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Chinese New Year with the Dong People of Guizhou

In the southwest of China, Guizhou is one of those provinces that wealthy Chinese roll their eyes at the mention of. The stereotype is a poor backwater with no proper infrastructure. Arriving in Kaili on Chinese New Year, this stereotype appeared to be true. It was an ugly town of square buildings covered in cheap bathroom tiles that had discoloured and faded neon signs pointing to cheap noodle shops. The supermarket was full of people carrying live chickens clucking and squawking, totally unaware of their fate as New Year’ dinner. Kaili is the centre of a large rural area home to many ethnic minorities, but the Miao and Dong are dominant. The Miao tend to get a lot of press, however it was the Dong people of Guizhou, who are much lesser known, were the reason I was here.

Several hours in the back of a rickey minibus I arrived in Zhaoxing, the largest village of the Dong people of Guizhou in the area. If you’ve ever watched old Kung Fu movies and seen those bandit villages in the mountains, then you have a pretty good picture of the place. Set in a valley and surrounded by rice paddies, the entire village was composed of simple wooden houses and the main feature was a huge drum tower, the roof of which
looked like sharks teeth menacingly pointing upwards, and a “wind and rain bridge” which is a roofed bridge used as a social gathering site across the large stream which pierced through the centre of the village.

I was woken up at dawn by the sound of a pig squeeling for well over an hour. I don’t know exactly what they did (and I don’t want to know), but it is an unfortunate tradition in these rural parts to slaughter a pig in as cruel a way as possible. The day got better however as the parades began, and all the villagers got dressed up in traditional costume, with some dressed as mandarins from the imperial court,
criminals and ghosts. The constant firecrackers and cymbal clashing made my ears feel like I was at a rock concert, rather than a tiny Chinese village, and the kids throwing the firecrackers at each other didn’t do much to alleviate that.

Later in the day a huge feast was held, the highlight of which was the incredible roast pork, handed out to everyone present. Delicious crackling fat, and juicy meat aside, it was hard to really enjoy it thinking about what I’d overheard in the morning. I’d drank enough homemade rice wine though to numb my conscience. The day finished with a bonfire and singing and dancing well into the night, little of which I really remember as the rice wine did its job!

Chinese New Year is the biggest festival in China, just like Christmas for us it’s a time for family and feasting. However, modernisation has diluted the festivities, so that most city Chinese do nothing more than have a large dinner and watch the New Year Variety Show on TV. However, if you look hard, and go remote enough, you can find celebrations such as this, particularly among the ethnic minorities, such as the Dong people of Guizhou.

 

 

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Drinking – Chinese Style

I was so used to seeing Master Li quietly practicing his beautiful Taiji form in the park next to us as we practiced our Mantis. But today he was spilling Qingdao beer all over the food at a banquet as he was toasting people across the table and rambling in incoherent Yantai dialect. My head was already spinning and I felt sick; after all it was only 1pm and we’d been drinking for two hours already.

drinkingThis is a typical scene at a Kung Fu banquet in northern China. Anybody who has read Outlaws of the Marsh will know, that martial heroes in China are supposed to hold their drink, in order to prove their masculinity to their peers. In Shandong especially, this is a tiring and repetitive affair. It usually goes like this: your teacher gets a phone call, Master X, Master Y and Master Z will have a meeting about bla bla, and they will invite some government officials as well as members of the Chinese Martial Arts Association, and your teacher has been invited and told to bring the Laowai along for face. So there you are in a room full of cigarette smoke waiting to be told your appropriate seat. Where you sit is very important in these affairs; the host usually sits facing the door, with the guest of honour to his right. The host will have some kind of assistant who will sit close to the door, so they can talk to the waitress, pay the bill etc. Then other important people sit to the sides, so now you have people sat at the four compass points. Then the other people sort of fill in the gaps where they are told to sit.

Cold dishes arrive first. These are generally my favourite: often some kind of cold meat, Chinese style salad with strong vinegar and lots of raw garlic, and usually jellyfish. At this point things are still civilised, and people may take food for each other and chat quietly and politely. Once the luke-warm Tsingtao beer arrives, glasses are filled to the brim and the toasting starts. Typically the host must make three toasts, after which the entire glass of disgustingly room temperature weak beer is downed, and people fill up each others glasses, raising them slightly as beer is poured for them. This is where things start to spiral downwards as more beer is consumed and the hellish Baijiu comes out. If you don’t know what Baijiu is let me explain. It is hell in a bottle. It’s basically distilled grain alcohol which starts around 50% and goes up from there. It tastes like paint stripper. This is when all the etiquette goes out the window and the babbling while leaning on your shoulder begins. The point when the most important government officials in the city are suddenly your best friends and won’t leave you alone. It’s also a good time to witness brawls, as lineage rivalries surface, somebody can say the wrong thing, and before you know it student of Master X is aiming a flying elbow at the head of student of Master Y.  This will all be forgotten the next day, as hospital bills are usually negotiated quite fairly and there’s no hard feelings.

These dinners are kind of fun in hindsight. I’ve been to more than enough, and don’t make a plan of attending any more if I can help it. But at the same it’s all part of the experience of China, you will experience them if you are here long enough. Not only in Kung Fu circles, but at weddings, business meetings and any other social event. As the modern world creeps in though, for better or for worse, they are in decline, and where I live in Shanghai now I don’t really encounter them. Western style dining is taking over, and going for a coffee or quiet beer is becoming more and more trendy.

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What Are The Qualities of a Good Kung Fu Master

The next topic I feel I need to breach is “what are the qualities of a good kung fu master“. Of course this is highly subjective, but I’ve met a few in my time and I’ll try to find some commonalities in the ones I respect the most.

Flare

qualities of a good kung fu masterThe first thing I have seen, is that they have some kind of natural flare, big personalities which come across in the passion they have when teaching or when performing. When a good master does a form, you can see their personality come through in their performance. Likewise, when they are teaching applications you can see a kind of excitement as they throw you around, punch you, grab your hair and generally beat you up! I have found that the best masters are always kind of rough around the edges, not the monk-like characters stereotyped. They often smoke and drink, and most definitely fought a lot when they were young. At the same time, the master should be a kind person, who looks after his students. In Chinese culture the master-disciple relationship is a very strong bond, just like father-son. While Chinese culture emphasises filial piety, and respect to elders, there is a mutual relationship where the master will often take care of the disciple; taking an interest in and providing support in daily life. Putting themselves on a pedestal and demanding blind obedience are not qualities of a good kung fu master.

Experience

Now they may have spent their whole life only practicing one style, or they may have trained under qualities of a good kung fu mastermany great teachers in different styles, but regardless they should have experience. What do I mean by that? I mean that your body needs time to be “moulded into a martial arts body”, in Chinese this can be refered to as Shou (cooked/ripened). Just like a fine wine (or Pu Er Tea!), it takes time for the qualities of a style to become embedded in someone. The unique power or energy of someone who has trained for a lifetime is hard to describe in words. But once you have felt it, you know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen people teaching a certain style they only learnt a couple of years, but getting away with it because they are good as Sanda or something else. Well if you are going to learn their Sanda, then great, but if you want to learn that certain style, you aren’t gonna get the Real McCoy.

Experience here can also mean combat experience. This doesn’ve have to mean competitive experience, a lot of the elder generation grew up in an environment where street fighting was very common and problems were solved through violence. And don’t believe a teacher who told you they have never lost. If that is the case, they didn’t fight anyone worthy! My teacher has told me about his losses as proudly as his wins and so I suppose we could also say that humility and honesty are also important qualities of a good kung fu master.

Openness

Unfortunately there is a culture of secrecy in China, which I suppose is a remnant of the old society where martial arts was actually a weapon and people guarded certain techniques or skills in the way modern militaries guard certain technologies. However, times have changed, and peoples attitudes should change too. Now I’m not trying to say that you should be able to turn up at a teacher’s door and expect to teach you the most advanced part of their system from day one! Of course the right thing should be learnt at the right time, and a student does need to be checked out to make sure they are suitable to keep. What I am trying to say by openness is that a teacher should not be pulling the wool over your eyes. I’ve encountered people who are willing to take students money, or willing to keep students under them, but they try to give away as little material as they can, and deliberately withhold important information so the student will never really progress. A teacher who is like this tends to be the one who makes a lot of promises to you early on, and constantly tells you how lucky you are to learn from them and the like. Just because a teacher is good himself, doesn’t mean you will also get good under him.

These are just a few qualities I can think of, but at the end of the day, different teachers will suit different people. The important thing is finding somebody you can really click with. It’s often said the teacher is more important than the style. So get out there, visit different masters, try to get a feel for the similarities and differences, and hopefully you will be form your own ideas about what are the qualities of a good kung fu master.

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The Miao and Their Buffalo Fights by David Leffman

The Miao (Hmong) ethnic group of Qiandongnan – southeastern Guizhou province – are hill-dwelling farmers, best known in China for their embroidered jackets and complicated silver assemblages that women wear during the many festivals dotting the Miao calendar.

Buffaloes – aside from their obvious agricultural uses – crop up everywhere in Miao life (not to mention the fifty or more places in Qiandongnan called Niuchang, “Buffalo Market”). They appear in mythological poems and as decoarative motifs on men’s jackets, they get sacrificed as ancestral offerings at various times of the year, and are paired up to fight each other at most – perhaps all – Miao festivals.

These buffalo fights aren’t as cruel as they might sound. Like many farming peoples in China, the Miao look on their buffaloes as workmates in the fields and often treat them with real affection, taking care to groom and look after them and even decorating them in red ribbons for public events. True, injuries do happen at fights, but bulls are usually separated if things get too serious; animals rarely kill each other.

In fact there’s usually more danger for the spectators than the buffaloes at these events. The first two I went to – one at a traditional funeral in the highlands of Sulawesi, Indonesia, the other at the annual Sisters Meal festival at Taijiang, in Guizhou – were held out in the open, with no protective barriers for the audience to hide behind if things got rough.

As a guest of honour I was pushed to the front on both occasions. The two animals launched themselves at each other, collided with a titanic crash, locked horns and began wrestling head-to-head, foaming, snorting and scrabbling for footholds in the dirt. After a few moments the weaker bull turned tail and ran, chased by the victor, scattering spectators like confetti. I was lucky that they always seemed to run away from me.

About the Author: David Leffman is a travel writer and photographer. He was one of the original writers for the Rough Guide series, and has been visiting China since the 1980s, writing and photgraphing, including accompanying George Michael on his historic visit. His latest project has been researching Victorian era adventurer William Mesny and his excellent book, The Mercenary Mandarin, is available on Amazon. More information about him can be found on his website: www.davidleffman.com