Far West in the Far East: The Wa Women of Nanya

Last week I was treated to the kind of experience travelers look for but seldom – at least in my case – come across. An hour up a dirt road outside a small town in western Yunnan province, China, a dozen women from the Wa tribe donned their ceremonial clothing and spent the afternoon dancing for me and my friend. All they asked was that we take photos and video of them, since there’s very little recorded of either their clothing or dances.

But let me back up. I spent the past week traveling around Xishuangbanna, an area in southern Yunnan, with My Friend the Fulbright Scholar (MFFS). MFFS is in China on a scholarship to study the relationship between tourism and minority crafts. The majority of the Chinese population is Han, but there are dozens of tribes in China that have their own clothing, language, and customs, and as might be expected, their ways of life are changing.

Though we’d visited several other minority villages during our trip, seeing the Wa was a particular goal for MFFS. Not only is the group somewhat elusive due to its rural locations along the Burmese border, but their mysterious status is amplified by the fact that they were headhunters until the 1970s.

Our luck began with our arrival in Menglian, a small town close to Burma and just north of Xishuangbanna. We planned on buying a ticket for an early morning bus to a Wa village, but read in our trusty Lonely Planet that a helpful cafe owner named Nan Qing was Wa. We sought her out, and she immediately chatted MFFS up, cooked us dinner, gave me the jacket off of her back, and arranged transport to her childhood village the next morning.

%Gallery-80170%We met Nan Qing in the morning for a Chinese breakfast of savory noodles, then hopped on motorbikes for the hour-long ride to Nanya up a dirt and cobblestone road through the mountains. All but the steepest hillsides were cultivated, and we passed small herds of water buffalo as well as people carrying impossible loads on their backs.

Once in Nanya, Nan Qing showed us around, pointing out medicinal plants and telling us about the Wa’s daily lives. While they were once large in the opium trade, their work is now mostly agricultural. They subsist on less than $1000 US per year, butchering their meat and growing most of their own food; according to Nan Qing they need only to purchase salt, spices, and rice.

We came across a woman weaving an intricate stripe for a skirt, all on a small but complicated bamboo loom. Behind her, an older woman with three-inch diameter earrings squatted and watched. While we sat in the sun, the village “official,” a petite, strong woman that appeared to be in her 50s stopped by. I thought perhaps she was keeping tabs on our whereabouts, but it turned out she was talking to Nan Qing about dancing for MFFS and me.

Nan Qing announced that the women of the village would dance for us, and asked that we please record it for them. Usually if I ask someone in China if I can take their picture they say no, so this invitation was a welcome surprise. As the women filtered onto a large cement patio outside their community hall, MFFS and I began snapping photos. They encouraged to get up close, inside their circle, and many of the women asked for photos of themselves sewing, pretending to smoke long pipes, or posing with their friends.

Their clothing consisted of long headdresses covering their waist-length hair and weighted down with silver necklaces. They paired black shirts festooned with fake silver buttons with hand-woven skirts in bright colors. The women wore heavy silver bracelets and necklaces, carried hand-woven bags, and wore Nike sport socks in a typical display of Chinese incongruity.

Though the dances were clearly all about the women, three men led the rhythm at the center with one large drum, a pair of cymbals, and a small gong. The women marched and chanted in unison, speaking in their Wa dialect. I couldn’t understand any of it, but the rituals of grooming and smoking came up several times. In one dance the women let their hair down, smoothing it and doing a side-step as they wrapped it back up in their headdresses. In another, they squatted down and pretended to light and smoke long pipes.

After several hours of dancing and posing for photos (and a giggly game of “Dress the Foreign Girls in our Traditional Clothing”), the afternoon wound down. We all meandered up small paths and stairs to the road, and most of the women headed back home, spooling bright pink thread as they walked. The only gift I had with me was a small bar of face soap from my parents’ town in Washington state, which seemed horribly inadequate for such an amazing afternoon. The women accepted it gracefully, saying that the oldest woman in the village would use it to wash her face.

Nan Qing asked my friend and me if we had any ideas on how to bring more money into Nanya. “The villagers are simple people who lead simple lives,” Nan Qing explained, “but they are very poor.” She suggested bringing tourists to watch the dancing, which MFFS and I tried not to immediately discourage. Nan Qing came up with the idea of sewing logos on the traditional clothing and selling it in town, which would bring money into the village without bringing tourists, and that seems like a great idea though I wonder if there is much of a market for those goods in little Menglian. If you have any ideas or examples of a project like that, leave me a comment.

Click here to read more about my life in China.