Custom-made culture

"When I returned, life here was as hard as it was in Shanghai," Li recalls. "But things got better once Xijiang's tourism took off over the last few years."

The accelerated momentum of the village's tourism development has been largely propelled by provincial government investment. Xijiang's location on the fringes of Leishan county, which is about 260 km to the east of the provincial capital Guiyang and lures holidaymakers with its bullfights, cockfights and dogfights, has also proved a boon.

In 2007, Li built the first of the settlement's 50 nongjiale (rural resorts) with 400,000 yuan she borrowed from the bank, and which she has already repaid.

"We serve guests, but they serve us, too," Li says. "Life's good now."

Leishan county publicity bureau chief Huang Liangzhong explains Li's story is typical of Xijiang.

"This is the home of Miao culture, but many people left after reform and opening up," he says. "However, tourism's development has brought most of them back."

Among the county's population of 150,000 in a national census of 2003, Miao, Shui and other ethnic groups take up more than 123,000.

Still, as painter Li Yufu points out, the newfound prosperity that funds the preservation of tradition also impacts on it in other ways.

"Modernity has a strong influence on our customs," the 41-year-old says. "Putting on so many performances leaves us with little time to just live our lives."

He explains that because the Han Spring Festival overlaps with the Miao's around February, the tourist rush keeps local people too busy to celebrate.

The upside is that while villagers can't enjoy much time observing customs with family and friends, they get to show them to outsiders, and earn considerable income.

Certainly, the cultural exchange starts from the moment visitors arrive and are greeted by male lusheng (a polyphonic bamboo flute) players and women vocalists singing ancient songs of welcome.

The women's chorus lifts hollow water buffalo horns brimming with rice liquor to the lips of travelers, who must guzzle the entire "cup" if they touch it with their hands. Those who decide to grab the bull by the horns and take the challenge beware - the largest of these vessels can contain up to 1 kg of the alcohol.

Such ceremonies are staged not only to show hospitality but also to ward off bad luck, as failing to host the boozy reception is thought to invite evil fortune.

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