The Kam say that the first songs grew on a magic banyan tree in one of their remote villages. The birds ate the fruit, and that is what made them sing themselves. But the tree itself put out songs all the time, until an old woman, the legendary equivalent of those people who buy a house near a nightclub and then complain about the noise, decided that she hated the sound of all the songs and cut the tree down. She threw it in a river, and the songs washed away, but a Kam man grabbed them in a bucket and carried them to his village. He tripped while crossing some rapids, and some of the songs washed out and into the world, but most of the best ones stayed with him, and he took them to the Kam people. This is why the Kam people always sing.
This is presumably news to Pan, our driver, who is a Kam man, but whose musical taste only seems to run to dreadful disco tunes, seemingly played by an orchestra of kazoos. He subjects us to them all the way to Congjiang, which is the gateway to the Kam region. The mountains loom all around us, serrated with rice terraces up to the heights, with tiny villages clustered on the slopes, each dominated by a conical pagoda that looks like a fir tree – the drum towers of the Kam, where they still gather to sing.
Pan is glum most the time. The Kam people are slowly fading away beneath an onslaught of mainstream culture. Their young people marry out or move to the big cities, and there are less people around to sing in the moonlight choruses that make them famous. Only tourism seems to keep them alive. The gateway to the valley of the Kam is guarded by police who charge 100 kuai per visitor simply to get in, as if their entire community is a theme park of dark-clad people with silver headdresses.
Except for Pan, who wears a baseball cap, backwards, with the words London Fresh written on it. We pause outside the valley to film the terraces and send our new drone, a black buzzing 3D Robotics Solo 2, across the sky to photograph the picturesque bridges and the men carrying sheaves of rice. The director is still not sure what we are actually going to film here, but we have maybe four more days to get an episode out of it. Pan is the village chief’s nephew but he is cagey and sullen when we ask him about his traditions. We are not sure that he knows what they even are.
The big national myth of the Kam begins with a boy saving a girl from a tiger. But the story isn’t really his, it’s hers. Her name is Xingni, and she was busy trying to live happily ever after with her newfound husband, when an evil Chinese landlord saw her and wanted her for his fourth wife. That’s a nice touch, right there. He already has three other wives, but needs Xingni to complete the set. Why stop at four, she says, how about I come over to your place tonight with two of my friends, and we will sing to you till your ears drop off.
Singing, for the Kam, seems to come accompanied with a bunch of other activities. The landlord says that sounds great, but just as his three new teenage Kam girls are singing the shit out of him, his barn catches fire (this is not a euphemism), and he runs out to deal with it. When he comes back, the Kam have scarpered.
They run off to a remote village called Luosi where they dig a fish pond. While digging, they find an ancient magic sword. Inevitably, the landlord hears what’s going on, and sends some men to steal the sword. Once they steal it, the landlord himself wields it in a subsequent attack, killing Xingni’s husband. She gets the sword back by paralysing the landlord with a magic fan, then she cuts his head off.
The landlord’s son whines to the emperor about this apparent injustice, and an army arrives to punish them. Xingni tries to throw herself off a cliff, but is saved by the spirit of a pool at the bottom, who gives her a magic charm that will repel the army, on the understanding that she will turn to stone if she uses it. She uses the magic to destroy the Chinese invaders, and then she and her four daughters fling themselves from the clifftop, turning to stone as they fall.
Also don’t point at rainbows, because it’s rude to dragons. This is what I have learned today about the Kam.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E01 (2017).