The Prodigal Daughter of Mother Lake Returns Home

by Joshua Samuel Brown, Jul 2, 2005 | Destinations: China / Yunnan

China's Yang Erche Namu is a figure who inspires little ambivalence. Author of ten books (including Leaving Mother Lake, which has been translated in a plethora of languages), the globetrotting model and self proclaimed cultural ambassador of the Mosuo people is best known to the Chinese public (voracious consumers of her kiss-and-tell tales of love and lust) as the archetypical empowered women. Detractors call her a lucky opportunist whose cashed in on China's fascination with the Mosuo's "women-in-charge'' sexual practices, opening up once pristine culture to a flood of voyeuristic tourists. To discover the person behind the celebrity, Joshua Samuel Brown followed Namu as she returned to her tribal home to act as cultural ambassador for a rather distinguished guest.

She steps through the arrivals gate of Kunming airport dragging a red suitcase half as wide as it is tall. To the casual observer, she might well be hauling cinderblocks.

"Gifts" Namu explains, breathing hard "Every time I come back to Lugu, I need to bring more and more gifts. My family expects it."

The first in a series of interviews with Namu takes place in an overpriced airport restaurant. Over the course of an hour, her phone rings four or five times. In between talking about herself (which she does famously, and with considerable skill), she reserves tickets to Paris, arranges a film shoot, helps a friend set up an interview with a Chinese magazine, and finally cancels the trip to Paris. ("Too expensive !" she says)

In between phone calls and mouthfuls of spicy noodles, Namu talks about life, love, and the various projects she's working on. Topping the list is her pet project, a museum of Mosuo culture currently being built close to her home on the Sichuan side of Lugu Lake. The project has hit some snags, and one of the reasons that Namu is taking time from her busy schedule (in addition to the small matter of acting as an on-screen tour guide for founding member of the legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python to film a segment of the travel program, "Himalaya with Michael Palin") is to return to set a few things straight with the folks back home.

Namu also seems eager to set the record straight about the ever-present rumors about her personal life.

"I read these articles about my so-called promiscuity...Namu has this boyfriend here, or so many lovers there. And I think to myself, wow, if only I were this person that everybody thinks I am, maybe I wouldn't be so damned lonely."

Namu sighs, turning back to her noodles. Before she can pick up another mouthful, her phone rings again. By the time she's done speaking, the boarding announcement has sounded. She leaves her bowl barely half empty.

The Long Road Home

The next morning finds Namu sitting up in bed in a Lijiang hotel, nursing a cup of tea while on TV a Chinese soap opera is playing at near-deafening decibels. Even in the early AM, Namu does not appear to be comfortable with silence.

The seven-hour drive from Lijiang to Lugu passes through some of the most beautiful roads in northern Yunnan. Namu is pensive for much of the journey, returning to the home - and the mother - that she ran away from so many years ago is always bittersweet. As an infant, Namu's mother traded her for a neighboring boy (an unusual move in matrilineal Mosuo society). According to her autobiography, this was because she would not stop crying. Though the arrangement didn't last (the neighbor was no more successful at getting the infant to stop crying), it set the stage for what Namu's friends and readers know to be a complex and not always comfortable relationship with her mother.

"Things are better between us now." She says "But while I would very much like to feel close to my mother, I don't think this will ever happen."

In the town of Ninglang, the crew stops for a quick lunch, and Palin (well known as the polite Python) suggests that perhaps buying a small gift, perhaps some candy, for the Mosuo Matriarch might be a good idea.

"No candy, mom has no teeth left." Namu tells him. "Buy her some cigarettes, or better yet, booze."

As the taxi winds its way through the mountains, Namu talks about how much Lugu has changed since she was young, for better and worse.

"Now Mosuo people have cell phones, they can go to school, earn money to buy things. But you know, it's a trade off. Tourism has brought a lot of rewards, but it has also made the culture, the people, even the lake herself less pure."

The cars pass begins its descent towards the lake itself, Namu points at the newly constructed prefab tourist hotels being built on the outskirts of the beautiful lake.

She waves her hand dismissively "All these are owned by Han Chinese, not Mosuo."

More than any other single person, she is responsible for putting Lugu on the tourist map, and Namu doesn't deny feeling a bit conflicted about her role.

"I can't take it back." She says "Tourism is here to stay, and I can only try to help my people make the most of it."

As the car follows the curve of the lake, the tourist town vibe of Da Luo Shui (on the Yunnan side) fades, giving way to the more primitive landscape of the Sichuan side. The dirt road is now two barely perpendicular ruts running alongside the azure lake. The car plods along, passing tribes people tending to their chores. They point at the car, waving and yelling "Hey, Namu is back!" Namu makes the driver stop a couple of times so she can catch up on the local gossip.

"This is where I am from." She says "You see, it is much less developed than the Yunnan side. We don't even have telephone lines here. Look, there's my home."

The car pulls into the lot in front of Namu's home. It's a larger version of a traditional Mosuo home, four rectangular sections arranged in a square, surrounding a courtyard. Two lambs are tied to an old farming cart, and a peacock sits perched on a motorcycle seat.

While the television crew moves equipment into the interior courtyard, Namu introduces Michael Palin to the handsome young men and beautiful women (all dressed in the height of Mosuo fashion) that are just part of her extended clan. Namu's mother is nowhere to be seen.

"She is still inside. She doesn't want to seem too sentimental, you know, rushing out to greet her daughter who she hasn't seen in months....why don't you send one of the crew members over to say hello and present their gift."

The Mother of Mother Lake

Across the courtyard, in a large room in the farthest corner, several young men and one wizened, wrinkled old woman sit around the burning hearth that is the center of any Mosuo family. The men sit silently, and the woman is using a burning ember held with steel tongs to light a cigarette.

The crewman stands in the doorway for a moment, his eyes adjusting to the perpetual twilight of the Mosuo hearth before introducing himself in Mandarin.

"I've come along with the TV crew that your daughter has brought to film Lugu Lake." He says. "You must be Namu's mother."

The old woman looks at the man and takes a long drag on her cigarette.

"Please accept this humble gift." The man says, presenting her with a bottle of Shaolin Rice wine. The old woman nods in acknowledgment and takes the package, putting it over the fireplace.

"Sit, sit..." she says finally, and reaches over the fire grab a silver teapot to pour the first of many cups of Yak Butter tea for her guest.

In contrast with her loquacious daughter, the elder Yang is a woman of few words. She sits drinking and smoking, the silence punctuated only occasionally by a polite question from the foreign guest. These questions are answered with concision, or not at all.

"Are you happy that Namu has brought a TV crew to film your village?" asks the guest, adding that the show will likely be watched across the English-speaking world.

"Very nice." She answers.

He asks the Elder Yang if she's read her daughter's last book, Leaving Mother Lake, the book in which the mother plays such a prominent role.

"Too busy for books." She says.

Trying to elicit some kind of response, the guest digs deep, and takes a copy of the book from his battered rucksack, translating the dedication (from Namu and her co-author Christine Mathieu).

"You see, it says To Our Mothers. Namu has dedicated the book to you."

"Very nice." She says, and, addressing the guest using the old-fashioned term tongzhi (comrade), offers him more tea.

"Namu has done a lot for Lake Lugu, and for the Mosuo people," he says, drinking the thick, pungent liquid in one gulp. "Don't you think?"

This, finally, elicits a full sentence.

"That museum she is building on the lake is so ugly!" she says.

Later, Namu comes in and takes her place around the hearth. Her mother nods, handing her daughter a cup of tea. And the silence continues.

A Tribal Affair

Namu spends the first half of the next day being interviewed by Palin inside of her childhood home (its now occupied by aunties; success has allowed her to buy a new home for her own mother). It's in this role, as ambassador for her people to the west, that Namu truly shines. In the afternoon, Palin and crew crosses the lake to shoot on the Yunnan side, leaving Namu to take care of some unfinished business, namely the completion of her current pet project, building a museum of Mosuo culture and history. Before the structure, which looks more Malibu than Mosuo, can be finished Namu needs to convince the local workers to continue working despite a slight cash flow problem. Trading in her city finery for tribal clothes, she calls a meeting of the villagers - a mixture of Mosuo and Bai people, to state her case.

The only light inside of the meeting hall comes from a perpetually lit coal fire, and for the first few moments, as Namu takes the seat closest to the fire, the only sound in the room is that of three dozen sets of teeth timidly cracking sunflower seeds.

Then Namu speaks, greeting the assembly first in Mosuo and then Bai before switching to Mandarin for the sake of being understood by all present.

For the next three quarters of an hour, Namu's is the only voice in a sea of cracking seeds. She told the assembly what they were already painfully aware of - that the Mosuo people of Sichuan, her people, are receiving almost no benefits from the growing popularity of Lugu Lake, and that while tourists were coming in droves to the Yunnan side, few travel across the lake to visit their side.

"You all grumble that this is because the road around the lake is bad, or that the boat ride across takes two hours, but this is only part of the problem. The Yunnan Mosuo have worked hard to make their side of the lake into a paradise for tourists, but what have we Sichuan Mosuo done? Almost nothing! Why should people visit here - to see some huts and pigs?"

"Some people who have been to Lake Lugu congratulate me on helping to make my home such a successful place, and I am saddened that I can't tell them the truth - that my village is still poor."

Namu's voice rises, and for a moment even the seed cracking stops as she lays the bare truth out for the assembly - for better or worse, tourism is Lake Lugu's future. The question is, who will benefit from it.

"This museum is a good thing for our people. It will bring visitors, and they will bring money. And if we don't finish it ourselves, somebody else will."

Namu pauses to take a sip of butter tea, the fire reflecting from a thin sheen of sweat on her face. The only sound is that of the nervous cracking of seeds, like a thousand manic crickets.

Then one tribesman speaks. The tone of respect that he uses makes it clear that his comments are addressed towards the village's most prominent member. He is concerned, as are all the villagers, about the financial arrangements (the workers have not been paid in weeks). But he agrees with Namu that the museum is of great importance to the Sichuan Mosuo, and that long-term collective benefits should be considered.

The ensuing debate lasts only a few moments. The villagers agree to continue to work on the museum. Namu will pay them part of the money owed, from her own pocket, and return to Beijing and Shanghai to raise the rest of the funds.

In convincing the workers to finish the project, Namu is done with the hardest part of the work she's come to do. Explaining the complexities of Mosuo culture to an audience of millions is easy by comparison.

Leaving Mother Lake (Again)

Later that evening, Namu's family slaughters a lamb in honor of the famed visiting explorer and his crew. The weather has been cooperative, and the crew has several rolls of film filled with scenes of Palin doing what he does so well, playing innocent abroad in unique & colorful surroundings. Much drinking is taking place, perhaps too much; Palin, with the help of an interpreter, is attempting to teach the bemused men of the tribe to sing The Luberjack Song.

But Namu is not joining the festivities. She is inside her own room, sitting around a small coal fire and writing in her journal, seemingly more fixated on her writing than usual.

"When I am traveling around the world like a five star gypsy, I ache for this place, for the smell of the fire and the taste of yak butter tea." She says, "Yet when I am here, I can't feel comfortable. I am trapped between two worlds. It's a very lonely place to be."

With full bellies and slight hangovers, the crew packs up their gear at dawn the next day. Namu is mostly silent on the long trip back to Lijiang, where the film crew will spend a few more days working on another segment of their show before leaving Yunnan altogether. Namu, however, needs to return to Shanghai, and bidding farewell to Palin & company, heads straight for the airport.

Inside of the terminal is a small bookshop, and as Namu passes by, the counterwoman notices that the person with the large red suitcase in tow bears a striking resemblance to the face gracing the cover of several of the shop's books.

"Excuse me, Miss," asks the owner "Are you Yang Erche Namu?"

Namu smiles and walks over, greeting the shopkeeper like an old friend.

"Wow, Namu in my shop!" Says the shopkeeper, holding out a pen and a fresh copy of Namu Can, So can You "Where are you going, Ms. Yang?"

Namu pauses for a moment, as if contemplating her response.

"Home." She answers, pressing the signed book into the woman's hands. "I'm going home."

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Originally Published in Revolve Magazine, October 2004

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