More on orientalism and tourism

Language-on-the-Move’s recent blog post Orientalism and Tourism engages with the way ethnic minority people in China are represented in the West (and also by the Han majority in China). Not only do I have an academic interest in such representations but also a personal one. I am myself a member of an ethnic minority and my hometown Dali is also in Yunnan. From Dali to Lijiang and Baisha it is a two hour drive.

I know the area and the people well and, as a matter of fact, only a few months ago I spent time in Lijiang collecting data for my PhD research (which deals with practices and ideologies of multilingualism and language learning among the Naxi). The Naxi people I know bear little resemblance to the caricature presented in “Game of Love, Chinese Style.”

Let me introduce you to Jinfang HE and Xinwan HE (both are pseudonyms). Jinfang and Xinwan are friends of mine from Baisha. They are a typical Naxi peasant couple and their ancestors have lived in Baisha for generations on their self-sufficient farm. Both are extremely hardworking, as subsistence farmers have to be. Jinfang usually does most of the farm work in the field and all household work. Xinwan, her husband, drives a mini-bus operating between Baisha’s ancient town and Lijiang city (18 minutes one-way) during the tourism season (usually from April to November). During the off-peak season, he sometimes offers private car charter services to business men from Baisha who need to make a deal in Lijiang city. Jinfang and Xinwan live in a typical Naxi-style house and from the outside it may look “timeless.” However, look closer and you will see that except for the wooden doors and windows carved with traditional Naxi patterns, the interior of the home is very modern and they have the same electric appliances and furniture we usually find in the houses of the Han or westerners. There isn’t much difference there.

However, the local economy does depend on the image of authentic timelessness that the tourists come to see. In 1997, Lijiang’s old town was declared a UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage site. This site includes three ancient towns, Dayan (大研古镇), Baisha (白沙古镇) and Suhe (束河古镇). A lot of effort goes into keeping their ancient looks and old beauty! The historic stone pavements, wooden houses and small bridges, and the streams flowing through the streets and lanes do indeed form a very beautiful landscape.

In Dayan, Baisha or Suhe, the locals, particularly older people, are used to being a tourist picture motif. If you ask permission to take a photo of them, they will unanimously say: “I/We am/are old and ugly, why do you want to take photos for me?” with their friendly smiling faces – it’s part of the spiel and comes with being a living tourist attraction. The ladies in this photo with their healthy smiles all said to me they were old and ugly before posing for the photo …

I imagine that being asked to pose for a photo also happened to Dr. HE and that he graciously obliged. Although it really is a shame that the author of “Game of Love, Chinese Style” apparently has no idea who the old man in the white coat in his picture is. Dr. HE is 86 years old and that’s presumably why he gets featured in the picture but what is really important – and not mentioned at all – is that he is a famous Chinese herbal doctor. Dr. HE has cured many people with cancer from home and abroad. As a matter of fact, he also speaks very fluent English!

Now let me get to the heart of the article, the Mosuo custom of the walking marriage. To begin with, the occupations of my Mosuo friends vary a lot and I know a Mosuo doctor, a university teacher, a tourist guide and more than one researcher. Walking marriage (走婚), also called A Zhu Hun (阿注婚) or A Xia Hun (阿夏婚), is the marriage practice among Mosuo people ONLY (Mosuo  are considered a branch of the Naxi ethnic minority but have been campaigning for independent status for a long time), not for all Naxi. When Mosuo girls/A Xia (阿夏) or boys/A Zhu (阿注) reach puberty, they will get an adult ceremony and girls will from then on be called A Xia and have their own A Xia Fang (bedroom). When A Xia loves A Zhu, A Zhu will ask a witness to ceremoniously go to A Xia’s home with gifts for everyone in the family to ask for A Xia’s mum’s and uncles’ permission to be A Zhu. There are three forms of walking marriage, the most popular one is that A Zhu visits his A Xia at night only and goes back to his home at dawn, the other two forms include that A Zhu will stay in A Xia’s home (阿注定居婚) or A Xia will go to stay in A Zhu’s home (阿夏异居婚). But the latter two are not popular in the local area. Mosuo people have their own values and standards in sex and morality. A Xia and A Zhu respect each other and bear responsibility for each other. The walking marriage is not an arranged marriage and so love plays a very important role in continuing the A Xia-A Zhu relationship. Until they have children, there is some freedom to change to a new A Xia or A Zhu if they find they no longer love each other. However, after they have children, they generally can’t change to a new A Xia or A Zhu.

The way it used to be was that when a child was born, the child would live in the mother’s home and the uncles would take on the responsibility of educating the child. However, the paternal grandmother would come and visit the new baby with gifts for everyone in A Xia’s big family. A Zhu was not allowed to bring the baby back to his home but he would hold a dinner party and invite the seniors in the family and neighbors to show he is the father of the baby and he shoulders his part of the responsibility to raise the child even though mother and father don’t live together in the same household. However, nowadays more and more Mosuo people melt into the mainstream society and give up the walking marriage in favour of the official marriage system.

If anyone needs further evidence that the ethnic minorities of Yunnan are not stuck in a time-warp, look it up on a map. Yunnan is in Southwest China and constitutes the most convenient international passageway to access southeast and south Asia by land. The area is developing rapidly as a centre in the Greater Mekong sub-regional economic zone. It’s hard not to see traces of modernization there. The only ones who are stuck in a time-warp are those travel writers who fail to see how rapidly the lives of the ethnic minorities of Yunnan are modernizing!

Author Yang Hongyan

More posts by Yang Hongyan
  • Lynda Yates

    What a fascinating account and a salutary reminder to really look beyond the surface! I was reminded of the insights I had into how aspects of our Anglo-western ‘sexual revolution’ appears to others when I was working with members of a traditional Shi’ia Muslim community from Iraq who had just immigrated to Australia. Many found our acceptance – and by default endorsement – of the drink affected behaviour of partially clad young people on Saturday nights completely beyond their comprehension.

  • Xiaoxiao Chen

    Hongyan, thank you very much for this amazingly detailed and fabulous account of Naxi and Musuo people! Your contribution has enlightened us of the real life of the ethnic minorities in Yunnan. I deem your article especially rare and precious, because its been so hard for us to obtain a fair and authentic account of ethinic minorities in China from an insider, which is written in English! I do wish some day there will be more such voices and these voices will be heard internationally and will also be taken seriously. The represented CAN and WILL surely very well represent themselves, I believe.

  • Khan

    What a thick description(Geertz). Thanks Yan Hongyan for bringing forth the local understanding of the way of life and the values associated with the marriage customs of the people. Your blog reinforces the idea that the use of the language can often be very mystificatory and its proper analysis de-mystify it. Your blog has absolutely been successful in exposing the manipulations done by the advert. It is very interesting and a very well argued case. Many thanks for a lovely post!

    Khan