Mahxi Ggurre tested HIV positive in 2001 after injecting heroin with an infected needle, a habit formed while he was visiting the megacity of Chengdu in China’s Sichuan Province. Ggurre, a member of China’s Nuosu minority, showed no symptoms of the disease for a few years before eventually dying of complications from AIDS in 2009. He was 37 years old.
For Taiwanese author and anthropologist Liu Shao-hua (劉紹華), Ggurre symbolizes a generation of Nuosu males who are struggling to adapt to China’s rapidly changing society.
Beginning in 2002, Liu spent seven years researching the emerging heroin and HIV/AIDS epidemic, living for a year in a remote, Nuoso-populated area in Sichuan Province. She published her findings in Passage to Manhood (我的涼山兄弟), first in English and later in Chinese. In January, the Chinese-language version won the Taipei International Book Exhibition Book Prize (台北國際書展大獎) for non-fiction — rare for an academic text. Liu changed the name of her subjects and where they lived to protect their privacy.
UNDERSTANDING A CULTURE
Liu had participated in other AIDS-related research projects in the area before starting her own, and found that previous Chinese researchers had failed to develop an in-depth understanding of the Nuosu.
“[The researchers] viewed minorities as underdeveloped, ignorant and misbehaved people,” Liu told the Taipei Times in a recent interview.
She said the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among Nuoso men stems from drug addiction, a habit they pick up when they migrate to the large urban centers in search of higher paying jobs that will help to reverse widespread poverty at home.
“There’s nothing to do [at home]. No money or fun. We want to see a big city and make money there,” Liu quotes an informant as saying.
Nuosu men face challenges when they move to the city, Liu says. For example, construction jobs are typically the only option available because they have few or no skills. Those who can’t find work often resort to theft or burglary.
HISTORY of DRUG USE
Liu traces the Nuosu’s contemporary experiences with heroin back to the early 20th century, when opium plantations provided for their livelihood. Opium represented a major source of income and a luxury for people with wealth and power. Today, the positive impression extends to heroin.
Liu says that when Nuosu migrants encounter frustrations while seeking a steady income in the city, they turn to heroin for temporary relief.
“They use [heroin] for the same reason some celebrities take it — seeking a quick fix for stress,” she said.
Being able to afford heroin, Liu says, has become a symbol of social status for the Nuosu, not unlike the significance opium held for their elders.
Heroin addiction has taken a heavy toll on those living in the region where Liu did her fieldwork, with as much as 1.9 percent of the population infected with the disease, significantly more than the country’s average.
Although Nuosu society doesn’t specify a fixed age for male members to pass from childhood to adulthood, those depicted in the book share similar experiences when they migrate from the village to the city, where they may commit petty crimes to survive or become drug addicts.
To Liu, the path symbolizes their rite of passage to manhood.
“As a researcher, it is my responsibility to uncover what happened, so that those people’s lives won’t remain hidden,” Liu said.