AT midnight, as the moon casts silver images on the shores of this quiet fishing village, aged Bai women in black tunics gather to chant Buddhist hymns and lighten their hearts of worldly suffering. Huddled in a half circle, the women rap carved muyu (wooden fish) and shake bells in a delicate rhythm as they lift frail voices to Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion.
``Guanyin's ears hear no thunder, his eyes see not the world of mortals. His only desire is to read the scriptures'' ... the Bai lyrics rise faintly over the placid Erhai lake and into the starlit night. ``In our hearts, we have a lot of feelings,'' confided one chantress, wearing the dark blue headdress of elderly Bai women. ``But after we tell them to the bodhisattva, we are blessed, and our hearts are less burdened.''
Fishing, farming, and worshiping among the clear lakes, emerald valleys, and red-earthed highlands of western Yunnan Province, life today appears serene for the 1 million Bai people, one of China's 55 minority ethnic groups.
But beneath the calm is anguish from decades of political abuse and discrimination, when the Bais and other minorities suffered perhaps the most ruinous oppression of Mao Tse-tung's radical rule.
Just over 10 years ago, during the fanatical 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Chinese propagandists were still forcing the Bai women of Buluo to chant praises of Chairman Mao instead of their soothing Buddhist prayers.
``In the 1960s, the state taught us more and more songs,'' said Wang Jinghui, a sturdy, broad-faced Bai woman. ``We were forbidden to sing our own chants. It was hard to bear.'' From a painted wooden chest, Mrs. Wang removed a ragged book of official Bai folk songs with titles like ``Bless Chairman Mao!,'' ``Be grateful to the Communist Party,'' and ``Life after the liberation is glorious.''
Over the past decade of reform, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has moved to appease the Bais and other minorities by tolerating a revival of ethnic customs suppressed under Mao. The pragmatic Mr. Deng has promoted a semblance of autonomy for the 70 million minorities, who represent just 8 percent of China's population but inhabit strategic border areas covering two-thirds of its territory.
Yet Peking continues to foster ethnic assimilation through education, propaganda, and the training of minority cadres. Moreover, Deng's market-oriented economic reforms raise a new threat to the survival of fragile minority cultures: the lure of modern, urban society.
The lives and heritage of Bai villagers in the lakeside hamlet of Boluo reveal how many of China's smaller minority groups are gradually losing their ethnic identity.
In ancient times, the Bais' ancestors, of Tibeto-Burman stock, established communities based on hunting, fishing, and primitive agriculture in the region of present-day Yunnan, which borders Laos, Burma, and Vietnam.
Like the Tibetans, Mongols, and other peoples living on the edge of Chinese civilization, these early Bais battled for centuries against domination by ethnic Chinese, or Hans, who expanded their domain outward from the Yellow River Valley.
For more than 1,000 years beginning in the 2nd century AD, Yunnan was free of Chinese control. From the 8th to 12th centuries, the Bais formed two powerful kingdoms, the Nan Zhao, or southern principality, and the Dali, more than once repelling armies of the Tang Dynasty.
But in the mid-13th century, imperial troops succeeded in decimating the Bai nobility and annexing Yunnan to Chinese territory. The migration of Han settlers began implanting Chinese culture among Yunnan's ``barbarians,'' as Hans called other ethnic groups.
Wang Zhankui, a Bai grandfather, recalled childhood memories of fighting in the 1930s between Han farmer immigrants who settled land above Boluo village, and the Bai fishermen who lived on the lake's edge.
``The Hans felt superior to Bai people. They said we had no culture,'' said Mr. Wang. ``On my way to school I often saw Hans beating up Bais on the streets.''
After the 1949 revolution, the ideological arrogance of Chinese communists compounded age-old Han prejudices against ``uncivilized'' minorities. Using
Marxist dogma to justify dictatorship, Red Army troops consolidated control over vast border regions like Yunnan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Peking also deliberately settled large numbers of Han Chinese in areas once dominated by minorities.
``In the 1950s, the government built a public road from Yunnan to Tibet that passed near our village. After that, many Hans moved here,'' Wang said. Fearing worse discrimination, Bai men doffed their colorful tunics and white turbans for drab Mao suits, he said, and some posed as Hans when registering under the new regime. Today, Boluo's population of 2,700 is only 20 percent Bai, according to local officials.
Along with Han immigrants came a cadre of zealous communist officials with orders to eradicate ``feudal superstition'' among the Bais. Almost immediately, the officials banned local Buddhist rituals, drama, and chanting ceremonies.
In 1958, as Mao's collectivization drive reached a peak, the village production brigade turned Boluo's graceful Buddhist temple into a grain warehouse and mess hall. The huge metal drum that villagers once beat each morning to summon Buddha to breakfast was stripped of its skin head and used to steam rice.
The ravage of Bai culture culminated in Cultural Revolution violence. Maoist fanatics demolished an ornate stage where Bais had performed plays for Buddhist deities each spring, and smashed holy statues, relics, and musical instruments.
``The struggle here was fierce,'' said Zhao Muojia, keeper of the Buddhist temple. He said Han radicals strung Bais up by their hands, beat them, and forced them to kneel on broken shells from the lake as the campaign fired ethnic hostility.
``Hans had great scorn for Bais,'' said Wang's son, Jiahe.
Since China's post-Mao leadership restored order and eased the repression of minorities a decade ago, life in Boluo has regained a semblance of days past.
Nimbly weaving fishing nets on the shady porch of a lakeside home, wizened Bai women chat in lively voices about Buddhist rituals, how to handle ghosts, and the proper marriage ceremony. ``On days set by the moon, we put on new clothes and carry bowls of food to the temple for Guanyin,'' said one women, her bamboo needle flying to and fro. ``Then we beat drums and chant on into the night.''
Villagers restored Boluo's ransacked temple, which is again the site of weddings, christenings, and a yearly Bai dramafest for Buddhist immortals.
But much damage from the Maoist years is beyond repair. A generation of Bai children grew up without memorizing the ethnic songs, plays, dances, and Buddhist chants passed down orally through the ages. Lacking a written language, the Bais are watching the essence of their culture fade away.
``Only a few people can sing the Da ben chu,'' lamented a gray-haired villager, referring to a famous ballad on Bai history which takes four hours to sing. In the past, young and old used to pole fishing boats into the lake for singing parties, he said.
Today, Bai children learn only Chinese in school, so their use of the Bai language is stunted. Moreover, Marxist teachers discourage pupils from joining local Buddhist rites, advocating ``socialist spiritual civilization'' instead. ``We tell them that those superstitious activities contain no knowledge or culture and will hamper the nation's development,'' said Yang Songyun, a Han teacher at Boluo's school.
While economic reform has eased the hardship for minorities, whose incidence of poverty is twice that of Hans, prosperity is luring Bais away from their village traditions and into Han-dominated cities. There, popular values are eroding the ethnic identity of minority youths.
In the nearby city of Dali, an ancient Bai capital, a thriving commercial economy bolstered by foreign tourism has proliferated modern ways that clash with Bai tradition. At a private eatery, a young Bai cook has abandoned her native dress and ethnic roots for slacks and the mass culture of Han Chinese.
``I don't have any interest in religion or singing chants,'' she said. ``I like listening to popular songs on the radio.''