Photographers' Blog

China’s last armed village

May 28, 2013

Basha village, China

By Jason Lee

It took more than 12 hours by plane and long-distance bus to travel from Beijing to what is believed to be the last community authorized by the Chinese government to keep guns – the village of Basha. It is in Congjiang county, a grand mountainous area of Southwestern China. The village is a relatively mysterious place to most people, even in China, mainly because of its remoteness and poor economy.

Upon my arrival I noticed instantly one of its unique privileges – the marvelous natural scenery. I didn’t hear any gun shots at that moment, but I spontaneously set my cameras to silent mode, for fear of bothering the farmers working on the fields.

I decided to take a walk around Basha, an old ethnic Miao settlement with a population of over 2,200, like a tourist before getting onto my main assignment – to photograph the gun owners. I immediately fell in love with this village as it was so pristine and clean that it seemed to be from a completely different planet. I clearly remember the scene of the setting sun on a female cattle shepherd, sitting among fields and working on her embroidery, while a boundless view of the magnificent landscape extended beyond her.

Most of the residents in Basha follow their ethnic traditions and wear a special style of clothing and accessories. They practice traditional farm work and craftsmanship. Owning guns is apparently the most distinguished tradition, as citizens in China are not allowed to own any type of firearm. It is said that their ancestors escaped to this area to get away from war. For centuries guns and broadswords have been carried to defend them from invaders and to hunt for food.

Nowadays many men in Basha still carry weapons on their shoulders when they go out. The guns are more like embellishments because there are no longer invaders and hunting is banned under Chinese law. I think it will be very difficult to keep this legacy as it is constantly “attacked” by modernized cultures. A craftsman villager I interviewed in Basha, who learned the skills of making guns from his grandfather, told me that his son lost interest in this craft and that he would rather go to the big cities and earn more money as a migrant worker. In the nearest county, 7.5 kilometers (4.5 miles) from Basha there are advertisements for iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones.

Local authorities in Basha have taken advantage of their traditions to boost tourism. A group of gunmen organized to perform for visitors which could bring the villagers some income.

Is it ironic that the last and only gun tribe in China fire their weapons only to welcome visitors? I don’t know. To be honest, I am not even sure whether this tradition will survive to the next generation.

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