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Bringing a Culture Back from the Brink

China, September 21, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Professor Hou Yuangao has spent his career studying southwest China’s rich cultures. Today, alongside Mercy Corps, he’s helping save and preserve his own endangered ethnic group.

Hou’s boyhood home is in Meigu County, an impoverished part of Sichuan Province where farmers’ hard work only brings them an average of $120 per year. This region, called the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, is home to one of China’s poorest minorities: the Yi. More than seven million Yi people live in China, mostly in isolated and deforested mountainous regions of southwestern China.

As a young man, Hou left Sichuan Province to attend the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, China’s capital. He chose history as his major course of study and, upon graduation, stayed on as a teaching assistant in the university’s Department of Ethnology. He began in-depth study of the very cultures he’d grown up around — including his own — at a time when that kind of research was just getting resurrected in China.

“Anthropology stopped for a very long time in the past,” Hou said. “When I began this work, there were fewer than a thousand anthropologists in all of China.”

Soon, Hou joined the university’s permanent teaching staff as Professor of Ethnology and Applied Anthropology, focusing on southwest China. His courses — and research — centered on minority population issues including poverty, women’s and children’s issues, cultural preservation, and migrants.

He frequently traveled from Beijing to Sichuan for his work. On each visit, he saw the quality of life decreasing in villages. Populations were sinking deeper into poverty, and families were losing the means to support themselves. Perhaps most alarmingly, once able-bodied young men and women were withering and dying.

In 2002, Hou’s work shifted from research to action.

Getting people to pay attention

On each successive visit to Sichuan Province’s Yi communities, Hou witnessed a growing drug problem. The area’s Yi people were migrating in large numbers to more prosperous areas of China, such as Yunnan Province, in search of jobs. When they returned home — often without finding work — many came back addicted to heroin.

Along with drug habits that were previously unknown to Yi people, these migrants brought back HIV/AIDS. The communities — and culture — were ill equipped to deal with these unwelcome challenges.

Hou convened a group of fellow professors, students and others — called the Research Center for Western China Development — to address these challenges. Initially, their main goal was to get both local populations and government officials to pay attention. But awareness was only one part of the solution, and the crisis in Yi communities was quickly spiraling out of control.

“Drug usage and HIV/AIDS was affecting everyone in villages, to some degree,” Hou said. “I feared that, without intervention, these things would decimate the Yi people and destroy the area and the culture as we know it.”

So, once again, Hou came to the aid of his people.

Change begins at home

Hou realized that solutions for the Yi people must come from within their own communities, not from a working group far away in Beijing. As a result, he founded the Liangshan Norsu Women and Children’s Development Center in 2005. The center is headquartered in Xichang, the capital of the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, within reach of hundreds of Yi villages.

The center was created — with a generous grant from the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing — to support education, sustainable income and life skills training for young Yi people, especially females. The program began with one hundred Yi youth.

Those youth soon began to effect change for their communities: they became peer educators to fellow students in their home villages. They put on plays in local markets that raised awareness about the dangers of drug use. They got people thinking — and talking — about the devastation of HIV/AIDS.

“People just used to rely on the government for everything, but now there is a new power,” Hou said. “We have participation from our youth, and great support from the local population.”

The government of China began playing a critical role as well: it is heavily investing in infrastructure, such as a new highway that connects Yi communities to larger cities, to help ensure that rural families — and especially ethnic minorities — aren’t left behind as the country’s economic miracle unfolds.

A change was finally happening in Yi communities. And people took notice.

A shining partnership

The center’s success was recognized by the Chinese government, as well as by many international non-governmental organizations, including Mercy Corps. In 2006, with support from the Nike Foundation, Mercy Corps partnered with Hou’s Liangshan Norsu center to create the Giving Leadership Opportunities to Young Women program (Project GLOW).

Project GLOW reaches adolescent girls aged 10 to 18 with activities that focus on education, economic opportunities and health. Mercy Corps has helped the center open and expand a school in Zhuhe Township, a particularly impoverished town in the prefecture. Currently, 87 girls live at the school. Many of them are orphans or have lost a parent to drugs or HIV/AIDS.

Eight teachers, mostly from the Yi ethnic group, give lessons and activities on subjects such as Chinese Mandarin, math, Yi language, agriculture, sports, and physical education. Working at the school benefits the teachers as well: at the end of the year, they will receive valuable certification.

One of the center’s other benefits — which becomes abundantly clear by watching the girls interacting and laughing with each other — is the camaraderie they share. At a young age, they’re building friendships and a community of kindred spirits that will benefit their ethnic group for years to come.

There is still plenty of work to be done, Hou acknowledges. Dozens of Yi villages still languish in the conditions he sought to address when he first came home. Yet, even as Mercy Corps plans with Hou to expand enrollment to two hundred students, he’s already seeing a large portion of his vision come to fruition.

“These are my people, Yi people, learning about their own challenges,” Hou said. “They are taking responsibility and then taking action.”