Possibly the last thing we expected to see upon arriving in the predominately Tibetan village of Cizhong was a crowd of hundreds watching a full court basketball game. We had come to Cizhong because of its most famous landmark – a century old Catholic church. Built by French missionaries in 1911 after their previous church was destroyed during a Chinese crackdown on foreign religions, the church had become the de facto centre of Catholicism in Yunnan. With a church in the heart of a largely Buddhist region, we had imagined Cizhong as some sort of spiritual enclave where the intermingling of religions was manifested in the streets by solemn monk-priests and billowing clouds of incense.
Whatever we expected, it was not basketball.
It was the middle of losar – the 15-day Tibetan lunar New Year holiday – and we had unwittingly stumbled upon the annual inter-village multi-day sports tournament. The women’s teams played first, and despite their general good sportsmanship and respect for the rules of the game, the competition was fierce. Even though it was barely 5º Celsius, sweat poured from the player’s and the spectators screamed encouragement from the sidelines.
At half time it was the middle-aged women of the area that took the stage, not to play basketball, but for a surprisingly intense tug of war competition. Strong and sturdy from their agricultural mountainous lifestyle, they were possessed of formidable stamina and they spared no energy in pulling for the pride of their village. The men in the audience were whipped into a frenzy, many of whom rushed onto the court to spur their women to victory. With multiple switching of sides and several back-to-back rounds, we lost track of which team was which and ultimately had no idea who had won. Judging from the laughter and general good cheer of the crowd, it didn’t seem to matter.
After the girls finished their basketball game (the home team lost, some of the players visibly upset), the men’s games began. They clearly took the sport seriously, with some of the teams even wearing customized NBA jerseys with their own names printed on the back.
Only when the tournament ended did we understand that there was more at stake than just hometown bragging rights. Numerous cash prizes of increasing value were handed out at the closing ceremony, honouring the winning teams, coaches, and best individual players – the most prestigious of which were paid out at 2000 Yuan (more than $300 USD), more than double the provincial minimum monthly wage.
The event was brought to a close with dance performances, an alternating fusion of traditional styles and modern pop ballads. There was something surreal about watching a group of children shake their bodies to Gangnam Style immediately after the well-choreographed rhythms of women dressed extravagantly in ceremonial silks, but such was the nature of the globalized 21st Century.
Grapes From God
When we met with Yao Fei, Cizhong’s resident priest who had been sent from Inner Mongolia to be the village’s spiritual leader, we learned that documenting the influence of Catholicism over 70% of the town’s population would not be as straightforward as we’d imagined as no photography was allowed inside the church. But there was another byproduct of the arrival of the French missionaries that was nearly as important economically to Cizhong as the church was spiritually: wine.
“The grapes were initially brought here by French missionaries,” Yao said. “At church, we need [wine] for mass. It represents Jesus’ blood. The wine culture started in the church…and now in the village many people make wine themselves.”
It didn’t take long to find locals engaged in the wine industry. 10 minutes into a walk along Cizhong’s main road, a sign mounted to the exterior wall of a house read (in both Mandarin and English), “French style wine available here”.
“My family started to grow grapes and make wine about 10 years ago,” Zeng Alan said. “10 years ago it was very poor here and the government encouraged us to grow grapes as part of a poverty alleviation program. The grapes helped my family to get out of poverty and now we use all our land to grow them. We are much better off.”
In her early 60’s, Zeng Alan moved around her home with the speed of a much younger woman as she poured out small glasses of the bright red liquid for us to sample. Though not completely undrinkable, the wine bore semblance to French vintages only in that it was red and alcoholic. The sugar content was shockingly high, and it seemed certain that even a small quantity of the stuff would bring about an excessive hangover.
Zeng Alan told us that while her speciality was the fermentation and transformation of the grapes into wine, it was her husband, Zeng Tei, who oversaw the vineyards themselves.
We found Tei on a mountainside above the village wandering through his rows of grape vines, stopping here and there to uproot a weed or pull off wilting leaves. The 64-year-old had married Alan and moved to Cizhong in 1983, he told us, but had only started growing grapes in 2002.
“Growing grapes is just great,” he said cheerfully, “Before I had to do very hard labor with no days off. My burdens are much less now and I have enough money to educate my three sons.”
But growing grapes in Yunnan was not always easy. Just a few years after planting his first vines, Tei said, disaster struck. “At first we were very happy with the grapes, but in 2006 they got sick and most of them died. Only one tree survived well and actually produced 2.5kg of grapes.” Without much in the way of formal training, Tei nevertheless guessed that there was something special about that vine. The following season he grafted branches from it onto 10 other sickly vines and to his relief, most of them flourished.
“These new grapes are resistant to disease and have better yields than the original French variety,” Tei said, clearly proud of his accomplishment. “I started with just 10 of these and now I have over two mu (1333 square meters) of vines that give me more than five tonnes of grapes each year.”
This netted the family almost 2500 litres of wine each season, and with a value of roughly $5 USD per litre, this gave them an income well above the average small scale Yunnan farmer.
Though by this time of our travels in China we were used to hearing about how little the Lancang provided the people who lived along its banks, we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was a connection between the river and the Zeng’s prosperity. “The valley created by the river gives us a very good climate for growing grapes,” Tei said. “Even though grapes don’t need much water, the water we use comes from [a small tributary of] the Lancang.” He was quick to point out, however, that like everywhere else we had visited on the river, the water was not suitable for human consumption.
After buying a token bottle of the Zeng’s wine, we asked Tei if he felt anything towards the missionaries and their God for the gift of grapes.
“I don’t like religion. I only like grapes and chess.”
A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.