The Same Village, A Different Home - Young Miao People Rediscover "The Birds"

2013-01-24

By Yang Shengwen (Former member of Guizhou Society of Rural Culture)

Editor’s note: The writer comes from Queniao Village in Guizhou, and “Queniao” is putonghua for “The Birds”. He joined Guizhou Society of Rural Culture in 2010 as a young intern. After completing his internship, he stayed on and became a member. He is engaged in nurturing youngsters to reflect on the culture of Guizhou and on sustainable living. He has led initiatives encouraging young people of local ethnic groups to learn about their ethnic culture and so build their identity.

For some, the only reason we pass on the traditional culture of our people is to raise other people’s awareness. They think the responsibility for passing on our traditional culture lies with the older generation. However, recently a group of young Miao people have returned to their villages to learn about traditional culture. In this they had no support from anyone. Their families, relatives and peers showed incomprehension. If leaving the village was seen a kind of search, why wasn’t returning a source of hope?

Searching again for our own history

In Guiyang there is a group of university students who come from Queniao Village[1]. They and I share the same experience. When we were small, we always gathered around our grandmothers listening to stories about the history of Miao people. This is how we grew up. I left my grandmother’s side when I was seven and went to school. My family and all my folks pinned their hopes on me when I started to go to school. I began to learn a language I had never heard spoken and read stories, in books, that were never told by my grandmother. I went to primary school in the village and then left home and went to the county town to attend secondary school. When I went to the university, I was far away from my village. Young Miao people have always wanted to rediscover the beautiful fairy tales and stories we heard when we were small, but these stories have become broken pieces under institutionalised education.

“Do you remember what happened during New Year last year?” asked Yang Guangjian. “We were having a drink at the home of Yang Guang. Some aunties came home and started singing wine songs. Wenhua and Aji cried. I didn’t know why they cried. Later I learnt what the aunties had sung. ‘Your family are so poor,’ they sang. ‘Dad and Mum lack resources. You don’t have what other children have. Away from home, you must have suffered a lot of hardship.’”. Wu Yi shook his head and said: “We young guys were useless. We should have sung a toast song to thank the aunties, but we didn’t even know what they were singing. We must go home to learn something.” As young Miao who live far from home and have lost our roots, we have always wanted to do something for our home village. In 2009, I got in touch with Guizhou Society of Rural Culture and found that what they were doing was just what I’d been searching for. I joined them as a young intern. When the internship came to an end, I joined the organisation. I’ve always been interested in the history of the Miao people and was always fascinated by their ancient songs and zhilu songs [ sung to lead the dead on their way to the next life]. Then I found a group of friends from Queniao Village. We returned to our village together and retraced the migration route of our ancestors. We wanted to search for our own history and stories. We chose to start from diaojiaolou [literally “hanging feet loft”: storeyed buildings supported by stilts], festivals, costumes, Miao songs and history. We want to learn all the stories about our own village, to let our hearts and souls come home.

Father: from disappointment to participation

In midsummer 2010, under the moonlight, nine young persons from Queniao Village and seven volunteers arrived at the Miao village of Queniao at 9 pm. An eight-day return visit had begun. We had dinner at my home. My parents did not know what their son was up to. They thought I was just having fun and that I’d brought friends from outside for a tour of Queniao. They had sent their son to school a decade ago thinking he would become a civil servant or a teacher one day. They thought their son would get a stable job that would earn pride for his folks. Yet they found he’d been wandering in different places, and seemed to be just drifting. What upset them most was that their son was leading the children of other families astray too. In their eyes, the kids were having aimless fun. I saw disappointment and anger in my parents’ eyes.

Every evening a dozen of us sat around the living room drinking and talking about the visit we’d had in the day time. My father would sit at the corner and listen, with a gloomy, scornful expression. For the sake of politeness, he would say a few words to urge the guests to drink, though the volunteers could hardly understand his putonghua. In the day time, when I was with him alone after I came home from visits, I felt he wanted to talk with me calmly on some serious matters, but he simply could not bring it up and ended saying: “You should start cooking early in the evening. You mustn’t let your guests go hungry.” My father was a gentle and mild person. He would never express his emotion strongly but I could feel he was resentful.

“Don’t forget to read the notices on the government internet page. Have a look to see when you can start applying for a job in the civil service. You mustn’t go on like this, just having fun!” So my father spoke when we got ready to leave for Guizhou after the visit, forcing 500 yuan into my bag, with a grave expression. Words failed me.

It was midsummer again, and the same programme was organised. In August 2011 we went home again, to start the second stage of retracing our ancestors’ migration route. We repeated what we’d done a year before. Everyone gathered at my home to discuss the visit next day and to discuss what we had learnt the year before. This time my father cheerfully took part in our discussion. Instead of remaining quiet as he had the year before, he enthusiastically told us the names of the Queniao elders we should visit before we went to Pingxiang Village. He also reminded us how we should behave when we visit the elders. When we discussed division of work, he even suggested what kind of work suited each of us.

Self-identity heightened

On 15 August, we started on the trip. We followed the migration route, visiting Pingxiang and Shuizhai Villages in Fangxiang Township. At Pingxiang, a family was drinking wine. When they heard we had come to learn the traditional Miao culture, they came out and offered us wine and songs. An old man started to sing a folk song about our ancestors moving to Pingxiang, after which they had to go to Rongjiang County for kaiqin [2]. He then sang about Pingxiang’s own kaiqin.

On the last day we returned to Queniao, participants who had joined the visit the year before explained to others the migration route of our ancestors, who had moved to Queniao from the lower reaches of the river. We stood at the old lusheng [a musical instrument] site as we told the ancient tales of lusheng and looked at a chestnut tree, planted by our common ancestors a few hundred years ago. When we stood next to the chestnut tree in the lower part of the village, a young man from Queniao said: “This tree died a few years ago. Look, new shoots are growing. Perhaps it has noticed that we young people have come home.”

The young people who took part in retracing the migration route felt that their pride in their people’s history and culture had been significantly enhanced. In history textbooks, from Huang Di to modernity, we have been unable to catch a glimpse of our own people. Our only source of self-confidence was superficial advertisements on TV and web media for mass tourism. The only thing we young Miao people could boast of was Miao songs and festivals. Since rediscovering the essence of our people’s culture, our identification with our history and with our selves have grown, like spring water that gushes from beneath the ground.

Young people are the subject of cultural heritage

Yang Guangjian, one of the participants, had one main interest. It was to go home to learn Miao songs. He felt that learning Miao songs and retracing the migration route would help more people from outside to know about us, the Miao. The day after we visited the elderly people and the guishi [literally “masters of the dead”, the spiritual healers of the community], learnt the history and heard all the stories about the migration of the Miao, we gathered in the evening to share our conclusions. Yang was very emotional as he said: “I have always thought that this kind of activity was for outsiders to learn about our culture and history. Now I understand we are the subject of the learning process. There is no need to promote Miao culture. What is needed is that we young people return home to inherit and pass on this history and culture.”

Throughout the holiday, we went around the village to visit the old people. Villagers were amazed. When senior villagers over 50 heard that we had come back to learn traditional culture and customs, they told us enthusiastically who we should visit. We were very much encouraged. When we met some grandmothers and aunties and when they heard we wanted to start learning Miao songs, not only did they tell us the names of singers we should visit, some even offered to sing for us immediately. However, some middle-aged villagers were scornful. They couldn’t understand what we were thinking. They passed judgment on us by saying: “What is happening to you university students? What has gone wrong in your heads? We sent you to the outside world to learn science and technology and to get jobs in the government, why have you returned to learn such superstitious things?” They couldn’t believe we had come back to learn from the guishi. Their generation had experienced the period of reform and opening up. They were more interested in things such as whether hybrid water paddy is more productive than traditional varieties, and whether cultivation of crops through new technologies could bring big profits.

Spiritual revolution is dawning

In spite of the disappointed look in the eyes of our parents, the questions raised by astonished relatives and neighbours, and the incredulous expressions of our friends, we have persisted, thanks to the support of some elders. Without our noticing, a lot of changes have taken place. Going against the tide of pursuing one’s own material benefit, we are searching for our roots and looking for the pure land our village once was. In a meeting in Guiyang after Chinese New Year, I was no longer the only one who gave offerings to our ancestors before we ate. Though Yang Guangjian was the youngest, he was the most senior in the extended family. He also made offerings to our ancestors by nipping off some meat and pouring some wine on the floor. More and more young Miao people are picking up the teaching bequeathed to us by the older generations. We believe that our ancestors have three souls. One soul follows the migration route, to return to the place where our ancestors used to live. Another soul wanders in the hills waiting for reincarnation. The third soul stays near the younger generation to protect us. Now when we return to drink wine with aunties in our home village, we understand the meaning of the songs they sing and we can also sing a few simple wine songs in reply.

After Chinese New Year, all the young people of Queniao left the village, like migrating birds. The village became quiet again. However, deep in our hearts there is a vast mountain. We are changing quietly.

Postscript:

Since 2011, PCD has been supporting community workers in our various programme sites to document their community work experience and to reflect on the direction of their work. The vigour of sustainable living in local communities is manifested in these interesting stories written by the community workers. This article is excerpted from one of their stories and has been edited for publication here. The whole article will be published in the periodical, Fragrant Soil, which will be printed soon. We will continue to publish these stories on different platforms.

Photo sharing:
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Yang Shengwen and his partners talking with the elders to find out the history and the traditional culture of the Miao people.

Miao youngsters, with paper and pens in their hands, interview their elders about the Miao's migration history.

In the past, Miao songs were passed on orally. Now the oral history and ancestral wisdom of the Miao people are recorded and passed on in writing.

Traditional costume is one of the subjects the young people study.
Traditional architecture is part of what the young people want to learn.
 


  1. Queniao Village is in the eastern part of Leishan County, Guizhou. It lies deep in the hinterland of Leigongshan National Natural Reserve. In Miao language the name of the village is Juenao which means “the source of blue hills and green water.” Today traditional Miao culture is still preserved in the village. There are four main family names in the village: Yang, Luo, Wu and Liang. The ancestors of the Yangs came from Fangxiang County and 17 generations have lived in Queniao, with a history of 500 years.
  2. In Miao folk tales as depicted in the kaiqin song, the origin of social relationships between humans is personified as qin. Kaiqin means establishing families. The kaiqin song is an ancient song that is most widely circulated among Miao people. The lyrics have over ten thousand lines, and one may not be able to finish singing the song in two days and two nights. The song is divided into two parts, chuqin and kaiqin. The latter is the main body of the song and depicts in detail the marriage processes of all animals, gods, immortals and human beings.