Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hanoi--the Most Asian City in Southeast Asia

                                                               by Jim Goodman

    Southeast Asia's major cities have always been centers of congestion, with people and vehicles constantly vying for space.  The more developed they get the greater the traffic jams become.  And as the urban core undergoes its inevitable transformation to cope with the demands of modern commerce, people abdicate the streets to the vehicles and retreat within cavernous restaurants, multi-story shopping malls and high-rise office and residential buildings.  As Asia's big cities grow and modernize, everyday life retreats behind doors and walls.  Everywhere except Hanoi.
Much craft work takes place on the street.
    In downtown Hanoi the greater part of a resident's daily life is conducted in public, on the streets and sidewalks of the city.  Instead of high-rise apartments and shopping malls or department stores, the characteristic city building is a 3- or 4-story shop-house.  The ground floor is for commerce, the upper floors for domestic life.  Such shop-houses are small, so much of the ground-floor merchandise is displayed on the outside walls and the doors, as well as on counters just inside the entrance.  Transactions often take place on the sidewalk or at the doorway.  And since the living space is restricted, people often do their craft work on the steps or the sidewalk
    Most Asian metropolises feature multi-level shopping centers, equipped with restaurants and places of entertainment, such as movie theatres, to persuade potential consumers that all desires can be met within a single set of walls.  Hanoi, however, is still organized in the traditional way.  Rather than a centralized venue for a variety of products, like the modern department store, shoppers go to certain streets for particular items, for entire streets in Hanoi are markets for a single type of merchandise.  Thus one lane will be lined with shops selling herbal medicine, another full of locksmiths, at the next turn it's stacks of votive objects, down a side street textiles and clothing, around the bend a street full of children’s toys.
tin workshop on Hàng Thiếc
     In fact, the preponderance of street names in Hanoi's Old Quarter, west and north of  Hoàn Kiếm Lake, begin with Hàng, which is Vietnamese for "merchandise," following a system that began in the early centuries of the city’s thousand-year history.  Guilds set up in the wards of the commoners’ city and each street was named after the item produced there.  Some streets still specialize in the original product.  Hàng Thếc (tin) is lined with tin workshops.  Hàng Bặc (silver) is full of jewelry shops and money-changers.  Others have just a few shops selling the original product, with most offering other goods, such as Hàng Chiếu (reed mats) and Hàng Mành (bamboo blinds).
    Other streets no longer sill the product they were named after, but are instead dominated by another single product.  Every shop on Hàng Dầu (cooking oil) sells shoes.  The upper half of Hàng Giấy (paper) features shops offering packaged foods, like instant noodles.  In short, the system still works largely the old way   People buy their products street by street.  
Shady streets are characteristic of the Old Quarter.
    Guilds in the Old Quarter used to have gates at both entrances, locked at night, like the gates of the city’s former walls.  Nowadays the city walls and all but the eastern gate have long been removed, but the general layout has persisted.  Leafy trees line most streets, providing shade in the hot season, shelter from late winter drizzles and some protection against the downpours of the monsoon.  And along the sidewalks, in between the spaces occupied by rows of parked motorcycles, individual vendors set up sandwich stalls, fruit stands, barber stools, chairs to sit in while having the ears cleaned and shin-high stools to squat upon while eating noodles, having tea, a mug of fresh beer or enjoying a smoke with a bamboo water-bong.
    Because so much of the sidewalk space is already occupied, pedestrians for the most part use the same road as the cars and motorbikes.  The latter also are popular as short-distance taxis.  Groups of them collect at nearly every street corner, badgering every pedestrian.  Hanoi residents don't like to walk very far and will employ them regularly if they don't have their own wheels.  The  third option, after car and motorcycle, is the cycle-taxi (xích lô).  The passenger sits in front and the driver cycles at a much less frenetic pace.  Hanoi folks only use these when they have packages too big to carry on a motorbike taxi.  But visitors like them for their more leisurely ride through the back streets.
 snack stand beside an ancient tree 
mobile sellers, mobile buyer

    Some of Hanoi's commercial transactions are mobile.  Individual entrepreneurs mount their wares on huge frames attached to the front and back of their bicycles. Others push barrows full of ceramics or carry baskets, fruits, vegetables, cosmetics, toiletries, sunglasses or dozens of various other items on two trays suspended from a shoulder-pole. Passing motorcyclists stop, purchase something and drive off.  Mobile vendors used to be a feature of every Asian city, but it has all but disappeared elsewhere.  But in Hanoi, they are still a very visible and integral part of the city’s economy.
    A few of the more enterprising snack vendors bring along a stool for customers to sit and eat their noodle soup, fruits or whatever at their leisure.  Refreshments of one kind or another are available in every neighborhood, often from individual stands on the sidewalk.  The city
typical old town coffee shop
abounds in tiny coffee shops and residents have their favorites, where they meet with a small group of friends, sipping strong coffee while they converse, perhaps with a baguette sandwich of paté and cheese from a separate vendor on the same street.  Other cafés are fancier, especially in the French Quarter, with elegant interiors, attached gardens, and a wide selection of coffees, cakes and pastries.
    Besides the coffee and the bakery products, the most visible French legacy is the architecture.  The most outstanding examples are government buildings, like the Presidential Palace and the former Governor of Tonkin's residence, and cultural palaces such as the grand Opera House in the French Quarter and the History Museum a block east.  Many of the city's colonial mansions have been turned into administrative offices or rented out to foreign governments for use as embassies.
    French architectural influence, however, is by no means confined to the French Quarter. The Vietnamese have adapted its features and made it their own.  Characteristic of the style are arched windows, small balconies with railings, and occasional turreted roofs.  Examples can be found anywhere, even in the less affluent neighborhoods.  New housing erected in the suburbs, and dwellings of richer folks in the countryside, employ these motifs as well.  The Franco-Vietnamese architectural style thus pervades the whole city, unlike other ex-colonial metropolises, where the European influence was confined to the Europeans' own buildings.
Franco-Viet architecture
    After they took control of Hanoi in the 1880's the French remade part of the city to give themselves a more Parisian atmosphere in which to live and govern.   In some cases to erect new, French-style buildings they demolished the old ones, like the venerable Báo Thiên Pagoda, formerly used for royal rites to Heaven on behalf of the nation, leveled to construct St. Joseph's Cathedral.  But many parts of the city, particularly the Old Quarter, the French left intact and Hanoi today is replete with old Chinese-style temples and half-hidden pagodas. 
    Many of the temples are again active places of worship.  In the old days some temples also served as a đình, or communal house, for neighborhood meetings and worship of the guild's protective spirit. In recent decades many have been revived to play the same role today.
    Northern Vietnam became a Chinese province in the 2nd century B.C.  Except for brief interludes it remained under Chinese rule until 939, when the Vietnamese re-established the country's independence.  Chinese cultural influence had by then been thoroughly absorbed into the indigenous tradition.  Hence Hanoi's old religious buildings, unlike those of Vietnam's neighbors, resemble those of southeast China.
Chùa Trấn Quốc
    While most are modest neighborhood temples tucked away in the Old Quarter, a few are housed in fair-sized compounds and attract worshipers from all over the city.  Chùa Quán Sứ in the French Quarter, originally part of a guesthouse for ambassadors, is full on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month.  The 11th century Daoist Quan Thánh Temple, at the edge of West Lake, still draws devotees.  So does Hanoi's oldest pagoda, the 6th century Trấn Quốc Pagoda, originally on the Red River bank, but in the early 17th century moved to a block north on the shore of West Lake, an attractive pale red, 11-tiered monument quite unlike any other in the region.
    The most unusual of the city's religious buildings is the One Pillar Pagoda in the western part of the city.  This small wooden shrine sits atop a single pillar rising from the middle of a lotus pond.  Built in the 11th century, it originally stood on a much higher pillar, but the French blew up the pagoda when they departed Hanoi in 1954 and the rebuilt version is more modest.  The structure itself is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, the symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism.  It is one of Hanoi's best-known monuments and draws virtually every tourist who comes to the city.  But it is also popular with local residents and on holidays girls in their flowing áo dài--long-sleeved, shin-length tunic, slit both sides at the waist and worn over trousers--come in groups to pay respects.
Chùa Một Côt, the One Pillar Pagoda
    Adoption of Confucian traditions in education and government led to the creation of the Temple of Literature in 1077.  Here young men studied Chinese classics and prepared for government service.  In the western part of town, this spacious walled compound has several courtyards, the last of which holds the ceremonial hall, its red pillars and exterior walls embellished with gold-painted carvings.  A traditional Vietnamese music troupe performs here periodically during the day.
    A few of Hanoi's swankier restaurants have similar ensembles, featuring stringed, bamboo and percussion instruments, plus the monochord đàn bầu--a single string across a long wooden sounding box.  Local businessmen often take their foreign clients to such restaurants.  The menus list traditional Vietnamese preparations of fish, seafood and meat dishes, and as likely as not more exotic fare such as eel, frog, rabbit and pigeon.  After dinner they may take their guests to one of Hanoi's nightclubs, to have drinks while entertained by live singers, or to a very modern disco, which will be packed on weekends.
typical back alley retaurant
    Ordinary city residents go for less flashy venues for their evening's leisure.  Men like to drink in the small bia hơi bars, which serve home-brewed beer on tap and offer a more intimate environment for social chat.  Some of these are larger establishments with a full menu of meals and snacks.  Outdoor restaurants where customers dine on the sidewalk abound in the Old Quarter as well, especially at night.  Others simply take a walk along Hoàn Kiém Lake, ringed by trees and parks, away form the traffic noise and smell.  This body of water lies in the middle of the downtown area, acting as the city's lung, neatly dividing the jumble of lanes in the Old Quarter from the wide, straight boulevards of the French Quarter.  In late afternoons small groups of men play board games in the parks and a few cafés offer pastries and refreshments to enjoy with the view.
    On a small island in the southern part of the lake stands the three-tiered Tortoise Tower, one of Hanoi's most famous buildings.  Supposedly giant turtles still live in this lake and one captured specimen, over two meters long, is on display in a glass cage in Đền Ngọc Sơn Temple, on another island on the lake's northeast side.  This island is connected to the shore by a beautiful red wooden bridge and both it and the Tortoise Tower are illuminated at night.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the Tortoise Tower
    In the old days, when Hanoi was even more of a farmers' city, the most popular form of entertainment was a performance of the water puppets.  Unique to the Red River Delta area, this tradition is perhaps a thousand years old.  The painted wooden puppets--of peasants, fishermen, dragons, phoenixes, buffaloes, boatmen, soldiers, etc.--are mounted on long poles hidden beneath the surface of the water. Puppeteers stand waist-deep in the water and manipulate them while concealed behind a screen.  An orchestra provides the music and the skits are of fishing, boating, planting rice and other rural activities, interspersed with vignettes of history and legend, religious processions, splashing dragons and leaping tigers.
    Television, cinema, discos and karaoke bars have reduced the proliferation of most other traditional forms of entertainment, but this very Vietnamese art still thrives in two dozen Red River Delta villages.  And for foreign visitors a water-puppet show is an essential part of the Hanoi experience.  Now a special theatre, right at the top of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, stages highly imaginative, professionally skilled performances several times a day.  In this most Asian of cities, the show makes a fitting climax to a fascinating urban exploration.
water-puppets boat race
                                                                       * * *
                  Hanoi is one of the sites on my cultural-historical tour program for Vietnam.
                                      For more information see

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

From Zhongdian to Shangrila

                                                                 by Jim Goodman
Shangrila's old town, before the fire
    Shangrila’s old town burned down last week.  A ten-hour fire consumed most of the buildings.  Fortunately, no one died, but it was still a tragedy for those whose possessions the flames consumed, as well a blow to its booming tourist industry.  Yet the destruction of the old town is a bit misleading, for scarcely a handful of truly old buildings were left at the time of the blaze.  These were new or reconstructed buildings catering to the tourist industry—guesthouses, restaurants, bars and (high-priced) souvenir shops.  The original inhabitants had nearly all moved out.  The authentic old town had already been replaced and the new buildings outfitted with fancier wood-carved decorations and very non-traditional picture windows facing the street.  The only parts still authentic, like in Lijiang’s old town Dayan, were the paving stones.
butchering a yak in the old town, 1993
    I was among the first foreigners to visit there in early 1993, just after the county officially opened the doors and it still evoked the atmosphere of a remote frontier outpost.  Only a couple of hotels stood on the outskirts of the old town then, which was entirely a residential area, a few small shops catering to locals.  The people lived in sturdy, two-story houses of timber and rammed earth on stone foundations, a balcony on the second floor, a small yard in front or to the side.  People did domestic work here, like carpentry, chopping wood or skinning yaks and might hang hunting trophies or yak skulls on the second floor balcony rafters.
    This was the first time local Tibetans had met Westerners and the encounters were always so friendly I began to think of Zhongdian as Hello City, after the word I heard a hundred times a day.  On return visits over the next few years I learned some of the local dialect, enabling me to arouse curiosity in the monasteries and invitations to stay overnight in the villages.  Tibetans there were just as curious about me as I was about them.  With a combination of Chinese and Tibetan, we talked about my experiences in Nepal and with other peoples in the area, even the Akha I worked with in Thailand. 
Tibetan girl near Napahai
    Zhongdian’s Tibetans not only were friendly to foreigners. They also got along well with their Han neighbors.  There is a very good historical reason for this.  The county sits on a high plateau of about 3300 meters and features big barley farms.  Harvesting these fields requires two or three families working together a couple of days before it’s completed.  And the annual yield from this and their other agricultural and pastoral activities makes the county’s Tibetans rather well off.
    Further north, in Diqing County, the land is much more rugged, dominated by steep mountains, with much less flat farming land.  Here a single family can harvest its field unaided in less than a day.  People are more dependent on animal husbandry and live in smaller, less-endowed houses.  In the past, whenever particularly hard times or animal epidemics hit the Tibetans here they formed armed parties that raided the plains of Zhongdian.
    Chinese administration in this corner of the southwest did not commence until the Ming Dynasty.  Initially it was not direct, either, but through the Mu family rulers of Lijiang until the early 18th century.  Thus, Naxi soldiers defended Zhongdian’s Tibetans from their wilder cousins from further north.  Some of
Tibetan man in popular fur hat
them stayed on in Zhongdian and the old town in the 90s had a Naxi quarter of several houses in the red wood style of Lijiang, in contrast to the whitewashed walls of Tibetan homes.
   Later the Chinese army took over the task of protecting Zhongdian’s Tibetans and wound up especially active in the turbulent waning years of the Qing Dynasty.  This basically accounts for the friendly relations between Zhongdian’s Tibetans and the Han community.  They attend each other’s festivals and intermarriage is not unusual.
    Besides its agriculture Zhongdian was also an important post on the ancient Tea and Horses Road that ran from southern Yunnan all the way to Lhasa.  Tibetan ponies were prized by other communities in Yunnan’s mountains, but also by the Song Dynasty armies, who faced threats from mounted warriors on the northern frontier.  Pu’er tea from Yunnan was popular in Lhasa.  The traditional caravan route became suddenly important strategically during the Sino-Japanese War, when supplies from India went by caravan from Kalimpong, next to Sikkim, through eastern Tibet, then Zhongdian, Lijiang and Xiaguan.  
    Some Tibetan merchants from Zhongdian moved to Lijiang during the war, putting up in houses near Dayan’s Old Stone Bridge.  They helped defend the city against an attack by a brigand gang from Heqing.  But when the war ended so did the lucrative caravan trade and the Tibetans returned to Zhongdian.
    The old town didn’t have its own market, for residents only had to walk a few blocks to the central open-air market in the city. Even the new town looked fairly quaint in the early 90s. Most of the buildings were single story, the tallest being those government offices with Tibetan-style facades. Restaurants were small and had names like The State Guest House Trade Union Dining Room and Apart From The State Guest House Dining Room. Shops along the main street included several, since relocated, catering to the local Tibetans, selling bolts of wool and brocaded silk, fur hats, wool carpets in Han or Tibetan designs, and clothing in both the local and Lhasa styles.
selling yak cheese in Zhongdian's old market
    In the center of town was the open-air market, where Tibetans hawked fruits, snacks, vegetables, lumps of yak cheese, cups and bowls, butter churners, robes and headgear, meat and daggers. Bai people ran a corner offering copper and brass pots, cauldrons, bells, horse trappings and utensils. The stalls were always full and the range of fruits and vegetables surpassed that in Lijiang.  Customers included local Han and Tibetan, plus a few resident Bai and occasional Yi and Naxi from the southern part of the county.
    Other than a few small shops offering barley spirits, the town didn’t offer any nightlife and mostly closed up after 8 p.m.  When the nights were warm enough, some of the old town residents, especially the youth, gathered in the old town’s central square for an hour or so of ring dances.  This changed during the early summer, when it was mushroom season and villagers brought in their haul for sale in markets that stayed open, along with refreshment stalls, until past midnight.
temple mural--Tibetans welcome Long March soldiers
    Besides wandering around the old town, markets in the new town and the nearest villages, visitors always toured the temples.  Just outside the southwest quarter of the old town stands the hill called Zhushan, with a small shrine on top that afforded a good view of the old town east and the plains west and a large temple at its base.  It had some interesting wall frescoes back then, since replaced, including a fresco of local Tibetans and lamas greeting He Long’s Red Army forces on the Long March, one of the mythical hero Gesar astride his war horse, one of Chinese ladies in late Qing Dynasty gowns and one of a pussycat.  The other temple, on a hill in the southern part of the old town, was less interesting, though the view from the top of the old town was better since you could see the lanes between the houses.
    From the old town it was about an hour’s pleasant walk or more to Songzhanlin and the biggest monastery in the prefecture, dating from the 17th century.  Or one could rent a bicycle, though the pebbly roads made it difficult to pedal. I wandered freely throughout the monastery, alone or accompanied, often stopped by monks who wanted a chat with a foreigner or wanted me to photograph them, even when they were doing their recitations or performing a ritual.  This was the pre-digital camera era and I was not able to show then the results.  But they were more interested in the camera itself and wanted to look through it, especially when I attached the telephoto lens.   And after the session concluded they invited me to have buttered tea with them.
Songzhanlin in the early 90a
    Almost as soon as Zhongdian opened for foreign tourists local agencies began promoting the place as a Shangrila for visitors, in the symbolic sense of a kind of paradise in the mountains.  Besides the county’s natural and cultural attractions, they also offered treks along He Long’s Long March route and the road taken by the Tang Dynasty Princess Wencheng when she journeyed to Lhasa to wed the Tibetan King Srongtsan Gampo.    These were obviously directed at Chinese tourists with a sense of their country’s history.
    The use of the Shangrila themesoon graduated into claims that Zhongdian was the actual Shangrila of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon.  So-called pundits from Kunming and even Beijing claimed their “investigations” proved James Hilton modeled his Shangrila on Zhongdian.   Apparently they hadn’t read the book, for Hilton’s Shangrila lies in a forested valley, not a flat plain like Zhongdian.  The triangular snow peak visible from the fictional Shangrila does resemble the shape of Meili Snow Mountain, but Meili is only visible several hours’ drive north of Zhongdian. 
    Never mind.  The purpose of the Shangrila hype wasn’t to prove anything, but to give the county a shining, exotic tourist image.  Other places in the Himalaya region made the same claim, such as Bhutan towards the end of the century, but not so vociferously.  In 2001 the city officially changed its name from Zhongdian to Shangrila, which comes out in the Chinese pinyin form as Shangelila.   But the old town had already been altering its look and its character since Zhongdian got its airport in 1996.  Flights from Kunming rose, in season, from three or four per week, depending on weather and demand, to several per day at the summer peak.
early 90s view of Shangrila plain
    From then on Zhongdian underwent rapid development.  The new town expanded east and north, practically filling up the plain north to the hillock approaching Songzhanlin.  Tibetans in the old town began moving out, selling off or renting out their houses to aggressive tourist industry businesses.  Within a few years virtually every old house had been replaced by a tourist-oriented establishment, with their signs lining the lanes.  Ticket booths went up on the approach to Songzhanlin, where the monastery got new gilded roofs, and even at the best vantage point to photograph Napa Lake further north.
    Old town businesses began calling the place Dukezong, a name I hadn’t heard in the 90s.  Tibetans I spoke with then referred to it as Jèdâw, the last syllable nasalized, and used that word when they sang songs about it.  It sounded like a corruption of the Chinese name Zhongdian, or perhaps of the original Tibetan name of the town--Gyalthang.  At any rate, on my last visits in 2008 it was clear that Dukezong was something quite different from the Jèdâw I had known.   No evidence of
drawing water at the village well
traditional Tibetan life here anymore.  To see that again I had to return to villages I knew around Napa Lake.
    No tourism industry influence had penetrated these villages.  New homes had arisen since my first visits, but in the traditional style.  The people still lived the same way, did their daily and seasonal chores as before, still wore the local Tibetan clothing, and were just as warm and hospitable as ever.  About the only change I noticed was that they had cell phones, which they used to call in old acquaintances to meet me again.   
    Back in the old town for a last stroll, my happy experience in the Napahai villages
a happy mood at harvest time
tempered my feelings of regret for its total transformation.  The old way here has gone forever and I’m quite sure that when reconstruction begins it will seek to replicate exactly the theme park sort of place it had become.  But the fire was not a blow to Shangrila’s indigenous Tibetan culture.  That was unscathed and persists alive and flourishing in the plateau’s villages.  Before James Hilton used the word, Shangrila was a traditional Tibetan concept of an idyllic place where people lived in harmony with their environment, their gods and each other.  In that sense, in view of the lifestyle and manners of the people, to call the place Shangrila is not out of line.  One could argue it’s even appropriate.   

the northeast corner of Napahai
                                                                       * * *
                        for more on Yunnan's Tibetans, see my s-book Living in Shangrila


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Lugu Lake, Where Women Are in Charge

                                                            by Jim Goodman

    Among Yunnan’s many physical attractions, the most beautiful body of water, butterfly-shaped, at 2700 meters altitude, covering 90 sq km, is Lugu Lake, in northern Ninglang County. The face of Lion Mountain towers another 1000 meters above the northern shore and five small islands speckle the lake’s surface.  Even higher, snow-capped mountains tower in the distance.  In good weather the scenery is so breath-taking it is easy to see why Lugu Lake is drawing so many tourists.  But the scenery is not the only attraction.  The district is home to the Mosuo people, a branch of the Naxi nationality, but differing in one important aspect—the Mosuo are mainly a matrilineal society, as are their Pumi neighbors, a rarity even in a land of great cultural diversity.  Only the A clan, the smallest of the five Mosuo clans, is patrilineal.  And that’s because they are descendants of the Mongol officers who stayed behind when Kubilai Khan conquered the area in the 13th century, married local women and became the ruling class.
Lugu Lake
    The essence of matrilineal societies is that women inherit the property. It is they, not the men, who own the house, fields and immovable property. Descent is reckoned through the mother, with usually the youngest daughter being the heiress. If a Mosuo mother doesn't have a daughter she adopts one of her sister's daughters. All children belong to the mother and they, in turn, contribute their labor and loyalty to their mother's household. Elder daughters set up their own households, but sons do not. The latter remain attached to their mother's household even after they have set up conjugal relationships with women.
    Women also control the purse strings and direct the activity of the family. Every household has a dahbeu, a Mosuo word for its manager, so to speak. She may also be the owner, but often the owner is an older woman, who has passed on the responsibility to a grown daughter. The greatest respect is still shown to the oldest woman in the house, but the financial decisions and organization of the day’s work are up to the dahbeu. Men are responsible for religion and district politics, but in general they stay pretty much in the background.
The dahbeu is the first one served at the New Year feast.
    As it will be daughters who inherit the property Mosuo mothers hope that at least their first-born will be a girl. While much fuss is made over the birth of daughters, sons are also welcome, for every family traditionally has its own monk, responsible for morning services. No basic difference exists in the way the children are raised. They are taught to venerate their mother but their father is never acknowledged. It is considered impolite by the Mosuo to inquire about any child's paternity—though the children generally do know who their father is.
   At around age thirteen both sexes go through a puberty rite on New Year's Day when they don for the first time the costume of an adult. In the Rite of Putting on Trousers the boy stands beside the "male pillar" to the left and in front of the hearth, on top of the dried carcass of a gutted, boneless pig (called pipa) a symbol of prosperity. In his left hand he grasps a dagger, representing his bravery, and in his right a silver coin. A senior uncle dresses him, giving him trousers, jacket, waistband and hat.
the Rite of Putting on a Skirt
    For the daughters' Rite of Putting on a Skirt, the dahbeu dresses the girl, who stands on a pipa beside the "female pillar" to the right and in front of the hearth. In her left hand she holds cloth and yarn, symbolizing her economic contribution to the household. In her right hand she holds ornaments—emblems of her femininity. She is given a long white skirt, long-sleeved blouse, silk jacket and wide woolen waistband. Finally the dahbeu places the braided and bejeweled headdress of an adult woman on her head.
    Theoretically, the girl is now free to engage in relations with the opposite sex, though this is not likely to happen for a few more years yet. But unlike the boys, after the puberty rite the girl traditionally can claim her own room. And what she does there at night is entirely her own business.
    Unlike any of their neighbors, for whom marriage is an important rite of passage and a wedding is a public ceremony, the Mosuo do not formalize their conjugal relationships. They have no ceremony to mark the event. Indeed, they keep it rather a secret. The boy goes to the girl's house at night and returns to his own in the morning. Any children from the affair belong to the girl and will be raised in her house. She can break off the relationship at any time and the boy has no claim on her. She has none on him, either, in the case of a break-up, in terms of child support.
    Such arrangements are known as azhu relationships, after a Pumi word meaning "friend", which is how the girl refers to the boy. He refers to her as his axia. The Mosuo language does not have direct equivalents for the words "husband", "wife", "illegitimate child" or "marriage".  When speaking in their own language about a non-Mosuo's spouse they will use the Chinese words. The Han have given them the term zouhun—Chinese for "walking marriage". As a descriptive term it compares favorably with that used by the matrilineal Khasi and Jaintia of Northeast India to describe their own, identical conjugal arrangement—"visit marriage".
Sisters form close bonds in Mosuo society.
    The system may seem inherently unstable, but not from a Mosuo point of view. In neighboring societies the woman generally goes to live at her husband's house and her children belong to him. As her son will inherit the property it is important to the man that he be identified as the father. But Mosuo women own their houses and have sole custody of their children. Technically, it doesn't matter who the father is, for daughters are the heiresses and both sons and daughters always owe economic support to their mothers. The stability is in the property arrangements and the solidarity of the family's females. That is always a more important factor than the relations between azhu and axia.
   Because a Mosuo woman is free to terminate her azhu relationships at any time, simply by not allowing the azhu entry to her room at night, the system has been categorized by jaundiced observers as promoting promiscuity. Even the family monks are permitted such relationships. But that is really no more astonishing than the fact that Christian Protestant ministers are allowed to marry. Easy "divorce" is the main charge leveled against the Mosuo system—most commonly by would-be critics schooled in the patrilineal tradition, in which easy divorce would lead to problems in division of property and custody of children. But the Mosuo never have such problems.
young Mosuo woman, Lugu Lake
    This freedom to terminate relationships at no social cost does not therefore make the Mosuo promiscuous by nature and tradition. The girl chooses her azhu with care. He has to court her, demonstrate his worthiness. As the relationship will eventually become open, she wants a boy her sisters can respect. And so character, or "good heart", as the Mosuo put it, tops the requirements for an azhu, more than wealth, social standing or appearance. Second most important nowadays is educational level and third is the "ability to make money", which in a broad sense means diligence not laziness.
    The boy seeking a proper axia also looks to character first and foremost. Diligence and domestic skill come next and, nowadays, educational level beats appearance for third most important quality. When a boy decides upon a girl the traditional first gift is a long woolen waistband. When calling upon her for the first time at home, in the daytime, he should bring tea, tobacco and liquor for the elders of her house. After that it's up to love to determine the future.
    When the girl is satisfied with the boy she may then arrange to initiate the azhu relationship by inviting him to her room at night. He leaves early in the morning, supposedly before anyone else is awake, and returns to his own house. His meals he will take there and the work he performs during the day will be for the benefit of his mother's household. He is free to earn money of his own, too, and may make some arrangement with his axia to assist her economically when she has a child. But this would be strictly informal and certainly doesn't continue if the relationship falls apart.
    There are few rules in such relationships. The two may not be of the same maternal clan and they may not indulge in more than one relationship at a time. Fidelity doesn't have to be for life, but it must be maintained for the duration of the relationship. While women may break off a relationship at any time, they don't exercise this option very often, except when the union fails to produce a daughter.
A Mosuo woman is the "owner" of her labor.
    The system is bereft of the kind of emotional problems that plague conjugal relationships in patrilineal societies, especially modern ones. The women are spared the disturbance of moving from a familiar environment to a strange one. The men are spared the change from mere membership in a natal household to the head of one. In the monogamous nuclear family of modern times, each partner is emotionally bound to the other and to any offspring. In Mosuo society the azhu is ultimately tied to his natal family and the axia to hers. Their emotional dependence on each other is necessarily much less.
    Occasional variants exist in this pattern. An azhu might reside permanently in his axia's house. This could happen if the couple had only one child—a daughter—and the axia's sisters lived elsewhere. Her brothers, of course, would still live with their mother. In such a case the azhu decides material support must come from him. Such men are generally strong personalities, with other brothers at home anyway, and tend to be the domestic decision-makers. They may even draft one of their younger brothers, or invite one of the axia's nephews, to live permanently or intermittently at the house as well. Such Mosuo "patriarchs" will assume the responsibility of the dahbeu and manage family finances. But all the wealth they control or accumulate will eventually belong to the daughter.
   For years Communist cadres tried to persuade the Mosuo to abandon their "primitive" system and adopt the "modern" way of marriage. Comparatively few did so, for the cadres reckoned without the great emotional support the Mosuo derive from azhu relationships. Even most of those who succumbed to the "modern" style of husband and wife living together in their own house, raising their own children in it, still retained the matrilineal inheritance custom.
    Labor in Mosuo society is divided by sex, as it is among all the peoples of the area. Men do the heavy labor, but their overall workload is much lighter than that of the women. Like their Han, Yi, Tibetan and other neighbors, Mosuo women work hard and are busy with chores at those times the men feel free to relax and do nothing for a while. The women are definitely the ones who hew the wood and draw the water.
hewers of wood
drawers of water
    Yet Mosuo women never complain about the day's task nor chide the men for not taking a greater share of the chores. No matter how physically grueling the work might be the Mosuo women customarily keep their humor, laugh and joke often, and frequently burst into song. Demanding tasks like rowing boats and hauling timber during construction season do not daunt them. They simply eat more meals and work till dark. Diligence is in their blood.
    The difference between the work of the Mosuo women and that of the women of neighboring nationalities is that the Mosuo woman owns the result of her labor. Her efforts are for her own cause, not that of a husband, brother-in-law or father. Yunnan's mountain societies in general accord their women high respect and esteem, but in none of them do the women own the fruits of their work, as Mosuo women do. This may explain why, of all the women in the northwest, the Mosuo are the most cheerful, gregarious, self-confident, level-headed and good-humored. The cadres realized long ago such personalities could never be convinced they'd be any happier, or in any way better off, with any other system.
Mosuo women, Lige village
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           for more information on Mosuo life and culture, see my e-book Living in Shangrila