Stories from Yongning

Seven years ago, this month, I spent a week in a remote village in Yongning, China. With me, was an anthropologist friend, Yuan, who specialized in minority ethnic groups. Our purpose for this visit was to better understand the Mosuo culture as the community was said to be following matrilineal practices and was at times, referred to as China’s last matriarchal society. We wanted to talk to some elders in Mosuo villages, away from the touristic hotspot of Luoshui, to understand how family life was structured when the elders were children so that it would shed some light for us as to what matrilineal practices were still continued. We were hosted by a Mosuo family and our host, Ana, took us around the village for chats with some of the elderly residents.

During one of these walks, we visited NA*, an 87 year old Lama. When we entered through the doorway, we saw N* seated in the courtyard de-seeding the family’s pumpkin harvest. I noticed that dried pumpkin seeds was usually what was offered with tea in the homes we visited. After Ana introduced Yuan and I, she explained that we were interested in hearing his life story.

N* agreed to talk to us and asked us to be seated indoors, while he cleaned up and joined us. Once we were seated by the hearth, N* narrated his life story.

“I started training to be a Lama since I turned 11 years old. In my younger days, it was a usual practice for each family to have 1 or 2 children study to become Lamas. My elder brother also studied it. Becoming a Lama would reduce one’s time of service with the rich Chief of the village’s family and Lamas are respected more than the normal villagers.

Initially, I went to the temple in the next village and trained with a Senior Lama for a year. I lived in the Senior’s home and helped served the Buddhas through cleaning, preparing food and sacrifice. Other trainees usually had to do some housework for the Senior Lama. I returned to my own village after that as the village belonged to a high level temple so that I could continue my learning. I studied under the Chief of the village and temple and helped raise pigs for his family for 3-4 years. It was a duty of my family to have one or two family members serve the Chief’s family. The Chief’s family approved my learning to become a Lama. Since a Lama of high position in Sichuan province asked the Chief for a person to serve him, I was sent as a gift to the Tulku (someone similar to the Dalai Lama, but without the high ranking) to serve the Tulku for four years. After serving the Tulku, I asked to continue my studying in Lhasa, Tibet. The Tulku approved it. My village Chief’s family asked me to serve another Tulku in Lhasa, who was one of the sons of their family and my same age, who had gone to Lhasa earlier. I was not keen to continue my life of serving someone but I had no choice but to accept it. I was 20 years old when I walked to Lhasa, studied there for 9 years, and I walked back home. I served the Buddhas in Lhasa by cleaning the temple, preparing sacrifices etc. The Tulku and I had a different learning path. My study was much simpler than that of the Tulku.

After returning home from Lhasa, I was able to live with my own family, though all Lamas lived in the temple in Lhasa. In my family, there was my grandmother and her six children. My grandmother’s brothers had passed away. After my return from Lhasa, my mother asked to be separated from the large family and she and two of her sisters left to start another household. I moved with them. Two of my mother’s sisters and her brother stayed on with my grandmother.  In my family, the members ask for my opinion first. Also, when having meals, I am given food first.

I did some religious work for the villagers and went to the temple, if there was a religious event. I received some income or food for the religious work that I did for the villagers. I usually kept the income. If my family needed help, I would give some money to support them.

While serving the villagers, I could not refuse anyone requesting help. While I did not have to do any heavy farm work, I helped to take care of young children at home or do some housework at home. I also helped villagers when they were sick, or they had a wedding or funeral, or when a baby was born. I help to give names to the babies.

Once I chose this way of life, there was only one way for me to go. Whether I like it or not, I have to keep continuing on this path.”

Photo credit: Yuan Li

Acknowledgement: Much gratitude to Yanan Yang for translating the interview recordings of our visit from Mandarin to English, that helped me piece together NA*’s story. A big thank you to Yuan for organizing the visit and carrying out the interviews. And, a lot of gratitude and thanks to Ana, for hosting us and linking us with the elders in the village and translating from Mosuo to Mandarin what they spoke.

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