By Justin Jin
On the third attempt, the old iron key cranks open the door and 50-year-old Wu Yuemeng pushes it ajar with her knee. She motions her daughter into the seldom-used second floor bedroom, dominated by a dusty, century-old wooden loom and a metal-banded chest.
Mother Wu reaches into the chest and extracts her treasures as her daughter, the cheerful 19-year-old Xia, looks on. She pulls out hand-woven shoes, finely embroidered silk ribbons, and fabrics dyed with intriguing patterns – all parts of ethnic Dong costumes and accessories. Finally, she reveals her prize: a glittering, ceremonial headpiece with swaying golden leaves, passed down through a succession of mothers to their daughters.
Layer by layer, lace by lace, Mother Wu drapes her daughter in the garment she began while pregnant with Xia, before she knew her baby would be a girl, let alone what kind of girl she would grow up to be. When Xia was born, Mother Wu continued to weave and embroider ribbons and shirts whenever she was not in the field planting rice. Women embroider with just a single needle and without a fixed pattern, using their stitches to express feelings for their children. The Dong people have no written language, but their textile craftsmanship is unmatched in its refinement, and a clear communication of love.
Mother Wu crowns her daughter with the golden headgear. Her thumb and index finger, normally used for rough, heavy work, caress every strand. Everything fits. Mother Wu’s stoic face melts, and the deep lines that come from hardship are recast with the dignity of sacrifice.
According to Dong people, one of the 56 officially-recognised Chinese ethnic groups, the dress should be presented to the child during an auspicious event in her early adult life. Three events are paramount: giving birth to a male, building a house, and assembling one’s coffin. But for Xia and her mother, today is that day they’ve been waiting for. Xia is leaving for university.
The dress transforms Xia, as her academic progress will transform her family and, in a small but significant way, her lush, remote mountain village. Here, centuries-old traditions continue. But as China races ahead to a prosperous future, ceremonies like this disappear as fast as the super highways and train tracks make their way from Shanghai to Guiyang and Lhasa.
This village of 525 households in the impoverished province has few modern amenities. As a child, Xia walked two hours along mud paths to her primary school every day. Teachers spotted her talent early, and sent her to the county high-school, reachable only by bus. Since the family could not afford transport, she boarded at the school and came home only during term breaks.
Xia excelled, and graduated this summer. She returned to home village, worked on the family farm, and waited for a letter. When it arrived, so did Xia’s unexpected future: a prestigious university accepted her to study food science. The news surprised Xia, but not her mother. This time, though, Mother Wu was determined not to repeat her life’s biggest regret.
An Education Denied
A decade earlier, Mother Wu’s first daughter, Nong, was just as successful in school as Xia. But though secondary education is free in China, the family withdrew Nong from school because they could not afford her bus ride or books. Nong’s teacher visited the house several times, pleading with the Wus to find a way, insisting that Nong could one day go to university. But Mother Wu said it was impossible, and Nong, then 14, returned home sobbing on her last day of school.
A week later, Nong left home with five former schoolmates and a fake ID in search of work in Guangdong.
Mother Wu swore her three other children would study, but her husband offered no support. So she took on the burden herself, leaving home for two months at a time to carry timber, eating and sleeping in the mounts. Her earnings – RMB5 a day – allowed Xia to complete both junior and senior high school.
In school, Xia received one academic award after another. Mother Wu calculated the cost of her daughter’s success, and knew she had to be bolder. Sending Xia to university would cost RMB60,000 over four years, an astronomical sum for a family that earns no more than RMB1,000 a year. In 2009, Mother Wu, like most people of working age here, headed off to prosperous coastal Chinese provinces in search of work. She found a job cutting plastic sheets in a building material factory in Guangdong, earning RMB1,800 and sharing a dormitory room with seven other women.
When she learned of Xia’s acceptance to university, Mother Wu felt euphoric. But she also experienced “deep guilt and regret,” she says, for failing her first daughter. She pushed those feelings aside and took a 10-day leave from her job to rush home and celebrate with Xia.
Living in the Past
When Mother Wu returns, there are few people her age to welcome her. Officially, 2,380 people live in the village. But some 60 percent of them live as migrant workers in distant provinces, says a local academic. The 1,000 who remain are very old or very young, and grandparents look after the children. With this exodus, traditions quickly erode. Singing, for example, has for centuries been the way Dong people communicate, but nowadays you hardly hear it. Paper-making, weaving, and embroidery are all exquisite crafts that may die with the older generation.
The Dong’s history goes back more than a thousand years to the Tang dynasty. The stunning wooden Flower Bridges, named after the exquisite sculptures that adorn them, crisscross the river. Four-story-high Bell Towers stand testament to the village’s unique heritage. On a warm summer’s day, children swim along the river that curves through this village, which means “a place with endless spring water” in the Dong language.
Houses here are constructed according to ancient blueprints. Architects and workers build a house in a stack, like collapsed dominos. Local men gather wood from the nearby mountains, saw pieces, and knock them together – without nails. Once the stacks are assembled, at dawn the owner summons all his male friends and relatives to help pull up the structure. In a few hours, the skeleton of a mansion is erected. A spiritual leader slaughters a chicken and sprays its blood on the main plank, followed by a feast for those who helped.
Houses are built closely around the Drum Towers, which are octagonal pagodas modeled after a cedar tree. People can shortcut through neighbours’ backyards or enter their living quarters to get to someone else’s. The scent of food permeates every lane, and friends come and go, tasting one another’s fish dishes. Among the houses, grain stores perch on stilts above artificial ponds to avoid rats and prevent fire – a risk seared into the village’s collective memory.
In the early hours of a cold April morning in 2004, an old man dropped his quilt onto the burning charcoal that kept him warm. The fire, stoked by the night wind, spread fast through his neighbors’ wooden houses.
The Wu family fled just in time and watched their home succumb to flames. Xia recalls her parents’ “terror, screaming and deep sorrow.” Though no one in the family died, they lost everything, including Mother Wu’s ornamental garments, passed down through generations. Only one treasure remained, and that was because it was kept at her parents’ house: the outfit she made for Xia.
That was the second time the family had lost their home.
According to China’s family planning policy, each couple in rural area is allowed to have two children. Many people hope for a boy to help with farming. Mother Wu bore two daughters, Nong and Xia. She tried again, had another girl, and was fined. In 1999, Mother Wu had a fourth child, this time a son. But the joy of his birth was marred by pain and fear.
When authorities learned of Mother Wu’s fourth child, they came to her house. They insisted on taking the six-month pregnant woman for an abortion. But Mother Wu fled into hiding. Her husband watched as the authorities tore down their house in retaliation, taking away all their belongings. He felt his head “exploding,” remembers Mr. Wu.
Today their boy, Cheng, is a lean and sulky 13-year-old, mostly seen in his blue track suit and slippers. Just ahead of Xia’s celebrations, his father brings him to the woods with a harvest knife to mark the boy’s coffin tree.
When a boy is born, his family elder designates a small tree that will grow up with him as his protector. As it is with men, it is with trees: the best ones are straight and strong. Cheng’s grandfather selected his tree, which stands augustly near the top of a mountain. When the boy reaches 40 or 50 years old, the tree will be made into a coffin for him and his wife, and stored under their house. Children play and women wash clothes alongside the coffins. To the Dong people, life and death are part of the same natural rhythm.
Celebrating the future
Wu Xuezhen, grandfather of Nong, Xia and Chang, oversees much of the life and death. He serves as the village’s most venerated healer, Feng Shui master and fortune-teller. Now 75, he wakes each morning to villagers queued up at his door, looking for a cure. He blesses weddings, divines locations for new houses and gives astrological advice to businesses. He accepts small sums of money, but often none at all. He wants “to build karma for the future generations.”
Grandpa Wu draws on various sources of help when healing. When it’s something simple, he treats the ailment with mountain herbs and acupuncture. He can appear unorthodox; when a woman visits Grandpa Wu with a skin problem on her neck, he rubs alcohol on the skin and sets it on fire. When a child faints, he applies spiritual magic on a cup of mountain spring water, sips and spits it on the boy’s face with vigor.
But when the task is too complicated, he asks the ghosts for help.
An elderly woman with a child strapped to her back seeks Grandpa Wu’s aid for her daughter-in-law. She suffers from fever and exhaustion, the old woman explains, but she works in a factory in Jiangxi 1,000 kilometres away. Grandpa Wu clutches a thick wad of paper his neighbor made from a river reed, lights it ablaze and swirls it around, summoning the ghost of the patient’s grandfather to help.
“Her grandfather is working on it right now,” Grandpa Wu assures the worried woman, and packs her off with a gentle smile, declining her money.
On Xia’s celebration day, Grandpa Wu dispatches his patients early so he can prepare. He begins by bringing a pig’s head across the river to the local temple. He thanks the heavens, and asks the village god to protect his granddaughter on her journey. He carries the pig’s head home, where some 80 guests fill first the living room, then the TV room, and the bedrooms upstairs. When the village chief arrives, he has nowhere but the front yard to squat.
The Wu family serves a traditional feast in Xia’s honor. Fish, which the Dong people raise with rice seedlings in the paddies, is roasted in hay, spiced with chili, and seasoned with mountain herbs. Guests enjoy an abundance of spicy green vegetables, braised pumpkin and handmade tofu. Farmers here don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers because, they say, their children eat the crops.
An Rou is the meal’s highlight, a delicacy reserved for special occasions. Fresh pork is marinated in vinegar, salt and chili, and pressed under heavy stones inside a barrel for three years, until the meat is pink, tender and extremely tasty, ready to be consumed raw. The An Rou is paired with a bowl of rice spirit for each adult man and woman at the party. The drink, about 35 percent alcohol, is made from boiled, glutinous rice and distilled in wooden barrels for a week.
Guests segregate by sex in different rooms and everyone sits on child-sized chairs in circles around the food. Most of the guests are elderly people clutching their grandchildren, feeding and pampering them on behalf of the in-between generation that is earning money in the cities.
The celebration goes from morning to midnight, with a few rest breaks for the women to prepare further rounds of food and the men to sleep off their hangovers.
The Last Farewell
A few days after the party, Mother Wu leaves for Guangdong. She gives Xia an envelope filled with cash, equivalent to six months of her salary. With the university spending money settled, she leads Xia into the long-locked room to reveal the beautiful dress she made 19 years ago, and the headpiece passed down from her own mother.
Xia turns to thank her mother with a kiss; it’s the first kiss she’s given her mother since childhood. Mother Wu weeps, but unused to displaying her feelings she wipes her tears away in one stroke and nudges Xia out the door. Mother Wu locks the door. When she leaves again for work, she will take the only key with her. The room, and its treasures, await the next worthy celebration.
For all the ritual, Xia’s departure to the big city is unceremonious. At 5:30 a.m., she puts on the white embroidered shirt that her mother wove for her, lays her oversized teddy bear on her pillow, and drags her suitcase out of her house.
She walks to the village bus station alone.
Grandpa Wu heals neighbours; her father washes his clothes; and her little brother darts off on a family errand. The one person who would have taken Xia all the way to university is toiling for her in a factory in Guangdong.
This is Xia’s first trip outside her mountain country, and on roads that aren’t difficult, narrow and prone to landslides. As the vehicle approaches the gleaming new national highway to the provincial capital, Xia’s eyes dart left to right. Incredulous, she asks other passengers if all four lanes head the same direction. She sheds her rural identity in just a few kilometers. She misses no one except her mother, she says, and has no plans to return. “Maybe in 10 or 15 years,” Xia muses. “But not until they build a good road there.”
– End –
The location has been removed because the story is under embargo.