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(CHINA 15 - Southwest)








Mengba village, Lancang county, Yunnan


23 April 1997


This is a good interview, full of details of Lahu life and beliefs, though some of it is a little difficult to follow. Natuo is elderly, with poor eyesight and lives on her own, but she still works in the fields, contributing her labour to others so that that they will help her in exchange. “No one would work for me if I didn't go. This time I helped them; then later when there is water in my paddy, others will come to help me.” She practices the Lahu tradition of jiaohun (“calling the spirit”), through which she persuades ancestors’ spirits or ghosts, who are troubling their surviving relatives, to leave their families in peace. She describes the processes of weaving and dyeing Lahu clothes and bags, as well as various festivals and traditions, sings several songs and expresses great pleasure in chatting with the interviewer and being treated to some local spirit: “I like drinking and it makes me happy.”

Mountain life isn’t easy, she says, but it is what she knows: “In the beizi (plains and valleys between mountains), whatever you plant, it yields; while in the mountains, it’s harsh for any planting, the land is infertile. Some labour and get food; some labour but in vain.” Despite the poor soil and climate, she says they have always had just enough rice, though often accompanied by little else but wild herbs. Life now is easier – water is available in the village, rice no longer has to be pounded by hand, and clothes can be bought rather than made if you have the money. Her village has electricity, although the interviewer notes that Natuo’s home is the only one not connected – Natuo says her eyesight is too poor to see much anyway, so what would be the point? She is philosophical about how hard she still has to work, but her evident delight in being treated to food, drink and conversation is quite poignant. She ends with a song and says: “You buy alcohol and food for me. I as an old woman haven't encountered this before. You are the good one. The other many friends, none of them have said, ‘Old woman, you eat.’ You serve me…my heart feels very warm.”

detailed breakdown

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Section 1-2  Almost blind. Had worked in someone else’s fields on day of the interview, as part of work exchange. Had two husbands, both died. Her son has so far failed to find a wife.
Section 3  On bezei (plains) versus mountains: “Of course, it's better to live on the beizi. In the beizi, there are large plots of paddy, while in the mountains the plots are mostly fragmented and small.” But she’s used to living in the mountains, and wouldn’t want to leave. Describes frugal existence in the past, when they survived from wild herbs: “We boiled them with one liang (50 grams) of rice as rice soup… The same wild herb plant would be picked three times…You couldn’t pick any more from it after the third time as you had reached the roots… Later came the commune system, we worked together and shared food, and eventually we had rice to eat.” Knows some medicinal herbs, “but my eyes are not good, I would not be able to find them”.
Section 3-4  Before “liberation” – “in the time of Guomindang, the forests and everywhere were in chaos. In the dark, we all were afraid.” Village now has running water and improved housing: “In the past, Lahu people didn’t know how to build tiled houses; now we have learned from the Han.” Other changes: forest loss; tractors/buses now; no malaria. People with malaria used to drink blood from male dog’s ear. In the past, people also died of smallpox and measles, yet “There were more old people in the past”. Like many others, she says the big problem now is animal disease (especially in pigs and chickens), and she believes the road (ie outside contact/travel) is responsible for much of the increase. Earthquake (date?) changed water courses. Mountains used to be home to much more wildlife including, she says, tigers and leopards.
Section 4-5  Describes the process of dyeing cloth, and making Lahu bags and clothing - three days’ work to make the latter when hand-sewn. But thread is expensive now, and young people only wear “Han clothes”, which aren’t as warm as Lahu clothes. You just have to labour for others for four to five days, then you can buy a piece of clothing to wear. Old people still wear traditional clothes, which keep your knees warm when planting rice.
Section 6-7  Nice answers on the qualities which people considered made “capable” women and “good wives”. The former: “Those who had the whole set of skills of printing and drawing on cloth, spinning and weaving, who were skilful in sewing, [who were] productive and worked hard, who were careful in calculation and good at budgeting, hardworking and thrifty, kept the family in harmony…” The latter: “Those who sew clothes well, care about and are willing to look after their father- and mother-in-law, who are able to maintain a harmonious relationship between husband and wife, who could do field work well…” On Lahu songs eg, work songs, love songs, burial songs. Sings a little herself: “I sang that you are not afraid of crossing thousands of rivers and tens of thousands of mountain ranges to come to see us here in Muga, you chat with me, and buy alcohol for me, I could die of happiness!” Some information on festivals.
Section 7-8  Custom of work exchange: “One person is not able to finish cultivating a plot of land; several people doing together finish it quickly. Doing it in a group heightens your motivation, so we exchange our labour.” Borrowed rice from others when her grain ran out - gave them rice later when hers had ripened.
Section 9-10  Used to keep chickens and pigs, but they died of disease. No money to buy more. Ate the livestock that died. “In the past, Lahu people didn't eat dog meat, but now many of them eat this.” Sometimes picks tea leaves and sells them in the market to get cash.
Section 10-11  These days, don’t need to carry water [running water in village], or pound grain - now there’s a mill. “Young people sleep more, and think that they can eat whenever they get up.” Han clothes too short -- don’t keep waist covered when carrying firewood. Benefits of road: “The road is good; it's good for the village. But it brings with it pig diseases and chicken diseases.”
Section 11-13  Describes the practice of jiaohun (“calling the ghost/spirit”) - seeing off the ghosts of the dead, who bother the living, causing illness, etc. Says she’s not the only one who does it. Learned from others, motivated when her own daughter was seriously ill.
Section 14-15  Wants to raise pigs and chickens, but fears they will fall ill and die. Ends with a song.