Colorful Guizhou, as it is called, is home to a rich and multifaceted culture as breathtaking as its churning waterfalls, karst and deep underground caves. Guizhou has one of the largest minority populations in all of China; a whopping 38% of the people are minorities, and 55% of the land is minority autonomous regions. The many ethnicities of Guizhou living together each add their unique cultures into this fascinating mix of a region, making Guizhou one of the most interesting provinces for music, architecture, food, festivals, and diverse lifestyles.
In sheer natural beauty, few provinces come close to Guizhou. The stunning karst mountain forests gave a collection of ancient writers and poets plenty to gush about. When UNESCO went looking for the best karst in China to include in its World Heritage listings, the karst of Libo in Qiannan were among the andforms selected. Add in the tallest waterfall in all of China, the largest cave open to the public and miles upon miles of unparalleled forests and villages dotting the countryside, and you have the recipe for one of China’s most stirring provinces.
Guizhou first became integrated into China during the Yuan Dynasty. Prior to that, it was always moving between the control of different warlords and loosely organized kingdoms. From 1046 BCE until the establishment of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE, it was under the control of the state of Shu. During the Warring States period, the Chu conquered Guizhou, but it eventually fell under control of the Dian Kingdom and then the Yelang, a network of tribes that can hardly even be called a kingdom. During the Three Kingdoms period, control of Guizhou oscillated between the Shuhan, Cao Wei, and the Jin. Later, Kublai Khan conquered Guizhou and western China in the 13th century and established the city of Guiyang, then known as Shenyuan.
Since then, minority uprisings have rocked Guizhou for centuries. To try to pacify the citizens and exert control, the Yuan Dynasty established the tusi system in which they gave power to local tribal leaders in exchange for tributes (the tusi systems remained in place until the Qing Dynasty).
From the 1370’s to the 1500’s, there were countless Miao rebellions. Miao, at that time, was a catch-all phrase for most of the non-Han minority groups in Guizhou, and the term itself more or less meant “barbarian.” Dozens of books were published categorizing up to 82 different kinds of “Miao” using stereotypical traits (see Culture). Rebellious Miao saw the migrations of the Han and imperial government to be encroaching on their lands and their sovereignty, and one particular revolt, led by a man named Li Tianbao, nearly captured the capital with a contingent of around 7,000 rebels.
Many revolts were crushed by Mongolian and Uighur mercenaries hired by the Ming court, and many more Ming soldiers were sent to establish walled cities, known as tunbao, some of which are still standing today. In the 19th century, with the progressively weakening state of the Qing Dynasty, Miao rebellions proliferated. There were notable rebellions in 1735 and 1795-1806, but the most wide scale rebellion occurred from 1854-72. Influenced in part by the Taiping Rebellion, which was gaining traction around China at the same time, rebels in Guizhou flung the province into chaos. Taking a page from the old tusi system, which was abolished during the Qing Dynasty, some of the Miao rebels were granted amnesty in exchange for fighting against the Taiping rebels.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the rebellions around China were enough to overthrow the Qing government. On November 4, 1911, following the Wuchang Uprising, Zhang Bailin led the movement that would topple the Qing Dynasty’s Guizhou government. The next year the Qing Dynasty fell.
Guizhou would become an important place in the history of the Communist Party during the Chinese Civil War. While retreating from heavy casualties in the east, the Communist Party stopped during their Long March in Guizhou between 1934-35. In Zunyi, they elected Mao Zedong as a party leader at the Zunyi Conference, and in Anshun the Sichuan-Yunnan-Guizhou Provinces Revolutionary Committee was established. Both cities now include famous martyr cemeteries.
Today Guizhou is one of the poorest provinces in China, and while it does have vast reserves of natural minerals, its geographic position in the mountainous regions of central China has left it underdeveloped. Its natural beauty makes it a great tourist destination for lovers of all things nature.
The Miao are the largest minority ethnic group in Guizhou, making up 12% of the population. They live throughout most of southern Guizhou. In fact, the three southernmost prefectures in Guizhou (Qiandongnan, Qiannan and Qianxinan) are autonomous prefectures shared by the Miao and other groups. Their biggest population center is Qiandongnan, where 1.6 million Miao live (41.5% of the Qiandongnan population) mostly in beautiful mountainous villages.
The Miao ethnic group, as officially defined, still consists of a number of groups that, according to their culture and the opinions of many experts, are not the same ethnicity, though official defining guidelines have become more culturally sensitive than the years of the Qing Dynasty. Ethnicities like the Dong, which was previously considered part of the Miao, is now recognized as a separate ethnic group. Within the Miao you will likely encounter a variety of unique tribes, each with their own flavor, such as the Flowery Miao, the Black Miao, the White Miao and the Horned Miao. Look for Miao wearing large silver headdresses, and you can sport Horned Miao women by big combs holding up their hair extensions.
Living among the Miao in Qiandongnan are the Dong people. The third largest minority group in Guizhou, the Dong are famous for their music and architecture. Dong singers have a wide range; in some of their songs they are able to imitate the sound of animals such as cicadas. Catch them singing songs on one of their many musical occasions, including marriage, courtship and festivals.
Dong choruses sing what are called “Dong Big Songs.” The most legendary of which is an hours-long song that tells the history of the Dong people. Such songs are often performed under the brilliantly crafted and carved wooden drum towers, which, along with wooden homes and wooden wind and rain bridges, are the breathtaking architectural trademarks of the Dong. Like the Miao, and many other minorities, the Dong also play the lusheng reed pipe.
While there are many minority languages throughout the ethnic populations of Guizhou, including Thai and Lao and the Miao-Yao of the Miao and Yao peoples, Mandarin is spoken in most places by the Han majority (though with a distinct local drawl).