The mesmerizing culture of the Miao people

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The Miao ethnicity of China has a long history, rich culture, and an ancient folk religion. Adorned in beautiful traditional clothes, possessing natural talent for singing and dancing, they live in uniquely designed indigenous architecture. Throughout history, the Miao people were constantly migrating, always on the move. In more modern times, part of the Miao people gradually settled down in southeast Asian countries, some of them have even immigrated to Europe and the Americas. Today, the Miao people in China are mainly concentrated in eight provinces, autonomous regions, and cities in southwest and south-central China, among which Guizhou Province has the largest population.

Living by the Mountains and Rivers

Historians have discovered that Xijiang Miao people are the direct descendants of Chiyou, the leader of the prehistory Jiuli tribe. After many wars and life as nomads, they chose to hide in a remote mountainous region and settled down at the base of the Leigong Mountains in today's Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Guizhou. There they built their dwellings adjusting them to the natural geography of the mountains and constructed terraced gardens, continuing this way of life for thousands of years.

The Miao people have continued to live off the lush vegetation of the mountains and river for generations. The Miaoling Mountains located in Guizhou Province are the watershed between the Pearl River and the Yangtze River. It was named so because of the large community of Miao people here. Kaili City, the capital of Qiandongnan, is known as the Pearl of Miaoling Mountains. Just 10 kilometers from the city center, the crystal-clear Bala River winds its way through the valley by the city. On the cliffs of the two peaks on either side of the river, a cluster of Miao villages is scattered like pearls among the green peaks. Bamboo forests shade the stilted homes of Miao families that have black roofs and brown walls.

Xijiang Qianhu Miao Village, located in Xijiang Town, Leishan County, Kaili City, is the largest Miao village in the world. It is made up of four administrative villages — Dongyin, Nangui, Yangpai, and Pingzhai. Half of the mountain is covered with layered stilted houses, preserving the "ancient ecological" culture of the Miao people.

With the rise of tourism, Xijiang Qianhu Miao Village on both sides of the Baishui River has been developed to cater to tourists, providing all the needed travel conveniences including shops, restaurants, hotels, open-air markets, streets where local snacks are sold, and cars to take visitors sightseeing around the village. The slippery and rugged stone steps in the old village area lead to the traditional stilted houses of Miao families on the slope.

In the morning, Miao men and women can be seen carrying loads on their shoulders as they walk along the moss-covered steps. Dogs look on quietly at the people passing by, not differentiating between locals and strangers. Inside the stilted houses, a mixture of human voices and hollering chickens can be heard. Blooming wild flowers make their way through the green tiles covered with thick green moss. Near an elderly person drying grain on a wooden sundeck, a wooden placard hanging over the entrance of a house reads, "Peace to this Family." The strong Miao women can be seen hanging their quilts and lay out their rice to dry.

Over the Baishui River that runs through the village, there are seven traditional "wind and rain" bridges, which not only serve as a means of channeling traffic, but also provide shelter from the rain.

The people who live in the ancient village are sincere, kind, hospitable, and honest. When I stayed there, I often took rides in cars of local families. If you ever get lost, there is no need to worry. All you need to do is just call out in a loud voice outside any courtyard, "Is anyone home? I'm lost." A wooden window would open instantly, and an elderly person would stick their head out and give directions in simple, basic Putonghua (standard Chinese) describing which route is close and which route is farther, and which road is easier to walk and which one is rough and uneven.

Traditional Farming Preserved

The fantastically colored rice terraces can be seen at the edge of the village path. The ripe rice is bent over as if expressing gratefulness to the earth for giving it life. The rows of yellow rice on the hillside, river banks, and paddy fields are mixed with green grass on the ridge of the field, having the appearance of the golden brocade embroidered by a heavenly weaver.

Villagers cultivate grain and vegetables on the slopes deep in the mountains, preserving their ancient agricultural production methods of slash-and-burn, creating scenes resembling beautiful artwork. Young Miao couples can be seen working in the field together. The wife cuts the rice, then the husband beats the bundles of rice against a wooden barrel, separating the rice from the husk. They talk while they work and their happy faces show that they enjoy being together.

After the harvest is done, the tied-up rice is neatly arranged for better handling. Self-sufficiency in living off the land is a way of life that Miao families have handed down to their descendants for generations, and today the Miao people still maintain their traditional way of life and work regardless of the gazing crowds of tourists who pass through their villages.

In the right moment, the rhythmic sound of rice being thrashed and birds singing seems like the most beautiful of sounds in the world. Extracting the rice beads from rice stocks is a grueling task. After farmers strike the rice stocks against the square barrels, beads of rice fall into the barrel following separation from the plant. This is all completed by hand without the assistance of any machinery.

Clothing that Integrates Both Nature and Culture

The traditional clothing of the Miao people are a mixture of black and blue colors, and as a result of the dexterous hands of Miao women, whether they are walking in the streets, selling wares on the road, or working through the field, wearing fashionable or traditional clothing, the earthen colors of the mountains and rivers are exhibited on the clothing. Miao dresses worn by the women are embroidered with flowers, grass, phoenixes, magpies, and kingfishers, which sway sideways as they walk.

Legend has it that the "Mother Butterfly," regarded as the ancestor of the Miao people, emerged from an ancient maple tree. As a result, Miao people plant many maple trees in their villages to protect the peace of the village. Maple trees are also planted at the ends of the bridge conveying the meaning of escorting people safely across the river. Planting maple trees on the edges of fields is intended to ensure a good harvest. When someone in the family is ill for a long period of time, they will burn incense, perform a ritual gesture of respect, and hang red cloth on maple trees, to drive away the serious illness. When Miao people build their houses, they use maple trees as pillars of the house to wish for the prosperity of their children. If the maple tree stays alive, it signifies that the area is an auspicious area to live in. But if the tree dies, it is understood by locals to be an omen that the area is dangerous and should be abandoned quickly. All these are examples of the remains of Miao people's cultural worship of maple trees.

The legendary "Mother Butterfly" laid 12 eggs, one of which was the distant ancestor of the Miao people. Images of flying butterflies are woven onto the chest area, shoulders, cuffs, and buttons of women's clothing, which is the Miao people's way of praying for protection from the "Mother Butterfly." Since the maple tree has such a special kinship with the ancestors of the Miao people, it has become the totem of the Miao people, and images of the maple tree are widely used in decorations of the Miao people.

Silver ornaments are another feature of Miao people's decorative adornment. For the Miao people, silver jewelry is not merely a beautiful decoration, they strongly believe that silver can ward off evil spirits and bring them good luck. Miao people singing and dancing dressed up in their glittering and jingling silver jewels is a scene that is quite pleasing to see and hear.

Today, there are more than 200 kinds of Miao costumes in Qiandongnan, which is the region with the largest variety of well-preserved Miao costumes in the world. It is called the "Miao Costume Museum." The styles and designs on Miao people's apparel record the ups and downs of their magnificent history and the accumulation of their rich culture. At the gate of Xijiang Ancient Village, the team that welcomes visitors wear no less than 20 different kinds of dazzling costumes. During dragon boat races that are held on the Dragon Boat Festival in Shibing County on the Wuyang River, young Miao ladies who participate in the river dress show wear many varieties of traditional Miao dresses. One girl who was wearing a heavy necklace said it was very tiring to wear it and offered to allow me to put it on my neck. The silver decoration must have weighed at least a few kilograms. Each selection of Miao women's clothing has its own unique beauty. Miao male clothing styles now look quite similar to that of Han Chinese, and even the elderly Miao people can be seen wearing traditional Han Chinese clothing. Handmade traditional Miao clothing is now usually only worn as costumes for performances.

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