Married by Mistake

Congjiang was our former base when we were filming with the Kam at the beginning of this season, but as I have noted before, the Kam pushed another tribe, the Miao even further into the hills. Sure enough, in the highlands outside the Kam centre of Congjiang, there is a cluster of Miao villages.

These particular Miao pride themselves on their unique garb. They wear black clothes that are treated with egg-white to make them shiny, and everybody else in the world has been too polite to point out that this makes them all look like they are walking around wearing suits made out of bin bags. The men have ribbons hanging from the back of their belts that are called heartsick tokens. They look like brightly-coloured friendship bracelets, and each represents the possibly-unrequited attention of a lady. They are also the only ethnic minority whose national dress includes a flintlock musket, which all the men sport and let off at inopportune moments.

A Miao man, at least among these Biasha Miao, can be identified by his topknot, which represents the trees of his ancestor, and the fact that the rest of his head is entirely shaved. The Biasha Miao pride themselves on having nothing to do with the Chinese. They rarely venture out of their village, make their own clothes and their own entertainment, and are entirely self-sufficient in the food they grow on their mountain slopes.

Well, that’s the story. I spy legions of Biasha Miao girls sneaking away from their corn-shucking and pig-feeding to buy iced tea at the local café; everybody is tooling around on motorcycles, and the main activity of much of the village appears to be turning up thrice-daily to the village square to perform a bunch of dances for tourists. Visitors have to pay at the gate to get into the village, so one presumes that the entire town has made a tourist selling point of its claim not to have any tourist selling points.

Our press liaison is a perky girl who tries to feed me grasshoppers at lunchtime, and introduces me to the breezily minty local laowa tea, which in the assistant producer’s assessment tastes like Deep Heat, and in the director’s, like Listerine. I love it, but there is none for sale in the shops. They make it themselves from leaves they find on the mountainside.

Having recently been among Miao who take things a lot more seriously, the crew are entirely unmoved by a marching column of Biasha Miao girls pretending to blow into mantong bass instruments. We can see from the front seats that the mantongs don’t even have holes to blow in. Regardless, we dutifully film a hoppy-steppy dance with a bit of whirling, and witness the shaving of one of the men’s heads – from the looks of them, they take turns with each performance, which means that everybody gets a haircut about once every four or five days.

The MC then announces that they will demonstrate the marriage customs of the Miao by picking a member of the audience to marry a local girl, a tiny little thing with big silver earrings, wearing what appears to be a tablecloth.

The Miao bride inevitably scurries straight over to me, and I am dragged out amid the cat-calls of the crowd. I am then made to participate in a Miao wedding ceremony, which involves putting on a silly hat, holding a flintlock rifle, and then holding hands with my nameless new bride while we exchange three ceremonial cups of booze. We then each eat a handful of glutinous rice, and apparently we are married. We then wander around the crowd selling glutinous rice from a basket.

I try to keep a straight face on camera, which is difficult because the director is wetting herself laughing in the shadows, particularly when the announcer reveals that any new Miao groom is obliged to spend three years in the village before he is truly accepted. I’m already booked to spend three years with a Mongol witch. This is supposedly some sort of great cultural decision by the Miao, but it sounds like a good excuse for doing a runner, as indeed I plan to do. The new Mrs Clements doesn’t seem too bothered by it, as she will be marrying somebody else at the 3pm show. She didn’t even say goodbye.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E06 (2018).

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