For the past ten years, I have been photographing the Nuosu (or Yi) ethnic minority, who reside mostly in Lishangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, known as the “Cold Mountains,” in southern Sichuan province in southwestern China.
For thousands of years, nobody—not even Han or Tibetans who occupied areas around the Cold Mountains—could enter without being captured as slaves or killed. In some cases, the Nuosu noble class would act as the guarantors, promising safety and assigning them bodyguards. The journey into the Cold Mountains was full of danger and risk due to the geographic obstacles and unknown rival nobles who controlled different territories. These factors contributed to the remarkable persistence of Nuosu beliefs, traditions, and way of life until the second half of the twentieth century.
In the 1950s, the Communist party took control of the Cold Mountains. From that point, the Nuosu experienced the rapid loss of their culture and identity as they were transformed dramatically from a tribal society into a socialist society. As a result, by the 1980s, the Cold Mountains, especially the central areas with the least geographical advantage and imbalanced development, were impoverished and flooded with drugs and HIV infection.
In the early twentieth century, upper class Nuosu planted poppies and traded heroin as currency for guns and silver. As the Chinese government “liberated and united” China in the 1950s, the cultivation and trade were almost completely eliminated. Once the population migration was permitted after the Chinese economic reform in 1978, young Nuosu men began exploring big cities for employment opportunities. However, without the skills they need to work or a proficiency in Chinese, many of them ended up living as thieves and hobos.
Heroin turned into something fashionable and high-end, to show off and share among their peers. Without any knowledge of the relationship between intravenous drug use and HIV/AIDS, infection caused by shared needles and unprotected sex spread rapidly. In recent years, the Chinese government has been focused on cracking down on drug trafficking and abuse. Almost everyone who is suspected of being a drug user or drug trafficker is sent to a rehab center or prison. The damages of drug abuse and the terrible consequences of HIV/AIDS have become common knowledge, even to the Nuosu living in remote and isolated areas. Even so, HIV infection rates have continued to rise, not only because of the lack of efficient government-sponsored harm reduction interventions, but also due to the widespread discrimination against infected people as a result of government propaganda.
In recent years, the Chinese government has taken massive targeted measures towards poverty alleviation in the Cold Mountains. One tactic is to force the Nuosu who are used to living high in the mountains to move to newly-built areas in towns and cities. Agricultural and herding lands are confiscated by the government with little compensation, just enough to cover the building cost of the new apartments and houses. So, the Nuosu have to alter their traditional way of living by migrating away from mountain areas towards cities to find employment as blue-collar workers, mostly in factories. Since the 1970s, uneven modernization and urbanization has resulted in a significant population of Nuosu leaving their homeland. More recently, mass outward migration has increased while ineffectual poverty alleviation programs continue. The Nuosu’s complicated spiritual and sociocultural crisis grows more and more severe in the Cold Mountains.
The Nuosu of the Cold Mountains have one of the most unique cultures, astronomical calendars, hieroglyphs, beliefs, and social order. This society—which has thrived for thousands of years—is now one of the most underdeveloped and discriminated ethnic minorities in China. They are labeled uncivilized, uncultivated, uneducated, drug traffickers/abusers, HIV infectors, thieves, and barbarians. But when I travel in the Cold Mountains, the Nuosu I encounter are close to the land, mountains, rivers, forests—preserving a symbiotic relationship with nature that has existed for thousands of years. They present a mixture of elegance, solemnity, mystery, bewilderment, and loss. I have had the opportunity to photograph the extraordinary culture and landscape of the Nuosu, and I’m reproducing these images in order to share the strong sensations I’ve experienced since 2009. “Ancient Legends” is the first part of my residency series, which I hope can shed fresh light on the struggling, vanishing, legendary world of the Nuosu.
Xu Shuang has previously published another photo series from the Cold Mountains on ArtsEverywhere. Women of the Cold Mountains documents “women of different ethnicities, ages, and occupations,” and “attempts to illustrate a cross-section of women’s beauty, strength, and empowerment in the Cold Mountains of Southern Sichuan.”
Suzy Xu Shuang (徐爽) is a visual storyteller of ancient and contemporary cultural traditions. She explores portraiture and landscape photography in poetic ways. Xu is a 2019-2020 ArtsEverywhere Artist-in-Residence.