Contributed by ISE Member Amy Eisenberg1
While serving as an International Expert in Hunan Province of southwest China at the Research Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology, Jishou University in impoverished Xiangxi Autonomous Minority Prefecture, Maid Wux, my Hmong graduate student took us to her high mountain village of Hlib Jiangl in the rural reaches of Guizhou Province to celebrate Naox Niex, the Hmong New Year in November. We shared some wonderful days in her beautiful village, where the air is cool and fresh and the water is sweet. Hlib Jiangl is a remote mountain village with handsome wooden Hmong traditional houses where golden corn and millet are hung to dry beneath the eaves. Cascading terraces of diversified agriculture cover the mountainous landscape of this peaceful, highly organized and clean Hmong settlement. Hmong is Maid Wux’ first language and this beautiful and endangered local language is spoken fluently and daily in Hlib Jiangl, which is comprised of more than one thousand residents. Hmong people informed us that there are more than 160 dialects of their language spoken in China.
The Hmong of Hlib Jiangl are very kind, gracious, genuine and generous people who welcomed us with sweet songs and fed us rice wine. Pounded glutinous rice cakes are prepared and shared with guests for this very special occasion and Maid Wux’ mother stored many large cakes in the granary of their house. Glutinous rice cakes are delicious and very filling. We were invited to a number of homes for diverse and lavish feasts of soups, meats and vegetables. The Hmong use the medicinal, fragrant and refreshing buds, fruits and seeds of Zat zaid jiangl, Litsea mollis Hemsley in the Lauraceae for flavoring soups and other dishes. The globose fruits turn blue-black upon maturity and are used in Hmong culinary preparations. Litsea mollis is a deciduous shrub or small tree that grows up to 4 m tall. Its leaves are alternate and the young branchlets are covered with pubescence. This species grows in moist thickets or broad-leaved forests on mountain slopes between 600-2800 m.
The branches, leaves and fruits of Litsea mollis are processed for its aromatic oil, whose main chemical constituents are citral and geraniol, which are used as food flavorings, cosmetics and spices. Litsea seeds also contain oil and are applied as a main ingredient in soaps. The roots, fruits and seeds of this plant are all used medicinally. The seed oil is taken for stomach ailments, and the fruits are employed for treating colds, as an anodyne and antiemetic, and for regulating the flow of vital energy. Litsea imparts a light and citrus-like flavor to food, which is very pleasing to the palate and soothing for digestion. Zat zaid jiangl is an important wild plant of the region for the Hmong people of Hlib Jiangl.
A central wooden totem pole or post with detailed relief carvings is central to every Hmong village. Blood is smeared on this post in Hlib Jiangl as a sacrifice for Naox Niex – the New Year. Hmong grandmothers in Hlib Jiangl spin cotton and weave garments and tapestries of cotton fiber in the village square for Naox Niex. Hmong clothing is intricately embroidered with representations of animals and plants of the region. Intergenerational designs were developed long ago by great grandmothers and their elders, who gave the significant motifs to their children. The offspring have kept these images alive and were inspired to build upon them and create other patterns. Today, these dynamic and detailed depictions live, and adorn the garments of young Hmong women who will then pass them down to their children. Hmong elders of Hlib Jiangl are strong, healthy and extremely hearty women whose traditional indigenous knowledge is highly respected and valued. The young watched their elders weaving and spinning with great interest. We hope that the Hmong youth will glean these specialized techniques that have been intergenerational for many centuries.
Indigofera tinctoria L. is a plant in the Fabaceae that produces a natural blue-black colorant that is widely used to dye detailed Hmong batik works. Gossypium L. in the Malvaceae is grown in nearby fields for spinning and weaving cloth that is dyed blue-black with Indigofera. Hmong silversmiths create intricate ancestral designs in their silverwork that are representative of their history, stories, teachings and natural environment. Magnificent silver headdresses adorn young Hmong women in their finely embroidered traditional clothing.
Naox Niex is celebrated in Hmong villages throughout Guizhou Province. We traveled to Leishan and Kai Li to share the elaborate and colorful performances of Hmong music and dance. The men played and danced rhythmically and gracefully with their bamboo lusheng and manto bass instruments. Thousands of Hmong people came from many villages of the region to perform and appreciate the richness, meaning and diversity of their traditions. We traveled to Nanhua, a small and beautiful Hmong mountain village in Guizhou to share the Naox Niex performances. A large sacred tree stands in the central circle of every Hmong village. The divine tree is the ancestor of the Hmong people and sacrifices are offered to this tree.
My Hmong graduate student, Hoxsolwangd, has been researching and documenting endangered Hmong languages for more than a decade and has made significant contributions in the field of linguistics. Hmong students of China and I established an international cross-cultural relationship with the Hmong Cultural Center in the USA. Hmong people are very poor in the autonomous regions of China and rural to urban migration is widespread. The gap between the rich and poor ever widens. Timber companies have cheated Hmong villagers by taking their forest resources. There are many vital needs that are not being met and local governments are not effectively assisting Hmong peoples and their impoverished villages in southwest China. Gender inequity is an unfortunate reality in these areas and girls have lagged behind with regard to basic education, which their families were required to pay for. If unaffordable, young girls did not attend school but helped with work at home. Poverty and inequity are violations of human rights. There are many homeless elders and children and developmentally disabled in the autonomous regions of China. I strongly believe that the local governments are failing the Hmong people who pick through garbage heaps looking for food to eat and recyclables to sell.
We resided in a mid-subtropical montane climatic zone in the Wuling Mountains of Xiangxi Autonomous Minority Prefecture, where it snows and freezes in the winter, however my ethnic minority graduate students did not have heat or hot water in their dormitories, which lack basic life necessities. Some have children living in their dorms without these vital utilities. I contacted various international organizations and the Chinese government for assistance. If China can host international tourists for the Olympics, then I sincerely maintain that with transparency and right motivation, China can provide better living conditions for the ethnic minority peoples of the most populated nation in our world.