The threatened culture of China’s Nu River

Mitch Moxley glimpses an ethnic way of life that could be lost if a power consortium has its way and uses Yunnan’s Nu River to produce electricity
A field outside the town of Bingzhongluo, near the Nu River’s first major bend. View Gallery

The Nu River flows from the Tibetan highlands through western Yunnan, cutting between two mountain ranges before rushing through Burma into the Andaman Sea. Home to a third of the country’s ethnic groups, it was here that Christian missionaries from Burma first entered China, and today communities of ethnic Nu, Tibetans and Lisu remain passionately Catholic.

The Nu is one of the country’s most remote and fascinating regions, with unrivalled scenery — steep gorges, snow-capped peaks, terraced rice plantations — and a diverse ecosystem of 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or endangered animals and fish.

It’s also one of only two major rivers in China yet to be dammed. But that may not last.

In 2003, a consortium of power companies proposed building 13 dams along the Nu (the name means “angry,” referring to the river’s spring surge), a project that would produce more electricity than the Three Gorges Dam. The move brought together China’s fledgling environmental movement, which launched a vocal campaign to keep the Nu flowing free.

National and international press picked up the story, and in 2004 Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a halt to the project and a full environmental assessment — a crucial victory for China’s environmentalists. But the assessment was never released to the public and preliminary work went ahead despite Wen’s edict.

Although many fear damming the Nu is a matter of time, for now the river remains pristine and free-flowing. I visited the Nu during Chinese New Year, when silt washed down from the Himalayas turns the water emerald green and the region’s ethnic groups embark on a week’s worth of celebrations.

From the town of Bingzhonluo, in the Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO World Heritage Site, my travel companion and I hiked 13 kilometers north to the town of Qiunatong, the last stop on the road to Tibet, where we spent Chinese New Year with a family of Nu Catholics.

Famer He Bao Shang (far right) and his family in Qiunatong village.
In the earth-walled home of He Bao Shang, a 32-year-old farmer, children chase frightened chickens through the kitchen-slash-living room while a group of men down shots of a potent corn-based liquor at a pace so feverish that, later, they forget to eat dinner.

In the evening the dancing and singing began, and at 10 o’clock, He’s family and friends stumble down the street to a dilapidated church, where village residents pray and chant, knelt on benches under fading pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

Scenes like this were repeated throughout my journey down the river. In Dimaluo, a town on a tributary to the Nu, we danced until early morning with Tibetan Catholics. In Baihanluo, a mountainside village, we played basketball with Tibetan youths at home for the holiday. Near the city of Liuku, we visited a Lisu ritual bathing site where for generations people have come to celebrate the New Year.

Much of this rich culture could be lost if the dams go ahead. Wang Yongchen, a journalist and co-founder of the NGO Green Earth Volunteers, a group that was actively involved in the initial fight to save the Nu, says many villagers will have to be relocated from their traditional homes to cities upstream and downstream. Places like the Lisu bathing site will be washed away.

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