Wednesday, 19 October 2005

Diverse cultures still flourish
in China’s remote corners

Letter from Guiyang
Patrick Comerford

In south-central China, there is an old adage that Guizhou is a province where no three days pass without rain, where there are no three miles without a mountain, and where no one has three coins to rub together.

Guizhou is twice the size of Ireland but it is landlocked and surrounded by provinces that border Tibet, Laos and Vietnam. Even by Chinese standards, Guizhou is a remote province – the capital, Guiyang, is at least a 2½-hour flight from Beijing, so it takes people from the towns and hillside villages as long to reach Beijing by public transport as it takes others to fly from Dublin to Beijing.

Guizhou has a mild climate, its industrial output is growing, and with its mountains and rivers it can boast great natural beauty – the Huangguoshu Falls is the third-highest waterfall in Asia.

But natural beauty has not saved Guizhou from widespread rural poverty, exacerbated by the high rainfall and the fact that 80 per cent of the land is covered with untillable mountains and leached limestone soil.

But if the land is poor, Guizhou and its provincial capital, Guiyang, have rich diversity in terms of the people who live there. It is the province’s remoteness that has ensured that the traditions and lifestyles of its ethnic minorities have been preserved. Guiyang sits in a valley on the banks of the Nanming River and is hemmed in by the surrounding hills. Today it is a bustling, vibrant, industrial city, with a population of about 3.5 million.

Yet, despite the rapid industrial growth in Guiyang since the Communist revolution, a stroll through the backstreets soon leads to Qianming Si and its cramped and smoky halls, dating back to the Ming dynasty.

Guiyang has been an important provincial city since the Ming dynasty ruled China between 1368 and 1644. The surrounding areas, however, were not fully incorporated into China until the reign of the succeeding Qing dynasty.

When there was a population explosion in central China in the 17th century, wave after wave of immigrants flooded into northeast Guizhou from neighbouring Sichuan and Hunan. The local tribes rose in rebellion, and it was said that there were minor revolts every 30 years and major rebellions every 60 years during the Qing dynasty.

The rebelling tribes survived, and today at least 30 distinct nationalities or ethnic groups form more than one third of Guizhou’s population of almost 40 million. They include the Miao or Hmong people and the Dong people, each with their own regions in the eastern highlands; the Bouyei, who are similar to the Thai people, in the south and west; and the Yi and Muslim Hui people in Panxian and western Guizhou.

The 7.5 million Miao people in China are closely related to the Hmong people of Vietnam and Laos.

Since the Tang dynasty (AD618-907), migrations and forced resettlement programmes have caused the Miao to spread throughout southern China. Along with other minority peoples, they were often treated as slaves and serfs by China's majority Han people.

Eventually, the Miao were driven into the remote mountain areas, but their rebellions continued into the 19th century, under leaders such as Zhang Xiumei.

Zunyi, 170 km north of Guiyang, was the location of the crucial Zunyi conference in 1935, when Mao persuaded his followers on the Long March that China’s revolution could only succeed by mobilising the peasants.

It is easy to understand how the Miao people, in their desperately poor state in the first half of the 20th century, were active in the resistance against the Japanese invasion and gave tacit support to the communist revolutionaries.

The revolutionaries rewarded the Miao for their sympathies by giving them their own autonomous region. Although the Cultural Revolution from 1966 on was a setback, the Miao people have benefited from increased government assistance in the health, education and transport sectors since the 1980s, and their culture is flourishing.

In western Guizhou, the Bouyei people, who number 2.5 million, are found in the city of Anshun and the surrounding towns and villages. Both the Miao and Bouyei remain proud of their traditional costumes. The Bouyei can still be seen in the muddy fields around Anshun in their colourful blue skirts, planting rice and ploughing with their buffaloes.

The first Christian missionaries to work in the region came from the China Inland Mission, founded in 1865 by James Hudson Taylor, who died 100 years ago in 1905. Many of the churches in Guizhou, even in remote mountain-top villages, have survived since they were established by the mission more than a century ago. Christianity appealed to many of the oppressed minorities, and it is not unusual in this remote corner of China to meet Miao and Bouyei people who say their families have been Christian for up to seven generations.

To some western visitors, this part of China is known for its dog food. But Guizhou ought to be better known for its rich cultural diversity.

Both the Miao and Bouyei are famous for their batik-making traditions, dating back 2,000 years.

The characteristic spirals and curves in molten wax, applied with copper knives on indigo linen, are produced primarily in Guiyang and Anshun. With their monochrome portraits of Bouyei brides and their stylised depiction of mythical figures and animals, they are testimony to an ethnic diversity that is prospering in the face of economic challenges, even in the remotest corners of China.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Wednesday, 19 October 2005