Archives for posts with tag: Yunnan

I’ve been thinking a lot about culture lately. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I spent the Chinese New Year with my friend and her family in her hometown of Qiaojia, Yunnan. As the sole representative of all of Western Culture, I found myself thinking a lot about the cultural norms that have influenced me growing up in the United States.

In Qiaojia I met lots of interesting characters: the maybe-lesbian from a poor farming village who is studying to be an accountant; the fourteen-year-old cousin with her own motorcycle and more maturity then I’ll ever have; the dude who manages hotels in Chengdu and may or may not be part of the Qiaojia Mafia.

One of the most interesting people I met was my friend’s father, Mr. Zhu, who is a teacher, local historian, and respected figure in the community. Unlike most people of his generation in Qiaojia, he was: 1) able to speak Standard Mandarin, and 2) eager to speak it with me, delving deeper than just “where are you from” and “why are you so tall.” I was incredibly grateful to Mr. Zhu, not only for being such a generous host, but also for providing some of the most stimulating conversation I had with anyone in Qiaojia. He shared my dislike of violent Chinese movies in which the Japanese are always unequivocally evil. He loved looking at my pictures of Vermont, and concluded that my family always looked extremely happy in each other’s company.

As time went on, however, I began to get the sense that Mr. Zhu was not too fond of Western culture, and American culture in particular. There was the old argument that America has only a few hundred years of history, compared to China’s “five thousand years,” and the suggestion that American culture is shallow, empty, and hollow in comparison. He didn’t say any of these things outright, but I sensed his underlying meaning—and I always agreed readily. Why shouldn’t I? America is far from perfect. Because of Americans’ diverse backgrounds, we do indeed lack the singular, cohesive cultural history of which (Han) China is so proud.

Mr. Zhu’s opinions were epitomized in a discussion we had about the meaning of 羊 “yang,” the zodiac animal whose year we just entered. 羊 in English can be variously translated as “sheep,” “goat,” or “ram.” During the days leading up to the New Year, several lighthearted news articles appeared in the U.S. highlighting this confusion: so is it a sheep, or is it a goat?

I brought the subject up with Mr. Zhu, thinking he might find it amusing. Instead, he proceeded to write two characters onto a piece of paper for me. The first was 意, or meaning. The second was 形, or appearance. Chinese characters denote meaning, while English letters denote sound, or appearance. He further explained that 羊 has deep cultural meaning in China, symbolic of auspiciousness (since the character 祥, meaning auspicious, contains 羊). He explained that any differentiation between sheep and goats (绵羊 and 山羊) is irrelevant to this meaning. The distinction in English between sheep and goats refers to a difference in biological species, or a difference in appearance alone.

I nodded along as he said this, but I also felt myself becoming a little defensive.

First of all, written language does not necessarily correlate with cultural richness. Second of all, it is false to assume that American cultural development only began in 1776. It is false to assume that our sheep/goat distinction is purely based on taxonomy, and not on deeply held cultural beliefs of our own.

Because here’s the thing: there is a very significant difference between sheep and goats in my culture, American culture, a culture steeped in the traditions of Western Europe.

Sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell, as the song goes.

Sheep herding has a long history in Europe and its subsequent cultures. Sheep herding and the peaceful, idyllic life of the shepherd have inspired countless works of literature, art, and classical music. I’ve played the clarinet part in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony myself, and that piece is indisputably a beautiful, complex accomplishment of human culture. Sheep herding meant the breeding of sheep-herding dogs—collies, corgis, and shepherds—which have in turn created cultural icons from Lassie to K9. Sheep herding meant Fair Isle knitting. Haggis. Little Bo Peep. Jesus was a shepherd, his followers a flock.

And goats? Traditionally more common in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, goats are a bit more exotic. They’re tricksters. The devil takes the form of a goat, and his followers wear goatees. That Taylor Swift “Trouble” video would have been much less hilarious with a sheep.

My point is this: our distinction between sheep and goats is much more than a line drawn between two scientifically classified species. It is a deep cultural division of no less validity or significance than the 羊 in Chinese culture. Sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell.

I wish I could have explained this to Mr. Zhu, but at the time my mind drew a blank. It took me several days of mulling it over before I could put into words what I had felt all along—that while American culture may be young, it does not exist in a vacuum.

But even if I’d had the presence of mind to explain the goat/sheep distinction at the time, I’m not sure if I would have dared to open my mouth.

Would it have offended Mr. Zhu, my incredibly generous host?

Did I even have a point at all?

Or was I desperately trying to justify a culture that is objectively shallow compared to the culture of China?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!



Qiaojia 巧家 is a small, county-level city in northeast Yunnan on the border of Sichuan. It’s got one main market, at least two bars, a smattering of KTV (karaoke) parlors, and lots of late-night barbecue. Unlike most of Yunnan province, a treasure trove of minority cultures and beautiful landscapes that fill chapter after chapter of guidebooks in every language, Qiaojia is a dusty Han city that nobody visits without a good reason. Qiaojia has had three foreign visitors that I know of: one English teacher a few years back, one middle-aged white dude I spotted walking down the street (perhaps visiting his Chinese wife’s family for the New Year)…and me.


I came to Qiaojia to visit a good friend who I had met in Lijiang. For the first time in my experience in China, I wouldn’t be holing up in my room alone on Chinese New Year, eating KFC because it was the only food available. This year, I would be spending the holiday in my friend’s hometown with her family.

The Zhu/Deng family lives in a traditional old courtyard house in the middle of the city, set back from the main road in a tangled neighborhood of old houses connected by crumbling dirt streets. We usually took shortcuts in between the houses, stepping carefully over rocks and scrambling across narrow packed-dirt ruts, touching the walls on both sides for balance. My friend’s mother managed it in heels.

The house is home to my friend and her parents, as well as her older brother, his wife, and their one-year-old son. This was not a modern house. The bathroom was a spider-filled outhouse with two holes in the ground (why two?). Water came from several spigots placed around the courtyard so that the water would run through the concrete channels along the edges, outside the main doorway, and into the muddy road that was rutted and eroded from decades of being used both as a road, and as a water system. At least they had hot water, and relatively comfortable showers could be taken in a curtained-off nook under the stairs leading to the rooftop.


New Years preparations began with a trip to the big vegetable market in the center of town with the women of the family. The market was crammed with holiday shoppers to the point of suffocation. Stares and comments followed me wherever I went. Many of the locals assumed I was from Xinjiang, as if they simply could not fathom why someone from outside the PRC would ever appear in Qiaojia. I wonder if they perceived me as a threat; I heard that Qiaojia had literally kicked out all of its Uighur residents following the attacks in Kunming. I decided instead to take it as a compliment, since every Uighur person I’ve ever met has been exceedingly attractive.


Back at the house, I felt more relaxed away from the judging eyes of the public. I helped my friend wash dishes, shuck peas, and clean up the main living room (although the bedroom we shared remained a complete disaster throughout my visit). We also picked the stamen (no pistils) out of these big, red, flowers called panzhihua 攀枝花. These would later be stir-fried, a local specialty.


New Years Eve was much more low-key than I anticipated. Only the immediate family was there. Still, it definitely felt like a special occasion. While most of the family’s meals were eaten outside on little plastic stools around a low table, this time we ate inside the living room, sitting on couches. Red candles and incense burned in the doorway and at the end of the room. Dinner featured a much larger number of dishes than usual, as well as a large assortment of fried foods, since frying is representative of happiness and celebration. We drank coconut milk and sweet red wine out of paper cups. My friend’s father toasted each of us in turn and handed each of us a 100 RMB bill. I felt very awkward accepting this, but I suppose he would have felt even more awkward leaving me out.


After dinner, my friend and I went out to buy fireworks. Since neither of us like the traditional firecrackers, and are downright terrified of the deafening bomb kind that teenage boys like to set off in unexpected places, we only bought some sparklers. Back at the house, we watched the CCTV Spring Festival Gala on TV, the annual collection of musical and theatrical performances that is the most-watched television program in the world. At midnight, we went outside, lit our sparklers, and watched fireworks explode around us in all directions.

The next morning, Day One of the New Year, we visited my friend’s maternal grandmother and extended family. We first convened at an aunt’s house for a breakfast of tangyuan 汤圆, sesame-filled sticky rice balls that are a traditional New Year food. I was surprised to see that the aunt and her family live in a massive, brand new, luxuriously decorated 8th-floor apartment. It had glittering tile floors, multiple modern bathrooms, and more rooms than they could possibly use. As far as I could tell, three different rooms were used purely for the storage of food, and this was not counting the large, sparkling kitchen with its full-sized refrigerator.

I am still unsure whether my friend grew up in such a run-down house because her family could not afford anything else, or because they truly prefer the traditional way of life to the amenities of a modern apartment complex. I actually suspect the latter.

After a rather rushed breakfast, we headed into the dusty mountains on motorcycles to visit the graves of deceased family members. This was more relaxing than I might have thought. While the older members of the family lit incense and left offerings in front of the graves, the younger people gathered on a sunny hill to eat pine nuts and take pictures (mostly of me, but whatever). As we left each gravesite, the boys set off a massive hail of firecracker explosions.

The days that followed were a slow, lazy, mix of hanging out and visiting with relatives. I don’t think I got any of their names, but by the end I could almost distinguish between the many middle-aged aunts with their identical perms and jewel-toned sweaters. I also spent many long, lethargic afternoons doodling on my hands with henna, doing Buzzfeed quizzes, and reading poorly written horror stories on Thought Catalog.


By the end of my time in Qiaojia, to be perfectly honest, I was more than ready to leave. I’d had enough of the heat, the angry-sounding dialect, the random explosions, and the monotonously salty food. I was itching to go for a long, long walk without people taking pictures or almost crashing their motorcycles from staring so hard over their shoulders. I was ready to go back to Laohegou, where the air was cool and the dogs weren’t mean, and where everybody had long ago gotten over the novelty of my existence.

But I do not for a second regret my time in Qiaojia. It felt like my first glimpse behind the curtain of an ordinary China, unaware of foreign influence and untouched by tourism. It was neither a booming metropolis nor an isolated farming village—it was a small, unremarkable city, not unlike the cities and towns I grew up with. Qiaojia’s residents weren’t wealthy by American standards, but most of them didn’t seem truly impoverished either. They sang lots of karaoke, ate lots of barbecue, and spent lots of time with their families. Most of my friend’s friends were either college students in other provinces, or were running or managing their own businesses in Qiaojia. One of her best friends, who I felt became my friend too, owned her own coffee shop, and spent her free time performing in a local dance group. Her mother owned a clothing store just a few doors down.

I hope that in my short time in Qiaojia, I was able to help a few people overcome their reticence about foreigners, and to see that Western cultures do not necessarily match the stereotypes—after all, I’m not blonde, I’m not Christian, and I’m not an English teacher. I speak Chinese, I like China, and I am curious about Chinese culture. Once they got over their initial astonishment, I could tell that the people of Qiaojia were curious about me too, and eager to learn more about the big, wide world out there.


I am writing this blog post from the window of New Moon Café in Burlington, sipping tea and watching the afternoon shoppers stroll by. That’s right, I’m home. After a train ride, a plane ride, an evening in Bangkok, then another three flights of varying lengths, I have arrived in Vermont safe and sound. My contract with The Nature Conservancy finished. My visa expired. I left.

I’m still going over everything that’s happened to me over the course of my time in Lijiang—the people I met, the places I saw, the decisions I made about my future (grad school!), and the lessons I learned about myself and the world. Cultural differences. Falling in and out of love in another language. At some point I’ll write about all those things, I swear. But for now, I’d like to back up to my last week in Yunnan and tell the story of how I took a traditional Tibetan art class in Shangri-la.

First of all, yes, there is an actual place called Shangri-la. It was thusly named in 2001 in an effort to boost tourism in the area, replacing the former name Zhongdian (which was a Han renaming of the original Tibetan name Gyalthang). The place that is currently called Shangri-la is a predominantly Tibetan county in northwest Yunnan Province, and it is home to the Thangka Center, run by the Shangri-la Association of Cultural Preservation. Thangka is a traditional style of Buddhist art. Painted in bright colors on silk or cotton, these highly symbolic works are common among Vajrayana Buddhist cultures across the Himalayan region. I have always admired the intricate details and vivid colors of thangka paintings, and I was excited to see that the Thangka Center in Shangri-la offered art classes to tourists.


I emailed the director of the Association, Dakpa Kelden, and he replied in English saying I was welcome to stop by at any time. The Thangka Center has several full-time students from local villages, and I was welcome to join them for a few days of classes. I could even eat and sleep at the center for a very reasonable price.

A few days later I showed up…alone. I had been traveling with another girl, but she elected not to join me on this part of the adventure. I met Dakpa Kelden briefly, a well-dressed businessman with a posh Indian accent. Born to Tibetan exiles in India, he returned to his ancestral hometown in Yunnan as an adult to develop the community and preserve cultural practices such as thangka painting.


The art teacher himself was Master Palden, a small, soft-spoken man who showed me the cavernous twelve-bed dormitory where I would be sleeping (alone) and got me started in the art studio. Six other students were already at work: five Tibetan teenaged boys, and one Han girl—a tourist like me. I was very grateful for her presence.

I could immediately see that thangka painting was not a skill that one could acquire in an afternoon. The students at work on large, colorful cloth paintings had been studying for years. A couple of the boys were still sketching in pencil on scrap paper. It takes several months of sketching before one is ready to begin painting in color.


My first task was to sketch the head of the Shakyamuni Buddha. This involved copying an intricate framework of lines and angles onto the page, upon which the Buddha’s features must be carefully and exactly replicated. One of the more advanced students was assigned to keep an eye on me and give me pointers. Although he couldn’t have been older than eighteen, this boy struck me as extremely mature and trustworthy. All of the boys seemed a little bit different—less cocky and more disciplined—compared to teenagers in the United States.

After finishing the Buddha’s head, the boy came over to investigate my work. I was pretty proud of myself for getting the grid and the proportions right, and I thought I’d done a very nice job on the facial features thank you very much. But what did I know? The mouth was all wrong—too big and too downturned. The eyes were too wide. The ears were crooked and short. The chin was too pointed. Even the round thing at the top of the head was the wrong shape—it was supposed to be a jewel, I learned, although I couldn’t tell so from the scanned line drawing I was trying to copy.

I could see that thangka painting was very different from art classes I had taken in high school, where experimentation is celebrated and creativity is expected. Thangka painting is a highly exact and rigidly stylized process. Each building block—the eyes, the chin, the jewel—must be replicated perfectly and mastered before the student can move on. A finished thangka painting, no matter how complex it may appear, is simply a composite of these various building blocks, all of which are rich in symbolic meaning. I began to see why thangka artists never sign their work. Unlike art in the west, a completed painting is not seen as the accomplishment of a talented individual. Rather, it is seen as a new manifestation of a centuries-old spiritual tradition. A tiny drop added into the great ocean of Buddhist symbolism.

The boy handed me a blank sheet of paper and told me to try again. Once again I copied the intricate grid, then overlaid that with the features of the Shakyamuni Buddha. This time my efforts were rewarded—the nose was quite nice, and the shape of the face was almost right, although there was still something wrong with the ears. For homework, the boy told me to practice drawing the most difficult features over and over again: eyes, lips, and ears. I filled half a page with upturned mouths, spirally ears and wavy, heavy-lidded eyes, before it was time for lunch.

I am embarrassed to admit this next part of the story. Lunch was served with the other students in the little outbuilding by the studio, and it was very tasty—marinated cucumbers with Tibetan barley bread—but there just wasn’t enough to satisfy my American appetite. Since we had our afternoons free, I sauntered over to the nearest Western-style café (there are an astonishing number of these in Shangri-la) for some coffee and fried bananas. I felt like a pig.

That afternoon the other tourist girl left, leaving me alone with the boys. I had progressed by this point to Shakyamuni’s full body, which introduced the new challenges of hands and feet. Like all of the Buddha’s body parts, the hands and feet are highly stylized and must be precisely replicated in each of their various positions. After my first attempt at the right hand, one of the students peered over my shoulder and actually laughed. I couldn’t really blame him. My effort to recreate those fleshy, gracefully curved fingers looked more like a deformed tangle of spiders than anything else. The feet, meanwhile, proved even more difficult than the hands. I always made them too large, and the angle of the toes was never quite right. At some point my student teacher gave up trying to correct each spot where I had gone wrong, and started simply erasing my feet and drawing new ones.


Dinner that night was much more satisfying than lunch (thank god), and my sleep in the cavernous dorm room was disturbed only when the middle-aged male caretaker decided his bed was too cold, and came in to sleep in the bunk two over from mine. Awkward, but whatever.

I was awoken bright and early the next morning by the sound of chanting coming from the art studio, which was located directly over my bed. The students, teachers, and caretakers had gathered for their daily recitation of Buddhist scripture. Their voices rose and fell together in a rolling cascade of syllables in 5/4 time.

After they had finished, I went outside and joined them for breakfast—tsampa and butter tea. I chatted a bit with one of the students, who I learned came from a Tibetan area of Sichuan Province and had been studying at the Thangka Center for three years. All of the students come from relatively poor backgrounds where they might not have had access to traditional education. Their studies at the Thangka Center are funded entirely by the Shangri-la Association of Cultural Preservation. This knowledge only deepened my admiration of their discipline and modesty.

The second day, after more or less approving my full-body Buddha (the ears were still wrong, and the feet were actually the work of my student teacher), Master Palden instructed me to add clothing. Again, I worked with a grid and a scanned line drawing. Despite the relative softness of the folds of fabric, the process of drawing clothing was no less rigorous than replicating the delicate facial features. I had lots of trouble with the left sleeve, and the lotus petals upon which the Buddha was sitting were too pointy. During my last class session, I attempted a new drawing of Tara, the female aspect of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. This one was difficult because her head was tilted at an angle to her body, but I’m proud to say that my attempts at her hands and feet passed inspection. Something was still wrong with the earlobes though. I still can’t quite say what.


After two full days of lessons, I returned to Lijiang with a backpack full of imperfectly-eared Buddhas. I promised Master Palden never to throw my drawings away, out of respect for the image of the Buddha. If I ever choose to dispose of them in the future, I must burn them.

When I got back to Lijiang a couple of people asked me: what was the point? After all, I couldn’t really learn very much in just two days. Was it really worth the trouble? Although I’m no closer to being a thangka master now than when I started, to me the experience was absolutely worthwhile. My purpose in traveling isn’t to acquire tangible new skills; it is simply to expand my horizons as much as possible. Through my experience at the Thangka Center, I was able to glimpse the everyday life of a Tibetan art student and gain a deeper understanding of the cultural foundations of a beautiful art form. To me, such new experiences are always worth the trouble.


I love new food. I love trying things I’d never heard of before and experiencing flavors I’d never known existed. I named this blog Malatang after my first experience eating Sichuanese cuisine and tasting the tingly, mouth-numbing pepper called huajiao. It was completely new to me, and I loved it.

I’ve just had another Malatang Moment.

After a week traveling in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Yunnan, I was introduced to a brand new culinary tradition. Sometimes it even challenged my notions of what “food” and “drink” even mean.

The staples of a Tibetan diet are barley and yak milk. Tibetans live in some of the harshest climates in the world, which means that fresh produce is scarce, variety is limited, and a high caloric intake is necessary for survival.



The most common beverage is yak butter tea, which I think I drank almost every day while traveling in this region. It’s a hot beverage made from black brick tea steeped in water and churned with yak butter and salt. The tea is usually served in a beautiful metal pot and drunk from bowls. Tibetan people drink dozens and dozens of bowls of this stuff every day, similar to the way many Americans drink coffee, or to the way my family inhales Earl Grey tea morning and night. I can see the appeal of yak butter tea in such a cold climate—it’s hot, rich, and filling—but first I had to get over the psychological barrier of drinking something salty. It also tastes rather stinky. You know how goat cheese tastes goaty? Well, yak butter definitely tastes yaky. I almost spit out my first sip.

And yet, I hated the fact that I didn’t like a flavor that was beloved by an entire ethnic group. Since I hadn’t grown up on it, I simply wasn’t used to it. I therefore decided to drink yak butter tea at every opportunity I could, in the hope that I could teach myself to like it. I have done this successfully in the past with mushrooms and blue cheese (I’m still working on dill), so why couldn’t I now? One week later, I am proud to say that I don’t hate yak butter tea. It helped that the first one I tried was by far the stinkiest. Every other cup I drank afterwards was much milder. I still don’t want to drink it at every meal, but I can appreciate a little bit on a cold morning. Success!


Moving on, the most common staple food for Tibetans is called tsampa/zanba, which consists of roasted barley flour mixed (with your fingers) with a hunk of yak butter and some yak butter tea to make a kind of dough. This is then eaten with your hands. I’d say it’s most analogous to eating raw pie dough, or maybe biscuit dough, something that consists of flour and butter and not much else. I only tried it once. It didn’t taste bad, per se…but again, I think I’d need to eat it a few more dozen times before I could start to really enjoy it. Although it isn’t technically raw, since the barley is roasted, there’s something about eating dough as an entire meal that just seems wrong to a western girl who always had to sneak licks from the cookie bowl.


Besides tsampa and yak butter tea, the other Tibetan dishes I tried were much easier for my western palate to accept. We ate a delicious yak cheese that tasted similar to feta, which we dipped in sugar before eating. We had several different kinds of barley flatbread, meat dumplings called momos, yak meat hotpot, and many rice and vegetable dishes that were probably Han-influenced.

All-in-all, we only encountered one tiny corner of the Tibetan world, and I hope someday to explore more of their unique culture and cuisine. It was interesting to experience a diet so severely restricted by the limits of the natural environment. But then, when you’re surrounded by such breathtaking scenery, who has time to think about food?


The village of Yubeng, located in the Meli Snow Mountain range, is accessible only by foot or horseback.





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.


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.).


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.


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.



After almost eight months in Nanjing, I had more or less settled into a food routine. I ate vegetable baozi for breakfast, or sometimes congee and tea-leaf eggs if I was feeling bored. For lunch I had wontons, spicy noodles, or cafeteria-style veggie dishes with rice at the chain restaurant Xin Si Fang. For dinner I had one of the things I hadn’t had for lunch, or maybe cooked something simple myself. I drank lots of milk tea and ate way too many sticky rice snacks from Snacks Kingdom.

Then I moved to Yunnan, and found myself thrust into an entirely new food landscape. Yunnan is a place where dairy is consumed regularly, where mint leaves are eaten like a vegetable, and where you’re much more likely to find wholesale Pu’er tea shops than bubble tea chains like CoCo.

As a continuation of several previous posts all about food, I am now proud to present a new list of eight noteworthy things I’ve eaten in the last few weeks.


1. 粑粑 Bābā

Within the northwest Yunnan region, Lijiang itself is not particularly known for its food. Bai cuisine in Dali, and Tibetan cuisine to the northwest, are much more famous and celebrated. Baba is one of the few foods that truly belong to Lijiang and Lijiang alone. It’s a fluffy round flatbread, usually fried in a generous amount of oil, and topped with hot peppers and other toppings. You can also add an egg, which makes it even fluffier and more satisfying if you’re eating it for breakfast (as I often do). Interestingly, baba has made its way into some of the tourist-driven restaurants in the Old Town that offer something called the “Naxi burger,” which is a burger between two pieces of baba. I haven’t tried it yet, but it can’t be bad!

2. 火腿 Huŏtuĭ and 腊肉 Làròu

Huŏtuĭ and làròu are types of preserved pork served across Yunnan. To be honest, I’m not completely sure what the difference is; they seem to be made from different cuts of pork, but the flavor is similar…and it’s always delicious. Still, the best I’ve tried was served by the Zhang family in Liju village, located about two hours west of Lijiang near Laojun Mountain. Mr. Zhang is the leader of the patrol team hired by The Nature Conservancy to protect the forest habitat of the Yunnan golden monkey and other native species. Mrs. Zhang is a damn good cook. Her preserved pork tasted like wood smoke and mountains and the cold clear sky. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

3. 乳饼 Rŭbĭng

Rŭbĭng is goat cheese. Let me say that again: cheese. I’m living in a part of China that eats cheese! I had it stir-fried with tomatoes in Kunming, and I also had it alongside eggs and toast as part of a “Naxi breakfast” (similar to the touristy “Naxi burger”). It’s less salty than most cheese in the west, and less goat-y than most goat cheese I’ve eaten before. It’s basically a miracle.

4. 蕨菜 Juécài

Every day my office eats a pre-paid lunch together at a local restaurant, which means that every day I get to try new and delicious local dishes. One of my favorites is juécài, which is a type of fiddlehead (young fern) that can be gathered from the wild this time of year. It’s often served cold as a type of salad with a tart and spicy dressing. It tastes incredibly fresh and healthy, like eating springtime itself—although according to Wikipedia, the fern (Pteridium aquilinum, known as  “bracken”) contains the carcinogen ptaquiloside and may be linked to increased stomach cancer in humans. But then again, the study was conducted in Japan, which has one of the highest life expectancies in the world. If 105-year-olds are dying of stomach cancer after a lifetime of eating bracken ferns, that’s fine by me!

5. 香椿 Xiāngchūn

In case the cancer thing is legitimate, the restaurant where we eat lunch everyday also serves xiāngchūn, which are the edible leaves of the tree Toona sinensis, and are thought to have anti-carcinogenic properties. So I suppose it all evens out. Xiāngchūn has a deliciously earthy, foresty taste that mixes really well with eggs and rice.

6. 蔓菁 Mánjīng

One of The Nature Conservancy’s projects is helping rural villagers switch from illegal lumber and charcoal production to mánjīng harvesting. The turnip-like vegetables are very hardy and can grow at high altitudes and in poor soil without chemical pesticides or fertilizer. TNC’s mánjīng program not only provides the villagers with a legitimate and steady source of income, it also protects the forest habitat that is home to the Yunnan golden monkey and other key species. TNC buys the beans from the farmers at a good price, and sells them to the public on Taobao. After hearing all about the project, and helping to package enormous boxes of dried mánjīng in our office, I was very excited to finally try it for myself. I ate mánjīng in a hotpot for dinner at a friend’s house. It didn’t have much flavor on it’s own, but it was delicious dipped in chili sauce, and I felt very ecologically friendly eating it!

7. 饵块 Ěr kuài

This is another regional specialty found across Yunnan. Er is basically sticky rice flour, which can be used to make noodles (ĕrsī) or cakes/pancakes (ĕr kuài). One of my favorite local street foods is barbecued ĕr kuài, where they heat a rice pancake and a hotdog on a grill, then wrap it up with sliced potatoes and chili sauce. It costs 5 yuan, and it makes a surprisingly satisfying meal on the go.

8. 卤米线 Lŭ mĭxiàn

My housemate took me to eat lŭ mĭxiàn (stewed rice noodles) on one of my first days here. I was still feeling lost in a new city. I didn’t know where to eat, and I could barely find my way from my apartment to the office and back again. My housemate, another TNC volunteer from Shandong, China, seemed nice enough, but I still barely knew her. Slurping our lŭ mĭxiàn, I finally began to relax and gain my bearings. I discovered that my housemate and I have the same taste in food. We both love to walk. We even have similar life stories; we both worked for less than a year before coming to Yunnan as TNC volunteers. Although lŭ mĭxiàn isn’t specific to Lijiang (and was served in a Dali-themed restaurant), it will always remind me of the first moment I felt settled in this city.