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.

The Festivals of Hui Ethnic Group

Since most Hui people are Muslims, they follow the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar that has 12 months and 354 days in each year. This makes their years 11 days shorter than our Gregorian calendar and so they have to wait less time between festivals! The three main festivals are all religious and are known as Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Mawlid an-Nabi. 

Eid al-Fitr

During the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the Hui observe a religious practice known as Ramadan. Throughout Ramadan, men older than 12 and women older than 9 must fast during daylight hours and can only eat and drink once it is dark (i.e. before sunrise and after sunset). It is practised during the ninth month because, according to the Quran, this is when Allah bestowed his teachings upon the prophet Mohammed, meaning this is the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar. 

Muslims fast during Ramadan in order to experience starvation and thus empathise with those less fortunate. Just imagine hungrily watching your co-worker eat a McDonalds, knowing that you have to wait another 8 hours to eat, and you’ll understand just how challenging this is! Once the fasting has ended, they celebrate a three-day long festival known as Eid al-Fitr. It begins on the 1st day of the 10th month and each person will get up early in the morning, take a bath, and thoroughly clean their house and surrounding streets. They then light incense and head to the mosque in their formal clothes, where they will attend a religious service and listen respectfully to the imams giving lectures and sermons. 

Once these are completed, they must go to their family’s cemetery and hold activities in honour of their ancestors. The family will then gather together and make traditional food such as fried dough pastries and fried cakes. Alongside these fried delicacies, they will prepare a feast of chicken, mutton, beef and braised vegetables, which will be shared with relatives, friends and neighbours as a sign of goodwill. After a month of fasting, it’s a small wonder that anyone has the patience to prepare food and not just wolf down the raw ingredients! The following two days of the festival are celebrated with feasts, lion dances, wrestling, and all manner of entertainment. As this is considered an auspicious occasion, many Hui youths will also get married during this festival. 

Eid al-Adha

The term “Eid al-Adha” means “sacrifice and self-devotion” in Arabic, so it is unsurprisingly also known as the Feast of Sacrifice, and the Festival of Fidelity and Filial Piety. It is a four-day festival that begins on the 10th day of the 12th month according to the Islamic calendar and revolves around the sacrifice of an animal, usually an ox, which people will divide into three portions. The first portion of meat is given to family members, the second is gifted to relatives, friends, and neighbours, and the final portion will be used as alms to help the poor. The older family members boil the meat and inform the children that, after they have finished eating, they must bury the bones underground and cover them with yellow earth instead of giving them to dogs. 

They traditionally sacrifice animals during this festival in homage to the ancient prophet Ibrahim. According to the Quran, Allah spoke to Ibrahim and ordered him to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Ibrahim sharpened his knife and approached his son, but relented and begged his son to leave. However, Ishmael told his father that, if it was the will of Allah, then he must be sacrificed. 

Ishmael lay down in acceptance of his death and Ibrahim felt tears stream down his cheeks as he placed the knife on his son’s throat. At that moment, Allah stopped Ibrahim and provided him with a “greater sacrifice” than Ishmael, although it is never explicitly mentioned what this sacrifice was. This festival honours both Ibrahim’s devotion to Allah and Ishmael’s filial piety in obeying his father without hesitation. 

During the festival, most families will host a gathering and share a feast of beef, mutton, fruit, fried cakes and other delicious dishes with their relatives, friends, neighbours, and sometimes local imams.

Mawlid An-Nabi

The prophet Mohammed is believed to have been born and died on the same day so this festival commemorates both his birthday and the anniversary of his death. It takes place on the 12th day of the 3rd month according to the Islamic calendar. During the festival, Muslims will go to the mosque, chant scripture from the Quran, send their blessings to Mohammed and his family, and listen to lectures by imams on the life of Mohammed. Once the religious ceremony has finished, they will donate grains, edible oil, meat, and money to the mosque. 

For one day only, they will take charge of maintaining the mosque by helping to mill flour, purchase groceries, fry cakes, boil meat, cook delicious dishes, and perform all other daily chores. They all volunteer readily for these jobs as they consider this festival to be a particularly auspicious day to perform good deeds. When the work has been completed, people will gather together to enjoy a feast. In more affluent areas they will have huge gatherings, with dozens of tables laden with dishes for everyone to enjoy!

Tibetan Architecture

Due to their remote location on the Tibetan plateau and the harsh weather conditions they regularly face, the architecture of the Tibetan people has largely evolved to suit the landscape in which they live. These two-storey stone houses tend to be built on elevated sites facing the south and have multiple wide windows to capture the greatest amount of sunlight, since fuel for heating or lighting is in short supply among the barren mountain slopes. Flat roofs help to conserve heat, while inward sloping walls protect against earthquakes. From the outside, their square and white-washed exteriors look rather basic, but their interiors are often lavishly decorated in a constellation of colours, from bright yellows and soothing oranges to burnished reds and sultry blues. This style of architecture is the most typical, but it’s important to note that Tibetan people live in vastly different homes depending on region, with some living in yurts, some opting in fixed abodes, and some oscillating between the two. 

With its square buildings, darkened corridors, thirteen storeys, and over one thousand rooms, the Potala Palace is regarded as emblematic of the simplistic beauty associated with Tibetan architecture. It is divided between the outer White Palace, which serves as the administrative centre, and the inner Red Palace, where can be found the main religious halls, shrines, and the expansive sutra library. While monks reside within these grand monasteries and farmers tend to live in fixed stone houses, the nomadic pastoralists on the grasslands continue to utilise mobile yurts made of yak-hair cloth, which are distinctly rectangular in shape and can range from 4 to 15 metres (13 ft. to 50 ft.) in length. These yurts can be easily dismantled and transported, but the durability of the yak-hair cloth means they can withstand inclement weather and retain heat. After all, we can’t think of many more animals that are hardier than the yak!

Tibetan Opera

Inscribed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009, Tibetan opera is widely regarded as one of the finest opera forms in China. In true bucolic fashion, it is performed outside without a curtain or stage, relying entirely on the natural and effortless talent of its practitioners. The themes of Tibetan opera derive from a myriad of sources, from solemn Buddhist scripture and bold historical epics to grand legends and mystical folk tales. These lofty themes are intermingled with features of daily life in order to make each opera relatable to its audience. Even the origins of Tibetan opera itself were born out of purely practical needs!

It is believed that, during the 14th century, an eminent Buddhist monk named Thangtong Gyalpo had planned to build a number of bridges, which would enable people to easily cross all of the major rivers in Tibet. However, he simply couldn’t afford to embark on this noble project without funding. Using religious stories as inspiration, he wrote a number of operatic arias. With the help of seven sisters, he travelled across Tibet and organised performances of these operas to raise funds. In elaborate costumes, the girls would dance and sing while Thangtong accompanied them with a drum. In fact, the Tibetan name for this opera style, which is known as Ache lhamo or simply lhamo, translates to mean “Elder Sister Fairy” in reference to the ethereal beauty of these sisters.

Some of the bridges that Thangtong Gyalpo masterminded are still in use today, but by far his greatest legacy is the 700-year-old tradition of Tibetan opera. You could say he bridged a gap between the past and the present! While he remains credited for the creation and dissemination of Tibetan opera, it also incorporates features from ancient rituals associated with the indigenous religion of Bön, alongside aspects of traditional Tibetan folk dance. Many historians even argue that it was the Indian Buddhist master Padmasambhava who was responsible for the first performance of Tibetan opera. The inauguration ceremony he staged during the 8th century for the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen contained a variety of simple plays, which Thangtong Gyalpo used as the basis for his operas. As they say: bad artists borrow; good artists steal! By the 19th century, Tibetan opera troupes could be found throughout Tibet, and nowadays performances continue to be held, particularly on special occasions such as the Shoton Festival.

Opera costumes are typically made from silk, with royal characters wearing the stateliest outfits and lesser characters donning more modest attire. Hems and borders of clothes may be adorned with simple silk brocades, but the finest brocades are saved for the most important component of the costume: the mask. These colourful masks are bedecked with a sun and moon motif, and are used to identify certain character types. For example, dark red indicates a king; light red denotes a minister; yellow indicates the character is a Buddhist deity or monk; blue masks are for hunters; female characters wear green; ordinary male characters wear white; black signifies a villain; and a half white, half black mask symbolises a double-dealer. If only it were quite so simple in real life!

Performances of Tibetan opera typically take place outdoors in public squares, public parks, or temples, although nowadays some are staged indoors with a full complement of accoutrements, including backdrops, stage-lighting, make-up, and an orchestra. Before the performance can begin, a statue of Thangtong Gyalpo must be placed at the centre and the open air “stage” must be blessed. A narrator will sing a summary of the story, and then the performance will start. Talk about plot spoilers! At the beginning of each act, it is the narrator’s responsibility to quickly describe what is going to happen. In the absence of realistic backdrops and props, it is largely up to the narrator to stimulate the audience’s imagination and set the scene.

Once the performance is finished, another ritual blessing is conducted where the statue of Thangthong Gyalpo is honoured and presented with a hada by the performers. The plays vary vastly in length, with the shorter ones lasting several hours and the long ones taking upwards of two to three days to complete! Unlike other forms of Chinese opera, which employ large orchestras, Tibetan opera is usually only accompanied by drums and cymbals. Dance plays a major role in the production, shifting from the elegant to the brisk to the purely acrobatic depending on the action of the play.

Although Tibetan opera is now widely regarded as a secular art form, its deeply entrenched roots in Buddhism mean that many of its stories recount the triumph of good and the punishment of evil. In many ways, these performances serve as tools to teach a wide audience about the significance of morality. Yet the real beauty of Tibetan opera lies in its ability to connect Tibetans throughout the country, promoting unity and encouraging pride in their cultural identity. For centuries, Tibetans have gathered every summer at the Norbulingka in Lhasa to enjoy performances of Tibetan opera as part of the Shoton Festival. We can only hope that they can continue to do so for centuries to come.    

The performance of the Tibetan ethnic group

Open air operas, joyful dances, and hearty folk songs form just a small part of the rich tapestry that is traditional Tibetan performance. The most iconic of these arts is arguably the Tibetan opera, which is widely regarded as one of the finest opera forms in China. In true bucolic fashion, it is performed outside without a curtain or stage, relying entirely on the natural and effortless talent of its practitioners. The themes of Tibetan opera derive from a myriad of sources, from solemn Buddhist scripture and bold historical epics to grand legends and mystical folk tales. That being said, the origins of Tibetan opera itself were out of purely practical needs!

It is believed that, during the 14th century, an eminent Buddhist monk named Thangtong Gyalpo had planned to build a number of bridges, which would enable people to easily cross all of the major rivers in Tibet. However, he simply couldn’t afford to embark on this noble project without funding. With the help of seven sisters, he organised the first ever performance of Tibetan opera to raise funds. Some of the bridges he masterminded are still in use today, but by far his greatest legacy is the 700-year-old tradition of Tibetan opera. In short, this talented engineer bridged a gap between the past and the present!

Nowadays performances of Tibetan opera continue to be held, particularly on special occasions such as the Shoton Festival. The performers often wear colourful masks, which are used to identify certain character types. For example, dark red indicates a king; light red denotes a minister; yellow indicates the character is a Buddhist deity or monk; blue masks are for hunters; female characters wear green; ordinary male characters wear white; black signifies a villain; and a half white, half black mask symbolises a double-dealer. If only it were quite so simple in real life! 

Before the performance can begin, the open air “stage” must be blessed and purified. A narrator will sing a summary of the story, and then the performance will start. Talk about plot spoilers! In the absence of realistic settings and props, it is up to the narrator to stimulate the audience’s imagination as he describes each scene. Once the performance is finished, another ritual blessing is conducted where a statue of Thangthong Gyalpo is honoured and presented with a hada by the performers. The plays vary vastly in length, with the shorter ones lasting several hours and the long ones taking upwards of two to three days to complete! Unlike other forms of Chinese opera, which employ diverse orchestras, Tibetan opera is usually only accompanied by drums and cymbals.

While Tibetan opera requires a degree of organisation and skill to perform, Tibetan circle dancing is popular in the countryside thanks to its simple, rural charm. A group of people arrange themselves in a circle and hold hands, with the circle itself being split into two teams. One team sings the song, while the other team joins in at the chorus, with both teams stamping on the ground in time with the rhythm. Normally this type of dance will take place in open ground or farming ground on the edge of villages and the songs are easy to remember, so many people can take part. During festival occasions, people have been known to dance from morning until night!

Other popular dance styles include Duixie or Tibetan tap dance and Zhuoxie or Tibetan drum dance. The Tibetan tap dance is marked by its quick and fancy footwork, with performers deftly changing their movements after every third step. The Tibetan drum dance is typically performed by men, who wear vibrantly coloured traditional clothes and a string of small bells tied around one ankle. A flat leather drum is attached to their hip via two strips of silk, one tied to their thigh and the other around their waist. Using a pair of small hammers, the performers rap the drum while dancing vigorously. As the rhythm builds and the performance continues, the drummers will start singing and eventually perform some acrobatic feats, which are sure to send the crowd into a frenzy of excitement. 

While these styles of dance can be performed by anyone, the spectacular Cham dance is exclusively performed by Buddhist monks. Cham dances are considered to be a form of meditation and also a way to appease the gods. The performers dress in elaborate costumes, complete with strange face masks, and attempt to re-enact the behaviour, attitudes, and gestures of Buddhist deities in order to offer moral instruction to all those watching the performance. With their lively steps and fantastical costumes, Cham dancers truly are the lords of the dance! 

Other Customs of Zhuang Ethnic Minority

The Zhuang have a rich literary tradition, both written and unwritten. Folk stories often take the form of songs and are passed down orally. They can be myths, legends, historical poems or even simply chants. The Zhuang have a written language known as Sawndip or Old Zhuang Script, which they use to transcribe their literature and other important documents such as contracts. Most of these folk tales are written in verse and some of them are over a thousand years old!

One of these ancient legends has garnered much attention in recent years and is known as “Dahgyax Dahbengz” or “The Orphan Girl and the Rich Girl”. This is essentially an early version of the Cinderella story and has been found in old Zhuang opera scripts. Several written versions of the story date back to the 9th century, although it could be even older! Songs like these are often refined over a period of several years. For example, the “Song to Tell Others”, which is a philosophy on life, originated during the Sui Dynasty (581-618) but its final form wasn’t set until the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Many of these songs have their roots in superstition, such as the “house raising” song which is sang after a new house is built. This song consists of two parts; the first describes the construction of a traditional stilt house; and the second is customarily believed to ward off evil spirits from the new home. Like many ethnic minorities, they are a deeply superstitious people and their customs reflect this. For example, in some Zhuang communities they love to eat dog meat, while in others there is a taboo on eating dog meat because, according to legend, the dog helped mankind in their time of need.

The legend states that long ago there were no grains and the people were forced to eat wild plants. The only grain seeds were in Heaven but it was forbidden to bring them to earth. One day, a trusty dog decided he would go to heaven and procure the seeds for his beloved masters. Back in ancient times, dogs had nine tails so when the dog got to heaven he placed his tails on the ground and many of the seeds stuck in his fur. However, while he was collecting the seeds he was spotted by a guard. Before the dog could get away, the guard managed to chop off eight of his tails. He managed to get back to earth with one of his tails still intact and he gave the seeds to his human masters, allowing them to grow grain. In other versions of the legend, the dog is replaced by an ox and this may explain why some Zhuang communities happily eat dogs.

These superstitions play a focal role in Zhuang funerals, as they believe that the souls of the deceased enter the netherworld but continue to assist the living. Ancestor worship is common and their burial rites are particularly unusual, as the dead are buried twice. The deceased is first wrapped in white cloth and, after three days, they are buried in a coffin along with a few of their favourite things. A Taoist priest or local shaman will preside over the funeral, depending on the family’s beliefs. Families will sometimes even arrange what is known as a “spirit marriage” to appease the souls of those who died unmarried!

After three years, the deceased is disinterred and the bones are cleaned. They are then placed in a pottery urn and sprinkled with a red mineral called cinnabar. The urn is deposited in a cave or grotto until an appropriate burial site has been chosen in the clan cemetery. Once this has been done, the deceased is officially classed as an ancestor and can be worshipped at the ancestral shrine.

However, the Zhuang believe that anyone who died a violent, untimely or accidental death could become an evil spirit if not buried properly. They must be cremated while a local necromancer or Taoist priest chants scripture. The remains are carried over a fire pit, which the necromancer or priest must jump over! It is believed that this process “changes” the ashes from those of an evil spirit into a benevolent ancestor spirit.

 

 

The Architecture of Mongol Ethnic Group

Nowadays, most Mongols live in modern apartment blocks or fixed residences. However, you’ll still find plenty of Mongol people maintaining their nomadic heritage and living on the grasslands in a type of portable domed tent known as a ger or yurt. Some people even alternate between the two; living in urban housing for part of the year and then shifting to a ger in order to tend to their livestock. The use of these unusual abodes dates back to the time of the mighty Genghis Khan, roughly around about the 12th century. With their bright white exteriors and perfectly rounded shape, these magnificent gers look like glittering pearls scattered across the jade-hued grasslands.

They are made by first erecting a series of wooden lattice frames into a circular shape and then securing them with rope. This forms a self-supporting cylinder that is approximately head height. A door frame is then fitted at the front, while roof poles are used to give extra support. Finally, a canvas typically made from sheep’s wool is drawn across the wooden skeleton and the ger is complete. To give the ger additional stability during inclement weather, a heavy weight is suspended from the centre roof pole.

The ger is ideal for both warm summers and harsh winters, since it is spacious, well-ventilated, but also well-insulated. Its conical roof is perfect for shedding rain, its white exterior is designed to reflect the sunlight during the peak of summer, and its ground-hugging base protects it against strong winds. Smaller gers are typically designed to accommodate up to 10 people, while larger ones can house over 20! Skilled Mongols can erect a ger within half an hour and dismantle it just as quickly, making it the ideal home for the wandering nomad. Once packed up on the back of a yak or camel, it can be easily transported to the next destination. In short, it’s the original mobile-home!

According to tradition, the door to the ger should typically face south and the interior layout should be separated into approximately eight sections: the north, northwest, west, southwest, northeast, east, southeast, and centre. In the northern quarters, there is usually an eight-legged table that is used for keeping cosy quilts, exquisite rugs, and other clothing items. Men’s clothes must be placed above women’s clothes and it is considered taboo to put the neck of any piece of clothing facing the doorway, as this is a practice reserved for the deceased.

The northwest is a holy area reserved solely for Buddha. It is resplendent with shrines and niches, all containing Buddhist statues that have been safely locked away. During religious festivals, the occupants of the ger will light candles and make offerings to these statues while praying for wealth, longevity, and good fortune. The wild western quarter is designated as the man’s private kingdom, full of guns, knives, saddles, and wrestling gear.

The southwest is where yoghurt tanks and more saddles are kept, while the northeast houses cases of women’s clothes and jewellery. The eastern quarter acts as a sort of makeshift pantry, with meat, vegetables, fruits, and cooking utensils arranged into tiers on a special rack to keep them separate. The southeast is a much more flexible area, as it can be utilised in a number of ways depending on the season. In spring, it is filled with water buckets and dried cow’s dung, which is burned as fuel. During summer and autumn, a yoghurt tank and various clay utensils are added for the making of milk products. Under emergency circumstances, it is sometimes even used as a shelter for newly-born calves!

Finally the centre, arguably the most significant section of the ger, is reserved for the fire stove. After a ger has been erected, the first thing that the occupants must do is decide on the position of the stove. Fire is the lifeblood of any Mongolian household, as it provides the means to boil water for tea, cook family meals, or simply keep the ger warm. For this reason, it is of paramount importance that the stove is positioned correctly within the ger.

If you happen to be visiting a ger, there are a number of customs and taboos that you should be aware of. One must not approach a ger by automobile or on horseback within a certain radius. Touching the entryway or the centre roof poles of the ger is deemed impolite. Never step on or over a saddle, as the Mongols’ have a deep-rooted reverence for the horse and damaging or disregarding a saddle is considered highly disrespectful. Similarly, you shouldn’t sit in front of or near Buddhist shrines out of respect for the Buddha. Lastly, you should only take a seat after being invited to do so by your host, with male and female guests sitting separately. Remember, while the Mongols are renowned for their warm-hearted nature, these are the descendants of Genghis Khan, so the last thing you want to do is offend them!

The Festivals of Miao Ethnic Minority

Different Miao communities celebrate different festivals and, in some cases, celebrate the same festival but at different times. However, the Miao New Year, the Sister’s Meal Festival and the Lusheng Festival are considered the most culturally significant and are celebrated by almost all Miao communities.

Miao New Year

The Miao people celebrate a different New Year’s Day to that traditionally adhered to in China. It falls sometime during September to October according to the their lunar calendar. However, there is no exact date for the New Year’s Day each year and the official date is only announced two months prior to the festivities. In southeast Guizhou, the Miao community celebrate their New Year Festival on the “Rabbit Day” or the “Ox Day” of the lunar calendar according to ancient Miao tradition. During the New Year festival, women will wear traditional clothes and there will be large parades. The locals will celebrate by beating drums, dancing to the music of the lusheng, horse racing and sometimes horse fighting or bull-fighting.

The Sister’s Meal Festival

The Sister’s Meal Festival is considered to be the oldest version of what we know as Valentine’s Day. It is a favourite festival among the Miao communities in the Guizhou counties of Taijiang and Jianhe. It is celebrated from the 16th to the 18th of March according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Before the festival, Miao girls will go to the mountains to gather wild flowers and leaves, which are used to make coloured dye. This dye is used to make glutinous rice known as “sister’s rice”. When the festival begins, the Miao girls will adorn themselves in their finest silver jewellery and meet by the banks of a river to make “sister’s rice”. They dye the rice blue, pink, yellow and white to represent spring, summer, autumn and winter respectively.

Finally the men will arrive. They will each single out the woman they love and sing to them. The woman responds to these songs by giving the man a cup of rice wine and the sister’s rice, which is wrapped in a handkerchief covered in symbols. If the rice is offered with a pair of red chopsticks, it means the woman returns the man’s affection. If only one chopstick is offered, it is a polite refusal. If a piece of garlic or a red chilli is placed on the rice, this indicates a flat refusal. Pine needles scattered on the rice means the man should present silks and colourful cloths to the girl and she will wait for him to woo her. This festival is particularly important in terms of courtship, as it is one of the few occasions when men and women from other Miao villages are able to mingle freely.

The Lusheng Festival

The Lusheng Festival is considered the most significant of all the Miao festivals and is celebrated widely throughout Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan. It is celebrated from the 16th to the 20th day of January according to the Chinese lunar calendar. During the Lusheng Festival, Miao people from surrounding villages will all come together in traditional dress and the men will all bring their lusheng. The men will play the lusheng whilst the women dance. They believe that this ceremony will bring a good harvest and good health to the people in the coming year. However, the festival is not simply about playing the lusheng and also features other activities typical of the Miao, such as singing, bullfighting, and horse racing.

Although you can catch the Lusheng Festival in many Miao villages, the grandest one is considered to be the one held near Kaili in Guizhou. If you visit Guizhou in March, we recommend you visit Zhouxi Town, which is about 16 kilometres from Kaili city, where they hold a magnificent Lusheng Festival. If you miss it then there’s no need to worry! In Huangping County, about 75 kilometres outside of Kaili City, there’s another Lusheng Festival in November.

Other Festivals

In Yunnan, the Miao people also celebrate a festival called “Stepping over Flower Mountains”. Childless couples often repeat their vows to the fertility god at this time of year. As part of a religious gesture, they will offer wine to the young people in their village. The young people will then dance under a pine tree which has a bottle of wine hanging from it. It is said that many young men and women fall in love during the festivities and childless couples hope that this will help bring them children.

Other commonly celebrated Miao festivals include the Dragon Boat Festival (national holiday), the Flower Mountain Festival (May 5th), the Tasting New Rice Festival (between June and July), the Pure Brightness Festival, and the Beginning of Autumn Festival.

Join a travel with us to discover the Culture of Miao Ethnic Minority:  Explore the culture of Ethnic minorities in Southeast Guizhou

The Spirituality of Zhuang Ethnic Minority

The Zhuang ethnic minority have their own indigenous religion known as Moism or Shigongism, which is an animist[1] faith based on their prehistoric beliefs. The polytheistic nature of the religion means they worship many things, from giant rocks and old trees through to dragons and birds, although the main focus is on ancestor worship. And, when it comes to Moism, three is the magic number!

They believe that the universe is tripartite, with all things being composed of three elements; heaven, earth, and water. People are believed to have three souls after they have died; one that goes to Heaven, one that goes to the cemetery, and one that comes back to protect the deceased’s family. A complete family is seen to have three parts: the descendants, the clan graveyard, and the spirits of the ancestors. With all these ancestral spirits flying around, three is never a crowd for the Zhuang!

Furthermore, this means that the souls of the dead can enter the netherworld but can continue to assist the living. The ancestral spirits are believed to protect the family but also have the capacity to punish them, so most Zhuang families will have an ancestral shrine at the centre of their home where they can worship their ancestors as well as other deities.

Buluotuo, the God of Morality, is one of their shared ancestors and is believed to have created the world, as well as being responsible for the establishment of moral order. In the Zhuang language, “bu” is the epithet for honoured elders, “luo” means “to know a lot”, and “tuo” means “to create many things”. He is married to a goddess known as Huapo or the Flower Mother, although some Zhuang communities believe that she is his mother. At least no one thinks she’s both! She was born out of a flower at the beginning of the world and is the Goddess of Reproduction. She is usually depicted guarding a large garden full of golden and silver flowers, with the golden flowers representing boys and the silver ones representing girls.

Upstanding moral villagers will be rewarded with good flowers (i.e. good children), while those who are immoral will receive withered flowers (i.e. bad children). When a baby is born, a plaque in Huapo’s honour and a bunch of wildflowers will be placed near the baby’s bed. If the baby becomes sick, the mother will offer gifts to Huapo and water the wildflowers. The goddess’ birthday takes place on February 29th according to the peasants’ almanac and on this date women will pick flowers and pray to her for conception.

The Zhuang epic Baeu Rodo is a poem about how Buluotuo created the world. It is a staggering 10,000 lines long and over 1,000 years old! Originally it was passed down orally but was transcribed sometime during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The epic is split into four sections, all of which can be read independently. The first is an introduction; the second is about the creation of the world; the third is about the creation of leaders; and the fourth is about the establishment of morals and ethics. The Zhuang people will often sing it at worshipping ceremonies and it is widely regarded as a religious text.

The worship dance to the Rice God

Other deities in the Zhuang canon have been borrowed or adapted from Han Chinese folklore. These include Tudigong, who protects the village boundaries; She Shen, who protects the village itself; the Mountain Spirit, who resides on a sacred mountain that is not to be farmed; the Dragon King, who protects the village during natural disasters; the Land God, who controls drought, flood, pestilence and disease; and a number of other spirits, such as the Kitchen God, the Water God, the Rice God, and the Sun God. In fact, there’s pretty much a god for everything! They sacrifice to these deities on a regular basis as they believe this will protect their livestock, their crops, and their families.

There are two types of religious figure in Moism: female diviners and male shaman or necromancers. The female diviners treat the sick and can communicate with the spirit world when in a trance. They have no teachers or students, nor do they read from any scriptures or religious texts. They are normally asked by families to contact the spirit world and pass on messages to deceased relatives. They also contact spirits or even deities to inquire about the future, particularly with relevance to fortunes and disasters. While they are divining, they will use a special ladle called a “ding” as a musical instrument and may also shake small bells.

The male shaman or necromancers serve at an altar and are able to read and write Sawndip, the Zhuang’s writing system. Thus they are the only members of the community that can read certain texts, which usually relate to mythology, history, geography, and astronomy. They are sometimes called great masters and can take on students. Their primary function is to dispel ghosts, pray to spirits, help people choose an auspicious time or place to do something important, and tell people’s fortunes. They are often employed to perform at funerals, local festivals, and in times of crisis. Sometimes a Taoist priest will take the place of a shaman, although he will chant in Chinese instead of the Zhuang language.

Buddhism in Zhuang communities has been heavily influenced both by Taoism and Moism, so Buddhist priests are allowed to marry and are only semi-vegetarian. Their main function is to write horoscopes, act as geomancers, and exorcise ghosts, although they will also help in times of crisis by chanting sutras[2]. In other words, when it comes to religion the Zhuang have all their bases covered!

 

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

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha