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.
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