Sunday, November 14, 2021

China: Hiking though mountain villages in Guangxi province

These women let me come and pick out the soybeans to make doujang--a hot soy milk drink. People love to drink it usually at breakfast. They told me they had known each other their entire lives in this little village. They gossiped, sang, joked, and laughed together. I was happy to be a part of their work and laughter that day.

I have always been fascinated with villages. What made these people often live more separated from others? What were their customs and traditions? There are fables, folklore, and layers of family history around every corner. For the last few days, we have explored about four or five villages in Guangxi province. Today I visited a mountainous village perched amidst the famous rice terraces. The old houses, hundreds of years old, are now being replaced with more modern cement and brick houses. 

Modern times and technology have begun to permeate small Chinese villages. Yet, to walk from village to village was still like roaming through a National Geographic article. Until the early 1960s, villagers did not cross the boundary of another village--unless they had special permission from the leaders. Many of the old customs and rules still rule their lives today, but who knows how long that will last?

Since I can speak Mandarin, I had a most wonderful time learning about the life of these small communities of perhaps one-two thousand people in each village. All of the villagers speak their own dialect, maybe even a few others. The younger people speak Mandarin, and I can somehow filter some understandings from the older folk. These villages are only a few miles or kilometers apart. Anciently, they married one another and were quite separate from the modern world. Outsiders had to be met at the gate of the village, and the community leader would gather with some of the other elders to decide if they could come in.

We spent the night in a small village called Pingan, meaning peace. Roosters crowed, waking us up early, with smoke rising from the fire pits where food was cooked. I spotted several chickens, with wings flapping, going to kitchens to be eaten at the next meal.  

The next day we decided to go on a trek from Pingan to the next village over called Longsheng.  Before villagers could crisscross to other villages, there was no bridge--just a raging river to somehow pass over. In 1962, the villagers built a bridge. This bridge ultimately changed their lives and worldview. Suddenly, they could more easily traverse the rice fields and transport things back and forth. Twice I had a tear watching a few of them carry heavy loads as they ascended the steep hills. Their backs were strong from the burdens, and they smiled with cheer with their almost toothless grins. 

As China hinges on modern urbanization in the villages, I hope they protectively cherish, at least some of the heritage and communities, they have built. Many questions are being asked now of the social contract in the villages: can both modern times and ancient Chinese village traditions coexist? Which centuries-old governing rituals can be dissolved, and which should stay? Can different generations of villagers continue to work together to make a community? Tourists come and go. But hopefully, some people will feel a pull to stay, and not all young people will flee to larger cities. Yet, it is not hard to understand when they see that life does not have to be back-breaking or with little food. 

Instead of the governing powers in the village, urbanization means more state and government control and regulations.  As Nick Smith states in his book, The end of the Chinese village, "There is a real urban-rural tension" currently going on in Chinese villages. The traditions and elders who formally made up the power of the villages are quickly ebbing away. Yet, it is interesting to see (from an outsider's perspective) what is still intact and not disappearing. Some are losing long-held friendships and family relationships, which cause despair as the social fabric disintegrates. It seems that having a designated place to gather is critical for keeping the village and community traditions in place. As long as people can gather, they seem happy--even when urbanization and state regulations knock on their doors. 

 We were able to enter this older woman's house who is 85. She lives with her niece in a large 300-year-old wooden home--in a remote village. Her husband has passed on, and her children prefer to live in a larger city. She still does sewing work for a job to sell so I bought a small embroidered wall hanging from her.

                   The following pictures are in her old house. This is a picture of a rice grinder.

                                                                          A raincoat and hats made out of bamboo  
                                                                    Her kitchen 

                   A place to honor her ancestors in the Buddhist tradition. The picture is of her mother.

                                             Going up to the second floor. The bottom floor was for the animals long ago. 

                                              The bottom floor where the animals lived and all the firewood is stored now. 

                                  Clothes are often hung out of the windows on poles. There are very few dryers in China.     

                        Most everyone still carries things in baskets on their backs with poles or a basket that is like a backpack.   

                  A woman trimming the dried red peppers that are in the autumn season just being picked. 

                                                               Drying the rice outside their homes.

                                                      A farmer carrying potato leaves to his pigs

                                                        A signpost to tell us where to go in the village...

         The famous bridge in the area was made in 1962 to begin to connect the villages in the rice fields when there became more collaboration and cooperation. But I can tell many are clinging on to the old ways--suspicious, and scared of the urbanization that is settling in around them

          After the rice harvest, these are the bags of rice (106 lbs) that are now packed on their backs to their homes. This man was in his 50s and still carrying heavy bags up and down the hills. I was astonished at their strength and uncomplaining natures. 

                                          A farmer going home--across the rice fields to his home. 

 The Drum Tower, like a pagoda, high on the hilltop, is where the people gather. I am convinced the simple reason of having a place to gather, dispel disputes, and dialogue is what keeps the villages going as modernization permeates their villages.

                                                             The new and old architecture merging together

                                   Some of the wooden houses reminded me of high in the Alps in Switzerland...

                                                             Traversing and exploring the village 

                I had a few tears when I saw this man, with his almost toothless grin, approach us. He greeted us as if we were important visitors, and then continued on his miles/kilometers long journey to the next village.

                                                We loved hiking from village to village all over the famous rice fields.

    To sit and contemplate the centuries of toil and hardship as the villagers worked on the steep rice fields was amazing to see. And to briefly enter their villages and lives was a privilege and a blessing. To understand China, you must understand the life of the villages and the people who have lived there for centuries.


  1. Thank you SO much for sharing. I spend Too much time on the Li River and within biking distance of Yangshuo, where we have discussed as a good place to retire. This looks like a better place to explore The culture of GuangXi.

  2. Wow, Maryan, thank you for sharing. What a unique adventure, I would have loved to join you. More than the beautiful scenery, I love you always connect with people on your travels.