Posts Tagged 'Guizhou'

All tomorrow’s parties

But what did you do in those Chinese villages? my city friends ask me. Didn’t you get bored with hiking about in the wilderness, and crave some society, some culture, some fun?

A lot of the time I was writing my book, and craved solitude and long hikes. But a lot of the time, I was going to parties.

The Bai, the Miao and the Dong, the Tibetans and Lissu – they do love a good party. Like followers of traditional calendars everywhere, they find endless occasion: sowing and harvest; full moon and flood; birth, marriage, death of people and of gods; house-warming and tomb-sweeping; arrivals and departures, beginnings and ends. And they are always happy to share the occasion with random visitors. If it involves said visitor making a total fool of herself, so much the better…

In the Bai region of Yunnan it’s the grandmothers who keep the world going, the calendar pages turning, the parties full of food, dancing, pageantry, laughter. They do love to laugh. To dress up the tombs and temples and houses (not themselves; it’s the old men who dress up in cardboard crowns) with bright flags and flowers and paper people and paper money. To dance around, tinkling cymbals and tapping drums. To feed, and ply with baijiu (rice wine) the five thousand.

Every month there’s a festival in one of the many temples scattering Shaxi valley, and it’s a fabulous and hilarious privilege to be invited to join in, to eat and eat, to sit on a tiny bench watching the performance, to be dragged up to dance with a huge bunch of paper flowers or a china bowl containing a lit candle – balanced on my head.

The locals are all so delighted, dashing about the temple, bowing to the gods, reciting prayers, gossiping and openly laughing when it all goes a bit pear-shaped… I’ve no idea of the religious significance of any of it, or why they made me dance with a bowl on my head. I suspect there was no significance, they were just making it up as they went along, propitiating the gods just in case, and having a lot of fun.

Rambling between villages in Guizhou province, we stumbled over a Miao house-warming party and were invited in for food and drink – drink – drink. Old men already so drunk they couldn’t stand up; aunties and grandmothers, those ones who keep the word turning, busy making everyone else drunk with their endless bowls of wine dipped from clay jars, which have to be drained to the bottom not once but twice; younger sisters looking after the babies. The family’s four sons were all there, even the one who was working in Fujian province, in the city, and who wandered off with his girlfriend to walk moodily hand in hand through the paddy fields; two modern children, not charmed by rural excess; a bit bored now they knew what else life had to offer.

Later there will be dancing; there will be bull-fighting, they promise, filling up our wine bowls yet again. I am kidnapped; carried off to the upper village and presented like a hunting trophy to various households, to a succession of shyly, sweetly smiling small girls trying out their few words of English and showing me their battered school books; more food; more wine; up to the village hall where the bronze drum is hauled out of storage and hefted down to the square and the former communist party leader begins to bong and blong, the giggling small girls and a few chuckling grannies begin to dance and laugh when I get the steps wrong, round and round we go or maybe it’s the world that’s going round and round, the strings of drying yellow maize and red chillies, the dark wooden houses jumbled along steep cobbled pathways and the pink pigs peeking out from their sties, the gigantic stairs of the rice terraces stepping up the mountain, peopled with hay stacks like shaggy giants wearing topknots of pine branches –

and now I’m in another little dark house, sitting on a miniature stool by the embers with another lot of people I’ve never seen before all chomping and slurping, staring at me with shiny eyes, solemn staring babies peeking over their parent’s shoulders, and I feel like a pink pig, like a giant puppet pig in a tiny puppet show, in a Miao Punch-and-Judy, and I really don’t want any more baijiu thankyouverymuch – and I tiptoe away when no one is looking and stagger back to the lower village, where I find my Chinese companion has been tucked up in bed by our hosts to sleep off the alcohol and I’m on my own where no one speaks English and everything’s broken…

Stolen or lost

“Too many wires in the way,” complained a Chinese photographer in the bus bouncing down the appalling unpaved road from Zhaoxing. “Ruined every one of my pictures.”

There were indeed a lot of telegraph wires, snaking up and down the valleys from village to lovely village, destroying the impression that we were back in some prelapsarian idyll before industrialisation, before pollution and quarries and communications and roads like the new expressway that is going to bring tour buses and hotels and business and change to this wonderful corner of south-east Guizhou.

In Yunnan province, the omnipresent telegraph poles have lurid signs fixed to them, exhorting passers-by not to steal the wires. “I can see why you’d want to,” complained a friend, after scrambling down yet another far-too-steep slope in an attempt to keep lines and notices out of his photos of the Nujiang.

The villages along the upper Nujiang only got electricity two years ago. We came across gangs of men, putting up telegraph wires all along this steep, wild, spectacular valley that leads into Tibet.

It was something to see, as they heaved on cables that trailed up and down precipices and across waterfalls; a wonder too, quite different from the wonder of this glorious work of nature; instead here you have to admire the planning, the human skill and ingenuity.

(And the humanity of the men, who offered us a lift back in their truck when we were faced with a long freezing moonlit trek home).

All too often in China – everywhere I’ve been, lately – the prospect of progress is linked with loss; of landscape and history, of diversity, of wilderness, (of a good photo…), of home. Dams on the Nujiang may drown these telegraph wires, and the villages they link; progress superceding progress. As a race, ingenious humans never know when to stop.

Like we didn’t know when to stop on our Nujiang walk, and had to be rescued by the workmen; but trusting to chance and random kindness is what will always be left to us.

Dressing up

I know I’m on the right bus when a woman gets on carrying a huge, scintillating silver crown. She thinks I’m hilarious (everyone in China thinks I’m hilarious) and when she offers to put the crown on my head the whole bus laughs uproariously.

At the next village, people stuff carrier bags full of blue satin and pig’s trotters through the bus windows, along with what looks like an enormous silver crescent moon.

Jiao Gao is the final stop; a cluster of balconied dark wooden houses tucked into a narrow valley and climbing up the hillsides. There is bunting hung everywhere (the same coloured flags that are used to rope off road works and building sites), and people putting up small marquees, even a deflated mini bouncy castle. In the school yard a basketball tournament is in progress.

I hang around and wait for the festival to begin. Nothing much happens. Small children shout Hello! and find me hilarious. On the covered bridge, people are lining up to get injections of something or other (insulin? Morphine?).

The basketball tournament finishes, the day draws on, nothing much happens, and I wait, because in China, good things come to those who wait.

Sure enough, just as it’s getting dark a big group of students from the nearby town appears and adopts me the way teachers and students have been rescuing and adopting me everywhere in Guizhou (Do I have the words ‘completely helpless’ tattooed on my forehead?).

They’re so kind! Rowdy and cheerful and utterly delighted with me, and with themselves for finding me. Thanks to them I get to the festival over the next two days, I stay with a local family who dress me up in satin and silver like a vastly oversized doll (“You’re so tall!” everyone tells me in Guizhou – I’m 5’ 4”, for the record) to the delight and hilarity of all… and me, I feel like the wondering child in some Victorian fairytale I read when I was little, transported (with cultural inaccuracy) to the land of the nodding mandarins.

On all the open balconies, mums and aunties and grannies are smoothing out blue satin kimonos, shaking out skirts of swinging embroidered plaques. Arguing with happy intensity about what should be sewn where as they stitch on bells and silver ornaments, using their soft, flat black buns of hair as impromtu pincushions. They have spent days, months, years embroidering the kimono sleeves with coiled green dragons to bring their daughters luck and happiness at festivals like this, and on their wedding day.

Their daughters are putting on makeup; thick white foundation, bright blue eyeshadow and pink lipstick. Many of them have come back to the village from towns and cities for this festival.

Miss Luo is studying English in nearby Kaili. Her parents are farmers, they never had a chance to leave the village and study; they’re proud of their daughter who will surely have a better, easier life than they had. Miss Luo doesn’t know how to do the intricate embroidery that adorns her own festival outfit; I never had time to learn, she says, I was always studying. When I’m older, I’d like to learn. She never wore her hair in the flower-adorned bun that’s traditional for the Miao women here, even before she left for town. To me, it seems a pretty, fancy hairstyle I’d have adored as a romantic kid. But we wanted to be different, she explains.

I wonder if she’ll ever have time to make a wedding outfit for her own daughter. I wonder, by the time her daughter is old enough to do so, whether anyone will stick roses and twine black wool into their flat buns of hair anymore.

The tops of the hills are hidden in cloud, and grey water buffalo loom from grey trailing mist over the paddy fields. By the village square, vendors are winding perfect spheres of pink and blue candyfloss from shallow pans powered ingeniously by bicycle. The bouncy castle is up and bouncing until it springs a leak and rapidly deflates. A man appears out of nowhere leading, of all things, a Bactrian camel. It looks as surprised to be here as the children are to see it; perhaps it is wondering how it ended up in damp misty Guizhou, perhaps it’s pining for the dry deserts of home.

Round and round the square walk the young women and girls in their beautiful clothes, three steps left, three steps right to the breathy, fluttery hoot of the lusheng pipes. There are old men holding hands, wearing satin waistcoats and long chang shans, who keep getting out of step and wandering off. There’s a trail of smaller and smaller children at the back, scampering to keep up, while attentive mums swoop in to straighten a sleeve there, tug a skirt here. There are rowdy young men charging through the crowd, selecting victims to drink rice wine from horn cups.

But through it all the girls keep step. Their expressions are serious and remote, as though their thoughts are miles away, but probably their thoughts are right there, inside their heads, concentrating on balancing the great weight of silver flowers and phoenixes and crescent buffalo horns they carry. Today they are carrying their village traditions, today they are Miao girls.

The Land of Dong

Isn’t that where one’s nose turns luminous? asks one friend.

No, but one’s hands might turn blue…

The Land of Dong does sound like something out of a children’s nonsense book. But it’s real enough, it’s in south-east Guizhou province, China.

It’s a land of green and red terraced fields, of streams tumbling down hillsides and children running down beside them on their way to school from high huddled hilltop villages, of wooden theatre stages about to fall over sideways, of drum towers and wind-and-rain bridges where people gather to chat and bake sweet potatoes.

The village drains run purple with indigo dye; the streets echo to the thud of giant wooden mallets the women hold in their blue-dyed hands, beating strips of indigo cloth to a smooth dark metallic shine.

All the colours are fadedly sumptuous; old gold and bronze and purple and chocolate and olive green; rich colours worn with long use.

The local goddess is a woman warrior; she’s worshipped with a green paper umbrella and a few scattered blue-and-white thimble cups.

I’ve made it sound like a nonsense fairytale. Edward Lear did get something else right; ‘The plaintive pipe of the lively Dong’. That must be the giant bamboo lusheng pipes. They produce a strange, forlorn fluttering hoot; a melancholy sound for such a lively and cheerful people.

At the Conjiang music festival, the lusheng pipe competition consisted of seeing which band could play loudest and longest. Maybe loud enough even for the long-lost Jumbly Girl, with her sky-blue hands, to hear…

The poorest and the richest

Guizhou has always been the poorest province in China. Accounts by 19th and early 20th century missionaries paint an appalling picture of an entire population indebted to landlords and addicted to opium.

Mothers would blow opium smoke across their babies’ faces because they thought it would make them stronger. It clearly didn’t work – in 1934, infant mortality was fifty percent.

People were so poor they would sell their children for a pittance – the girls as a matter of course, but even precious boys were sold as slave labour.

It being still the poorest province in China, famed for having no three li of land without a mountain, no three days without rain, and no man with three silver dollars in his pocket, as a masochist of course I decided to go there.

How does a history of exploitation and degradation make for the kindest, most generous and smiling people I’ve met in China?

How can a population so materially poor have developed such incredibly rich and varied folk customs – costume and music, architecture and celebrations?


How can people who regularly sold their children have yet carried them on their backs (and still carry them – no pushchairs in Guizhou) in beautifully embroidered baby carriers; works of art, these painstaking labours of love?

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