For this week’s Chairs Blog let’s get our hiking boots on and head out of town to the remote mountains of the south-western province of Guizhou. It’s a good time to head south from Beijing where temperatures are dropping to freezing.
Go, go, go Guizhou
Guizhou for me is one of the most fascinating places in China, second only to its neighbour Yunnan. It is still a largely rural province but thanks to government investment it is also fast becoming a digital technology hub of China. Its terrain is folded into mountains and valleys where now high speed rail and motorways fly over spectacular, dizzying bridges. I can depict the way Guizhou is poised between two worlds by painting the picture of a state of the art motorway, wheeling its way to the horizon, which is utterly empty bar a small group of Miao ethnic minority in festival costumes driving their buffalo patiently down the central high speed lane.
Now is the time of an event in Guizhou called ‘The Lusheng Festival’. The Lusheng is a wind instrument made of bamboo. It is beloved of the Miao Ethnic Minority who live in areas across south-west China, but principally Guizhou. I haven’t taken part in the November festival, however I have lived in a Miao village during the equivalent events of the Spring Festival. So come with me now and I’ll try to give you a flavour of what it’s like to watch and even be part of this event.
Who are the Miao?
The Miao are a diverse cultural group who live in mountainous regions across south-west China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. There are 9 million Miao people in China itself, who characterise themselves into four groups, linked by loose cultural and linguistic ties. We should say that the rights of the Miao ethnic minority group is given legal protection in China and many of them live in what are called autonomous townships or counties where they have forms of local control.
I stayed in a village called Langde, which is about 40 kilometres out on the mountainside near the city of Kaili. It is almost entirely traditional and unspoilt. The houses are all timber built and constructed on stilts so that there is a storage area under the house, often used for livestock. The road to Langde does not enter the village so it is vehicle free-except for the ubiquitous small motorcycles that frequently transport whole families at a time . My grandfather, who was a village carpenter would have loved the houses which are built without the use of nails, through a complex of ingenious joints. The house where I stayed was entirely natural, including a lack of glass in the windows which on chill February nights took a bit of adjusting to.
Walking through the village you are immersed in the rich diversity of sights, smells and sounds which anyone raised on a farm will be familiar with. Chickens peck freely around your ankles. The village has two centres. One is a small theatrical square where people gather for festivals. The second is the pond where crystal clear water splashes down from the mountain sides and where families gather to wash vegetables, clean a freshly killed chicken and generally enjoy the gossip of the day. The lifestyle of Langde is definitely one of the open air.
Miao Culture 1 : Embroidery
I don’t think we can describe Miao society as matriarchal, yet from my short stay it is evident that, to use a Chinese phrase, ‘bànbiāntiān’, that is ‘women hold up half the sky’. Women were in the fields farming, women were labouring on construction sites, women were holding forth at the local markets obviously running their own businesses. In their creation myth all Miao are descended from a female ancestor – the Butterfly Mother, who mated with the pure mountain waters of Guizhou to lay the egg that gave birth to the first man – called Zang Vang. And it is women who are responsible for the embroidery which literally stitches Miao culture together. Miao grandmothers and mothers create some of the most dazzlingly beautiful costumes you will ever see.
But the importance of this needlework goes far, far beyond surface beauty. Traditionally the costumes are hand prepared by mothers for their own ‘butterfly’ daughters. Each stitch is an act of love. One of the key functions of the Lusheng festivals is to bring the young together to offer opportunities for relationships and then marriage. There’s no doubt that an impressive piece of embroidery is an investment in your daughter’s future happiness. At the start of each festival you see the beautiful bonds this brings between mothers and daughters as they work together to get each piece of the intricate costumes absolutely perfect.
A speciality of the Miao costumes are the pleated skirts. These can be of varying lengths according to local cultures. The needlework changes according to the thoughts of each mother. Many designs reflect the beauty of local plants and animals. Others may depict local myths and legends. They are part of the intangible and utterly tangible heritage of the Miao.
It’s worth noting that these skills are starting to become an important part of the local economy. Miao women have realised that there is considerable demand for their needlework both in China and internationally. They are learning to exploit the tools of e-commerce. In 2012 a Miao woman called Long Laoxiang sold an award winning piece for 2,500 dollars. Following this local women have organised themselves together to set up local businesses that are contributing significantly to poverty alleviation. Very importantly the money earned in this way means that families can stay together without either or sometimes both parents having to live away from the children working in a far off city such as Shenzen. In one village I visited in 2019 there were no parents at all, only children and grandparents because all of the mothers and fathers were remote workers. It’s wonderful to think that the Miao heritage is making tragedies like this a thing of the past.
Miao Culture 2: Silver work
Miao silversmiths deserve to have world wide recognition for the artistry and intricacy of their craft. Silver is highly valued and worked into exquisite and expressive jewellery. Every village has its own silver artists. In some villages every man strives to develop these skills. Just as the embroiderers keep Miao culture alive through needlework so the silversmiths preserve the culture through incorporating ancient totems and motifs from historic legends in their work. When the Miao dress for festival they really do become history, alive to the past, wearing their culture elegantly into the future.
For the women perhaps the most distinctive parts of their costumes are the headwear. Common motifs for the silver hats are a magpie stepping on plum, a golden pheasant calling out, a peacock spreading its tail, and a male and female phoenix perched together. These motifs can vary in appearance from region to region. For example, the phoenix hat of the Huangping region features hundreds of silver flowers, four birds and one phoenix. The silver pieces at the back of this hat are meant to imitate the phoenix’s tail feathers. In some Miao villages, such as the ones near Kaili, Leishan, Danzhai and Taijiang, the silver horns are the most important adornment. They vary in thickness and are meant to look like the horns of a bull. The horns are each typically 50 to 70 centimetres long. They normally have patterns hammered into them, such as phoenixes or dragons holding pearls, and are sometimes decorated with feathers or tassels.
To see groups of women swaying in time to the Lusheng music, with silver ‘moon horns’ glistening in the light, is a liminal experience.
Miao Culture 3 : Festival
Let’s join a festival. You are here at the annual lusheng festival of the White Miao. This place and this event are so remote you are the only foreigner here. From villages across the area families have been on the move since breakfast, tongues singing with anticipation. Mothers and grandmothers look suitably stressed about details of costumes; boys and girls look equally relieved that the chiding and licking into presentability has stopped; dads slip to the back of the circling crowd, distant, impassive, drawing deep on cigarettes in secret pride. And so it starts, naturally, organically, without speech or ceremony. With lungfuls of clean mountain air, the lusheng burst into rhythmic call and respond, the boys swaying elegantly as they play. The butterfly girls emerge from the cocoon circles of mothers and grandmothers, adorned in the cascade of multicoloured costumes maternal hands have been hatching all winter. With elegant simple steps the lines of girls circle, jingling bells and fluttering aprons. With choreographed kicks, the lines of boys rotate, lowing and bellowing like little buffalo. In the cacophony, in the deafening wheel the laws of nature unfold as simply as winter revolves into the fresh buds of spring.
What is festival?
This is not an exotic spectacle. Like the story of the butterfly mother herself, born from bubbling water, this festival folds the people again and again back into the rhythms and cycles of nature. It is a festival of the fierce love of the butterfly mothers and daughters. It is a festival of past and future, a child looking back from the swirl of the dance to catch her mother’s anxious, loving eye.