lijiang, and Dali down the road with a somewhat different ‘vibe’, attract a range of tourists, but in particular they have become important destinations on the ‘Chinese hippie trail’. As such Lijiang old town has more than its fair share of bars. On the periphery of the old town (where it becomes the ‘new old town’) you will find many quiet boutique style bars (in which a AUD$20 bottle of Australian wine is retailed at AUD$100). In the heart of the old town there is one strip now known as the ‘bar street’ (酒吧街) which is probably the loudest and most expensive drinking zone in China. If all goes according to plan I hope to be able to spend a bit more time in Lijiang in the latter half of this year to engage in more fieldwork and observations. In any case we spent the last night of 2011 and the first moments of 2012 in the old town observing just how far noise pollution can go in this day and age.

The real purpose for visiting Lijiang this time was to meet with the up and coming Mosuo scholar Latami Dashi (拉挞迷达史) at the Lijiang branch of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences. Latami is an outstanding scholar who hails from Yongning, a small town near the famous Lugu Lake. And as I discovered his is also something of a celebrity in his home region where he more well known for his skills as a songwriter of contemporary Mosuo folk songs (some of which you can belt out in local KTV establishments). His home is popularly known as ‘the kingdom of women’ (女儿国), the land of the Mosuo people (摩 梭人), a matrilineal community with many unique customs such as ‘walking marriage’ (走婚) (which I won’t try to explain here, suffice to say there are many common misconceptions about this particular practice). You can see where Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) and Yongning (永宁) are located on Google Maps here. You can see a selection of the images taken during this trip on my Flickr site here. Given the very unique nature of Mosuo social life they have found themselves to be frequently visited by anthropologists (the earliest recorded Westerner to visit the region was the famous botanist and amateur Naxi ethnographer, Joseph Rock). Latami told me that there were so many anthropologists and scholars passing through his house when he was a young lad that he too wanted to, ‘be a anthropologist when I grow up!’. I have had the pleasure to know Latami for several years and his have provided me with a good education into the challenges facing Mosuo culture in the age of rapid social transformation (of course any inaccuracies recorded here are completely my own fault). Latami, knowing of my keen interest in the Ancient Tea Horse Road, agreed to take me on a personal visit to Lugu Lake and Yongning, the latter being a very important trading post on the tea road network. This was just too good an opportunity to miss, so when the chance finally came we met as agreed in Lijiang to embark on our own journey to ‘the kingdom of women’. (In this connection I thoroughly recommend the autobiography (co-authored with my former colleague Christine Mathieu) by the most famous Mosuo of contemporary times, Namu, and her story that takes her from the rural environs of a once relatively isolated community to the catwalks of New York and Paris. The book is titled Leaving Mother Lake).

This Yi woman has come to the main street of Yongning to sell homemade charcoal (木炭). The charcoal is manufactured in smouldering mounds in the hills in a process which can take days and even weeks to complete. Although technically illegal (as it requires the use of protected trees) the local authorities seem to turn a blind eye as it is a valuable source of heating/cooking and income for poor families. The practice of making charcoal this way seems to be quite common in mountainous western China.

Latami was extremely generous with his time and knowledge and provided many personal insights into Mosuo culture. He also introduced us to a number of notable scholars, officials and other persons in Lugu and Yongning, thus providing a good foundation for more detailed fieldwork in the future. As with almost everywhere else in Yunnan, the road network in Lijiang (Lugu Lake and Yongning are located in Ninglang County which is part of the ‘rural city’ of Lijiang) is being upgraded. The new expressway from Lijiang to Lugu Lake is near completion. This will dramatically reduce the traveling time to a couple of hours, thereby making it possible for even greater ‘hordes’ of tourists to visit the area, possible even on ‘day trips’. Considering that my first trip to Lugu Lake from Lijiang in the early 1990s took about 17 hours, this is quite an achievement. As I’ve noted before, the increased mobility and compression of ‘time and space’ through the modernisation of transport infrastructure is bringing with it a myriad of social, economic and cultural changes.

The sacred Lion Mountain (狮子山) of Lugu Lake. Also known as Gemu Mountain (格姆山) after the Goddess Gemu (格姆女神). Every year an important circumambulation festival is held in honour of Gemu. It takes place on the 25th day of the 7th lunar month and is regarded by some as a vestige of 'nature worship' (大自然崇拜). The Lige cafe/hotel strip is in the forefront.

Yet I noticed something quite interesting from the visit to Lugu Lake and nearby Yongning, namely the concentration of tourism development in one area and the virtual lack of any form of tourism development in another. Lugu Lake is simply stunning. It is a large body of fresh water on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan, and indeed one of the cleanest bodies of fresh water anywhere in China (something that unfortunately is in quite short supply in this age of rapid industrialisation). The lake is dominated by sacred Lion Mountain (狮子山) home of  the Goddess Gemu (格姆女神). One of the legends of the origin of the mountain is as follows:

“… a beautiful female spirit by the name of Gemu had many local mountain spirits as her male friends. The young spirit was pretty and also had male friends among the male spirits from other mountain regions. During one of her intimate dalliances with a local male spirit, a mountain spirit from a distant mountain came to her house on horseback. When he found her in the company of a local male spirit, he felt humiliated and quickly turned his horse round and started going back. Gemu heard the neigh of the horse and realized that a distant mountain spirit had come on horseback to visit her. She came out of the house and started running after the visitor spirit. She could only see a large hoof print at the foot of the mountain where the male spirit had disappeared. As it was getting dark, Gemu could not proceed further and she started weeping frenziedly, which resulted in the hoofprint turning into a lake with her tears. When the male spirit heard her crying, and saw that the hoofprint had turned into a lake with her tears, he lovingly threw a few pearls and flowers into the lake. The pearls are identified now as the islands in the lake and the flowers which floated to the lake shore are said to be scented azaleas and other flowers, which bloom every year.” [Source]

Lugu Lake has developed into a popular tourist destination and mass tourism is changing the culture of the Mosuo people for better and for worse. Pictured here is a young Mosuo man who having worked in Lijiang for a number of years decided to return to Luoshui to work for his family. As this is a matrilineal society his grandmother is the one who tells him what his work duties are.

The surrounding region is still very bucolic, the only other industry being tourism, but this is mainly concentrated in a couple of small villages (some of which have become ‘towns’) around the lake. So it is all very good if your village is close to the lake, but as you move away from Lugu the presence of tourism infrastructure virtually disappears. There is one part of Lugu called Lige Island (里格岛), a small village and strip of beautiful lakeside just at the base of Lion Mountain. At Lige it seems as if someone has air freighted a piece of trendy Lijiang and dropped in right next to the beach. The strip is an assortment of very nice and upmarket cafes and hostels with Lijiang prices to match. If you can afford it, it is probably the best place to stay (although there are some quieter spots in other lakeside locations which would be my personal preference. I wouldn’t bother with the town of Luoshui (落水村) which is the site of most development).

The elongated side profile of Lion Mountain from Yongning. Does it not resemble a crouching lion?

Yet only 45 minutes drive away at the town of Yongning (永宁乡) the contrast couldn’t be starker. Yongning is situated on a small basin with the elongated side profile of Lion Mountain dominating in the east. It is a ‘one street’ town with a strong bucolic feel. As the day unfolds the main street attracts locals from far and wide. Many Mosuo, Yi and Pumi from the hills come down to sell homemade charcoal (木炭), mushrooms and other botanical (and some animal) specimens. Despite the lack of development it still is very appealing as it conveys a genuine sense of the colourful rhythms of local life. It is also home to one of the regions most important and famous lamersaries, the Zhameisi (扎美寺) Temple. The temple is a good indication of the strong influence of Tibetan culture on the Mosuo. The region has produced many famous Mosuo lamas and living buddhas who have been highly venerated in Tibetan circles. The templewas first built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is the main temple for the local Mosuo and Pumi peoples. At its peak it was home to several hundred lamas. The number today is much smaller but can grow quite large at times of certain religious festivals. It is situated about two kilometres outside of Yongning. There is a great photo taken of a lama at the temple during the 1920s (most likely taken by Joseph Rock, but source still to be confirmed).

Main hall of Zhameisi Temple (扎美寺).

Without doubt the Yongning region is rich in cultural heritage and is a prime location for the development of tourism. My concern is that with the development of the new expressway that the tourism resources will continue to be focused in and around Lugu Lake. This was also a concern of some of the local officials I spoke to during this visit, but they argued that with the increased influx of tourists it would become possible to channel resources towards other areas. Some may also argue that concentrating the ‘harmful’ effects of mass tourism in a few locations is more desirable than doing so across an entire region. In this way, they hold, local cultures can still persist reasonably undisturbed. The problem is, however, that rapid social and cultural change is happening even in the absence of mass tourism. And quite frankly, many local people outside the tourist zones also have the right and desire to improve their living standards (and gain better access to health care and education for starters). There are a few local NGOs and organisations attempting to deal with these issues, but it seems no one is really prepared for the even greater influx of tourists that is about to begin.

The Mosuo (and Yi and Pumi) are well known for the manufacture of colourful textiles (still worn by many local women). The old town of Lijiang has many shops selling a variety of textiles usually with a 'Mosuo' woman in the shop front operating a loom (more for attracting the attention of tourists than doing any actual weaving). Pictured here is the headquarters of a large intangible cultural heritage cooperative just outside Yongning that sells the textiles on behalf of the local villagers (with several hundred households participating)

From my perspective the area around Yongning would be the perfect location for a number of small-scale, community based, ecotourism projects. Yongning has a very ancient history, as the presence of the Zhameisi Temple suggests. It was also an important staging post for horse/mule caravans in the region (connecting as it does Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, including in the past the ancient neighbouring lama kingdom of Muli of which Joseph Rock wrote about a number of times). Mules and horses are still very important beasts of burden in the area and  there is a large horse and mule fair (骡马会) every year in November (which I hope to visit this year). A local Mosuo saying goes: ‘To get rich the Han rely on selling land, to get rich the Mosuo rely on raising horses and mules’ (汉人发财靠买土地,摩梭人发财靠养骡马). The caravans of the Mosuo were very famous. Traditionally it was the male members of the household who engaged in this activity (but not exclusively). It is recorded that during the 1920s and 1930s, when the caravan trade in the area was particularly active, that in addition to trading in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, many Mosuo caravans also made their way to Burma (Myanmar), Nepal and India. As you can see, a wealth of material to explore and a rich source of important work on cultural heritage and community development to be undertaken. Now it is just a matter of finding more time and resources. A final thanks to Latami for his support and encouragement.

Short distance horse and mule caravans are still a common sight around Yongning. The cultural heritage of the muleteer is still well preserved and could be an excellent resource for community-based ecotourism.