"Guizhou is a land where there are no three days without rain, no three fields without a mountain, and no three coins in anyone's pocket." — A Chinese saying
The Precious Province
The above saying may not be very flattering to the people of Guizhou, but it is largely true. People who spend any length of time in the province soon realize it is a rainy, mountainous, and largely impoverished part of China.
The name 'Guizhou' itself has interesting origins. For centuries the area was considered an isolated realm inhabited by non-Han tribes. People rarely ventured into the region, which was considered of little consequence to the country as a whole.
According to Chinese legend, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) a tribesman named Pugui emerged from the remote mountains. He traveled to the Tang capital at Xi'an, where he begged the emperor to make his region part of the Chinese empire. When the visitor was asked where he was from, Pugui replied, "Juzhou" in his local minority language, for he was unable to speak Chinese. 'Juzhou' was difficult to pronounce in the Chinese of the day, so the name Guizhou was given to the region instead. It has been known as Guizhou ever since.
The Chinese character for "Gui" has several meanings. Today it denotes something that is highly valued, precious, expensive, or worthy.
In ancient Chinese, however, the original character used for Gui meant 'demon' or devil', thus the territory was known as 'the land of demons'.
Guizhou's Hongguoshu waterfall is the largest in China. [IMB]
Guizhou, which is home to 35 million people today, is located in the rugged mountains of southwest China. Its inhabitants come from more than 80 distinct ethnic groups, each speaking its own language, although the government refuses to recognize most of these groups. For the purpose of administrative ease, they have combined many unique tribes and people groups together under the banner of one of China's officially-recognized 'minority nationalities'.
With an area of just over 68,000 sq. miles (176,000 sq. km), Guizhou is approximately the same size as the US states of Missouri and Oklahoma, but it contains six times as many people as Missouri and its population is nine times larger than Oklahoma.
By another comparison, Guizhou covers an area larger than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, but contains only about 60 percent as many people as those three countries of the United Kingdom.
No Three days without Rain
Guizhou is known for its somewhat depressing weather. The mountains which protect the province from the rest of China also influence its weather patterns. As a result, much of Guizhou is enshrined by mist-covered mountains, and rain often settles in for weeks at a time. Reflecting this reality, the name of the provincial capital, Guiyang, means 'Precious Sun'.
Despite its abundant rainfall, Guizhou has also experienced severe droughts and famines over the course of its history. Most of the province has rocky and poor soil, which hampers food production. A severe drought afflicted Guizhou as recently as 2010, causing the government to step in and provide relief.
No Three Fields without a Mountain
When Mao Zedong launched his campaign to modernize China by constructing new roads, train lines and airports, Guizhou presented great challenges due to its rough terrain and millions of tribal inhabitants with little or knowledge of Chinese language or culture.
In the late 1970s, the government finally managed to construct a road through one county in southern Guizhou. To celebrate the achievement, a group of officials decided to visit a village that was now linked to the outside world for the first time. Climbing into a fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles, the officials endured many hours of back-breaking travel on the freshly-created roadway, with their wheels just inches from the edge of cliffs, with sheer drops of thousands of feet to the valley floor below.
When they finally arrived at their destination, the officials tried to book the best room in the village, only to discover there was no accommodation, and few of the minority people could speak Chinese. After finally finding someone they could communicate with, the officials were invited to stay in the home of the village leader.
As a meal was prepared for the esteemed guests, the locals gathered around the vehicles, with confused and bewildered looks on their faces. Their culture required them to show hospitality to strangers, but they had never before seen anyone like these visitors.
In a bid to display kindness, the women of the village collected handfuls of straw, which they stuffed into the radiator grills of the jeeps. They had never seen a motorized vehicle before, and in their innocence had assumed the jeeps were a species of large animal they had not previously encountered!
Although most of Guizhou has been dragged into the current century since then, approximately half of the villages in the province remain without electricity and are unconnected by road.
Mountains make up 87 percent of Guizhou's topography, and most of its population lives at an average altitude of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea-level. Many parts of the province remain unexplored, with some areas in the north and west described as China's 'wild west'.
The Liupanshui region in western Guizhou has a particularly bad reputation, with many Chinese refusing to travel there. Parts of the prefecture are so remote and undeveloped that even today, gangs of bandits occasionally raid the towns before escaping on horseback into the inhospitable mountains.
No Three Coins in Anyone's Pocket
These days—especially since Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics—China is viewed around the world as a modern country, with impressive skyscrapers and extraordinary infrastructure. Many tourists who have visited China's main centers would struggle to believe just how backward parts of Guizhou are. Millions of people live hidden among remote mountain peaks and valleys, away from the main transportation arteries. In those places there are few roads, and people continue to live in dire poverty.
Guizhou is indisputably one of the poorest regions of China. It officially ranks 26th out of 31 provinces for GDP, and for centuries people have struggled to eke out a living in the inhospitable mountains. For much of the nineteenth century, the major export from Guizhou was opium, as people tried to derive an income any way they could.
Today, Guizhou's wealth is concentrated in Guiyang and other urban centers, and only some resources and jobs have trickled down to the countryside. Countless villages are still trapped in excruciating poverty, and between 60 to 70 percent of the people in rural areas remain illiterate.
When the Communists passed through Guizhou in 1934 on their famous Long March, the soldiers were horrified by the condition of the Miao people. One shocked reporter noted:
"They sat huddled in nakedness beside straw cooking fires.... Girls of 17 and 18 worked naked in the fields. Many families had only one pair of trousers to share among three or four adult males… They owned no land. They were in debt to the landlord from birth to death. There was no escape. They sold their children if anyone would buy them. They smothered or drowned baby girls. That was routine. The boys were killed too, if there was no market for them."
Guizhou has the highest fertility rate of any province in China, and families with eight or nine children are not uncommon in rural areas. Due to grinding poverty, in recent decades many people have fled the province for more desirable parts of China. Indeed, between 2000 and 2010, the population of Guizhou fell by half a million people. Most of the exodus occurred from rural farming areas, with some counties recording drops of more than 20 percent of their population during the decade. The mass migrations have caused large problems in society. As masses of young people grow up without their parents, thousands have become homeless and turned to crime to survive. A report in 2017 highlighted some of the consequences of this social dislocation:
"In June last year, four left-behind children from the same family, ranging from ages five to 13, committed suicide together by swallowing pesticide in Bijie, in impoverished Guizhou Province.... In November 2012, five boys died from carbon monoxide poisoning after starting a charcoal fire trying to stay warm inside a dumpster. The problem of left-behind children is most severe in...the key sources of migrant workers, where 44 per cent of rural children live without their mother or father."
The national government's solution to the problem of poverty in Guizhou has been to bulldoze entire villages in many areas, and to relocate people to government subsidized apartments, often against the will of the families that have lived in their locations for generations. In 2016, a total of 750,000 poor people in Guizhou were relocated to 3,600 newly-constructed locations.
Marco Polo in the Province of Ciuju
In the 1270s, after the intrepid Venetian explorer Marco Polo became the first European to visit today's Yunnan Province, he ventured eastward into the "Province of Ciuju," which most scholars believe to be areas in today's western Guizhou. After traveling for 12 days, Polo described coming "to a great and noble city which is called Fungul." Although historians remain baffled as to the modern-day identity of the city, the explorer provided a compelling picture of life there:
"The people are idolaters and subject to the Great Kaan, and live by trade and handicrafts. You must know they manufacture stuffs of the bark of certain trees which form very fine summer clothing. They are good soldiers, and have paper-money. For you must understand that henceforward we are in the countries where the Great Kaan's paper-money is current."
As he continued his journey northward toward Sichuan Province, Marco Polo detailed the scourge that "lions" had inflicted on the people of the region. Without doubt, he was describing the abundance of tigers that continued to ravage communities in western Guizhou until the mid-twentieth century. Polo remarked:
"The country swarms with [tigers] to that degree that no man can venture to sleep outside his house at night. Moreover, when you travel on the river, and come to a halt at night, unless you keep a good way from the bank the [tigers] will spring on the boat and snatch one of the crew and make off with him and devour him. And but for a certain help that the inhabitants enjoy, no one could venture to travel in that province, because of the multitude of those [tigers], and because of their strength and ferocity."
The Peoples of Guizhou
The Horned Miao—one of more than 80 ethnic groups in Guizhou—are so-named because women customarily wear wooden horns affixed to their hair. [Robert Sussland]
Guizhou is one of China's most ethnically-diverse provinces, although 62 percent of the population are Han Chinese, most of who speak the Southwest dialect of Mandarin. The largest of the officially-recognized minority groups in the province are the Miao (4.3 million), Bouyei (2.8 million), Dong (1.6 million) and Tujia (1.4 million).
The numerous other minority groups in Guizhou include the Yi (843,000), Gelao (559,000), Shui (370,000) and Yao (45,000), in addition to several smaller tribes that the government has lumped together into a list of 'Undetermined Minorities.'
All together, the vibrant and colorful ethnic groups provide much of the character and culture of Guizhou, and without them life would be much more drab and uninspiring. Each year the minority people throughout the province celebrate nearly 1,000 festivals, which provide a boost to the economy and helps each group preserve its fascinating customs, dress and handicrafts.
The province is also home to much attractive scenery. Tourists flock to China's largest waterfall—the impressive Hongguoshu Falls—while not far away, Ziyun County boasts the largest cave in the world, at an elevation of 1,800 meters (6,000 feet) above sea-level. The Miao Room Cavern was only declared the world's largest cave in 2014, and can fit approximately 22 football fields. When National Geographic officially measured the cave they found more than 100 people living inside of it, and the cave even contained a school with a basketball court and other facilities. The Chinese government appeared embarrassed by the publicity the cave attracted, and has since closed the school and evicted the residents, declaring, "China is not a society of cavemen."
A Land of Slaughter
For much of its history, Guizhou has been the staging ground for numerous wars, with the Chinese struggling for centuries to subdue the 'barbarian tribes' in the province.
Prior to the 1500s, Guizhou was inhabited almost entirely by ethnic minorities, with the Miao being the dominant group. As waves of Han settlers migrated into the province over the next 300 years, the Miao and other peoples were marginalized and pushed off the best land by the more sophisticated and better-equipped Han.
As the Miao were forced deeper into the inhospitable mountains, frequent clashes erupted as they resisted their oppressors. Han settlers often responded by calling on the support of the government, and troops were dispatched to quell what they considered 'barbarian uprisings.' In reality, most Miao were kind and peace-loving people, but they had been backed into a corner. The mountains of Guizhou became the scene for numerous genocide campaigns designed to wipe out the Miao.
During the later part of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), more than 80 military campaigns were launched against the Miao. The Imperial Court even attempted to isolate the Miao territory from the rest of China by erecting walls to keep the Miao confined to the mountains. In 1650 the Miao rebelled, tore down the walls, and "demolished the border between themselves and the Chinese."
The conflict continued, with the Chinese attempting to batter the Miao into submission. In 1726, when the Qing rulers sent garrisons to crush another Miao uprising, Chinese soldiers reportedly "set more than 1,000 Miao villages on fire, butchered tens of thousands of people, and destroyed their farmland. In response, in 1727 various Miao tribes unified against the Chinese, constructing stone signal towers at one-mile intervals along mountain ridges. The Miao took blood oaths to fight the Chinese to the death. They even killed their own wives and children, so they could face the advancing enemy as men with nothing to lose."
Among the extensive annals of brutality waged by the Chinese against the Miao, perhaps the most vicious campaign commenced in 1800. A vast army was mobilized from across China in a bid to completely exterminate the Miao. At the time, critics describing the scale of the war said that "elephant guns were used to hunt rabbits."
The Miao survived this and many other onslaughts, aided by their matchless knowledge of the mountains in Guizhou. They became so adept at fighting that the Chinese required 18 years (1855-1872) to quell one rebellion. Consequently, when a British traveller visited Guizhou in 1874 he reported:
"Every village I passed through showed sad signs of the savage havoc made by the raids of the Miao.... This province of Guizhou is sadly devastated, and all the cities are reduced to mere villages, and the villages to a mere collection of straw huts. Everywhere ruins of good substantial houses abound, and show what a prosperous region this once was before the wild men of the hills came down en masse and butchered the whole population. This occurred 20 years ago and still the devoted cities remain as cities of the dead, with extensive walls surrounding acres of ruin."
The Grim Legacy of War
After centuries of genocide and conflict in Guizhou, many scars remained just beneath the surface of people's lives. The efforts to obliterate the Miao from the face of the earth led to many of their communities becoming extremely insular. Understandably, they viewed the Han as their enemies, and they shunned outsiders in general, including Miao people from other subgroups.
Despite their tragic past, the Miao have managed to retain their reputation as a friendly people. They offer warm hospitality to visitors and strangers, even when they don't have much themselves. Their generosity has remained constant despite the centuries of war, suffering and slavery they endured at the hands of outsiders.
Evidence of the centuries of Chinese military campaigns can be seen in the composition of Guizhou's population today, with several distinct Chinese people groups inhabiting the province. They are the descendants of soldiers who were sent to quell Miao uprisings centuries ago. The two largest groups are the 350,000 Chuanlan ('blue clad') people, and the 800,000 Chuanqing ('black clad') people. Both groups, so-named because of the predominant color of their clothing, inhabit areas near the provincial capital Guiyang.
Other similar Chinese groups in Guizhou include the 120,000 Nanjingren ('Nanjing people') who are descended from troops sent to the area from Nanjing in east China, and a small group of 4,000 Shenzhou people who settled in Guizhou after a military campaign centuries ago. These groups now view themselves as minority people, and they retain distinct dress and customs to the present day.
Finally, according to one historian, Guizhou also used to be "the dumping ground for hardcore criminals who had committed heinous crimes in central China. Sent there as exiles, they lived hard lives filled with hate. Their descendants inherited these harsh lives from their forefathers."
Altogether, this rough collection of tribes and migrants have combined to form a vibrant patchwork of people in China's Precious Province.
A Word on Guizhou's Ethnic Composition
Many outsiders may struggle to appreciate the level of ethnic and cultural diversity in Guizhou, unless they visit the province and experience it for themselves. The Chinese government, however, does not officially recognize most of the distinct peoples of Guizhou. In the 1950s they combined various tribes together under broad categories for purposes of administrative ease. For example, they created the large and generic Miao nationality and squeezed dozens of distinct tribes into it. They did similar things with the Yi, Yao and other official classifications.
As a result of this policy, today many distinct people groups in Guizhou tend 'not to exist.' In some cases, tribes have been combined with groups they have been at enmity with for centuries. Some groups don't understand a word of each other's language, possess different histories and customs, and may even forbid marriage between members of their tribe and the nationality that the government now tells them they are part of.
Why Christians Should Care
The government's refusal to accept the unique differences of the people groups in Guizhou should be no excuse for the Christian world to follow suit.
Each tribe and ethnic group, regardless of size, is precious in God's sight. He created their unique and colorful cultures to display His creative glory. The Bible teaches that the matchless plan of God's salvation through Jesus Christ will one day reach its fulfilment in heaven, when four living creatures and 24 elders will sing a new song:
"You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (Revelation 5:9-10).
Unfortunately, many mission organizations and Chinese Christians today appear unable to grasp the importance of viewing the ethnic diversity of Guizhou's peoples as they really are. Most Christians have followed the government's classifications, finding it more convenient to work with less than 20 official 'minority nationalities' in Guizhou than to reach more than 80 distinct groups.
This lack of understanding has led to many people groups being passed over by the gospel. For example, many Christians are aware of the extraordinary people movement to God among the A-Hmao in the early twentieth century. Today, approximately 80 percent of the people in this tribe continues to follow Jesus Christ.
Instead of being recognized as a distinct people, however, the A-Hmao were put into the government-constructed Miao nationality, along with more than 30 other tribes throughout Guizhou, most of which speak mutually unintelligible languages.
Many mission organizations assume that if God reached one 'Miao' group then surely they can reach the others without much difficulty. The reality has proved sharply different, however. The A-Hmao Christians found they needed to engage in difficult cross-cultural evangelism in order to bridge the barriers that exist between them and other Miao groups.
The Importance of Names
In this book I have decided to use, as much as possible, the names that people groups use for themselves, and to avoid the labels that both the Chinese and missionaries traditionally applied to them. The abovementioned A-Hmao tribe, for example, was commonly called Da Hua ('Big Flowery') Miao by outsiders, because of the designs on their women's traditional capes, and also to distinguish them from the less populous Gha-Mu tribe (labelled the 'Small Flowery' Miao). Neither group, in their own language, call themselves Miao at all, as 'Miao' is a Chinese word.
Some groups in Guizhou reject the Chinese labels assigned to their tribes and consider the names derogatory. In this book, therefore, I have generally used the autonyms that tribes use for themselves.
I have been privileged to travel extensively throughout Guizhou Province since the late 1980s. When I began to use the names that the ethnic groups of Guizhou call themselves, I often saw the people's faces light up in amazement and appreciation that an outsider cared enough to learn the true name of their people. This simple step is an excellent starting point for any preachers of the gospel who hope to reach the precious peoples of Guizhou. Regrettably, most Christians continue to use the government designations, and a gilt-edged opportunity to understand and share the gospel with dozens of unique tribes is going to waste.
God's Broken Heart
For centuries, the Almighty God has looked down from heaven upon the people of Guizhou, desiring to know them as His children. He witnessed the massacres and genocide of generations of Miao, while patiently awaiting the arrival of the first messengers of the gospel who would take the Good News to them.
In the first volume of this series of books, many remarkable stories of revival revealed how the Church in Shandong Province blossomed under the mighty hand of God. The history of Christianity in Guizhou is markedly different, and has been marked with intense struggle and difficulties. The churches have battled numerous obstacles, yet as the following pages will reveal, the living God has brought His salvation to Guizhou through a series of remarkable events which totally transformed several people groups and entire communities.
In this book, the stories of Christian efforts to reach several of Guizhou's largest ethnicities have warranted their own chapters, which are scattered throughout. One group that has not been given its own section, however, is the A-Hmao. The remarkable Christian history among the A-Hmao has dominated the narrative of missionary work in the province, and those accounts have been chronologically dispersed throughout the book in the chapters that examine each decade.
Today, approximately 2.7 million people in Guizhou identify themselves as Christians; a number that has grown exponentially from just 100,000 professing believers at the advent of Communism in 1949.
My hope and prayer is that you be encouraged, inspired and challenged, as you read about how the Holy Spirit transformed entire communities in Guizhou. May you too be brought to your knees and experience personal spiritual revival.
© This article is an extract from Paul Hattaway's book 'Guizhou: The Precious Province'. You can order this or any of The China Chronicles books and e-books from our online bookstore.