Gemu Goddess of Mosuo
Dear friends around the world,
It is an honor for me to have the opportunity to write for my Guru’s, H.E. the 25th Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, blog. When I first learned about the Goddess Gemu and the Mosuo culture, I became fascinated with them and wanted to know more.
I find it interesting that the practice of the Goddess Gemu survived the transition from the traditional Daba faith that is based on animism to Tibetan Buddhism. The Buddhists in the region not only tolerate the Daba faith but also incorporate the practice of this goddess to their rituals. I rejoice for Mosuo people who can practice Buddhism and still maintain appreciation, peace and tolerance toward those who practice their traditional faith.
I believe that those who discriminate Dorje Shugden practitioners can learn about peace and tolerance from Mosuo people. After all, why these so-called Buddhist practitioners and anti-Dorje Shugden group think that they have the right to penalize those who choose to practice the enlightened Buddha of Wisdom Dorje Shugden, while at the same time, they said nothing about the incorporation of the practice of a mountain goddess to Tibetan Buddhism rituals.
Finally, I would like to thank Rinpoche for giving me the opportunity to learn about the Goddess Gemu and the Mosuo culture, and my friends and colleagues (i.e., Beatrix, Pastor Shin Tan, Pastor David Lai, and Joy Kam) for helping me in doing the research related to this article.
About The Goddess Gemu
The Goddess Gemu is the main protector of the Mosuo people. Her practice has survived for over 1,000 years. Even when the Mosuo people have embraced Tibetan Buddhism, they still incorporate her practice in their prayers up to now. The followings are information about the origins, the praises, the benefits, and the places associated with the Goddess Gemu.
The Origins of the Goddess Gemu
There are several myths related to the origins of the Goddess Gemu:
Once upon a time, a beautiful girl named Gemu lived among the Mosuo people. She was famous for her embroidering skills. It is said that she had the ability to embroider birds, flowers, butterflies and etc, accurately just by looking at them once. Gemu had many suitors, but she was not interested.
One day, a god was enchanted by Gemu. He came down to the earth riding on a gust of wind, and took her away. People on earth plead to the god to return Gemu. The god agreed on the condition that the people give him the offerings of 9,000 white goats and 9,000 black goats. The people fulfilled the request. However, instead of returning Gemu in a human form, he turned her into a goddess, and currently, she resides in the Lion Mountain. To honor her, the people also refer to the Lion Mountain as the Gemu Goddess Mountain. It is said that sometimes, the Goddess Gemu appears riding a white horse.
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Gemu who displayed many special qualities. At the age of seven days, she could speak and sing pleasantly. At three months old, she knew everything about the world. At three years old, she was as beautiful as the winter jasmine. The news of her beauty spread, and at 18 years old, many men proposed to her. However, she was not interested in any of her suitors.
One day, a god, who fancied her came, turned into a whirlwind and swept her away. Gemu shouted for help, but the god would not release her. People in Yongning County heard her shouting. They cried out, and together they created a thunder-like voice. The god heard the voices and flustered. He dropped Gemu on top of the Lion Mountain, and she could not get down. From then on, Gemu rides a white horse. Her right hand holds a flute, and her left hand holds a pearl tree. Gemu strolls the Yongning hills to guard the the dedicated followers.
Like mortals, the Goddess Gemu had her axia lovers. Her long time axia lovers was the God Waru Bula. She also had temporary axia lovers, the God Zeji and the God Gosa. Once, God Warubuta caught her with the God Zeji, he was furious.
One day, the other temporary lover, the God Gosa, wanted to leave her for another lover, the Lady Changshan. The Goddess Gemu did not want to lose the God Gosa. Thus, she pulled him by the sleeve. Since then, the sleeve belonging to the God Gosa in the Goddess Gemu’s hand, and because of this, they stay close to each other.
After ravaging the host of demons on earth, the grateful Lord of Heaven gave the Goddess Gemu a-three-day break and promised to grant her requests. Instead of resting, the Goddess Gemu went to the valley where Lugu Lake is now located. The place was so lovely, and she wanted to stay there forever. Since the Lord of Heaven had made a promise to grant her requests, the Goddess Gemu metamorphosed into the mountain. The cloud at the summit is the wreath of her hair. The pine tree forest at the slope is her jacket. The low morning cloud is her skirt. The verdant plain is her mattress. The lake is her mirror.
Once upon a time, the beautiful Gemu, fell in love with a dragon, Hu Zhao. They kept their relationship a secret because dragons belong to heaven, and humans belong to earth. For this reason, the lovers arranged to meet after dark, and Hu Zhao has to leave before day-break. One day, Hu Zhao did not wake up on time. The heavenly king decided to punish him by turning him into a mountain. Gemu was so upset and cried. After seven days, her tears formed Lugu Lake. The heavenly king then turned her into a mountain, where she ruled from the cave just underneath the summit.
The Depictions of The Goddess Gemu
There are several depictions of the Goddess Gemu. Mosuo painters often draw her wearing Mosuo traditional dress and riding a white horse. Her left hand grips her reins, and her right hand holds a flute. The horse is believed to bring blessing, and the flute signifies the importance of music in Mosuo culture. Sometimes, she is depicted as holding a trident with a conch shell to signify the strength of religion and the calling of gods.
In another version, the Goddess Gemu is depicted as riding a deer, which is the mount that she used to go to heaven after subduing harmful demons.
Please watch the video below about Gemu, the Mountain Mother – “Goddess of Mosuo People”.http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/gemugoddess.flv
Or view the video on the server at: http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/gemugoddess.flv
The Goddess Gemu’s Practice, Praises and Benefits
The Mosuo people celebrate the birthday of the Goddess Gemu on the 25th day of the 7th lunar month by circumambulating, dancing and singing around the Goddess Mountain. The Mosuo people pray to the Goddess Gemu to liberate them from all misfortune, for a good harvest, and to allow the people and their livestock to prosper. Mosuo people worship the Goddess Gemu by offering her fruits, clean water, wine and meat.
During this celebration, the Daba priests recite poems and songs to the Goddess Gemu, while Tibetan Buddhist Lamas recite prayers to the goddess and play bells and drums with their hands. Another evidence that shamanism and Buddhism can be practiced with tolerance and peace.
Unfortunately, the practice and prayers recited by the Daba priests to the Goddess Gemu are passed from one generation to the next via oral tradition. In addition, there is no written Mosuo language. Thus, the written records about these prayers, poems, and songs are rare. However, we found praises of her in a local folk song.http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/praisetogemu.flv
Or view the video on the server at: http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/praisetogemu.flv
Please find below the translation of the praise to the Goddess Gemu taken from the local folk song:
The hat of the Goddess Gemu is made of what?
It is made of white clouds
The eyelashes of the Goddess Gemu are made of what?
They are made of pine needles
The belt of the Goddess Gemu is made of what?
It is made of rocks
The mirror of the Goddess Gemu is made of what?
She uses Lugu lake as her mirror
Her carpet is made of what?
It is made of the earth
As the divine protector of the Mosuo people, the practice of the Goddess Gemu survived the transition from Shamanistic Animism based belief, Daba, to Tibetan Buddhism of Yellow Hat Lineage. These days, important Buddhist ceremonies in that region began with the prayer to the Goddess Gemu.
Places Associated with The Goddess Gemu
The Goddess Mountain
Among the mountains in Yunnan area, the most sacred is the Goddess Mountain or also known as the Lion Mountain due to its shape. The mountain is believed to be the incarnation of the Goddess Gemu. The peak of the Goddess Mountain is 3,754 m above sea level. The Mosuo people celebrate the birthday of the Goddess Gemu on the 25th day of the 7th lunar month by circumambulating, dancing and singing around the mountain.
Due to its status as the incarnation of the Goddess Gemu, the Goddess Mountain is a protected area. Hunting is traditionally prohibited.
The Goddess Cave
Just underneath the summit of the Goddess Mountain, at 3,450 m above sea level, there is a deep cave named the Goddess Cave or also known as the Goddess Gemu’s Palace. There are many stalactites inside the Goddess Cave. Some of these stalactites look like the statues of gods. The cave faces Lugu Lake and easily accessible with cable cars from Niseh village on the northwest side of the Lake. The other alternative to access the cave is by trekking through the trail from Lige.
The Goddess Gemu is believed to reside and rule from this cave. From this cave, the Goddess Gemu judges people after death based on their previous deeds. She sends those who committed many negative deeds to hell and those who have been good to heaven.
Inside the Goddess Cave, there is a pool, called the Goddess Pool. The water from this pool is said to have the ability to cure illness, prevent disaster, increase fertility, and extend lives.
Lugu Lake is located in the north-west of Yunnan plateau. It is situated 2,685 m above sea level. The surface area is about 48.5 square kilometers. The maximum depth is 93.5 m. There are several myths related to the origin of this lake– please refer to the Origins of the Goddess Gemu section above.
Note: there are other sources of information that said that the goddess of the Lugu Lake is the Goddess Shinami and not the Goddess Gemu.
Other Known Places that Enshrine the Goddess Gemu
Zha Mei Monastery
The Goddess Gemu is enshrined in Zha Mei Monastery. For more information about Zha Mei Monastery, please see Zhamei Monastery section of this article.
Lige island is one of the famous islands on Lugu Lake. In this island, there is a statue of the Goddess Gemu. She is depicted as riding a white horse.
South of the mountain, there is a forest named Lusang Forest. In that forest, there is a temple dedicated to the Goddess Gemu. Inside that temple, there is a wall painting depicting the Goddess Gemu riding a deer.
About Mosuo’s Culture and Belief System
Mosuo is reputed to be the last living matriarchal society. Most of the Mosuo people live in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China. UNESCO recognizes Mosuo’s traditional dance and music.
Tibetan Buddhism is prevalent among the Mosuo people. Many Mosuo families send at least one male member to be trained as a monk. In recent years, the number of the monks has increased significantly.
Most Mosuo family homes have Buddha images. The folk myths and legends are infused with Tibetan Buddhism elements.
It is interesting that Tibetan Buddhism faith is standing hand-in-hand with the traditional shamanism based Daba faith. For example, when a person died, a Daba priest (a Mosuo Shaman) and a Tibetan Buddhist Lama are called. The Daba priest performs a send-off ritual, and the Buddhist Lama chooses the auspicious time to do the funeral and recites scriptures during the funeral.
There are three important life events for Mosuo people:
- Birth is celebrated 30 days after the child is born.
- Coming of Age is celebrated when a child turns 13, to mark their transition to adulthood.
- Death and funeral are performed when a person died.
Unique Matriarchal Society
As the last surviving matriarchal society, Mosuo people did not practice marriage in traditional sense. Instead, they believe in Azhu relationship. Women bond with their partners, and they are not promiscuous. However, the relationships are not formalized. Thus, when a relationship sours, one does not have to go through a complicated divorce process. Generally, children born from these Azhu relationship live with their mothers.
Relationship of Mosuo people with the Goddess Gemu
The relationship between Mosuo people and the Goddess Gemu started approximately 1,000 years ago. She is believed to be the divine protectress of the Mosuo people. Her worship survived the transition of Mosuo religion from Shamanism to Tibetan Buddhism. To this date, the Goddess Gemu is the most prominent deity worshipped by the Mosuo people. She is honored as the goddess of beauty, love and protection.
Important Buddhist ceremonies in that region begin with the prayer to the Goddess Gemu. There are white mounds, called Tsotah, around the Lugu lake, along the shore and up on the hills where people set up shrines to pay homage to the Goddess Gemu. The Tsotah usually contains a niche where the Mosuo people burn pine branches and incense sticks. They also toss barley flour and grains into the flames to please the Goddess Gemu. Then, they prostrate in front of the mound.
Mosuo people believe that white horse, which is one of the animals that the Goddess Gemu rides on, brings blessing and a symbol of a friendly bond between animals and humans. They also believe that horses in general help to chase the ghosts away. For this reason, Mosuo people do not eat horse meat.
Mosuo Belief System
There are two prevalent belief systems among Mosuo people:
- Daba is based on animistic principles and involves the worship the ancestors and the mother Goddess including the Goddess Gemu
- Tibetan Buddhism of Gelugpa (Yellow Hat lineage) lineage.
It is interesting that the Daba practice of the prayer to Goddess Gemu is incorporated to the Tibetan Buddhism practice in the region.http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/themosuo.flv
Or view the video on the server at: http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/themosuo.jpg
Zha Mei Monastery
Location and History
Zha Mei Monastery is located in Yongning County, Yunnan Province. It was built during the Ming Dynasty. Later, Emperor Yong Zheng of the Qing Dynasty expanded the monastery. Zha Mei Monastery is a Gelugpa monastery.
One of the abbots of Zha Mei Monastery was Losang Yeshe. He was born in Yongning in year 1929. He was recognized as the fifth Gaden Tritul Jigme from Drepung Monastery in year 1933. Losang Yeshe was ordained in year 1949 and was given an ordination name of Ngawang Yeshe Tenping Nyima. He studied for 15 years in Drepung Monastery and obtained the geshe degree. In year 1955, he returned to his hometown to teach Dharma and became the abbot of Zha Mei Monastery. Losang Yeshe passed away in year 2011. Losang Yeshe is unique because he was often referred to as a living Buddha by the people of Yongning.
The walls of Zha Mei monastery contain many murals depicting various Buddha images and Buddhist practitioners. There was a 10.2 meter Maitreya statue in the main prayer hall. What is interesting, the monastery also houses an image of the Goddess Gemu. It really shows how the local practice of the Goddess Gemu is incorporated to the Tibetan Buddhist practice in that area. The Maitreya statue was built during the reign of Emperor Guang Xu (1875-1908). It was listed as the protected unit of the province. However, during the 2012’s earthquake, the statue was severely damaged. The hands that held a wish-fulfilling jewel were destroyed, leaving only two empty sleeves. The front and the back of the statue were cracked opened. In addition, seven of eight clay Guan Yin statues fell to the ground and were destroyed completely.
Zha Mei Monastery and Oracle
Oracle Tradition in Yongning
As documented by Joseph Rock, a Botanist who spent time in Yongning County in the 1920s, there was an oracular tradition in Zha Mei Monastery. However, after the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the tradition is not prevalent anymore.
The Relationship Between the People of Yongning with Dorje Shugden
Yongning has a strong affiliation with Dorje Shugden. The 5th Panglung Kuten, a famous oracle of Dorje Shugden, took trance in a monastery in Yongning County. Joseph Rock took a photograph the oracle in full ceremonial attire in the monastery. The picture was taken in year 1923.
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About Joseph Rock
Excerpt of article taken from a blog belonging to another traveler named Michael Woodhead: http://www.josephrock.net/2010_12_01_archive.html
Dr. Joseph Rock was an Austrian-born American botanist who explored the Tibetan borderlands of Sichuan and Yunnan ins the 1920s and 30s. This is a blog of my travels to revisit the amazing places he described in the National Geographic magazine.
“Starting point: Lugu Lake
If I learnt one lesson from my trip through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, it was that I was carrying way too much stuff. When I got back to Lijiang, I dumped my hefty backpack in a storeroom at Mama Fu’s restaurant, and I bought a cheap Chinese army knapsack instead. Almost every Chinese town had a shop selling army kit: everything from tropical shirts to fur lined greatcoats for Siberian border duty, not to mention useful accessories such as electric cattle prods for crowd control. My little olive green bag cost me about 30 kuai.
I chucked out my sleeping bag, my books and loads of other junk. All I took with me was my raincoat, a change of socks and toothbrush. Then I went shopping for food. There wasn’t much on offer for the potential trekker in Lijiang. I had to make do with peanuts, chocolate, green raisins, beef jerky, powdery biscuits and a packet of dried prunes. Fresh fruit and drinks I reckoned could buy along the way.
When Joseph Rock prepared his caravan for his Muli trip he had to plan for his large entourage of Naxi assistants, eleven mules and three horses. “One needs to be a good housekeeper indeed to prepare for such a caravan,” he wrote. He took supplies for a month, and his shopping list for one of his later Muli trips gives an idea of how much he took:
” … tents, folding chairs and a table, camp cot and many trunks with photographic supplies, cut films and colour plates, developer, coffee, tinned milk, tea, cocoa, butter, flour salt, sugar, some tinned vegetables( for the grassland Tibetans are strangers to vegetables), fruits, sugar.”
Travelling through remote areas that supported by subsistence farmers, Rock had to be self sufficient and bring supplies both himself and also for his party of helpers. “The men carried brick yea and yak butter, dirty lumps of salt, Chinese brown sugar, and large supplies of native flour to make their baba (bread), sometimes shaped into round loaves, and sometimes into cornucopias, which they steamed into a large dumpling in a covered pot over a wood fire.”
His caravan also had to bring a multitude of equipment for his collecting.
We took quantities of paper made out of bamboo, to be used as blotters for drying botanical specimens; two large boxes packed tight with ginned cotton to protect birdskins … last but not least, our equipment included our trunk of medicines. I was anxious to guard against the fatal relapsing fever so prevalent in Tibetan country.” For my solo trip, the little bag of essentials that I’d prepared seemed pathetically inadequate, but it would have to do.
The night before I left for Lugu Lake there was some sort of activity going off in the Lijiang town square. Young women of different minorities milled around in groups, flirting with the young ‘liumang’ lads. The Nakhi girls wore blue capes with seven white circles on their backs, representing stars – to show that women held up the sky. Bai women wore a collage of pink, white and blue garments and the Yi women had several layers of pleated dresses in the rastafarian colours of red, green, yellow and black. They also wore the craziest hats: a flat black square like a graduate’s mortar board, with a curled corner pointing forward looking like a crow’s beak.
The men were much more drab in appearance: most wore the standard Chinese cheap dark suit, often with a tailor’s label still stitched on to the jacket sleeve. Likewise, they wore square plastic sunglasses with the sticker still on the corner of the lens. In the 1990s, there was something about the new-to-capitalism Chinese psyche that made them leave the labels and shop wrappers on their purchases: cars would still have the barcodes from their Japanese shippers stuck on their windscreen, bicycles were pedalled round with plastic packing still wrapped around the frame. Even sofas would retain their cellophane wrapping for weeks after their purchase. In China it was important to display the brand (‘paizi’) and to show that something was ‘new’.
On his departure for Muli in 1924, Joseph Rock had to use a little subterfuge. The local Chinese magistrate in Lijiang refused him permission to travel, saying that the Chinese New Year period was a dangerous time to be on the road in rural China. This was because, according to Chinese custom, all debts have to be settled on or before the Spring Festival. This meant many debtors resorted to highway robbery to acquire the necessary funds and thus to avoid the disgrace and loss of face of unpaid debts. Rock bluffed the magistrate, saying he would only be going as far as Yongning, and eventually the Lijiang official relented, but only after insisting he take with him with an escort of 10 Naxi soldiers. Rock was not impressed with these bodyguards, many of whom were mere boys of 14 or 15, armed with rusty Austrian-made muzzle loading rifles dating back to 1857. According to Rock, the guards were more trouble than they were worth, intent on plundering every settlement that they passed through.
“They settle on a village like flies on a pie, and rarely pay for what they eat, but bully the farmers ….” he noted. To their disgust, Rock made a point of making them pay for everything.
It took Rock five days to get from Lijiang to the first and only significant settlement on his route to Muli, the small town of Yongning. He started off in the middle of January, traversing the brown and arid plain of Lijiang underneath the multiple snow peaks of the Jade Dragon mountain range. The trail passed through brooding forests of fir, larch and hemlock, along ravines and over mountain paths that he says were the most treacherous he had so far encountered in China. His route was to the north-east, within a loop of the Yangtze river where the river turns north for a hundred miles and then doubles back again south. The land he passed over was sparsely populated with just a few primitive Nakhi farmers (“as shy as deer”) who lived in mud huts (“like swallows’ nests against the cliffs”).
The Naxi village women wore pleated white skirts and had huge earrings of copper and silver that were so heavy they had to be held up with string around the ears or even over their heads. Near the Yangtze, Rock passed the site of a recent battle that had taken place between a thousand Tibetan ‘marauders’ and some Qing government Chinese troops, during which most of the Chinese soldiers had been slaughtered. His route to Yongning then required a steep descent into the canyon of the Yangtze river, crossing the huge river by a rickety wooden ferry, and then an arduous ascent up steep cliffs on the far bank.
In 1994, my trip to Lugu took me two days in an overworked minibus, travelling via a dirty town called Ninglang. The bus creaked over eroded treeless hills and took me deep into remote Yi territory. These were the ‘Lesser’ Cool Mountains (Liang Shan) and the Yi (or ‘Lolo’ as Rock knew them) were a wild, poor people who tilled a barren yellow soil. ‘They are very backward. They do not wash,” the Han Chinese in Lijiang had said about them. Even the Naxi compared themselves favourably with the Yi. “We Nakhi are the best educated of China’s minorities. Unlike some minorities we have a strong culture,” they said, referring to the Yi.
In the countryside around towns such like Ninglang, the Yi were literally dirt poor. Their dwellings had changed little since Rock wrote of them: “The houses of these primitive people are of rough pine hoards, tied together with cane, and the roofs weighted down with rocks.”
I got a chance to see a few Yi women at close quarters when some of them squeezed their way onto our bus. They smelled of the farmyard, and had freckled, weather-beaten faces and wore grubby, unwashed traditional dress, little changed since Rock described them:
“The Lolo women wear skirts decorated with old fashioned flounces, reaching almost to the ground, and short jackets. Hats, with broad, flopping brims, resembling the heads of antediluvian ichthyosaurs, usually cover their wild unkempt heads.”
The Yi women I encountered looked almost European – they had round eyes, aquiline noses and they spoke to each other in weird high-pitched, coo-ing voices. They were the some of poorest people I saw in China. I could well believe that until forty years ago, they had been a slave society, despised by the Chinese and bestowed with the derogatory name ‘Lolo’, (‘wog’). The Yi had until recently been divided into a noble ‘black’ branch and a more servile ‘white’ branch of Yi, most of whom were effectively slaves. The Yi in this particular area had originally been outcasts from the main Yi area north of Lijiang, and thus were doubly wretched. Liberation had brought them freedom from slavery, but little else in the way of development.
Our bus made an overnight stop in dismal Ninglang, where there was nothing for me to do except sit in the room of my guesthouse and watch Chinese television. The TV programmes broadcast from Beijing – and the advertisements in particular – seemed a world away from this rural backwater.
The following morning I was the centre of attraction in the bus station as I waited to re-board the bus to Lugu Lake – one village idiot stared at me with such intensity that I had to run around to shake him off. Back on the road, we passed through more rural emptiness. On the mud walls of one cluster of houses the local propaganda committee had painted a large message in white paint that said in Chinese characters: “Drive Carefully – the road is dangerous and the hospital is far away!”
It was therefore with some relief that we finally arrived at Lugu Lake. After the barren brown countryside the lake shore seemed like a verdant earthly paradise. The blue lake waters twinkled in the sunlight below the crags of Lion Mountain. Cuckoos sang in the forest and the air was fresh and cool. The local people, the Mosuo, were famous for being a matriarchal society practising a kind of ‘free love’. They were a distant branch of the Naxi minority, a cheerful and robust people who built sturdy wooden manor houses around the lakeside and carved dugout canoes to fish in the lake.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the lake, I was in no fit state to appreciate any of this. I’d started to feel a bit queasy in the afternoon, something I put down to eating a greasy pancake that I’d bought from street vendor during a brief stop in a Yi village en route. The final hour of the bus journey became a nightmare, as the potholed road bounced me up and down on the back seat, and I tried to suppress the urge to throw up. On arrival at Lugu Lake, I staggered off the bus, too weak to stand up and immediately vomited in the courtyard of the guesthouse where we had stopped. I took refuge in the first room I could find and collapsed onto the primitive bed, feeling like I was going to die.
In 1994 there was only a trickle of tourists – almost all western backpackers – getting through to Lugu Lake, and there were no hotels, just a few ‘homestay’ style guesthouses. I spent my first day there alone, feeling vulnerable and miserable as I shivered under the blankets with all my clothes on, and cursing myself for dumping my medicine kit and antibiotics with my backpack in Lijiang. As night fell, I was visited in my room by a cheerful group of engineers from Chengdu, who had taken pity on me after seeing my plight on the bus. They said they would take me to see some ‘friends’ who might be able to help me, and so I staggered after them in the inky black darkness, through a maze of paths and passageways until we suddenly entered a dimly-lit spacious living room off the courtyard of a Mosuo house.
Sat around a crackling fire were two Americans, who introduced themselves as Will and Eileen from LA. In my fragile state they were a very welcome sight as they beckoned me in and offered me antibiotics and moral support. As I sat with them sipping tea, they enthused about the tranquillity and beauty of Lugu Lake. They were so enchanted with the place that they had extended their stay here for several days. They were particularly delighted at being able to stay in a Mosuo house amidst all the pigs, cows and geese.
Being a Mosuo household, only women lived in the house: mother and aunt in traditional blue-black gowns and turbans, the daughter in modern Chinese dress. The father, referred to as ‘uncle’, lived elsewhere, but he popped in regularly to see what was going on. Mosuo women would have several different lovers before they married, we were told. A Mosuo couple would only be regarded as ‘wed’ once they had produced a baby. The woman would then bring up the child in her own mother’s house, without a live-in husband.
Will and Eileen told me they’d been staying with this Mosuo family for almost a week, living off a bag of vegetables that they’d had brought in from Lijiang. Apart from potatoes, there were no vegetables to be had at Lugu Lake. The Mosuo women cooked up some barley sugar ‘crisps’ that helped restore my energy. Late that evening, feeling somewhat better, I sauntered back round the lake under the moonlight, passing a few fishermen huddled round fires.
I was now within the realms of Joseph Rock’s hand-drawn maps. He had made several lengthy layovers at Lugu Lake on his travels to and from Muli. On one occasion, he took refuge on one of the islands from a bunch of disgruntled Tibetan rebels who had been repulsed from an attack on Kunming. The island still had the remains of a small lamasery that was shown in Rock’s pictures, attended by a chanting monk. Nowadays the local villagers rowed tourists out to the island in dugout canoes.
Rock referred to the Mosuo as the ‘Lushi’ sub-tribe of the Naxi. He made a passing mention of their matriarchal lifestyle in his articles, but otherwise said surprisingly little about the Mosuo given the current lurid interest in their supposed ‘free love’ society. The famous Mosuo singer Namu, however, recounts in her book ‘Leaving Mother Lake’ how the older generation of people at Lugu Lake remembered Joseph Rock as being one of the few foreigners to visit the area. He was said to be a “fat man with blue eyes” who traveled slowly because “he stared at plants for hours”.
The Mosuo grew to like Joseph Rock, and even protected him when he incurred the wrath of some belligerent nearby Yi tribes. The Yi believed Rock was the cause of a fierce hailstorm that had ruined their crops. Thinking that Rock was staying at Lugu Lake, they took their revenge by pillaging cattle and horses from the villages around the lake, burning some houses and trampling the crops by riding their horses over them. When Rock returned and saw the damage that had been done on his account, he felt sorry for the Mosuo villagers. To compensate, he built the Mosuo a special ‘palace’ pavilion on Nyorophu island in the middle of the lake. The pavilion was made from specially imported glass, and the Mosuo were impressed as most of them had never seen glass before. People came from miles around to see and touch the glass, and the pavilion remained a popular attraction for many years, until smashed by Red Guards in the 1960s.
Rock became something of a legend among Mosuo people, according to Namu, and was respected because he took the Mosuo and Naxi culture seriously and documented their ceremonies. During his sojourns at Lugu Lake, he treated the local people for the endemic venereal disease using medicines imported for the US, and he honoured their chief by giving him a pair binoculars. Interestingly, Namu also claims that there were several fair haired children in villages around Lugu Lake, something she attributes to Rock’s tenure there.
The only blondes I saw around Lugu Lake were the Californians. Walking back round the lake the next morning, with the water lapping quietly on the shore, I saw one of the canoes being paddled out to the island. The sight of the oars rising and falling, and the sound of shouts and songs carrying over the water reminded me of the New Zealand Maori war canoes, the ‘waka’. Further along the shore. I came across a friendly group of art students from Chengdu. They were squatting with their pallets, painting watercolours of a white stone stupa by the lakeside. Nearby, the villagers were building a two-storey hall completely from wood, but without using any nails. Lugu Lake had a restful and timeless atmosphere, and I spent a lazy day recuperating from my stomach bug. Inside the courtyard, sheltered from the gusty winds, I sat in the warmth of the weak sun among the piglets, geese and calves, and I perused my maps.
According to Rock’s 1924 map, Muli monastery was about a 50-mile walk in a north-easterly direction from Lugu Lake. The map wasn’t very detailed and gave no clues as to the topography. Beyond the nearby town of Yongning there were no other features to follow except for a couple of villages. I would just have to ask my way as I went along. Back in 1924, Rock had done the journey from Lijiang to Muli by mule in 11 days. He described it as: “ …one of the most trying in south-western China… it takes a hardened constitution and great powers of endurance to make the trip.”
My constitution wasn’t feeling too hardened. In fact, with my wobbly stomach and a rapidly dwindling supply of food, I really didn’t feet up to it. Decent food was hard to come by in these country areas. The Mosuo seemed to survive on a simple diet of potatoes, fish, eggs and chillies. There were few other vegetables to be had. Luckily, Will and Eileen still had some of their stocks left and were generous enough to share them with me. Each mealtime they would give the Mosuo mother a cucumber or some tomatoes to fry up. An hour later we would be sat in the dark living room with a few beams of light coming through the roof, eating a dinner of potatoes, sausage, eggplant. egg and tomato soup, corn wine and tea. The old lady would sit in a corner making butter tea with a plunger device.
Despite its beauty, Lugu Lake was a low point for me. After spending several weeks on the road, I was growing sick of China. The novelty had worn off and I was fed up with stop-start bus travel and the poor food, I hated the stares and the sniggers that made me feel like I was an exotic animal in a zoo. On top of all this, I’d come to realise that I wasn’t cut out to be an explorer: I missed my little home comforts. Despite all my pretensions of roughing it and being a ‘knockabout sort of bloke’ , all I really wanted now was to be sat in a cafe sipping espresso and reading a decent English newspaper.
Before coming to China I’d fancied myself as a modern-day adventurer, blazing a trail through the back roads of Yunnan. Here I was, patting myself on the back and thinking the journey to Lugu Lake had been a gutsy venture into the unknown, and yet these Californians were treating it as they were on a visit to a theme park. They didn’t speak a word of Chinese but they were right at home, communicating with enthusiasm using a few grunts, grins and sign language. Meanwhile, I felt like I was at the edge of the world, and my attempts at speaking Mandarin were met with puzzled frowns from the local Mosuo. I’d had enough of China and I wanted to go home. When the Americans said they’d found someone with a van who would to give them a ride all the way back to Lijiang the next morning, I was really tempted to go back with them. Somehow I managed to resist the urge to take this attractive option.
However, it was with great reluctance and foreboding that the next day, after a breakfast of roast potatoes, steamed bread and butter tea, that I said goodbye to Will and Eileen. They were going back to Lijiang, while I would carry on to Muli.
The first steps: Yongning
There was no bus to Yongning, 20km to the north of Lugu Lake, so I started walking. As I walked through the middle of the lakeside village I passed one of the Chengdu art students, carrying her paintbox disconsolately up the road, looking for inspiration. I felt the same way. But as I left Luoshui behind me and climbed the road above the lake, I felt happier and freer to be among the wind, the trees, sun and the bird song. It was good to be doing something rather than just sitting around. After a while I started to sing to myself, and plodded along in this fashion for the next four hours, skirting pine-clad hills and onto the Yongning plain.
Just before I arrived in Yongning, I came across my first signs of Tibetan influece: a silver dagger that somebody had dropped on the dusty ground. I picked it up, pocketed it and carried on my way.
In 1924, ‘Youngning’ was the capital of the Lushi tribe territory, and was ruled by a chief who was descended from the first Mongol ruler appointed by the Kublai Khan. On his many subsequent visits to Yongning, Joseph Rock was to become good friends with this local chief, known as the ‘tusi’ or ‘dzongpen’. In fact, the Yongning chief was one of the few real friends that Rock ever had in China.
On his first visit to Yongning, Rock used the town as a rest stop after the many arduous days he had spent in the saddle traversing the Yangtze gorge on his way from Lijiang to Muli. He says he met no Chinese here, only a variety of “opium-sodden Nakhi”, some ‘primitive’ Yi tribesmen and a handful of aggressive ‘Hsifan’, or ‘western bandits’, as the Tibetans were called by the Chinese).
In 1994, Yongning had the dreary air of a Han Chinese frontier town: it was little more than a handful of ugly concrete shells and a collection of log cabins around a market square, where Yi women traded a few wilting vegetables. And whereas Rock took advantage of “the monastery and its hospitable shelter”, I had to make do with the ‘County Guesthouse’: a breeze-block tower surmounted by a satellite dish that seemed to be part of the local Party headquarters. After I checked in, I had a bizarre encounter with a young woman who led me into a shower room and made some vague gestures about disrobing. Whether she was a prostitute or just one of the staff trying to show me where the showers were, I couldn’t tell.
I walked a few hundred yards down the road to find Yongning’s Buddhist monastery, which was still intact, but under renovation to repair years of destruction and neglect. Only a single small prayer hall of the original structure remained, the main prayer hall was quite different from the one seen in Joseph Rock’s photographs.
Rock had visited the monastery and taken many pictures of the Buddhist ceremonies there, as well as photographing the oracles and shamens on Yongning. It had once been a very active monastery. Now it looked almost deserted.
I walked through the gateway of the ‘Zhamei Si’ and wandered among the Tibetan workmen who were milling around among woodchips and piles of bricks. I looking for someone who looked vaguely like a monk, but everyone was in ‘civvies’. A man who looked like the foreman took me to one side and asked me what I wanted. “Is it possible to walk from here to Muli?” I asked. “Yes, but it’s dangerous. It takes three days through high mountains. Even we dare not do it! You should go by bus instead, back through Ninglang and Yanyuan,” he said, making a wide circular motion with his arms. But that would take too long, I thought, and anyway I would probably get turned round by the police en route because Muli was still officially a ‘closed area’ for foreigners.
I pulled out Rock’s original map from my bag and showed it to the foreman, asking him about the villages marked along the route to Muli. The first, ‘Vudju’, was now called Wujiao by the Chinese, the foreman told me, and it was a day’s walk from here. And the nearby lamasery of Rendjom Gompa mentioned by Rock was still there, he said, but now with just a single monk in residence. At that moment I noticed a dark-skinned Tibetan-tooking man in a green uniform, sat around the fire having a smoke. He stood up and ambled over to see what was going on, and I realised with dismay from his arm badge that he was Gong An Ju – Public Security Bureau. My heart sank, and I expected to be questioned and warned not to go to Muli. But the PSB man just smiled and stabbed his palm the air in the direction of Wujiao. “Hey – If you go to Rendjom Gompa, ask for the lama called Aja Dapa. Tell him I sent you. He knows me: I’m the Yongning policeman.”
The foreman then led me towards the prayer hall, to see the interior of the renovated temple. Inside, once my eyes had adjusted to the gloom, I saw a row of gilded statues representing former abbots of the monastery. The statues were sitting lotus-position on multi-coloured thrones, they all had neat yellow hats and were surrounded by animals and flowers. And in a dark corner, a lone monk squatted on a cushion on the floor, chanting and banging a gong.
Back out in the open air, I wanted to get a better view of my intended route, so I climbed a thousand-foot high grassy hill behind the monastery. It was only a small hill but I was soon out of breath due to the altitude. As I reached the top, which was cluttered with prayer flags, I saw snow-bound mountain peaks to the north. I almost jumped for joy: surely, those were the Konkaling peaks? And some other less spectacular rocky ridges to the east must be near Muli monastery, I thought. Looking around, there seemed to be a fairly straightforward route from the Yongning plain over some low hills, to those Muli peaks. Now my intended trip looked do-able, and I was happy. The doubts of Lugu Lake were all forgotten.
Below me I could see the monastery of Yongning – and I was in the same spot where Rock had taken a photograph of the monastery more than 70 years previously.
That evening, in the blacked-out village of Yongning, I sat in the town’s rather basic restaurant, celebrating my first sight of the Muli peaks, with a bottle of beer. “What do you want to go to Muli for?” asked the Chinese waitress, when I told her my plans. “The people there are poor and backward. There’s nothing to see.” To me, it sounded encouraging. I retired to my lonely and cold guesthouse room. Outside, across the street in the darkness, a small crowd had gathered around a doorway with a thick curtain over it. From within came the crackly thuds, whacks and a staccato dialogue of a Chinese kung fu film.
Walking off the map
My trek to Muli monastery really began at a village called simply Wenquan (‘Hot Springs), about three miles east of Youngning. I hitched a ride out there on a logging truck, and found the springs were still very much a feature of the village. They had been turned into a civic amenity by plonking rendered concrete walls around them, to make primitive cubicles.
The bath-houses had steaming, slime-smeared pipes to deliver the hot water, and an attendant charged 2 yuan to fill up one of the sunken square concrete baths. The baths were popular with the local Naxi and Mosuo people, who seemed to be using them for their ablutions and for doingn their laundry rather than as a spa treatment. In Rock’s day this village was known as Wualapi, and it marked the southern boundary of the Muli kingdom. I passed up the chance for a bath, and instead set off in the mid-morning sun, along a mule track that ran through ploughed fields, in what I hoped was the direction of Muli.
In the fields of reddish brown clay, a few local people were yelling at their plough oxen, trying to stir them into action. Cuckoos were singing when I left the plain and ascended into the pine forests, but walking alone I began to feel a bit apprehensive, as if someone was watching me. I fingered the Tibetan knife that I now kept handy in my pocket, and found myself jumping with a start every time my footsteps broke a twig.
When I paused to sit for a rest and have a swig of water, I heard a ‘thwack’ beside me and looked up to see an old Naxi man and a young boy sat a few yards away, laughing at me, and about to throw another stone. They told me they were on their way from Wujiao to Yongning, to sell their home-made firewater at the market. They asked me the same questions I was to be asked by almost everyone I encountered ‘on the road’.
“Are you alone?” they asked. “Where are you heading? Aren’t you afraid?”
When I said I was going to Muli, this elicited an exclamation of surprise. “You need to be careful,” said the old man. “There are bad people on the road. They will bully you.”
I asked the old man about the villages on Rock’s map. Yes, he said, as I tried to pronounce them, Vudju … Likiasun … he recognised them and they were all still there.
It was on this trail through low hills and fir and hemlock forests that someone tried to ‘bully’ Joseph Rock, when he came up against a party of Tibetans travelling in the opposite direction:
“Hark! A cavalcade of 20 men approaches, clad in brilliant red garments and gold brocade jackets. They ride on red saddle blankets trimmed with leopard fur. Each carries on his left side a miniature Buddhist shrine of silver, a reliquary for protection on the journey. A lama of lower grade stops one of my men and roughly demands to know whither we are bound. Before an answer can be given, the priest motions my man to get of the path as the king’s brother is approaching.
Rock’s Naxi bodyguard replied by demanding that the Tibetans should dismount and show respect to the ‘big foreigner’.
“I now took part in the interchange of ‘civilities’,” says Rock, “… giving the lama a lecture accompanied by threatening gestures. Out comes the priests tongue in deference, which, with upward pointed thumbs, denotes the most humble mode of greeting where Tibetan customs are in vogue. We pass the cavalcade without a sign of recognition by either party.” As Rock progressed up through the virgin forest of firs he marvelled at the metre-thick tree trunks, noting that: “no woodman’s axe has ever echoed here.” Sadly, the same could not be said for the pine forest I saw in 1994. It had been logged haphazardly, with whole swathes taken out of some hillsides. It looked like the handiwork of amateurs, as smaller trees had been hacked down and left to rot where they fell.
The forest was dotted with such clearings, and the few patches of grass I came across were usually scarred with the remains of campfires, and rutted with well-worn tracks. On either side, landslides had swept down the eroded hillsides, churning up trees and earth into ugly, twisted heaps. And yet there was still some areas of uspoiled nature and beauty left. When I crested a shallow ridge, the grey rocky mountain ridges of Muli came into view. They appeared larger and closer now, and were an impressive sight against the clear blue skies. Forested hills extended as far as the eye could see. Below me, in the valley, were the log cabins of Lijaisuin, the first village in Muli territory. It looked like it hadn’t changed much in the last 60 years: in fact, the village was positively medieval, with no electricity, roads or machinery of any kind.
As I sauntered through the settlement it appeared to be deserted, except for a few chicken and piglets. Everyone must have been working in the fields. I asked directions from an old Yi woman I found tending goats, but she just splashed her feet in a stream and giggled in a strange high-pitched voice. I got the same non-response higher up in the forest, when I asked two young goatherds the way to Wujiao. They could not or would not speak Chinese, and just gestured mutely towards the top of the hill. Not surprisingly, I was soon lost on a myriad of trails running through the patchy forest, until I eventually fought my way up along goat tracks onto the next ridge, where I gained an even more impressive view of the Muli mountains.
Going down the other side, I thought I could hear voices, and then came upon a group of wretched Tibetan nomads, sitting around some smouldering logs. They wore what looked like animal hides, had blackened faces and were eating meat off some bones they held over the fire. They eyed me suspiciously when I asked them the way to Wujiao, and I left without a reply, their dog snapping at my heels, as I headed further down into this creepy valley.
By late afternoon my mouth was parched. Tramping down through the pines and blooming violet rhododendrons, I craved water and was wondering how much further it could be to Wujiao. I was expecting a place a bit like Yongning, with a few stores, a noodle shop and a guesthouse. My heart sank when I turned a corner and saw the collection of dirty, fly-blown log cabins. No sign of a guesthouse or shop. This was Wujiao? When I reached the first house I was so thirsty that I begged a drink of water from a Yi woman who emerged from one of the kennel-like interior, and drank it straight down regardless of the grease-smeared bowl it came in and the bits of soot and leaves in the water. In her dirty black Darth-Vader-like robes, she stared at me and pointed further down the hill. “Wujiao…” she croaked. Thank God, this dump wasn’t it.
The real Wujiao was a group of barrack-like buildings, with a single shop in a courtyard. Two Tibetan girls sat by the roadside drinking baijiu, and they invited me over to sit down and share their firewater. However, I wanted water desperately. I stumbled onto the wider dirt track that was the main street of Wujiao, and in front of a kiosk met a small Tibetan man in blue Chinese working clothes. There was no running water here, he said, but he invited me into his shed and built a fire to boil me some hot water. I sat, exhausted, but glad to have finally found someone who could speak Chinese.
No sooner had I sipped my first bowl of sooty-flavoured water than I heard the sound of a car engine. That’s strange, I thought, as I wasn’t aware of any roads around here. I rushed out of the door just in time to see a Jeep screech to a halt in front of the kiosk. From it emerged three men dressed in a mix of army and civilian clothes, and they were holding AK-47 style machine guns. I froze with fear at the sight of the weapons, and prepared myself to be frog-marched off for interrogation about what I was doing in a forbidden area. A suavely-dressed Chinese man appeared to be the leader of the group, and he had a brook-no-argument cockiness about him that reminded me of some Chinese plain-clothes cops who’d done a stop-and-search raid on my bus to Guilin.
When he saw me, the Chinese man walked over and to my surprise held out his hand to give me a firm handshake, accompanied by a friendly “Ni hao! Ni hao!”
Where had I come from? He wanted to know. I told him about my walk over from Yongning and – thinking honesty the best policy – about my aim of getting to Muli. “Wow! That’s tough! I really admire your spirit,” said the man, and explained that he and his group were Party officials on an ‘inspection tour’. They’d been driving all day over some rough mountain trails to see some remote villages and were now on the way back to Muli county. It would take four hours by car, twelve hours on foot to get to Muli, he told me. As we were speaking, the Tibetan shopkeeper came running out with a live chicken, which he pressed on the Party official. The leader made a show of trying to refuse, but the shopkeeper insisted: “It’s really nothing, please take it …” he grovelled.
I still felt nervous with the guns being toted around, especially as the two other goons were eyeing me very coldly. The young Party man in his leather bomber jacket and neat slacks, exuded a mixture of menace and uncontested power. He simply patted me on the back and wished me good luck for my trip to Muli. “Sorry we can’t give you a lift. Full up!” he guffawed.
And with that, they got back in the Jeep and took off again, leaving me and the shopkeeper in a cloud of dust, but both of us looking relieved. I went back the shack inside to finish my water, and asked about the old lamasery of Rendjom Gompa mentioned by Rock, which the shopkeeper told me was only a half-hour walk away.
The track down to the monastery followed a river through a dramatically narrow defile with dangerous-looking overhanging cliffs. Out the other side, perched on top of a grassy hill was a small white building with a backdrop of mountains and pine forests. This was the one-man lamasery of Rendjom Gompa.
I managed to crawl up the grassy hill to the monastery, dodging an aggressive dog on the way, until I found a doorway through a whitewashed wall that surrounded the monastery. The lama, Aja Dapa, beckoned me into his dim scullery, where a young boy helper prepared butter tea around the fire. Neither spoke much Chinese, but they treated me with simple, unforced hospitality. The lama was a burly Tibetan in a maroon robe, who laughed heartily when I passed on the message from the Yongning policeman.
I drank my muddy butter tea and tried to comprehend the lama’s slurred Chinese. He said his lamasery was not worth seeing: the place was falling down, the roof leaked and there wasn’t anything of cultural value to display. The lama told me he had been in residence there for four years by himself, sent from the main monastery at Muli, now known by the Chinese name of Muli Da Si (Big Monastery) at a a place caled Wachang. After unlocking the heavy wooden door of his prayer hall with a massive bunch of keys, he showed me some faded, soot-blackened murals on the bumpy walls. In the dim light it was just possible to make out the reds and yellows of horses and gods against a black background. There were also pitted grey scars where the faces of deities had been chiselled and gouged off during the anti-religious fury of the Cultural Revolution. “You’d be better off going to the Muli Big Monastery, much more beautiful than here,” said Aja Dapa wistfully.
I thanked him and trudged back up through the gorge to Wujiao. It was a rough old place. Young Tibetan guys wearing brown off-the-shoulder capes, stetsons and with the brass scabbards of long knives dangling from their belts, loafed around a couple of pool tables, playing clumsy pot-shots that sent balls flying off the table. They stared at me with a wild intensity when I walked among them and there was a dangerous air of boredom, territoriality and brooding macho restiveness. It didn’t feel safe.
There was no guesthouse or anywhere else to stay in Wujiao, but my new shopkeeper friend took pity on me. He laid a few bits of sacking on the floor of his cabin for a bed, and prepared me a disgusting evening meal of noodles in a grey soup, in which floated chunks of bone and fat. Two tall Tibetan girls in western-style trousers and jackets came and stood in the doorway to stare at me as I choked the food down. They shouted questions at me in yelping voices, and couldn’t take their eyes off me. “You look handsome,” said one of them. “But you’ve got a big nose!” sniggered the other. “Are you alone? Aren’t you afraid? Where do you come from?”
I gave the stock replies in Chinese.
“You’re an interesting person …” said the first girl. As with the woman in Yongning, I wondered where the conversation was leading, but the two Tibetan girls, curiosity satisfied, then abruptly disappeared. I saw them again later that evening, when I went for a wander to explore the village. They were in Wujiao’s only room with electricity; the TV viewing hall. The whole village, some seventy people, turned out to watch some Hong Kong videos that had been dubbed into Mandarin. I wondered what these country folk made of the Kowloon high-rise estates and the British-style Give Way road signs they saw on the screen. When I returned to the shopkeeper’s cabin, he brought some of his mates round to look at me. They sat on the floor, swigging baijiu from a bottle, and pinching the hair on my arms. “You must have a lot of hair on your chest, and down there too, eh?” one said, gesturing at my groin.
“What do you think of Tibetan girls? More pretty than English girls?” they asked.
I turned over on my bedding, pulled a spare chuba around me and tried to give the hint that I wanted to steep. Eventually they got bored of talking about my strange big boots, my ugly body hair and my funny eyes, and they left. I tried to ignore the moonlight and cold wind seeping in through the gaps in the logs.Tomorrow would be a long day, and it was time to hit the sack, literally.
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