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“Beautiful Ladies! Join the Dance!” The Miao Sister’s Festival in Laotun Village

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 
Dragon dancing  
Singing competitions 
A fair
Bullfights, cockfights and dog fights 
Traditional dancing
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 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.

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.