January 31, 2023
BEIJING – Up until the end of the last century, a group of people lived a primal lifestyle deep in the mountains at the juncture of the Liuzhi region and Zhijin county in Southwest China’s Guizhou province.
With a population of around 5,000, members of this branch of the Miao ethnic group were easy to recognize due to the unique hairstyle of their women, featuring a headpiece shaped like a pair of long horns.
Even today on festive occasions, the women wrap samples of their ancestors’ hair and black wool around the hairpieces and secure their large buns with white yarn. Apart from the headpiece that weighs about 3 kilograms each and takes at least 30 minutes to set, the women often wear striped pleated skirts and garments that have embroidery and batik designs.
The community lives a self-sufficient life through farming and weaving, yet has distinctive ethnic customs, folk instruments, songs and dances, and festivals that pay tribute to nature.
In 1995, Chinese and Norwegian scholars went on a field trip to Gaoxing village, one of the 12 villages where members of this Miao branch live. Three years later, China and Norway jointly established the Liuzhi Suojia Ecological Museum, considered the first of its kind in Asia.
“Unlike conventional museums, our museum includes two parts — the documentation center and the ‘Longhorn Miao’ community’s exhibits. It’s not simply a building displaying ethnic items, but a community of 12 villages. Their lifestyles, skills and beliefs are all at the heart of the museum’s display and preservation,” says Tang Zhuanjun, deputy director of the museum.
Apart from an exhibition hall that displays spinning machines, looms, ethnic attire and musical instruments, the center includes spaces for villager and visitor activities. The villagers are encouraged to treat the center as their second home, weaving and embroidering there, and participating in the management of the museum.
“The documentation center acts as a repository that records and stores information about the culture of this community, including its oral history, texts, photos, videos and representative cultural artifacts,” Tang says.
“It provides extensive resources for the locals to learn and preserve their own culture, and offers external researchers and visitors key information about the culture.”
A database has been established that stores oral history and video footage about the ethnic branch’s intangible cultural heritage. Experts are working on preserving the material, conducting research projects, and publishing their results in journals and books.
Luo Gang, the museum’s director since 2013, participated in its establishment in 1997, and has continued to work there. He often visits the villages to observe and record the changes taking place. As he says, the locals’ attire, language, music and way of life are all “a unique type of artifact” that need to be preserved.
“Artifacts are like a ladder for us to trace our predecessors. They lead us step by step into the depths of history, so that we can reflect on our lives today,” Luo says.
He says one of the museum’s features is to encourage the locals’ enthusiasm for preserving their traditional villages and taking the initiative.
As he recalls, tourism was not high on the museum’s list of priorities, but as the museum has attracted tourists and the locals are increasingly engaged in tourism, he supports the combination of culture and tourism.
Local villager Yang Ermei says many tourists used to ask her whether there would be any performances, so she thought of the idea and discussed it with other villagers.
“It seemed to me like a good idea, because we could all perform and make some extra money near our doorsteps, so I gathered a team of a dozen performers,” Yang says.
Since then, they started donning ethnic outfits and offering performances for tourists, including group dances accompanied by instruments such as wooden drums, lusheng (a reed-pipe wind instrument) and the three-holed xiao (a vertical bamboo flute).
Many tourists also buy embroidery pieces and garments as souvenirs.
Yang says she saw a business opportunity, bought an automatic loom, started selling memorabilia and later opened her own shop.
“We’ve also started to promote the products on short-video platforms. When I get too busy, I invite other villagers to work with me,” Yang says, adding that she can now make more than 10,000 yuan ($1,480) per month, and the products incorporate creative designs.
“Looms are one of our most cherished devices, whether traditional wooden ones or the automatic ones. In the past, we couldn’t live without them, and now we are using them to become prosperous.”
Luo, the museum director, has applied for the local cultural elements to be included in the country’s intangible cultural heritage lists of various levels. He hosts training sessions for the local youths to learn traditional crafts. So far, the museum has trained more than 1,000 people.
The museum also collaborates with the local primary school, inviting representative inheritors to give lectures every two weeks. The students, majority of whom are from the Miao community, have grasped their traditional crafts of embroidery and weaving.
Some of the handcrafted objects of the area have been preserved by other museums, and the song and dance performances have won multiple awards, including the 2013 Qunxing Award, China’s top prize for amateur stage works.
Meanwhile, Luo is working to find a balance between development and preservation, especially when it comes to people’s living conditions.
For generations, locals lived in thatched huts made of wood, earth or stone, which required regular changing of the straw covering the rooftops. In recent times, many villagers have decided to revamp their houses into concrete structures.
Because housing became overcrowded in Longjia, one of the protected villages, the local government built two new villages, one in 2002 and another in 2012, for those willing to move. In 2017, Luo learned that 10 villagers who were unwilling to leave their ancestral homes lacked the funds to renovate their dilapidated houses. He applied for government funding and worked with a renovation team to restore the wooden houses.
The museum plans to work with cultural and tourism companies to continue digging into the ethnic culture of this Miao group and further develop local tourism and agriculture.
“It is our goal to keep preserving the local characteristics by upgrading the documentation center and promoting the integration of culture and tourism. We are first a cultural organization working for public welfare. The display, preservation and research projects will continue to be conducted in order to make the museum truly a center for studying ‘Longhorn Miao’ culture,” says deputy director Tang.