China’s Other Billion: Women of the Cold Mountains

Following is the latest installment in a series of posts by journalist Rachel Beitarie*, who will be sharing with us dispatches from her journey across rural China. In this post, Rachel visits a rural village in Liangshan prefecture, Sichuan, and speaks with the women from the Yi minority who live there. (Read previous installments of the travelogue here.)

Women of the cold mountains

In the Liangshan prefecture of south Sichuan, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away; therefore, the children are many. “Most families here have four or five kids” a woman says in very broken Mandarin. She herself has three so far, all under the age of five. Her friend, sitting on the paved concrete path next to her, has four. The friend, like many women, doesn’t speak a word of Chinese. They are both members of the Yi, or Nusuo, ethnic minority, a tribe that once cast its fear over much of southwest China. In this county, Butuo, they are over 90% of the population, and make for a very picturesque spectacle with their traditional colorful clothes on the backdrop of green hills and swift streams. It is a picture-perfect rural life, if one can ignore the poverty. Or the dirt.
["Ethnic Village"]

These two women live in a village called “Ethnic village” (民族村). It is a strange creation of a semi-modern era. Located just outside a ring road that surrounds the small town of Butuo, the village consists of about a hundred families that were moved here, a few hundred meters from their former homes, when their land was seized for urban development. They were given courtyard houses built after the traditional Yi fashion, where they continue to raise cattle and poultry. “The houses are better than the ones we had before, but the village is too crowded. We don’t have the space that we used to have,” explains A-tsai, 61, who sits, huddled in her sheepskin cape, with her back to a low wall that separates the village from the main road.

Butuo town is trying to push into the 21st century, while the countryside around it still lies deep in ancient times. A pedestrian street opened here two years ago that looks almost elegant, or would have looked so, if it wasn’t for so many empty and locked-up shops, and even more empty apartments, built on A-tsai and her people’s former homes. “Business is weak,” is a common complaint from those shop owners who are still open for business. La-Lo, age 40, is one of them. Her tiny restaurant is the only one still open on the block, but there are no customers, and the entrance is half-blocked by a cage that holds the family’s chickens. La-lo worked in Chengdu for a while, married a man from another county, and brought him back to her native place. This is not how it usually goes for women here, she says, and that is evident in the villages around Butuo.

In one village, just about two kilometers into the mountains, several young women put on heavy silver jewelry. They are getting ready for a wake of sorts – visiting the house of an old relative who has just passed away. The procession goes through muddy fields, with older women helping the girls with their big silver head-dresses and complicated hair-styles. Many young children tag along or are carried on mother’s backs, but no man is to be seen.

The men are all busy in the backyard of the deceased’s since morning. They slaughtered many cows as offerings to the departed spirit and are now smoking the meat that will later be offered to everyone. Young women here speak even less Chinese than the older ones, and are hesitant to speak to an outsider at all, though they are happy to have their pictures taken and are encouraged to do so by the men – obviously proud of their women’s elaborate costumes. Young men, on the other hand, are chatty to the point of being flirtatious, with the confidence of well-traveled people: Many have gone to work in places as far away as Shenzhen and Dongguan, only coming back home for the summer’s traditional festivals. After paying respects to the departed and having feasted on the rare meat dish, most women and children go back home, leaving the men alone for a long session of Baijiu drinking, outside on the street in the rain.

La-lo confirms that many women in the villages can’t speak or read Chinese. “They are often pulled out of school to help in the fields or to take care of younger siblings,” she explains. Officially, most minority groups are allowed to have two or sometimes three children, but the Yi are very traditional. Family planning rules are widely ignored and children are considered a blessing, even when dressed in rags or with faces and bodies so dirty that most suffer from skin rashes; it has to be said, though, that despite all that, small children here look quite happy, even when their only toy is an old basketball gone flat. La-lo only has two children and seems to be somehow negotiating their passage into China’s middle-class. Her older daughter works hard on her English homework and prefers to go by the English name Susan.
[Children of Butuo]

“I have always been curious” La-lo laughs when asked how come her lot is different from that of other women. “My mom encouraged me to study and go out to see other places that she never saw. I try to do the same with my daughter. It is good for a girl to study.”

*Rachel’s self-introduction:

I came to China for three months, with a plan to see a bit of Tibet and Sichuan and to get a taste of rural life in this country before I settled down back home with a job at a law firm. Nearly eight years later, I am still in China, and still as fascinated with its rural areas.

After working as a correspondent in Beijing for two years, in July 2010 I have embarked on what I hope will be a six month journey through the Chinese countryside — listening, watching and telling stories from farmers’ lives. Much has been and is still being written about the “Chinese miracle” (or dystopia, depends on your point of view) and this will only be my added two cents. China, it is often said, has more than 400 million Internet users and hundreds of millions of new urban residents, who are changing the face of the country. It is less often noted that China also has another billion people who have not yet been fully included in these new economic and social changes. The following, if you will, are some fragments from the story of the other billion.