Merry-making with the Miao

For the last two days of the holiday weekend, we headed out of Guiyang and into the wider province of Guizhou. The scenery was lushly green and very mountainous.

The highlights of the trip included a visit to a fascinating collection of Miao embroidery in the city of Kaili. The Miao are an ethnic group with villages all over the area. Guizhou has one of the highest proportions of ethnic minorities in all of China. And because relatively undeveloped transport and communication links have rendered these groups fairly isolated until very recently, many have evolved very distinctive cultures- styles of dress, dialects, music, song and dance, and so on.

The Miao people use singing to remember and pass on their history, as they have no culture of writing. They also embroider stories and important cultural symbols into their clothing. The exhibition we visited was the personal collection of one Curator Yang, who showed us around the vivid multi-coloured textiles, answering all our questions about Miao customs and traditions. The Miao’s spirituality mainly revolves around the natural world and ancestor worship, and many of the clothes featured local wildlife- butterflies, birds, frogs, insects, goats, fish, and more.

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We had lots of delicious meals over the two days, including local specialities like sweet and sour catfish served in an enormous central ‘hot pot’. We ate after our visit to the exhibition too…

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(My host in Guiyang, Kerun, is seated on the left, his friend Daniel on the right and Curator Yang next to him).

That evening, we went to see a performance at the theatre in Kaili showcasing the dance and song of the local ethnic groups- the Miao and the Dong. With its special effects and all-round glitz, its epic scale and formation dancing, its ear-splittingly loud PA and its comical English translations, the show was a larger-than-life Chinese welcome- especially cosmic on top of my jetlag!

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The next day, we made our way into the mountains, crossing fast-flowing rivers, swollen after the overnight rain, and headed to the small Miao village of Ji Dao.

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We were guided around the village by a local villager and party official, who explained all about the main squares in all the Miao villages which are paved with very beautiful pebble patterns and are where locals gather to sing. He also pointed out a Great Leap Forwards slogan painted on the side of a house during the Maoist era.

Towards the end of the visit, we headed into one of the village houses, and were sung to by a group of extremely old and completely brilliant village elders.

After they’d sung their first song, we were told about their tradition of drinking and singing (and drinking and singing and drinking and singing some more). They had a large silver teapot on the table in front of them but there was no tea in it. It was full to the brim with rice wine. And as our time with the villagers continued, we realised that most of it was going to be poured down our throats as part of a hospitality ritual!

I realised I was in the hot seat when Kerun turned and said to me “They’re saying that if they do all the singing, then the guests do all the drinking. They want you to sing back to them”. Luckily, I’d already been the recipient of a good few cups of rice wine, so, blinking through an alcoholic haze to reach for some lyrics, I sang to them. Then again, and again, and again, as each time they asked for more.

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Suddenly I was aware that the rest of the group had melted away leaving Kerun, Daniel and me to receive all the Miao ‘hospitality’. As we staggered from the house to go back to Guiyang, it felt like I’d downed half a bottle of tequila on an empty stomach, but truly the singing had brought drunken tears to all our eyes.

On the way home, little Zimo, the 6-year-old daughter of Kerun’s business partner, Mr Liao, sang Peking opera songs in the car, and got acquainted with some Collectress songs via my headphones.

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