YEARS ago I saw a picture in a magazine of a group of men dressed in dark-hued clothes, their hair in topknots and hunting rifles slung over their shoulders, standing before a mountain village. The caption read, “China’s last tribal gunmen.” They were residents of Basha Village in Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou, southern China. From time to time I have wondered about these people, their origins, and how contemporary society has affected their lives. Eventually curiosity got the better of me. Earlier this year I took a trip to Guizhou to meet these tribal hunters in their home village.
An Ancient People
Congjiang County in Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou Province is a six-hour, 255-kilometer drive from China’s famous Guilin scenic zone. The 9.6km journey to Basha Village down the X883 County Road takes another 20 minutes.
Basha means “lush” in the Miao language. Located on the lower slopes of Moon Hill, the village indeed abounds in bamboo groves and verdant forests. Residents work the terraced fields below. The village consists of five Miao communities that add up to a total population of 2,000. The distinctive topknots that the men of Basha wear, their firelocks, and the ancient trees that surround their home are regarded as the “three treasures” of Basha Village. As with other ethnic villages, improved communications have enabled greater accessibility, making it something of a tourist attraction.
Basha is the only place in China exempt from the country’s strict prohibition on firearm possession. The government issues special permits to 80 percent or more of village householders that allow them to carry their traditional musket-style powder rifles, whose range is limited to 20 meters. The weapons are made by local specialist craftsmen in Guandong and Longtu of Liping County in Qiandongnan Prefecture. Basha men prize their firelocks as precious heirlooms passed down for generations. Generally dressed in dark clothes, a knife in a woven sheath at the waist and rifles slung over the shoulder, Basha men resemble ancient warriors.
Miao communities in the village live according to the time-honored tradition whereby “men till and women weave.” They subsist on farming and hunting, and the gods of the sun and of trees are their deities. The hanging fish baskets I saw in some homes signify the role that fishing still plays as a food source, in addition to farming and hunting, although less so now than in earlier times.
Stories on Stilts
Basha villagers still live in traditional stilted houses, some of the older ones roofed in tree bark. Luxuriant bamboo groves act as natural borders between clusters of dwellings. The oldest house, its pillars and columns chopped and shaped by axe, is said to have been built 250 years ago. Newly built houses have relatively modern features, such as glass window panes rather than sliding boards to let in the sunlight, but retain the common architectural structure. The first floors of these stilted residences are used for storage or keeping livestock. The second is generally the living area, and commands a stunning vista of the rooftops below and coils of cooking smoke rising against a backdrop of terraced fields. Villagers sleep on mats on the floor rather than in beds.
Younger people still keep to time-honored traditions but also appreciate the comforts of a more modern lifestyle, though to a far lesser degree than city dwellers. Older residents have seen such changes as tiles, rather than piles of tree bark, on roofs that often overlay steel sheets – a modification that protects against storm and gale damage.
The oldest flight of steps in the village consists of hewn tree trunks with wooden railings on either side. The hillside ascending from the road is laced with rows of wooden trestles, five meters tall and four meters wide, on which to dry ears of rice. After a harvest the hillsides are resplendent in these golden sheaves.
The Basha people have a distinctive style of dress. The men wear short black jackets with round copper buttons that fasten on the left and black straight trousers. Women wear black jackets that fasten down the front with short pleated skirts embellished with colorful batiks and embroideries. Regardless of age or gender, the garments of all Miao residents of Basha are made from an indigo shade of hand-woven fabric resembling watered gauze. It is dyed in the juice of Baphicacanthus cusia leaves. Eggwhite is added to make it rain-proof, giving it a leathery quality. The fabric sometimes appears to glisten, due perhaps to being tossed into vats of dye over and over again rather than washed.
Men in Basha go to great pains to maintain their distinctive hairstyle. It is achieved by shaving off all hair other than that on the top of the head with a sickle and coiling it into a chignon, or “hugun,” as it is called in the Miao language. Legend has it that this distinct characteristic is the legacy of Chi You, a mythical warrior from ancient times and ancestor of the Miao ethnic group. By the time they can speak, all Miao boys know that their “hugun” signifies masculinity and strength. Men consequently wear them for life, and have done so for generations. Those we saw, however, all wore head scarves. We understood that only children taking part in folk performances openly display their “hugun.”
Locals told us that their lives are carefree thanks to their ancestors’ wise choice of this resource-rich place laden with trees as a home. As the Basha people worship trees they do not log them unless absolutely necessary. Besides flourishing forests, Basha is also ample in another local specialty – bamboo – which can be seen everywhere. Many villages are built amid the peaceful surroundings of bamboo groves. When one of us suggested, partly in jest, that we dig up some fresh bamboo shoots to take home, the locals made it clear that this would amount to sacrilege.
We saw in the village the charred remains and ashes of a burnt-down house. It brought home just how susceptible to fire hazards this ancient wooden village is. A single spark could destroy its occupants’ entire cultural legacy.
Change and Transition
Although the Basha people honor their tribal traditions, this has not prevented their assimilation into modern society. They still live in stilted houses, carry firelocks and wear dark clothes, but many of their folk customs are changing. Tourism has also had influence on this ancient village. Halfway up the hill where the village is situated is a flat clearing that serves as a performance stage for the benefit of visitors and travelers. Both adults and children perform choreographed acts, such as displaying guns in different formations and playing reed pipes, in traditional attire. Although intended as entertainment, these shows give tourists an insight into local culture and folk customs.
Basha differs from other tourist attractions in many ways, most notably in its indifference to selling locally made products to visitors. Embroidered items and those made from bamboo shoots are popular, but we seldom saw villagers touting them to tourists. Only a few shops near the square sell souvenirs. It appears that the Basha people are disinclined to hawk local specialties.
Before leaving we had lunch at a hostel that gave us a clear view through the window of the entire village and its dwellers going about their business. I could almost sense their awareness that life would never be the same as it was before Basha became a tourist attraction. The original lifestyle has been replaced by a more hectic way of living. Caught in the clash between modern and ancient cultures, locals seem a little dazed. They have lost their past, and what tourism will bring to this village remains to be seen.
Source: China Today