Sizhai (The Good of Cultural Tourism)

I apologize that there aren’t many photos this time around.  We’re dealing with a slow internet connection.  Hopefully we can rectify this in a few weeks. 

I should begin by saying that I’m very reluctant to consider our visit to Sizhai, another Dong village in the Rongjiang area, “tourism”.  But I will call it that if only to point out the tremendous potential of visits like ours for villages in Guizhou. While Sizhai doesn’t have the good fortune to possess the tallest or widest or oldest something-or-other that people will want to come and photograph themselves with, it does boast an incredibly vibrant and resilient culture and at least one resident committed to preserving it. That resident, whose English name is Matt, happens to be a student of one of the Peace Corps volunteers with whom we were traveling.

Matt's Mom walking through the rice paddies.

As I related in the previous post, the morning in Xindi was disappointing.  But once we were in Matt’s capable and enthusiastic hands, we realized what we had missed out on earlier.  While many of China’s rural traditions are being lost as the nation modernizes, the preservation of cultural heritage often hinges on young people like Matt.  He is a capable lusheng player (a traditional wooden flute) and he sings traditional songs with supreme confidence.  Most important to our visit, he clearly enjoyed sharing his life with curoius visitors.

Sizhai is quite isolated or at least it was until the superhighway cutting through the region was completed a few months ago.   Matt’s first language is Dong, and he didn’t begin learning Mandarin until middle school.   If fact, when he arrived at university, his classmates had difficulty understanding his thick rural accent.   Siazhai only sees occasional foreign visitors, primarily during festivals, so our visit attracted a bit of notice and his family spared no expense to honor our arrival.   Most memorable was the milky white goat slaughtered for our dinner.  It was lead screaming to the drum tower adjacent to the family home where it was pinned to a bench to await its fate.  A butcher hired for the occasion whipped out a cleaver, and when enough straw was gathered to soak up the blood,  he made a quick slice through the goat’s throat as all of us looked on,  CeCe the vegetarian included.  Its death wasn’t as quick as one would hope, but I’m glad I can finally say that I’ve participated, however casually, in the death of my dinner.

Rice alcohol fermenting in earthenware jugs.

Once it had been fully bled, a few armfuls of straw and a propane torch were located and the unlucky creature was chared, scraped and soundly flamed to remove its fur. It was an ungainly process and I wonder how the removal was accomplished pre-propane. Butchering happened elsewhere to CeCe’s relief.  

Between the slaughter and dinner Matt helped us explore his family’s modest house, full of traditional items, all novel and interesting to us Westerners: a flint lock rifle used to hunt the animals that he admitted are long gone; the wooden lusheng flute that Matt played with delightful abandon; the fish pickling in barrels; the rice alcohol in earthenware jugs in the store room next to the loom; the giant bags of rice on the second floor along with squash, peppers,  and garlic, all recently harvested or purchased; and many beautiful hand-woven baskets of various sizes and purposes.

Matt's grandmother eating a pomelo.Hats and farming implements outside the house.

During the pre-dinner lull, our group also wandered out to the rice paddies farmed by the family. Matt warned us at least five times of the “danger”.  For some reason, many of our Chinese friends are terribly overprotective. As we ventured out in the slow drizzle, a few of his friends followed half-heartedly, including one in high heels.  

What most interested us once we’d strolled through the paddies was the orange and pomelo grove on the hill above. Matt accomodated us and picked us some of each to tide us over until dinner.  (An aside:  why aren’t pomelos, CeCe’s favorite foreign citrus, popular in the US? They are quite tasty, not too dissimilar from a grapefruit or orange, and with such a thick rind, they must transport easily.)

The rain intensified, so we trudged back to the house .  The views out over the fields to the river were sublime and we could count at least seven water wheels at the river’s edge, presumably for irrigation. Trips to the bathroom were made enjoyable by the neighborly pig in the adjacent stall who eagerly demonstrated that she had half figured out an escape route. The waste jointly produced in the basement powered the stove and a few gas lights with the same biogas technology used by the farmers association back at Caohai.

At last dinner arrived and the family’s immense hospitality expanded to include at least 15 others, including a quintet of female singers who arrived to serve as after dinner entertainment. The menu: roasted goat lion, bean soup and peanuts (familiar); stir-fried innards and bones with meat (unfamiliar yet reasonably tasty); sauteed goat skins thinly sliced like noodles, and fermented fish (borderline swallowable). When we’d eaten all we could (three bowls of rice with peanuts for timid CeCe), and toasting with homewine rice wine had been completed appropriately, the singing commenced. It began with a drinking song in which the singers poured a tea cup full of moonshine in my mouth and down my shirt. 

Soon after we moved outside, back to the drum tower, where a bonfire was going and little trace of the afternoon’s bloody event remained. A community sing-off ensued, with the seven of us trading American songs with the five women as well as a group of young men infomally led by Matt. As we did, a group of villagers, perhaps 25 of them, looked on, laughing when the traditional songs told of humerous encounters. I felt pleased that we were part of the perpetuation of this tradition.

Well after dark we moved to leave, but not before Matt’s mother bestowed upon Charlie, the other male in our group, and me hand-dyed, deep blue tunics she had made. Alas mine was too small.  I guess we’ll have to go back.