Deep in a mountain range in Guizhou province, there live an ancient tribal community whose women have a hairstyle so elaborate that it looks like a pair of bull horns.
They use a headgear made by coiling bundles of black wool string, mixed with the hair of ancestors, around a wooden horn-like ornament, which is then secured on top of the head with white string. This is the distinctive identity of the Changjiao (long-horn) Miao, a branch of the Miao ethnic minority.
Over generations, the ancestral hair is passed down from mother to daughter to signify the continuance of life.
“This is very heavy. It weighs about 3kg and the big ones can reach some 6kg,” said Yang Sanmei, a native Miao girl who is a guide at the Suoga Miao museum in Langdai Ancient Town, in the Liuzhi district of Liupanshui city.
“It’s probably a way to showcase our totem, the bull, which symbolises strength and beauty,” said Yang.
The Changjiao Miao’s traditional costume is made by embroidering colourful threads on a piece of fabric, then dyeing it with a batik technique.
“Our costumes are colourful because the mountains are always covered in thick mist. Colourful dresses allow us to better spot each other,” Yang added.
Sadly, just like many other ethnic minorities, the Changjiao Miao (also known as Qing Miao) is losing its identity and language as its people assimilate into modern Chinese society.
“We do not regularly wear the horn and traditional attire any more. They are now more for photo opportunities for the tourists,” said Yang, adding the headdresses would also be worn when they welcome important guests.
There are over 50 ethnic minority groups in China. The Miao, the fourth-largest tribe, was regarded as the most mysterious one in the olden days, most probably because they lived deep in the mountains and were little known to the outside world. I knew of the Miao tribe when I was still in secondary school, thanks to my favourite Hong Kong novelist Ni Kuang and black magic films.
In Ni’s adventure-science fiction series featuring a hero called Wisely, there is this pretty young witch by the name of Lam Si who has powerful magic skills using an assortment of poisonous bugs like centipedes and spiders.
“No, no, no. The Changjiao Miao do not practise this,” Langdai Ancient Town chief Li Wenbo quickly clarified, when asked about this. Yang added that even among the other branches of the Miao who used black magic, the skills have not been passed down.
Mountainous Guizhou is among the country’s poorest provinces. The Suoga mountain range has 12 Changjiao Miao villages with a combined population of about 4,000.
In the olden days, the people in the 12 villages could only marry among themselves, never an outsider.
“Those days, if a man liked a woman, he would sing her a song to express his feelings for her and the woman would reply with a song too.
“There is no more restriction now. We can marry anyone in the world,” said 20-something Yang, adding she prefers Miao men because they are simple and loyal to the wife. Today, many of them have moved to Langdai as part of the poverty alleviation programme. They work at the kiwi orchards or tea plantations, or venture into small businesses selling Miao handicraft, embroidery products and traditional food.
The Changjiao Miao is considered a living fossil of human culture. Many of their traditions (including the marriage ceremonies, funeral rituals, dances and songs) are still being practised in the villages. But due to more contact with the outside world, the community has begun to admire the modern lifestyle and are struggling as to whether to continue practising their ancient culture and traditions.
“We must look for ways to let these people find the most comfortable living conditions,” said Yang Xiaoying, a teacher at the International Tourism College of Guizhou Normal University.
The Guizhou government is currently working with the educational institutions to promote and market the Miao’s products in the hope that it will help improve the community’s livelihood while preserving their culture.
Villager Yang Ermei is planning to open an online shop to sell her handmade batik and handicraft.
“Through the Internet, the Changjiao Miao culture is going out of the mountains and flying to the world,” she said.