Modern Life Presents Nomads of China’s Steppe With a ‘Tragic Choice’

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A Buddhist monk, Nanqian, who is an ethnic Yugur, at the Hongwansi temple in Gansu Province, China. Nanqian is the only lama living year-round at the temple. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

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HONGWANSI, China — The young monk in crimson robes rushed from room to room in the temple, talking with local residents about the coming religious festival.

A frail 86-year-old lama with tinted glasses sat outdoors. He had just napped. Taking part in morning rituals had tired him out, he said. He was being hosted by the young monk, Nanqian, who was the only lama living year-round at the temple.

That meant Nanqian, more than any other resident of the mountain town of Hongwansi, shouldered responsibility for keeping local religious traditions alive.

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The temple in Hongwansi. Yugurs, who generally practice Buddhism, are related to the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who mostly practice Sunni Islam farther west. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

The temple has a golden roof, white stupas and altars adorned with sculptures made of yak butter. They are all emblematic of Tibetan Buddhism, but these are not Tibetans. The town’s residents are Yugurs, a small group given its own ethnic classification by the Communist Party. They are actually related to the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who mostly practice Sunni Islam farther west and who, for some Chinese, have become associated with violence and resistance to rule by Beijing.

“They all believe in Buddhism,” Nanqian said of the residents of Hongwansi, which sits at the foot of the snowcapped Qilian range of Gansu Province, considered the Yugur heartland. “They’ll come with their families for this ceremony.”

“The influence of religion is still great among the Yugurs,” he said.

It is not just religion that distinguishes the Yugurs from the Uighurs. Some Yugurs speak an Altaic language that partly resembles old Mongolian. Also similar to Mongolians, many Yugur families come from a nomadic background. They still watch after livestock. Herds of sheep roam grasslands outside the town.

These days, Nanqian and some residents of Hongwansi are struggling to preserve these central aspects of Yugur culture, even as the traditions fade among younger residents. The Yugurs are not well known in China. Serendipity led me to them — I came across their homeland while traveling in the Qilian Mountains to report on the effects of climate change in western China.

“We don’t have the written language anymore,” said Se’erjin, the manager of a handicrafts workshop who once worked in the Sunan County cultural office.

“If we don’t preserve the oral language, then it will quickly disappear,” she said. “If we don’t preserve handmade crafts or the techniques of making things by hand, then there’s nothing special about us.”

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