Did you know that kung pao chicken originated in Guizhou province, not in Sichuan?
Yes, food is on my mind, as I’ve been eating way too much. And, no, the title of my post isn’t referring to preserving food. It’s about preserving ancient cultural traditions, ones that have been passed down from one generation to the next for years on end.
In Guizhou (southwestern China), I joined a family of four from North Carolina, on a trip entitled “Hidden Tribes of China.” We were led by our highly energetic guide, Xiao, a lifelong Guizhou native whose deep passion for his province was truly infectious. The trip was eye-opening for all of us—a chance to see how China’s ethnic groups have maintained their vibrancy in the midst of the modernization sweeping across the country.
In Jichang Village, about 1-1.5 hours drive from the capital city, Guiyang, we were treated to an opera performance by “old Han” villagers. The Han are China’s main ethnic group, and the “old” Han make up a sub-group that still adheres to the clothing, architecture and customs of 14th century China.
The opera, which featured brightly colored costumes and elaborately painted wooden masks, was held just for us in an open area, with villagers encircling us and the performers. While I expected to stand out, some of the villagers seemed equally fascinated by the performers as they were by the strangers in their midst. It was like community theater, in the round…except that you also had children running back and forth, men smoking their long pipes and women in Ming dynasty clothes working on their embroidery. A feast for the eyes!
During our time in Guizhou, we also drove even further away from Guiyang to Leishan County, known for its numerous ethnic Miao villages. The Miao, or Hmong as they are called in Southeast Asia, are a minority group with many different sub-groups, each with its own customs. We had the opportunity to view performances by “Short-Skirt Miao,” who presented us with rice wine in ox horns and danced several numbers—and even pulled us in twice. (I was reminded, yet again, that I have no rhythm.)
The preservation of tradition was also clear in everything else we saw in the province—from water buffalos plowing vast green fields and artisans making pottery on hand-built, wooden kick wheels to villagers engaging in traditional paper making. One craftsman, who graciously allowed us into his mountain-top home for dinner, spends much of his time repairing lusheng, traditional musical instruments made from bamboo pipes.
When viewed within the context of all the rapid changes China is undergoing, the endurance of these traditions in Guizhou is truly remarkable. The best part? The fact that the people we met were all smiling and seemed genuinely happy to be carrying on the traditions of their ancestors.