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Winemaking on the Roof of the World
A Tibetan Catholic couple continues a family tradition
By Palden Nyima | NO. 20 MAY 19, 2016

Lusheng works in her grape greenhouse in Lhasa with her son Li Yongsheng (PALDEN NYIMA)

One day early in May, a red wine goblet and cups of sweet tea and black tea, three different drinks reflecting three different cultures, glittered in the morning sun on a table at the home of a Tibetan Catholic couple who live in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region.

Tibet typically evokes associations with Tibetan Buddhism and the indigenous Bon religion. The couple, however, whose Mandarin names are Lusheng and Huasheng, belongs to Tibet's tiny Catholic minority. Their living room's most eye-catching item is a statue of Jesus Christ wearing a Tibetan white scarf called a khata.

"Tibet is a place with various beliefs and ethnic groups. I think that it is only in Tibet that you can see the Lord Jesus wearing a white khata," said 54-year-old Lusheng with a touch of humor.

Lusheng and her husband hail from Markham County in the southeast corner of Tibet close to the region's borders with southwest China's Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. The couple's hometown, Tsakhalo, was one of the first and last stops in Tibet on the Chama Gudao, or the Ancient Tea Horse Road, a network of trade routes connecting Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou in southwest China with the Bengal region in the Indian subcontinent.

Records show Catholic missionaries arrived in the area in the 18th century and subsequently founded Tibet's first and only Catholic church, which they built in a Tibetan style. Lusheng said French priests passed on the art of viticulture and winemaking to Tibetan Catholic nuns in the mid-18th century.

"My grandmother was a nun who planted grapes all her lifetime, and I want to follow in the steps of my grandma," said Lusheng.

Tsakhalo also possesses a very old grapevine said to have been planted by the missionaries.

Huasheng in front of his greenhouse in Lhasa (PALDEN NYIMA)

"Planting grapes and making wine are an age-old tradition for us Catholics, and I've loved it since I was young," Lusheng said. "In the past, only Catholic families in our village grew grapes, but now other villagers also plant grapes, so their income has increased," she added.

Lusheng said the couple's ancestors were all Catholics, and her family maintained their religious culture and red wine-making tradition when they migrated to Lhasa three decades ago. Where they currently live, the couple has a large grapevine in their garden, and they have used the grapes to make red wine for over a decade.

"Every year during the Tibetan New Year … we share our red wine with friends, relatives and neighbors, and they love the taste," said Lusheng.

Besides sharing the red wine they produce, the couple also sells some of the wine to people all over the region. According to Huasheng, more and more people in Tibet have started to drink red wine as local living standards have greatly improved in recent times.

"I like Lusheng's red wine, because I feel it's safe to drink, and I don't get a headache the next day even if I drink more," said Drolma, a 28-year-old Lhasa resident, who confessed a penchant for the drink.

Rather than spending their twilight years engaged in religious practices like many other Tibetans, the couple has chosen to devote themselves in retirement to viticulture and winemaking.

"We want to make our life more meaningful, although we know we're getting old," said Lusheng.

So, for the past year, Lusheng and her husband have been planting grape vines on 20 mu (about 1.33 hectares) of rented land, and they anticipate seeing the fruits of their labor within a few years. Every day, the couple goes to work on their farm located several kilometers outside Lhasa.

"We have one permanent staff [member] who manages the land regularly, and we hire local farmers temporarily to do the planting," said Huasheng.

Not only are Lusheng and Huasheng investing all their energies in grape-growing, but their son has also quit his job at Xigaze Airport to assist his parents.

"Having no parents means having nothing, but losing a job implies getting a new job in the future," said Li Yongsheng, the couple's son, adding that he believes strongly in supporting one's parents to fulfill their dreams.

The 25-year-old said although he has given up a comfortable public-sector job, he feels very confident about creating a bright future for himself.

Lusheng said she intends to pass on the red wine-making tradition, and both she and her husband share their son's positive attitude about the prospects for their enterprise.

"With experience and skills, we are very confident about producing a natural and healthy red wine after three years," said Huasheng.

The author is a Tibet-based journalist

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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