This is a monster festival among the Miao people of Guizhou. There are heaps of information on this festival on the internet especially among the various travel agents who have tour packages to these places. Therefore again, we will not be repeating all of this information - readers can search and read them on other websites. We will be focusing on what we observe and learnt.
When is it?
The festival normally falls in the month of April every year, mostly mid to end of April. One can find the dates of the festival easily from searching the internet.
Where is it?
The Sisters' Meal Festival is actually held in three locations in succession over four days every year. This has caused quite a bit of confusion to free-and-easy travelers (like your truly) who always wonder where the festival is held.
The festival is held in the Taijiang municipality, which also consists of the village of Taijiang itself. Every year the festival starts from Taijiang on the first day; day 2 will be at LaoTungShiang and then the finale (2 days) at Shidong.
There are accommodation options in both Taijiang and Shidong. However Taijiang is some distance from Shidong and is furthest from the major regional transport hub of Kaili. So we discovered that it is more convenient to use Shidong as a base. Alternatively one can stay in Taijiang for the first day, then at Shidong for the next few days.
Getting to either of these places is easy. There are lots of buses setting off to these places from Kaili bus station.
Who are there?
Do not expect to see "boys meet girls" type of setting; there are just no boys or guys at the festival- there are married and old Miao men alright. Nowadays like other minorities, most of the Miao males work in the bigger cities such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou etc. There are hardly any Miao males of marriage age left in the villages. So there are really just a handful of Miao males at the festival. Disappointingly too, unlike the females who put in great effort to dress-up for the occasion with their elaborate traditional costumes, make-up and the (wow!!) tremendous amounts of silver accessories, these guys wear jeans and t-shirt (mostly).
The ladies really turn out in force, though. Most of them are quite young- between 15 and 24 (I guess)- and the majority of them are very pretty. Without fail, all of them will don their finest traditional costume for the festival. These costumes come in all sorts of bright and beautiful embroidered colours. All these dazzling skirts, aprons and jackets are decorated with all sorts of silver accessories. Among the silver accessories are large silver bands and necklaces with huge silver locks, glittering beads, elaborate silver headpieces, hairpins, rings, pendants, earrings, bracelets and anklets.
The ladies and their family really do put in great effort to present their very best. At the festival, one can often see grandmothers, mothers and others helping the ladies shine the silverwares and assist the ladies to put them on. I am not surprise that some of them carry a kilogram or two of silver on their body at the festival.
Older folks are also out in force at the festival. Most of them are out to have fun, just like the younger ones are, with their dancing, singing, eating and so on. Qutre a few of them participates in some of the events as elders.
However by far, the largest group at the festivals is not the locals but the hordes of tourists. The festival must have been well marketed and they attract hordes of local Chinese tourists, well-heeled Caucasian package tour groups and a significant number of backpackers as well. The proportion of tourist to locals must be at least 2 to1. In fact the ladies may have better luck finding a match among the tourists than the local boys!
What is it?
The nice literature on the internet (and some guidebooks) will tell you that it is a festival where boys meet girls, where the girls will collect berries from the mountains, prepare glutinous rice and so on. Well, that may be what it was twenty or more years ago. It is definitely not what the festival is today.
What I saw was a great festival that celebrates an old Miao tradition that has somewhat died. Despite that, the Miaos are definitely out to have fun. They dance, sing, eat and had a great time. No effort is spare to have fun and to ensure that the tourists enjoy themselves as well. After all the festival is one of the major income-earner for the local economy.
There are different programs during the day over the four days. The program sheets are available from the Information Bureau at each village and the programs are written (in Chinese) on a big billboard in the main street. Some of the programs are mock wedding, "blocking the road" wine-drinking sessions, folk songs singing, fish-catching session, drum dancing competition, group dancing (on every day) and the finale is the Miao beauty contest. The standouts among the programs are the folk songs singing, the dance competition and group dancing.
Folk songs are sung mainly by middle-age females. The songs are sung in Miao and the rhythms of the various songs are quite similar but boy, these ladies can really sing. They could stretch out a tune in very high pitch with relative ease. The men can sing just as well; and they sing in such high pitch that they can be mistaken as females.
The dance competitions pitch dancers of various age groups. There are groups of young kids, middle age women and young ladies. The dancers normally dance to the rhythm of either one or two drums. Each group of dancers will wear similar costumes and dance around the drummer(s) in a circle.
However the highlight is the group dancing: it is a riot. Groups of people, young and old just dance around a drummer in circles. Quite often there are 3 or 4 circles-thick of people dancing around a single drummer; everyone just seems to join in the dance. Each circle could consist of 30-40 dancers. This is where the young ladies strut their stuff; they will show off their silverwares, dance joyously and pose for photographers.
Incidentally all the food (mainly pork and glutinous rice) and rice wine are served free for all. At the various ceremonies, tourists are asked for donations to cover the costs of the food and wine. This is one case I strongly encourage travelers to contribute as serving such food and drinks must be a relatively costly affair for the local population.
Though the festival no longer serves the same purpose as it did in the old days, the Miaos still managed to keep it going and continue to make it a huge annual affair. Despite the fact that the festival is swamped by tourists, one get a definite feeling that the locals are more interested in having fun than pleasing the tourists. No doubt some of the programs are staged (mock weddings), they are more a demonstration of Miao traditions and culture.
The Miaos are extremely friendly, hospitable and uninhibited in having fun (the clean way). Tourists are made to feel at ease and at home with their offerings of food and wine and invitation to join them in dances. Furthermore no Miao will ask a tourist to pay for taking a photo.
The festival is hugely popular among tourists and continues to attract newcomers. Undoubtedly one of the reasons is the natural charm and spontaneity of the people as well as the wholesome fun of the festival. It deserved its reputation as a premier festival showcasing the tradition and culture of the Miao people.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself during the festival and wish there could be more of such in China.
Written by CBP in June 2005.
Travel Date: April 2005.
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