Miao Ethinic Group - Basha Miao
In 2019 we once again traveled to China’s Guizhou Province to visit with the people of the Miao ethnic group. Our guide, Li Mao Qing of Tribal Tours of China would be our guide for the next six days. We met at the High-Speed Train station in Sanduxian, China.
The Miao are a culturally rich ethnic minority that lives primarily in southern China, Laos, Burma, northern Vietnam, and Thailand. Originally from China, the Miao are animists and ancestor worshipers and have traditionally lived in mountain villages located at 3,000 to 6,000 feet level. According to Miao history they lived along the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys as early as 5,000 years ago. Later they migrated to the forests and mountains of southwest China.
From their earliest days, the Miao practiced primitive farming using slash-and-burn methods. Families never lived in the same house for more than five years. As the soil in one area became depleted, they would move away. The Miao became known for always being on the move. However, most of the Miao have settled down since the middle of the twentieth century.
The term Miao is actually of Chinese origin. They are known in Southeast Asia as the Hmong (roughly pronounced mung). Hmong means "free men." Miao means weeds” or ‘sprouts." Miao subgroups---Red Miao, White Miao (Striped Miao), Cowrie Shell Miao, Flowery Miao, Black Miao, Green Miao (Blue Miao)---are in most cases named after the woman's dress.
The Miao are one of the largest minorities in China. They are widely distributed over Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi and Sichuan provinces, with a small number living on Hainan Island and in Guangdong Province and in southwest Hubei Province. Most of them live in tightly-knit communities, with a few living in areas inhabited by several other ethnic groups. The main Miao settlements are in the Southeastern Guizhou.
Located on the southern border Guizhou Province, the Basha village we were visiting is famed for being the home of China 's last gunner tribe. This primitive Miao village is hidden away in a forest and filled with stilted wooden houses by the river. The Basha village is home to over 1,000 residents living in more than 400 households. Their ancestors would hunt for animals in the surrounding forest and still to this day the proud men in Basha preserve their musketeer heritage, which makes Basha the only tribe that can legally carry real guns in China. A strong sense of precaution inherited from their ancestors keeps this village isolated from the outside world. The villagers lead a mostly self-sufficient life of farming in the hilly areas and retain their dressing and living customs. Sweet rice is a popular crop and you can see them hung to dry all around the village. Our guide, being a member of the Miao people and have developed a friendship with the village headmen arranged our homestay with the current village Shaman. This also gave us the opportunity to witness an impromptu performance from the village for some visiting dignitaries from Tibet.
Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.Anthony Bourdain
These are part-time performers, all who have regular occupations within the village the men in their indigo colored clothes, daggers at their built, each sporting a single shot musket.
The performance involved the playing of wind instruments including several versions of the Lusheng, a musical instrument of the Miao people with multiple bamboo pipes, each fitted with a free reed, which is fitted into a long blowing tube made of hardwood. Some instruments have a maximum of 10 reeds, while others only have a single reed or two reeds. The most popular Lushengs have six reeds, with a forceful but low and deep tone, or a clear and melodious tone. The Lusheng is an important symbol of Miao national identity. In performance, the instrument is played in a continual cycle, almost like a dirge with the players swaying to the music.
Traditionally young men holding a small Lusheng (a reed-pipe wind instrument) and beautifully dressed young women are standing in two concentric circles and dancing anticlockwise with the women forming the outside circle. They change movements with the tunes played by the leading dancer. Men with muskets, the gunners, displayed their prowess and let off several volleys of their muskets. Overall it was a very stirring display and one of the highlights of our trip.
A short note on the driver provided by Tribal Tours. We drove in a small minibus over roads that were well rutted and often times quite steep and narrow but not once did we feel uncomfortable or unsafe. This cannot always be said when traveling in China, and ironically I have felt less safe traveling in a large bus back from a funeral we attended in Ho Chi Minh City!
The dark shiny blue clothes worn by the Basha Miao people are made from Indigo dyed hemp, ramie, and cotton, materials that are cheap and durable. the last few hundred years. Indigo is a hardy plant that grows in many parts of China. It was used for dyeing at least as early as the Zhou dynasty (1100-221 BC). Besides the fact that the dark blue color does not show dirt easily; it has medicinal properties beneficial to health. Prior to the Song dynasty (960-1269 AD), hemp was the most commonly available plant for producing an inexpensive but durable fabric. The use of cotton became more widespread in the Song dynasty. Eventually, it overshadowed hemp not only because it was a plant relatively easy to grow, but also because the cloth made from it was softer yet still stood up to wear and tear. The plant is harvested in mid-October when women and children help to pick the leaves and tender twigs that will be used to make indigo dye. The production process, which takes approximately twenty days, is undertaken by men only. Artificial ponds are built to soak the plants that go through a fermenting process. After the cloth has been dyed it is beaten with wooden mallets and dyed again. For a complete description of this process go to the following document: Touched by Indigo: Chinese Blue-and-White Textiles and Embroidery by Ka Bo Tsang, Ph.D. - Royal Ontario Museum.