Folk traditions thrive in Enshi

Tatiana Gordeeva
Enshi in Hubei Province has a mystical charm. Blessed with natural beauty and folk traditions, it will appeal to those wanting a break from city life. 
Tatiana Gordeeva

The Enshi Grand Canyon

Mystery fog over the mountains, natural waterfalls, ancient caves, smooth river surface, folk songs and the chatter of local people — these are the sounds and smells of Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Hubei Province.

The local fare is spicy, but the drinks and fruits cost almost half what we are used to paying in Shanghai. Upon the day we arrived, I ventured out for a stroll. From a small restaurant on a noisy street, I noticed local people going about their daily chores. They looked friendly and cheerful but perhaps no one knows how hard they are working to support their families.

“We wake up at 4am and finish our job late in the evening. This is the way we earn our money,” the owner of the restaurant said.

The next morning, we headed to the mountains, which seemed higher than the clouds! Below the mountain, the Qingjiang River — the second branch of Yangtze River — flows seamlessly. 

Locals say that Enshi, home to over 3 million people, is usually misty, especially after rain. That happens because of the difference in low and high temperatures that makes heavy drops of water turn to light steam or a fog. Covered in a shroud, the Chinese temples and mountain peaks look even more mysterious and gorgeous — just like in watercolor paintings.

Despite being wild and natural, the mountain area has neat stone roads, wooden fences and observation decks. I was surprised to see an elevator built right on the mountain cliff. In a matter of seconds, it lifted us to the top! Amazing!

Looking down from the mountain peak over 1,000 meters high, we could see how wonderful and pure nature is. I recalled a famous saying: “What is the man compared to the hills?” There is no direct answer to this philosophical question, but one thing I understood clearly — only nature can bring real peace to our soul.

When we climbed to the mountain peak, the thick fog had already turned to white clouds, so we could enjoy the view of Qingjiang River, a small lake, white cliffs and green mountain peaks, curved roads and small houses in the villages below.

On our way down from the mountain cliffs, the guide sang a traditional Hubei song as we passed one of the gorges. The local Tujia tribe performed the full song, “Six Sips of Tea,” for us. It is actually a dialogue between a young girl and a curious man who pretends to drink tea. Sip by sip, he asks six questions about the girl’s family, trying to know more about her.

In a society where arranged marriages were the norm, the songs and dances express the freedom from conservative rules. It’s clear from the text that the boy is not dependent on his parents’ opinion but takes the whole initiative to woo the girl himself. The melody is light and lively — with a dance rhythm and sounds of traditional Chinese instruments. 

Ti Gong

Tujia ethnic dance

More than 2,000 years ago, Tujia tribes settled down in Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou and Sichuan provinces.

Legend has it that the Tujia warriors, led by Lun Jin, faced a wild and fast Yan River on their way. The goddess of the river fell in love with Lun. However, he had to kill her to get his people to the other side. In revenge, the goddess turned his soul into white tiger. Since then, all Tujia people consider themselves the descendants of the white tiger. 

They worship it and use its image as a protector from all troubles and evil. 

I remember how the gentle and slow romantic dance of Lun and the river goddess turned into a wild struggle between them. It was followed by a funeral dance for the dead leader who was turned into a white tiger. Death, to Tujia people, is natural. That is why they sing a happy song in a high-pitched voice with a strong drum beat.

Love and tears, and happiness and sadness go hand-in-hand in the culture of this ethnic group.

In one of the scenes, the actors presented a unique marriage custom where a bride sang a crying song to welcome her new life and bid farewell to her parents, brothers and sisters. The harder a girl cried, the wealthier her family would be.

Her parents invited nine unmarried girls from the neighborhood, who sat with her and sang songs for the entire night before the wedding ceremony. After every song sung by the bride, the cook added one dish to the table. When 10 dishes were served, other girls took turns singing. After the last song, the cook collected all the 10 dishes. This helped the young bride get over her worries about the future life.

The dance is known as Bashou Dance. It has 72 gestures that reflect hunting, war, romance, farming, feasting and other activities. One particular dance features men and women dressed in straw clothes that symbolize their worship of gods for reproduction and praying for a good harvest. Two dancers, as well as others behind them, move energetically kicking or waving their arms and legs and yelling “yaode, yaode!” (“All right” in Chinese). 

Ti Gong

A group of tourists stand up, lift the bowls of wine and say “Ganbei (Cheers)!” before cheerfully smashing them.

Later, we tried traditional food and local wine at one of the popular restaurants of Enshi. Outside, a man in a traditional outfit was beating a drum near the entrance to attract customers.

The restaurant had a festive feel. Pieces of broken pottery were scattered all over the floor. We were told it was a local custom to express good wishes while drinking.

The plum wine was both bitter and sweet. Its golden color was a perfect match for the hot and cold dishes. The table was spread out with abundant food including potato stew, sticky rice with jujube, red tomato soup with white fish, boiled pumpkin and corn with nuts, salads from fresh and steamed vegetables. After finishing our meal, we stood up, lifted the bowls of wine, said “Ganbei (Cheers)!” and cheerfully smashed them! 

I saved one beautiful brown pottery that I liked very much and brought it back to Shanghai with me. At one of the souvenir shops, the unique and special jewellery — the kind worn by Tujia women — cost me just 45 yuan (US$7).

Back in Shanghai, I still miss the three days in Enshi, which helped me understand the real China — diverse and multicultural, natural and modern.  

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