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Dark Customs Lurk in Picturesque Backland

The rugged beauty of Tiger Leaping Gorge and the picturesque Yunshanping Grassland in the snowcapped Yulong Mountains of southwest China's Yunnan Province possess a dark secret.


Both were popular places for ethnic minority Naxi people to commit suicide in the past. 


The idea persists in Naxi customs and religious songs, though the practice has almost vanished since the founding of new China.


According to ancient customs, parents decided who their children would marry and their authority was never to be questioned.


"Though young Naxi people were forced to marry those chosen by their parents, they were free to date lovers before the wedding," said Yang Fuquan, a Naxi who is deputy director of the Yunnan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.


"Some didn't want to part with their lovers and they would choose to die together.


"They dressed up and went to a tranquil mountain, put up a simple house with branches and flowers, and spent their last time drinking, singing and dancing. They committed suicide either by jumping into valleys, hanging themselves on trees or swallowing poisonous herbs," Yang said.


He has researched the custom, as the stories have haunted him since childhood. He grew up in Lijiang County, Yunnan.


The ethnic group has attracted the world's attention with its picture-like characters, music and indigenous Dongba religion.


As depicted in religious songs, Naxi have always believed the dead lovers would live as husbands and wives in a paradise with no pain or worry. They also believe paradise is free of flies and mosquitoes.


Most Naxi say the paradise is somewhere near Yulong Mountain, a sacred peak for many ethnic groups in the area including Tibetans.


The couples usually prepare for the suicide ritual over a long period. This includes getting things they liked secretly and bidding farewell to friends.


"Friends would keep their plans secret," Yang said, "while some would even help with the details."


Lovers have always been buried together. Naxi believe everything in the world is made in pairs.


"If one side's parents uncovered the plot and prevented one side from going, the other side, usually the female, would carry out the ritual alone," Yang said. "The living lover was believed to be cursed if he failed to honor the commitment."


In Naxi culture, especially during feudal times, parents' orders were expected to be obeyed.


"If anyone rebelled against his or her parents, he or she would be punished severely by villagers," Yang said. "It's strange that many parents experienced the pain of accepting a forced marriage yet still made their children suffer the same fate."


Yang and his wife, also Naxi, fell in love and married on their own will. Most modern Naxi people do nowadays. But Yang has felt the pain and shock of this custom.


Yang's college friend killed himself in the traditional way, one of few who carry out the old ritual.


(Xinhua News Agency April 19, 2005)

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