Friday, June 24, 2011

Soaking with the Mosuo

The Mosuo and bathing
Lijiang is probably one of China's biggest tourist Mecca's but if not for the Ninglang Yi automonous county it would hardly be worth a mention in this blog. However that's not the case.

Located at a distance of no less than 8 hours, Ninglang county, surrounding the Lugu (Luguhu) lake, is a bit isolated and as such has become home to the Mosuo people
(an officially not recognized minority) who might just well be this region's biggest drawcard. The backdrop not being sufficient enough, tourists from all over China come to witness the culture where to be woman is king:
'In an effort to promote Lugu Lake as an interesting tourist spot, the Chinese government advertised the area as "the Woman's Kingdom", a fully matriarchal society, and implied that the women are sexually loose, taking male partners often, and at will. Books with promiscuous covers and amateur paintings with naked and scantily clad women are sold in every shop. Locals are forced to wear "traditional costumes" with the threat of ¥20 per day fines for non-compliance'.
While intrigued by this kind of different culture, one might ask why come all the way here to bear witness to this? Surely a book such as that of by Yang Namche Namu and Christine Mathieu (2) is enough to understand the culture, though it also describes the beauty of the countryside.

But no. Answers to this inexplicable reason to visit Lugu Lake and the surrounding Mosuo heartland are more complex.

At the heart of the argument are distinctions about superiority apparently. Matriarchal is backward, patrimonial is modern. That's how Dru C. Gladney (1) sums up the mainstream view in the book 'Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects', while giving examples of the exoticizing and eroticizing of minorities in modern China (see other entries on Yunnan), which are additional motives for seeking out Mosuo culture.

These motives, I have to admit, are not exclusive to China. See portrayal of Nat. Geo. which have no problems with near naked Ni-Vanuatu for instance, but all white-skinned unclothed persons are neatly blurred. See also my own posting on this subject in Soaking in Southeast Asia: Cliffhanger.

Though much is made of the difference between Mosuo and Chinese culture in Namu and Mathieu's book, notable is the mention of Mosuo enjoying hot springs au-naturel and how this is being prevented by the (Chinese?) authorities (2). More on this development in historical context:
'During the Cultural Revolution, local officials thought this practice [bathing naked] was uncivilized and they added walls to separate men and women. Over time, however, the Mosuo began taking down the walls until the point that they hardly existed. When the area was open for tourism in the 90s, the government forcibly separated male and female bathers. Eventually, the area was reopened for communal bathing after the government realized its value to the local Mosuo people'.
Possibly to exemplify the contrast between the culture's, more has been made of the naked soaking than in reality existed; i.e. a supposed superiority of the Mosuo over Han Chinese due to the former's inability to distinguish between the clothed and unclothed human form without erotizication.

That said, the cultural differences still add to the Lugu lake area attractions:
'In addition the Mosuo of all ages engage in naked bathing at the Waru hot spring, seeing the body as simply a part of the normal pattern of things. For many Chinese, such visits permit a view of fascinating customs found in a beautiful part of the country ...'(3)
Or as in this publication:
'In early 1988, I saw a young man from Sichuan anguishing in the courtyard of the local government; his expensive camera with a telephoto zoom lens had been forfeited when, from behind a towering rock, he photograped the naked bathers in a roofless hot spring in northern Yongning' (4).
Mosuo's soaks
After extensive web search, I still have to proceed beyond the one hot spring, which the above mentioned authors (2) situate near Yongning village. It is often referred to as Wenquan, however Wenquan is just Chinese for hot spring. More commonly it is named after the nearby village of Yongning or Waru (3), I'll stick to the latter. Besides positioning the soak 10 km north of Yongning Tourchina adds:
'Now this place is equipped with proper facilities for people wanting to soak and relax in this comfortable hot spring'.
As opposed to before when ...?

This cached reference describes the (perceived?) past:
'So at any time of the night or day, up to hundreds of naked men and women can be seen bathing together. They play together and have fun. Mosuo people have a very relaxed attitude towards the naked human body and they do not regard nudity as a taboo'.
'A group of Mosuo women and tourists bathing in the famous hot springs of Yongning, Yunnan province, China. August 2007'.

A current firsthand experience by a long-distance rider:
'Had the place all to myself, and soaked for over an hour. The water felt warm, but not hot, smelled heavily of minerals, and actually fizzed like soda pop. ... After the soak I kept riding to see if there was anything up ahead. There was another hot springs – Lao (old) Hot Springs – a few kilometers up the road. Later someone back at Lige said that was the “better” hot springs because the water was hotter, but it sounded pretty crowded'.
So maybe two hot spring sites?

Dane-en-chine has a blog entry in which he describes as much the way there and mentions two hot springs locations near to each other:
'In the hot spring village (Mosuo name is Agua and Chinese name is Wen Chuan) there are 2 bathes. We had a look at both. We don’t like the oldest too much ruined.
The new one where we went has a collective basin share in two parts one for women one for men, just separated by an enormous wooden beam,. It's open air so it is very pleasant.
When we ask to go to the collective bath the owner is surprised and refuses by saying to us "lao bai xin" what wants to say "common people" what in his eyes we are not!
The local people come here to take your bath; they use a lot of soap so the water is too soapy. There are private rooms with bath smaller and cleaner.
We began by the common and finish by the private. No massage just hot bath this water is good for the skin'.
Oddly they include a picture of bathing naked locals with a clothed westerner!

In the Footsteps of Dr. Rock from 2005 adds:
'There is now a "resort" here where pools have been built for tourists. There will probably be other pools built by the time you read this'.
And now for the bad news from 2009:
'Construction of an airport near China's last matriarchal society in the southwestern Yunnan Province has started, authorities said yesterday'.
Innocence ends?

Well, probably one of the very few pictures of men soaking naked in China! Again Yongning hot spring. Look at this link to a photo (sfw) when the soakers still had a view. So decorum meant dividing the pool and put a wall up.

(1) Gladney, D.C. (2004) Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities and other Subattern Subjects. Published by Hirst and Co, London, United Kingdom
(2) Namu, Y.E. & Mathieu, C. (2003) Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World. U.S.A.
(3) Arlt, W. G. & X. Honggang Tourism Development and Cultural Interpretation in Ghanzi, China. In: Ryan C, & G. Humin (Eds.) (2009) Tourism in China: Destination, Cultures and Communities. Routledge, New York, U.S.A.
(4) Shih, C-k (2010) Quest for Harmony: the Moso Traditions of Sexual Union and Family Life. Stanford University Press, Stanford, U.S.A.

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