The Chinese Hmong
Trip Start Jul 17, 2008
10Trip End Aug 06, 2008
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Where I stayed
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
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
There are very few places on the mountain that do not support a harvestable plant
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
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.