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Love Songs Capture Ancient Ritual in New China

Xiu Huiying, 42, says she wears the new style of Miao clothing.  Unlike some of the older women, she doesn't shave her hairline back or wear a turban.
Louisa Lim, NPR /
Xiu Huiying, 42, says she wears the new style of Miao clothing. Unlike some of the older women, she doesn't shave her hairline back or wear a turban.
The Flower Mountain Festival takes place in a clearing marked by a flagpole in China's southern Yunnan province.
/ Louisa Lim, NPR
The Flower Mountain Festival takes place in a clearing marked by a flagpole in China's southern Yunnan province.
Nowadays the festival is more a community event than just a courtship ritual. Stalls sell snacks to the elaborately dressed girls, while many find pleasure in socializing.
Louisa Lim, NPR /
Nowadays the festival is more a community event than just a courtship ritual. Stalls sell snacks to the elaborately dressed girls, while many find pleasure in socializing.
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As China's Miao people gather to welcome in the lunar new year, some fear that their ancient culture could disappear in the country's rush to modernity. At seven million people, the Miao, known elsewhere as the Hmong, are China's second-largest ethnic minority.

In a clearing surrounded by mountains in southern China's Yunnan province, members of the Miao are celebrating the new year with the Flower Mountain Festival. Would-be lovers court each other through song. Legend has it that the Miao's distinctive piercing tones carry far in order to attract distant partners outside their own kin.

At this particular village festival, Old Gao is the boss and he explains how he sees the differences between Miao and the dominant Han Chinese.

"Han Chinese don't sing mountain songs," he says. "They look at a partner's talents, their figure, their weight, their family property, etc. But we find a partner through singing. Even if someone is very ugly, the main thing is if they can sing, then they might be able to show love. People who are too good-looking just love themselves."

Nowadays some sing just for singing's sake — miked up so their voices are broadcast over the hills. The festivals, held across Miao areas, are more community occasions than courtship rituals, with simple fairground games and stalls selling barbequed snacks. Young men play pool casually, while every little boy seems to have a toy rifle.

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The clearing is dotted with color, as many of the women still wear the intricate embroidered pleated skirts and leg-wrappings distinctive of the Miao.

But things are changing, according to Xiu Huiying. Xiu, 42, still wears a top embroidered with blue trimmings and colorful pleated skirt, but she describes them as "new era." And she adds, most women no longer shave back their hairline or wear turbans.

But the traditional clothes are just too uncomfortable and hot, says Wang Yinliang, 22. She's dressed in black jeans, a yellow windbreaker with a purple fur fringe and a yellow sweater with diamante decorations.

Some Miao deride their customs as backward; others fear these traditions are under threat, like 70-year-old Qi Shaoba, who spent twenty-odd years learning the courtship songs.

"Very few young people can sing. They don't want to learn the songs," he says. "They just watch television."

But he embraces many of the changes, remembering that 10 years ago, the village was so poor it couldn't even afford the flagpole at the center of today's festivities. And even if the young aren't singing, there's still a true-life romance playing out at today's festival.

One of those on the singing tradition is Yin Xiufan, 48. She faces away from her duetting partner, her eyes are closed, all her passion in her voice.

"I feel very happy," she says. "I don't know whether other people are happy when they sing, but it makes me feel very happy."

This eloquently sung conversation is with none other than the veteran singer Qi Shaoba – he's a widower; she's a widow.

"He sings nicely," she says smiling shyly, "but a single voice never sounds as good as two."

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