Laotun Village, population six hundred, sits quietly in a valley filled with rice paddies; unnoticed by the outside world for most of the year. Seasonal rhythms dictate the pace of life around rice-planting in spring and rice harvest in autumn. Not very much happens.
Until April arrives.
With April comes the biggest celebration of the year for the Miao people of Guizhou Province – a courtship gathering known as the Sister’s Meal Festival. I’ve been once before, four years ago, and had a wonderful time. But to be honest, I understood very little of what I was seeing, a moving parade of colour and spectacle in a language for which I had no subtitles.
This time, after eight visits to Guizhou’s Miao region, I felt I had a better grip on the complexities of the festival. It follows the lunar calendar, always occurring in Spring, and involves three days of festivities in multiple locations, including but not limited to:
A parade of ten Miao groups
Bullfights, cockfights and dog fights
An embroidery contest
The exchange of favours made from sticky rice and coloured eggs
Did I mention feasting and drinking?
In essence though, the Sister’s Festival is a glorious celebration of women young and old, and the best place to see it in its most traditional form is in sleepy old Laotun Village. Women and girls from the village dress in their best festival attire and walk down to the village dancing circle along narrow paths between the houses and rice paddies.
Festival dress differs according to whether you are young and single, married, or elderly. This young Miao woman from Laotun village wears typical celebration dress covered in silver adornments and topped with an elaborate silver headdress in the shape of a peacock. The best silversmiths come from nearby Shidong township.
And yes, putting that headdress together is as difficult and uncomfortable as it looks, requiring two ‘dressers’ to assist.
A young woman’s festival jacket has sleeves and front panels heavily embroidered with important stories and motifs. This one depicts the story of a giant mythical bird that swooped down and saved the Miao people during a battle. The embroidery of a celebration jacket takes about one year.
The back of the jacket is overlaid with silver adornments – the small circular pieces represent cymbals, played during celebrations, and the larger pieces are covered with dragons.
The entire outfit weighs a tonne and means the women must move with small, ginger steps as they make their way along the village paths to the dancing circle.
Married women wear a much simpler outfit that is more heavily embroidered, with about two years’ worth of stitching in these outfits.
Even the very youngest girls dress up, but wear very lightweight ornaments.
Elderly women wear dark bronze jackets with panels embroidered in blue and purple, with a simple red striped head dress.
Down in the village circle the drum is beating, a huge beast of a thing made from a hollowed log stretched tight with buffalo hide. It’s a strong dancing beat and someone is calling through a loudspeaker:
“Beautiful ladies! Come out of your houses! Come join the dance!”
And so they do, just a single circle at first, their silver ornaments and jewellery jingling musically as they dance only with their feet, round and back, round and back.
The drum keeps beating and the call continues, inviting more and more women into the dancing circle until eventually, it is a shimmering, pulsing circle of silver and colour.
The dance lasts for several hours, as one group of dancers leaves the circle and is replaced with another, and another, and another. Altogether several hundred women take their turn at dancing, surrounded by family, friends, and a few photographers – including me.
So…er…yes. About the photographers. Laotun is a wonderful experience at Sister’s Festival time, but also one of the last places to have really traditional village circle dancing, so it’s rather popular with photographers. For the most part, they stay well out of the action and line themselves up along the hill above the village for the best view.
Check out those lenses!
Laotun Village – Details
Laotun is situated about two hours’ drive northeast of Kaili, in central Guizhou.
It is close to Shidong township, so makes a nice change from the bustle of Shidong market.
The Sister’s Meal Festival is held over three days, once a year in April.
See http://www.toguizhou.com for the most up-to-date information on festival and market dates. I travelled with Billy Zhang once again, who has made all of my trips to Guizhou fascinating and fun. His knowledge of Miao culture and history is unsurpassed.