Nestled among the mountains on the borders of the Yunnan and Sichuan province is Lugu Lake: a sparkling horseshoe-shaped lake surrounded by rolling green hills. It once took days to travel from Lugu Lake to the nearest city at the foot of the mountains with a train of mules along the temperamental and treacherous dirt path, but with the new paved road it only took half a day by car. The winding mountain road was a blessing and a curse to the inhabitants of Lugu Lake. The amicable tourists with deep pockets and, when amused, generous natures flocked to the lake. In their wake came the essentials for any city folk visiting the country for the weekend: electricity, wireless network, and indoor plumbing. Although the standard of living certainly approved for a few, most were discontented by the uncontrolled growth of hotels and restaurants and bars and brothels aglow under the neon lights. The pristine lake, once the source of drinking water for the shore-dwellers, has been contaminated by runoff and beer bottles.
It was along the edge of this lake where a young girl sat with her bare toes skimming the water. With a single glance one could tell she was of the Mosuo tribe: the golden brown skin, the sunburnt cheeks that resembled the curve of a dusty red apple, the creaseless eyes, and the black hair that appeared almost blue under the noon sun. Her name was Li Bao.
Li Bao was supposed to be working. The potato plants blossomed with white and purple petals two weeks ago, signifying the time to harvest the young tubers, so that morning she was sent down to the fields with a basket and a shovel. Her mother, the Ah mi, told her to fill the basket with the new potatoes to eat for dinner that night. In order to keep the entire plant unharmed and capable to produce for the fall harvest, the chore required careful digging. Li Bao detested the chore, but she couldn’t disobey for her mother had absolute power in the house. She spent the morning hours crouched in the soil, gently brushing aside the dirt, and removing just a few tubers from every plant, but the sun grew unbearable on her bare head as it reached its height, and the glistening blue water just beyond the field beckoned her. After surreptitiously stashing the half-filled basket of small potatoes in a secluded corner under a tree, she ran to the lake, flung her shoes carelessly behind her, and plunged into the water.
Li Bao knew her mother would disapprove if she returned home with her last pair of pants, once again, wet and muddy, so she stretched out on the dock to dry herself under the afternoon sun. The distant murmur of the village and the lapping of the water against the wooden boards soon lulled her to a light sleep. She dreamed about Gemu, a goddess in one of the bedtime stories her mother told her and the other children in the dimly lit communal sleeping room. Gemu was said to be as beautiful as winter jasmine and, because of her beauty, she had many ? zh?. In the garden one night, she and her lover were so enamored with each other they were oblivious to the sunrise, but ? zh? were not allowed to stay past daybreak. As he fled from their expired tryst, he looked back to steal one last glimpse of Gemu, but held the reins too tight and his horse stumbled, creating a large depression in the ground. In his death, he transformed himself into a mountain. Gemu’s tears filled the depression and created Lugu Lake. She threw her pearls and her flowers into the water, which became the seven islands and the floating white flowers on the lake shore, respectively. In her last act of sorrow, she became a mountain to look at her lover with the sunrise every morning of eternity.
Suddenly, Li Bao was awakened by the noises of the drunken tourists staying at the nearby luxury hotel. She rose groggily and, finding that her clothes were still damp, she settled down to watch the rowdy group on the terrace overlooking the water. She tried to look for her sister, Li Yong, who worked at that hotel during the day, serving food, drinks, and songs with a plastered smile that covered inner disdain and receiving generous tips from delighted patrons. Li Bao envied her sister and her job greatly, despite her sister’s own dislike for it. She envied her sister’s long hair that was usually tied up in her trademark braids which ran down the side of her head, cascaded over her shoulders, and ended like the sharp tail of an eagle. She envied her sister’s freedom from the drudgery of farm life, although she knew Li Yong would rather be taking care of the yaks with her uncles or even digging up potatoes with Li Bao. She envied the way her sister talked and acted, the way she said things candidly and brazenly, the way she stared straightly and boldly without lowering her eyes or blushing, which often made the recipients squirm. She did things with a manner many called just being a tomboy, but Li Bao knew better; she knew that what others may have perceived to be fierceness and flintiness was simply Li Yong’s simple and honest nature.
A few nights ago when the moon dripped its light into the lake and the North Star winked above the Holy Gemu Mountain, the women of the house gathered around the fire in the open courtyard to spin yak wool with their nimble calloused fingers. The entire house that sheltered her mother’s large extended family was built around the courtyard, so that from the second floor landing with her head rested between the poles of the railing, Li Bao could watch the women unobtrusively past her bedtime. This spot gave her a view of the hypnotizing movements of the white fibers weaving between brown hands illuminated by the dancing fire, a sight always preferred over the stifling communal bedroom where the sounds from her snoring uncles and the loud breathing of her young cousins often kept her restless.
As the women wound the fiber around the drop spindle and spun it by chafing their palms together, they started chattering about the day, their mirth waxing with the darkening of the night. Li Yong could always saturate the air with laughter by telling her stories about the tourists at the hotel she worked at. After entertaining the women with a description of the ridiculous floppy hats and silk scarves the pale women wore in fear of the mountain sun, an aunt asked her, “Do they treat you well over there, Li Yong?”
“I can handle them well enough, but there was this one man today.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust and continued, “He asked me, like all the other pigs who I tell I am a Mosuo woman, ‘Do you want to try zu hn with me?’ Then I told him, ‘Do you think you’re that great?’ and he was silent.” The group chuckled at Li Yong’s boldness. “I tried to explain to him that zu hn is not something for free sex. I told him that it’s as a serious as their marriages except there’s no paper that forces the couple to be together. It is based on love, but he just shrugged and said, ‘I can pay you.’”
“So, what’d you say to him?” asked one of the cousins.
A slow smile spread across her roguish face as she replied, “Well, I saw a ring on his finger —typical, right?—and I shouted, ‘Oh! Is that your wife coming over right now?’ and his red face spun around to shamefully look for her.” Peals of laughter from the younger women in the group echoed against the mud walls, but the Ah mi frowned in disapproval and the worry lines etched in her forehead deepened. She feared her daughter’s outspoken nature would get her into trouble someday.
A traditional Chinese song rose among the crowd on the hotel terrace and, with the aid of the lake breeze, flitted to the dock where Li Bao rested from her chore. She smiled involuntarily. The voice was as strong as the winds that blew from the farthest mountains, bringing with them the smell of fire and earth, and as clear as the lake waters that once touched the lips of all who called it home. It was Li Yong’s voice.
With her nimble toes Li Bao grasped the stem of the flower floating on the water and pulled. The mud at the lake’s bottom gave way, and she held a dew-stained white flower by its slimy, thick stem that was as long as she was tall. As she fingered the filmy petals, she heard the wooden boards creak. Li Bao absentmindedly looked over her shoulder at the intruder. “LeiLei!” she cried in surprise as she greeted her childhood playmate. “How was your birthday last week? Your skirt is so beautiful! ”
Wang Lei laughed and blushed with pleasure as she looked down at her new skirt tied with a pink sash tightly around her small waist. Li Bao looked down at it as well, her eyes clearly filled with admiration and jealousy. “My birthday was great. I moved out of the big room and into my own little bedroom. Look at the beautiful ring and a bracelet my mother gave me. They’re both made out of silver,” she added proudly. She noticed the envy in her friend’s eyes and assured her, “BaoBao, don’t be so foolish! You’ll get it all when you turn thirteen.”
“Yes, but that’s in over a year!” sighed Li Bao.
“Would you like to come over and see my new room?” asked Wang Lei.
“Of course! Let’s go now,” Li Bao replied. They walked arm in arm off the dock with the stem of the flower Li Bao still clutched dragging behind them in the dust. “Oh shoot!” she cried as she remembered the pail of potatoes forgotten under a tree. “I’ll meet you there. I have to go back for something,” and she scampered off to retrieve the pail, hoping her mother wouldn’t notice it wasn’t entirely full.
After she dropped off the pail in the kitchen, she ran along the familiar dirt road that led to Wang Lei’s house. She was there already, daintily perched on the fence post waiting for Li Bao. She led her friend into the house and up to the second floor where her room was. On entering, the first thing Li Bao noticed was the darkness; then, once her eyes had adjusted, the walls plastered with pictures. The room was typical of a Mosuo house: it was wide enough to fit three men standing shoulder to shoulder, the dusty wooden floors were bare, the only light came from the courtyard behind, and the walls, in the few spots the pictures didn’t cover, were of mud and sticks. Drawn to a slightly weathered picture of a woman with extraordinarily large eyes and porcelain skin, Li Bao stroked it tentatively.
Seeing Li Bao’s interest, Wang Lei explained, “I found it in one of the magazines they have at the hotels. Isn’t she beautiful?”
“She just looks like the women who come here on vacation,” replied Li Bao.
“Well, she’s even prettier,” Wang Lei said defensively.
“You’re pretty,” Li Bao remarked matter-of-factly as she glanced at Wang Lei’s light skin and lithe figure.
“Not as pretty as them and what would I do with it? The chickens I have to feed everyday don’t like me any better because I’m pretty. It doesn’t matter at all,” Wang Lei said caustically.
Li Bao was silent. She didn’t know how to respond to Wang Lei’s unexpected gloominess, but Wang Lei continued without noticing her discomfort. “I like to talk to them—the people from the cities—and they tell me about the outside world. They live in these places where the buildings touch the sky and everything you could ever want is right there. They never had to milk a goat or pick potatoes or walk a day to buy clothes. I’m so sick of this life. I want to go to school and see the world, but all I know and all I can see is a lake and the mountains that block out everything. I want to spend my life with someone I love and be able to tell my children, ‘This is your father.’ Is it really that bad that I want to be clean and my hands dirtless for once in my life? I want so much m—”
Li Bao finally spoke, “You think their world is better just because you heard a couple of words and saw a pretty picture, but would you leave your home and family for something that may not even be real?”
“Come on, Bao bao. You’re so naïve. What about all the other girls who left the lake? None of them came back because they like it there. Sure, I’ll miss my family, but they won’t miss me. There is enough family in the house without me.”
The situation overwhelmed Li Bao. She never considered the allure of the outside world, and even the thought of leaving her small corner of the universe made her stomach turn. Her hands played with the flower stem nervously. She looked down at the flower that already began to droop from the heat. It gave her inspiration.
“Can I tell you something my mother once told me?” Wang Lei shook her head in assent, and Li Bao continued, “I once brought this flower home to my mother, and she told me that it was her favorite flower in the whole world. When I asked her why, she told me it was because the flower is like us, the Mosuo people. Their pretty petals attract the tourists who want to take pictures and pluck them from their home because they look different. But after they get bored of them, they drop them on the side of the road to die. They never noticed the flowers’ long stems that stretched to the lake bottom. That long stem is our history. We have been here long before the hotels and restaurants arrived. My mother is the Ah mi and my grandmother and great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother and so on were all her predecessors. One day my sister will be the Ah mi, and she will have to carry the weight of our family and ancestors upon her shoulders. It will be very heavy for her to bear, but I will be there to help her because I am part of the Mosuo. That long stem is connected to the lake bottom because this lake and these mountains give it life. This lake and these mountains gives the Mosuo life. We can never leave it.”
Li Bao looked over to Wang Lei who sat next to her on the bed. Her face was striped by white paths made by the tears rolling down the dust on her skin. Li Bao spoke very simply and earnestly, like any child of her age. Her innocent, unaffected manner penetrated through the Wang Lei’s layers of shallowness and frivolity and touched her hidden heart in a way no serious words from an adult could. Knowing it was time to go, she rose, tiptoed out silently, and left Wang Lei to look at the faded city pictures through tears.
That night the family gathered to dance in the crisp summer night air under the stars. Once again, Li Bao observed everything from her spot on the second floor landing, but this time she was joined by other children leaning against the railing to peer below at the festivities. The adults gathered around the fire, the women with their hair balanced upon their heads and the men with wide brimmed hats turned up at the side, and formed a circle. One man—Li Bao recognized him as one of her uncles—led the circle of linked arms with his wooden flute. As he played a shrill song and stomped assuredly around the fire, the women and men followed the song. The circle simultaneously crisscrossed their feet, swayed their hands, and lifted their knees high in the air to the beat of the onlookers’ claps. The smell of smoke and home-brewed rice wine filled the air along with merriment and laughter. All of her worries—the conversation with Wang Lei, the pressure of the world of tall glass buildings, the whispers among the village elders—all of it dissipated. She knew she could handle it all because she had the love of the familiar sunburnt faces below her, because she had the support of the mountains beneath her feet, because she had the waters of the Mother Lake flowing through her to give her strength, because she was and is and will always be Mosuo.