SISTERS’ MEAL FESTIVAL The Oldest Valentine Party

by Ron McGinty

The first frameworks of civilizations started with the Persians, Greeks and Chinese. Traveling back four thousand years ago the Miao people lived in the lower regions of China’s Yellow River.

Following centuries of battles, people started to migrate. The final departure was to Laos and Thailand with the Miao/Hmong bloodlines settling in the Hunan and Guizhou areas of China.

This brings us to today’s customs and festivals. The Zhangvillage in Shidong is a small Miao village about two hours east of Kaili in the Guizhou providence. The population is over fifteen hundred people. Ready for this? Everyone is related with the same last name, “Zhang”.

Fortunately, decades ago they decided to stop intermarrying their cousins. To enable relationships, festivals with neighboring villages were created for boys and girls to meet.

After marriage, the bride moved into the in-law’s home to raise their family. This clarifies why everyone shares the same last name. Multiple generations live under the same roof; this is very influential in building strong family principles.

The Sisters’ Meal Festival celebrates love and spring. The custom in the Zhang hamlet is for all young women to wear a solid silver ensemble and dance around the boys.

My guide and I were kindheartedly invited to stay the day with the family of six sisters for lunch. They welcomed me to photograph their elaborate process of donning their silver regalia.

This process starts with a few tears of pain while their hair is tied into a very tight bun to hold the headdress. The method of getting dressed took five hours for all to be finalized.

I was fascinated to learn the cost of each dress is about $15,000 dollars. The family’s wealth is in their silver. The festival is held annually by the girls on the 15th day of the third lunar month.

It is the most active festival of the Miao people, their Valentine party.

In the town square emotions are bursting with dancing, singing, and entertainment. Girls dance in a circle while the boys do the same in the opposite direction.

Silver is everywhere and is considered to ward off evil spirits. Every single girl wears large headdresses, dresses, bracelets and neck rings. Their nails are dotted with silver leaving nothing overlooked.

Traditionally, the girls make sticky rice bowls with a secret item buried in the bottom. The rice is dyed many bright colors to make it festive. After a young man introduces himself to his potential soul mate, he would receive a bowl from a basket.

The young women bury an item in each gift which explains her intentions. There are several possible shocks from a piece of garlic to a small green leaf. You probably guessed it; you don’t want the garlic because it means… please don’t call me.

I cherished visiting the minority villages (non-Han) which are left alone by the Chinese government. They are allowed to follow their own customs and lifestyles. This is evidenced by a large number of children a family can have.

I traveled by myself with a local guide and appreciated being the only American I saw.

More China stories to follow.

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