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Deep in dense forests on Moon Mountain, in the southeast of Congjiang County, Guizhou Province, lives a Miao tribe with a population of more than 2,000. Their ancestry can be traced back to Chi You, a legendary monarch in Chinese mythology, and the group claims to contain the “most orthodox Miao people.” Inspired by such an illustrious tie to the past, they maintain traditional lifestyles handed down from generation to generation over millennia. The tribe is known as Basha, a community comprised of five villages.
In the autumn of 1989, during a photographic expedition into mountainous areas in Guizhou, I visited Basha for the first time. It was a misty morning, and Basha appeared like a massive, green leaf lying amidst rolling hills. Accented by skyscraping veteran trees, dozens of stilted wooden buildings cuddled the hillsides, their bark roofs consumed by overgrown moss. Smoke curled up from kitchen chimneys before gently floating away above the nearby forest. Several farmers shouldering bundles of recently-harvested golden paddy crept up a forest path. They wore black home-made jackets and loose fitting straight-leg pants, their hair coiled into a chignon atop their heads. Everything seemed mysteriously poetic to me. I became inspired to continue returning to record the lives of Basha people for the rest of my days.
Over the following two decades, I visited Basha more than 30 times and witnessed its transformation from a secluded Miao community into a popular tourist attraction. Over the course of its economic development, locals became more prosperous and found more convenient lifestyles, but at the same time, the increasingly thriving tourism sector has heavily impacted local lifestyles and transformed traditional customs into profitable “performances.” In fact, the conversion of Basha aptly reflects the change in many of China’s rural areas: In the process of modernization, they won considerable gains, but lost something as well. Nevertheless, they continue blazing a trail to a better end.
In years past, Basha residents subsisted through farming and hunting. Over millennia, they started work just after sunrise and didn’t rest until light became dim. In February 1992, just after the Chinese New Year, I visited Basha once again. At daybreak, local women climbed the mountains to collect firewood, even though they trudged through fresh snow. Typical women’s chores continued with fetching water for laundry and husking rice to prepare it for cooking. After breakfast, men worked the fields or hunted in the mountains.
Since the completion of the highway, the Miao community hasn’t been secluded from the outside world. An increasing number of young people migrate to cities in search of brighter employment opportunities. When they return home for the holidays, sharing tales of urban adventures with the village’s permanent population comes naturally.