In the depths of the mountain forests of Western Guizhou, live the Changjiao (Longhorn) Miao of the Suojia community, famous for their practice of wrapping the hair of their ancestors around horns to create ceremonial headdresses. Kartika, Jessie and I travel to Longga village in the Liuzhi and Zhijin Counties to see these people.
We take a city bus in Anshun to the central bus terminal. From there we spend two hours on a bus to Liuzhi. There is an atmosphere of ‘progress’ throughout the country. In every province, in every city, in every village we pass, people are building. It is an hour ride on a minibus from Liuzhi to Soga; the fields turn yellow with canola and we pass villages encircled by woods. At Soga we jump on the backs of motorcycles and are taken towards fresher air. Five minutes up the mountain side, we reach agricultural land with fields of corn, potatoes, beans and vegetables embellished by pink blossoms. We finally arrive at Longga.
According to the 2000 Chinese census, there are 9.6 million people who identify as Miao in China; however the cultural practises of the Miao vary greatly depending on region, language and group of people. The Suojia Longhorn community consists of more than 5,000 people who live in 12 villages in an area of about 120 square kilometres, 1,400-2,200 metres above sea level.
We are dropped off at a forest by the motorcyclists and they gesture to us to take a path up the mountainside. When we arrive at the village a little figure hurries from her home to meet us. She grins broadly and ushers us to her house, seeming to know what we want without having to ask. We assume she is a member of the Longhorn community. It is a crude hut, chickens peck around the edges. She is talkative and enthusiastic, even if we can’t understand what she is saying. Her age is hard to determine. We use body language to agree on a price to pay her to prepare her traditional headdress.
She starts by dressing herself meticulously in her traditional garments. The process is laborious: a bright orange blouse and a long pleated skirt with bands of black, white and fluorescent orange; a pink necklace, a cross-stitched collar and a black bib around her neck; an embroidered fluorescent loin cloth with dangling beads; a coat that covers the backs of her legs is cross-stitched in orange with white flowers.
She sticks a wooden horn into her hair and begins binding it in place with white wool and her own hair. She picks up a large bundle of black wool as long as herself and combs out the knots with her fingers. It is unclear whether there are ancestral hairs in the bundle. When the wool looks neat, she places the bundle over one horn and begins to wrap the wool painstakingly around her head, bending and lifting and folding and combing. At the end she twists the end of the large bundle of wool and tucks it underneath the rest of the wool that has now been wrapped expertly around the horns. White wool is used to bind it all in place. The final touch: a pink bouquet of fabric attached to the back of the giant hair bun.
When the woman finishes, she stands before us, hands on hips, smiling broadly. The tradition is beautiful but it feels like a performance just for tourists. We walk around the village and find an ‘ecomuseum’. We discover that the area used to be densely forested until deforestation changed the community’s living styles. Nowadays, the area has a long-term working model for preservation and understanding of the Longhorn Miao’s entire culture. The community has actively tried to replant the forests which are protected and worshipped. The Longhorn Miao Costume Art, which we have travelled to Longga to see, is now on the list of national intangible cultural heritage. On one hand we feel uncomfortable with the negative commercial effect our tourism and future tourism could have on their traditions and on their community. But on the other hand, we see that tourism can raise awareness and provide valuable income to a community that is actively trying to preserve their traditions and customs.