Songs across valleys, exploring Ethnic Minority Villages in Guizhou China 

Nestled into the valleys of karst limestone peaks and the winding rivers of Guizhou province are the villages of minority groups that live a life away from the hustled lifestyle of their Han counterparts in the grey mega cities of China. Their rooftops are curved and houses constructed of nothing more than wood and bamboo. The recent catch, whether fish or pheasant, hangs out the front of houses as a sign of good fortune. These unique decorations are accompanied by dried crops from the previous harvest in hope for another prosperous yield in the wet season. Life for these rural minorities is very simplistic and traditional, with most people believing that everything in nature has a spirit that can impose or dictate the course of their lives. Even as the economy of China booms rapidly and the country reaches a new age of modernisation, the villages of these ethnic minority groups act as the reminder of an important rural foundation in development. 

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A large engraved stone sits next to faded family portraits in the living room of the Li household. I am told by the youngest daughter that it is a well-known passage in Miao culture, reading: 'birds nest in trees, fish swim in rivers... the Miao live in the mountains where their song can be carried across the valleys'. The Li’s home sits at the top of a hillside tiered with black rooftops and rice paddies looking down on the rest of Xijiang village. The stilted house is open with windows looking out across the mountainside and the rest of the home constructed like a balcony. In the morning it is one of few houses that is not shrouded in mist. The Li women brush their hair together on the balcony, tightly sealing the bun with a bright hair clip. Like a breath of cool air, Ayi Li's singing voice carries softly through the household, across the balcony and into the cracks of other stilted households. The folk song tells tales of the Miao from past to present, stretching from hundreds of years ago to the struggles of rural people during Mao Zedong's 'Great Leap Forward'. The song skims rooftops carrying the message through the mountains.  

The village of Zengchong is nestled between two sweeping rivers which wrap around the tightly packed slate-roofed dwellings forming an island. Women shift carts of vegetables or embroideries across beautifully carved Wind and Rain bridges which connect the village with the long unpaved road to Rongjiang. Most men gather at the Drum tower smoking pipes and playing checkers or Mah-jong after a morning spent in the fields. The village has been a citadel for Dong culture for over three centuries and like other Dong villages, is built on the riverbed due to the belief that water is the creator and most driving force of human life. Even when the rivers of Guizhou overflow in the wet season, sealing off Zengchong and making villagers immobile; locals see only benefits in the life that water carries with it. In the early morning under a light sleet, my host mother and her daughter go down to the riverbed to wash their traditional garments. As their hands knead the wet laundry, they close their eyes and sing gently. Rain drips down the mother's smiling face as she carries the harmony across stones and reeds. Her message flows down the river.  

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At present, Guizhou is the poorest province in all of China. Despite the mountains providing an abundant selection of natural resources, the economy remains stagnant due to a lack of social infrastructure. During Mao's rule, the predominantly small-holder agrarian province was left behind in the promotion of accelerated industrial development. Subsequently, while the Han and other ethnic groups of China built cities and contributed to the country's major boom, the minorities of Guizhou changed very little about their culture and lifestyle. Children raised in isolated villages did not attend school. Natural remedies were conjured rather than hospitals or clinics. Men and women worked every day in fields to meet new surpluses and rice quotas. Songs spoke only of poverty and hardship. Yet in the end, the ancient minority society remains seemingly untouched in comparison to the country's urban modernity. The villages froze in time, preserved long enough to carry folk songs back and forth through the valleys.