I say "festival" because what I experienced over the past few days lacked many of the attributes that we, as foreigners, might imagine a festival from this region would have; for example, singing, dancing, bull fights, traditional rites or ceremonies. That's not to say that what I observed wasn't fascinating, but it most certainly was not what I expected. (After this much time in China, you would think I'd have realized by now that it's best not to have expectations of any kind; this country is basically just one surprise after the other.)
The Guzang Festival in the village of Paiweng has several major, easily observable components:
As a Westerner, I found this bit particularly tough to endure. But the reality of the matter is that if I cringe to see an animal killed, even an animal who has led a good life, cared for by villagers who truly depend on it for sustenance, then I am not fit to consume meat. I should find it easier to eat an animal whose origins I am familiar with than to eat the meat I'm used to buying pre-packaged on a white styrofoam plate in a grocery store. So instead of letting this experience turn me into a vegetarian (a lifestyle that, even if I wished to practice, I would find nearly impossible to sustain in rural China), I will let it influence the way I view eating meat at home. I will eat less of it. I will be more careful about where it comes from. I will investigate the actual meaning of "organic," "free range," pastured," and other labels, and make my purchases accordingly.
Anyway, back to the festivities.
3. Consumption of slaughtered pigs.
4. Drinking lots and lots of moonshine.
Those are rice wine bowls. But if "rice wine" connotes a nice, sweet-tasting wine to you, then you, my friend, are sadly mistaken. I cannot describe the taste, but I can promise that I may have fewer taste buds left now. The large container in the back of that photo that looks like it should be holding bleach or gasoline? Yeah. It was full before the festival started. The only major advantage is that it probably succeeded in killing any bacteria hanging out in the food or tableware--my stomach is no worse for the wear after a few days in the countryside.
Here are some excerpts from my journal about the experience:
26 November 2012
We are sitting in what I can only describe as a living room--a wooden room open at one end with a moveable brazier in the center and tiny benches around it. We've been munching on sunflower seeds and chatting with the locals for the past hour. Every few minutes, another deafening round of fireworks goes off outside the door and the whole house shakes.
Women in various degrees of ethnic dress are seated around us--some in full attire (black velvet blouses, embroidered with brightly colored flowers, silver medallions hanging about their necks, and hair done up in a multi-layered bun studded with ornaments).
An old woman cleans fish in a large bucket in one corner.
After four years of college Chinese, a semester in Beijing, two subsequent trips to the mainland, and three months in a small Chinese town, I am still remarkably inept at understanding what is said to me by these women. Their language only remotely resembles the Mandarin I learned in school; I can pick out words but lack the ability to decipher full sentences.
We are at our second feast of the day, and our host is passing around a bowl of raw congealed pig's blood.
As the meal progresses, I look around the room and realize that I appear to be dining with a band of slightly impoverished Chinese vampires--their mouths are stained with fresh blood and their hands are rust-colored from the pig slaughtering earlier this morning. A quadruplet of octogenarians are huddled together in the far corner, feeding each other moonshine out of small shallow bowls. Every time one of them drains his or her bowl, the entire room erupts in a chorus of, "Ohhh!"
Earlier this morning I had the opportunity to wear a traditional Miao costume. It was all velvet and silver and bright shades of blue and pink.
"It is in all of us to defy expectations, to go into the world and to be brave and to want, to need, to hunger for adventures, to embrace change and chance and risk so that we may breathe and know what it is to be free."