From a Wind Bridge to a Drum Tower

By Grover, Amar | Geographical, June 2003 | Go to article overview

From a Wind Bridge to a Drum Tower


Grover, Amar, Geographical


China's long history is one of migration and conflict, of cultural fusion and fragmentation. Today, this vast nation is home to 56 recognised ethnic groups, many of them nestled away on distant frontiers. Each has maintained its own rich traditions and customs, often in the face of harsh oppression, and now many are undergoing a revival, thanks to official encouragement and increasing interest from tourists

At around 1.25 billion people, the population of the People's Republic of China is the world's largest. The majority--more than 90 per cent--style themselves 'Han Chinese' after one of the country's ancient and most successful dynasties, but an estimated 100 million are ethnic minority people or 'minority nationalities' drawn from 56 recognised groups spread across the country. Populations range from many millions who are indistinguishable from the Han to a few thousand villagers living near the border with Myanmar.

Guizhou Province in central southern China is among the most rewarding for travellers interested in minority peoples. Its rugged landscape--the Chinese sometimes call it the Province of Peaks--lends itself to sedate, picturesque journeys and has also helped to preserve cultures that might have become diluted in a less challenging terrain. The province is home to 13 ethnic nationalities, who together comprise about a third of the provincial population.

Historically, not all have been pliable or lived peacefully alongside the Han but, unlike Tibetans or the Moslem Uighurs, in practice their resistance to Han domination means little today. While some have fully integrated, others live remote and aloof from the mainstream; perhaps they are fortunate not to inhabit strategic borderlands or areas rich in natural resources. Materially and agriculturally, Guizhou is a comparatively poor province and something of a backwater. Even now, it sees relatively few foreign visitors, but that is set to change.

These images focus on Guizhou's three most populous minorities. The Miao, whose silver jewellery and embroidery is much admired, are the most numerous. Related to the Hmong of northern Thailand and Vietnam, they are often divided into sub-groups such as Black, Red, White, Flowery and River Miao--sometimes based on dubious criteria dependent on attire, hairstyle or where they live.

The Dong are famed for their striking wind bridges and soaring drum towers. The largest and finest Dong bridges actually lie just across the border in Guangxi Province but in a predominantly Dong area. The Bouyei (or Bouyi), by virtue of living in some of the province's rockiest areas, are accomplished stonemasons.

The official classification of ethnic minorities began in the 1950s and while hundreds of groups claimed a distinct ethnicity, only a fraction were recognised. …

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