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Tangibly experiencing the intangible

BEIJING, March 26, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — A news report from chinadaily.com.cn:

Our warm breath rose in puffs in the cold air as we waited at the gate of a remote village in Guizhou. Eventually the residents came to meet us, including the elders. Their faces were pleasantly wrinkled, several were hunched and many shuffled rather than walked. They chatted amongst themselves, slowly donning intricately embroidered garments which each of them had invested dozens of hours hand stitching. They spoke with a thick local dialect, and I with my clumsy Mandarin. We did not understand one another. Smiles served as our conversation.

The village called Hongyang in Taijiang county, Qiandongnan Miao and Dong autonomous prefecture, was remote and unpolished.  I appreciated the chance to film in a location that felt so authentic and truly lived in. By 10 am we were ready to film. There were rows of elderly villagers and a few women closer to my age who wore their finest silver stacked upon their shoulders and head. Their parents would have saved for years in order to purchase such treasures for their daughters, as per the custom of the Miao people.

We started with a traditional Miao gate-blocking ceremony. Essentially you cannot enter until you drink wine. The rice wine is made there in the village. It’s a sweeter taste – a refreshing change from the burning punch of baijiu. The younger silver women tip bowls of the wine into your mouth. Touch the bowl, and you are obligated to drink it all. We didn’t touch, but we still drank two full bowls each, for three separate takes. Oh, the sacrifices we make for art!

The wine was drunk (as nearly were we!), and we proceeded to lead the procession to the village square. We were told to walk slowly, so the obliging elders could keep pace. Once at the square, it was time to dance. While they may have been quite spry in their youth, today they opted for a more rhythmic walk. Warm with wine, I didn’t mind. Round and round we went for what seemed nearly 20 minutes.

I feel fortunate to have seen this part of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) preservation. In other more tourist places I’ve visited (and thoroughly enjoyed), young dancers and singers were employed to give performances.

The sheer number of mechanisms that must be in plan in order to preserve and promote ICH is staggering. Here, community buy-in was necessary. The people had to recognize the value of their own culture and agree to participate. On a macro level, infrastructure to navigate the mountainous terrain of Guizhou had to be in place before the village could be reached. Beyond that, the government had to fold ICH preservation into its poverty alleviation and rural vitalization policies.

Efforts to preserve the culture of all the minority groups in Guizhou is and will continue to be a monumental undertaking and takes many forms. For me, to see this quieter, more beautifully unpolished version was a treasured experience.  

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