My Visit to Qianchang, Chuxiong (Yunnan)

Written by Elina Yiran Zhang, (Student Correspondent) Bowdoin College
MIC Kunming, Spring 2015

I recently went to Qianchang to visit my first one-on-one ethnic minority teacher, Dr. Mo. She’s an accomplished 29-year-old who has done more than people do in a lifetime; this year she’s spending her time in this Yi ethnic minority (Yizu) village working with the local government while simultaneously doing her own research. Qianchang is part of Chuxiong, an autonomous Yizu region in Yunnan province.

It was a three-hour bus ride from Kunming to Qianchang, added onto a half an hour up the mountain into Qianchang. When I got off the bus into Qianchang, the main street was filled with people and the “bread bus” could barely inch its way on the street. When Dr. Mo picked me up from the bus, she told me today was a holiday and many neighboring villagers would come to celebrate. I saw a peacock and a camel posing to take pictures as well as street vendors selling knick knacks. The streets were filled with loud pinks, blues and greens as women and men huddled in the streets dressed in their Yizu ethnic garb. Many linked arms and created a circle, beginning to dance to the folk music. The women kept their heads high, keeping their round hats balanced on their head; the men often had babies in embroidered slings around their back, one dad playing his banjo-like instrument while simultaneously carrying his baby girl.

2015 spring_chuxiong_Elina Zhang 2015 spring_chuxionghats_Elina Zhang

I ate dinner with Dr. Mo’s students and her colleagues and Yunnan University. Night fell quickly after I arrived and the stars were so bright the constellations almost jumped out and started breathing. We were closer to sky here and it was harder to breathe but easier to see the sky.

Later around 10 at night we went outside again. The streets were cleared of people and they had begun burning their garbage on the streets. People, having finished drinking and eating, began returning to the Main Street to start dancing again. This time I worked up the courage to join. The circle moved quickly, the rhythms grew more challenging. A stray dog got trapped inside the circle so he sat down and patiently watched. I somehow ended up next to a girl in ethnic garb and blue heels who held my arm tightly and held on even as I lost track of where my feet were supposed to go. I asked her whether her hat felt heavy and she said no. She asked me where I was from and I said the U.S. She smiled and kept dancing.

2015 spring_chuxiong with me and a Yizu women_Elina Zhang

Everybody was so beautiful dancing. In China, it is easier to fathom an entire lifetime because every generation exists together within one hemisphere. Older villagers with wrinkled hands danced alongside smooth-faced newlyweds. In my time at Bowdoin, I feel like I could be forever 20. Here I can start to imagine myself in 10, 20 years.

While Qianchang is considered a town, it only has four paved roads and a half-an-hour walk is a sufficient tour. The sanitation is shabby and the plumbing is inconsistent. We didn’t have access to water for at least one afternoon.

“Village life is simple but hard,” Dr. Mo said to me. Many younger people have begun to migrate to larger cities to find work, often leaving children and older family behind.

We spent the Saturday with the town’s bookkeeper, a woman who kept the record of the area’s demographics. The more we walked, the more the landscape’s frame widened. It was magical, standing in the middle of the field, a cold sweat wrapping around my legs, the hot sun breathing down, and on all four sides open fields.

2015 spring_chuxiong field_Elina Zhang (2) 2015 spring_chuxiong field_Elina Zhang (3)

We wandered into varying houses, asking newly married couples whether they were planning on having kids. Each home offered to have us a different fruit and chairs to sit. The bookkeeper was in charge of keeping track of numbers but also fining families: a premarital pregnancy, families with children before the woman turns 22, families with more than 2 children, were all fined. She took us to her home where we met her son, a 9-year-old who showed us the bunnies he had been raising.

“Villagers are more straight-forward here,” Dr. Mo told me. “If they like you, they like you. If they don’t, they won’t bother spending time with you.” I don’t know if this straight-shooter personality emerges from, whether it is the geography or the nature of a closely-knit community, but I simultaneously saw an unconditional ability to welcome me into their domestic spaces, a blessing and a privilege.