The village of Matang Gejia (麻塘革家), is one of the few ethnic villages I visited around the town of Kaili 凯里, the prefecture seat and transportation hub of southeastern Guizhou (Qiandongnan 黔东南) which is very easy to travel to from either Guiyang or Changsha thanks to the high-speed train line that connect major cities and town across this part of China.
Located not far from town of Kaili (凯里), at the crossroad between the land of the Miao (苗族) and the Dong (侗族) ethnic minorities, Matang looks like pretty much like any other ethnic village of Guizhou‘s province, yet it stands out from the other Miao villages around Kaili.
Unrecognized ethnic minority
The villagers of Matang belong to an ethnic group, the Gejia (革家) which is not officially recognized by the Chinese government.
During the 1950s, the central government in Beijing started a campaign to identify all the ethnic minorities (少数民族) living within the Chinese territory. More than 400 groups claimed the ethnic minority status. Teams of anthropologists were sent to examine each claim. In the end, the Chinese state recognized only fifty-six ethnic minorities.
As a result, some officially recognized ethnic minorities are more diverse than they appear. It is the case of the Yi and Dai of Yunnan, the Li in Hainan and the Miao in Guizhou. Indeed, within each of these ethnic minorities there are many sub-groups.
The Gejia were categorized as a sub-group of the Miao, however they do not recognize this classification and claim to be an ethnic group of their own. Their language, their culture and their traditional dress are very different from the Miao’s. If you visit other villages around Kaili 凯里, like Langde 郎德 or Xijiang 西江, you will also notice the difference in architecture.
The descendants of Houyi (后羿)
A sign at the entrance of the village explains that the ancestor of the Gejia people is Houyi (后羿) the God of Archery who saved the earth and humankind during China’s mythical time.
According to Chinese mythology, they were ten three-legged Sun-birds; each day, one them would cross the sky on a carriage. One day, the Sun-birds grew tired of this routine and decided to travel through the skies together.
Life on earth was unbearable. Lake dried up, crops died, humans and animals collapsed because of the intense heat. Angered by the situation, Houyi took his bow and killed nine of the Sun-birds, one by one.
Scared, the remaining Sun-bird crosses the sky everyday.
Unique embroidery and batik patterns
When you walk in the village, you will see a few sign in English that directs you to embroidery and batik workshop. They were closed when I walked by. It was still quite early and people were obviously busy working in the fields and taking care of their pigs and buffalo.
Like the Miao and the Dong ethnic group, Gejia women produce not only embroideries, but also batik that they are keen to sell to the occasional passerby. They are proud of the patterns they use because they date back to the Qin dynasty (221 – 207 BC), the first dynasty of a unified China.
I got lucky. An old woman spotted me and invited to inside one of these workshops. A careful look at the patterns really make Gejia handicraft stands out from the Miao and the Dong.
Different from the Miao and the Dong
Architecture definitely set the difference between Miao or Dong villages and the Gejia people of Matang.
While the Miao and Dong live in two- or three-story house, in Matang, most houses have only one ground floor. And while one recognizes a Dong village to its Wind and Rain bridges (风雨桥) and drum towers (鼓楼), this particular village, by the absence of architectural structures specific to an ethnicity, contributes to making Matang Gejia a singular place in the Land of the Miao and the Dong.
How to get there
Matang Gejia village is located in the Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture of Southeastern Guizhou (黔东南苗族侗族自治州), twenty kilometers west outside of the town of Kaili (凯里). There are no direct buses from Kaili and the only way is to hire a driver in town.
The fastest way to get to Kaili 凯里 is by high-speed train. Read my article about the high-speed train network in the southwest and how you can get the most of your itinerary in China.