Miao or not Miao. Gunpowder, batik, sour soup

Three unique, tiny ethnic groups in Guizhou.

If you live or lived in China, you probably know about the Miao. Girls in large, intricate silver headdresses smile at you from billboards all over the country, advertising Miao medicine. Miao medicinal products and Miao clinics are ubiquitous. And if you walk next to a Miao restaurant, you will recognize it immediately – again, thanks to the characteristic jewelry and costume wallpapered every-Miao-where.

At 9 million people, the Chinese population of the Miao is smaller than that of the Zhuangs (18 million) or the Uyghurs (10 million), but larger than the Tibetan (6 million) or the Dong (3 million). However, “Miáo” 苗族 may actually be understood as a cluster, rather than a single ethnicity. Some of its subsets are more distinct than others; some traits overlap here and some there. It gets ambiguous, to say the least. You might think that speaking a Miao dialect should classify a tibe as a Miao tribe, but it’s not always that easy either. After all, how people live doesn’t have to mirror what linguists, ethnologists and demographers think. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the Miao typically speak Miao (or Hmongic) languages, tongues that are themselves a subdivision of the Hmong–Mien (aka Miao–Yao) family of languages.

People classified as the Miao live in several southern provinces of China, mostly in mountainous areas. About a half of them lives here, in Guizhou.

I might one day write about the “mainstream” Miao. But here, I am concentrating on some less known tribes. For the purpose of this blog entry, I will focus on my experiences from selected spots in the southeastern part of the province – in and around Kaili. My stay in the area was short, but I will do my best to reflect the richness and diversity of local culture.

White Miao, Flowery Miao, Red Miao – different groups are often nicknamed after the style of clothing. In case of the Long Horn Miao it’s all about the haircut. Then, there is Biasha…

BIASHA, WEAPONIZED TRIBE

All men in the village of Biasha (or Basha, 岜沙村 / 岜沙苗寨) carry rifles. Gun possession is strictly prohibited in China, but it is such a crucial part of lifestyle here, that the government allows them to. They no loger hunt, but carry shotguns on their shoulders at all times and use them for ceremonies and to practice marksmanship.

Biasha is located near the county town of Congjiang 从江. If you happen to pass by here, don’t forget to look for restaurants specialized in the famous Congjiang Pork, made from local pig breed, 从江香猪.

INTERLUDE: GAOYAO TERRACES

Guizhou abounds in terraced fields, including famous ones that frequent tourist guidebooks. Among them are the Gāoyào Terraces 高要梯田 in Dānzhài County 丹寨. Look at those two photos before we reach the regional capital of Kaili, further north.

KAILI, SOUR SOUP

Blogging about and traveling around Guizhou might be mostly about villages and rural towns, but to learn more let’s visit Kaili 凯里. It is the seat of the Qiandongnan (“Southeast Guizhou”) Prefecture and the center of Miao life. Here, let’s take advantage of being in a city: its range of restaurants and comprehensiveness of museum(s).

One worthwhile stop is the prefectural Nationalities Museum 黔东南州民族博物馆 (aka 凯里民族博物馆).

The number one feature of Guizhou – and especially Southeastern Guizhou – cuisine, is the sour soup 酸汤. It is a perfect representation of the locally preferred flavors – spicy and sour. The secret to the sourness is fermenting rice for the basic broth. The soup comes in various thicknesses, degrees of spicyness, shades of redness (but it can also be white). Different ethnicities – Miao, Dong, Buyei, Shui, etc – have their own styles. Chicken, pork, shrimp, tofu etc, can be prepared, but the the most typical variation is “fish in sour soup” 酸汤鱼, where grass carp is the classic ingredient.

In Kaili, I went to the 牛滚荡 restaurant, where I had Beef in Sour Soup 酸汤牛肉. It’s a kind of hot pot – you dip different ingredients in a bubbling concotion. Example items on the menu included 牛骨髓 (bovine bone marrow), 牛脚筋 (beef hamstring [leg tendon]), 黄焖牛杂 (Braised Beef Offal).

Kaili makes a good springboard to explore the region. While the famously colossal Xījiāng 西江, nicknamed “Village of One Thousand Miao Households,” is definitely worth your visit, let me focus on smaller, less-visited locations.

GEJIA in MATANG

The Gějiā are a separate ethnic group classified within the Miao. They speak a Hmongic language and share some traditions with other Miao groups, yet they consider themselves as distinct. At just a few tens of thousands, they are not numerous.

The best place to visit the Gejia is the village of Matang 麻塘革家寨. It welcomes tourists who want to learn about (or buy) their traditional textiles made with batik technique (Chinese: làrǎn 蜡染). Hot wax is applied on the fabric, then dipped in indigo dye and boiled. After removing the wax, symbols and flowers appear.

Chinese for Gějiā people is ⿰亻革家人 – the first character, composed of 亻and 革, is not yet available in Unicode. Its Mandarin reading is gě. In computerized documents, “革家人” is used at the moment.

XIJIA in SHILONG

While the Gejia have just a little recognition as a separate ethnicity, the Xijia 西家 have less than little. Likewise, they are classified as a Miao sub-group. Not much research have been done and their population is even smaller. There is no Wikipedia article on them (the only mention can be found here) and the entry in Baidu Baike has just two paragraphs.

I visited the village of Shilong 石龙寨, located just a short walk from Matang.

On my way back, from the surrounding hills, I stopped to enjoy the panorama of the city of Kaili. Also visible was XiangLu Shan 香炉山, literally “incense burner mountain”, sacred mountain of the Miao people. Which Miao people, you’d ask? All or just some (sub)-group(s)? A tough nut to crack indeed, but worthwile don’t you think?


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