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A Change of Tune

Diedie Weng's Mosuo Song Journey @ Squeaky Wheel

Some people think of China as a monolithic, homogenous society. Lately, turmoil in Tibet has brought attention to ethnic minorities within the country. Minorities comprise almost 10 percent of China’s population, or about 130 million people. The Mosuo are one such group.

The Mosuo are considered exotic in China. Many myths and misconceptions persist about their matrilineal society, which has existed for more than a thousand years. Their language developed without a system of writing and instead relied on an oral tradition, singing folk songs that spanned generations.

To study the Mosuo, documentarian DieDie Weng (her first name is pronounced DEE-yeah DEE-yeah) accompanied anthropologist Carol Bliss and music professor Lamu Gatusa to Yunnan Province in southwest China. Their first stop was Lugu Lake. There they recorded interviews with the locals and tourists.

Diedie Weng's Mosuo Song Journey @ Squeaky Wheel

Tourism is a major source of income for the villagers around Lugu Lake. Locals hawk souvenirs and sing campfire songs for the visitors. Each family in the village has one member participate in the evening festivities put on for tourists and the profits are then equally divided.

Many of the tourists are from other parts of China, a measure of the rising affluence of the middle class from coastal urban areas. Increasingly, tourists come from outside China.

Up until the 1980s the Mosuo would entertain themselves with folk songs and dances. Things started to change in the 1990s when traditional songs were replaced by songs sung in Mandarin for guests. Today, the younger generation is more interested in modern pop ditties with playlists that change every year.

Mosuo songs were rural, visual creations. Love songs were sung back and forth between men and women working in the fields, fishing in the lake, or tending the farms. They were sung to ease the loneliness of the mountains and forests. Now the Mosuo are surrounded by tourists.

A common complaint is that the younger generation still sing the songs but with less feeling and understanding of their meanings. The newer songs reflect a shift in composition, too. They have a clear beginning and ending. “This is a complete structure as would come out of a music school,” Gatusa says.

One episode in the film illustrates the cross-contamination of cultures: Some of the songs the documentarians were studying, believing that they were of traditional vintage because they were sung in the Mosuo language, turned out to originally be Mandarin. It would be akin to believing that fortune cookies were a Chinese concoction because they are served in Chinese restaurants, when they originated in America.

China’s Han majority perceives the Mosuo as carefree, primitive people. The Mosuo are renowned for not having the strictures of marriage, although they may cohabitate. Women choose their partners; should children result from such unions, they are raised with the mothers. The Mosuo pragmatically do not believe in the comingling of material issues with the emotional bonds of love. Love, they believe, is too fragile a thing to go mucking it about with the quandaries of daily survival.

Because of these unorthodox social arrangements, one of the misperceptions promulgated by tourism agencies is that Mosuo women are promiscuous. As a result, a seedier element has sprung up to cater to those who visit Lugu Lake under the mistaken belief that Mosuo women will entertain them.

To find Mosuo less influenced by modernity, the filmmakers journeyed into mountainous areas, accessible only on foot or horse. There they discovered songs less tainted by the outside world, sung with much passion and feeling.

One man sings about his mother, long dead, and the villagers gently tease him: “You’re getting choked up about your mother even though you have grandchildren.” Lullabies are sung to infants and toddlers. Mothers and daughters sing to one another.

In these remote villages the filmmakers came across a song challenge, people singing across distances in attempts to outdo one another.

There are ballads with romantic overtones, while some are about the bonds between generations. Others have an instructional tone. There are morality tales, songs about respect for one’s elders and virtues such as diligence. All these were once sung and passed down from one generation to the next. The film chronicles how these village rites and their singers are in the process of change.

Mosuo Song Journey will be screened along with Seth Wochensky’s Shoot the Moon, a film about rural Springville, New York. Weng and Wochensky will discuss their documentaries after the screenings.

Friday, April 11, 8pm. Squeaky Wheel’s Cinema at 712 Main Street (884-7172/ $4 members/$6 non-members.

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