The writer participated in a welcome ceremony during a visit to Langde Miao Village in Guizhou, China. // © 2018 Meagan Drillinger
Feature image (above): China’s Guizhou province is home to approximately 25 percent of the world’s Miao people. // © 2018 Meagan Drillinger
There wasn’t just a single shot of rice wine — there was an entire line of them.
I had just arrived at Langde Miao Village, located high in the hills near Kaili in China’s southwestern Guizhou province. The village is a collection of wooden houses tucked into a hillside, at the base of which is sprawling green farmland. Mist rose from the pine forests behind the homes, and wisps of smoke curled out of the chimneys.
Little by little, the village began to hum with movement as cloaked figures trickled down the hillside to the farmland, where I was waiting to meet my Miao hosts. Suddenly, the nasal call of a wooden pipe instrument pierced the air, as dozens of Miao women in brightly colored costumes formed a long line from the base of the hill up into the village. Each one was holding a small bowl, spilling from which were drops of potent liquor called baijiu, which literally translates to “drunk ghost.” I took a sip from the first woman’s bowl, and before I could recover from the throat-burning sensation, I was immediately passed to the next — and the next, and the next. Before I knew it, I was six shots deep and had barely crested the first few steps going up the hill. It was going to be quite a dramatic entrance.
Guizhou Province, one of the most under-visited and underdeveloped provinces in China, has a unique under-the-radar profile that gives it a significant cultural edge over the rest of the country. Much of the destination’s authenticity remains intact, devoid of selfie-stick wielding tourists and queues that snake for an eternity. And while a visit to a Miao village is certainly designed with tourism in mind, the residents are not putting on airs. They are giving you a true glimpse into their way of life.
I happily stumbled my way through the narrow cobblestone streets, which are flanked on either end by traditional homes with hanging paper lanterns, and followed the lead of the Miao women clothed in vivid blue dresses. The sound of heavy jangling silver jewelry led the way, as each Miao woman is draped from head to toe with intricate necklaces and bangles.
At the end of the alley, the streets converged into a large town square where a row of elderly Miao women were chanting a haunting song. As the crowd watched in silence, we didn’t notice the dance troupe forming behind us. Then, without warning, the square exploded in a burst of souped-up traditional Miao music, as dozens of Miao women paraded in synchronized formation. A vibrant dance show followed that included musical interludes from the men of the community who played songs on lushengs, a set of long bamboo pipes.
The Miao people are one of the most well-known and internationally dispersed ethnic minority groups from China, and Guizhou province is their home base. Approximately 25 percent of the world’s population of Miao are living in Guizhou, but pockets of them can also be found in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, France, Australia and the U.S.
The Guizhou Miao are the most representative of traditional Miao customs and cultures. Their language consists of several sub-dialects, and they pay specific attention to hospitality and etiquette — hence my Bacchanalian blowout welcome ritual. It is customary for Miao to welcome guests who have traveled from great distances with "horn spirit," or rice wine served from the horn of a ram.
Festivals are hugely important to the Miao people, as well. The Lusheng Festival is one of the most significant and is celebrated in Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. But the one held in Kaili, is considered the grandest celebration. The Miao New Year festival, another important event, is celebrated around the same time as the Lunar New Year in China. During the festival, the Miao celebrate with a parade, traditional dress, traditional music, bullfights, horse racing and plenty of singing and dancing.