10 Minutes – Ms. Ma from Zhashi Village

One of the highlights of last summer’s tour of Yunnan Province was the four days we spent at Lugu Lake. Lugu is located in the northeast of Yunnan Province on the border with Sichuan Province at 2,700 meters above sea level. It’s tough getting there. The trip involves 8 mostly harrowing hours on a bus from Lijiang over narrow cutback mountain roads through some of most spectacular scenery anywhere on the planet. Half our bus got sick both coming and going. Ah, but once there… it was magic. Therapeutic even. It spit rain almost the entire time we were there but the dramatic clouds and thick misty air only added to the mystique of the land known as “The Kingdom of Women“.

Grey Day on Lugu Lake

After spending the first few days exploring the immediate area around the lake, we ventured out on the fourth day to see what we might find in the surrounding mountains. It was not easy finding a driver who would agree to take us away from the lake. Most drivers-for-hire prefer to stay on the tourist trail, sticking close to the shore where they are assured of getting additional kickbacks form the local vendors. Money does indeed talk and in the end we were able too convince a young local to be our driver for the day, agreeing to take us wherever we wanted. We drove around for a couple of hours and on our third stop pulled into Zhashi, a small Mosuo village. It was about noon when we arrived and cracks in the clouds afforded a few rays of sun that spotlighted a locale straight off of a movie. The scene was complete with characters direct form central casting, all of them decked out in authentic clothing. I’m not talking about costumes, the clothes were the real thing, worn and dirty and beautiful, just like the people we would meet. They were poor and living in difficult conditions, strained even more so by a recent earthquake. Still, we were welcomed into their homes with smiles and gentle inquisition, where they shared their food, a lot of Yunnan coffee and laughter.

I’ll be featuring the Mosuo and their matriarchal society in depth in a future post because I find the history and culture intriguing. The women run the show there. This post however, is about our encounter with the wonderful Ms. Ma. She was on her way home from the fields when she found us on the rock and mud main drag of Zhashi. Almost immediately she began to tell us about her life… and I mean in detail. Honestly, I didn’t ask any questions for the first 10 minutes and Lily had a difficult time keeping up as she scribbled down the running commentary. That 10 minutes evolved into a couple of hours, so I guess this isn’t a true 10 minute encounter and technically maybe it doesn’t belong in the series, but hey… it’s my website.

Ms. Ma

A few old villagers ambled over to listen in on the initial exchange. They smiled benevolently, nodding from time to time but weren’t really animated until Lily told Ms. Mao I was a photographer from America and had been living in China for 7 years. The local dialect was difficult but Ms. Ma’s Mandarin was passable so she served as interpreter for her neighbors, explaining my job and why we’d come to the village. There was some talk about the recent earthquake and how some felt the government had fallen short with the relief efforts, one woman even asking if I was going to report on that. “Probably not,” I said, “I’m a guest in China and would like to stay a while longer!”, which got a nice laugh once it was translated.

“He’s a photographer…”

At a point Ms. Ma appeared to become impatient with her neighbors, declaring their questions as, “silly…” and “not useful…”. She invited us to her house, motioning to follow her down the road without really waiting for an answer. I got the feeling then that not many folks in Zhashi said no to Ms. Ma. We walked for abut half a mile, during which she explained her daily routine over her shoulder. Again, she wasn’t asked, she just proffered up a running commentary on her own. All the while Lily was furiously scribbling in a ratty notepad as we trailed behind.



As we approached the front gate we could see a bit of earthquake damage in the partially collapsed roof. Ms. Ma has lived her entire life in this house. I thought she must be fairly ancient and was shocked to find out she was only 55… the same age as me. That face has seen a lot of living. She lived here first with her grandmother, then her mother and now she is the elder and head of the household. She’s raised two daughters and a son here and is currently the caretaker for her 13 year old blind granddaughter.

Ms. Ma’s Courtyard

The house was laid out in a a haphazard manner, something like a horseshoe but with lines more angular. You could see that it had been added onto over the years. There is what is called a flower room which is saved for the young woman of the house to receive her lover. Because the matriarchal family often house generations of children, the houses are sometimes quite large. In the courtyard there was a big blue tent and inside were two small, mangy kittens lounging on one of the two spartan cots. The tent was a temporary shelter supplied by The International Red Cross. The quake damage to the house appeared to be very minor but Ms Ma said it had been deemed unsafe and she was waiting for someone to come shore it up, or even maybe rebuild it. She caught me shooting the tent and asked me not to, saying it was ugly and not beautiful like the house. She showed us around and we sat for a while with the woman inside the barely furnished main room and she told us more about her life.

Ma has had two walking marriages, resulting in three children. She hasn’t seen either of the fathers in over 30 years but that isn’t unusual in Lugu. The Mosuo is a matriarchal society and they are known for their walking marriages, where the man visits the woman in her home at night and then leaves in the morning. While it may sound to those in the west like a one night stand, it’s a complicated relationship that is often misunderstood. Many walking marriages last for years, even a lifetime. If offspring are produced by these marriages, the father has no formal relationship with the children. The mother’s uncle is the one responsible for helping raise the children. The father may sometimes visit as a guest but makes no decisions regarding his children’s upbringing or their future. There is also no relationship with the father’s parents so most Mosuo never know their paternal grandparents.

I found out we weren’t the first crew to ever visit with Ms. Ma. She said she’s been interviewed for many magazines and newspapers over the years and that at least once or twice each season a photographer or journalist will make their way to the village and she kind of takes them under her wing and instead of waiting for questions she just starts prattling on about what she thinks they probably want to know. The old gal certainly had me pegged.

Before I left I gave Ms. Ma some cash and a handful of American coins for her granddaughter. After a couple of rounds of polite refusals she accepted the gifts with a smile that revealed a glimpse of the young girl she used to be.

Many of these images, along with a number of others and excerpts from this text, were just showcased across 8 pages in the February issue of Artphotofeature magazine. While it was an honor to be featured, it was also a little daunting to been shown alongside so many talented artists from around the globe. It’s a beautifully put together magazine and features a variety of art in addition to photography. You can subscribe to Artphofeature on iTunes here.

I’m waiting to finalize a few things before sharing them here publicly, but I can tell you that there is a lot going on. It’s been hectic… but very good. I’m already about a week and a half behind schedule on my reading project. I think with March Madness upon us I may find myself even further behind very soon. After 7 years I’m now able to watch American TV. Lily and my sister Debbie clandestinely got together and bought me a Slingbox. I’ve watched the last three Kentucky games and I’m staying up until 5AM to catch The Cats play Arkansas. The Slingbox is great but the signal is a little dicey. I think I need to tweak a few things here and there at the source but still, I can watch UK basketball and most any other thing that’s on, so it’s quite a change for me.

I met the oldest woman in the world last week… that experience and photos from Bama County are coming soon!


9 Responses to “10 Minutes – Ms. Ma from Zhashi Village”

  1. A wonderful series of images and informative text. A real sense of understanding of the culture emerges. This article could hold its own in any company.

  2. julian says:

    Michael, It is such a pleasure to view your stunning work, it’s truly inspirational. With so much to view on the internet its easy to become blase and take for granted people’s work. Your affinity with people and your obvious love for China shines through and combined with your outstanding ability as a photographer, makes your work truly exceptional. Thanks and have a great day. Julian

  3. Jay says:

    Michael, another fascinating and loving insight into this country we share. As always, wonderful photography. Wow, man!

  4. Ron says:

    Beautifully evocative photos from a beautiful part of China. I’d like to meet Mrs. Ma.

  5. Edna says:

    I’ve never heard of walking marriages — thanks Michael, learn something new every day!

  6. Anissa says:

    I went to Yunnan once and definitely will go there again. Went to quite lots of places in China and still Yunnan scenery and ethnicity captivated me since 3 years ago. And your pictures make me reminiscence those lovely landscapes and people. Very well captured Michael, as always.


  7. Wonderful photography and great story from a beautiful place – thank you for sharing!

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