A Snapshot of the Nu

There is scant literature in English about the Nu people of China, but the mention of poison arrows and the Nus’ odd way of cutting notches in sticks to mark significant events made me curious about them. According to English-language accounts, the Nu have one of the smallest populations among the minorities of China—only 27,000 people, almost all of whom live in the steep mountains drained by the turbulent Nu River. The Chinese character “Nu” means furious, wild, angry. But as I discovered, it is a description that fits the river better than the people.

I set off in August 2005 for the far northwest of Yunnan Province, China, to get answers about the arrows and the recording sticks. In Kunming I met a Nu woman named Ya Mei and engaged her to be my guide. After an eight-hour bus ride amid soaring, jagged mountains and hitching a lift on a lumber tractor, I arrived at the village of Bi Jiang, where Ya Mei’s sister lives with about 50 other Nu families.

In Kunming I had started to read some of the Chinese literature about the Nu, which suggested that when a guest arrives, all in the household greet him and offer food and drink. Moreover, the book said, this warm hospitality continues through the length of the guest’s stay.

I was covered with sweat and exhausted when I arrived at Ya Mei’s house, and I waited to be greeted warmly. This did not happen. Instead, I was briefly introduced to Ya Mei’s parents, her younger sister, and her sister’s husband, each of whom nodded briefly and then proceeded to ignore me. After an hour I went into the public room and quietly ate boiled corn, peppers, and rice with the rest of the family.

Toward the end of the meal, I could no longer contain myself and asked Ya Mei to translate my Chinese into Nu. “Can you tell me about the stick you use to record major events in your family?” I asked Ya Mei’s father. He looked confused, and I repeated my question, thinking that perhaps Ya Mei had not translated properly. Ya Mei told me her father had never heard of such a stick. I asked Ya Mei’s mother, and she had the same reaction. Later I asked other families living on the mountain if they had ever heard of such a custom of carving on sticks to record important events. No one had ever heard of such sticks.

I did see crossbows hanging on the walls of the public room, and I thought that at least the mystery of how the Nu prepared the poison for their arrows could be quickly unraveled. I waited until the next day to ask.

Even though I was aware that both English and Chinese descriptions of the Nu contained numerous distortions, I did not expect the descriptions of the Nu hunting with poison arrows to be inaccurate. I found, though, that although the Nu in the Fugong area used to use the poison arrows to hunt deer, bears, and tigers, the Chinese penalties for hunting these nearly extinct animals became so heavy (five years in prison) that the Nu abandoned their use of poison many years ago. The Nu do still use their famous crossbows, mostly to hunt birds, using small wooden arrows, without poison.

I asked Ya Mei’s 60-year-old father if he could give me any information about how the Nu used to make the poison for their arrows and how they applied the poison. In response, Ya Mei’s father unfolded a deerskin and showed me some old earth that had been rolled into five balls. “This was the poison we used to use on our arrows,” he said. He explained that the poison dirt was made into mud and then placed around the base of the arrowhead. The potency of the poison was tested on mice or rats before going out on a hunt for tigers or bears. “Where did the poison come from?” I asked.

“It boiled up from the earth,” he said.

“Where?” I asked.

“It is far away from here. There are no roads. No one goes there anymore. There is no reason to go,” Ya Mei’s father said.

Poison arrows played a significant role in the history of the Nu, according to an older brother of Ya Mei’s father. He told me that “the poison arrows were the only way we had to defend ourselves.” He told me of abuses by other minority peoples, who took Nu lands from them through deceit and sometimes conquest. I had asked Ya Mei at one point whether the Nu people married with the Bai people, since the Bai were one of the largest minority groups. “No, we get along with the Lisu people,” she said. “We have had problems with the Bai.”

Problems between small minority groups and larger ones are a frequent pattern throughout Southeast Asia. The more populous and aggressive peoples took the most fertile lands in the valleys, and the less-aggressive and less-populous peoples were forced higher and higher into the mountains where cultivation is difficult. In the case of the Bai people of Yunnan, they continue to spread and to push other less-powerful and less-sophisticated minority groups off desirable land and up further into the mountains. When I asked Ya Mei whether she was concerned that the Nu people might one day disappear since there were only 25,000-35,000 of them, she promptly replied, “There are more of us than that.”

Ya Mei went on to explain that the Nu population has been increasing since the Chinese government extended to minority peoples the right to have more than one child. The number of children a minority couple may have under Chinese law depends on the population of the particular minority. Because the Nu people are one of the smallest minority groups, they are permitted to have up to three children—many Nu couples even have four children. The Chinese do want the Nu people, like all Chinese couples, to limit their family size, but the government uses the carrot and not the stick when dealing with minority groups. Ya Mei’s youngest sister and her husband, for example, have decided to have only one child to take advantage of the government’s payment of 1,000 yuan at birth and 160 yuan per year as the child is growing up. The government increases the yearly stipend to 260 yuan if the single child continues his or her education. If a minority couple has two or more children, they receive no money.

Education continues to play a crucial role in how prosperous different minority groups become. The Nu are among the least-educated and poorest minority groups in Yunnan. Few Nu over 20 years old have a good command of the Chinese language. Nevertheless, educational opportunities are beginning for the Nu, with most children now attending Chinese schools and many older Nu learning Chinese from their newly acquired televisions and VCD players.

The house I stayed in and all the other Nu houses I visited followed a set construction pattern, with a public room and a private room. The public room has a floor of packed earth and is where the family and guests meet to eat and socialize. There is a fireplace in the floor with an iron tripod that supports a cooking pot. The private room is where the family sleeps—on boards with a very thin corn-stalk mattress. The construction style is called the house with a thousand supports: Wood studs are placed very close together to support the sides of the house and the roof, and woven bamboo separates the public and private rooms. If a Nu family becomes wealthy, the family will start to build wood walls for more privacy, replace the dirt floor with a wooden one, and replace the thatched roof with a tin or tile roof.

Some Chinese literature on the Nu talks of the progress they have made in abandoning their “primitive communal way of life” and the disappearance of the clan system, but I found very strong clan networks. Indeed, the clan seemed to be at the very core of Nu culture, with three generations living in the same household. Moreover, a majority of the surrounding households are related family members, and there is continual cooperation in building each other’s homes and in sharing water supplies, farming equipment, and transportation. I observed the same clan structure in other parts of the Nujiang valley from Liuku all the way up the river to Gongshan.

The clan system is reinforced daily with a hierarchical name structure. Anyone older is called by his or her family position name in relation to the younger person. The actual names of older people are sacred. Ya Mei said, “One can never address an older person by their name if we are younger.” She couldn’t even tell me her father’s name.

This tight-knit clan system may be the salvation of the Nu people. They appear unaffected by the drug problems swirling around many of the other minority groups, and they also appear spared so far from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Because of intravenous heroin use among some minority groups, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is spreading rapidly along China’s borders with Burma, where the heroin comes from. The insularity of the Nu people, along with the towering mountains that separate them from Burma, has also protected them so far.

The Nu have been slow to adapt to modern ways of living and farming despite determined efforts by the Chinese government. For example, in the 1990s fuelsaving stoves were given to all Nu families in an effort to preserve the forests. But the Nu still feed their traditional fires until bedtime. Indeed, the simple wood fire and tripod-mounted stove are an integral part of family life. All gather around the fire to eat from a communal pot of boiled vegetables spiced with hot peppers. Corn and rice are the mainstays of the Nu diet. Most Nu raise pigs and chickens, but that is mainly for cash, although during special occasions an animal may be slaughtered for a family meal. When Ya Mei left to go back to Kunming, a chicken was slaughtered and boiled and Ya Mei’s father went out and collected bees and bee larvae. The bees and larvae were roasted and mixed with rice. The chicken was served separately in a soup. Ya Mei said this was very special Nu meal.

A lot of what I read about the Nu both in Chinese and in English appears highly romanticized. Most Chinese see the minority people of Yunnan though the lens of a camera that focuses on minority festivals featuring the best dancers and musicians. The quotidian life of the minorities, and of the Nu people in particular, is far from romantic. The Nu are among the poorest people in China, struggling to eke out a living from the mountainsides where corn is the only crop they can rely on.

Like all cultures, the Nu are evolving and changing. A significant number of Nu follow the Christian faith, which was brought to them by American missionaries early in the 20th century. Ya Mei’s paternal grandfather was one of those converted. He died in a Chinese prison because he refused to give up his Christian beliefs. But despite the best efforts of the missionaries to convert the entire population, the Nu animist spirit world still holds sway in the mountains and streams. Even Ya Mei, a devout Christian, showed she had not escaped the spirits entirely. It was one of my last days there, and we were on a cliff edge overlooking the Nu River at 8,000 feet. I had just climbed steadily for two hours, and my shirt was soaked with sweat.

“Do you think it would be alright if I took my shirt off here, Ya Mei?”

Ya Mei looked alarmed and said, “Please don’t do that! The mountain spirits would be very angry and offended. You can cool down by whistling. We Nu believe that if you whistle, the wind spirits will respond and send you a breeze. Here, I’ll show you.”

Ya Mei whistled, and immediately a fresh gust of cool air brushed our faces.


Peter Foley is vice president of the Prem Tinsulanonda International Learning Center in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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