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Sustainable Living Network
Where We Work: Guangxi

Searching High and Low for Sustainable Happiness—Experience of the Zhuang People of Namo Village, Guangxi

Village women make their own clothes and shoes from cloth they spin at home. (PCD)

May Tam (Communications Officer, PCD)

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Dwellings of Namo villagers. (PCD) The rich and fertile fields of Namo. (PCD)
Huang Zhongyong, the head of the village committee of Namo, explained how the newly built path on the hill helped the development of ecological agriculture in Namo. (PCD) Livestock manure is used as ecological fertiliser by the farmers. (PCD)
Village women make their own clothes and shoes from cloth they spin at home. (PCD) Isatis root is boiled and used to dye cloth blue. (PCD)
An exhibition on homespun cloth is co-organised by PCD and Namo villagers for other villagers to learn about the different types of products that they produce. (PCD) Mada, the most experienced tailor in Namo, displays the cloth that she spins. (PCD)
In a primary school attended by children from Namo and neighbouring villages, students wear uniforms in traditional ethnic style. (PCD) Apart for spinning cloth and making clothes, villagers also make their own shoes. (PCD)
A pair of embroidered shoes. (PCD) Using their mobile phones, the champion singer (middle) ,who is very enthusiastic about preserving mountain folk songs, and villagers who are away from the village, take it in turns to sing in a QQ chat group.(PCD)
The champion singer has been working very hard and very carefully to document the many mountain folk songs. The songs are recorded in Zhuang language and written down in Han transliteration with Han translation. (PCD) Over 800 songs have been collected and reproduced in a songbook. (PCD)

After saying farewell to the hustle and bustle of Fengcheng, the county seat of Fengshan County, our car gradually left the town and we were driving among remote hills. As we enjoyed the clean air and the bright and beautiful sun, we watched the terraced paddy fields filled with straw after the autumn harvest. Soon we reached Namo, a Zhuang village in Guangxi, for a much-anticipated but brief two day visit.

There are only slightly over 200 villagers in Namo. They lead a secluded and peaceful life and are highly self-reliant in food supply. The most unforgettable episode of my visit was to witness villagers engrossed in singing mountain folk songs, and the joy that they exuded. I was enthralled by the following lyrics of a song that I read in their song book:

 

Man singing in a male-female duet (singing in the Zhuang dialect; English translation of the lyrics based on Chinese translation)
  Seek pleasure when you are sixteen, just like the young bamboo shoots and the nanmu trees
  If you don’t eat the bamboos, they will wither and die; if you don’t eat the nanmu, they will wither and die too
  If you don’t have fun and enjoy yourself when you are young, you will regret it when you grow old
  Ants fetch soil to build nests.
It will be too late when you want to find pleasure.

 

Even though it is only a love song, it expresses in a simple and genuine way the universal pursuit of pleasure and happiness. In fact, the lyrics of Namo folk songs are often about seeking happiness. For the past four years, PCD has been working with them to explore sustainable ways of living. When I look at the details of the process, I wonder whether the initiative will help villagers gain the happiness that they are seeking, and about the challenges and constraints they face.

Listening to stories of ecological farming along a path among the hills

The first stop of my visit was a newly built path among the hills. As I walked with the programme team on the trail, Huang Zhongyong, the head of Namo’s village committee and known as “Captain” among the villagers, told me the story about the path. According to Captain, the path, which was 2,000 metres long and 3 metres wide, was very important in helping villagers to continue to use farm manure (from pigs, horses, cows, etc.) for farming. Transporting manure from the cattle sheds up on the hills to farmland beneath the hills had been arduous. Every time they had to carry a few thousand to ten thousand catties(1) of manure down the hill. Before the path was built, villagers had had to tread earth trails to carry the farm manure to the farmland. It took a long time to transport the manure and the muddy trails were dangerous. Because of this, many villagers had given up cultivating the farmland beneath the hill.

With funding from PCD, the construction of the new path was completed in late 2014. The path has brought changes to the village. According to Captain, some villagers who had left their land fallow because of the difficulty in transporting fertiliser have now resumed farming. Because of the new path, transporting fertiliser is easier and villagers have extra time and labour to take up other income-generating activities.

Namo villagers have always used farm manure for farming, but they have also been affected by the industrialisation of agriculture. Fortunately, they are aware of the problems of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. For example, they found that the soil of the land on which chemical fertiliser was used had hardened, making crops more difficult to grow, and making transplanting seedlings by hand painful. When their cows grazed outdoors, some died from eating grass in neighbouring villages on which herbicide had been applied by neighbouring villagers. Consequently all villagers of Namo agreed to ban the use of herbicide.

Before the village launched the programme supported by PCD in 2012, some villagers used chemical fertiliser and pesticides out of pride, despite being aware of its effects, as they were afraid that neighbouring villagers would look down on them, saying that they could not afford chemical fertiliser, which had become a symbol of wealth. Namo villagers, who had always been aware of the health issues of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, realised the value of ecological farming after taking part in training and exchange programmes. Now the whole village uses farm manure supplemented by green manure (such as growing Mugwort for fertiliser).

Namo villagers are able to produce a surplus of rice from practising ecological ways of farming. They also cultivate other crops such as soybeans, camellia (for oil), peanuts, chestnuts, sweet potatoes, corn, sesame, and various kinds of vegetables and fruit. They also raise chickens and ducks. In other words, the village is self-reliant and has an abundant supply of food.

Reviving traditional costumes made of homespun cloth, providing livelihoods and building community self-esteem

My next stop was a primary school attended by children from Namo and neighbouring villages, where I learnt about another sustainable activity that the villagers were engaged in.

It was recess time when we arrived at the school. Children, who wore traditional Zhuang costume as their school uniform, were running, jumping and having fun at the playground. One could discern a love of tradition in an atmosphere of vivacity and fun. The production of the Zhuang school uniform in traditional style for the students and the teachers is part of the sustainable community economy of Namo. It has also kindled the villagers’ self-esteem and confidence in reviving their tradition.

The students and teachers all like to wear their own traditional costumes as their school uniforms. Thanks to the liaison efforts of the Office of Poverty Alleviation and Foreign Funding of Fengshan County, they got the support of the county government, who agreed to provide funding for the production of ethnic-style school uniforms in order to preserve traditional ethnic costumes. The uniforms are made of homespun cloth produced by Namo villagers who also sew the uniforms. This has provided another outlet for the traditional homespun cloth of Namo.

Confronted by modernisation, the young people of Namo villagers no longer know how to spin cloth and rarely wear their traditional costumes. Young men often complain that traditional costumes are crude and ugly, but middle-aged and elderly people appreciate homespun cloth which they find sweat-absorbent, cooling, hard-wearing and stain-resistant. After the programme supported by PCD was launched, villagers discussed the value of the production of homespun cloth and whether the industry should be preserved. They decided to carry on because they could use the products themselves as well as sell them. Moreover, traditional costumes help to strengthen their ethnic identity.

To support Namo’s effort to expand production of homespun cloth and traditional costumes, PCD has provided a small fund to facilitate the holding of an exhibition on traditional costumes, the making of a documentary that records the craft and the production process of traditional costumes, and the education of university student volunteers in rural areas about the need to preserve traditional rural culture. PCD’s initiative in Namo to preserve ethnic culture has had an impact, as Namo gains fame in and outside of Fengshan County. Moreover, as the traditional Zhuang singing festival on March 3, when people wear traditional costumes, has become a public holiday, the need for traditional Zhuang costume has increased. As more and more people order custom-made Zhuang costumes from Namo, the production of traditional ethnic costumes is restored. According to Captain, before PCD’s initiative in 2011, there were only three families in the village that spun cloth. Now over 20 families are engaged in spinning cloth. In my interview with villagers, I learnt that village women, to earn some extra money, spin cloth, make clothes and embroider shoes after they finish working in the field and taking care of their children. This brings in about RMB 3000 to 5000 yuan a year for each family.

Sixty years-old Mada is the most experienced tailor in the village. (Mada means ‘Mother of Da’, which is Zhuang’s way of addressing a mother, her daughter being named Huang Caida). Not only does she spin cloth and make clothes, she also teaches other village women the craft. Mada was all smiles while she talked about the last few decades of her life of producing cloth and clothes. She was encouraged by the fact that people show their appreciation of Zhuang costumes and homespun cloth again in recent years, and the products sell well in the market. Mamin, her 35-year old daughter, is her student. Since homespun cloth has now seen a revival in the village, Mamin can choose a livelihood that she likes. Mamin once left the village for work in the city. Working in the city, she felt she had lost her freedom, since she was under scrutiny all the time. Moreover, she has a child that needs to be taken care of, so now she has come home to work together with her mother to earn a living.

Because of the revival of clothes made from homespun cloth, Namo villagers also purchase less clothing from outside, as they feel more confident of their own traditions. In the interview, Mada said gently but with pride: “I will wear traditional homespun costumes all my life and will never wear other clothes. Otherwise I would become a person of another ethnicity!”

The will to preserve folk songs and the free will to choose

Learning about the preservation of mountain folk songs was the most interesting part of the visit. For generations, Namo’s mountain folk songs were passed on by word of mouth as villagers sang and memorised the songs. There was not any written record of the songs. The melody of mountain folk songs is simple and repetitive and you can change it as you like when you sing. Huang Changmou, Namo’s champion singer, is passionate about preserving and transmitting Zhuang people’s mountain folk songs and making sure they are passed down through the generations. With the support of PCD and aiming at transmitting their songs, he has collected over 800 folk songs and recorded them in Zhuang language written in Han transliteration, supplemented with Chinese translation. The project of preserving folk songs includes plans to publish a song book and to produce a disc so that young people who do not know how to sing may learn.

On the day of my visit, the champion singer gave us an impromptu performance and sang “Song of Twelve Months” for three minutes (Please watch the video at the end of this article). Even though I could neither understand nor truly appreciate the song, I enjoyed listening to his crisp, resonant and melodious voice.

Most Zhuang folk songs are love songs sung by a man and a woman in antiphonal fashion. There are also songs of labour, songs of pain (telling of one’s hardship and suffering), songs of praise (in praise of landscapes, fields, roads, houses and people) and birthday songs. Everything in one’s life, be it experiences or emotions, can be put into the song, such as cultivating cotton, growing paddy, planting trees, brewing wine and making cakes.

As an outsider, I once doubted the value of preserving the simple and repetitive melodies of mountain folk songs. Modern people and urban dwellers, whose tastes are more sophisticated, may find mountain folk songs too boring. I thought that the value and purpose of preservation of any traditional culture should be taken into consideration, and we should not preserve for the sake of preservation. However, my view on this subject changed gradually as I learnt about the process of how the villagers partnered with PCD for the revival of folk songs, and through my interview with the villagers. The villagers were enthusiastic about reviving folk songs. The March 3 Song Festival has been held for four consecutive years. Young people love mountain folk songs more than we anticipated. What is most surprising but also most delightful is the fact that middle-aged and elderly villagers have been using their mobile phones to sing folk songs with young people who work in the city and other people in Fengshan County whom they did not know via an online QQ network group. On the day of our visit, we saw a group of middle-aged men from the village having enormous fun as they sang in antiphonal fashion over the mobile phone with other men and women at the other end of the line in the QQ network group.

I asked the champion singer the meaning and purpose of transmitting folk songs. After thinking for a while, he said: “I don’t have a clear idea. I only want to pass it on and hope that others would do the same.” He was not able to talk about its meaning and purpose in abstract words, but from the way he spoke and his expression, one could discern he truly loves his people’s mountain folk songs. As he talked about the love songs which he loved most, he said: “Those elongated notes that are slower than usual are most charming! They are really cool!” On the personal meaning of the folk songs to him, he spoke of how entertaining, comforting and cheering they were.

I asked a few villagers if they had ever heard pop songs from the outside, whether they liked them and if they liked folk songs or pop songs better? They said that they had heard pop songs on TV, and while they did not understand those songs and could not sing them because they were sung in Han language, they did like the melody of those pop songs. In other words, both folk and pop music have a place in Namo!

At this point, I realised that the inhabitants of Namo actually had a choose between tradition and modernity.  If they wholeheartedly embrace traditional, and traditions do not collapse under modern influence, leaving people to choose freely between both options, isn’t it the essence of sustainable living, while still preserving tradition?

Searching High and Low for Sustainable Happiness

Healthy farming, resuscitating production of clothes made of homespun cloth and reviving folk song singing, etc. have satisfied the emotional and physical needs of the villagers to a certain extent, but the road to happiness is long, and the challenges Namo villagers face in the search of sustainable living are many.

The wages of young people who work in the city provide the main source of income for the village. Sixty percent of young people leave behind the elderly and children to work in the Guangdong province,. In view of such circumstances, the prospect of a sustainable livelihood does not look good. Because of the lack of manpower, the future of agriculture in the village is precarious. It is difficult for the villagers to improve their livelihood by working the land. For example, according to villagers’ estimates, every year the village produces a surplus of 15,000 catties of ecological rice. The surplus rice is mainly used for feeding pigs and only a very small quantity is sold to people outside of the village. This is because transportation is expensive and no one is committed to marketing and promoting the rice or building a brand name for it, making it difficult for the rice to gain a place in the market. The elderly villagers have neither the desire nor the capability to take up this role. As the champion singer of Namo said: “There is too much to do! If I were 40 years old, I would do it. I am too old to do this now”. This case illustrates to us how important it is for rural development and rural sustainability to retain youngsters in villages.

In the face of living constraints, Namo villagers are energetically exploring and opening up new paths in their search for a sustainable lifestyle. Facilitated by PCD and its partner organisations, villagers are learning ways to market their products, such as setting up cooperatives. By selling their ecological agricultural products and clothes made of homespun cloth, they can share their produce with others as well as earn extra income for themselves.

Sustainable living will definitely bring happiness. In their pursuit of happiness, Namo villagers are taking an unusual course of action. In this process, one may witness the dialogue and interaction between the traditional and the modern as well reflect on the coexistence and symbiosis of urban and rural areas.


Huang Changmou, Namo’s champion singer, loves to sing “Song of Twelve Months” which is an ode to the work and life of Namo villagers throughout the year—clearing and ploughing the fields in January; fertilising the fields with farm manure in February; flowers blossoming in March; making beds for rice seedlings and sowing seeds in April; transplanting rice seedlings in May; loosening the soil of the field in June; rice flowering in July; grain ripening and turning golden in August; harvesting in September; leaving bare rice fields after harvest in October; having fun during the slack season in November; giving offerings to the stove god in December.

Note:

(1) One catty equals to 500 gram

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