The Chinese Hmong

Trip Start Jul 17, 2008
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Trip End Aug 06, 2008


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Where I stayed
Homestay Family

Flag of China  , Guizhou,
Saturday, August 2, 2008

Up until now, our interactions with people have been solely with those of the Han nationality. THis isn't surprising, given that the Han makes up the overwhelming majority of people in China - 93% of the nation's 1.3 billion. As soon as our plane landed in Guizhou Provence, however, we noticed a difference in culture. The women on the streets of the city of Guoyang were not all dressed in the western clothes that even the people in the rural villages near Luoyang wore, but instead sported silk-embroidered velvet tops, and piled their long black hair on top of their heads, adorned with a flower, comb, and decorative chopsticks. These women carried a wooden yolk balanced on one shoulder. Fastened to either end of this straight, flat stick is a basket, filled with grapes, peppers, silk, or other products that they are selling in the city. On their backs they are often seen carrying a child in an embroidered velvet backpack.

Behind the outward appearance of the small, sturdy-looking women, is a long history of migration and persecution that parallels that of the Jewish people in the west. These women are part of a culture that call themselves Hmong, and who the Chinese call Miao. I have heard different stories from different Hmong people about whether they embrace or are offended by the term Miao, so I will use Hmong here. They are, however, the same culture, carrying the same rich history.

The first impression that I had of the Hmong, women with fancy hairdo's and elaborate clothes, soon opened up to me as a colorful and culturally rich group that works hard, laughs often and fully, and holds strong to their traditions. The Hmong have been pushed around China and other parts of Asia since before recorded history. Five thousand years ago they were pushed west from the coast to the Yellow River Valley, and 2,000 years ago during the Han dynasty they were pushed southwest into the mountains, developing a gift for turning even the most difficult terrain into productive farmland. The Chinese exploited this talent, and again "relocated" these farming communities 600 years ago to the hills in Guizhou where they remain today.

I had the privaledge of staying in one of the larger of the Hmong villages, Xijiang, about a two-and-a-half hour bus ride southeast of the city of Kaili. From the bus, I became familiar with the intimate relationship the Hmong had with the limestone mountains of Guizhou. Thankfully for my stomach, which was becoming overwhelmed with foreign bacteria and spicy food, the roads were mostly paved, albeit narrow, full of potholes, and abutting a steep drop-off with no shoulder whatsoever. The mountains are landscaped with terraced gardens of sweet potatoes, corn, squash, a decorative grass used for basket-making, tomatoes, cucumbers, forests of pear trees, and rice paddies! Yes, rice! Growing on flat terraces high in the mountains! My previous experience with rice is that it is a wetland crop, refusing to grow unless submerged in shallow, slow- or non-moving water. I was shocked when I realized that this plant was happily growing hundreds of feet about the stream-beds, and enquired about this to the guides. I was expecting to hear about genetic engineering and drought-tolerant varieties, but what Iearned was even more amazing: the Hmong farmers have manipulated the landscape and built intricate aquifer systems that channeled all the rainfall on the mountain and trapped it in the rice terraces. I was still skeptical, and spent a lot of time examining this during the three days we spent in our village homestays. The terraced rice paddies do indeed trap water in flat-bottomed man-made ponds that ducks played in and children catch on lines small fish with a dorsal fin that encircled their bodies. And rice grows there, too!

There are very few places on the mountain that do not support a harvestable plant. Along with those for food grows Tung Oil Trees, whose fruits are squeezed for their oil that is used to coat wood to keep bridges and houses brightly colored and rot-free. My host mother is up before dawn each morning working in the rice fields or tending to other vegetables before collecting sweet potato greens and other weeds (in her double baskets, swung over her shoulder on a yolk) which she grinds up and cooked with grain and water over an open fire to feed to her pigs. After slopping the pigs and gathering eggs from the chickens, we cooked and ate breakfast. My host father was already gone, having saddled up his pack-pony, he made his way down the mountain to help move earth and bricks to build the new shops and hotels in the valley. The Hmong in Guizhou found a new, easier way to make a living: catering to the ever-increasing tourist population. They are currently exploiting to the fullest the fact that people want to come see indigenous communities, buy their traditional products, and stay in 5-star hotels with air conditioning, and eat western food with only a sampling of the traditional rice noodles with fried eggs and scallions that we had for breakfast that morning.

My host family's life is an interesting mix of their traditional way of life and modern amenities. They cook over a wood fire, pry corn kernels off the cob by hand, peal potatoes with a sickle, get water from an outdoor faucet, and relieve themselves in an open latrine, and yet have reliable electricity, and we watched the lead up to the Olympics in Chinese on TV during dinner. Technology has not missed this rural mountain village!

The Culture of the Hmong has not been lost, despite the infiltration of television. I was fascinated by watching the women. They have their own language, different from the Hmong language spoken throughout the village, and the Mandarin that is making its way in, of which most people in the village speak at least a little. This language of the women is a sing-songy, melodious speech that, although I don't understand a word of it, appears to be full of ritual and respect. As I walked with my host mother by the house of her sister-in-law, my host mother chanted and sang until her sister-in-law came to the window. They exchanged songs, and between each one we would walk away, only to be called back by the singing woman at the window, who apparently beckoned a reply. This ritual was repeated at least eight times before tradition permitted us to be on our way.

Courting and marriage are other customs that are rich in culture and tradition. Young women wear their hair piled in the signature oblong bun on their head. Married women wear their hair in a mushroom-like or umbrella swooping over their ears and the side of their faces, and also have it piled on top of their heads. Tradition states that women have to marry men outside their village and move to their husbands village. I have heard lots of different courting rituals, including girls handing boys bells if they're interesting in courting, and girls parents cutting a small hole in her bedroom wall that boys come up to at night and sing through. If the girl is interested, she sings back. If they sing back and forth until sunrise, it's a sign that they should get married.

My interest in fabric arts made the embroidery one of the most interesting Hmong traditions to me. Girls each embroider a beautifully decorated skirt for ceremonial dances. We were welcomed into the village by two chanting women wearing these skirts and their matching embroidered jackets with silver necklaces and crowns, carrying bowls of baiju for us. We were also serenaded at a feast for us by women singing and dancing, and men playing the lu sheng, a multi-piped wind instrument that reminded me a lot of bagpipes. I had a chance to use the brightly colored silk thread to embroider a dragon on a piece of cloth. I'm not sure what it was for, but the pattern was beautiful.

I fear that this rich culture will fade over the next couple of generations. Tourism is becoming a bigger and bigger industry, and with tourism comes money and modern amenities. On one side, it will make the lives of these hard-working people easier. On the other, with an easier lifestyle comes a loss of culture and tradition because it will no longer be necessary, and introducing people of different traditions will water down their own traditions. I am curious to see how much this village will change in the coming years.
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