With just a little over a week left before we were due to leave China, I looked for recommendations from our fellow teachers at Omeida and local Chinese people as to where we should absolutely not miss visiting before leaving this beautiful part of the world. A resounding response was “you have got to visit the Rice Fields in the Longsheng county of the Guangxi province ”, a four hour trek from Yangshuo, via Guilin, by train and bus. The reason? Not only to see these rice fields from the different viewing platforms, one of which is called “the Dragons Backbone”, but for me, a much more interesting reason; to visit the Ethnic Minority Tribes who inhabit the mountains in Longji, and have worked tirelessly in these fields for hundreds of years. The rice fields are a central part of the daily life and identity of these exotic people. With such riveting stories of their customs, traditions and beliefs, I just had to go and see this for myself. And so, with the help of a local Chinese businessman “Mickey”, who had become our dear friend during our time in Yangshuo, we arranged to travel and stay for two days at the rice fields, hoping that we would get to meet some of these minority people.
The journey from Guilin to the Rice Fields is a small bit piecemeal and complicated when not having any Chinese. However, as we have experienced on every trip throughout China, the local people are always more than willing to help. Albeit it might take some time to communicate with them through body language or google translate, which isn’t always translated accurately. Google translate has led us into funny situations when locals give us totally different information than we thought we’d asked for! Or the Chinese will read the message from our Google translate app and snigger and look at us strangely and walk away. On many an occasion we were left none the wiser as to how exactly the translation was being interpreted! 😱 God only knows what reputation we left behind in many of the places we visited using google translate, but we haven’t been arrested yet, and that’s a plus 😂.
A two hour journey in an ancient van (converted to a minibus with seats crammed into the back), brought us to another pick-up point at the foot of this mountainous region of southern China. There, we boarded yet another bus, packed full of wonderfully unique looking locals, including an elderly woman who was certainly in her late 70s at least, who wore the most intricately embroidered outfit with what looked like a pink tea-towel wrapped around her head. I took a seat beside her and thought “she’s clearly one of the women from the minority tribes”. Giving me the most beautiful welcoming smile that I’m sure is reserved for westerners, and with only about 3 teeth in her head, her dark wrinkled skin reflected the years of hard work that she obviously endured working outdoors in the mountainous rice terraces. As we made our way, higher and higher into the mountains, we passed villages of three-storey wooden houses built on stilts. They would not have been out of place in an old western movie. The first floor held the family livestock, the second was their living quarters and the third floor was storage. With no fire regulations, needless to say the villages are serious fire hazards, which we were soon to learn more about, sadly.
By way of background, throughout China there are about 56 different ethnic minority groups in total officially recognized by the Chinese Government. In this particular region of Longsheng there are just four. The Yao, Zhuang, Miao and Dong tribes. There are three main villages dotted around the rice terraces of Longsheng where they reside. The Ping’an, Dazhai and Longji villages are home to over 100 peasant households. Ping’an, is the smallest of the villages with just one cobbled street where the local traders sell their wares. This was the village we opted to visit. The Yao and Zhuang people make up the majority of the minority groups in Ping’an. They had originally lived throughout the low lying lands of China until rebellions between them and the Ming Dynasty forced them to retreat into the mountains. There are almost 2.5 million ethnic minority people living in the wider area of south-east China.
Living in relative poverty, they are a dignified and proud race of people, with their unique customs and practices and are only too happy to show them off to western visitors. In particular, the women of the community are the most unique group of women of any community I’ve ever come across. Every woman, young and old, sports a huge head of hair, sometimes up to 2 meters long, piled on top of their heads. They never cut their hair throughout their lifetime (with the exception of a few, who cut a small amount off only just, when they reach adulthood, only to weave it back into the pile of wrapped hair for the rest of their lives). They wash their hair in the rivers with extracts from the rice plants growing on the mountain. We took a trip to one of their villages on the first morning we arrived, encountering the most wonderful sights of their daily lives. Firstly, we were treated to a performance of their traditional dance where a group of women unwrapped their hair as part of the dance and proceeded with the seemingly simple task of wrapping it up again into various knotted piles, each knot representing the differing status of the women, i.e. single, married, widowed etc.
We spent the day wandering aimlessly around the village, stopping to chat with the local women, who had a small amount of English, having clearly picked up from the huge number of tourists passing through. I was totally taken with how warm and friendly they were, happily posing for photos with me. I was like a giant standing beside them, with their tiny frames. Even with a lifetime of hair piled onto their heads, I still towered over them. The clothes worn by these minority groups are fantastically vibrant! Handmade with beautiful textiles, and embroidered with the most glorious colours. Their clothing has been listed as a “national intangible cultural heritage of China”. A prestigious and well deserved status indeed. And did you know…Yoga Pants originate from these people? 😱. Nope..Me neither 😁.
The Yao tribe has its own language which differs from region to region, with the different dialects often creating communication difficulties within their own community. There is no written “Yao” language. However, a fascinating piece of information I learned about was that the Yao women, and only the women, have had a written language created just for them! It is called Nushu (meaning “women’s script”! It bears a resemblance to Chinese characters, however it is a “secret” language that only the Yao women are taught and can read. No man is allowed to learn the written language. It was created specifically for the women who were often isolated both before and after marriage. The women who become close friends would often not be able to meet up and so would write to each other in this Nushu language. They could share secrets and problems, complain about their men, or their lives etc. amongst each other, and the men in the community would be none the wiser. It was their secret way of supporting each other in difficult times. The practice of these writings ceased for many years during the Japanese invasion of China because they feared it would be used as a secret code, however in the 1980s it was briefly revived. However the last original writers of the script died in the 1990s and it is slowly dying out with only a small number of women now learning it. Such a shame!
They are a vulnerable group of people who live a simple, uncomplicated lifestyle. Farming (tending to the rice fields mainly) and trading of handmade crafts and jewellery are the main source of income. The crafts they create hold special meanings, particularly the batiks, sculptures and paintings. Outside of the hotels catering for the visiting tourists, the people themselves have no computers or TVs and in fact have no real access to the outside world other than meeting those who visit the terraces. Many have never been outside of their villages, however the younger generation are beginning to venture out into the world in small numbers. Those who do take that step, usually end up returning to care for their elderly parents, as is legislated for under Chinese laws. The elders in the community are revered and respected and at every meal are seated at the head of the table in the “seat of honour”. In addition to adoring their elders, they have huge respect for “totem poles”. Their main religion is Taoism/Daoism, a recognized religion in China, based on the three principles of compassion, moderation and humility. Interestingly, many of the Yao people also believe in witchcraft and wizardry. They believe in evil spirits and ghosts and shaman priests often preside over exorcisms with chicken bones and bamboo sticks. Yes, real life Harry Potter stuff, with potions and spells too for healing. They believe that when someone is ill, that their souls are stolen by spirits (not the alcohol ones 🤪). They perform rituals, often calling on the shaman priests, who will try to “convince” the spirits to leave by offering blood sacrifices or writing the name of the spirits they believe are causing the illness on pieces of paper and burning the paper to rid the victim of the illness. Should this not work and the person dies, they are cremated and buried in caves in the mountains. Separately, marriages are often determined by parents who make sure that the match for their offspring is compatible and in line with the bride and groom’s horoscopes! What a task, and while divorce is permitted, I’m not sure how many of them are blamed on the star signs not aligning 🙏🙏🙏
Our hotel was situated at the very top of the mountains and the view from our window was the first sighting we had of the vast expanse of green rice terraces. I had never before really given much thought as to how we got our rice into plastic bags and onto the shelves of our supermarkets. I had no idea of the work that went into growing, picking and preparing rice for the world market before. The whole community is involved in the process here, from planting to picking, and each and every part of it is done manually. The very nature of the rice terraces terrain means that no machinery can access the steep terraces to help with the heavy work involved in bringing the rice from the terraces to the wider market. Instead, elderly women carry baskets on their backs, filled with the rice they have picked, to donkeys with huge baskets balanced on their backs. The donkeys bring the rice picked on the mountain shelves back down into the villages before it’s prepared for selling on. Needless to say, our first meal was all rice dishes and the most delicious rice I have ever ever tasted. You don’t get any better rice than farm to table rice here.
I was eager to climb the rice terraces to get a glimpse of the famous “Dragons Back” and so this was the agenda for our last day. In scorching heat we climbed high into the mountain along a narrow pathway for about 3 kms. I struggled, panicking at one point when my heart rate had reached an uncomfortable level. After a few “stops and starts” we eventually made it to the very top viewing point. The view from the top was totally breathtaking, in every respect! And if you look at the picture I’ve included here, you will see that it does actually look like the spine of a dragon! I have no idea how elderly women do this day in and day out! I climbed it once and was panned out after it. They do return trips up and down daily. I take my hat off to them! (If I had a hat 🎩 )
We returned to Yangshuo, thrilled with the decision to make this trip our final one while in China and even more so to have met and learned so much about these fantastic people. Two weeks later, shortly after arriving to our next destination, Vientiane in Laos, we received a short video clip from a friend of ours in China bringing with it awful news. The video was devastating and had been recorded live only an hour beforehand. It was the village of Dazhai, (the next village to Ping’an) with a fire raging out of control, and with inevitable tragic consequences. We still have no idea how many deaths there were, but I understand there were many and a whole community destroyed. I’ve no doubt these strong-willed hard-working resilient people will rebuild their village, as they have done in the past from scratch apparently following such disasters. Their strong belief system and sense of community that has stood the test of thousands of years will carry them through!
Next stop….the colourful city of Vientiane in Laos…. An unexpected hidden jewel of South East Asia!