All we are Gejia

 

Nobody knows why we travel. Mobility has become characteristic of our lives. Indifference and continuous change force us to consider home the bed that harbors us for even one night. Our world, on the other side, is reproduced with such great precision in all the corners of the planet that it is the same to travel or not. We only find what we have already left, and at the same time what we hope to find.

I am in the middle of this trip. In fact I have come to Guizhou Province not to get to know the poorest province of China, neither to take many pictures of the multicolored minorities, nor even to provision myself with books about them. If something has pushed me to choose Guizhou as the destination of this particular trip, it is the existence of the Gejia.

The first news of them came to me in a travel magazine some months back. In the article, replete with magnificent color pictures, the Gejia were depicted as a branch of the Miao and at the same time as a different people. In the text the writer tries to frame them within a definition by which they became a continuous exception. Later texts I read retain the same ambiguity, an ambiguity that, for an older reader as myself, educated amid censorship and subterfuge, has only one meaning: that we have before us in the Gejia one of the many peoples that the anthropologists don't know how to classify and the politicians prefer to ignore.

I took the bus from Kaili. A short trip of half an hour through hills not very sheer left me next to the Mount of the Tragedy, where the last fighters of the great Miao rebellion that occurred during the second half of the 19th century succumbed before the imperial troops. It is not necessary to read more books, only the politics of terror was successful in defeating this kingdom that otherwise would have lasted until the present day.

In front of the mount, a wooden arch welcomes, and a road spread out before my eyes. I walked along it for 30 minutes under a soft rain. A village, lean in the hillside of a low mount, breathed life from its smoky chimneys. Crossing a stream I met a woman. She greeted me. I greet her in Chinese. She asked me:
"Do you want to buy cloth?"
"No, thank you. I only want to take a look. You are Gejia, aren't you?"
"Yes, the whole village is Gejia."

As soon as I arrived at the first houses, some women called out to me. I accepted their invitation. I passed into their house. While one of them smiled kindly, the other extended in front of me a good number of samples of cloth and embroidery.
"I don't want to buy cloth" I apologized.
"It doesn't matter, sit down a while."
"Here, are you Miao?" I continued, playing the reverse card.
"No, no, we are not Miao, we are Gejia"
"But, Miao and Gejia. Both are the same. Are they not?"
"How can we be the same? These clothes are not Miao, but Gejia. Our headdresses are different, as are our dances and songs."
"Ok, now I understand. All of you are Gejia"

I visited several houses, talking with their inhabitants. Many of the houses were being reconstructed, an activity to which they are devoted mainly in winter, when the fields require less labor. Everywhere I listened to the same answer. Soon, the news of my presence had reached all the residents of the village, and a man of mature age came to meet me. Without subterfuge I outlined to him the problem that arose in me regarding their identity. He explained to me in full detail how many characteristics differentiated them clearly from the neighboring Miao, and the small battle that they were carrying out to obtain the right to be officially recognized as Gejia. He even showed me a brochure with the proposal of an autonomous entity for them.

I returned to the road, comforted by their tea and conversation, trying to understand why the government refuses to recognize their identity. They cannot be a threat to the Chinese territorial integrity in any case. They are only motivated to maintain their unique culture and traditions. Then, in my loneliness, under the rain, I suddenly thought that perhaps I was just the victim of some clever folks trying to reap the earnings that the tourism industry promises to bring them.

When arriving back at the highway I decided to go deeper into the Gejia country. At once I crossed path with some children returning from school. They dressed in sports outfits, as all students do in China, and some greeted me with a "Hello" in English.
Playing again the fool's role I asked them:
"You are Miao, aren't you?"
"No, Gejia. We are Gejia.", said the nearest to me. The word spread among the others, and soon the road, and the mountain around it, was filled with echoes of "Gejia, Gejia" that I cannot forget.

I left the road with the memory of the lads. I followed a road narrow. More rain and more mud were my company. I crossed two mountains and a river, my horizon was only mountains without end, and the eternal gray sky of Guizhou. In the distance I made out a village. I didn't need more than a few minutes to reach the first houses. I met a young woman with a baby on her back talking with her father. I greeted them. To enter into conversation I asked them:
"Is this Majiang?" the name of the first village.
"No, no. You have gotten lost. You must cross the river over there, then cross that small forest, and at once you will see it. You can also return to the road."
While I feigned evaluating my possibilities of reaching Majiang, they invited me to enter and to share the humble food that they were about to partake in.

Nobody offered me cloth, but rather rice and vegetables that I devoured with true pleasure, the heat of their home and an idea of my road. They dressed as the people of Majiang. Before saying goodbye forever I asked them if they were Miao.
"No, no, we are Gejia" they answered.

"Here, we are all Gejia"

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