A Stay in A Remote Shui Ethnic Village

The car flew along the expressway in Southwest China's Guizhou Province, bathed in mild sunshine, as we chatted and laughed happily.

We had taken advantage of a long vacation to travel from Chengdu, in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, to Rongjiang, in Southwest China's Guizhou Province.

When we arrived at a small village along the way, dusk was already descending.

Should we carry on to Rongjiang in the dark, or find an inn in the village? As we sat there trying to decide, we suddenly caught a glimpse of the beautiful view on the other side of the river.

Several diaojiaolou (typical buildings of the Shui people) peeped through thick green bamboos and ancient banyan trees, surrounded by dark green water and softened by a gossamer evening mist. Across the sparkling waves, a small raft plied its way with a load of passengers from the village.

A young man with an amiable smiling face, walked toward us quickly. He extended his hands like an old friend and said: "I'm a man fond of asking friends to be my guest. Would you like to stay at my house tonight?'

His sincere emotion and hospitality thrust away our sense of strangeness at once. We were exulted at this unexpected opportunity of staying in such a beautiful mountain village for a night.

We soon knew from the courteous host, Wang Bingji, that the village was called Bameng and that all of the villagers were members of the Shui ethnic minority.

Actually there are about 300,000 Shui people living in Guizhou. It is said that ancestors migrated from East China's Jiangxi Province to Guizhou.

The Shui people speak the Han language and once cherished their own language, Shui Shu, which was exclusively used by priests.

We knew practically nothing about the Shuis, but could not but imagine that they must be extremely fond of water. Otherwise, why would they call themselves "shui," which means "water" in Han Chinese, and dwell so close to water?

Friendly host

The river the mountain village was situated beside was called the Duliu River. The limpid water was translucent blue. Some unattended boats were moored by the bank. Teenagers and little children disported on the sandy river bank. Occasionally, we caught sight of young women with shoulder poles, on their way to the river to clean vegetables.

Wang ushered our car to a spot by the river bank under the ancient banyan tree that stood next to his home. "Just park here on the bank, no problem," said Wang. Leaving a nice car with no attendant? We were pleasantly surprised.

The village people helped us unload our heavy packs and camera-bags and led us into the village.

Old wooden houses stood shoulder to shoulder beside the narrow stone path. We were sure we had found an ancient town.

Upon entering the parlour of Wang's house, we quickly discerned that except for a clock on the wall facing the main door, and a big stove in front of a square table, there was hardly any furniture in the room, let alone any decorative items or electric appliances.

Nonetheless, the family did not seem the least bit embarrassed by their humble circumstances. "Can't help it, we're not rich. But please feel free to stay here, and don't mention money!"

Their warm-hearted welcome and smiling faces melted our hearts.

Wang's 89-year-old grandmother Pang Yanian kept getting up, busily murmuring to herself, reluctant to waive her paramount claim to preside over such a big event.

Friends and relatives of the family also came, not willing to miss the opportunity to drink a cup of wine with the first guests ever to lodge in the village.

When I sat by the stove, a thought came into my mind: I have not heard even a single bark of a dog in this big village.

When I asked why there were no dogs around, Wang laughed and said: "Why should we have dogs? There are neither thieves nor robbers around here."

The words at once made me think of where we had parked our car, and I fancied for a moment that I could see into the simple honest hearts of these Shui minority people, and felt quite overpowered by their simplicity and honesty.

A charming village

When I woke up after a marvelous sleep with pleasant dreams, the crowing of roosters and chirping of birds were already welcoming the day. I got up and went outside just in time to see wisps of cooking-smoke curling skyward, and thin mists hanging in the mountain valleys. Dew sparkled on the grass.

The wooden houses and all the green living things, having been washed and purified by a morning rain, looked fresh and vitally alive. The verdant wheat fields, the golden-yellow flowers of rape, the young bamboos which swayed with unstudied elegance, the huge ancient banyan trees with their beautiful long beards, the singing and winding brooks, combined with the insouciant chirping of birds, wove a panorama of sights, sounds, colours and light.

I took a damp path ascending the mountain, and saw a number of wooden barns standing here and there along the edge of the village. Many paper tokens were pasted on the doors of the houses and the tree trunks.

Shui people have the tradition of pasting messages on paper on doors and windows to bring them good fortune.

Most of the villagers still live by farming and dream of someday having the door of fortune open for them.

They had tried, for example, to cultivate mushrooms and ginseng. However, due to the high mountains and the great distance from urban market as well as their lack of capital, they have not managed to fulfill their dream.

At present, though they did not worry about cold and hunger any more, they have not been able to significantly improve their livelihood. No wonder the phrase "there's nothing we can do about it" should be so common here.

There are about 100 families in Bameng, and they have only a pitiful 0.4 mu (0.027 hectares) of arable land per person, according to the village head Wang Guoliang.

"Low education and lack of enterprise have bound the hands and feet of Bameng people," said the head. Out of the 40-odd young men in the village, only 12 went out to earn a living. But they could only find manual jobs that paid less than 20 yuan (US$2.40) a day.

Promising youth

Brought up on green mountains with beautiful water, the young men of the village were all nice-looking and animated people. Fashionably dressed, they lingered in front of the market in groups, or played games on the river bank.

Actually some young men in the village had studied in college. Better informed and with more confidence, they were more ambitious than others.

Some of them had ventured to prosperous Guangdong Province in South China or had undertaken mine management jobs.

Wang Bingji's cousin Wang Bingnan was one of them. The living conditions of his family were much better than those of the other villagers, and he was full of ideas about potential business opportunities: Duliu River could be a tourist attraction; medicinal herbs or economic crops might find a place in the market.

Along the edge of the village, wooden barns of different sizes, covered by greenish blue tiles and supported on slender long legs, stood in a quiet queue, offering a very pleasing view when looked at from a distance.

What attracted us most was the wooden coffins placed under these raised barns. Shui people believe that an early preparation for death is necessary, as it will relieve the next generation of worry and fuss.

Traditional costume

The Shui women dress in bright colours and the men in dark tones.

When the women grow older, they wear darker and darker colours, giving their bright coloured clothes to the younger women, until they are dressed in only black and blue.

The fundamental colour of young women's clothing is a vivid dark green or a light blue. A typically dressed Shui woman wears an intricate silver necklace, and has a white turban or a blackish blue one, and a colourful belt fastened around her waist.

Such a fashion of dress conveys the impression of neatness as well as beauty.

The "Beishan" is a container used by young women here to carry their infants on back. They are usually painstakingly made, and their colours and designs are rich and very decorative.

Pumpkin Festival

When we took leave of Bameng, the villagers took us by the hand and asked us to join them again in the next Pumpkin Festival in autumn, which is the most important festival for the Shui people.

Generally, the Pumpkin Festival is held in the last 10 days of the ninth month on the lunar calendar.

People are not permitted to eat meat on the night of the festival. Instead, they sit around the stove eating pumpkin and sometimes fish, and after that, fire homemade guns outside their houses.

It is said that there was once a prestigious progenitor of the Shui, who went upstairs after a harvest to get some pumpkins, but unfortunately fell down, killing himself. His descendants celebrate the festival to honour his virtue and remember him.

The car hit the road again, but those warm eyes and waving hands would be treasured in the bottom of my heart forever, as well as the green mountains and the beautiful water.

( China Daily September 4, 2002)

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