Princesses of Silver
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Isolated in southeast China, between the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, lays Guizhou, a province of colourful mountains, undisturbed by time and by the country's relentless transformation into a modern capitalistic global power.
Minority ethnic groups such as the Miao, the Gjias, Shui Yao and countless others have managed to preserve their cultural identity over the years.
The poverty of the inhabitants of this remote region is only equalled by the richness of their traditions and the opulence of the women's festival costume. Since time immemorial, Miao women have honoured the tradition of wearing massive silver crowns, a type of headdress that even the mightiest kings would have envied.During a whole month of travelling throughout the south and southeast Guizhou province, over 4,000 kilometres amongst the hills and mountains sculpted by patterns of paddy fields and a variety of other crops, I did not see a single tourist.
This came as no surprise. Who would in fact dare to venture into these plateaux, indeed magnificent in their profusion of greens, yellows and purples, but incredibly isolated from the modern world? And who could reach these remote villages that do not appear on any map and where there are no roads? No one of course. And yet, the mystery surrounding the local traditions, preserved intact for thousands of years, adds a certain magical quality to the challenging journey. It is here, the people say, that the legendary 'princesses of silver' can be found.
Every time I stop in a village, an immense crowd of children and adults gathers around me. They are curious to see a white man up close and for most of them it is the first time. In this province, which accounts for one eighth of China's territory, approximately 75% of the population belongs to the Han ethnic group; the rest is a mixture of various minority ethnic groups, which include the Miao, but also the Bouyei, the Dong, the Yi, the Shui, the Hui, the Zhuang, the Bai, the Tujiao and the Gelao. Articles published recently in the Chinese press condemn the backwardness and poverty of the province in which eight million people live below the national poverty level.
The Miao people are concentrated mainly in the south and southeast of Guizhou province, specifically around the capital, Kaili. Isolated on hillsides, or grouped in villages of crude stone and wooden houses, the Miao maintain their ancient rural lifestyle, and employ archaic agricultural techniques. The Miao have virtually no possessions, in fact it is not in their nature to accumulate wealth - they are a people who simply enjoy the simplicity of their lifestyles and the authenticity of their untouched civilisation. The great Cultural Revolution, the changeover to market economy and enormous technological advances have not effected or been of any benefit to the Miao.
The people of Guizhou are very detached from the pace of modern Chinese life: they don't need running water, or heating systems, nor do they care about studying Mandarin, which they have always refused to learn. The entire population survives on the cultivation of colza, corn and especially rice, which is grown in paddy fields, irrigated by means of gigantic wooden water wheels. And yet, this is a land of richness, a kind of richness that can only result from centuries of isolation which made it possible for the Miaos to preserve their ancient traditions.
One of the most fascinating, and picturesque traditions of the Guizhou province is represented by the elaborate embroideries crafted by Miao women for their ceremonial costumes, which they wear during festivals and other celebrations. These embroidered masterpieces require years of work by women but also men, who take part in the process of crafting these fantastic crowns of silver, in order to contribute and to enhance their spouses' or daughters' beauty.
For the daughter's wedding, infinite care and craftsmanship go into the preparation of this extraordinary attire so dear to the Miao. Its silver ornaments represent the family's sole valuable possession. Down on the ground floor of the typical wood and stone house is where a few briquettes of charcoal burn, keeping the inside temperature at a bearable level (often 15 C below zero in the month of March).
It's on the upper floor that the family stores its supplies of food and prized possessions of clothing, silver headdresses and jewellery. “All wealth in the family belongs to women,” says Lien smiling candidly. “Men are entitled to nothing … they work all their life to provide their daughters or spouses with silver and preciously embroidered costumes.”
A Miao family will save an entire lifetime to be able to provide their daughters with the finest costumes and the richest jewels, the latter being the crowns and silver necklaces which adorn the girl’s head, as well as bracelets and earrings. Silver jewels are traditionally passed on from mother to daughter, in fact many of the crowns are centuries old, but the tradition of the jewels is so strong in Miao culture that each family will invest all its savings in additional silver which will enrich the existing family heritage and the daughter’s dowry.
“Our society is founded on matriarchy,” Ping tells me “Since birth girls are in a more privileged position than boys, the proof being that the girls receive costumes and the silver ornaments at a very early age, whereas boys do not get to wear special costumes or have valuable silver possessions during their whole lifetime.”
The costume and its silver accessories can weigh between eight and fifteen kilograms, depending on the overall wealth of the family. Such a treasure represents sixty to eighty months of hard work and is worth approximately 30,000 Yuans ($ 4,000), a king's ransom for a Guizhou peasant. (An average peasant family in the Guizhou province earns between five and six hundred Yuans a month, which is about $ 70 for a family of four).
Fortunately, the attire will be worn quite often at the many ceremonies and festivals which take place throughout the year, in strict accordance to the lunar calendar. Women, young and old, and even little girls are allowed to wear their silver headdresses and their elaborately embroidered costumes during the celebration of the Chinese New Year, the Lusheng festival, the coming of spring, and a number of other festivals, where numerous attractions feature buffalo fights and horse racing.
“We look forward to the Festivals so much,” stresses Lien with a bright smile on her face. “It is just a joyful occasion for us to show our costumes and be admired by men.” Similar celebrations take place in the neighbouring regions of Guiyang, Lei Gongshan, Xijiang, Danxi, Qingman and Panghai. The city of Zhijiang, 50 kilometres from Kaili, is also a major hub of festivities and celebrations.
To give but one example, the Festival of Flowers is an annual occasion for the Miao to display the richness and vitality of their culture. Between thirty and forty thousand Miao gather in the Luipanshui region on the side of a mountain which offers magnificent views over peaks and valleys. The Hans, a rival group of the Miao, attend the festival, but only as spectators. The Han's feeling of envy is almost palpable as they watch their distant cousins parading in full regalia.
The integrity of Miao culture and beliefs has not been affected by the many contacts with the other ethnic groups as well as modern Chinese society. For instance, young Miao women enjoy total sexual freedom both before and after marriage and in a similar vein, a woman who gives birth to a child before marriage will not be condemned by Miao society. On the contrary, the community will support her, boasting her fertility. “In our traditional way of looking at a new born,” clarifies Hua, “a child represents an asset for the family, an extra pair of arms to help with the many activities in the fields and in the house, therefore he or she is always welcomed and considered as a gift.”
A young Miao woman, whose apparent shyness is merely a veil, will not hesitate to invite a young man of her liking to spend the night with her when the opportunity arises. The Miao refer to this love-play game as 'you fan' and in every village, there is a place - a park, a field, a valley - specifically reserved for young people in full 'you fan'.
“We have our own ways to seduce boys,” Ping confesses. “We organise parties where we dance and sing around a big post covered with flags and pictograms. Throughout the evening we look out for the boy we fancy most, especially keeping in mind that the most handsome one will generate beautiful children. Then, each girl will offer a fragment of wool from her headdress or her scarf to the chosen one. A boy may receive numerous gifts from different girls, but when night falls he must make his choice, so he will give back all ‘unwanted’ gifts and keep only the one from the girl he fancies. In Guizhou, women choose and men follow.”
There are few peoples anywhere in the world whose art of flirtation is as open as this. But paradoxically, when a couple decides to marry, this open-minded society will require their encounters to be strictly arranged by the parents.
During courting, when a young man has set his sights on a particular girl, the size, splendour and beauty of the jewels which ornament her costume are very important in deciding whether or not to marry her. Such features provide a direct indication of the wealth of the future bride's family. “If I had not learnt how to sew and embroider, I would have never found a husband,” Yun, a middle aged Miao woman, tells me. “If by the age of 25 a woman is not yet married, not only is she destined to remain single, but she will be rejected by the community.”
To the potential groom, the quality of the actual embroidery on the young woman's dress is also an indication of her artistic and handicraft abilities. The bride's marriage settlement used to be calculated in silver - both coarse and wrought. Today, however, bicycles or television sets will be used as goods for the ‘exchange’.
On her wedding day, and dressed in her superb, embroidered robe, bedecked with jewels, the bride-to-be is accompanied with great ceremony to the house of her future husband, whose ceremonial role is curiously limited to merely receiving and greeting the guests. The wedding ceremony provides an opportunity to eat and drink a variety of the most succulent local delicacies, accompanied by the singing ceremony: “A suitable bride must be good in the art of traditional chants,” points out Ju. After the ceremonial banquet, the young bride must return to her family home because, as a general rule, the wedding will not actually be consummated until the following spring.
Because the Miao are extremely tolerant in terms of sexual behaviour, it is not uncommon for a young newly-wed woman to have conspicuous, extra-marital affairs with other men shortly after her marriage. This explains why in China, for example, in many cases a firstborn is not automatically entitled to inherit his or her parents' estate.
The newly-weds will live under the same roof during the planting season, leading an apparently normal life. But at the end of the season, the wife is expected to return to the family household until the monsoons again take over the rhythm of rural life.
This to-ing and fro-ing between the woman's family home and her new home, goes on until the woman becomes pregnant. As soon as a Miao woman is known to be carrying a child, the couple is finally free to settle as they see fit, in an environment set up to raise their first child. Minority ethnic groups such as the Miao are authorized to have up to two children unlike all other couples in modern day China, where the 1984 decree of one baby per couple had been strictly enforced until recently.
Mixed marriages are becoming quite common nowadays in the Guizhou region, where many different ethnic groups peacefully coexist. The intermingling of ethnic groups, once considered the greatest taboo of them all, is now tolerated. Especially in areas close to large cities, marriages are increasingly between Hans and Miao, even though the Hans still regard the Miao as inferior to themselves. Little by little, prejudice is ebbing away.
The arrival of a foreigner provides yet another occasion, besides wedding ceremonies and the countless festivals, for Miao women to extend their legendary hospitality and show off their magnificent robes and jewels. As soon as the foreigner arrives, he (or she) is invited by local women to toast to everyone's good health with strong rice wine and sample indigenous food.
A table is set in front of each house, laden with local specialities and different liquors, and the guest is expected to taste a little of everything. Refusing would be an insult. After a copious and satisfying meal, the young girls of the village - in their magnificent, silver attire - walk in a procession to the village square, where there will be dancing and more revelry. Gongs ring out and the sound of 'lushengs' - the famous bamboo wind instruments some as tall as three metres - fills the air.
Sunday is market day. The visitor finally gets the chance to see Miao peasant women, who have come down from the hills where they live in isolation. Many of them have walked several kilometres to bring in the goods from their humble gardens. Charmed by the entire spectacle, the Western visitor will find himself admiring the women's spectacular traditional dresses: flying skirts and batik embroidered with the images of birds and multicoloured dragons. But more than anything else the eye is drawn to the extraordinary silver headdresses that tower over the women's slender bodies.
In terms of sheer opulence the unmarried women's headdresses at the market today seem to win, decorated as they are with bright red wool, at times laced with vibrant stripes of yellow or pink. “Our costumes are meant to attract men," laughs Hua, while she receives a couple of staring looks from local Miao men. “That’s the whole idea.” With coloured fabric up to twelve layers thick and corsages embroidered with geometric designs hand-woven into the supple material in opulent shades of the spectrum, the young, coquettish women truly sport their colours well with their main goal in mind - seduction.
The Miao have lived in small village communities for as long as anyone can remember and their solidarity has enabled them to resist pressure and influences from the outside world, including religion. The Miao still worship the cult of the spirits: the spirits of their ancestors as well as the spirits of the heavens, the wind, water and the forests.
Animals, trees, flowers, mountains, and birds are some of the many natural elements that serve to inspire the designs on Miao headdresses. Each and every pattern and design has a specific meaning. Ping explains the symbols: “The flower represents luck, the dragon, phoenix and fish represent a prosperous future, the buffalo and the cow are emblems of strength, and the birds represent freedom. On young girls’ headdresses we reproduce the symbols of tigers and lions, these creatures have the power to prevent sickness and accidents.”
Since 1976, the Chinese authorities have attempted to gradually ease up on the strict laws to which minority groups were subject. After the terror of the Cultural Revolution, during which Chinese authorities destroyed many temples and places of worship, and after numerous attempts to wipe out all traces of religion, the government began to encourage - though timidly at first - minority groups to preserve their cultural identities as much as possible. Instruction in tribal languages has been incorporated in school programmes and, for the Miao in particular, the art of embroidery - one of the pillars of their tradition - is now taught in schools as well. “For us it was a matter of principle, we could not afford to loose our embroidering tradition, therefore we made it a condition if we were to send our children to Chinese schools,” stresses Yun.
Finally, the unique traditions of these people are receiving the respect and recognition they deserve and there is great deal to be learned from the Miao about the real meaning of the word 'civilisation'. Miao people respect nature and know how to preserve the delicate balance among all things. They simply regard themselves as a humble part of the universe. When it comes to that, their philosophy and cosmology is more advanced than ours.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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© ERIC PASQUIER (1957) is a French photojournalist who started getting involved in the media world co-operating in the production of TV advertisements and documentary films. From 1989 he dedicated himself totally to photojournalism choosing to concentrate on ethnological subjects, culture, traditions of unique and remote peoples. His work has been published in 25 countries, in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America and the US. Titles include: Figaro Magazine, Paris Match, GEO France, Bild, Bunte, Earth Geographic, World Geographic and many others. His work was also on display at a number of exhibitions in Europe and the Philippines and some of his series resulted in photographic books. Among his most renown features: a reportage on the Pirates of the South China sea, the Princesses of Silver of the Guizhou province in China, the Ku Klux Klan and many others.
Go on: www.ericpasquier.com