The Miao Sisters Meal Festival: Beauty and Ornamentation

I'm sitting in a very third rate hotel rooin Kaili, Guizhou province, looking at the hole in  my bathroom ceiling and the cigarette burns in the carpet, wondering if the wires poking through the hole in the ceiling will present any problem to the adjacent leaking shower head. It's 6.30 am, and a low cloud is hanging over the town, obscuring everything over six storeys and drizzling on everything below that. There's a gap in the wall where the window should have joined the wall but didn't, and it feels like the grey cloud outside is creeping through the triangular space into the room and into my bones. 

Since I left Yunnan on an overnight train from Kunming to Kaili five days ago, I have passed through some mysterious geographic portal into a place where the sun is too tired to shine, to break through the dense cloud and the constant mist. Kaili is ugly. Half-finished red brick buildings loom over broken and cracked sidewalks, and pot-holed roads full of puddles of brown water. Everything, including every person from the knees down, is covered by a layer of mud, and I notice the predominant street business is shoe-shining - rows of women on low stools shake bottles of dirty water over mud covered loafers and wipe the mud off with a mud covered cloth. The muddy children of the shoe-shiners play on nearby pavements. Everyone looks suspicious and cautious.

In many ways this entire trip is culminating here. I've come to Kaili to see the Miao Sisters' Meal Festival, the biggest annual celebration of the Miao people who live in and around Kaili and its surrounding villages, but looking outside it's hard to reconjure the images of fabulous silver decorative costumes I first saw a year ago in my photography teacher's apartment as a dirty bus trundles past, splashing more mud across the pavement. 

We set off soon after six thirty, and as we leave Kaili behind the cloud lifts just enough to uncover a unique landscape of green steep sided hills and narrow river valleys. The hills are covered in rows of sloped terraces, planted with rapeseed, potatoes, cabbages, and occasionally rice, each terrace a bare ten metres wide. It must be near impossible to eke a living from such steep land, with the constant threat of landslides from above and floods from the rivers below. As we drive along smaller and smaller roads, villages appear along the riverside - clusters of timber houses on poles, perched on the steep riverbanks and in staggered rows up the hillside. Early morning wisps of smoke can be seen, and people are already out at work preparing the rice beds for spring planting.

Two hours later we arrive in Shidong, the village central to the festival. This is all Miao country hereabouts, and for the next three days there will be music, dancing, and a gathering of people from all the surrounding villages - at least, that's what we think will happen, because it's been difficult to get reliable information about exactly where and when the festival takes place. Shidong looks worryingly deserted, but sitting over a bowl of noodles with pickles for breakfast at a tiny street stall, I can hear a jingling, like small bells, coming up the road and a group of women come into view, wearing silver decorated turbans and heavy silver necklaces over their everyday clothes. 

They've just arrived on a bus from their village, and they look sort of half-dressed, like a bride wearing a veil with jeans and sneakers, and I secretly feel a little disappointed that they haven't worn their full costumes for the day.These are modern times after all, and the pictures I'd seen were probably of a select few women in full costume for the benefit of photographers.

But as I watch, the women gather in a group near our noodle stall and one by one, pull dark red intricately embroidered jackets from bags, covered with strips of intense blue and white decoration, and unwrap indigo pleated skirts tied at the waist with woven brocade ties. Out of other bags come heavy silver jewellery, broad silver neckpieces, wide silver bracelets, and silver barrel earpieces like giant bobbins. They stretch the huge holes in their earlobes to place the barrels snugly, and suddenly the group of women is transformed into a stunning and exotic spectacle.

A young girl wears a beaten silver head-dress, intricately beautiful and covered with birds, flowers and dragons. Different hands, her mother's, her grandmother's and her aunt's, help dress her and place the heavy silver neckpieces. She stands patiently, waiting for the dressing to be complete.

The Sisters' Meal Festival is a festival of courtship in which everyone in the village is involved. There is singing, dancing, water-buffalo fighting, and at the conclusion of the festivities, a young woman may present her suitor with a parcel of coloured sticky rice, containing a symbol of her feelings for him. 

"A pair of red chopsticks  means she has accepted his hand in marriage; one chopstick, his love may not be returned; a garlic or red chili, the boy must look elsewhere; pine needles indicate that the boy should present silks and colourful threads and that she will wait for him."

(From "Guizhou" by Gina Corrigan. The Guidebook Company Ltd, Hong Kong, 1995)

We follow the pull of the slowly gathering crowds of women over the hill, along the river, and into the next small village, because this seems to be where everyone is heading. An enormous field has been cleared and covered with gravel, just this month we are told, and small groups of people are beginning to appear from the opposite direction, and to prepare their dress. The field is quite empty at this early hour, although the balloon seller may be an optimistic indicator of the crowds to come. 

Chinese lunchtime (11am) is approaching, and a young woman who has befriended us leads us to her house for lunch. The Miao are renowned for their hospitality and their love of a good drink (rice whisky, mijiu, being the local brew) and within five minutes we are seated in her house drinking firewater and eating a delicious meal, while all the members of her family get ready. The meal is the best type of homecooking, and I'll write about it in the next post because it deserves its own story. It feels like we've gatecrashed a wedding, as we watch hair being done, belts being tied, and collars and cuffs being straightened, and the neighbours, whose houses all lead into the same courtyard, drop in to have a look at us exotic foreign creatures with our cameras and our strange shoes, and our complete and utter lack of ornamentation.

As we finish lunch and walk out of the walled courtyard and back into the field, an overwhelming transformation has taken place in just two short hours. Where there was wide empty ground, there are now five or six thousand people in costume, standing in village groups and waiting for the music to begin. I've never seen anything like it: an explosion of colour and silver.

All around me is a sea of shining decoration, punctuated by the strong colours of red, black and blue embroideries. Each village has quite strikingly different celebration dress - these are Shidong Miao women, recognisable by their tall silver headdresses and their black and red coats.

The older Shidong women and the men wear coats made from heavy cotton polished to a stiff bronze sheen with ox blood, which also helps waterproof the fabric. Although they wear less silver ornamentation, their dress, with its bright blue embroidery, is truly beautiful.

For the next four hours I just wander and take it all in. There is an opening ceremony of sorts, a lot of drums, and quite a lot of dancing, and although we don't see any obvious exchanges of rice parcels we do see young couples pairing up to talk and laugh. Everyone seems to be having a fabulous time, and stalls have set up selling drinks and fairy floss to the crowds. 

The afternoon draws on, and for the first time in Guizhou I see the sun, and a patch of blue sky, and it seems like an auspicious way to end the day. The crowd has begun to disperse, and partly undress, at least all the heavier and more uncomfortable parts of their costumes, and they are walking slowly home. 

I'm surprised into laughter when I see a young woman in full silver regalia speaking on her mobile phone, the yellow sleeve of her sports top peeking out from underneath her weighty coat and I'm pulled suddenly, joltingly, into the present. Perhaps she'll choose a suitor today or tomorrow by a symbol in a parcel of sticky rice, or perhaps she'll just send him a text message, like everyone else in the world.

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