Hidden deep in the mountains of China’s Guizhou Province, are many small villages inhabited by Miao, Dong and other ethnic minorities. These ethnic groups have unique, centuries-old traditions, including ethnic heritage architecture, cultural landscapes, and living traditions of song, dance, crafts, and festivals. Many of the traditional crafts are still practiced with great skill and include embroidery, batik, silver ornament making, and weaving.
However, with the rapid social changes and urbanization in recent years, these valuable cultures and traditions are under severe threat and in some cases face extinction.
With funding from the World Bank, a cultural and natural heritage protection and development project was launched in Guizhou in 2009. The project involves 16 counties and focuses on infrastructure, ethnic minority cultural heritage protection, natural heritage and scenic site protection and development, tourism gateway town facilities development, and capacity building.
Saving the last gun tribe in China
Biasha, an old Miao tribe, lives in a mountainous village surrounded by deep green forests. In the morning, the mist-shrouded village presents a mysterious and alluring sight.
A group of Biasha men greet visitors at the village gate by firing gunshots into the air. Biasha are known as the “last gun tribe in China” as all men and boys in the tribe carry guns, although they are now only fired during displays for tourists.
In the village, a new stone-faced footpath blends in well with the traditional wooden houses in the village. It was built with funding from the project, which also financed construction of the village gate, a Miao-style wooden corridor, solid waste bins, public toilets and tourist facilities in the village. More than 50 old wooden village residences were also renovated with help from the project.
Improved infrastructure benefited both villagers and tourists. “We no longer get muddy feet on a rainy day. With improved infrastructure, there are more tourists. It helps preserve our village and our culture,” said Jia Yuanliang, head of the Biasha Village, which consists of 505 households and about 2,500 people.
Gun Xuewen, a 36-year-old father of two, joins other villagers in the cultural performance for tourists that includes traditional music, dancing, hair cutting with a sickle, a wedding ceremony, as well as displays of marksmanship. “I earn 10 yuan from each performance,” he said. During the tourist season, he performs several times a day.
Tourism provides the old Biasha Miao community with both a source of much needed additional income as well as an incentive to preserve their culture and tradition.
The Dong sing their way to cultural preservation
As a popular saying of the Dong people goes, “rice nourishes the body and songs nourish the soul”. The Grand Song of the Dong ethnic group, multi-part singing performed without a conductor, is on UNESCO’s list of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
Wu Rongde, 43, is the leader of the village choir in Xiaohuang, an ethnic Dong village in Congjiang County famous for its Dong Grand Song singing culture. “For the Dong people, singing is our life. We cannot do anything without singing,” Wu said. “We educate our children and express our love through singing. Our Dong ethnic group does not have a written language. We use songs to record and carry forward our history and culture.” Wu and his choir often tour the country and even venture abroad to stage performances of the Dong Grand Song.
With help from the project, investments were made to build and rehabilitate the village road, sewers, public toilets and tourist facilities in Xiaohuang to accommodate the increasing number of tourists who are attracted to the Dong Grand Song from all over the world. Many villagers also repaired and expanded their traditional wooden houses into homestays.
Jia Shanfeng, 32, runs such a homestay in his family house. “We have benefited directly from the development of tourism. Tourists come to our village not only to enjoy our grand song, but also to experience our food and way of life,” he said. “Providing such services to tourists brings significant financial benefits and economic opportunities for our village and people.”
Jia comes from a family of grand song singers. His father and mother are both lead singers in the Dong choir, and his sister is a prefecture-level Dong Grand Song singing culture inheritor. The family has been invited to many performances and singing competitions in and outside the Province. Prizes won by the family on various occasions are displayed in their house, an attraction to visitors.
“Grand Song singing is the essence of our culture. Our ancestors have passed it down to us, and we must protect it and carry it forward,” said Jia.