The history of the Nusu: a history of oppression


All the Nusu believe they descend from a feminine ancestor called Maochongying who was born of the mating of a bee and a snake in some of their legends, or of a bee and a tiger in other versions. The ancestor Maochongying will mate later with different animals, as the tiger, the snake, the bee, the roe deer and the deer, giving origin in this way to the clans of the same name, and with them to the whole humanity. This own process seems to indicate the existence between the Nusu of a primary totem and other secondary, as has been studied with detail for the Yi by Yang Heshen (1)

This name Maochongying (or Mengchongying in other books) would mean Heaven (meng) Descended (chong) Person (ying). Duan Ling (2) suggest that this name can refer to one of the first ancestors, and, as the genealogies of the Tiger's Clan and Bee's Clan go back to 63 ancestors, he thinks (calculating 30 years as a generation) that Maochongying must have lived about 1.900 years ago, that is, during the Han dynasty. But we think that 30 years is a too long span for a generation (3). If we consider the average generation span as 20 years, we can date the supposed changes in the live of the Nusu reflected in their creation myth to have occurred about 1260 years ago, that is about the eighth century, the turmoil years that preceded the establishment of the Nanzhao Kingdom (738-902).

The presence of this ancestor, and their primitive totemic cults, can suggest that in a remote age the Nosu society was matriarchal. If it was so, maybe the changes in their society were part of the changes Yunnan Province as a whole experienced during the Nanzhao Kingdom.

The Nusu seem to have had a close relationship in the past with the Yi of Liangshan. Both call themselves in a similar way (the Yi of Liangshan call themselves Nosu). Both peoples worship the black color, a color worshipped by many other ethnic groups that could have been related to them in the past. Also, in the Chinese documents of the Yuan dynasty both them Nusu and Nousu, are called in a similar way receiving all them the name of Lulu.

According to the Nusu traditions they come from Lijiang, from where they emigrated first toward Lanping County, and later to the banks of the Nujiang River, their current location. According to their genealogies, quite accurate, they arrived at the Nujiang River about 1000 years ago, a fact that is consistent to what we know for the Chinese historical registers.

The life of the Nusu in virtual isolation on the Nujiang River began to change in the 18th century, when they were not only affected by the new imperial policies aimed to increase the control of the government on the minorities of China, but for the movements of peoples that they caused. In that way those Nusu that lived in a traditional way at the beginning of this century, as show the reports sent by the local authorities to the imperial government, saw their way of life modified forever.

The three main elements that modified their existence, closely related to each other, were:

1. Establishment or increase of the tribute, that at the beginning of the century consisted (4) in an animal skin, a package of medicinal herbs and 2.5 kg of bee wax. The tribute increased continuously as it made the bureaucracy created around Nujiang.

2. The arrival of the Lisu. Although the Lisu arrived to Nujiang escaping from the imperial oppression, and even in some occasions after having been defeated, their superior technological development soon placed them in an advantageous situation with regard to the Nusu, that soon became their victims, suffering the loss of their lands at the hands of the Lisu chiefs and in some cases even becoming their slaves. Those Lisu chiefs secured their power becoming a link in the chain of the state oppression, located between the Tusi of Lijiang and Dali and the Nusu. They pick up taxes on behalf of the Tusi that already include baskets, wine and other local products, keeping a part for them.

3. The arrival of the Leimo (a branch of the Bai) had a similar effect. The Leimo became during a time the lords of the Nusu, what produced several conflicts between them. According to Nusu legends, the Leimo invaders were defeated by an alliance between the Clan of the Tiger and the Clan of the Bee. Nevertheless the Leimo were forced to give the political power to the Lisu, more numerous.

After the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, the first government offices were open up in the area, building barracks, schools and warehouses, settling down for the whole Prefecture of Nujiang a system similar to that of the tusis.

From 1950 the communist reforms were implemented among the Nusu. Although it put an end to the oppression of the Lisu landowners, the Nusu lives were then regulated by a series of communist intermediate cadres that locally applied with great freedom the national policies. Many aspects of their culture and traditional religion were forbidden.

From principles of the 80s, the wind of freedom that blows in China has arrived until that corner of the country where the Nusu live, letting them experience a remarkable revitalization of their culture.

They face a future, nevertheless, full of new challenges. Both the tourist development of the Nujiang River, and the projected building of a chain of huge dams on the river, can undermine their already feeble culture.

Pedro Ceinos


(1) Yang Heshen. - Tuteng cengci lun (Discussion on the scale of the totem). Yunnan Peoples Press. Kunming. 1991

(2) Duan Ling.- Nuzu (The Nu nationalitry). Nationalities Press. Beijing. 1991

(3) "We also generally accept that the length of a generation was closer to 20 years in earlier times when humans mated younger and life expectancies were shorter". Donn Devin.- How Long Is a Generation?. Access 20100520

(4) "Nuzu jian shi" bianxiezu. - Nuzu jian shi (Brief history of the Nuzu) Yunnan Peoples Press. Kunming. 1987

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