By Kumar David –
China’s smaller minorities seem settled and well adjusted: The Miao people of Guizhou Province
When a child is born the village people plant a tree which, as an adult, the grown up cares for. When he/she dies it is felled and used to fashion the coffin. If a person dies in youth or by unnatural cause (accident, suicide) it is a bad omen and the remains cannot be buried in the traditional burial grounds. The Miao have a bond with nature and the forest; they worship trees; they are not fakes, unlike denizens of modern society they are real.
It’s a toss-up whether it’s the lurid colours of their costumes or their dazzling headgear that is more arresting to the traveller in Qiandongnan Miao & Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou Province, buried deep in the south-central Chinese heartland. A prefecture is the next unit below province, like a district in Lanka but much bigger. This one at thirty thousand square km is 47% the size of Lanka. The Miao are one of China’s 50+ ethnic minorities and number 9 million in this region, a million more are scattered in other parts of the country. Three million go by the name Hmong in the hilly northern parts of Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Thailand. There are also two to three hundred thousand Hmong immigrants in America.
It takes a whole day from Hong Kong by coach or normal train, then a high-speed train (five and half hours) and another three hours by coach to the mountainous Leigong region of Guizhou where they are now settled; but it is worth it. One can see Miao and Dong settlements (somewhat touristy now), participate in their festivals if one goes at the right time – which I did arriving in time for the principal Miao annual festival which falls on the same day as the Han Chinese Ching Yeung Festival, this year on 10 October. There is good reason why I said “now live” because the earliest records of the Miao go back to the short lived Qin Dynasty (221BC – 206BC) but during the subsequent Han Dynasty (of Terracotta Warrior fame) they were driven from their homes in North Western China. On the run from hostile Chinese empires and moving from place to place they finally settled in their current location about 1000 years ago.
The people, the province, the nation
The Miao are darker than the yellowish-ashen Han Chinese and of shorter stature. No one knows whether this is due to outdoor labour and poorer diet compared to Han compatriots or whether because of older genetic traits. There are no records of the Miao and Dong during, the partly mythical (3500BC – 2100BC), Ancient Period (3500BC – 250BC), prior to the Imperial Period which commenced with the Qin. [Lankans know that Confucius (551BC – 479 BC) was a contemporary of the Buddha (563BC – 483BC) and lived during the Spring and Autumn Period].
Guizhou is a relatively new province (only 200 years old) and in former times was better known as a remote place of banishment for those who offend the Son of Heaven; quite a few outspoken poets have buried their bones there. Being remote and godforsaken in those days it was also a poor province; until recently one of the poorest in China. In recent decades this has all changed thanks to the discovery of minerals and vast coal deposits. The province is now a massive exporter of coal-fired electricity to other parts of China. Now the wealth is beginning to show. High-speed railways and modern highways crisscross the province, towns with high rise buildings, industries and hotels are visible and people seem to be well-off compared to ten years ago. Infrastructure has burst out in an astonishing way in China. It is as if the American railroad passion of the late nineteenth century, Hoover Dam and FDR’s electrification of the 1930s and the highway programme of the Eisenhower years had all fused into a frenzied 25 year time span.
To push this line of argument just a little further before returning to my theme the Miao, let me add some flesh to the scale of this explosion. China is adding one airport a week, 2000 MW of power (mostly coal-fired) every fortnight and is on course to construct 50,000 high-rise buildings. The high speed rail network is a marvel. The 50,000km network is the largest, fastest and most complex in the world. In the 10 days of the Lunar New Year (Chinese New Year for yakos) peak it will carry 30 million people. By 2030 about one billion people will live in urban environments. A crucial point is that without strategic direction setting and resource mobilisation by a strong state none of this would have happened. The actual execution was public or private construction activity.
However it has also precipitated the worst land, water and air pollution in modern times. What is the purpose of growth if the quality of life does not improve? This is China’s challenge. It’s for the better that things are slowing down now; the breakneck pace could not have been sustained without a crash and a very hard landing. Fortunately it is now certain that China’s slowing down will slide into a soft-landing – at least for China. The slacking off of gigantic raw materials imports and slowing down of capital exports is giving rise to economic difficulties in other countries including oil and gas exporters.
Now back to the Miao. For Guizhou and therefore the Miao and Dong minorities in the region, first the boom which flooded the country with money, followed by the post-2012 slowdown which turned the leadership to the domestic economy has all been good news. Guizhou is no longer a miserable poor province and the lot of the Miao and Dong minorities are improving quickly. Smiling faces and a quickness of step are ubiquitous. President Xi Jinping’s strategy for social stability which depends on sustaining an improving quality of life and thus retaining the uncontested leadership of the Communist Party is threefold. Not just turn to the domestic economy but forcibly diverting resources from the rich eastern and southern seaboard provinces to the west and the interior, clamping down on rising inequality (not end it, just slow down its escalation), and thirdly “Making China great again” – did Donald Trump take private lessons not only from Putin but from Xi as well?
If you go there in festival season there are two events not to miss – the long-table dinner and the bulls-fight. Observe the plural; this is not the cruel and savage Spanish bull-fight where a goaded and tortured animal is murdered by a bogus hero matador. This is a fight between a pair of bulls. Each fight lasts no more than a few minutes where the animals lock horns and attempt to topple each other; soon enough the loser turns tail and bolts to the enormous mirth of the whole stadium. Unfortunately I found the other parts, the song and dance items of these concerts, repetitive and uninspiring.
The long-table dinner when say 100 people sit at each long table to enjoy a repast of local dishes is delectable. A hot-sour fish soup, akin to Thai thomyum, I enjoyed very much. But the best is when singing dancing Miao girls glide along the table, cascading a fountain of local wine from bowl to bowl, the bottom bowl pressed to your willing lips. Ah drink to me only with thy wines, no need for eyes! The wines themselves are on the sweet side and not to be compared to a full bodied red – 2005, or better 2009 so far the vintage of the century. Tipplers will also be delighted to learn that Guizhou is the home of the best moutai, the harsh colourless spirits up to 60% proof, that you knock down tiny cup by cup over a meal for so long as you can see what’s in front of you. If you take offence at my devaluation of the fifth precept, then take delight in a more scientific detail about the province. You may have heard that the largest radio telescope in the world was commissioned in China a few months ago; well it sits atop a remote hill in Guizhou Province.
A not so happy note is that while I believe that most of China’s small ethnic minority groups are pleased with their place and progress under the Peoples’ Republic the same cannot be said of the two large minorities; the Tibetans and the Muslim Uyghurs of far western Xinjiang Province. Both are resentful of Han domination and the usurpation of all authority by the regime in Beijing; and this despite the huge resources poured into regional development. The explanation of the paradox however is simple. A small minority with no territorial proto-national prospect does not threaten national integrity or the monopoly of power vested in the one party state. It is different with Xinjiang and Tibet the largest and second largest provinces of China, respectively, with people distinctly different from the Han Chinese and with their own religions, languages and centuries old cultures.
Tibet is on the other side of the, admittedly hard to cross, Himalayas from strategic adversary India. China’s five great rivers (Yangtse, Mekong, Huang Ho or the Red River, the Brahmaputra, and Salween) all rise in Tibet or the Chinese Himalayas and pass for thousands of miles through the country. No way will China let go this fountainhead. The Huang Ho’s source is in the neighbouring Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau. Xinjiang borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and includes the testing site for China’s nuclear weapons. Beijing will never loosen its grip. Even if the CCP leaders were not control freaks this would be impossible.
This is a far cry from the setting of the smaller minority groups locked within state, society, and economy. Their expectations are lower and non-separatist. Though independence for Tibet or Xinjiang is an impossible dreams, the pity is that Beijing can well afford to be more flexible and grant genuine self-governing autonomy to these provinces. Beijing’s authoritarians, like Lanka’s Sinhala chauvinists, abhor other people doing their own thing.