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Trip to Chengyang
by Mitch Blatt - Nov 6, 2017
On the ride into Chengyang, this spring the minibus bounced over rocks and bumps. Along the side of the road, I could see a trail of mud leading down into the Linxi River. Piles of dirt lined the road that hugged the hillside. It was in terrible condition due to a combination of springtime rains that caused landslides and construction work to build a new pass into town.
I thought I was being ripped off when the minibus driver outside the long-distance bus station in Sanjiang demanded 10 RMB instead of the 6 RMB I had paid four years ago. As I held onto the seat in front of me to keep my head from bumping the ceiling, I could see it was no scam; the poor road conditions demanded a higher fee. (Travel tip: Most of the buses to Chengyang leave Sanjiang from the bus station on the west side across the 321 National Road bridge, not from the station on the east side, where buses from Guilin and other cities arrive.)
After a long, uncomfortable ride, we arrived at the famous Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge. The century-old wooden bridge welcomes visitors with its ornate wooden architecture and intricately carved woodwork on eaves. Wind and rain bridges and wooden drum towers are the emblematic characteristics of the Dong ethnic group in tourism promotion, attracting visitors from around the country and world to rural towns in the terraced hills of Guizhou and western Guangxi.
One day I was hiking in the hills outside the village when an old woman who had been tending to the tea crops came up behind me on the trail. In the valley below there were wooden houses and flowing water. All around us were terraced hills and forests. “It’s beautiful here,” I told the old woman.
“It’s not pretty,” she said, shaking her head.
“The mountains… The homes…” I said.
The “not pretty” tea hills and village down the back road from Chengyang.
She and other wrinkled women with children and grandchildren work in the fields every day, wielding hoes almost as tall as their bodies, and many of them walk with slumped backs. To them, these mountains and fields aren’t the pristine scenic areas tourists see, they are their work places. Their romanticized wooden homes don’t just represent traditional culture, but also material poverty.
A 2014 Sanjiang government report stated that rural residents of the county earn an average income of just 453 RMB per month. China’s economic expansion over the years has focused especially on east coast and southern port cities, while rural western provinces have been slower to develop. Farming is the main industry, and the local government has tried to emphasize the local culture in order to attract tourists.
To that end, they have had some success. In 2013, over 1,700,000 tourists went to Sanjiang, generating 800 million RMB in revenue, according to the government. I went there for the first time in 2011. Searching online for scenic Chinese villages, Chengyang and places like Zhaoxing, Basha, and Rongjiang in the nearby Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture in bordering Guizhou were some of the most interesting results I found.
My weeks traveling through ethnic villages were relaxing and carefree. Then, as in this year, I lived in a wooden guesthouse started by a local family. The proprietor cooked local dinners of sour and spicy meats with pickled vegetables every night, which I enjoyed on a wooden deck that looked out over the river. I biked down dirt roads behind the villages, where I found wooden pavilions in the middle of fields. I walked back to my guesthouse one night with only the light of fireflies guiding me.
I was not the only one to enjoy the village. Every day tour groups came by behind a guide with a flag, following her over stone walkways between the fields connecting the eight villages of greater Chengyang. Students from an art school in Nanning came with their class to practice painting the beautiful scenery.
A conventional concrete bridge into Chengyang that has had Dong-style architecture added on top.
Besides the nature and aesthetics, another point of attraction to Chengyang is the culture. Dong people make up a majority of Chengyang’s population. Along with their architecture, this ethnic group is also known for its sour food and its traditional song and dance. Every day in the morning and afternoon, there is a cultural performance on the stage in Pinghao village.
With the spectators lined up along wooden benches in the public square, the Dong performers will come out in their blue and black clothes and approach each person with cups of rice wine. Drink! Drink! If you don’t accept, two or three of them may just surround you and put the cup up to your mouth, forcing you to drink. Then they take the stage and start singing and dancing. The women wear blue tops with black skirts. They wear wide, flat silver objects called yinhuan - literally “silver hoops” - around their necks and silver hairpieces with fluffy colored balls in their hair and play three-stringed instruments. The men wear white shirts, dark blue pants, and black turban-like headdresses while playing four-stringed instruments.
“The Dong men will come out at night and go outside womens’ homes to sing songs to request their love,” one of the performers says as a way of introduction.
The performance lasts for 20 minutes, and at the end they invite the tourists onto the stage to dance around in a circle with them and then throw one person up in the air and catch them.
The Dong performance ends with one lucky spectator being tossed into the air.
Afterwards, I talked with the one of the singers. Is it really like this? Do men still initiate courtship with songs?
Some do, he said, but fewer and fewer people are learning the songs. Of course not. You don’t see many people around town wearing the same woven and dyed clothing of the performers on stage either. Rural minorities want to develop just like urban Han. But some members of an ethnic group feel a sentimental attachment to their traditions and culture. And tourists want to see something different and “authentic” when they travel to ethnic tourism villages.
But there are limits to this “authenticity.” Many foreigners - and many Chinese even - would resist eating the worm pupae that local Bai in Shaxi, Yunnan eat. As I was walking down the national road outside the village one day, I saw some local people cooking a dog with a propane torch. They invited me to eat, but I had already accepted an invitation from art students to a Dong-themed feast held outside a drum tower, which ended up having many ordinary Chinese dishes, but no dog. The performances and cultural entities on display have been fine-tuned to excite and entertain tourists in a convenient forum. Tourism scholars call it “staged authenticity.”
The line between “authentic” and “commercialized” is fiercely contested territory among independent travelers. What is “real” and what is “fake”? The songs sang at the performance in Chengyang are not like the ones they sing at their own functions, some locals told me. Others said the songs were pretty close to being authentic. Nothing can be completely authentic; that would require every tourist somehow being invited by a stranger to a local wedding or something. The presence of tourists necessarily changes local people’s behavior.
What would Chengyang look like in the absence of tourists? One day I was walking by the river when I met three students from Nanning practicing art. As we were talking, a local man came by to a tea stall and invited us to sit and drink tea. His name was Yang Dilong. If there weren’t any tourists, he would probably still be working in Guangzhou.
Before graduating high school, he went off and found a job at a warehouse loading and unloading shipments with a forklift. With a lack of job opportunities in the village and higher wages in industrial cities, many locals between the ages of 18 and 29, including Yang Dilong’s older brother Yang Qinlong, go to cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguang, and Zhuhai in the neighboring economic powerhouse of Guangdong Province.
It was a shock for Yang when he first arrived in Guangzhou. It was the first time he had left his village, and then he arrived in a massive city with a population of 12 million. His description of the work he did seems less intense than that of some stories that make big news: 8-10 hours per day on the clock, but usually there were two main shifts of work in the morning and evening with a lot of downtime. The warehouse was located in Luogang, a district that is far to the north east of the city center, unconnected by subway as of 2017, in the Guangzhou Economic and Technological Development Zone. After working in Guangzhou for a few years, he came back home and started this tea shop with money he and his brother had saved up.
Yang Longdi pours cups of tea at his stall by the river.
“I can’t sing the Dong songs,” Yang said.
In as much as the performances created for tourists are still relatively authentic, tourism actually helps protect and encourage the transmission of ethnic culture. It lets people earn a living while maintaining culture and keeps some from leaving for the cities. Candice Cornet, a student of the University of Montreal, observed that the number of people leaving to work has decreased in Zhaoxing, a Dong village in Guizhou, as the tourism economy there has improved. By contrast, one particular village within Zhaoxing that gets few visitors due to its location high in the hills has seen its population decline by half, she wrote in a paper she was preparing.
Yang’s business is related to both key industries in Chengyang: tourism and agriculture. The local government is particularly trying to promote its local tea production. In 2013, Sanjiang added 700 acres of tea fields, bringing its total to 22,200 acres, and produced 10,500 tons of tea. While they grow many kinds of teas, the most famous and plentiful of the varieties are yeshan (wild mountain), longjing (a famous tea from Hangzhou), and dahongpao. “You can buy longjing tea for much cheaper here than in Hangzhou!” Yang said while working me for a sale.
Other famous cultural products include Dong-style dresses, jewelry, art, and handicrafts. One trinket-seller had figures of miniature Terracotta Warriors (from Xi’an) on her table. I’m pretty sure, those aren’t authentic to Chengyang.
One day while walking down the main road when I approached a jewelry shop with two tables covered with food and wine in its entrance. The owner beckoned me to and invited me to join him. “Celebrate my grand opening!” he said. It’s good luck to hold feasts and invite the public for such an event. He and his wife weren’t locals. They were Miao people who had come from Kaili, the biggest city in Qiandongnan, and lived in Chengyang for four years. Property in Kaili is too expensive, the man said, and competition too fierce, so he felt Chengyang was a good place to do business. Relations between the Miao and Dong are close, as the two ethnic groups live nearby, and there is some intermarriage, but the Miao must learn a new language. Most locals speak Dong language amongst each other. Between bites of duck, we saluted each other with local rice wine. He taught me how to say “cheers” in Dong: dengliao!
A jewelry seller hosted a feast to celebrate the grand opening of his new shop.
The next day, I went with Yang Longdi and his friend Yang Xiongbing to the city of Sanjiang. (They’re not related. Many people in Chengyang share the same surnames: Chen, Yang, Wu, and Ou.) Sanjiang is 19 km (12 mi) south. It takes half an hour in good conditions, but it took about 45 minutes over the dirty and bumpy mess the road was in spring. The city’s drum tower, standing at 42.6 m (140 ft) on the high side of a river valley, is visible from afar. The tower was built in 2002 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the county, and it could be the tallest drum tower in the world. The Sanbao Drum Tower in Zhaoxing, Guizhou, which was built in 2001, is lauded as being the Guinness record holder, but it’s only 36 meters tall.
Zhaoxing is held up as something of model “civilized” Dong village. Timothy Oakes, professor of geography at the University of Colorado, wrote in a 1997 paper that tourism officials consider Zhaoxing the “most representative” Dong village and model the drum towers in ethnic theme parks after those of Zhaoxing. Dong dance troupes from other cities go to Zhaoxing to learn how to sing for the tourists. According to a story that spread around Zhaoxing, a professor from Beijing, after visiting both Guangxi and Guizhou, reportedly said, “The Dong of Zhaoxing are the real Dong, and the Dong of Guangxi are fake.” The rumored professor, then, was actually calling authentic local culture fake, establishing outside culture as the “real” version of all Dong culture. Each village has some differences even within the same ethnic group. Thus some local Dong performance troupes in Guilin were actually copying Zhaoxing in order to try to be “authentic.” Authentic to whom? The word has a slippery meaning.
After Yang Longdi showed me the Sanjiang drum tower, we went to a restaurant by the bus station and ordered rice noodles, a famous local dish in Guangxi. Yang Xiongbing, who is a big man and about 45-years-old, ordered a bottle of rice wine and forced me to drink it. He drank much quicker than me, and at one point, Longdi said to me I wasn’t drinking fast enough.
Yang Longdi and I enjoy rice noodles and drinks in Sanjiang city.
“You can’t talk,” I chided him, who wasn’t drinking rice wine. “You haven’t even finished one bottle of beer.”
Xiongbing and I were almost done with our second bottle of rice wine - Xiongbing drinking most of it. Like Longdi, he came back to Chengyang and started a tea business, but he spent much more of his life laboring outside of Guangxi. He was as a mechanic for a while in the army and afterwards worked as a mechanic in Dongguan and Taiyuan, Shanxi. If he can outdrink me in rice wine, there’s one thing I’ve got him on.
“Have you ever tried whisky?” I asked.
“No. I tried ‘XO’ once.” He proceeded to tell me the story of how his boss gifted him a bottle of brandy to celebrate the opening of his new guesthouse.
“I drank two cups, and then I was drunk for two days,” he said.
Towards the end of the week I was sitting in the kitchen of a wooden house eating incredibly sour food. I put a piece of pickled bamboo in my mouth and puckered my lips. My friend Yang, a woman I had met in Sanjiang in 2011, was back in Chengyang and invited me to eat with her family. While staying at the guesthouse, I had eaten Dong-style food, but it was nothing like this. The intensity of the sour in the fish and duck my host cooked was toned down and augmented with spicy peppers. Everything on the table at Yang’s husband’s home was sour to local standards.
A local man works on the construction of a new drum tower. This drum tower costs 212,600 RMB (US$33,660). It received a 100,000 RMB grant from the local government and raised the rest of the money from local individuals and groups. There are donation boxes for tourists to give money for maintenance as well, and the benefactors get their names inscribed in stone blocks.
Yang had grown up in Sanjiang city and married a man from Chengyang and moved in with their family, living with grandparents and uncles as well, in a three story wooden house. On the wall there was a photo of her wearing a traditional Dong dress on her wedding day. Did she make the dress herself, I asked? No, she bought it, she said. She doesn’t know how to use the Dong spinning wheel that I saw a lot of old women utilizing for a public performance the night before. She had two wedding celebrations: one wearing a Dong dress and one wearing a Western wedding dress. She works at a bank, which places her at different branches in Sanjiang or nearby cities each month, and only returns to Chengyang every few weeks.
The next day she went to a gathering with extended family in a nearby village and I went to Sanjiang in preparation to go home. There’s a new high-speed train that runs from Guangzhou to Sanjiang, but the station is far from the city, so I stayed overnight. At night, there is a large-scale Dong ethnic performance in the bird’s nest theatre, a round wooden structure across from the city drum tower. (Tickets cost around 180 RMB at the box office, though some hotels sell them at discounts, and the show starts at 8 pm every night.)
A newly completed drum tower.
I took a seat near the front of the 30-or-so rows of stadium seating. The seats looked down on the stage, which was separated from the audience by a canal filled with water. Young Dong men and women began coming down from stairs in the back onto the stage. The clothes the boys wore were more colorful than the white clothes those performers in Chengyang wore. Their tight blue vests with embroidery exposed their stomach. The skirts the girls wore were shorter. They held hands and started dancing as the lights around the stage shined and moved, casting yellow, red, and purple shadows. The show told the story of the marriage of a Dong girl, through songs sang in Dong language with Chinese subtitles on screens, including a performance of men standing outside houses singing to the girls in the windows of a house built on the stage. Towards the end of the show, a boat came out along the river canal, and a Dong man and woman sang as the marriage took place.
When the show ended, the performers came into the audience and pulled spectators onto the stage. Two Dong girls put their eyes on me, and I was one of the first people they chose. One stage, we did the same dance they did in Chengyang at the end of the show: we joined hands and danced around in a circle, reversing direction and cutting through the line as directed. After we had weaved our way into a position where I was in the middle of the stage, the Dong dancers surrounded me and grabbed me, lifted me, and tossed me into the air.
How to get to Sanjiang
By bus: Buses leave from Guilin, Nanning, and nearby cities.
By train: A new train station was built south of the city in 2014. Trains that run between Nanning East and Guiyang North (with stops at Liuzhou, Yongfu South, Guilin, and Duyun East) and between Guangzhou South and Guiyang North (Sandu, Hezhou, Guilin North) stop at Sanjiang South station.
Foods to try in Sanjiang
Picked vegetables, picked duck, chicken, and fish. Oil tea (you cha - 油茶), which is cereal with fried tea leaves and tea. Rice noodles (mi xian - 米线).
The Longsheng Rice Terraces are 78 km east down highway G321 from Sanjiang (under Liuzhou city’s administration) and reachable by direct buses as well as buses between Sanjiang and Guilin.
Whether you like it or not, you must drink at the Dong feast!
Dong woman perform around a fire after a indulging tourists in a feast.
Mitchell grew up in Cleveland, OH and graduated from Indiana University with a B.A. in journalism. He has written about music, sports, travel and culture. Since he began studying Chinese, he has become obsessed with Chinese culture and travel, and has visited over 13 provinces and plans to visit many more. In 2013, he moved to Dali, Yunnan, and launched the travel guide DestinationDali.com. When he's not writing, he enjoys singing karaoke, doing "ganbei's" with friends and strangers, attending punk concerts, and getting lost in the alleyways of ancient cities.