China, the dream of many travelers. A land so large and ancient that it appears elusive. Today I would like to talk to you about a small corner of this immense country. A magical place, where dozens of ethnic groups peacefully coexist between traditions, history, unspoiled nature, music, dance, good food, parties and smiles: Guangxi.
Located along the border between China and Vietnam, Guangxi is an autonomous region that has enchanted travelers for centuries with a unique blend of nature, culture and humanity. If the thousand natural beauties already enchant at first glance, the great complexity of the ethnic groups and the myriad of associated rituals, leave you ecstatic for quantity and quality. Being able to tell the cultures of this region in a single interview is utopian, but I will try with the help of the very kind team of Discover Guangxi, sponsored by the Department of Culture and Tourism, to give you a taste. Guangxi’s primacy is having the largest number of ethnic groups in China within its territory including Zhuang, Han, Yao, Miao, Dong, Mulam, Maonan, Hui, Yi, Jing, Sui and Gelao. According to archaeological discoveries, primitive humans settled in Guangxi as early as 800,000 years ago. Among them were the future members of the Zhuang ethnic group, the most populous minority in China. They have been nicknamed the water dwellers, having lived in Guangxi river valleys for more than two thousand years. This close connection with nature can be found in a large system of animist beliefs. Their language, belonging to the Tai language family (the Latin alphabet is used for writing), is currently spoken by over 16 million people. A distinctive feature of the Zhuang ethnic group are the black or blue ethnic clothes. This dark palette is balanced by colorful embroidery and brocade (one of the finest in China), two excellences of the craftsmanship of this ethnic group. Women usually wear Tangzhuang (the traditional Chinese jacket), loose trousers and a long black scarf as a headdress. The unmarried girls weave a small colored clutch in which they keep their personal data to show to the lucky man from whom they decide to be wooed. The other great ethnic group of Guangxi are the Dong, famous for their technique of building wooden buildings without spikes (UNESCO World Heritage). Popular structures include wind and rain bridges, as well as drum towers, stilts, and covered bridges. The various decorations on the buildings reflect hopes for a good harvest and a pitiful climate. Then there are the Miao and Yao, the lords of the mountains, mobile agriculture and bamboo, the Baikuyao, defined by anthropologists as living fossils of human civilization and many other groups that make Guangxi an immense mosaic of cultures and ethnicities.
Why did Guangxi become an autonomous region in 1958? Has this decision brought positive consequences?
As a multi-ethnic country, China's system of regional ethnic autonomy has its historical reasons. For centuries, a large number of ethnic minorities have lived in Guangxi, including the Zhuang ethnic group which, with a population of nearly 20 million, represents about one third of the total population of the region. Out of respect for the traditional history and culture of these ethnic minorities and to ensure the equality and unity of all ethnic groups in Guangxi, the Chinese Constitution established in 1954 that regional autonomy be practiced in areas in which ethnic minorities live. Since 1951, China has conducted two large-scale social and historical investigations. Ethnic identification in Guangxi has helped ethnic minorities develop economic production and guided them in formulating conventions of national unity that have eliminated ethnic barriers. After these preliminary studies, in 1958, China officially announced the establishment of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Besides the Zhuang ethnic group, what are the other ethnic groups in Guangxi? Is it a peaceful coexistence?
There are 11 ethnic minority groups living in Guangxi for generations, including Zhuang, Yao, Miao and Dong. For more than a millennium, due to its remoteness, humid climate and sparse population, Guangxi was a backward place economically and culturally, and had suffered endless wars. But after the establishment of the autonomous region—especially after the reform and opening-up in the 80s—Guangxi has seen its most stable and dynamic period in history. Right now, Guangxi has truly achieved harmonious coexistence and mutual development among all ethnic groups.
What languages and dialects are spoken in the region? Which of these are taught in schools?
Almost everyone in Guangxi can speak Chinese, the language used by the Han ethnic majority, but there are various ethnic minority dialects and languages, such as the Zhuang and Dong languages. Indeed, former Prime Minister Zhou Enlai has actively promoted the writing of the Zhuang language, as a language that can only be spoken, but not written, is in danger of being lost. Writing is an important element in protecting the culture of the Zhuang ethnic group. There are Zhuang language schools in Guangxi and most of the ethnic minorities use their own dialects and languages in daily life.
Guangxi's ethnic culture has been summarized in five characteristics: "Singing, dancing, playing instruments, fighting and walking". Let's start with the first three. Why is it said that Guangxi is a sea of songs composed by Liu Sanjie? What are the themes most dealt with by your popular music?
The character Liu Sanjie appears in many Zhuang folklores. Generations of people in Guangxi have been good at singing and dancing, and the story of Liu Sanjie—or the third sister Liu—has been circulating there since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Although we can’t be sure of Liu Sanjie’s archetypal character, but Guangxi people’s enthusiasm for singing folk songs has not changed. In 1960s, the opera movie "Liu Sanjie” swept all over China, she thus became an important cultural symbol of Guangxi. Now Guangxi is still singing its ancient tunes. In these artistic creations with delicate ethnic characteristics, you can hear love, family, ideals and yearning for a better life.
Liu Sanjie is a legendary figure in Guangxi's musical repertoire, so much so that she is still called the goddess of singing today. According to tradition, Liu Sanjie was born in the province of Guilin during the Song dynasty (960 - 1279). Orphaned, she grew up with her brother in conditions of dignified poverty. From childhood she showed an extraordinary talent. Growing up, her voice and her beauty became known, attracting the attention of the local tyrant Mo Huairen who repeatedly tried to make her become a concubine, but without succeeding. Enraged, the tyrant organized a singing contest and hired three expert singers with the intent to publicly ridicule Liu Sanjie. But his plans didn't work out: the young woman's voice was unmatched. Even more anger, Mo Huairen hatched a plot with local officials to kill the young singer. Liu Sanjie, who in the meantime had become engaged, was helped by the peasants to escape with her loved one to a cave on Yufeng Hill in Liuzhou. During the journey, the two lovers delighted all the inhabitants of the region with their voices. The news reached the officials of Mo Huairen, who soon, thanks to his economic resources, managed to find the two fugitives. The people stood between the hate-hungry tyrant and the two lovers. Fearing for the fate of her people, Liu Sanjie and her loved one decided to throw themselves into the Li River. Legend has it that the two, after throwing themselves off the cliff, were turned into a pair of larks that still delight the ears of the inhabitants of Guangxi today. The Impression of Liu Sanjie night show is held annually on the Li River in Yangshuo to commemorate the memory of this legendary heroine.
What are the most popular ritual dances in Guangxi?
There are too many ethnic dances with in Guangxi. In addition to Nuo mask dance, bronze drum dance, and shoulder pole dance, Lusheng dance maybe the most popular among tourists, because Lusheng is one of the most commonly used musical instruments of China’s ethnic minorities. Lusheng dances are mostly performed during festivals, gatherings, and celebrations. As a highlight of the local tourism, you can always enjoy Lusheng dances in Miao villages of Rongshui County and Dong villages of Sanjiang County.
What is Lusheng? On what occasions is it played?
Lusheng is a mouth organ with multiple pipes made of Arundo and bamboo, it has rich timbre and is mainly used for band ensemble, not solo. It’s a common recreation for minority groups in southwest China.
Are special clothes used during these holidays, in addition to those of common use?
The Zhuang ethnic group possesses in its rich repertoire of traditional clothing the Bainiaoyi, the ''dress made of 100 birds' feathers''. The story that revolves around this particular garment is associated with the legend of the young Guka who, in order to save his bride from the tribal leader Tu Si, gave his wife this feather dress. The history of Bainiaoyi reflects the will of the Zhuang people to resist violence, fighting for freedom.
Women of the Miao migrant culture are known for beautiful silver headdresses. This tradition is linked to the impossibility of taking valuables with them during migrations. To get around the obstacle, the Miao decided to transform silver into precious accessories. The most common is a traditional crown that can weigh a whopping 13 kilos! These precious ornaments, in addition to being a symbol of wealth, are also used as a good luck charm.
Speaking of looks… check out the very long hair of the 200 Yao women from Huangluo village in the video. According to tradition, hair is sacred, so much so that it is cut only once in a lifetime, upon reaching adulthood ...
… and still on the subject of hair, look at the Qing Miao women of the village of Longjia. Each family prepares for their daughter a headdress made with the real hair of her ancestors.
Besides Lusheng, Guangxi is also known for its bronze drums, the oldest in China. What function did they have? What era do they date back?
The bronze drum was not a musical instrument initially. Since bronze and copper were an important currency in ancient China, the tribes and families who owned the drums were often very powerful. The bronze drum was a symbol of status and authority, and an entire community could be led with it. It may be used for drinking water and wine, for playing music or even for property transactions. The oldest bronze drum appeared in the 7th century BC. Ethnic minorities in southern China basically shared the same bronze drum culture, which then spread to Southeast Asia.
The fourth characteristic of Guangxi is combat. What are the meanings of the fight between animals?
In Guangxi's Miao and other ethnic communities, bullfighting and horse-fighting are popular ethnic customs, meaning prayers for a good harvest. As for fighting between people, there is no such custom here.
Numerous festivals are celebrated throughout the year, many of which have been recognized as national intangible cultural heritage. Choosing is really difficult… among all, the ones that intrigued me most are the Zhongyuan Festival, the Panwang Festival and the Maguai Festival. What are the peculiarities of these holidays?
The Zhongyuan Festival, or the Ghost Festival, is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in certain East Asian countries including China, thus it’s not an ethnic custom of Guangxi. Same as the Halloween, Chinese people believe that on the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, ghosts and spirits, including those of deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm to visit the living, just like the movie "Coco". The Panwang Festival is a major festival of Yao people, it’s on October 16th of the lunar calendar every year. Panwang, or the King of Pan is a character in ancient mythology, Yao people regards him as their ancestor. From ancient past to the present, Yao people have celebrated harvests and enhanced friendship on this day. There are large Panwang Festival celebrations every year in Jinxiu Yao Autonomous County, where you can experience the authentic Yao culture. The word "Maguai" in the Maguai Festival means frog, it is a tradition handed down in Guangxi rice culture for thousands of years. The earliest rice in China was planted in Guangxi. People believe that offering sacrifices to frogs can adjust the weather and harvest the grain. In the Zuojiang River Basin of Ningming County, Chongzuo, southwestern Guangxi, the red rock art left by the ancestors of the Zhuang people are extremely spectacular and are listed as the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Many of the figures are painted as frogs, which shows that the people here have believed in the power of the "Maguai" thousands of years ago.
Acupuncture and moxibustion, practices of traditional Chinese medicine, have been recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. Are there any techniques or medicaments typical of the Guangxi region?
Guangxi’s Zhuang medicine goes way back. Its ethnic medicine system was formed about a thousand years ago, with acupuncture, herb and medicine against hot and humid weather. Now the Guangxi government also hopes to excavate and inherit the essence of its ethnic medicine and continuously improve the medical system and treatment. The Guangxi International Zhuang Medical Hospital was officially in operation in 2018, which highlighted the characteristics of Zhuang and Yao ethnic medicine, and set up an ethnic diagnosis and treatment center.
Moxibustion is a particular therapeutic technique, characterized by the prolonged application of heat on points and meridians typical of acupuncture. Guangxi is also known for the use of a precious ''animal medicine'': the Gekko, a small Asian saurian. This small animal is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat ailments such as fatigue, asthma, hemoptysis, pulmonary tuberculosis, neurasthenia, impotence, frequent urination, cardiac asthma and cold in the lower limbs in elderly patients. There are two common methods of using it: mixing it with wine or steaming it.
What is Wuzhou Turtle Herb Jelly? Is it a food with beneficial effects?
Wuzhou turtle herb jelly, or Wuzhou Guilinggao is essentially not a medicine, but a summer dessert and a well-known Guangxi snack in China. It won't cure any disease, but in the sweltering summer heat, put it in the refrigerator and mix it with milk or honey, the taste is simply perfect. The jelly is made of some kind of herb, Chinese medicine believes that it can clear away heat and detoxify your body (just like many herbal teas in China). Because of the hot summers in Guangxi, the dessert is very popular.
The gastronomic world of Guangxi is based on one of China's best-known raw materials: rice, a symbol of luck and happiness. During the Zhongyuan Festival or for other important occasions, each family of the Zhuang ethnic group cooks a particular type of rice, known as 'five-color rice'. Black, red, yellow, purple and white are the most traditional colors obtained by adding other foods to the cooking water. An example is the maple leaf, used both as a dye for rice and as an ornament on the facades of houses. It is said that the leaves have the power to keep evil spirits away and, therefore, to preserve the health of the entire family. In modern versions, this particular rice can also be fuchsia, orange or turquoise. Serving it to your guests or giving it to nearby families is a symbol of friendship and good wishes.
In 2008, Oil Tea was listed as an item of Guangxi Intangible Cultural Heritage. Why is it called ''oil'' tea? What are its peculiarities and what are the rituals associated with it?
Oil tea is most popular in Guilin and Liuzhou in northwestern Guangxi. It has this name because you have to fry the tea leaves, and put in fried glutinous rice and peanuts. The uniqueness of oil tea is that the taste is bitter and strong, which is very refreshing. Chinese ethnic minorities have many kinds of homemade oil tea and milk tea, the tradition of drinking oil tea in Guangxi is difficult to verify now, but it is an essential daily routine for Guangxi people just as coffee is for Westerners.
Another excellence of your region is the paper, or rather, the paper cutting of the Mulao ethnic group, a unique artistic category that has found great success even outside China. What is it about? What are the most common decorations?
Handicrafts of the Mulao people are very exquisite, including embroidery and paper cutting. Paper cuttings are common house decorations in China, rich in historical stories, myths, landscapes and other themes, the Mulao people’s paper cuttings are very delicate, with special skills that can hollow out the lines outside the patterns. The most common themes of Mulao paper-cutting now are auspicious patterns and texts, such as Qilin and Menshen (threshold guardian).
Perhaps, to many the Li River will appear unknown at first reading, but if the words fishing and cormorant are combined, then our minds go to the beautiful images of Yangshuo's traditional fishing mode. When does this type of fishing date back and how does it happen? Is it still a practiced technique or is it falling into disuse?
It’s an ancient Chinese fishing method, fishermen nowadays still do it. The reason why the fisherman and cormorants in Yangshuo are so well-known is that Guilin became one of the first tourism pilot cities to open to the outside world after China's reform and opening up, and it got major promotions from both Chinese and foreign media, thus left a deep impression on international tourists. But for Chinese tourists, the cormorants in Yangshuo are nothing special, they can be seen everywhere in villages with rivers and lakes, except that not all villages have the special karst landforms of Guilin. After all, who doesn't want to pose for a photo in such beautiful scenery?
To conclude… what should we absolutely visit in Guangxi?
As for ethnic minority customs, don't miss the Chengyang Eight Village in Sanjiang County. Those Dong villages have centuries of history. The beautiful Dong architecture has been well preserved and you can hear the famous Dong Chorus every day. In Mengwu Miao Village in Rongshui County, Miao culture can be explored. Miao people are good with musical instruments and dance. In addition to horse fighting, you can also experience the Tiaopo Jie, or the Slope Jumping Festival, a great celebration for the Miao people that involves around 50,000 people. From a natural scenery point of view, we first recommend Detian Waterfall, which is located in the karst hills of Daxin County, Guangxi. The scale of this waterfall is magnificent because it crosses the border between China and Vietnam, allowing you to meet people and cultures of both countries. There is also the Mulun Kasite Ecology Tourism Area in Huanjiang County, a unique landscape with primitive forests that have been included in the World Heritage List. Still from a natural point of view, we recommend the Dashiwei Tiankeng Group Scenic Area in Leye County. Baise has the largest group of sinkholes in the world, which are really worth exploring. As for the places of cultural interest, the aforementioned Zuojiang Huashan rock art site is absolutely worth it. In this place you can learn about the ancient origin of the peoples of the region. Also, not to be missed are the Longsheng Rice Terraces in Guilin, an agricultural heritage of ancient Guangxi. You will be shocked by the determination and hard work of the people of Guangxi to transform and conquer nature.
Thank you very much for these valuable tips and for opening the doors of your beautiful region to us ...
Thanks to you for your interest. Guangxi is one of the regions with the richest natural and cultural scenery in China. When the pandemic is over, I hope you will come here, so we can "Discover Guangxi" together.
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Thanks to Discover Guagxi team. In addition to showing great competence and seriousness, these guys have been of exquisite kindness (a skill that is dying out elsewhere). This interview born out of curiosity, added more curiosity. Passion, the desire to share and hospitality are worth more than a thousand awards won. This virtual trip to Guangxi made me feel that adrenaline that - say what you want - only travel can give. Surely this will be a ''goodbye Guangxi!''. In the meantime, we can continue to follow this willing team on the official Discover Guangxi Facebook page and Youtube channel.
In the next interview we will meet another witness to the power of passion: Ethiopian choreographer Melaku Belay. Together with him we will set out to discover Ethiopia, a land with a millenary culture. See you soon travelers!