The Regong Arts

Inscribed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009, the Regong Arts is an umbrella term used to describe three distinctive art styles that originated from Tongren County, which was once known as “Regong” or “Golden Valley” in Tibetan. In fact, this type of art has become such an integral part of the local peoples’ culture that, by the 17th century, it was rumoured that nearly everyone in Tongren County could paint, and that almost every family was involved in the arts in some way.

The Regong Arts are largely the work of folk artists or monks from the Tibetan and Tu ethnic minorities. For this reason, they mainly revolve around themes related to Tibetan Buddhism. The three main types of artistic work covered under the term are: thangka paintings, patchwork barbola, and sculpture.

Thangka paintings are religious scrolls that can be used by Tibetan Buddhist monks or laymen in worship. First, a pattern is sketched onto a strip of cotton or linen cloth using charcoal and then natural dyes are applied using a special brush. These intricate paintings can take anywhere from a few months to several years to complete, and their primary function is as a tool for meditation.

Barbola, by contrast, is a special type of art that involves the cutting and piling of different materials to produce an image. Barbola artisans use silks and satins in a variety of colours, which they cut into the shapes of humans, animals, flowers, birds, or other recognizable objects. From there, they paste these pieces of cloth onto pre-cut paper models and overlay them one on top of the other, starting from the darkest colours and ending with the lightest colours. This produces a three-dimensional effect that looks as though the silk or satin has been embossed. This style of barbola is known as “jian dui” or “cutting and piling.” There is another style, called “ci xiu” or “embroidery,” where the fabric is instead embroidered to produce the three-dimensional effect. 

Finally, the sculptures associated with the Regong Arts can be made from clay, wood, brick, and even yak butter, although clay sculptures tend to be the most common. They are renowned for their lifelike features and impressive attention to detail. Like the thangka paintings and patchwork barbola, the sculptures tend to focus on religious imagery and they are often included as decorations within temples.

The June Festival in Tongren

“A mysterious local festival known for its fascinating “gruesome” customs

According to legend, the land was once plagued by venomous snakes and fearsome beasts. One day, a giant bird, known as Peng in Chinese, flew to the region and defeated all of these dangerous creatures, thus ridding the land of a terrible blight. It turns out that the winged savior was actually a god known as Xiaqiong, so every year people in this area host the June Festival in honour of this beneficent deity.

This traditional folk festival is celebrated widely among the Tibetan and Tu ethnic minority communities in Regong (Tongren) of Qinghai province. Held every year between the 17th and 25th day of the sixth lunar month according to the Tibetan calendar, it has been an integral part of the festival calendar for over 1,400 years.

Only young men and unmarried young women are allowed to actively participate in the festival, but children and married women are allowed to watch and dance together during the end of the ceremony. 

Throughout this magnificent festival, the local people pray for a good harvest, peace, prosperity, and a happy life. Many sacred ceremonies can be seen during the festival, such as: Shang Kou Qian, where the master of ceremonies uses two steel pins to pierce the cheeks of a volunteer; Shang Bei Qian, where the master of ceremonies uses between 10 to 20 steel pins to pierce a volunteer’s back; and Kai Shan, where the master of ceremonies makes a small mark on his own forehead using a knife and then ceremonially sprinkles a few drops of his own blood on the surrounding ground. Many people regard these ceremonies as having an air of magic about them, since the steel pins that the master of ceremonies uses never seem to draw blood and do not leave a scar on the volunteers.

Alongside these holy rituals, the entire festival is conducted by the master of ceremonies, who will either be a shaman or the head of the local religion. During the festival, women will assemble at the Mountain-Gods Hall, where they will sing and dance to appease the God of the Mountain. 

Experience the June Festival with us: 

Explore the Mystery of Tibetan Culture Festival by Festival

Agriculture and Craftwork of Hui Minority

Hui people prefer wheat-based foods and noodles as their staple food but their cuisine differs throughout China. In the Ningxia Hui Autonomous region they tend to eat food made from wheat flour, while in Gansu and Qinghai provinces they favour wheat, corn, barley, and potatoes. Fried cakes and fried dough are a much loved speciality that is often eaten on festival occasions. They’re like the Hui equivalent of donuts so you can imagine how delicious they are!

Most Hui people are Muslims and have to conform to Islamic dietary laws, meaning they are forbidden to eat the meat of pigs, dogs, horses, donkeys, and mules as well as the blood of any animal. In fact, they have such a religious aversion to pork that they won’t even touch a pot or dish that has been used to cook or hold it! Pigeons are considered divine birds and can only be eaten under certain circumstances. For example, if a person is sick and they have received approval from the imam, they can eat pigeon as part of a remedy. 

This means their diet is almost exclusively made up of beef and mutton, with some communities occasionally eating camel and various kinds of fish. On top of all these restrictions, they must only eat animals that have been slaughtered by an approved butcher or imam and must never eat an animal that has died naturally. If you thought hosting a dinner party for your friends was difficult, imagine how hard it must be for them!

Their cuisine is distinct from other northern Chinese styles in that they have a preference for sweet flavours. Signature Hui dishes include Pulled Beef Noodles and Yangrou Paomao, which is a type of mutton stew served with flatbread. “Five Dishes and Four Oceans”, “Nine Signs of Greatness”, “Thirteen Flowers”, and “The Full Moon on the Fifteenth Day” are some of the most famous Hui feasts that are prepared exclusively during festivals. “Five Dishes and Four Oceans” refers to five kinds of sautéed dish served together alongside four soup dishes. “Nine Signs of Greatness”, “Thirteen Flowers”, and “The Full Moon on the Fifteenth Day” signify a banquet of nine, thirteen, or fifteen dishes respectively. Though the soups aren’t exactly oceans and many of the dishes don’t smell like flowers, they are undoubtedly delicious!

Their dietary restrictions mean that they are also very particular about beverages. They will only drink water from a flowing or clean source and it is forbidden for anyone to take a bath, wash clothes, or pour dirty water near sources of drinking water. In light of the fact that alcohol is forbidden, they have developed a rich tea drinking culture. Whenever a visitor arrives in a Hui household, they will always be welcomed with a hot cup of strong tea. One such tea is known as Gaiwan Tea and is made using tea leaves, longans, jujubes, sesame seeds, crystal sugar, and medlar. This type of tea is thought to date all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and has been handed down from generation to generation.

Eight Treasures Tea is another favourite, similar to Gaiwan Tea in that it incorporates tea leaves along with “eight treasured ingredients” such as walnuts, jujubes, longans, raisins, and other dried fruits. They are aslo very picky about tea services and each Hui family will have several sets. In the past, the pots used to heat the tea were made of silver or copper and were beautifully designed. Nowadays they tend to use tin-iron pots or purple sand pottery pots to boil the tea and porcelain pots and porcelain covered cups to serve it. So if you fancy a spot of afternoon tea, be sure to make a few Hui friends!

In the past, Hui artisans were renowned for their skill at making incense, medicine, leather and cannons. Nowadays veteran artisans still produce traditional handicrafts such as carved ivory, cloisonné ornaments, and artfully embroidered carpets.

The festivals of the Mongol Ethnic Minority

The festivals of the Mongolian people are lavish and lively affairs, resplendent with fine banquets, rugged horse-racing, archery competitions, heated bouts of wrestling, and animated performances of singing and dancing. They are the ideal forum to learn more about their vibrant nomadic culture, from their dairy-based cuisine and colourful traditional clothes to their unparalleled horsemanship and poignant respect for the natural world.  

The Ovoo Worship Ceremony

The Mongols follow their own folk religion known as Mongolian shamanism and, within this faith, ovoos are sacred stone heaps made from nearby rocks, wood, and strips of colourful silk. They function as sacrificial altars and are each representative of a different deity in the religion’s pantheon. From May to August, grand worship ceremonies will take place at different ovoos throughout Inner Mongolia, when the grasslands are carpeted with jade and wild flowers are in full bloom. It serves as a forerunner to the Naadam Festival in late August, and focuses primarily on ancestor worship, nature worship, and hero worship. 

Herdsmen will travel from far-flung settlements and congregate at an ovoo, where they will make sacrificial offerings of meat, dairy products, and alcohol. Within the ceremony, there are four different categories of worship: Blood Worship, Wine Worship, Fire Worship, and Jade Worship. The Mongols believe that all livestock is a gift from the gods, so blood worship involves slaughtering a horse or lamb in front of the ovoo as a way to repay the gods’ benevolence and generosity. Wine worship entails pouring libations of fresh milk and mare’s milk wine onto the ovoo. 

The most unusual of all is arguably fire worship, where Mongols throw well-cooked beef or mutton into a bonfire while whispering their family names in the hopes of dispelling evil forces. Jade worship is more of an antiquated pastime, where Mongolian nobles would place expensive jade items onto the ovoo as offerings. Nowadays, cheaper substitutes such as coins, fried rice, and pearls are used.  

The bulk of the ceremony consists of a Buddhist lama chanting sutras and carrying out a variety of important rituals, such as burning incense and pouring libations onto the ovoo. Once the lama is finished, the participants will circle around the ovoo three times while praying for good fortune and longevity. At this point, it’s time for the ovoo to receive a much needed facelift! Its silk banners are replaced and new rocks are added to revive its stately and spiritual appearance. After the sombre religious rituals are over, the real festivities begin! Potent milk wine flows, banquets are plentiful, locals chat happily, horse races tear up the earth, and young people seize the opportunity to search for a sweetheart. 

The Naadam Festival

Like Spring Festival to the Han Chinese, the Naadam Festival is the most important holiday in the Mongolian calendar and is designed to celebrate the yearly harvest. It dates all the way back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and is celebrated annually in late August for between five to seven days. The name Naadam, which is short for “Eriyn Gurvan Naadam” or the “Three Manly Games”, is a reference to horse racing, archery, and wrestling, which are the three main events that the festival revolves around. However, performances of singing, dancing, and even a livestock fair also form a significant part of the festivities. The largest Naadam Festival is held in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, although grand festivals are still held throughout Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Gansu province, and Qinghai province as well.  

Winners of the festival competitions are granted prizes of silk scarves and livestock, and are regarded as local heroes, so the stakes are high! Much like the Olympics, the festivities begin with a vibrant parade of participating athletes, horse riders, monks, musicians, and dancers, all decked out in their colourful traditional clothes. The size of each competitive event depends upon the size of the festival itself. Small-sized festivals only attract between 60 to 120 wrestlers and 30 to 50 horse riders; medium-sized ones boast around 250 wrestlers and 100 to 150 riders; and larger festivals can have upwards of 500 wrestlers and 300 riders! 

Wrestling, which is usually the first event of the festival, is held in high regard by the Mongolian people as a test of strength, intelligence, and tactics. The wrestling contest has no weight classes and is a single-elimination tournament that lasts roughly nine to ten rounds. The only rule is that the number of participants must be divisible by two. The participants must wear a traditional costume comprised of a tight leather shoulder vest, a pair of shorts, special leather boots, and a colourful silk ribbon tied around their neck. This leaves their chest bare, thus proving that the wrestler is male. According to legend, it was said that long ago many men were defeated by a single woman, and this is why the wrestling costume now must expose the chest. You could almost say that they have to keep abreast of the competition!

Mongolian wrestling is made up of thirteen basic skills, including pushing, pressing, and pulling. You are permitted to grab the shoulder, hold the waist, or grasp your opponent’s clothes, but you cannot hold your opponent’s legs, hit his face, pull his hair, kick him above the knees, or get behind his back and push him over. In order to win, you have to force your opponent to touch the ground with his upper body or elbow. 

The top wrestlers are awarded one of the following six titles: Falcon, Hawk, Elephant, Garuda, Lion, and Titan. Any wrestler who defeated five opponents is a Falcon; six wins grants you the title of Hawk; an Elephant is anyone who won seven or eight matches; the mighty Garuda will have toppled eight or nine opponents; and the Lion is the ultimate winner of the entire competition. Anyone who wins the national wrestling competition more than once is granted the enviable title of Titan.

Archery follows the wrestling contest, and enjoys a venerable history in Mongolian culture. Since ancient times, bows and arrows have been the primary weapons of the Mongolian people, either to hunt animals or to fight in tribe wars. Nowadays they are mainly used recreationally, but remain a symbol of the Mongols’ enduring legacy as formidable warriors. 

The archery contest itself falls into three categories: field archery, archery on horseback, and long distance archery. Unlike wrestling, participants of all ages and genders are allowed to take part in the archery contests. They must bring their own bows and arrows, although there are no restrictions on the style, tension, length, or weight of their equipment. There are 3 rounds, with each participant shooting 3 arrows per round. The one who hits the target most often is the winner. It’s as simple as that!

Much like archery, the horse riding falls into three categories: the speed contest, the pace contest, and the acrobatic contest. The speed contest is a simple distance race, the pace contest is much like modern-day dressage, and the acrobatic contest is based on spectacular acrobatic manoeuvres performed on horseback. Typically children between the ages of 6 and 13 compete in the horse riding contests. Talk about starting them young!

Tibetan Art

From the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City to the labyrinthine temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, history has taught us that religion can be one of the greatest artistic muses. As an ethnic group characterised by their deeply spiritual nature and undeniable piety, the Tibetan people have, over the years, produced some of the finest Buddhist artworks in the world. While retaining many of the features of Indian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism incorporates aspects of the indigenous religion of Bön, a trait which is reflected in traditional Tibetan art. This makes Tibetan Buddhist painting and sculpture unlike any in the world, attracting the curiosity and admiration of visitors for its startling uniqueness.

Arguably the most famous of these art forms is the thangka painting, which became popular in Tibet sometime during the 8th century. It is often regarded as an amalgamation of traditional Indian, Nepalese, and Kashmiri styles, with a distinctly Tibetan flair. Thangkas are typically rectangular in shape and painted on cotton, linen, or silk appliqué, with a fringe made of vibrant silk brocade. The subjects of these spectacular paintings revolve around religious, astrological, or theological motifs, including Buddhist deities, influential figures, narrative scenes, and mandalas. The most common type of thangka usually contains a deity at the centre, who is surrounded by other religious figures in a symmetrical composition. 

Most thangkas are kept unframed and are relatively small in size, although some are several metres in length. These larger thangkas were designed to be displayed for brief periods on monastery walls as part of religious festivals, such as the Monlam Prayer Festival and the Losar Festival. After the festival, these thangkas are rolled up and must be kept in a dry place to prevent moisture from damaging the cloth. While larger thangkas are for public appreciation, smaller thangkas are meant for personal use as meditative or religiously instructive tools. After all, size doesn’t matter!

The intricacy of thangka paintingsis matched only by the Tibetan sand mandalas, which are constructed by Buddhist monks as part of ritual ceremonies. Natural colouring agents such as crushed gypsum, yellow ochre, red sandstone, charcoal, corn meal, flower pollen, powdered roots, and crushed bark are used to dye the sand, producing a vibrant rainbow of colours. The monks first draw the geometric design that they roughly wish to follow and then delicately apply the sand using small tubes, funnels, and scrapers. A team of monks will work together on a single mandala, moving from the centre outwards and creating one section at a time. Their construction requires significant skill and it can take several weeks to complete one.

Once it is finished, the mandala is ritualistically dismantled as part of an elaborate ceremony. Each part of the mandala is removed in a specific order and the coloured sand is collected in a jar, which is then wrapped in silk and taken to a river, where it is released. The mandala is meant to represent the beauty of the natural world, while its destruction symbolises the transitory nature of material life. The practice is thought to help monks re-focus their efforts on attaining enlightenment, rather than become distracted by the material world. In short, we are all nothing more than dust in the wind, or should we say sand in the river!

On a much smaller scale, tsaklis are Tibetan Buddhist miniature paintings that are normally produced as part of a set and feature a single deity, or a pair of deities. Much like the thangka, they are painted on cloth, although there are some tsaklis that are woodblock-printed onto paper. A set of tsaklis can comprise of anywhere from 6 to 100 small paintings on similar subjects. They are primarily used as offerings at temples or during religious ceremonies. For example, a tsakli featuring protective deities might be mounted near a construction site where a temple is being built, or might be used by a Buddhist monk to dispel evil energy from a sick person. Some pilgrims will even carry a tsakli with them in a portable shrine or box known as a “gau”, which is hung around their neck or attached to a shoulder strap.  

Much Tibetan art, including both the thangka and the sand mandala, is part of a wider Buddhist tradition known as tantra, which originated from Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism. The basic concept behind this practice is that the practitioner should try to visualize themselves as a specific Buddhist deity and try to internalise the qualities of that deity. The artwork simply serves as a tool to aid these visualisations. In short, think of them as textbooks for the achievement of enlightenment!

The Spirituality of the Tibetan Ethnic Minority

Colourful prayer flags fluttering atop piles of mani stones[1]; monks chanting mantras in a low and haunting voice; the thick scent of incense wafting on the breeze; these are the sights, sounds, and smells we’ve come to associate with Tibet. As a deeply spiritual ethnic group, Tibetans practice their religion with a piety and fervour that has captured the attention of people throughout the globe. Their complete and utter dedication to their faith is arguably their defining feature. While nowadays the majority of Tibetans adhere to Tibetan Buddhism, their spiritual love affair began with an indigenous religion known as Bön. Bön is a shamanistic[2] and animistic[3] faith that is thought to have been the first religion in Tibet. It revolves around a belief in numerous deities, demons, and ancestral spirits that can be contacted by special priests, known as shamans.

Buddhism did not truly take root in the country until the 7th century, during the reign of the Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo. His two wives, Princess Bhrikuti of the Nepalese Licchavi Kingdom (c. 400–750 AD) and Princess Wencheng of the Han Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907), were staunch believers in Buddhism and eventually persuaded him to share their faith. When the Indian Buddhist master Padmasambhāva visited Tibet during the 8th century at the behest of King Trisong Detsän, the religion’s popularity was firmly cemented. As time went on, Bön began to incorporate features of Buddhism, and so too did Buddhism in Tibet start to adopt concepts from Bön. 

The arrival of the Buddhist master Atīśa in 1042 triggered a reform movement in Tibet and, within a century, many major sects of Tibetan Buddhism had been established. By the 17th century, the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect had risen to become the dominant spiritual and political entity in Tibet; a situation that would remain unchanged until 1959. Elaborate complexes such as the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple, and the Ganden Monastery all stand as grand monoliths to the religion’s historical importance. While a minority of adherents continue to practice Bön, the sheer plethora of monasteries and temples dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism act as a testament to its enduring supremacy.

Tibetan Buddhism was initially based on the Vajrayana or Tantric sect of Buddhism, but has since also adopted features from the Madhyamaka and Yogachara schools of philosophy. It is the religion’s unique features, however, that have helped it to stand out on the international stage. In particular, it is renowned for its system of tulku or “reincarnated Buddhist masters”, the most well-known of which are the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama[4]. Each time an old tulku dies, a panel of senior monks is charged with locating the young person who harbours their re-incarnated soul. The process for finding these reincarnations has gradually changed over the years, but is nevertheless a fascinating and mysterious ritual that sets Tibetan Buddhism apart from its peers. 

Nowadays, the most common Buddhist practice seen throughout Tibet is the spinning of prayer wheels containing Buddhist scriptures. They come in a variety of types and sizes, with small, handheld ones being the most popular. Prayer wheels are spun in lieu of orally chanting mantras and are particularly helpful for the illiterate, who might otherwise be unable to accurately recite Buddhist scripture. The wheels are traditionally turned clockwise, although practitioners of Bön spin them counter-clockwise.

Another act of religious importance is the practice of pilgrimage and prostration. On the roads leading to Lhasa, you may catch a glimpse of Buddhists prostrating on their way to the capital. Depending on where they’ve come from, these pilgrimages can take weeks, months, or even years! Every three steps, the pilgrim is expected to prostrate themselves as part of an intricate ritual. Firstly, they must stand upright and chant what is known as the “Om Mani Padme Hum” mantra. They then put their palms together, raise their hands over their head, and take a step forward.

Lowering the hands in front of their face, they take another step forward and prepare to prostrate. To do this, they must lower their hands down to their chest, separate them, reach out with their palms facing downwards, and kneel onto the ground. The final step is to prostrate with the forehead slightly touching the ground. The time-consuming nature of this ritual means that many people simply choose to do it while circumambulating a Buddhist monastery in a clockwise direction, rather than making the pilgrimage all the way to Lhasa. In much the same way, Tibetan people will walk in a clockwise direction around pagodas, stupas[5], or piles of mani stones while chanting mantras as a mark of respect. As we head into an era of increasing modernisation, we can only hope that these rich spiritual traditions and soothing rituals will not be lost.  

Notes:

[1] A mani stone is a stone plate, rock, or pebble that has been inscribed with the six-syllabled Buddhist “Om Mani Padme Hum” mantra. They are usually placed by roadsides or rivers either alone, as part of a large mound, or arranged into a wall. According to Tibetan Buddhism, they serve as a form of prayer or religious offering.

[2] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

[3] Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.

[4] The Panchen Lama: The highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan Buddhism.

[5] Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

The Performance of Bouyei Ethnic Minority

From fairy tales and fables to folk songs and poems, the Bouyei are well-known for their rich tapestry of literature. Their works have been passed down orally for hundreds of years and contain invaluable information about their religion, customs, culture, and history. These stories go by fanciful names, such as “Killing Tigers and Shooting Eagles”, “Legend of the Huangguoshu Waterfall” and the undeniably curious “Fight with the Rhinoceros over the Pearl”. What a rhinoceros would want with a pearl we do not know, but what we do know is that this plethora of literary work has helped inform their unique style of singing, dancing and opera. 

Their folk songs can be split into two categories: big songs and small songs. Big songs are those sung at funerals and weddings while small songs are usually sung at festivals or when serenading a lover. Supposedly there are so many songs in the Bouyei canon that they could sing for 7 days straight without ever repeating one! Singing competitions are a popular form of entertainment during festivals and can involve dozens of singers from both genders, who sing musical dialogue in an antiphonal style. 

Their fondness for singing has stretched into a deep love of opera and they even have their own style, known as Bouyei Opera, as well as practising other styles such as the Ground Opera and the Stool Opera. Bouyei Opera is over 200 years old and is more of an umbrella term for all native operas of the Bouyei people. It originated from a style of singing where the performer would use only eight tones and sit on a stool. As riveting as watching someone sing on a stool must be, the Bouyei soon developed the practice and it finally took shape as a true opera form during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Nowadays Bouyei opera troupes are about 30 people strong and consist of the main actors, main actresses, and stock characters such as kings and warriors. 

All of the singing, monologues and dialogues are performed in the Bouyei language but the prologue, final poem, and self-introductions will be done in Chinese. The content of these operas draws from the Bouyei’s rich mythology and features many of the Bouyei’s legends, as well as transplanting stories from the history of the Han people. Before the opera begins, the performers will join in a ceremony to honour the God of Opera and then sweep the stage meticulously. 

It is a heavily stylised form of opera and there are certain conventions that must be adhered to, such as officials must always wave fans and warriors must carry a sword. Fortunately there are no warrior officials, or the performers would all be dodging a waving sword! The make-up used is minimal while the costumes depend on the content of opera. For example, Bouyei legends necessitate wearing traditional dress while stories of Chinese history require outfits that imitate ancient Chinese dress.

The Ground Opera received its unusual name because unsurprisingly it’s performed on the ground, with no stage or backdrop. Opera troupes are formed solely of local farmers from one village and these small groups only perform during slack farming seasons. After all, singing won’t pay the bills! The costumes for this style of opera are opulent and beautifully designed. Warriors wear a headdress made of chicken feathers and have small flags jutting out of their backs. Many of the performers will wear specially carved wooden masks while others will have vivid beards painted on their faces. 

This style of opera is sung exclusively in the Bouyei language and the stories are normally adapted from historical fiction, such as “Talking about the Tang Dynasty” and “The Warriors of the Yang Family”. It is sometimes referred to as Nuo Opera because it is believed to have originated from the ancient Nuo people, making it a “living fossil” of operatic art!

The Bouyei are also known for several styles of dance, including the Weaving Dance, which is meant to imitate a Bouyei girl’s diligence while working, and the Dragon Lantern Dance, which is intended to express their reverence for dragons. All of their singing, dancing, and opera performances will be accompanied by instruments such as the suona, the xiao, the yueqin, and the bronze drum, as they are accomplished musicians.   

The Agriculture and Craftwork of Bouyei Ethnic Minority

The plains where the Bouyei live are blessed with fertile land and a mild climate, making it an ideal place for farming various crops. They predominantly farm rice, wheat, maize, millet, and potatoes, although some cash crops such as cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, and tea are also grown to supplement their income. Unsurprisingly their diet is richly varied so, if you happen upon a Bouyei village, be sure to try the local food!

Like many people living in south China, rice is their staple food and is complemented by vegetables, pork, fish, or chicken, although they have an unfortunate preference for dog meat. They also have a fondness for pickled vegetables, sausages, and a type of curd made from pig’s blood. Sour and spicy flavours are integral to their cuisine, so much so that a local proverb states: “anyone who has not eaten a sour dish in three days will not be able to walk”. We’re not sure quite how true this theory is, particularly since no Bouyei person has ever risked testing it! 

They are incredibly fond of rice wine, which they brew en masse following the autumn harvest. This homemade hooch plays a focal role in festivals but is also drunk regularly as part of daily meals. While Bouyei men tend to drink alcohol, the women prefer tea and are known for mixing it with honeysuckle. In fact, they have fostered a tea drinking culture over several generations and the most precious of these homemade teas is called Guniang Cha or “Girl’s Tea”, which is made by unmarried girls and is rarely sold, instead being given as gifts to friends.

Food is not only an important part of their daily life, it is also symbolic. The Bouyei will always welcome their guests with tantalising dishes and fine wines. If pork is served, this means the host wishes the guest a good harvest in the coming year. Offering the guest a chicken’s head means good fortune, the wings symbolise success, and the legs represent freedom from anxiety. If only it was that simple, and I’m sure we’d be at KFC every day!

Since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Bouyei women have been renowned for their particular skill at batik[1]. In 1953 a batik factory was even established in Anshun city to help cope with the national and international demand for this unique craftwork. Their work is colourful, beautifully patterned, and usually depicts motifs of flowers, waves, dragons, and snakes. 

The women learn this art from the tender age of 12 and use it predominantly to make their clothes. They are equally accomplished at embroidery and brocade, making their traditional costumes some of the most intricate in China. Wood carving is also a popular pastime in Bouyei communities, particularly in Anshun County where they carve opera masks from clove or poplar wood.    

Note:

[1] Batik: A cloth-dying process whereby a knife that has been dipped in hot wax is used to draw a pattern onto the cloth. The cloth is then boiled in dye, which melts the wax. Once the wax has melted off, the cloth is removed from the boiling dye. The rest of the cloth will be coloured by the dye but the pattern under the wax will have remained the original colour of the cloth.

Wind-Rain Bridges

Wind-Rain bridges are so intricately carved and stunningly decorated that they look like small palaces that have been built atop a bridge. Along with the traditional Drum Towers, Wind-Rain bridges were developed by the Dong ethnic minority. They are a staple feature of any Dong village and provide the dual function of allowing members of the village to cross rivers and giving them a place to socialise. Not only are they striking to look at, Wind-Rain bridges are an architectural phenomenon in that no nails have been used to build them. They are a product of precise carpentry and local ingenuity. 

Wind-Rain bridges are covered bridges that were originally designed to provide villagers with shelter from the wind and rain as they crossed the river, hence the name “Wind-Rain Bridge.” They are sometimes referred to as “Flower Bridges” due to the intricate carvings and paintings on the insides of their pavilions. Wind-Rain bridges are typically composed of a bridge, a tower and several pavilions, which are usually held up by stone or concrete piers. The roofs of these pavilions are usually quadrangular or hexagonal in shape and commonly have five-layers of eaves, although this can vary from region to region. 

Wind-Rain bridges are predominantly made of wood and, instead of using nails, Dong carpenters use groove joints to fit the planks and columns of the bridge together perfectly. The towers, pavilions, stone piers and even the bridge itself will usually be adorned with beautiful carvings of dragons, phoenixes, cranes or other auspicious symbols. On both sides of the bridge, there are benches and railings so that locals can relax under the eaves. On a rainy day, it is not uncommon to see many local villagers gather under the bridge to socialise. 

Chengyang Bridge

The most famous of these bridges is called Chengyang Bridge or Yongji Bridge in Sanjiang County, Guangxi. It was built in 1916 and is one of the four most famous bridges in China, in part due to its impressive size. It has two platforms (one at each end of the bridge), 3 piers, 3 spans, 5 pavilions, 19 verandas and three floors, and is about 65 metres long, 3 metres wide and 11 metres high, making it one of the largest Wind-Rain bridges in China. The eaves of the corridor are covered with lively paintings of mountains, lakes, flowers, birds and other natural scenes. Sitting on one of the many stools on the bridge, one can relax and enjoy a spectacular view of the Linxi River as it winds through the tea fields, past the lush green forests and below the bridge. However, peaceful though it may be, Chengyang Bridge is a popular tourist attraction in Guangxi and can be quite crowded.

If you want to visit a Wind-Rain bridge without the risk of crowds, we recommend visiting the Dong communities in Hunan and Guizhou province. There are plenty of bridges, of all different styles, in the Tongdao Dong Autonomous County in Hunan province, although these are slowly becoming more popularised as tourist sites. If you want a truly peaceful, culturally authentic experience, we strongly recommend the cluster of Dong villages in Congjiang County, Guizhou. These villages boast the largest variety of Wind-Rain bridges and have yet to become a popular tourist destination. Whether you’re in Guangxi, Hunan or Guizhou province, you can’t afford to miss these magnificent river palaces!           

Join a tour with us to explore more about Wind-Rain BridgesExplore the Culture of Ethnic Minorities in Guizhou

Naxi Ethnic Minority

In the northwest region of Yunnan province, surrounded by the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the Naxi people have carved out an enclave over hundreds of years. Like the Tibetan, Pumi, and Yi ethnic minorities, they are thought to be descendants of the ancient Qiang[1] people, a nomadic tribe that once lived between Gansu and Shaanxi. 

Sometime between the 1st and 10th century the Naxi’s ancestors migrated south towards Tibet and had begun settling in modern-day Baisha and Lijiang by the year 3 AD. From there they are rumoured to have separated into three groups; those who remained in Baisha were known as the Naxi; those who went to Dali became the Bai ethnic minority; and those who moved to the region around Lugu Lake became the Mosuo people. That being said, the Bai and Mosuo people fiercely refute this origin story!

Not long thereafter a Naxi family known as the Mu clan rose to prominence in Lijiang but were eventually demoted to Tusi[2] by the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), taxes and tributes flowed from the Mu family to the Ming court and the court, in their turn, relied on the Mu family to keep the peace and control the ethnic groups of the region. In other words, the Mu clan still got to lead and the Ming court had someone else to do their dirty work for them! A similar arrangement took placing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) but was gradually abolished not long before imperial rule collapsed.  

Nowadays there are approximately 300,000 Naxi people living in China. The majority are concentrated in Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County of Yunnan, but there are smaller communities throughout northwest Yunnan, southwest Sichuan, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Their spoken language has four tones, much like Mandarin Chinese, and is divided into two main dialects: Eastern and Western. The Western dialect is the standard, while the Eastern dialect is spoken by the Mosuo people and other related ethnic groups. Yet it is their written language that has garnered much fame.

They use two writing systems known as Dongba script and Geba script, both of which are over 1,000 years old. They may not sound so special at first, but Dongba script is the last known hieroglyphic writing system still in use today. It incorporates approximately 1,500 pictographs and is referred to as “Serjelvje” or “Wooden and Stone Script” by the Naxi. It is predominantly used by Dongba shamans, who are priests in the Naxi’s indigenous religion. Geba script is a glyphic writing system that is only used to transcribe mantras or annotate Dongba pictographs. Consequently there are only 686 Geba characters. 

The most famous example of Dongba script is a religious work known as Dongba Jing, which was written during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and consists of more than 2,000 volumes! It describes the progression of Naxi society from slavery to feudalism and covers a wide range of subjects, including their religion, language, local customs, literature, astronomy and geology. The work includes “The Creation of the World”, an epic about the origin of mankind, and “The Dongba Dance Manual”, which records 60 different styles of dance and is one of the oldest dance manuals in existence. So if you want to learn some of the oldest dance moves in the world, we suggest you start studying Dongba script right away!

The Naxi traditionally live in two-storey log cabins. The exterior is made up of a large courtyard and the interior is marked by “lanes”, with each “lane” containing three rooms joined by a corridor. The houses are often beautifully decorated, with intricately engraved wooden doors on the buildings and an abundance of fragrant flowers in the courtyard. The main house will always face south or east, as the Naxi believe this will trap good luck as it arrives! 

Notes:

  1. This is not to be confused with the Qiang ethnic minority who occupy parts of Sichuan province.
  2.  Tusi: Chieftains or tribal leaders who were permitted to rule over a certain region and were acknowledged as imperial officials but who ultimately answered to the Emperor.