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….