For the Yi of China, a road leads to outer world and ruin

Ending mountain people's long isolation has brought drugs as well as AIDS

November 16, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ZHUHE, China - It took almost seven years for Mao Tse-tung's armies to subdue the Yi people, and soldiers had to hack a gravel and dirt road into the Cool Mountains to do so. Since then, communism has battered the traditional Yi way of life, but it is the road communism built that has brought this 2,000-year-old people to the edge of despair and ruin.

The Yi of the Cool Mountains, a clan society that owned slaves, were isolated from outside rule until the Communists finally finished the road and took control in 1956. Mao's soldiers freed the slaves, and the road eventually offered the Yi a route out of poverty. But traveling that road, the Yi brought back gambling and prostitution. In the 1990s, they also brought back heroin.

Heroin quickly delivered addiction and death to this township of 8,500 people. As many as several hundred people have died, at first mostly from overdoses, more recently from AIDS. Now, the clans that the Communist Party once tried to banish have reasserted themselves, reviving ancient traditions, such as drinking chicken blood and swearing oaths, to confront these modern threats.

"We are afraid that the nationality will die because of drug use," said Le'er Budu, 50. Now a leading anti-drug activist here, Le'er was laid off from a state-owned trading company that was allegedly involved in drug trafficking before going bankrupt. "I heard AIDS cannot be cured, so we must solve this problem from the head of it, stopping drug use."

This latest chapter in the history of the Yi of Sichuan province in southwest China is not a straightforward tale of an ancient set of values corrupted by modernization or of good vs. evil.

It is about a fateful collision of two societies, the Yi and the rest of China, and of their flawed, incompatible systems of social control - one the clan system, the other the Communist Party - a collision ordained by a road.

"It would have been extremely difficult for the central government to rule the Cool Mountains without the road," said Hou Yuangao, a Cool Mountains native who studies the region as a lecturer at Beijing's Central University of Nationalities. "The road played a critical role in integrating the Cool Mountains with the nation."

Hou knows well the benefits and costs of that collision. As the son of a former slave, his journey to college and a modest life in Beijing would have been unthinkable before Communist rule and the road. But so, too, would the social devastation he saw wrought in Zhuhe by heroin and HIV.

Because authorities wouldn't jail them even if caught, children and mothers of newborns sold drugs, as some still do. Most households had at least one drug dealer or user at one point. Addicts stole to support their expensive habit, some robbing grain and jewelry from their families. And some families, fed up with their female dealers and addicts, sold them as wives to Chinese in distant places.

Hub for drugs, AIDS

Before many had even heard of the virus, HIV began to spread. By the end of 2001, when 1,000 Yi in Zhuhe were tested, nearly 10 percent were found to be HIV-positive.

"Whether it's the spread of AIDS or drugs, this is the most significant place," Hou said. That's because the road helps make Zhuhe a "hub for drug trafficking."

The road did not fully acquire its bittersweet significance until the 1980s, when the Communist Party ushered in an era of reform after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Given a measure of freedom to leave for the cities, the Yi began doing so.

It's easy to see why. The region they tried to leave behind was one of the poorest in China, its primitive conditions persisting to this day. In these mountains, people live with no running water and limited electricity. They suffer periodic cholera outbreaks and new cases of leprosy every year.

Many Yi kept their pigs, sheep and chickens in their windowless mud huts in the winter, the farmers unable to afford separate shacks to keep the animals warm. Some of the poorest Yi still live like this, the smoke from indoor fires wafting up through their chimney-less roofs, on which they store bales of hay. Streams, springs and seeps of groundwater provide their drinking water, save for those who live in a county seat where tap water is available.

Only a third of the children finish sixth grade, and only one in eight graduates from middle school, in part because families can't afford the illegal fees charged for education. The Yi rely mostly on their homegrown traditional medicine because, with the economic reforms, Hou said, "taking one step into a hospital became a heavy economic burden for a peasant." They use wild sheep hearts to combat heart disease, the torsos of cats to treat nerve disease, wild goose bones to treat arthritis, and the skins and toes of tigers to remedy hog cholera.

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