Southeastern Guizhou – known locally as Qiandongnan – forms a landscape of high hills cut by rivers and dotted with dark wooden houses with buffaloes plodding around rice terraces. Women working in the fields have babies strapped to their backs under brightly quilted pads, and their long braided hair is coiled into buns secured by silver hairpins and fluorescent plastic combs. They are Miao, and Qiandongnan is one of the best places in China to meet ethnic peoples on their own terms. Miao villages around the district capital, Kaili, are noted for their exuberant festivals, which though increasingly touristed have managed to retain their cultural integrity. Beyond Kaili, there’s a scenic route southeast to the mountainous border with Guangxi province, where Dong hamlets sport their unique drum towers and bridges (see Sanjiang and Chengyang); northeast lies the unusually attractive town of Zhenyuan and a tough ascent into Fanjing Shan’s cloud forests. Kaili is connected by good road and rail links to Guiyang and neighbouring Hunan, with buses and minibuses providing regular services elsewhere.
The Miao – or Hmong, as they are better known outside of China – are spread through Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Forced off their lands by the Qing-dynasty government, rebels in Guizhou such as Zhang Xiumei took a lesson from the Taipings in adjacent Guangxi and seeded their own uprising in 1854, which was only put down in late 1873 after a huge slaughter involving whole towns being obliterated; out of a provincial population of seven million, over half died during the revolt.
Miao women are famous for their embroidery skills: girls traditionally spent years stitching their wedding dresses, which often became treasured heirlooms, though most are made by machine nowadays. Patterns are sometimes abstract, or incorporate plant designs, butterflies (the bringer of spring and indicating hoped-for change), dragons, fish – a China-wide good luck symbol – and buffalo motifs. Each region produces its own styles, such as the sequinned, curly green and red patterns from the southerly Leishan district, Chong’an’s dark geometric work, and the bright, fiery lions of Shidong.
Many of the design themes recur in Miao silverwork, the most elaborate pieces again being made for wedding assemblages. Women appear at some festivals weighed down with coil necklaces, spiral earrings and huge headpieces, all of which are embossed or shaped into flowers, bells and beasts.
Sisters’ Meal Festival
Sisters’ Meal Festival
Miao villages around Kaili are best visited on market days or during one of the many annual festivals. Markets operate on a five-day cycle, with the busiest at Chong An and Shidong; most festivals take place in early spring, early summer or late autumn and attract thousands of people for buffalo fights, dances, performances of lusheng (a long-piped bamboo instrument) and horse or boat races. The biggest event of the year is the springtime Sisters’ Meal, the traditional time for girls to choose a partner: don’t miss it if you’re in the region. Just note that Chinese information sometimes confuses lunar and Gregorian dates – “9 February”, for instance, might mean “the ninth day of the second lunar month”.