Miao women in full regalia perform dating rituals for tourists.
The rustle from ornaments that adorned the women around me was mesmerizing, resembling the sound of leaves that are dried but have not yet blown to the ground. There were about two dozen women in full Miao regalia, moving to the music, which was blasting from a distorted loudspeaker. If one could see the sound, it was as if too much water had been added to a watercolor.
I was standing in the courtyard of an ethnic Miao compound, about 20 km to the northwest of Fenghuang (Phoenix), a charming town in west Hunan province.
It was no ordinary Miao household, but home to the last lord of the local Miao people, who died in 1951. Now it has been reborn as a museum that collects Miao historical artifacts and memorabilia.
The dancing women, mostly middle-aged and elderly, yet with delicately painted faces, were doing their routine for the swarm of tourists who hailed from all over the country.
There were only five men in this performing troupe, and they were all adolescents. The absence of the young and able-bodied is a subtle reminder that this formerly poverty-stricken area still depends on its income from labor export.
But the trickle-down effect of tourism is palpable from the mushrooming new buildings that line the still-pothole-infested roads.
More interesting than the improvement of material life is the reawakening of the ethnic culture. There is one gallery on the second floor that's devoted to Song Zuying, the folk singer embraced by both powers-that-be and the populace.
"Some say she is Miao, some say she is Tujia, and some say she is Han. But she always wears a Miao costume in her music video, and she introduced herself as Miao at a concert in the US," explained my museum interpreter.
Then, there was Shen Congwen, one of the greatest Chinese writers of the 20th century, whose calligraphy garnishes the plaque above the entrance to the museum. Shen was ethnic Miao.
The Miao have their own language, but no written form. They believe they are the descendants of Chi You, a half-mythical figure from the dawn of Chinese civilization some 5,000 years ago.
He was defeated by Yan and Huang and had to flee south. I was told the Chu Kingdom was established by Chi You's offspring, and many of the words from Qu Yuan's (340-278 BC) poem can be deciphered using the Miao vernacular.
Most tourists who descend on west Hunan cannot tear themselves away from the beautiful river and meandering alleys of the old town of Phoenix. The riverfront bar street is said to be a hot spot for the young, the trendy and the amorous.
But adventurous visitors often get away from the trinket-selling Rainbow Bridge and ride a bus to the outlying area, where Miao people live just as they did 1,000 years ago.
Laojiazhai, or literally Old-Home Village, about 15 minutes further to the northwest, has not yet received the facelift of tourism development as the museum.
The village of 80-some households is perched on a slope and there is only one entrance.
We were stopped at the gate by a group of middle-aged women holding a red ribbon and bowls of homemade wine.
Each of us had to drink up before we were allowed entry. In the old days, the tower-like gate and stonewalls served as a defense mechanism against unwelcome guests.
The village has a history of at least 1,000 years, said the village head, but every 200 years, the houses, which are all made of slabs stacked together without cement, have to be rebuilt "to remove the evil forces that have gathered".
The village is very small, yet complicated in layout. It was built on the principle of yin-yang and trigrams of the Taoist cosmology.
There are only three surnames in the village and young people are forbidden to marry kinfolk of the same surname.
As I had expected, more than half of the villagers were away from home, toiling in coastal provinces.
As we took a turn down a separate path, we were greeted by two 5-year-olds who were singing a song of welcome.
Many of us stuffed their pockets with small change and took photos with them. "You must be under 5. You look so small," said one of our group.
The Miao, especially males, tend to be short in stature. This physical characteristic is common among many mountain people in this area.
Truth be told, the history of this area is not characterized by peace. For thousands of years, military conflicts were a constant feature.
Even nowadays you can still hear locals self-deprecatingly call themselves "bandits" as if it's a badge of honor.
A mammoth cave used to be a hideaway for such bandits. Now a tourist destination and part of a "geopark", it is lit up with many colors and houses a mirage of reflecting pools.
A giant "hall" deep into the cave is where the "bandit" lord used to hold his meetings, and traces of ammunition making remain. "We don't use the word 'bandit' now. We have come up with the more neutral 'ethnic and regional military forces'," said the local official.
Another remnant of the lack of peaceful coexistence is the Southern Great Wall. Built during the Wanli period (1563-1620) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it stretched 190 km.
The wall was meant to separate the Miao from the Han. With a height of 3m, a width of 1m at the top and 2m at the base, it is made up of stone slabs that are often not cut neatly or polished.
The section open to tourists, to the west of Phoenix, was renovated around the new millennium and extends only 4.48 km.
The wall also separated Miao themselves. Those who lived within the wall are called "acclimated Miao". Just like the Great Wall in northern China, what used to be a point of hostility, is now an attraction of all people and a celebration of differences.
Meanwhile, in the rebuilt courtyard of the Miao lord, the women were warming up to a dance mix often heard in nightclubs in big cities.
The way they moved vaguely resembled Jay Chou or Britney Spears.
While Song Zuying is constantly feeding us prettified spoons of Miao singing and costumes, her fellow people back home are "rushing forward into a new era", as said in a pop song.
It was jarring for a moment, but the rustle from the shining silver ornaments, which were once all the assets they owned, lulled me into another flight of fancy about the Miao heritage, an integral part of Chinese civilization.
The Southern Great Wall recalls hostilities of the old days just as its more famous counterpart in the north. Photos by Raymond Zhou
(China Daily 11/28/2008 page19)