Like many local women, her pierced ear holes had dilated sufficient for my middle finger to fit clean through. Seeing my surprise, she told me that at age five or six her parents had used a needle to make the holes and used straw to gradually widen them.
For us, the most attractive feature of the village was the hanging houses, and especially the strings of corn and hot peppers slung from their eaves to drape over their windows. It seemed to us that every child growing up in Nanhua Village, should they head to bigger cities for university or work, would cherish the images of these houses in all their bucolic glory long into adulthood.
Departing Nanhua, a stroll of one or two kilometers brought us to neighboring Jidao Miao Village. On that short walk, the grand old trees towering above us imbued us with a sense of our own fleeting mortality, and the century-old footpaths we trod, granaries we passed and folk songs heard attested to the depth and ingenuity of Miao culture and history. We were humbled.
The Kaili people describe the beauty of their culture and natural surroundings as immeasurable and uncountable, just like the individual droplets that form the perennial torrent of the Bala River along whose banks their villages sit. The beauty of the valley and the river compelled us to walk on and on.
“In haze of rain, mountains hide; Xianglu rises where Kaili City lies; a portrait of somber houses hanging in the skies.”
This stirring poem was written by the first governor of Kaili and evokes the magnificence of Xianglu Mountain, found 13 kilometers west of Kaili City. Literally meaning “Censer” or “Incense Burner,” the peak is the highest in the area and its summit is 1,233.8 meters above sea level. It towers above nearby hills, most of which barely reach 500 meters. Xianglu’s slopes are precipitous and only one brazen path winds its way to the top.
In centuries past, Xianglu was the spot of many a sanguine battle, and few people climbed its slopes. Nowadays things are different. On June 19 and 20 each year, thousands of people stride up the slopes for the annual mountain climbing festival. On these days the mountain is welcoming, and those climbers with the brio to make it to the top are treated to spectacular views.
Xianglu and its foothills are set in sylvan splendor, dotted with rugged boulder regions and boast fertile soil. Tealeaves harvested here used to constitute the tribute paid to Ming and Qing emperors.
Xianglu Mountain is also the site of the Yaozi Caves, which are so deep as to appear almost bottomless, and Yuhuangge, the campsite of Zhang Xiumei, a leading warrior of Miao insurrectionist forces that waged war against the Qing Dynasty. In addition to the breathtaking scenery and the legends surrounding the peak itself, these features heighten the mystery of the mountain.
On the whole, the Miao people enjoy the quiet life, and their most prized mountain is no different. It remains off the beaten track of most tour companies in China. But there are plans to bring greater numbers of sightseers to the area. One project is to erect a statue of Chi You, a mythical warrior who fought with the Yellow Emperor, on the mountain’s summit to guard over the surrounding lands as well as to entice visitors to scale the peak.
Gannangxiang is the Chinese transliteration of a phrase in the local Miao language, meaning “downstream of a charmed land.” The Wu clan, which traces its lineage far back into the annals of history, set up a reed pipe festival here 500 years ago. The festival continues to be celebrated today and is held annually from the 16th to 20th of the first month of the lunar year. The descendents of the Wu clan still take the lead in the festival, which takes place in an auditorium built by the clan. The occasion is the biggest annual event in the region.
Over several thousand years of migration, the Miao people have never abandoned the reed pipe – it is an integral part of their customs and they are consummate masters of the instrument. Pipe songs symbolizing different subgroups of the Miao are manifold and employ various thematic elements to allude to unique motifs. One subgroup, the “Short Skirt Miao,” ends its calling tune with a “mo” sound, meaning “go” – the whole song enacting a march along a slope. The “Black” Miao’s emblematic song expresses the will for its people to stick together and wait for everyone before starting out on a trip.
The process of making the pipes themselves is just as intricate as the delightful songs the pipes produce. At Xinguang Village of Zhouxi Town, we were