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October weather in Guizhou province is crisp and chilly
October weather in Guizhou province is crisp and chilly. The pristine quality of Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Guizhou amazed me, with its picturesque views of mountain peaks and boundless virgin forests that appeared around each bend of a winding mountain road, and shamed me because of the distance between my own frantic lifestyle and the tranquil living of the ethnic groups in the prefecture. This mysterious land is a living repository of ethnic culture.
Covering an area of more than 30,000 square kilometers, Qiandongnan boasts over 500 peaks and around 3,000 rivers. It is home to peoples of 30 or so ethnic groups, among them the Miao, Dong, Bouyei, Shui, Yao, Zhuang and Tujia, who together comprise 81 percent of its population.
The Miaos are well-known for their musical talents. A popular Miao air is the Song of Miao Mountain, which native singer Ayouduo performed at the Vienna Golden Concert Hall in 2005. Strolling through Qiandongnan's ethnic minority villages is a chance to observe the distinctively constructed Miao dwellings and traditional crafts, and to be dazzled by the locals' elaborately embroidered colorful costumes. No fewer than 68 Miao traditions are listed as intangible cultural heritage items at national level.
Qiandongnan Miao and Dong
Autonomous Prefecture is famous for its breathtaking scenery and fascinating ethnic minority cultures. Its pleasant weather and scenic landscapes make the area an ideal summer resort. The 200 or more festivals all year round, among them the Miao Sister’s Day, the Dong Wrestling Day and the Yao people’s Panwang (a mythical creature) Festival, have made Qiandongnan known as the land of a hundred festivals.
Of all the scenic spots that have recently been attracting increasing numbers of tourists throughout China, few can tempt visitors to linger like the stunning landscape of Xijiang Miao Village in southeastern Kaili, capital of Qiandongnan Prefecture. The largest Miao village in China and steeped in history, Xijiang is a transliteration of the Miao words meaning place where the Miao Xi family lived. It consists of rows of stilted wooden houses accessed by ladders that are picturesquely juxtaposed against towering mountains and high ridges. Specialist researchers regard Xijiang Miao village as a living fossil for the study of Miao history and traditional culture.
There are more than 1,000 households in this village that has stood for as many years. The tranquil, peaceful life of its inhabitants is a source of envy for urban visitors who come to spend a few days and to the painters that go both to enjoy the tranquil surroundings and to work. All loath to leave.
In his 1976 book Migrants of the Mountains Australian anthropologist W.R. Geddes cited Miao as one of the two ethnic groups in the world that have been through many hardships but have survived to become strong, the other being the Jews.
The ancestors of the Miao people have lived in present-day western Hunan and eastern Guizhou provinces since the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC – AD 220) dynasties. There are references to the Miao in documents of the Tang and Song period (618-1279).
The Miaos, like the Jews, are a wandering people who have lived and moved on to other homes, covering vast distances. During the third century they headed west to present-day northwestern Guizhou and southern Sichuan along the Wujiang River. In the fifth century certain branches of the Miao moved to eastern Sichuan and western Guizhou, and in the ninth century some groups were taken to Yunnan as captives. Miao peoples went to live on China’s southernmost Hainan Island in the 16th century.
This wide dispersal and the influence of different environments have resulted in distinct differences in Miao dialects, family names and costumes, to the extent that Miao people from different areas find verbal communication difficult. Distinct differences can also be found in their crafts and festivals.
Xijiang is a cluster of wooden dwellings linked by winding cobblestone paths on two large slopes. They are so tightly packed that from a distance they resemble a forest. Houses high on the slopes are bathed in shades of brown and gold in the morning sun. The Baishui River, whose source is in the primitive forest area near the main peak of the Miaoling Ridge, bisects the village.
At noon, sections of the reddish maple wooden board on Miao dwellings glint in the sunlight, and in the evening fragrant smoke spirals from each kitchen, forming a white belt that girds the mountain. The industrious Miao people live and work peacefully in their scenic home and a silversmith village in the county specializes in the hand-made silver ornaments that characterize the Miao costume. Xijiang is known as a "Gallery of Miao Culture," having the most intact and original Miao ecology, and is an ideal place to admire and study Miao ethnic culture.
The village embodies the way of life of the Miao people that has remained the same even after thousands of years. In earlier times, locals labored in nearby mountains till late into the night. When darkness fell, each household hung under its eave or placed along the roadside an oil lamp to light the road home. Today the village has evening light thanks to the 3,800 LED (Light Emitting Diode) lamps that have been installed by the local government and which illuminate the village from 7 pm to 11 pm each night.
The distinctive Miao dwellings, known as Diaojiaolou, are made of timber and bamboo on stone foundations several meters in height, supported by wooden stilts, their roofs either tiled or covered in coniferous bark.
Most Miao houses are compact, pile-dwelling structures whose workmanship is of such quality that it needs no nails. The first floor is for livestock and storage and the upper floor is the living space comprising kitchen and bedrooms on either side of a corridor. Master Miao builders need no plan, only sufficient timber, a ruler, ink marker, axe and file. They build from memory — a technique handed down over generations known as "a history in wood," and which in 2005 was among the first batch of national intangible cultural heritage listings.
Maple, regarded as the Miao "mother tree," is the main timber used for Miao dwellings. It is traditional in Mao culture to make a sacrifice to a tree before felling it, and to prop up the trunk with wooden support afterwards before it plops unto the ground. Striding over the log is strictly forbidden.
The Miao have a long history. Legend has it that they are the descendents of the third son of Chiyou – sworn enemy of the Yellow Emperor and Han forefather – who was defeated in a decisive battle and captured alive, chained and executed, and that his bloodstained shackles later transformed into a flaming-red maple forest.
Visiting a Miao village might make one nostalgic for a simpler life rendered unattainable by modernity, but meeting the Miao people gives one the feeling of being in a movie. Miao women dress according to set design and color code. Girls and unmarried women wear blue and middle-aged and elderly women dress in black with blue and white waistbands. All women ornament their outfits with silver jewelry on festive occasions. Miao men generally wear short tunics that button at the front. They either don wide-brimmed bamboo hats or wrap their heads in black cloth.
Parents usually arrange offspring's marriages, but single men and women have freedom to date. Festivals often include mass courting rituals, in which young women from the host village gather to sing antiphonal love songs with young men from neighboring villages. Those mutually attracted exchange love tokens, but must win approval from their parents before they can marry.
Rice is a main crop in Qiandongnan. As flat land is scarce in mountainous Guizhou province, the Miao people adapt to local conditions by building their homes on slopes and cultivating flat fertile land to plant rice. They could be said to have taken the lead in protecting cultivated land. Miao Finery Celebrated scholar Yu Qiuyu once said that the beauty of Xijiang is beyond imagination — a description that to me also fits Miao women, their colorful costumes and adornments.