South China's Moveable Feast: The Long Table Banquet
Zhang Mei is the founder of WildChina, an award-winning travel company, and author of “Travels Through Dali With a Leg of Ham.”
Every year, as summer draws to a close, Miao communities in southern China’s Guizhou province prepare for a special feast — the Long Table Banquet — with the rich smell of sour fish soup and the soft sounds of the “Lusheng,” a traditional wind instrument filling the air for days.
The celebration is timed to take place just after harvest. The big party that goes on for days is also the perfect excuse to socialize and for the young people in the area to meet suitable partners for marriage. There is no fixed date for the feast as the end of harvest will vary from village to village, but visiting the province in September or October gives you a good chance of witnessing this elaborate fiesta that also involves spirited roasting with potent local rice wine and dancing.
The Miao are a prominent ethnic minority group in China with a population of nearly 10 million, about half of which live in Guizhou. Origins of the Miao people are uncertain and scholars suggest Mongolia, Tibet or even Lapland as their original homeland. According to local legends, the Miao originated from the eggs of a butterfly. The butterfly emerged from a maple tree, and subsequently laid 12 eggs. A mythical jiyu bird cared for the eggs and after many years, they hatched and gave life to a water buffalo, a dragon, a snake, an elephant, a tiger, a thunder god and a Miao man called Jiang Yang. The eggs also produced abstract phenomena such as natural disasters and ghosts.
For the festival, all of the families in a Miao village line up their rectangular tables to create a long banquet table in the center of the village. Photo: IC
The Long Table Banquet involves the whole village pulling out their own rectangular tables just outside their houses to form one long table in the village center. In some villages, tables grow long enough to accommodate thousands of residents. Families will kill pigs, cows, chickens and lambs to cook savory meals accompanied by fresh vegetables. They will smoke, boil or broil the meat to make different specialties that have been passed down from generation to generation. While the meats cook, the family will cut vegetables and chop spices to make sauces that are sweet, sour, spicy or a combination of the three. The rich smell of sour fish soup and oil tea made with ginger and salt drift through the air and fill the houses. Given that there is no set date for the feast, consulting a travel expert or asking local people when you first arrive in Guizhou is the best way to get an inside scoop on where and when villages will be hosting a banquet.
Each Miao village is distinct in the traditional dress worn during festivals and the cuisine that is served during a Long Table Banquet. One thing you will notice throughout Miao communities across China, however, is the importance of silver. An old Miao fable says that to separate the overlapping land and sky, a Miao hero propped up the sky with 12 silver posts. He made the moon from the remaining silver so that the earth would be bright at night. Silver is believed to be the symbol of light that dispels evil spirits, and during a Long Table Banquet, the intricate silver headdresses of the Miao women and children are a sight to behold.
After eating, people sing, dance and toast glasses of baijiu, a traditional sorghum-based alcohol. Young children, clad in their traditional garb, will play games and join their parents in dancing “lushengwu,” a dance accompanied by the lusheng, a traditional reed instrument. If a village has a town square or large public courtyard, this is where you will find the lushengwu taking place. The local lusheng players stand in the center of a large circle and villagers will dance around them, singing along to the familiar, polyphonic tunes. The dance moves, known by every resident, look much like a butterfly flapping its wings and taking flight.
Visiting Guizhou prior or during a festival is the perfect way to experience and celebrate one of the many faces of Chinese culture. And when you celebrate with the Miao, you’ll be welcomed like family — with a cup of homemade rice wine (or three). The wine is made by boiling rice with yeast at least two days before festivities begin. It is known to be quite potent. You’ll continue to dance and eat long into the night and will eventually wrap things up under the twilight of the silver moon.
Dressed in traditional Miao clothing, villagers dance during the festival. Photo: WildChina.com
There are regular flights from Beijing and Shanghai to Guiyang, capital of Guizhou Province. The flight times are 3 ½ hours and three hours respectively. From Guiyang, you will need to travel deeper into the province by bus or private vehicle. A bullet train to Guiyang is also available from Shanghai.
Where to stay
The Sheraton Guiyang Hotel has friendly, English-speaking staff, comfortable modern rooms, a spa, indoor swimming pool and fitness area. The Sheraton, which is within walking distance from People’s Square, is the only 5-star hotel in Guiyang.
As you travel throughout Guizhou, you will stay in small towns and villages where five-star accommodation is not available. Guesthouses in bigger towns offer rooms that are comfortable and clean. Please note that the quality of these guesthouses and English levels of the staff may vary.
A Miao women weaves on a loom in Baisha Village, Guizhou. Photo: WildChina.com
Don’t spend too long in the provincial capital, but head deeper into Guizhou province to discover the real gems.
There is no fixed date for the Miao Long Table Banquet; it takes place as soon as villagers finish harvesting, which is usually in September or October. Every year, visitors from around the world make the journey to Guizhou to witness the many traditional festivals of the Miao ethnic group. To avoid the crowds, consider visiting before the banquet takes place and watch the local people prepare for the festivities.
If you’re not going to make it to Guizhou until November, don’t fear. Preparation for Miao New Year will be in full swing. In 2017 the Miao New Year celebrations will begin on November 5 and there will be much to see as locals cheer on bullfighters and make sacrifices to their ancestors.
Caixin’s monthly travel column is in collaboration with WildChina, a luxury travel company specializing in immersive and authentic travel experiences. Established in 2000 by Mei Zhang, a local of Yunnan province and Harvard MBA, WildChina is one of China’s first private travel companies. Its innovative way of travel has been recognized through numerous awards including National Geographic Traveler — "Tours of a Lifetime” and Travel + Leisure — “Best Life Changing Trips.” Founder Mei Zhang’s expertise has also led her to win a number of personal awards and accolades, including Travel + Leisure’s “A-List of Top Travel Advisors” and Conde Nast Traveler’s “Top Travel
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