A Tribal Gathering

The extended family

Tribal and familial spirit play crucial roles in Tibetan culture and lifestyle. Shuabazi, an annual gathering, is held during the summer where members of a clan gather on an empty field, spending time together under the roof of a yak wool tent. While I have been traveling to the Tibetan highlands of Zamtang in Sichuan province every summer for the past eight years, I had never experienced Shuabazi, but merely heard of the gathering and seen photos of the celebration from local friends. This summer, my documentary crew and I were fortunate enough to be invited to join the gathering of a close friend’s family, held during the two weeks of our visit.

After a tough day of filming, our crew drove to upper Zamtang, where the clan had built tents in an open grassland of a valley by the foot of two hills. By the time we arrived, the clan had already been out playing for most of the day. Our car slowly crept up the slope, and the children ran towards us as they clenched candy and snacks in their hands. While I knew most of the clan members, it was my crew’s first visit to Zamtang, and they were strangers to these people. But whether my crew were strangers or not, it did not seem to matter. With the children greeting us at the car, the other members of the clan followed, showing us the way toward the tents.

The elders of the clan chatted amongst each other in the tent, snuggling by the crackling fire of the stove. The aroma of yak milk tea wafted in the air, and we were greeted with hearty bowls of hot tea. The tables surrounding the stove were stacked with fruits, beverages, and treats of all sorts—so packed that the people sitting behind them were barely noticeable. Music began to sound outside the tent. Voices of numerous women singing rose into the sky, and members of the clan gradually left the tent, forming a ring around the loud speaker. Guo Zhuang is a traditional form of tribal dancing, where people dance to the music as they move around the circle. My crew and I watched carefully as they spun, skipped, and swept their arms into the air. One step at a time, we followed their movement and joined the dance. From the toddlers to the elders, all the members of the clan participated; our crew, at the same time, became one with them.

We danced as the sun began to dwindle, retreating behind the mountain ranges and glowing gently in shades of pink and orange. The children played games on the grass, while the adults cooked, and the elders went back into the tent. I wondered about my own family—when was the last time all the members gathered just to spend time with each other? I was amazed that not a single member of the clan had failed to show up for the event, and I could tell from their smiles how much it meant to them. Before I could finish my thought, we were ushered back into the tent and greeted with steaming bowls of noodles. Somehow, they managed to bring and assemble a whole metal stove in the tent, with steam pipes reaching outside the tent roof. The pots of milk tea bubbled on the fire, and char stains crept from the bottom to the sides of the pots. One girl, huddling by the stove, thought it would be fun to play a game where we passed around a bottle. Whenever the music stopped, whoever had the bottle would have char painted on his or her face. The bottle shot past everyone’s laps like a bullet, and the tent roared with excitement when the music stopped. Some had a couple black smudges on their cheeks, and others had their whole faces smothered generously in char.

When the sky was filled with shimmering specks of stars, each member of the clan took a turn to sing a song for the group, and the children waved their hands in the air, swaying to the melody. My friend, for whom this trip was her very first to Zamtang, was dumbfounded by the kindness and hospitality she was greeted with. “They don’t even know me, yet they treat me as a member of this extended family,” she told me.

There is a reason why I visit every year; to me, Zamtang is my second home. Zamtang is a small town located 3600m above sea level in the highlands of Sichuan, and nearly everyone is somewhat related to each other. Just like Shuabazi, the town is an extended family, where tribal spirit is integral to all daily activities. Age gaps almost seem like they don’t exist—the elders have deep conversations with the young ones, and children care for their younger siblings unconditionally, in the most wondrous way. The treasure of Zamtang lies within its people, people whom I look up to everyday and who make me a better person.

Up we go!

Enjoying the sunset and barbequed corn

Char faces!