The gathering of the Miao Clans 1894


For three days of the second month, the black-dressed Miao aborigines assemble to the number of about a thousand persons to perform a religious dance similar to the old English dances round the Maypole, only for more solemn.

Leaving the provincial capital after breakfast, and accompanied by two native women in small sedan chairs, we soon began to ascend the hills and by mid-day were a league out of the city, going over barren hills whose valleys were full of opium, vegetable oil and bean plants, with occasional waste spaces for rice. The road was so bad that we were glad to get out of the chairs and walk, then after another ten miles onwards and upwards, accomplished just before dark, we found ourselves beside a small high plateau surrounded by conical hills. A Chinese coal-owner most hospitably received our large party into his house; in the next room were several "Miao" women with their daughters, who had come for the dance. And nest morning we watched the girls adorning themselves like English ladies going to a ball They took four hours over their toilettes; but these were most proper, as the time was from 8 a.m. till noon. The dress consists of several suits, colour nearly black, the jacket in cut something like a sailor's, leaving the chest exposed, and the skirt a closely-pleated (accordion) skirt reaching just below the knees and resembling a kilt. The jacket and skirt were beautifully embroidered with coloured silks. The girls' hair is coiled slightly to one side and for the dance partly covered with broad-headed silver pins; unmarried girls wear a white handkerchief bound round the head, also round their necks three silver rings given by their parents.

At noon the dance begins. From between the conical hills come running down to the plateau scores of grown-up lads and lasses; the youth wear blue or dark-coloured robes girdled with beautifully-embroidered sashes crosses in front and folded at the back. Both young men and girls wear streamers or tassels falling down the back, the heads of both richly ornamented with silver, and embroidered cloths wound round their ankles. But the girls had neither shoes nor stockings. Both men and girls wore silver rings round their necks, some several. Each youth carried a six-tubed flute (its music resembled the bass of an harmonium). The dance is conducted each day in the same manner and very quietly, the youths and maidens together in groups of five, six, or seven forming large circles. Then the youths play a few bars on their flutes and finish by waving them in the air, after which the one nearest the fair partners gives them a nudge and the little party move sideways, a few steps towards the left, the girls taking the lead. Then they all stop; and the youths play a few more bars and the ceremony is repeated; so in the end all of them go round the pole several times. At sunset they all disperse to their holiday quarters; and at these times the dance partners exchange presents so that on the second day some of the youths and maidens have each about twenty silver rings round their necks.

At the gathering of the Black Clan, March, 1894, there were about four hundred youths and maidens. This gathering is held annually and at the same place for three years. Their embroideries seem to be about the richest. They are quite unlike Chinese embroidery, and are done on native cotton cloth of coarse description, entirely covered with silks of the richest possible dyes, such as we never get in Europe now, so that the general effect is almost that of jewelled embroidery.

The Miao silver ornaments are curious. One of the tribe made a five day's journey from Guiyang, the capital of the province of Guizhou, to get some for me, and even then could not buy them, but got them made by his people. The richly-embroidered cloth in which a woman carries her baby on her back is said to take her a year to work, and one can readily believe this, it is so entirely covered with work.

On another occasion Dr and Mrs Pruen went to the gathering of the "Chung Family" clan. It was a festival of rejoicing that the rice would soon be ready for harvest, and also a great deal to do with courtship. At this they said there were hardly any elderly people, but crowds of young men and girls dressed in their best. Their costumes resembled that of the Chinese, with exception of having unbound feet and wearing a dark handkerchief bound prettily round the head. The inn was surrounded all day by people, and there were several thousand persons at the market. In the evening as the people separated they sang in groups, the girls by themselves and the men by themselves, but their language being quite different from Chinese, what they sang was unintelligible. "We saw six or seven different tribes distinguished by their dress. Just opposite our house, at different times during the day, young men danced and played their luh-shengs (flutes), the men dancing in pairs, and it was an effective spectacle. The Hoa Miao girls stood by watching them. They had a peculiar dress, a closely-fitting black hood, and skirts edged with white, which at the back were long and rounded and pleated. As the girls walked these skirts swung from side to side like crinolettes.

The Hoa Miao in Anshun had quite plain rings round their necks, so had the Tsing Miao whose dance I witnessed. For head ornaments to wear at the dance, they charge an ounce of silver for the workmanship of an ounce, because they make birds, etc. The long chain should be tied in a bow or knot at the front, and worn hanging down like the Chinese mandarin's Kua chu ze. I should think at these dances they would wear forty ounces of silver; it seems much, but I saw one man with so many necklaces that he could not bend his neck.

You could not buy a skirt; as each woman embroiders her own clothes, she values them so much, and i think those who sell their clothes are those who have left their own people and come to live in the city and adopt Chinese dress. There are six chang of cotton cloth in the skirt, thirty-one narrow widths, the deep embroidery is worn at the back, and the skirt crussed in the front. The jacket is worn over apron and skirt and tied loosely at the back. For a dance there would be many rings and chains and the head richly ornamented with silver birds, etc., sometimes to forty ounces in weight. The skirt worn at the dance, if they can afford it, is embroidered one foot deep. Of course there are poor women who cannot afford many silver ornaments. This tribe do not wear shoes or stockings, few do. The Chongkia do, and theirs are like the Guangxi or Guangdong shoes in shape, pointed at the toes. Their dance is different from those of the Tsing Miao.

This Heh Miao dance takes place in the third month and is arranged thus: Men with luh-shengs in the centre in groups of five or seven, girls in a ring outside and friends and parents outside as a protection. The men lead the dance and the girls follow, the step is three steps forward with one foot, three steps with the other feet, and then turn round three times; the steps are like those of the Scotch Reel.

From: Mrs. Archibald Little.- The land of the blue gown. 1908. p. 274 and ff.

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