True travelers, those curious world wanderers, know that part of the joy in a journey – beyond the moments of wonder and the sensory overload caused by the swirl of new flavors, sights, and sounds – is the characters you meet along the way. After all, it’s the people who make the place, connecting you on a deeper level to its culture and history.
Even if the closest you get to exploring a new place is through the pages of a travel memoir, the stories of the people you read about are still a window into their world. That’s why we decided to share the Humans of China with all of you.
Thanks to the news and social media, China’s humanity has gotten a bit lost amid headlines about trade wars and protests. But, as our founder Mei Zhang pointed out in her piece about why you should still travel to China despite everything you see on the nightly news, “the government is the government, people are people.” China is huge – with 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, and 4 municipalities. However, it is by no means a monolith. In addition to the Han Chinese people, the Middle Kingdom is officially home to 55 ethnic minority groups, many of which boast diverse groups of people in and of themselves. Add to this a dizzying array of rich cultural traditions that have been passed down for generations and you get a country that is filled to the brim with fascinating stories. Stories that we are honored to be able to share with all of you.
Collected by Cameron Hack, an English teacher from the UK living in Beijing, each story is a window into China and her people. It is our hope that by sharing these snapshots into the lives of some of its citizens, you’ll be able to understand China better (and maybe be tempted to come and visit this beautiful country somewhere along the way). So, without further ado, allow us to introduce you to the Humans of China.
“At the age of four, my father gave me this gun. I’m 80 years old and the gun is around 75 years old. So, you could call it an antique.
You could also call me an antique.”
A couple of days after I was born, my family planted a tree for me. The plan was for the tree to be cut down when I die, and then with its trunk, a coffin would be made. This has been the tradition here for generations, but in recent years it’s since stopped. The tree probably won’t be cut down when I die. It’ll be left here to grow. My clothes are also made with the leaves from this tree, so the tree not only serves people in life but also in death.
At the age of four, my father gave me this gun. I’m 80 years old and the gun is around 75 years old. So, you could call it an antique. You could also call me an antique. Before, we’d use the gun for hunting wild pigs and birds, but I no longer use it for those reasons. I now use it when I perform for tourists. My father also gave me a knife which I kept strapped to my belt and would use to cut bamboo and make baskets.
In the 60s, I went to Beijing to work as a soldier. I had to walk a good few hours to reach the nearest train station, and when I arrived, I got myself onto a train that was carrying coal to Beijing. The train carriage was small and dirty, and by the end of the journey which lasted hours, I was black. I stayed in Beijing for five years and it was a really great experience. I couldn’t carry my gun or knife there though. In the five years I was there, I only managed to visit home once. Traveling home from Beijing took me a very long time and the salary was low, only six yuan a month, but they gave us food and a place to live. I liked Beijing a lot, but I think I prefer the village where I’m from.
My father started to teach me how to cut hair using a sickle when I was 12 years old and 53 years later, I’m one of just a handful of men here who can still cut hair in this way. This sickle is also 53 years old – my father gave it to me when he first started to teach me.
I am trying to pass on this dying tradition and have recently been teaching some young boys here, but as time passes, the younger generations become less interested. Our ancestors didn’t have scissors. The only way they could cut hair was with the tools they also used for farming. We do have scissors now, but we try and keep old traditions alive.
To cut someone’s hair, first, I’ll rub their scalp with warm water – no soap or foam is needed. I make sure the sickle is sharp enough, then they’ll tie their ponytail out of the way. Once I start cutting, it takes me around a minute.
Young boys and men here have had ponytails for generations. To attend funerals, weddings, and other important festivals, you must have a ponytail. Also, the government will pay money to men who keep them. We are the only branch of Miao with hair like this. It’s also there to represent our ancestors and it helps us keep their memories alive.
In the last few years, more and more tourists have been visiting us, as we still carry guns and live in a very traditional way. Sometimes I can cut their hair as a way to make some extra money. Within our village, I cut hair for free and don’t need or want my customers to pay me. I can’t cut my own hair though, so my younger brother helps me.
“My father started to teach me how to cut hair using a sickle when I was 12 years old and 53 years later, I’m one of just a handful of men here who can still cut hair in this way… I am trying to pass on this dying tradition.”
He’s just turned four and he is a handful. It’s the national holiday, so I bring him to work with me to perform and he is quite popular. People love to take photos with him, but he is a little shy. When performing, however, he isn’t. He’s just started to learn how to play pipes made from bamboo. They aren’t easy to play, but during the show, he tries really hard to keep up with his dad.
Like most men here, I’ve smoked all my life. Before, it was one of the only pleasures we had, as well as drinking homemade rice wine. Life was extremely tough before. Farming was hard work and when the crop was ready, it became even harder. I made baskets from bamboo and they’d be filled with rice, which I’d carry on my back and shoulders up the mountain. The two baskets, balanced on each end of a bamboo pole, could together weigh up to 150kg. They’d rub on my neck and shoulders and eventually make me bleed. It was painful, but I didn’t really have much choice.
Since opening up to tourists, life has since become better, but it’s still not great. The local government can make a lot of money from ticket sales, but the local people still have to work hard performing for tourists and farming. I’m 75 this year and I do enjoy chatting with the people who visit us. They often travel a long way to learn about our culture and traditions.
It has also given me a chance to do some things I enjoy, like playing music and making things I find in the forests around us. I made this pipe I smoke with myself. It’s pretty long and it took me quite a while to make. I had to carve out the inside very slowly and carefully, so I didn’t break it. Patience was needed, and the patience paid off.
About Humans of China
Cameron Hack, an English teacher from England, has made it his mission to collect the stories of China’s people since arriving in Beijing in 2014. By leveraging the online community, he’s been able to connect with members from some of the Middle Kingdom’s most fascinating – and in many cases, disappearing – communities. Almost 200 stories later (and counting), Cameron has recorded such diverse narratives as the women with bound feet and what life is like in Guizhou.