The Hani ethnic minority in southern Yunnan province has missed out on the country’s economic rise, but many don’t mind.
Linn Birkeland Seim/ Al Jazeera
Dayangjie, China – Misty mountains are covered in tobacco and tea-plantations on each side. Only a soft road shoulder separates the car from the raging river, recently enforced by torrential rains.
Windscreen wipers work on overdrive as the car carefully dodges boulders and mudslides. The area has recently been hit by earthquakes and landslides that killed more than 100 people, among them elementary school students whose school was swept off the hillside.
This is Yunnan province, home to 25 of China’s 56 recognised ethnic groups. Bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, many here have never seen a Western foreigner before.
The morning light unveils unique rice terraces that the Hani ethnic minority have crafted for more than 1,200 years. The concept of terraces was introduced to cultivate mountainous terrain that would otherwise be too steep.
The largest Hani settlement is called Jiayin, a sleepy little town perched on a hillside. It is not unlike other rural Chinese villages, but one thing sets it apart – the women do most of the work. The men, meanwhile, are found sitting on street corners, drinking tea and puffing on bamboo water pipes.
The Hani, like most minorities of Tibetan descent, are matriarchal in structure. In Mandarin, “Hani” means “strong, fierce women”.
Two old women haul bricks on their backs to a construction site, grandchildren flocking at their feet. A woman openly breastfeeds her baby nearby. A group of elderly women gather in front of the Yunnan Rural Credit Union. It is the female Hani who run the businesses and are responsible for money matters.
Illiteracy is a major problem in rural areas, further complicated by the fact many minority languages don’t have common written script, as well as the imposition of official Mandarin Chinese.
A Polaroid is snapped of an elderly woman and is handed to her after it develops. She huffs it away, not realising the image on it is her own. She just wants money, she says.
Hitting the road
Further into the mountains, the roads become increasingly inaccessible and settlements scattered. People live in brick-and-mud homes called “mushroom houses”. The lucky ones have corrugated-metal tops; the rest thatched roofs.
In one of the settlements, what appears to be the village chieftain greets the foreigners. He is so drunk he can barely stand up, but he insists on providing a tour. Children swarm curiously to the group as pigs, chickens and hens leisurely stroll about. The chief takes us to his oldest son’s house, by far the nicest abode in town.
A grandmother carrying a wailing infant hovers in the background. The baby’s feet are severely burnt, covered in black crust with bubbles of yellow puss. The grandmother looks distressed as the child screams in pain. The plentiful government health clinics that abound elsewhere in China are absent here.
The vehicle’s GPS has long retired. The driver spends more time under the car checking if it will survive the rocky roads than behind the steering wheel. Walking is the only option from here.
The rice terraces clinch the steep hillsides, some no larger than two square meters. Not a patch of fertile ground is wasted with banana palms, sugar canes and corn filling in the vacant spaces.
A man walks his ox from one paddy to the next. A Hani male’s “attractiveness” is not judged by his looks but his prowess as a farmer.
A little detour reveals a water-well surrounded by stone-carved attributions, as two women squatting beside it wash vegetables. “The Communist Party rules the world,” one of the boards reads. The Kuomintang, who ruled China until 1949, mistreated the people of the region. Their nationalistic stance, especially under Chiang Kai-Shek, sent rural minorities straight into the arms of Mao Zedong’s Red Army.
Although the arrival of the communists was warmly greeted, it seems they haven’t been here for a while. At a Hani school, a sign indicates it was donated by wealthy Shanghainese.
The children are ecstatic by the sight of foreigners. They step back in unison in surprise after the sunglasses are removed, revealing blue eyes. The Hani’s religion is based on the deification of the forces of nature. The fundamental concept is the existence of different souls, or “yuela”. Blue eyes are “transparent”, hence, one can see right into a person’s soul.
Dayangjie village is the home of the YiChe-people, a sub-group of the Hani. People here live as they did hundreds of years ago. Yet, there is one aspect of life that reflects modernity. The younger men all look like they’ve just emerged from a Korean karaoke show.
The Hani males – some with long finger nails and bleached hair arranged in peculiar ways – wear rolled-up, faded jeans topped with snug Armani-style blazers. It seems this generation has failed to learn their male attractiveness is judged not by their looks but by their farming.
At the bustling market, vendors offer an array of products: fruit, vegetables, meat, dried and fresh fish, plastic tubs, stickers, flashlights and rope. The most popular stall has a television set broadcasting old Chinese movies. An elderly lady clad in traditional attire shouts out what sounds like shamanistic chants. Each phrase is underlined by undulating hand movements.
Village scavengers pick up nuts and leftovers from the ground. The women’s costumes show diversity among different clans. Most wear white-pointed caps, but there are also some black ones. Two buses are marked with a red sign denoting “clinic” on the sides. Neither is open to provide healthcare, however.
China has achieved historic improvement in living standards in recent decades. But as its authorities themselves point out, there are still many challenges such as the increasing disparity within the country’s many groups.
People living in this area of Yunnan are poor, but they are also free of political intervention, allowing their ancient cultures and customs to thrive. “The gift of isolation” – as the Chinese call it.