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Celebrating a Miao Christmas in Yunnan

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Here in Kunming, I attend Holy Trinity International Church. We call it 'San Yi' for short, from its Chinese name, Sanyi Guoji Jiaotang (三一国际教堂). On the Sunday before Christmas 2015, a group of us from San Yi gathered for a trip to a country church. The leader of our crew, Mr Li, was friends with the village minister and accepted an invitation to come up and attend their Christmas program.

For two hours we drove north from Kunming on bumpy roads, finishing up on narrow dirt lanes. We parked the cars, and as we walked to the church building the villagers lined up, singing a song of welcome as we passed through. Such a heartwarming welcome! I noticed the women wore similar costumes and I wondered who these people were.

I hadn't known ahead of time we would be visiting the Miao people (苗族), but that's where we were, in a Miao village. One of 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China, the Miao are said to number around ten million people, mostly in southern China. They are related to the Hmong people of Laos, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand.

The name of the Miao settlement was Mabojiecun (马脖节村). Upon arrival, the first order of business was bathroom business. After making an inquiry we were directed to a bamboo forest. To our astonishment, we were told the village had not a single public bathroom! Very well, to the bamboo we would go.

Now it was lunchtime. The villagers ate as a community and we joined them. Everyone served themselves from pots of rice, sheep, chicken, beef, pork, and vegetables. Whenever a pot ran low, a man from the communal kitchen would bring out more to top it off.

The Miao women wore colorful dresses after a similar pattern, but each dress was uniquely designed and realized. Married women coiled their hair into a coif on top of their heads, while unmarried girls wore it straight. The men wore ordinary clothing, and if they had traditional costumes none were to be seen that day. Many of the villagers clustered around fires that were kept going for hours. Generally the people socialized in groups of men or women, while children played games and chased each other. We outsiders from Kunming bundled up in thick winter clothes to fend off the chill — that day around seven centigrade. The villagers wore less and appeared immune to the cold, and apart from infants few wore a hat.

At noon the Christmas program begin in the village church. There were a hundred or so Miao in attendance, swelled a bit more by the dozen of us from Kunming. We sang several hymns unknown to me. A Miao hymnal was passed around and I noted a strange script — realizing the Miao have their own language. There were readings from the Bible, but much of it was beyond my comprehension.

Now the singing began again. For the next several hours, most of the program consisted of the adult choir singing in alternation with the children's choir. The language went over my head, but I did catch a phrase sung by the children, "Jesus loves you" (耶稣爱你). The choirs not only sang, they danced as they worshipped, adding a delightful visual aspect to the Christmas program.

Now our group from Kunming went to the front of the assembly. At San Yi we sing a song of welcome to those visiting the church for the first time, and this we sang for our Miao hosts. Afterward Mr Li preached for a half-hour. His basic message was how the Bible enjoins us to care for the environment around us. Part of that care means providing bathrooms in order to keep the environment safe for everyone. I wondered how the community would respond. As I looked around I noticed some paid no mind or seemed bored, while others were listening in rapt attention.

At one point the Miao lined up and filed out the side door of the church. Had the program ended? But then I noticed them returning to their seats after coming in through the back door. The choir exited out the door and I saw the reason why. They were filing past the church donation box and giving their contributions.

The Christmas program was four hours long, and I retired to the bamboo for a spell. From outside I heard the congregation sing O Come All Ye Faithful. The words were not in English, but the message was the same.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels;
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

After the program was over, the church minister gave us a tour of the village and showed us his home. The building construction appeared simple, and I worried how well it would stand up to an earthquake. The villagers were well connected to the outside world nonetheless, having electricity in their homes and satellite dishes on the rooftops. We walked through narrow streets past enclosures of grunting pigs, skirted backyards filled with lowing cows where chickens scratched about and dogs scavenged.

The minister presented us with apples to take home, but these weren't any ordinary ones. They were fermented and fortified. Eating them was like taking a swig from a jug of hard cider.

Outside the village we walked through the terraced countryside. I was amazed to see giant radishes growing and flourishing in the December cold, as well as freshly planted beans. A voluble farmer pulled a radish out of the ground for us to try. The raw, white flesh was surprisingly sweet! Two dogs at his side, along with his trusty slingshot, helped him herd a pack of goats. We saw enormous bunches of aging yellow corn hung from trees, houses, trellises.

Several people we met had walked an hour from home to attend the Christmas program. Like most of the Miao, they were shorter in height than we outsiders from Kunming. Among them was a man who asked me age. He was 62, my age, but unlike me his head betrayed nary a white hair. The place we walked was high ground and in the distance the hills rolled away in waves, their cultivated terraces alternating with patches of forest. Here and there isolated houses could be seen, while small villages lined the valley bottoms. We walked and chatted, but there was no time to accompany them home. We reluctantly waved goodbye and turned back to the village.

Now it was dinnertime. We ate again from pots of never-ending stew. I noticed Chinese characters written on the kitchen building. They intrigued me, for I had seen them on signs on the drive up from Kunming: 进入林区防火第一. "Entering forest area, preventing forest fires a top priority". An important reminder, for a fire hereabouts would devastate habitations, fields, and livelihoods alike.

Now it was time to return home to Kunming. In the evening many of the Miao would return to church for another service, but we could not remain. We thanked the pastor and others for their hospitality and waved goodbye. In this small village, we from a big village joined in celebrating the birth of Jesus, who came to bring peace between human beings and their Creator.

A year later, I returned to the village again with Mr Li and friends from San Yi. The villagers' hospitality was just as heartwarming, and the food as abundant and good tasting as before. We enjoyed the choir singing and dancing praises to the Creator. One difference from the year earlier, a number of other visitors were in attendance, coming from Kunming and as far away as Singapore. I inquired what had brought them here. Either they were a personal friend of a villager, or a friend of a friend. It seems the village is seeking outside assistance to aid development. For example, the want to obtain a piano for the church. I wish them success, while praying they retain their own character and culture as a minority people.

Images: Pieter Crow

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I enjoy reading the articles on this site but what really drives me nuts is when the article does not clearly state where this place is located - a basic essential in writing - missing.

Village name is great - how about a county and a prefecture along with that.

Very annoying and NOT the first time.

I enjoyed this article. No gripes from me. Merry Xmas!

"while praying they retain their own character and culture"

Their own culture? I think not. I think aspects of their own culture were supplanted by 'helpful' Christian missionaries.

On a less angry-about-how-Christianity-homogenised-the-world-with-the-aid-of-fairy-stories note, if teach => taught, why not preach => praught?

I take your point, hedgepig, but cultures change, very often brought on by outside influences, and I'm not sure that taking on Christianity is necessarily more negative than taking on nationalism or various other doctrines - I'm not pushing anything in particular, except that the circumstances are always somewhat particular and have to be judged that way. For better or for worse, there is no hermetic sealing against the outside - the general question is, who's in charge here?

Excellent article. Very much enjoyed.

On the story of the christening of the Miao in Yunnan- particularly in Northeast Yunnan - check out Samuel Pollard and "Eyes of the Earth". The story of christening of the Miao there and the grim landscape related. Its well worth a read just from a historical perspective.

Most of those people doing missionary work among Miao in Northeast Yunnan were English by the way, their letters and photos are archived in England and such. This could be an interesting project for some English teacher to dig into, rather than talking trash in the bar.

Thank you!

Let's see an Islamic equivalent for next year!

Peter99, thanks for the Samual Pollard tip.

I am of Miao decent. I can tell you that religion comes from culture, from stories held sacred, carried on the backs of elders over mountains and centuries. Although it's true that culture changes, it should be organic, a natural evolution to experiences with the lived environment. Anyone interested in these things, I highly recommend Wade Davis' book "The Wayfinders" as well as his "Dreams from endangered cultures" TED Talk.

Hola Octobersky,

Thanks for comment. Sounds like a good book you recommend.

The book (and books) Samuel Pollard wrote are portraying the landscape of Northeast Yunnan during end of 19thC and early 20thC. How the Miao were opressed by Yi landlords, poverty, illnesses and such. These days hardly anyone knows what a horror, take e.g. Zhaotong was like just a hundred years back. Dogs eating the sick kids outside citywall, widespread slavery, selling kids to Gejiu mines to die of arsenic poison and such. And how Christianity became a tool of hope. It was used as a tool against opression by opressed, in same way as communism was by some groups later. While being aware that Christianity can do severe damage to indigenous cultures, the phenomenon of christening the Miao there, is just interesting from a historical perspective. It seems the Miao witchcraft, indigenous knowledge and such was no match match for the Yi. The Yi had control over it. Something had to bring some hope and first it was Christianity and later communism. This is a generalization.

Why call it witchcraft? That's a bit unfair. If you're speaking about animal sacrifice, all civilizations had animal sacrifice at one point. As civilizations progressed they just learned to hide their sacrifices better. Animal sacrifice still goes on today; they're just hidden from public view. We all know what goes on behind locked doors in poultry and cattle farms. Nowadays it's all about profit, and less about culture and one's connection to nature. As for Christianity being a tool for hope, why not help tribes find hope in themselves, in their own stories—to help them stand with dignity in their own truths. That is a more beautiful, a more noble kind of hope. To give hope in one hand and while erasing their identity in another is a poisoned chalice with a long, ugly history. It's mental and cultural colonialism. Next thing you know, they'll be naming their kids John, Luke, Mary, and Paul, etc. Why should stories from a barren desert that's across the world dictate the lives of tribal people in Southern China? Introductory reading on Christian colonialism: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_and_colonialism

@ octobersky: OK, but the fact is that religious beliefs change over time anyway, at least partially as a function of changes in material circumstances - e.g., rain gods are just not going to remain as important to people who, in their daily lives, are decreasingly reliant on rainfall. So I don't think it can all be seen as a simple matter of native-religion-appropriate/religion-from-outside bad - it's not simply some matter of 'brainwashing' imposed from the outside, since a real 'brainwash' would require complete control over local minds etc., which is always an impossibility, even with a lot more information control than any bunch of missionaries ever had.

Seems China has often accepted religions from abroad: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Communism, Climate Change. The last three are the same: Get converted, unquestioned belief, must have faith as nothing is provable, and pain with suffering for the apostate and unbeliever.

Religions from 'abroad' have been accepted all over the place for a long time - e.g., the acceptance of forms of Christianity by Germans, Ethiopians, Mexicans, etc. at different times in history. The idea of climate change is different, unless you want to categorize scientific methodology itself as a religious doctrine, which can lead to an interesting philosophical argument, but I don't think we ought to go into it here.

For many societies, once people have elevated to a level of 'security', through wealth or power, these people turn away from religion towards mammon.

@ Tiger: as you say, for many societies. But the issue of wealth and power often seems to play a part in differing levels of religious attachment among different classes and subgroups within a 'people' as well, as well as in differing types and degrees of attachment.

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