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To Shidong Market, To Buy a Fat Pig

A trip to Guizhou should be timed, if at all possible, with a visit to the Miao village market in Shidong. It occurs every six days, a rather eccentric cycle stubbornly independent of the constraints of a conventional seven day week, but perhaps there’s a good reason behind it.
Maybe six days’ worth of eggs is the most one person can carry by themselves? Or six days’ worth of meat? Or perhaps every six days is about how often you can bear running into everyone you know from the surrounding villages.
On the other five days of the six-day cycle Shidong is a sleepy village. It’s thinking about becoming a small town, but hasn’t quite decided yet whether it’s worth it, and the general consensus – given the slow walking pace of the locals and the general air of torpor – seems to be ‘probably not’.

The main street runs parallel to the jade coloured Qingshui River, with two tiny noodle shops and a few places selling farm supplies. The central basketball court is covered with drying rice from the rice harvest, being raked slowly and meditatively by an elderly woman with a wooden paddle.

But on market day Shidong explodes into activity. Early in the morning the basketball court is cleared of rice and becomes a makeshift poultry market and slaughtering centre. The stallholders erect tents, umbrellas and tables lining both the main street and the large flat area beside the river, and people pour in from near and far – on foot, by bus, by motorbike and by boat.

The market is utterly local, and reflects the everyday needs of life in Guizhou’s Miao villages.

In no particular order, you can buy embroidery silks, fighting birds, a piglet, ten yards of cloth, indigo dye, buffalo hide, a short-handed sickle for harvesting rice, a fish net, a silver head dress, or a red coil of firecrackers.

It’s a wonderful place with a lively atmosphere and a beautiful location. I think it’s actually one of the most interesting markets in China, right up there with the Friday market in Yousuo, Yunnan and the Sunday Animal Markets in Kashgar and Hotan.

 Right near the entrance are the indigo sellers. Almost every Miao woman dyes her own cloth for clothing for her family, and although some still make their own indigo paste from fermented indigo leaves, it’s much easier to buy the paste from the market.

 Fish come from the clear waters of the river, or more often from the rice paddies where growing them keeps insects down, and catching them is easier. A popular Miao dish is made with fried dried fish. Makeshift pens hold ducks, another popular food and particularly important for festivals – ducks help bring the ancestors’ spirits home for the feast.  

Women sell soap nuts – the seed pods of a local tree – which can be used to make a stiffening and glossing agent for embroidery threads.

The man on the left is selling pieces of dried buffalo hide, used to make a gelatin dip for indigo dyed fabric to stiffen it and give it sheen. The roots on the right are from a mountain tree, and can be pulped to make a red-brown fabric dye.

If you would prefer someone else to dye fabric for you, the market offers a dyeing service – buy your fabric (usually cream homespun cotton) and leave it with these dye vendors who will dye, dry and deliver your fabric in just a few hours while you shop.

The Miao people’s famed silver jewellery is also for sale, bought by the gram, and there are small snack stalls selling local foods like rice tofu (mi doufu 米豆腐), cubes of cold rice starch dressed with seventeen secret sauces and peanuts. A perfect snack for a hot day in the sun.
You can also find various services at the market – the shoe, leather and umbrella repair man, and the street dentist. The foot treadle operating his drill is out of sight. Truly amazing, truly terrifying.

Boat parking, for those who arrive by water. Many villagers living on the other side of the river can now come to market on foot thanks to the new footbridge.

Bird lovers congregate in a hidden part of the market – the courtyard of an abandoned house just off the main street. The birds are fighters as well as pets, and many hours can be whiled away discussing the merits of a particular bird.
And lastly my favourite stall – the firecrackers. Long coils of noisy red crackers, and boxes of bigger fireworks. Right near the eggs seems like a risky place to keep them, but what do I know?
Do you have a favourite market in China? Let me know below – I’m always on the lookout for a new one!

Shidong Market – Details

Shidong 施洞 is approximately 2 hours’ drive north-east of Kaili, in central Guizhou. The best way to get to Shidong is by private car, but you can also travel by small local bus.
Kaili, confusingly also known as Qiandongnan on many maps, is a great base from which to explore a number of Miao villages, and is about two and a half hours’ drive from Guizhou’s capital city, Guiyang. Guiyang is the nearest airport. There is also a hard seat local train running regularly between Guiyang and Kaili.
The market occurs every six days, with 2013 dates available here and runs from early in the morning until 3pm.

Guizhou: The Most Overlooked Destination in China (But You Need To Go Now)

Guizhou Province is easily one of China’s undiscovered gems.
As beautiful and as ethnically diverse as Yunnan Province, as uncrowded as Inner Mongolia, and as gifted with natural beauty as Sichuan and Qinghai combined, it’s a wonder Guizhou isn’t over-run with its own popularity.
And yet…hardly anyone ever goes there. 
Lying in the central south of China between Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangxi, Guizhou’s terrain is mountainous and heavily forested, the valleys filled with meandering rivers and clusters of wooden stilt houses. 
The limestone karst peaks are younger, geologically speaking, and less eroded than those in Guilin and Yangshuo, which means that to get from one place to another is enormously challenging as you ascend and descend successions of hairpin winding roads. Straight lines between destinations? There are very, very few of those.
Which might account for the few visitors willing to overcome the necessary obstacles to get there.

The local people are ethnically diverse and overwhelming welcoming – mostly Miao (shown above), but also Dong, Yao, Yi, and Bouyei, Sui and Tujia. The region’s relative poverty and difficulty of access has meant that traditional lifestyles are still practiced in most parts of Guizhou, preserving culture and traditions that might have otherwise been lost with progress. 
Change is coming though – in the last few years tunnels have been burrowed through mountains to allow highways to pass. New roads and a high speed train line are underway as we speak, connecting villages that were previously preserved largely because of their inaccessibility.
You need to go to Guizhou now, while it still has all its charms, and before everyone else realizes what they’re missing out on.
I spent last week in central Guizhou, my fourth trip to the province and part of a project that will see me spending a lot of time in China’s remoter parts over the next year, meeting with traditional craftspeople and artisans who weave, dye, embroider and print fabric, and silversmiths who beat out beautiful things from raw metal. 
I feel extraordinarily lucky to be part of this project – a series of public art works featuring indigenous Chinese textiles and crafts.
Like many of you, I adore anything made by hand with care and love, whether that be a beautiful meal or a piece of embroidered cloth, and the story behind it. 
A lifetime of curiosity and interest in the act of simply making something by hand, in a way that is true to tradition, has led me to this point.
My apologies that things have been a little quiet on this blog – travel is wonderful for the soul, but poses challenges to the blogger, especially in remote areas of China where the internet is patchy.
Over the next two weeks I look forward to bringing you posts about the villages of Guizhou: Shidong and Qingmai, and the large town of Kaili. 
First post tomorrow!

In the meantime, if you’re interested in Guizhou you might enjoy these previous posts:

The Miao Guzang Festival – A Marathon of Feasting, Firecrackers and Pigs 苗寨鼓藏节:一场八个阶段的马拉松

Our visit to Guizhou Province, an extraordinarily beautiful part of China with steep green hills, silvery mists and winding rivers, just so happened to coincide with a really big deal –  the Guzang Festival, an ancestor commemoration that occurs once every thirteen years for the local Miao people.

Not that we knew it was a big deal at first. We had good information from the always-helpful Billy Zhang at Gateway to Guizhou that there was a Miao New Year Festival taking place in Leishan over several days, or a week (these things always being rather fluid and flexible), but we figured if we arrived in the middle of those dates we were bound to see something good.

Trying to pin down just when and where the festival began, and in which of Leishan’s surrounding villages events would be taking place, and what the nature of those events might be was much more difficult. Even the official Chinese programme Billy emailed me was too obscure to be helpful.


The bullfight, fighting birds, bucket pig race held on November 26 to 29 at the Dan Town, West Town, Grande town, large Tangxiang, and Wang Feng, townships Miao Village folk folk activities.

But it did sound intriguing – a bucket pig race! Whatever could that be? 

Our plan was to just turn up and see what was happening. Well, not so much a plan as a loitering presence.

But then one of those lucky travelling things happened. On the way to Leishan we detoured to the pristine wilderness around Libo in southern Guizhou on the invitation of a young American blogger (Kaci and the World) living there, and spent our first night in Libo as guests of the generous hospitality and outstanding home cooking of her good friend and Chinese National Geographic photographer, Big Mountain. His real name.

Big Mountain is passionate about the many ethnic minorities in Guizhou, of which he is one, and has photographed all of them over many years. When we told him of our plans to visit the upcoming Miao New Year Festival he made enquiries and discovered it was, in fact, the very infrequent and incredibly important once-every-THIRTEEN-years Guzang Festival. Before we knew it our party of four without much idea of where we should go and what we should see had become a party of six with contacts and a plan

Big Mountain set about explaining the intricacies of the festival to us. Preparations begin three years ahead of time, involving a drum (gu) which needs to be buried (zang) and another drum needing to be woken up, the selection of an ox for sacrifice, and the use of ducks as vehicles to swim across the heavenly sea, returning with the woken spirits of the ancestors. 

It sounded terribly complicated and very, very interesting, but in the end came down to the essence of every good festival – a gathering of people, drinking, feasting, music and dancing, with a few uniquely Miao components thrown in, like the celestial ducks, some bullfighting, firecrackers and pig slaughter. It was going to be one hell of a party.

Here’s how the festival unfolded, from our perspective.

我们一开始并不知道这是一个大型活动,我们从乐于助人的比利张在Gateway to Guizhou所发文章中得知好消息,在近几天或者一周(这些事情总是不固定,比较灵活)在乐山将会有一个苗族新年节日举行,但我们要计算出是否我们可以在这些日子期间到达,我们必须看看这些有意思的事情。试着确定节日在什么时候、在哪里开始,在乐山周围的哪些村落举行,获得这些信息本身就可能更加困难。甚至是比利发给我们的正式中文节目单也太模糊以至于没帮上什么忙。


1. Pre-Festival Preparation: Ducks and Firecrackers 节日前的准备:鸭子和爆竹

One thing is certain when we arrive in Leishan – this Guzang celebration definitely involves ducks, lots of them, and unbelievable quantities of booze and firecrackers. This might be a potentially lethal combination, and doubtless will be, particularly for the ducks. 
Every single shop in Leishan has abandoned their usual wares in favour of floor-to-ceiling displays of firecrackers, ten-metre long dragons rolled into neat coils, or huge luridly coloured boxes – the kind where you light the taper at one corner and run away for ten minutes of full-throttle bedazzling. 
The liquor, mijiu or rice wine, is being sold on the footpath in plastic jerrycans, with the smallest size ten litres, and the average purchase twenty-five. At around 40% alcohol it’s clear, deadly stuff and is about as tasty as lighter fluid and just as flammable. 
Every motorbike coming out of town has two boxes of firecrackers on the back, counterbalanced with two jerry cans of strong liquor on either side, and a brace of ducks nestled at the driver’s feet. 


25 litres of liquor…check, smallish box of fireworks…check. Now to load the basket of ducks……..

2. Feast Number One 一号盛宴

We arrive in the tiny village of Paiweng on foot, leaving the van parked at a point where it can’t drive any further on the narrow dirt track. The first sign of something afoot is the distant echoing crack of firecrackers, and a cloud of smoke above the next valley. 
As we round the last corner we see the village sitting in the folds of steep hills, with rows of dark wooden houses on stilts staggered up the hillside. A barrage of fireworks goes off in front of the house immediately to our left, deafening us and lighting the narrow zigzagging pathway we’re taking to the family home of a friend of Big Mountain, high on the hillside. The paths are busy with guests arriving – Miao women in their traditional dress of a black velvet tunic embroidered with pink roses, hair in a high bun decorated with a single pink rose.
Arriving at the house, the start of the festivities is marked by the lighting of a long red snake of firecrackers right next to the woodpile outside the kitchen door. It seems unnecessarily risky but clearly it’s been safely done thirteen years before. Or…not. I guess thirteen years is long enough to rebuild a whole village razed to the ground by fire, and forgive whoever lit the firecracker that did it.
Inside the kitchen, the grandmother of the house greets us as she guts fish for the feast. She motions for us to move into the big open room at the centre of the house, a high-ceilinged space with stairs at one end leading to the upper floor for sleeping, and an open verandah at the other, pefect for watching the neighbour’s fireworks display as cinders rain down on the roof.
We’re warmly welcomed by the rest of the family as they prepare for the feast. The oldest daughter’s husband carries in precariously leaning stacks of porcelain rice bowls, painted with small blue and pink flowers, and lays them out on the floor in long rows. 
He reappears with twenty five litres of mijiu, and taking a tin teapot, decants from the drum and begins to pour a bowl of mijiu for each person, full to the brim. Out of politeness he includes both of our children, who, out of politeness and strong looks from us, decline.
The women and men come in from outside and take their seats as the food begins to arrive. The whole extended family is here – the grandmother, all of her daughters and their husbands and children, aunts and uncles, lined up on narrow wooden settles around the room’s perimeter. 
We eat – first, a steaming wok full of blood congee, a type of rice soup, rich and tasty. It seems impolite, as guests, to ask where the blood has come from. Balanced across the rim of the steaming wok a narrow wooden plank is laid, and on this rest three dishes, keeping warm – spicy duck, chopped into small pieces with a sharp cleaver, fried fish, and pickled sour bamboo shoots. 
The fish has grown in the nearby rice terraces through the summer along with the rice. Come harvest the water is drained out of the terraces and the fish can be easily caught. 
Another bowl of braised duck arrives, and suddenly the symbolic duck swimming across the celestial lake and bringing back the spirits of the ancestors is sitting in a bowl in front of me. I guess their role was not purely metaphorical after all.
No sooner have we started eating than the husband of the oldest daughter lifts his bowl of mijiu in a toast. We follow suit. 
‘He jiu!’ he commands, literally ‘Drink alcohol!’ It rhymes with Sergio when he says it.
We all take a sip of the burning liquor and resume eating.
A few minutes later one of the other daughter’s husbands raises his rice wine in a toast. ‘He jiu!’ he says. ‘He jiu!’ we all reply, and take another, bigger sip.
I reach for a piece of the sweet rice terrace fish, and just as I’m about to wrestle it free with my chopsticks I see another toast about to take place. 
‘He jiu!’ comes the call. 
‘He jiu!’ we all respond. 
This time though, the command is followed by ‘He gan!’ ‘Drink dry!’ and around me old men and young women alike down their rice wine, followed by that puckered face caused by skulling hard liquor. They tip their bowls sideways to prove they’re empty.
Everyone is rosy cheeked and happy. The teapot comes back out and refills our bowls, and another round of firecrackers go off. 
‘He jiu!’

3. Feast Number Two 二号盛宴

At some point the ‘He jiu!!’ begins to reach a crescendo, with shorter and shorter intervals between toasts. Then just as everyone’s warming up the whole room stands and moves towards the door. We’re full to bursting with food and a little drunk.

‘What’s happening now?’ I ask Big Mountain. ‘Is dinner over?’
‘That was just the first dinner!’ Big Mountain tells us. ‘Now we go to her sister’s house up the hill for the next dinner!’
The what??
We arrive to find another long wooden house, its big central room filled with people lined up on each side and braziers warming more dishes of food in the centre.
Out come the towers of rice bowls, and out comes the tin teapot, this time poured by the daughter of the house. 
We greet the new family we haven’t yet met with a toast.
‘He jiu!’
And reacquaint ourselves with the family members from the first feast.
‘He jiu!’
And then everyone toasts us, as guests.
‘He jiu!’
The food is similar, a warming soup (this time bloodless), crispy-skinned duck, and shredded fish with a sour sauce.

The toasts continue for several rounds. Everyone makes the same puckered face when they have to ‘He gan!’ and drink the bowl dry.
Funny stories are told. 

‘He jiu!’

Serious stories are told.

‘He jiu!’

And then someone spots my bowl is empty, a sure sign I need to be shown true Miao hospitality by having a daughter of the house clamp a bowl of rice wine to my lips and hold it there until I drink all of it.
After that, details get a little hazy. I take a series of really, really dreadful fireworks shots while next to me Big Mountain takes National Geographic quality images despite being just as intoxicated. The mark of a true professional.

Fireworks, possibly shot from a ‘lying in the grass’ position. Not going in Nat Geo anytime soon.

Before midnight we take our leave, our hosts pressing upon us that we absolutely must be back at 4am for the most important part of the celebrations – the sacrifice of a pig.
Looking around me at the ongoing toasts being made for our departure I can see there is unlikely to be anything but snoring happening at 4am. I ask the grandmother of the house what time we should really return. ‘Eight at the earliest. More like nine or ten’ she says, with a wink.


4. The Sacrifice 献祭
We return at eleven, fortified by a good nights’ sleep and strong coffee. Still, the ongoing firecrackers are a bit upsetting to the delicate equilibrium, as are the squeals of pigs meeting their end in every corner of the village. For some reason I had thought the village en masse might sacrifice a single pig, but apparently there is to be one pig for every family. Or in some cases, two.

While the butchering is happening, each one marked by fresh rounds of fireworks, I take the opportunity to wander around the village in daylight. It’s a beautiful place, full of life and colour.

But it’s hard to walk very far without coming across another pig. The task of killing, cleaning and butchering the pig falls to the men in the family, carried out on the path outside each home. 
I’m very proud of my two girls who take it all in their stride, proclaiming that ‘if you’re going to eat it, you have to be able to deal with it being killed’. How different from their squeamish attitudes before we came China, I think to myself.


5. Feast Number Three 三号盛宴

At midday we return to the house for what turns out to be the main feast, a meat and offal celebration of every part of the pig. Behind us haunches of meat hang from the wall, dripping small puddles of blood. 
The first course is laid out for everyone to taste – cold slices of cooked liver and marble-white pork fat with partially fermented sticky rice, sweet like apple cider. The pork fat has a clean sweet taste, and soft luscious texture I don’t expect to like as much as I do.
The room fills again with people, faces from the night before and an occasional new face. Out come the bowls and the tin teapot. I admire the fortitude of the Miao as they fill their bowls yet again with mijiu and the cry goes up once more to ‘He jiu!’, although with just a little less conviction today and noticeably smaller sips.
We huddle around the hot dishes as they arrive – a bowl of soup, flavoured with thick slices of pork and pieces of cooked blood, sliced fried intestines cooked in a rich and savoury sauce, chewy and incredibly tasty. My children eat them. And ask for more.
The room fills with steam, and more toasts, and some faces begin to sweat and look unwell with the onslaught of more rice liquor. But they soldier on, and at the appointed time we all rise and move on to….


6. Feast Number Four 四号盛宴

Unable to believe we were all going to tuck into our fourth feast in less than twenty four hours we head back up the hill to the sister’s house. The atmosphere this time is a little more subdued, with all the family elders sitting together at one end of the room.
I am asked to take their portrait, a succession of four polaroids, one for each of them. The look on their faces is delightful as they see the pictures develop and colour.

Before long though, everyone has rosy faces and and has fortified themselves for the important and health-giving feature of this final feast – fresh pig’s blood, uncooked and congealed like jelly. No matter how well prepared or how adventurous, fresh blood is one thing I cannot bring myself to try, but everyone else takes a small bowl.
This seems to signal the end of the feast, although in fact, the guests are simply leaving to start another round of visiting and feasting in the neighbouring villages. As a parting gift, each family is given a whole pig’s leg or two to take home, carried over the shoulder hanging from a pole.


7. Bullfighting 斗牛

Much of the visiting and feasting now over, the fourth day of the Guzang Festival  brings a bullfighting tournament in Leishan’s stadium, packed to capacity with spectators. 
I’m not sure what to expect. This is bull versus bull, with no human intervention unless a bull is fatally wounded. I’m expecting it to be bloody and confronting on many levels.
Intead, what we see is quite comical as two sedate and lazy water buffalo bulls are led into the arena through separate doors, ambling slowly. Suddenly they see one another and fly into an intense territorial rage, charging the other bull and locking horns. The first three battles end when the weaker of the two bulls unlocks horns and runs away, and the fourth after horns have been locked long enough to declare a draw. No blood is seen at any time. 

8. Recovery, with Singing, Dancing, and Possibly Pig Bucket Races 复活,唱歌,跳舞还有斗猪比赛

The last days of the festival are subdued by comparison. Firecrackers continue to go off sporadically and there are pigs’ legs aplenty being carted around over shouders or on the backs of motorbikes. 
The villagers of Paiweng try to entice us back on a promise of singing and dancing on the village basketball court – but we run out of time to return to see it.
It’s been an exhausting few days and I’m keen to eat nothing but vegetables for a while. 
So let’s see – I think I’ve covered everything – ducks, ancestors, firecrackers, rice liquor, bull fighting, pig sacrifices, feasting, and….oh wait! What about the pig bucket races? We never did get to see those.

Looking forward to seeing you all for Guzang 2025 then.

The Cave Dwelling Paper Makers of Guizhou

This is my last post from Guizhou, and I’m writing it from my living room back in Shanghai, which has the effect of making it seem even more surreal than it actually was. And it was really surreal. I’ve visited some pretty strange workplaces before – inside an ancient Scottish castle, high up in a lighthouse and underground in a mine – but I’ve never met anyone who worked in a cave, at least, not as a papermaker. 
I had heard along the grapevine about the village of Shiqiao (Stone Bridge), famous locally for its traditional papermaking, but it seemed too difficult to get to – a few hours outside the town of Kaili and off the path of regular buses, and I needed help to get there. After stopping in at the Kaili CITS office (the organization that passes as an office of tourism in China) and meeting the amiable, self-effacing and extremely helpful Billy Zhang, we asked if he would help arrange a village-hop to include a local market in another village and then a look at the papermaking at Shiqiao. What we didn’t know was that Billy also had contacts with papermakers who had set up in a cave south of Shiqiao, and had arranged for us to be taken there. 
Shiqiao was a quiet little place, on the banks of narrow green river cutting through steep hills, and the papermaking, from treebark and dyed with natural plant dyes, was a very small enterprise – one open-air  shed and a tiny shop. It was an atmospheric place to walk around – almost deserted, with the few villagers not out working in the fields warming themselves around a makeshift fire of corn husks burning in a tin on the road. The clouds were low and it was drizzling constantly, but we took a walk over the village’s namesake stone bridge and back before driving off again, we thought, back towards Kaili.
After twenty minutes on treacherous single lane winding roads the car stopped at the mouth of a huge limestone cave, some distance off the main road. There was a dirt track of sorts leading down to it, full of deep potholes and thick brown mud that stuck to our shoes as we walked, and I still wasn’t quite sure what we were coming to see,  perhaps a bat colony inside the cave, or a small waterfall. It was only once we got closer that I could make out the striped red white and blue awning covering some kind of workshop. 
The entrance to the cave, massive in size, was piled high with papermaking frames drying in the weak sunlight, and enormous tubs of paper pulp. Several motorbikes stood to one side along with broken tools and cast-off clothes. Inside the cave, the only light coming from the cave’s gaping entrance, eight people were silently working, making sheet after sheet of coarse hand-made paper. It was difficult to take it all in at once – the absurd strangeness of it all, and the juxtaposition between the cave’s natural beauty and the busy fledgling industry going on inside it. I was full of questions – why a cave? Why here, when there was a perfectly good village for making paper only a short drive away?
The impossibly high ceiling of the cave was hung with long sharp stalactites which dripped constantly onto the striped awning covering the work area. It would protect them from water but little else, should one of the stalactites break off and fall. From the back of the cave a natural stream flowed from a large, still pool and was then diverted to run beside a long, rectangular brick waist-high tank containing the paper slurry mixed with water. Four men methodically dipped wooden frames into the tank until an even layer of slurry lay over the mesh of each frame, then lifted it deftly out of the water and swung it onto a pile of wet paper sheets behind him, peeling off the new sheet to sit on top of the rest. The pile of papers dripped endlessly onto the floor, leaving a sea of large puddles under each table. The puddles ran together and formed their own small sream heading out of the cave. There was water everywhere.

The men, their sleeves rolled as high as possible and cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths, made about fifty sheets an hour each. Dip, even out, dip again, even out again, open the frame, lift, peel, repeat. Despite the lovely rough feel of the paper sheets, it seemed like boring, wet, repetitive work. I asked why they had chosen to set up in the cave – they told me they were all from Shiqiao village but wanted to set up business on their own, and the cave represented a good water source and protection from the weather. Several of the men were now living in small huts outside the cave entrance so they didn’t have to make the long journey back to Shiqiao at night.

Ever the pragmatists, they didn’t particularly like the work but it was an opportunity to make money and it beat standing in the rain ploughing a field. Because they were working for themselves in a village co-operative (common amongst the villages we saw around Kaili) they set their own working hours and quotas. It still seemed like very difficult conditions, and in winter the constant dripping wet and the cold must be unbearable, but like many who rely on the land for a living, any regular money-making work that supplements the uncertain income from farming is welcome, even if it involves eight wet hours of work in a cave. 

Really, I take my hat off to them, and I hope their ingenuity and perseverence bring them success.

Read the other posts about this incredible corner of China:

Shidong: The Miao Sisters’ Meal Festival
Shidong: Instant Banquet
Langde: The Protection of Silver

Langde: The Protection of Silver

The Miao people believe that silver can protect against ghosts and evil spirits, covering themselves with as much silver as possible in the form of jewellery, adornments, head-dresses and silver-covered clothing. When you die, the Miao believe, three spirits are created – one spirit stays with the tomb, to receive visitors, and one spirit travels to the ancestors, but the third and last spirit can be a little tricky. If the death is from natural causes, the ghost will stay in the village to help out with any problems, but if the death was accidental or unexpected, the ghost roams the village causing trouble. It’s this ghost you’ll be needing protection from, so he doesn’t meddle in your affairs and stir up strife, or turn your crops bad and your mother-in-law against you.

Not surprisingly, due to their young age and vulnerability, children need a lot of protection and many Miao children wear a silver encrusted embroidered and decorated hat for well-being. In the village of Langde, south of Kaili, there are children in silver hats running around everywhere without any apparent bother from bad spirits, so the hats must be doing some good.

Langde is south of Kaili, and the villagers don’t take part in the Sisters’ Festival, having too many of their own celebrations to attend to. We happened to visit at the time of a dance and get-together in the village’s stone-paved meeting circle. In the centre, next to a totem pole crowned with water buffalo horns and a red ribbon, stand two young men playing the lusheng, a reed instrument with a deep and lovely sound. An elder sounds a barrel drum, and the young women, in heavily embroidered dress, gather to dance in a circle. It’s a slow and gentle dance, quite restrained, and the village elders, both men and women, sit around the outside of the circle to watch.

At some previously decided point in the dance, there is an imperceptible signal and one by one, the seated villagers rise and walk slowly towards the circle of dancers. As they reach the circle they join its inner part, row by row by row, so that there is an ever increasing spiral of people walking slowly around the totem. On the outside walk the heavily ornamented young women with their tall silver horns, shoulder to shoulder with the most elderly women of the village in blue velvet jackets and indigo aprons embroidered with bright flowers. Next to them walk older women in simple black velvet coats, and on the inside of the circle walk the men, in long indigo robes and turbans, many of them smoking tobacco from stoneware pipes. Lastly, from everywhere, children run into the spiral and join their mothers and grandmothers, some walk, some are carried, all are included.

The drum beats steadily, and the dancers walk with a measured step round and round. Every villager has a part, every position in the spiral has a meaning and a connection with every ther position. And then, like watching a pebble thrown into a whirlpool of water, the spiral spins itself out and the dancers disperse in every direction. The dance is over, and it’s time for lunch – as we walk around the village afterwards smoke and wonderful cooking smells rise from every kitchen, and children run up and down the cobbled pathways between the houses waiting for their meals. 

After lunch the village returns to normal life – women wash vegetables in the river in preparation for preserving, fields are tended to, the village’s water wheel is being repaired, and the elderly women return to their embroidery. It seems a simple life, beautifully simple, and I’m sure it has its hardships and lean years – yet how complicated are lives have become, and how we all wish to live so simply again. I will try and remember this, when I’m back in Shanghai and bowling along like a hurricane….

Instant Banquet at the Miao Sisters Meal Festival

As we walked through Shidong village, early on the first morning of the Miao Sisters’ Meal Festival, a beautiful young woman and her son approached us. She wore her long hair piled high on her head in a bun decorated with a large pink silk flower, in the tradition of the Flower Miao women. We were, all five of us, foreigners, but undaunted she explained in simple Chinese that she woud like to invite us to her parents’ home for lunch,  and that it would be her family’s pleasure to host us. 
“Will it be OK with your mother?” I asked.
I had heard of the legendary hopitality of the Miao people but had never experienced it firsthand, and I couldn’t help but think of the words my mother might say if I arrived on the equivalent of Christmas morning with five hungry strangers in tow. On the whole, Chinese people are incredibly, generously hospitable, particularly when they know you love Chinese food, but we’d only just met. However, she made a quick phone call, confirmed that we were welcome, and off we all walked along the river, her small son’s legs doing double quick time to keep up. Like all Chinese children, he was well-protected against any touch of cold weather with about fifteen layers of long underwear, and as we walked and the day got warmer he shed layer after layer, looking thinner and thinner with each shedding. Unbelievably for a day of near 25C he had a pair of tracksuit pants and two layers of thermals under his jeans.
As we reached their house, across the field from where women were beginning to gather and dress, he ran ahead to greet his grandmother who came from inside the house to meet us. The house, one of the more prosperous looking in the village, was two storys of brick with white-tiled floors. The only door opened on to a common courtyard shared by four other houses and a large chicken coop, along with various bits of ploughs and wheelbarrows. Lacking a kitchen or an indoor bathroom, a pink dish of clean water was set up under the outdoor tap for washing – hands, clothes,vegetables, hair, and in another tub wallowed a very large fish, ready to be dispatched for dinner.
Inside, the large open lower floor room was sparsely furnished with a low square wooden table surrounded on four sides by simple wooden settles for seats,  a small shrine covered in offerings for the ancestors, and a battered couch. The young woman sat us down, and we waited to be introduced to first her mother, then her father, her uncle and her brother-in-law. Her mother, who we all called mama, wore a long-sleeved blue tunic over black trousers, her hair also in a high bun. They all seemed perfectly unsusrprised to be entertaining a house full of foreigners at short notice, and without any fuss or further bother mama walked over to the battered upright cupboard in the corner of the room and pulled out first one, then three, then eight steaming hot dishes. 

When, I ask you, did she whip those up? It must have been after the phone call from her daughter, but that walk had taken no more than forty minutes….and yet here was a fully prepared banquet of eight dishes.

We began with steaming rice, ladled from a huge heavy wooden vessel on the floor, and in turn tasted all of the eight dishes. There were crispy peanuts stir-fried with sugar and chili so they caramelised just a little; egg fried with fragrant green herbs; slices of cold roast pork, simple and flavourful; a dish of pickled sour green beans, snapped into tiny lengths and spiced with chili; large chunks of fish slow-cooked with a fiery chili, garlic and tomato braise; sauteed bean sprouts; stir-fried firm tofu with scallions and green peppers; and a second pork dish with peppers. Alongside the food came smaller bowls decorated with flowers and filled from a 4-litre plastic bottle with the family’s home brewed mi jiu – rice whisky. Lethal stuff. 

I love this type of Chinese food best of all – home-cooked, simple but strong flavours, seasonally fresh – each dish on its own is delicious, without a doubt, but it’s the combination of all the dishes together that makes a Chinese meal like this really satisfying. Mama has probably refined and perfected those eight combined dishes over forty years of cooking for guests and special occasions, to the point where it’s now pretty well perfect and forty minutes is all it takes to magic up a feast like this. Thanks mama – it was all delicious! 
L to R mama, her daughter and grandson, her son-in-law
Tomorrow: the beautifully quiet village of Langde: drums, dancing, and lusheng-playing

The Miao Sisters Meal Festival: Beauty and Ornamentation

I’m sitting in a very third rate hotel rooin Kaili, Guizhou province, looking at the hole in  my bathroom ceiling and the cigarette burns in the carpet, wondering if the wires poking through the hole in the ceiling will present any problem to the adjacent leaking shower head. It’s 6.30 am, and a low cloud is hanging over the town, obscuring everything over six storeys and drizzling on everything below that. There’s a gap in the wall where the window should have joined the wall but didn’t, and it feels like the grey cloud outside is creeping through the triangular space into the room and into my bones. 

Since I left Yunnan on an overnight train from Kunming to Kaili five days ago, I have passed through some mysterious geographic portal into a place where the sun is too tired to shine, to break through the dense cloud and the constant mist. Kaili is ugly. Half-finished red brick buildings loom over broken and cracked sidewalks, and pot-holed roads full of puddles of brown water. Everything, including every person from the knees down, is covered by a layer of mud, and I notice the predominant street business is shoe-shining – rows of women on low stools shake bottles of dirty water over mud covered loafers and wipe the mud off with a mud covered cloth. The muddy children of the shoe-shiners play on nearby pavements. Everyone looks suspicious and cautious.

In many ways this entire trip is culminating here. I’ve come to Kaili to see the Miao Sisters’ Meal Festival, the biggest annual celebration of the Miao people who live in and around Kaili and its surrounding villages, but looking outside it’s hard to reconjure the images of fabulous silver decorative costumes I first saw a year ago in my photography teacher’s apartment as a dirty bus trundles past, splashing more mud across the pavement. 

We set off soon after six thirty, and as we leave Kaili behind the cloud lifts just enough to uncover a unique landscape of green steep sided hills and narrow river valleys. The hills are covered in rows of sloped terraces, planted with rapeseed, potatoes, cabbages, and occasionally rice, each terrace a bare ten metres wide. It must be near impossible to eke a living from such steep land, with the constant threat of landslides from above and floods from the rivers below. As we drive along smaller and smaller roads, villages appear along the riverside – clusters of timber houses on poles, perched on the steep riverbanks and in staggered rows up the hillside. Early morning wisps of smoke can be seen, and people are already out at work preparing the rice beds for spring planting.

Two hours later we arrive in Shidong, the village central to the festival. This is all Miao country hereabouts, and for the next three days there will be music, dancing, and a gathering of people from all the surrounding villages – at least, that’s what we think will happen, because it’s been difficult to get reliable information about exactly where and when the festival takes place. Shidong looks worryingly deserted, but sitting over a bowl of noodles with pickles for breakfast at a tiny street stall, I can hear a jingling, like small bells, coming up the road and a group of women come into view, wearing silver decorated turbans and heavy silver necklaces over their everyday clothes. 

They’ve just arrived on a bus from their village, and they look sort of half-dressed, like a bride wearing a veil with jeans and sneakers, and I secretly feel a little disappointed that they haven’t worn their full costumes for the day.These are modern times after all, and the pictures I’d seen were probably of a select few women in full costume for the benefit of photographers.

But as I watch, the women gather in a group near our noodle stall and one by one, pull dark red intricately embroidered jackets from bags, covered with strips of intense blue and white decoration, and unwrap indigo pleated skirts tied at the waist with woven brocade ties. Out of other bags come heavy silver jewellery, broad silver neckpieces, wide silver bracelets, and silver barrel earpieces like giant bobbins. They stretch the huge holes in their earlobes to place the barrels snugly, and suddenly the group of women is transformed into a stunning and exotic spectacle.

A young girl wears a beaten silver head-dress, intricately beautiful and covered with birds, flowers and dragons. Different hands, her mother’s, her grandmother’s and her aunt’s, help dress her and place the heavy silver neckpieces. She stands patiently, waiting for the dressing to be complete.

The Sisters’ Meal Festival is a festival of courtship in which everyone in the village is involved. There is singing, dancing, water-buffalo fighting, and at the conclusion of the festivities, a young woman may present her suitor with a parcel of coloured sticky rice, containing a symbol of her feelings for him. 

“A pair of red chopsticks  means she has accepted his hand in marriage; one chopstick, his love may not be returned; a garlic or red chili, the boy must look elsewhere; pine needles indicate that the boy should present silks and colourful threads and that she will wait for him.”

(From “Guizhou” by Gina Corrigan. The Guidebook Company Ltd, Hong Kong, 1995)
We follow the pull of the slowly gathering crowds of women over the hill, along the river, and into the next small village, because this seems to be where everyone is heading. An enormous field has been cleared and covered with gravel, just this month we are told, and small groups of people are beginning to appear from the opposite direction, and to prepare their dress. The field is quite empty at this early hour, although the balloon seller may be an optimistic indicator of the crowds to come. 

Chinese lunchtime (11am) is approaching, and a young woman who has befriended us leads us to her house for lunch. The Miao are renowned for their hospitality and their love of a good drink (rice whisky, mijiu, being the local brew) and within five minutes we are seated in her house drinking firewater and eating a delicious meal, while all the members of her family get ready. The meal is the best type of homecooking, and I’ll write about it in the next post because it deserves its own story. It feels like we’ve gatecrashed a wedding, as we watch hair being done, belts being tied, and collars and cuffs being straightened, and the neighbours, whose houses all lead into the same courtyard, drop in to have a look at us exotic foreign creatures with our cameras and our strange shoes, and our complete and utter lack of ornamentation.
As we finish lunch and walk out of the walled courtyard and back into the field, an overwhelming transformation has taken place in just two short hours. Where there was wide empty ground, there are now five or six thousand people in costume, standing in village groups and waiting for the music to begin. I’ve never seen anything like it: an explosion of colour and silver.

All around me is a sea of shining decoration, punctuated by the strong colours of red, black and blue embroideries. Each village has quite strikingly different celebration dress – these are Shidong Miao women, recognisable by their tall silver headdresses and their black and red coats.

The older Shidong women and the men wear coats made from heavy cotton polished to a stiff bronze sheen with ox blood, which also helps waterproof the fabric. Although they wear less silver ornamentation, their dress, with its bright blue embroidery, is truly beautiful.

For the next four hours I just wander and take it all in. There is an opening ceremony of sorts, a lot of drums, and quite a lot of dancing, and although we don’t see any obvious exchanges of rice parcels we do see young couples pairing up to talk and laugh. Everyone seems to be having a fabulous time, and stalls have set up selling drinks and fairy floss to the crowds. 

The afternoon draws on, and for the first time in Guizhou I see the sun, and a patch of blue sky, and it seems like an auspicious way to end the day. The crowd has begun to disperse, and partly undress, at least all the heavier and more uncomfortable parts of their costumes, and they are walking slowly home. 

I’m surprised into laughter when I see a young woman in full silver regalia speaking on her mobile phone, the yellow sleeve of her sports top peeking out from underneath her weighty coat and I’m pulled suddenly, joltingly, into the present. Perhaps she’ll choose a suitor today or tomorrow by a symbol in a parcel of sticky rice, or perhaps she’ll just send him a text message, like everyone else in the world.