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July 5, 2015

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Legends, customs of Yugu life

THE Yugu ethnic tribe, part of the ethnic group that live off the land in north China, shares a unique culture that incorporates elements taken from the Mongolians, Tibetans and the Han Chinese.

With a population of little over 14,000, most Yugu people live in Sunan Yugu Autonomous County in Zhangye area in Gansu Province. Few others can be found in Huangnipu Yugu Autonomous Township in Jiuquan city, and in Hami, Changji areas of Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

The tribe’s ancestry can be traced back to the “Dingling” people in the 3rd century BC and “Tiele” in the 4th century. “Huihe,” was one of the six big tribes of the Eastern “Tiele,” which grew stronger by the 8th century and set up the Hui-e Kingdom in today’s middle Mongolia. After they were defeated in the 9th century, some of them fled to the Gansu Corridor, converged with some early settlers and grew into today’s Yugu ethnic group.

The Yugus have two languages, namely the east Yugu language that shares a lot in common with the Mongolian language, and the west Yugu language with ties to the Turkish language. Most Yugu people can speak Mandarin and use it to communicate between the different groups.

Yugus living at the Mt. Qilian and Gansu corridor work in pastoral industry, focusing on herding sheep, goats, yaks, ox, horses and camels, while those living in other regions have taken to agriculture.

Apart from the Han influence, the Yugu culture shares a lot in common with the Mongolian and the Tibetans because of its history.

The Yugus’ staple diet is meat and milk and supplemented by wheaten food and vegetable. Their well-known cuisines are mutton eaten with hands, roast lamb, “Yangdu Kao Quanyang” (mutton cut into small pieces, stuffed and then roasting the whole lamb on fire), ghee, cream, yogurt, Qula (a kind of milk product), Shaokezi (roasted wheaten food), and ghee pancake.

The Yugus drink barley wine that is consumed with meat.

The Yugus love milk tea — having them three times a day like a meal. In the night, they have tea with wheaten food. The milk tea is often mixed with fruits, ginger, parched flour and ghee.

Milk tea is usually served first to the guest before the food is laid out. Guests have to finish the milk tea, including the diary product at the bottom of the bowl that suggests that he or she does not need it anymore. Or else, the hospitable Yugu host will keep pouring the tea for the guests.

The Yugu traditional clothing is unique. Men usually wear high-collared long gowns buttoned on the left, red or blue waistband and round-topped felt hats. They wear fox-feather hats and high boots. But in areas near Tibet, the Yugus prefer Tibetan clothing as well.

The traditional dress for Yugu women usually consist of high-collared long robes, covered by a vest made of damask and high boots. Their robes are often made of blue or green cloth, with a vent on the bottom edge. The edges of sleeves, the collars and the front of the robes are usually embroidered with patterns.

Married women wear bugle-shaped spire-topped felt hats with red tassels, and head-ornaments. An unmarried woman wears a set of “Shada’erge” on her forehead, which is a red ribbon, decorated with colorful corals and jade, hanging from her forehead like a bead curtain.

They love singing, especially when they treat somebody at home. A Yugu saying goes: “Never stop drinking as long as the songs go on.”

“Tian-e qin” (Swan instrument) was said to be the representative musical instrument of the Yugu ethnic group, which unfortunately was lost about 400 years ago while the group migrated to the east.

Legend has it that a poor young man with a beautiful voice was liked by both people and animals when he sang. Swans came to listen to his songs and left when he was done but one white swan stayed back and gave him company every day.

One day, the white swan was missing and the young man went in search for it. He found the remains of the swan, which was eaten by birds. He cried bitterly until he fell asleep. When he woke up, he found the remains of the swan had been transformed into a beautiful six-stringed instrument with a swan head on the top.

When the young man plucked the first string, it rained heavily, when he touched the second string, the rain stopped. A rainbow appeared in the sky when he plucked the third. On the fourth string, a beautiful melody played out. When he played the fifth, a horse showed up and took him to the spot from the melody played.

From the last string, a beautiful girl in white appeared before him and smiled. The girl married the young man, and he left the instrument for the Yugu people.

After years of research, the first “swan instrument” was created in 2007. Several of them were made and then sent to artistic centers in south Gansu in an effort to promote the use of the instrument.

The Yugu ethnic group practised Shamanism — worshiping spirits and ancestors. Now many of them follow Tibetan Buddhism.

Apart from some Chinese festivals like Spring Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, and the Lantern Festival, the Yugus also observe some of their own religious festivities.

In the first month of Lunar calendar, Yugu people visit temples and offer incense. The Lamas in the temples cast red dates onto the crowd, and perform Lamaist dance with masks. They also hold Ghee Lantern Show at this time. The 2nd day of the second month in the Lunar Calendar is the day for E-bo, when they usually sacrifice lambs.


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