Archives for posts with tag: Sichuan

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Look at that beautiful, empty boardwalk. Stretching past the river and enticing you around the corner and into the unknown—don’t you want to follow it?

Unfortunately, my travel companions at Jiuzhaigou National Park did not. They were anxious to take their selfie-stick selfies and get back to the crowded main road where buses whisked tourists from one poetically named Scenic Spot to the next.

I had sky-high expectations about Jiuzhaigou before I set out. I had heard of its reputation as one of the most beautiful natural places in China. I’d seen photographs of its stunning turquoise lakes and majestic waterfalls, set against a background of brilliant red foliage. The park has been heralded as a model of sustainable nature-based tourism in China. It’s been celebrated for the rich culture of the local Tibetan inhabitants, who still practice a form of the pre-Buddhist Bön religion.

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Naturally, I was not the only one aware of Jiuzhaigou’s mythical beauty. Since it first opened to visitors in 1984, the park has received thousands of tourists from across China and the world (but mostly China), and their numbers continue to increase. In 2001, measures were taken to limit tourists to 12,000 per day.

To their credit, the park authorities have done everything they can to preserve the delicate ecosystems within the park, while still allowing visitors to enjoy the sights. Tourists are kept on elevated boardwalks away from the vegetation, and they are not allowed to stray from the trails or touch the water. They are shuttled to and fro on “green buses,” (powered by low-polluting liquefied petroleum gas), and ordinary vehicles are prohibited. Visitors are required to leave the park every night. The local Tibetan villagers are allowed to live inside the park in their ancestral homes, but they cannot farm or hunt; instead, they earn money through tourism-related activities and receive portions of the park’s ticket revenue. Studies have suggested that several wildlife species, such as Amur hedgehogs, wild boars, and the endangered takin, have increased in population since the area was protected.

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Nevertheless, an influx of millions of tourists per year will inevitably create rippling impacts across the region. Just outside the park gates lies an epic sprawl of hotels, restaurants, and other tourist facilities. Driving towards our hotel (a very nice Holiday Inn) we passed by blocks of newly constructed apartment buildings, a colorful “Bar Street” à la Lijiang, and a resplendent 5-star Sheraton. One could argue that any conservation happening inside Jiuzhaigou National Park is being negated by the rampant development just outside.

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The very concept of nature-based tourism is a paradox. The truth is that Jiuzhaigou is absolutely beautiful. It’s the kind of striking natural beauty that of course every person wants to see. I am an environmentalist for very selfish reasons, if I’m honest: I love nature, and I want to be able to enjoy nature in a so-called pristine state. I also want other people to be able to enjoy nature, and I believe that people are much more willing to care about and protect nature when they have experienced it themselves. But I am a human, and my very presence in a rural setting will have an influence on that place. To visit a place like Jiuzhaigou, I need a road to get there. I need a vehicle and a place to refuel. I need somewhere to spend the night, and somewhere to buy food.

That said, I think there are measures that can be taken to limit tourism development to a reasonable and sustainable level. They didn’t have to build quite so many luxury hotels. They didn’t have to build an airport for god’s sake, allowing urban tour groups to whisk into Jiuzhaigou without ever stepping off a man-made surface. Sometimes a little inaccessibility can be a good thing—I loved my trip last September to Yubeng, a Tibetan village accessible only by foot or horseback, in part because the other tourists were limited to the type who do not mind getting their shoes dirty. I didn’t see a single selfie stick during that trip.

Even as I write this though, I realize how pretentious I sound. I deserve access to these places because I can actually appreciate nature, unlike all those other shallow, uneducated, selfie-taking tourists.

Maybe I’m just a little bitter because I feel like I missed out on what might have been a nicer Jiuzhaigou experience. I’ve heard, via English-language tourism websites, that there are ways to avoid the crowds. You can take the buses all the way to the top and then hike down, in the opposite direction from everyone else. You can eschew the buses altogether and just hike around at your own pace. You can follow those little boardwalks that lead you away from the Scenic Spots with poetic names, and also away from the crowds.

All of these options require you to be willing to miss out on seeing some of the famous, but farther-away lakes and waterfalls. I was willing to skip these, but my travel companions were not, and I can’t really blame them. Jiuzhaigou is extremely famous in China, to the extent that they read about the Five Color Pond (五彩池) in their grade-school textbooks. It would be like an American visiting Washington D.C. for the first time, and deciding to spend all day in the National Postal Museum instead of visiting the Lincoln Memorial, just because it was quieter.

In the end, my trip to Jiuzhaigou was still absolutely worth it. We made the most of our one day in the park, and the landscapes we saw were truly spectacular, unlike anything I had ever seen before.

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I’m even glad we had a selfie stick with us, because you know what? Some of those pictures turned out pretty darn good.

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(I’m the second creepy panda from the right)

Until I started working in the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve last month, I had never strayed very far off the beaten path in China. Nanjing was a bustling city filled with foreign exchange students. Lijiang was one of the top tourist destinations in China. Sure, I’ve been to rural areas and visited villages accessible only by foot, but almost all of these places had been developed with tourism in mind. There were always guesthouses and hotels to stay in. There were always vans or buses set up to transport visitors to local areas of interest. I almost always saw other foreigners traveling the same route I was, usually a route outlined in The Lonely Planet or recommended on Trip Advisor.

But when I traveled to Laohegou for the first time, I knew that I was in for a different experience. Laohegou is located in Minzhu Village, Pingwu County. Pingwu County is technically under the jurisdiction of Mianyang City (Sichuan’s second-largest urban center), but a good two or three hours away by car. The receptionist at the hostel where I stayed in Chengdu had never even heard of Pingwu County, and had no idea that Laohegou existed. Same thing with several of my friends who had spent extensive time in Sichuan.

Following my supervisor’s instructions, I took a bus from Chengdu to Pingwu, getting off at a stop called Baicao. I stood in the middle of a tiny intersection as the bus drove away. There was a convenience store to my right, a couple of houses to my left, and nothing else. I had a moment of panic when I realized that it was almost dark, I had no idea where I was, and this might not even be the right stop. Luckily, barely a minute had passed before a big muddy pickup truck stopped to pick me up, and we rumbled off into the mountains, past Minzhu Village, through the big metal gate marking the entrance to the reserve, and finally arrived at the compound where Laohegou staff eat, sleep, and work.

It would be overly romantic to call Laohegou “wild.” The forest is all secondary growth, having been logged for timber in the past. Scattered throughout the woods are old stone walls and the decaying foundations of hunting cabins. But the lack of human presence has inspired a resurgence of wildlife in the area. In my short time in the reserve, I have already seen wild boars, tufted deer, and Sichuan snub nosed monkeys.

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Laohegou is no Yellowstone, teeming with busloads of tourists all year round. It’s no Laojunshan, in Lijiang, where visitors from all over China come to experience a (literal) breath of fresh air.

Laohegou is different. Over and over again, various staff members have emphasized to me that the reserve’s first and foremost goal is conservation. That means a strictly enforced “core zone” in which no human activity is allowed. That means limited access to the reserve, and a big metal gate blocking the entrance (although locals are still allowed inside, and I see visitors almost every weekend coming from nearby villages to check out the reserve or visit the dilapidated little temple up the road).

There are no plans to develop tourism in Laohegou, and there likely never will be. The area is beautiful, yes, like all natural places are—forests, mountains, stonebed rivers—but the landscape isn’t spectacular enough to attract visitors from across the country or even from Chengdu. The local villages aren’t set up to accommodate travellers. Everyone agrees that an influx of tourists would bring more harm than good. With a solid source of funding from the Sichuan Nature Conservation Foundation, backed by some of China’s richest investors, Laohegou is free to focus on protecting biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake.

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A ranger checks one of the infrared cameras used to monitor wildlife in the reserve.

It is interesting to me that such a “pure” nature reserve would be founded by The Nature Conservancy, an organization known in the United States for cooperating with Big Business and supporting “sustainable” industry development. Mark Tercek, CEO and president of The Nature Conservancy, believes that quantifying natural resources for financial markets is the only way to make lasting improvements in the health of the global ecosystem. In a New Yorker article published last spring by D. T. Max, Tercek explains that without catering to the needs of industry, environmental protection would never gain enough support to make a real difference.

My high school classmate Ethan Linck wrote a great discussion of this New Yorker article here.

On one hand, I absolutely agree with Tercek. If we truly hope to achieve a sustainable global society in the future, in which human beings thrive without damaging ecosystems or depleting natural resources, then every industry, every business, and every individual must be committed to achieving this goal. Simply walling off choice patches of natural landscape isn’t going to cut it.

However, I also believe that “nature” is more than the sum of its parts, and that in quantifying nature, you lose sight of the reasons why it’s worth protecting in the first place. As the New Yorker article points out, it’s all well and good when a big factory realizes that it is both more cost effective and smog-reducing to plant a thousand acres of trees, rather than to install new smoke scrubbers. But what if it hadn’t worked out that way? What if it was actually more cost effective to install the scrubbers? The factory would have no incentive to plant trees, the local people and animals would never benefit from the beautiful forest, and the factory’s air pollution would continue as it has always continued.

I was lucky enough to have grown up in a natural place, with the freedom to run around and climb trees and catch salamanders. There was no economic value to my childhood exploration, and it would be impossible to quantify how these experiences have influenced my adult life.

This is why I believe that there is no single blanket approach to conservation; every natural area should be evaluated individually, taking into account the needs of its particular people, plants, and animals.

Therefore, Laohegou represents an extremely interesting—and I’d argue, successful—approach to nature conservation. Laohegou recognizes that to succeed as a protector of biodiversity, it must maintain friendly, neighborly relations with the surrounding communities. Staff members are currently working with local farmers to develop a market for custom-order agricultural products: walnuts, honey, persimmons, meat, and poultry.

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But the reserve still puts conservation first. The locals may never get rich selling walnuts and sausages, but they won’t be destitute either. They won’t have to change their lives around completely to accommodate tourism or another new industry with no history in the area. They will always have a beautiful natural area to visit, without competing with busloads of visitors from all over the country.

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As for me, I’m excited for the chance to play a small role in the continued success of such a unique nature reserve, as a volunteer for The Nature Conservancy. Although Laohegou is very isolated (I often find myself craving a bubble tea or wishing I didn’t have to beg somebody to drive me half an hour to the nearest store just so I can buy shampoo), I am enjoying living in a truly non-touristy area of China. As a foreigner, I actually feel less conspicuous here than I do in China’s second or third-tier cities. City-dwellers, raised on a diet of Hollywood movies and stereotypes about white people, are likely to point and stare and giggle.

Rural people might express mild surprise at finding a foreigner in their midst, but they are generally too preoccupied with more important matters to give me a second thought.

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I said in my last post that I’d write about conservation in Laohegou, but then I went to Chengdu for the weekend…and now I can’t think about anything but food!

I visited Chengdu with two Nature Conservancy employees, both of whom would soon be flying out to their respective offices in other parts of China. Before leaving, they wanted to experience the capital of Sichuan Province in all its glory, and I was more than happy to accompany them. All three of us had the same goal for this trip: to eat as many local specialties as possible.

The Great Food Odyssey started earlier for me than it did for my travel companions. Having slept through breakfast, I decided to get something to eat from the food carts when our van stopped for a break outside Jiangyou. I pointed to some dumplings that looked good—chaoshou 抄手—not realizing that they would be served in a bowl of red-hot soup. The van honked and I clambered back on, trying to balance the soup on my lap. Turns out, nobody else in the van had gotten anything to eat at all, and there I was with my full meal of messy, soupy dumplings. Oh well, they were delicious!

When we arrived in Chengdu, we joined a big group from Laohegou for a fancy sit-down lunch of old fashioned Chengdu fare. Although many of the dishes were predictably spicy, some were much subtler than I would have expected, emphasizing the tangy flavor of Sichuan pepper without the usual mouth-numbing effect.

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After lunch, the three of us split off from the group and ventured downtown. First we stopped for a local snack called sandapao三大炮, which are balls of sticky rice coated in ground peanuts and served with sweet syrup. They are named, I’m assuming, after the loud “pow” sound of the rice balls being thrown into the peanut mixture.

Still full from lunch, we nevertheless made another quick stop at this place, famous for its local Chengdu snacks. Between the three of us, we polished off one order each of tianshui mian 甜水面 (thick noodles in a sweet and spicy sauce), zhong shuijiao 钟水饺 (dumplings), and liangfen 凉粉 (bean jelly).

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After a few hours of wandering around the department stores downtown, it was time for dinner. We joined two more Nature Conservancy employees to eat Sichuan’s most famous contribution to Chinese cuisine: spicy hotpot.

In addition to the usual hotpot favorites—beef slices, potatoes, mushrooms—we also tried some local specialties like frozen tofu. Apparently, freezing the tofu expands its pores, thus allowing it to absorb more hotpot flavor.

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We ordered our hotpot weila 微辣(mildly spicy), and it was pretty much at the upper limit of what I could enjoy. I wince to imagine the kind of stomach that could withstand tela 特辣 (extra spicy).

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The next morning, we stopped for some buns and fresh soy milk before exploring Chengdu’s famous Panda Breeding Center. Although the center felt more like an ordinary zoo than like the natural sanctuary I was hoping for, it was still incredible to see so many adorable pandas in one place, lounging and napping and eating bamboo.

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By the time we left the Panda Center, I was starving.

Perfect! An excuse to eat more food.

We found a little noodle shop that served feichang fen 肥肠粉, glass noodles with pork intestine, which is another Chengdu specialty. These were served with a fried pastry called guokui 锅盔, which was stuffed with deliciously tingly Sichuan peppercorns.

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Although this was one of my favorite meals from the whole weekend, we still wanted to eat more afterwards—so we hopped over to the Halal restaurant next door for some Lanzhou-style beef noodles.

Finally stuffed, we moseyed on over to one of the traditional teahouses in People’s Park to experience the “slow life” (慢生活) of Chengdu. I remember learning about Sichuan teahouses when I was studying abroad in Hangzhou in 2011, and it was gratifying to see that the abstract articles I’d read were actually true. Compared to the high-brow establishments in Hangzhou and other eastern cities, Sichuan teahouses are very informal and relaxed. We sat outdoors on simple bamboo chairs and sipped tea from gaiwan 盖碗 (cups with lids and saucers).

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All around us, people were hanging out, chatting, playing cards, and eating sunflower seeds. Some were having their ears cleaned by the professional ear-cleaner guys wandering around with scary instruments. We decided to pass on that aspect of the Chengdu Teahouse Experience, but we nevertheless managed to while away several hours drinking cup after cup of delicious tea.

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Eventually, even though nobody was hungry, we decided that it was time to eat again. We picked a random restaurant and ordered two Chengdu specialties that none of us had tried yet: fuqi feipian 夫妻肺片 (lung slices) and tihua 蹄花 (pig trotter soup). The pig trotters were a little bland and cartilage-y for my taste, but the lung slices had a surprisingly nice texture, and came smothered in a delicious chili sauce.

From there we moved on to another restaurant for some tangyuan 汤圆 (glutinous rice balls filled with sesame paste). Finally, we finished the night in Starbucks, since by then everybody was craving something sweet and hydrating.

The next day we split up and went our separate ways, but not before sampling some chuanchuanxiang 串串香 (skewers dipped in hotpot, basically the same as malatang). As a final taste of Chengdu before returning to the Laohegou nature reserve, I got a bowl of suanlafen 酸辣粉 (hot and sour glass noodles) at the bus station. A perfect weekend!

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Why is it so hard to start writing this entry? I know that once I’ve written a sentence or two, the rest will start flowing more naturally. That’s how it always feels when I’ve neglected my blog for a significant period of time. It’s happened before. But three months? That’s too long. It’s time to start updating Malatang again…so here goes.

I’m writing this on the airplane from New York to Beijing, after which I will fly to Chengdu, then check into a hotel called the Verdy Herton (which will hopefully still accept me as I stroll in well after midnight). Tomorrow, I will begin volunteering for The Nature Conservancy’s Sichuan office, working in the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve in Pingwu County. By tomorrow, of course, I mean Friday, January 9th. But it’s still only the 7th here on the airplane, where my computer hasn’t updated to China time yet. We are probably flying over the North Pole right now. Does the North Pole even have a time zone? Traveling is confusing.

The important thing, though, is that I am on my way to Sichuan, the land of spicy stews, tingly sauces, killer barbecue…basically the Food Capital of China. Sichuan cuisine is renowned throughout the Middle Kingdom, from Nanjing to Lijiang. The very concept of this blog, Malatang, was inspired by the numbing-spicy Sichuanese soup I first tried while studying abroad in Hangzhou. Even far beyond the Middle Kingdom, Sichuan food abounds. Kung Pao chicken? Spicy string beans? Mapo Tofu? All-American staples, all from Sichuan.

This brings me to the purpose of this blog post, which is to commemorate the three glorious months I just spent at home in Vermont, gorging on fresh pomegranates, aged cheddar, and Snacking Chocolate from Costco. When this plane lands, I’ll have to turn my back on dairy and fresh veggies for a while to embrace six months of tongue-scorching Sichuan goodness. But first, I’d like to crystallize into my memory my top five meals from these last few months at home.

  1. Chinese takeout in Maine

Fitting with the theme, my #5 represents the most far-flung corner of China’s culinary empire: China Hill in Ellsworth, Maine. My family spent Christmas in Bar Harbor, hiking in Acadia and wandering around the dark restaurants and shuttered knickknack stores, closed until spring. As per Jewish tradition, Christmas dinner demanded a trip to a Chinese restaurant. With our limited options, that meant China Hill. While the food was, well, what you’d expect, this meal was memorable in its utmost coziness. My entire family was together (dogs included), and we huddled in our little rented house while winter rains pummeled the empty town of Bar Harbor. We watched a movie and pulled apart gluey dumplings, and the outside world ceased to exist. Plus we discovered a free order of pork fried rice at the bottom of the takeout bag, so that was cool.

  1. Indian takeout in Cambridge

I swear I ate more than just takeout while I was home! It’s just that this particular food was so delicious. It was listed online as the best Indian food in Boston, and the place was so tiny and so packed that we had no choice but to get takeout. I was visiting one of my oldest friends in Cambridge, the kind of friend with whom I could lose touch for several months, but then slip right back in where we left off because we’ve known each other since preschool and our families are practically relatives. I didn’t even know that she liked Indian food. Last I could remember, she didn’t. But this just goes to show that people can change, and I’ve probably changed in ways I’m not even aware of, but in the end those little things don’t matter as long as you can curl up on the couch together and watch movies and remember what kinds of tea you each like to drink. By the way, that was the best saag paneer I’ve ever had.

  1. Breakfast at Healthy Living

Number three was chosen purely for its deliciousness. Who knew that a health food coop would serve such good breakfast? My mom and I first discovered this when we had to bring the car into the repair shop next door, and we wandered into Healthy Living while we waited. These breakfast sandwiches are perfect. Eggs perfectly cooked so that the yolk is soft but doesn’t make a mess, sharp melted cheese, creamy avocado, and a touch of arugula, all held together with a perfectly crisp bread that doesn’t make everything spill out when you take a bite. Luckily, my mom and I had to make several trips to the car shop throughout my time at home, which meant that I probably ate this breakfast sandwich more than any other single item of food. As much as I love eating in China, breakfasts can be tough, and I’m definitely going to miss ol’ Healthy Living.

  1. Leftovers in Colorado

Since my time at home included Thanksgiving, I’m obviously going to include some Thanksgiving food in this list. We spent the holiday in my birthplace of Denver, Colorado, where my food-loving uncle prepared us a splendid meal. Like all splendid meals, however, the leftovers are usually even better than the main event. This is especially the case when you take said leftovers with you to a cozy cabin up in the mountains, layer them into various casseroles, gorge on them after a beautiful hike, then follow the gorging with a soak in the hot tub, gazing up at the stars.

  1. My First Meal Home

Way back in October, I stumbled off the plane from Lijiang, via Kunming, Bangkok, Shanghai, and New York—it was a long road home to Vermont. Knowing I’d be exhausted, my parents decided to forgo a lavish welcome-home dinner and instead prepared a simple meal of arugula salad with feta cheese, corn on the cob, and fresh crusty bread with real butter. These were the things I sorely missed while I was in China: raw vegetables, rich dairy, and simple meals that were considered complete even without any meat, oil, or rice. I was so happy to be home in my old house, with my family and dogs and cats, drinking tea out of my own mug and sleeping in my own bed. As time went on, of course, I got used to it again. I started to take the fresh vegetables for granted. I suppose this means I’m ready to leave again on another adventure.

I’m excited to go to Sichuan, have new experiences, eat new dishes, and write about them here—hopefully with more regularity starting now. I now know that every time I leave home on a new adventure, I come back with even more appreciation for the little, familiar things I grew up with, like seeing my family every day, speaking English to everyone I meet, walking the dogs to East Shore Drive, and real butter on the table.

Thanks for reading!

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This past weekend I traveled to Lugu Lake, a high-altitude alpine lake located on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan. With some Chinese friends from the office, we spent two days cycling around the lake on red rented mountain bikes, admiring the deep turquoise water and avoiding the sudden and violent thunderstorms that materialized at random intervals throughout the weekend. It wasn’t an easy trip; besides sickness and a minor bike accident, we also had to deal with ten-hour bus rides and a bathroomless guesthouse—the outhouse was literally out back with the pigs. Nevertheless, the beautiful and fascinating scenery made the trip absolutely worthwhile.

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The mountains surrounding Lugu Lake are home to the Mosuo people (摩梭人), who number approximately 40,000. The Mosuo are famous for their woven textiles, their preserved pork, and—most of all—their unique marital customs. Mosuo heritage is traced matrilineally, and couples engage in so-called “walking marriages,” where the man visits the woman by night and returns to his own home during the day. Any children born from these meetings are raised in the mother’s home. Today, this cultural quirk is one of Lugu Lake’s biggest tourist draws. The entire area is advertised as the “Land of Daughters,” and I’m told that the perceived promiscuity of Mosuo women attracts desperate men from all over China and has created a booming red light district in the area.

In our peaceful circumnavigation of the lake, my friends and I saw no signs of prostitution. We did, however, see the effects of tourism apparent in many areas of southwest China. Entire villages seemed converted into tourist havens, where every wooden house has an inn and a restaurant, and every lakefront shop sells the same scarves, jewelry, and other “authentic” “ethnic” souvenirs (identical to those for sale in Lijiang, Dali, Yangshuo, etc.).

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After hearing so much about their perceived exoticness, I was surprised to learn that the Mosuo people are not considered their own ethnicity by the Chinese government. In Yunnan, they are officially classified as a sub-group of the Naxi. In Sichuan, they are officially Mongolian. The government ID cards of Mosuo people say “摩梭人” not “摩梭族” using the 人 (person) suffix instead of the usual 族 (nationality/ethnicity) suffix. What’s going on here?

“Ethnicity” can be a very fluid concept. Juxtaposed against the rigidity of Chinese government policy, the concept becomes dizzyingly complex. The population of the People’s Republic of China is officially classified into 56 ethnic groups. One of these groups, the Han, comprises 92% of China’s total population; they are the largest ethnic group in the world. The remaining 55 minority groups are known as 少数民族, translated alternatively as “minority nationalities” or “minority ethnicities.” (The word “nationality” was based on a Marxist definition of “nation.” Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the word “ethnicity” is generally preferred to avoid confusion between political and cultural entities within China).

Some of China’s minority groups, such as the Hui (回族) are spread throughout every province in China, while others, such as the Naxi (纳西族) of northwest Yunnan, are found only in one particular area. Some ethnicities are associated with neighboring independent countries, such as ethnic Mongolians (蒙古族), Koreans (朝鲜族), and Kazakhs (哈萨克族). Others, like the Bai or the Hani, are found only in China.

The ethnic groups most frequently in the Western news are those in conflict with Han people and the Chinese government, namely the Tibetans and the Uighurs. Both groups have a history of cohesive political autonomy, and the centers of these historic civilizations are currently located within the borders of the PRC. Tibetans and Uighurs are known throughout the world, but many people do not know that the second largest ethnic group in China (after the Han) is the Zhuang, whose 18 million people live in the rural mountains of Guangxi and neighboring provinces. Many people also do not know that Russians (俄罗斯族) are considered one of the 56 official groups, or that the Manchus (满族), despite ruling all of China not so long ago, have all but completely assimilated into Han culture.

Ever since the government began officially cataloging ethnicities in the 1950’s, there has been plenty of confusion. The Hakka (客家人) of southeastern China were originally labeled as a unique ethnic minority because their customs and language differed from their Cantonese neighbors. Today, Hakka people are classified as Han (supported by genetic evidence), and their language is considered to be a dialect branch of Chinese.

The Hui (回族), meanwhile, seem to be classified more according to religion than cultural identification. Often known as “Chinese Muslims,” the Hui are thought to be descended from early Arab traders in China. Modern Hui people are spread across every province of China, and except for their religion, they are linguistically and culturally indistinguishable from their (mostly Han) neighbors. Interestingly, Bai-speaking Muslims in Yunnan and some Tibetan-speaking Muslims in Tibet are also classified as Hui, confirming the label as a religious rather than a truly ethnic designation.

So what’s the deal with the Mosuo? According to one of the friends I was traveling with, a Naxi girl, the Mosuo and Naxi languages are very similar. The two groups also inhabit the same region, so it makes sense that they would be related. My friend acknowledged that the Mosuo people consider themselves to be an independent group, but explained that their population is too small to qualify for official status. I’m not sure if this is true, since the Oroqen in northeastern China have less than 9000 people, and the officially registered Tatars in Xinjiang number only 3500.

Historically, both the Mosuo and the Naxi (as well as the Lisu, Yi, and other local groups) are believed to have descended from the ancient Qiang people. After this their histories diverge. In Yunnan, linguistic and geographic similarities were enough to classify the Mosuo as Naxi. In Sichuan, a group of Mosuo claiming direct descent from Mongol officials during the Yuan dynasty successfully petitioned to be classified as Mongols. This discrepancy highlights the complexity of provincial politics in China, where the same group of people can be classified in two different ways on either side of the border.

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The real question is, what does it matter? My Naxi friend did not express any strong opinions on whether or not the Mosuo are truly Naxi. All ethnic minorities in China are awarded certain privileges, such as exemption from the one-child policy and affirmative action admission to universities. These privileges apply to the Mosuo regardless of how they are characterized. To me, this is an issue of personal identity, rather than practical benefits. If the Mosuo people consider themselves to be a separate ethnic group, and the Naxi people (and certainly the Mongolians as well) do not disagree, how can anybody else say otherwise?

Unfortunately in China, the government can indeed say otherwise. A new classification might bring solidarity and pride to the Mosuo people, but to the Chinese bureaucracy it would only bring paperwork and confusion, adding another layer to China’s massively complicated ethnic landscape.

For now, the Mosuo people seem to be struggling with the same problems as ethnic minorities all over China—commercialization and fetishization. No matter what the government says, it’s important to understand the complexity of Mosuo culture and to avoid romanticizing and cheapening their social and marital customs. Although I had a fantastic time in Lugu Lake—bathroomless guesthouse aside—I regret that I did not take the opportunity to speak first-hand with more Mosuo people. I hope to return again to the lake, this time to more fully understand the complex issue of ethnic identity. And maybe next time, I’ll splurge for a room with an indoor toilet.

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