From the Field: Keeping China’s minority traditions alive


BEIJING — In China, women from the 55 ethnic minority groups formally recognized by the country, are playing a vital role in protecting traditional knowledge and preserving cultural heritage.

On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, celebrated every year on 9 August, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is raising awareness of the ways in which cultural practices in these communities help women to nourish local life, as well as steer the next generation forward, including through the institution of marriage.

For a number of these female-led societies, women frequently play a dominant role in nurturing and educating the next generation, and in the process transmit their languages, practices, beliefs, and other forms of cultural heritage.

UN-backed initiatives are helping them to keep their traditions, from wool-weaving to lute playing, alive.

Women, Tradition, Culture.

The importance of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge is widely acknowledged, as a means of knowing how to survive, as well as a source of philosophies and cultural values.

Indigenous women are the backbone of indigenous communities and play a crucial role in the preservation and transmission of ancestral knowledge.

In China, whilst the term ‘indigenous’ is not explicitly used, the government formally recognizes a diversity of ethnic backgrounds – a total of 55 ethnic minority groups are officially noted, and all of them are formally designated as equal in the Chinese constitution.

China’s ethnic minority women play a vital role in protecting traditional knowledge and preserving cultural heritage.

Passed down from mothers and other female elders, ethnic minority women learn traditions and preserve culture that provides connective tissue between past and future.

These traditional practices include making handicrafts and clothing, learning traditional songs and dances, and traditional culinary techniques.

These cultural practices help women to nourish local life, as well as navigate future lives and marriages.

Traditionally, in many of these upland ecosystems, men may have had to migrate in search of higher incomes and communities became reliant on matrilineal customs to preserve and pass on traditional knowledge.

For a number of these female-headed societies, women frequently play a dominant role in nurturing and educating the next generation, and in the process transmit their languages, practices, beliefs, and other forms of cultural heritage.

Protectors of the land

Yunnan Province is home to many ethnic minority groups living adjacent to the Lijiang Laojun Mountain, a primary part of the UNESCO ‘Three Parallel Rivers’ World Heritage Site. These include the Lisu, Naxi, Yi, Bai ethnic minority groups, amongst others.

In the Liguang village, the Lisu ethnic minority group serve as predominant residents and protectors of the Community Conserved Areas (CCAs), also known as “Territories of Life”.

The 12 Liguang CCAs cover approximately 7,700 hectares, accounting for over 52% of the overall area of the Liguang village.

Since 2010, more than 41,800 people belonging to ethnic minorities and living in China’s CCAs have been supported by the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grant Programme (SGP), implemented by UNDP.

These efforts include the Global Support Initiative to territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities (ICCA-GSI).

Approximately 1,987,036 hectares of land in the CCAs have been positively influenced by the projects.

To help ethnic minority women as they preserve traditional ancestral knowledge, the ICCA-GSI has supported trainings by villages’ ethnic-cultural inheritors.

The art of wool weaving derives from the Lisu people’s use of nature in their sustainable production and living practices and is an important part of Lisu culture.

Lisu women are very particular about which kinds of wool are used in traditional weaving, with the wool from the backs and sides of the sheep deemed superior.

Traditionally, shorn sheep are left with a small amount of wool on their backs as a gift to the mountain gods in exchange for forage.

Queen bees

Feng (meaning ‘bee’) Zhilan is an ‘ethnic-cultural inheritor’ and the only remaining village elder expert who knows all the handicraft processes in Liguang village.

Through a three-month training, 30 women were taught in the intricate procedure of traditional wool weaving, including tearing wool thread, twisting and spinning (hand spinning or via spinning wheels), machine stranding, weaving operations (placing, arranging, threading, installing, shelving and weaving), and wool textile rubbing and washing.

The women now independently create their own work.

The Chinese Lute

The traditional Lisu musical instrument Qiben is an ancient-sounding stringed instrument referenced in folklore. It is shaped like a guitar, made of wood and four strings, and is one of the main accompaniment instruments in Lisu beat dancing.

Traditionally, men played the Qiben while women sang and danced. However, in 2019, women in the Liguang village took the initiative to learn to play the instrument so that singing and dancing could be performed by all.

After a one-month intensive training course with Xiong Wenguang, an ‘ethnic-cultural inheritor’ from Liguang Village, 24 women are now proficient in Qiben, allowing them full participation in an arena which had previously been male-dominated.

In 2022, the ICCA-GSI supported the Lisu women in establishing their own entrepreneurial development fund in the Liguang village.

The fund provides women with assistance for agricultural cultivation and breeding, and processing of agricultural products.

Awareness-raising trainings enabled the communities to identify their self-determined priorities, which in turn, increased women’s roles in environmental protection. Now, women are responsible for enforcing community conserved area regulations and each village has elected a woman to represent them.

The construction and maintenance of community conserved areas play a vital role in the continuous regulation of the relationship between humans and nature.

Here, the villagers use their traditional knowledge to develop a variety of management rules that considers people’s needs while safeguarding their natural resources.

In abundant forest villages, such as the Sechong Lok village, rules have been established for timber use, prohibiting all logging within the water source forests and requiring approval from the entire village to cut trees elsewhere, including trees in their own forests.

The community reserve has promoted local biodiversity conservation, and more importantly, residents have gradually developed the habit of having public discussions for joint formulation, implementation and maintenance of the system which is the foundation of local sustainable development.

In the Heyuan village, 80% of residents’ incomes used to come from timber logging and sales until the community conserved areas were established in the past decade.

In favor of the sustainable collection of morille mushrooms, the Bai and Naxi women reached an agreement that the mushrooms can only be picked when they are more than 5cm in size and are open and dispersed to allow the mushrooms to fully release their spores, and that the mushroom ponds should not be destroyed when picking. Furthermore, the women patrol and supervise possible theft of wood and herbs.

Today, the communities can meet their family’s living expense solely from income derived from the mushrooms, honey, and wild herbs harvested within the territory of life, fully benefiting from the effects of ecological conservation.

A thriving future

Ethnic women have an integral collective and community role in keeping cultural heritage through which their communities thrive.

Recognizing their contribution and expanding their roles not only leads to their status to be respected by society, but also promotes solidarity and behavioral awareness in favor of safeguarding the environment and preserving and transmitting their ancestral knowledge. — UN News

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