I’m becoming used to it. Thinking BIG, that is. Here in China everything is big and at first the statistics blew my mind. I have recently returned from a trip to Northern Guangxi, The Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, to give its correct title. I thought I was going to pass through areas populated by small groups of minority peoples with interesting costumes and customs. I wasn’t really aware of the statistics.
The Autonomous Region is home to four main minorities,the Zhuang, Miao, Dong and Yao, although there are many smaller ethnic groups which have been given one of the four minority names by the government, even though many of them speak a different language and follow different customs. Most of these minorities are dispersed across more than one province. Now for a few figures: officially, there are 55 ethnic minorities in China making up 7% of the total population, about 70 million people in all. In the UK, ethnic minorities make up 7.9% of the population which is about 4.6 million people. The population of the whole of the UK is 62 million, less than all the minority peoples of China put together. Since 1949, many minorities have been allowed to live in “Autonomous Regions” and given preferential treatment by the government. They are allowed two children for example. Education and health care have improved considerably. They do not, however, have any rights of self determination, need I go on?
Our guide was from the Dong minority, with a population of 3 million. His language belonged to the Kam-Sino-Tibetan group and he explained that in 1958 a Latin alphabet had been used to record it. However, it is not used much and most of the younger population speak and write in Chinese. He was acutely aware that the Dong language and culture was under threat with the migration to the cities . With roughly the same population as Wales, his concern about loss of language struck a chord. He took us around his village of Chengyang and other Dong villages, pointing out the unique architecture. The Dong are skilled builders and carpenters and construct large, two storey wooden houses without using a single nail. The famous “wind and rain bridges” are also unique to the Dong style of building and are used as a place to take cover from the elements and to socialise.
The second area we visited was not on the tourist trail. We trekked in sweltering heat, up through beautiful rice terraces to Nudu. This was a Cao Miao village but they spoke Dong so our guide could communicate with them. They are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the South West – nearly nine million. We continued on small winding paths to the next village made up of a mixture of the minorities – Dong, Miao and Yao. The latter (population of 2.5 million), seemed very poor in the area we visited but we met more from this ethnic group later in the trip and got a different perspective on their life style. Our guide made a few enquires and led us to the local store. Within minutes, we were made welcome whilst vegetables were collected from the fields and lunch was prepared over a small fire. Soon a crowd of villagers gathered at the store to gaze in awe at the group of foreigners. We were enjoying our freshly cooked meal, totally unaware how challenging the next couple of hours were going to be.
It should have taken us an hour to reach the main road again but after two, we were still slipping and sliding our way down hill. The mud paths through the woods and rice terraces were treacherous and steep. Anything we encountered after this, in hiking terms, was easy. I could see why the villagers wanted a road and I noticed one was being built. It might mean that the remoteness of the area would be changed but who could blame them for wanting an easier option for getting in and out of their villages.
We moved on from this beautiful area to a more touristy part of Guangxi, the Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces, home to the Zhuang minority. This is the largest minority group in China – over 16 million – the population of Australia, living in an area the size of New Zealand. Their language has Dai linguistic roots, related to Thai, but they are well integrated with the Han Chinese. These people have been building rice terraces for nearly two thousand years and they are an amazing feat of generations of back-breaking work. They rise 3,000 feet from the floor of the valley and are fed by a complex system of bamboo pipes. Our guide was a farmer, so we became quite educated about rice growing by the end of the week.
As we continued our walking east around the rice terraces, we encountered the Yao minority women who were very different from the extremely shy and grindingly poor ones we had seen earlier in the week. With greater exposure to tourists, these women could be quite pushy, especially as they had something to sell – their ground-length hair. They pestered our guide with,
” Tell them I am the one with the longest hair in this village” or ” do they want to pay to see my hair?”
The poor man patiently translated for us but we didn’t want to pay any woman for showing us the length of her hair. On one occasion, their persistence did pay off however, as one woman followed us for quite a long way on the trail. As we neared her village, her mother and sisters came to meet us (tipped off by the mobile phone perhaps?) and offered to cook us lunch. We accepted.
Living in the same geographical area, the minorities we met had many common traditions. Naturally, singing and dancing was an integral part of their cultures. The women were skilled embroiderers and weavers and wore belts and jackets with intricate, colourful designs. They grew cotton, dyed it with indigo and wove their own cloth. The Yao women also wore heavy silver earrings, necklets and bracelets.
As we walked past crops and through villages, we noticed that their diet consisted of rice, glutinous rice, maize, millet, pork and a rich variety of vegetables. Pomelos, pumpkins and peppers were seasonal extras. Unfortunately, our guide told us that his people also ate dog and I was unlucky enough to come across such an unfortunate creature being skinned in the market near Yangshuo. Meals can be washed down with oil tea or rice wine (with a rather high alcohol content).
The state of ethnic minorities in China is complex. History, migration, government and ethnic tourism have all played their part in muddying the waters. The groups more willing to assimilate into Han society are seen as more feminine such as the Miao and Yao but there is friction in some minority areas where the people are less willing to assimilate. I do not need to spell out where those areas are.
Where I travelled, tourism was obviously increasing and the avaricious construction monster was in full swing. Five star hotels were being built high up on the Backbone Rice Terraces with cable car stations to ferry the elite guests up the mountains. How long will the less touristy areas manage to maintain their way of life? I guess it’s all relative.