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China Daily Website

Lugu Lake legend recalls her past

Zhang Fu ( China Daily )

One of Xiao Shuming's daughters helps her to dress up before going out. [ Xin Shiji ]

XIAO Shuming is a legendary lady. She is the widow of the headman of the Mosuo people, who live on Lugu Lake in Yunnan Province.

She appears to be a typical woman in her late 60's, a mother and grandmother of 29 children and grandchildren. She wears an old felt hat and a faded blue suit. Blue veins stand out on her hands as she stuffs chewing tobacco into her mouth. She has no front teeth.

She has lived in the area surrounding Lugu Lake for 53 years. For 53 years she has never left the land, fulfilling her duty as wife of the headman faithfully.

Her life changed drastically one day when she was only 16.

Before her 16th birthday, little Shuming was a carefree, happy girl who had been born into a rich family in Chengdu, a prosperous city in Sichuan Province. Her early life was filled with pleasant memories.

In early spring there was a flower festival in Qingyang Palace; on May 5 of lunar calendar there was a dragon-boat race in the Wangjiang Park.

When 69-year-old Xiao recalls the past, tears roll down her cheeks.

She was a clever girl and excelled at everything in school. She never thought that she would end up spending her life in a remote village among people who were completely different from her.

The turning point occurred on December 23, 1943, which Xiao remembers without the least hesitation. That day a man asked for her hand.

The man was Labocheng, headman of the Mosuo people in Yunnan. He came to Chengdu seeking weapons. At the same time, he wanted to find an "educated" wife who could manage his interior affairs.

He had military support from Liu Wenhui, commander of the 24th Army. And he set his gaze and personal ambitions on Xiao Shuming, whom he had heard of by chance and deemed her his ideal wife. So he asked Shuming's father, an officer serving in Liu's army, for his daughter's hand.

Labocheng was invited to Xiao's home to be observed by his prospective fiancee. When 16-year-old Xiao Shuming saw the stranger who was twice her age, she shook her head and said "no."

But, more than half a century ago, marriage was arranged by parents and one had no say in the matter.

Xiao's father said "yes" and scolded his daughter. A woman's duty was to be a housekeeper, so she was told.

"You have learned enough to be a good housewife. It is time for you to observe your duty," said her father.

The following day, the local newspaper announced the marriage between Labocheng and Xiao Shuming. Despite her cries and struggles, Xiao was carried off in a sedan chair and married to Labocheng.

The trip that followed was unforgettable to Xiao Shuming. From Chengdu to Lugu Lake, where the Mosuo people lived, the caravan travelled for three months.

Xiao could not remember how many mountains they had scaled or how many rivers they had crossed. After a countless number of changes from sedans to horses, she finally saw the mysterious lake where she would spend the rest of her life.

The Mosuo people was the last group still keeping some practices of the matriarchal system in which women own the houses and choose their husbands. Children live with their mothers and usually do not know their fathers.

But the headman enjoyed the privileges related to marriage. Xiao was his second wife. Since Labocheng's first wife devoted herself to worshipping gods, Xiao took charge of everything.

Labocheng was the most senior commander in the area. He respected Xiao and treated her well, she recalled.

Lugu Lake was still a primitive area at the time. Xiao planned to improve the education system there. She had carried from Chengdu several scores of primary school textbooks and even brought a pedal organ.

In three months, a school house was built and Xiao was designated by Labocheng as the headmistress. But when the school was about to open, Xiao was pregnant and had to give up her position as headmistress.

In only one year Xiao mastered the Mosuo language and became a Mosuo woman.

She often rode a claret-coloured horse and wore a revolver at her side. She also carried a carbine. Though she had not been trained to shoot, Xiao was a crack shot. Once, she said, she killed three wild ducks with one shot. But Xiao quickly gave up shooting because a few locals claimed that she must have "evil in her hand" since she had such good marksmanship.

The year 1951 was a turning point in Mosuo history. That year, Lugu Lake was liberated by the Chinese Communist Party and Labocheng was made the top official of the Lugu region.

But Lugu Lake was not peaceful all the time. Bandits were rampant around Lugu Lake and attacked the region's government.

Labocheng was eventually sent to study in Kunming for one year. So Xiao, who was then 26 years old, was looked upon as the one to deal with any difficult situations that arose.

Xiao was cautious and composed, she recalled. She deliberately sent a message to the marauding bandits: if they dared to come, she said she would shoot the leader.

The bandits did not attack out of fear of the woman whom they had heard was such a sharpshooter. Instead they went to loot a grocery shop. Xiao immediately rushed there and the bandits fled.

Then government officials asked Xiao to seize the bandits. Xiao rode out on her horse alone, and did not bother to take a gun.

She shouted to the bandits: "Come back, brothers. Don't be afraid. You will be safe. If the Communists arrest you or put you in jail, I'll pay with my life."

Moved by her bravery and honesty, the bandits surrendered their guns and followed her down the hill. When they found the new government treated them fairly, they all knelt down to Xiao.

In 1956 the wind of democratic reform also blew into the remote area. Xiao was the first to surrender weapons.

Unfortunately, a fire lit by celebrating youths spread to Xiao's house and reduced the splendid wooden house to ashes. Nothing remained to remind her of the last headman's splendor and opulence.

Xiao's father came to see her a few years after she got married but died of typhoid four days after his arrival. Her mother also died during a hard and difficult trip to Lugu Lake.

In 1976, Labocheng, the headman of the Mosuo people, who was then a revered democratic personel, died of disease. The Sichuan provincial government sent their condolences in a telegram. The Mosuo people held a cremation ceremony for their headman according to the custom.

Chi Hongzhou, the general manager of Sichuan Qiren Toothpaste Corporation, came to know about Xiao by chance and was moved by her story. He decided to help her by paying for a trip back to her hometown.

Early this year, Xiao finally realized her dream, which she had cherished for over half a century. She returned to her hometown of Chengdu and was reunited with her relatives.

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