A Visit to Rural Guizhou
This summer I spent most of July visiting our programs in China, and I spent one week of it in the southwestern province of Guizhou. This province is still one of China’s poorest economically, but I feel one of the richest when it comes to natural beauty and diversity of culture.
Guizhou is home to many of China’s ethnic minority groups, such as the Miao, Yao, Yi, Dong, and Bai peoples. Last year I had the good fortune to stay with a local Miao family in the Upper Langde village, an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. I remember walking through the rice fields early in the morning as the sun was coming up through the mist on the mountains and suddenly coming upon one of the village’s Wind and Rain bridges. All I could think was, “This is something like out of a dream.”
We have been helping orphaned children in Guizhou since 2005, but for the last two years we have done projects for extremely rural villages which are home to many of China’s “Left Behind” kids. More than 60 million children in China are growing up without the care of their parents, left behind when their moms and dads head to the larger cities in the east to find work. Many of these children are being raised by elderly and often ill grandparents while others must fend for themselves completely.
This summer, I traveled with my daughter Anna and our medical director Cindy Wu to some of the most remote regions of Guizhou province. It can be difficult at times for foreigners to visit these locations due to the road conditions, so I wanted to share some of our trip images today and tomorrow. I was very grateful to be given this opportunity, and I was also very grateful for our amazing driver Mr. Guang, who navigated streams, rockslides, and winding roads which would suddenly just end in an enormous dirt pile on the side of the mountain.
He took the term “four wheeling” to a whole new level for us. As I drove through the province, one thought that kept coming to my mind was that man was trying his best to “tame the mountain,” but the landslides, boulders, and rivers still seemed to be winning.
We started off on our journey on a new highway, but when fallen trees blocked our way, we ended up on a back road which led us to the Biapa Dong Village, which is quite off the beaten path. The Dong people still live in traditional wooden stilt houses, and the villages are almost always located in river valleys.
The Dong ethnic group is known for their choral singing, which has been declared a world treasure by the UN. In fact, they didn’t even have a written language until one was created for them in the 1950s, as they preferred (and still do) to keep their history in stories and songs. Dong courtship involves teenagers getting together to sing love songs in groups before breaking off to sing individually to each other if the chemistry is right. I had been blessed to hear a Dong choral performance in the capital city of Guiyang the year before, and the haunting sound of their voices had given me chills.
I told our director Cindy that I was praying we could hear more singing in the local villages on this trip, but she explained that the songs are mainly for ceremonies and festivals, and she was sure that the villages would be very quiet since most of the young people have moved away to find work.
Once we arrived in Biapa, we began to explore the beautiful village, marveling at the large wooden Drum Tower in the town center (which is used as a community gathering area). Suddenly, I heard the unmistakable sound of Dong singing, and we quickly hurried through the narrow alleyways to find the source. The village had no electricity the day we were there, so all we saw was a dark doorway of a small wooden house, but the music coming from that doorway was incredible.
We inched closer and closer to listen, not wanting to intrude, but then a grandma sitting on the stoop motioned us to go inside. There sat about a dozen Dong teenage boys, who told us they were practicing their love songs because the very next weekend they were going to a neighboring village with the hopes of finding girlfriends. They invited us to pull up a wooden stool to sit and listen, and for the next hour I was spellbound. Hanging all around the room were the village pipas, a four-stringed instrument which has been played in China for over 2,000 years.
We were honored when they took down their oldest ceremonial one to be used in a song for us. The day got even more surreal when my 16 year old daughter Anna, who has a beautiful voice herself, was finally convinced to sing a love song for the group. For the next few moments I had to keep pinching myself to see if I really was sitting on a mountain listening to my daughter from China sing “A Thousand Years” to teenage boys in a remote Dong village. Life certainly can be filled with the most unexpected surprises, can’t it?
I’ve uploaded one of the young men’s songs to this site if you would like to listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRRmr7vevtg
We asked the boys, “At what age do you get married in this village?” They replied, “Just as soon as you find a girl.” One outgoing boy told me the younger you could get married the better, though, and the rest of the teens all agreed. Sadly, we contacted them the next week to see how the weekend festival had gone, and only one of the boys had any luck catching the eye (and ear) of the neighboring village girls. We are planning an education project for this village very soon, and I will never forget the warm and welcoming day I spent here.
We then traveled to the more famous village of Zhaoqing, one of the largest Dong villages which was originally built in the 1100s. Zhaoqing has many beautiful drum towers, which I was surprised to learn are built without using a single nail. They are covered with paintings and carvings from Dong folk tales, and many have fire pits in the center so the villagers can gather together on cold nights.
I learned on this trip that villages often build these towers to serve as a symbol of prosperity. When a young adult from a village leaves and does well, he or she might choose to build a new drum tower in their home village as a permanent symbol of their good fortune.
After our visit to Zhaoxing, we made the very long and winding journey to Dimen. I had wanted to visit this village ever since I had read a National Geographic article many years ago by the author Amy Tan. Dimen is home to five clans and around 500 homes, and it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.
I had heard it called the “village on the edge of time,” and it was indeed like stepping back 100 years in many ways. We climbed high up the mountain, covered with flowers and butterflies the size of my hand, to one of the tea fields.
There we came across a group of grandmothers who were picking the tiny leaves by hand, and they warmly welcomed us with the most beautiful smiles. One woman told me she was 74, and she told us that she loved Dimen because as far as she could see there were rice fields, which were deep green in the summer and gold in the fall.
We walked past crystal clear streams and rivers that day, with naked little boys jumping in from the shore to show us their bravery, their giggles universal in any language.
We met an 82 year old man on one of their many wooden bridges, who we quickly learned was an incredible singer. I told him that with his voice, I was sure he had wooed a very beautiful girl all those years ago. “The prettiest of all,” he replied back.
The hospitality we were shown in the villages we visited was immense, and I wondered how many of us would welcome complete strangers into our homes if we saw them wandering around aimlessly in our neighborhood. None of the villagers could think of a real restaurant where we could find food in Dimen. Fortunately, a local woman quickly made up some noodles for our growling stomachs, which we slurped down in seconds because it was oh-so-delicious.
As beautiful and peaceful as the villages are, however, it is reality now that you rarely see anyone in their 20s and 30s living in them.
All of the young people are leaving – headed to the big cities on the eastern coast of China – searching for work. The villages are now filled with the elderly, and the children who have been left behind.
Tomorrow I want to share the story of one little boy we met who touched my heart to the core. But today I am remembering the deep hospitality we were shown, and the beautiful snapshots of rural villages which have managed to keep their traditions intact for hundreds and hundreds of years.
~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer