16 Zhoumulang and the Yi minority

By Kartika Putra

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Our hostel owner, Mr B, take us to Zhoumulang, a mountain village, to visit the Yi people. When referring to the Yi as a minority, again that is only in relation to the Chinese population. There are more than 8 million Yi people in Asia and over 4.5 million live in Yunnan province. Although most Yi communities settle far from cities on steep mountain slopes, there exists a wide diversity in communities depending on the differences in altitude and climate of each area.

We left Weishan in a flash white van and headed two hours into the misty mountainside. In the last township before the mountains, Muslim women shopped in headdresses on narrow streets with unforgiving drop-offs. The narrow streets became a winding road that snaked its way through the red earth hillside. Patches of cultivated land left green blemishes on the mountain side. Wind farms dotted the skyline that was became hazier the higher we ascended. Mr B tooted his horn at each bend in the road to alert oncoming traffic to our advance up the mountain. The next bend allowed us a breathtaking sight of a Yi woman in full traditional clothing; an ensemble of floral embroidery designs and bright greens and pinks, the elegance of which was new to me.

Trucks stacked high with wood huffed and puffed along the roads forcing our van, now tinged with red, closer to the edge of the cliff. A young man burned eucalyptus leaves into a large cauldron, oil dripped into a bucket. Children ran home from school down hill tracks, an old woman with a toothless smile tended goats. A landslide closed the road so we parked the car and picked our way carefully over the rocks and past the bob cat.

The walk into town overlooked the valley, the village, like their farming practices, was tiered. From a distance it looked as if houses were built upon houses upon houses, but as we walked through the streets we saw levels. The air was dusty, the earth was red and clay-like. Only the older women wore the traditional dress of the Yi people, but all the women had their heads covered. They were worked on building sites, moving rocks with baskets on their backs. Once again, we had evidence of a matriarchal society where women performed the majority of the labour. A little boy stood on a wall staring at us, his penis sticking out from a hole in his pants.

We stopped a woman at her doorway to admire her garments. Mr B proved to be a poor interpreter, unable to speak English, or understand the Yi women. He made constant calls to our friend Stone, but this proved stilted and ineffective. She appeared happy with our attention at first but the conversation dried up without proper communication and she left us feeling uncomfortable and unwanted.

The next family ushered us into their home that possessed an archaic beauty with its wooden balconies that looked inwards to a dusty courtyard. They proudly laid out on a small bed in a small bedroom embroidered slippers, the toes turned up like a pixie shoe; blouses with floral embroidery designs sewn onto the chests; aprons circular mirrors strung around the edges. As we were taken in to their homes, we felt obliged to buy an item, although this wasn’t our only motivating factor in asking how much the shoes cost. We were told the slippers took 6 months or more to make and cost 8000Yuan. The Yi tradition for women is to start making their bridal clothings as adolescents in preparation for their wedding day. This would explain why such care and skill went in to making the ceremonial dress and why they cost so much. Having said that, we were shocked at how much the shoes cost and thought there had been a mistake, not trusting our interpreter, Mr B. There was no mistake, however, and the family appeared to defend the price to our charisma deficient interpreter. We left the abode offering humble apologies and hoping no offence had been taken.

Considering the time it takes to make such elaborate work it makes sense that the prices would be high, and it also makes sense that for the purpose of the tourism industry cheap copies would be made to sell to tourists.

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