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'She:' An Ethnic Minority Population

by Wang Si

Regional Foods

Summer Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(2) page(s): 5 - 6

Many minority populations previously discussed in this magazine have populations larger than one million people each. This one, the ‘She' people will have more than that by the next census, in 2020. They now have about three-quarters of a million, and like other minorities are growing about six percent each year. Therefore, before the Chinese census of 2020, they should pass that number if their growth rate continues as it is currently doing.

These are agricultural people who once called themselves the shan ha or ‘Guests of the Hills.’ Most still live in small villages in the Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces. Those living elsewhere, live in the Jiangxi, Guangdong, and Anhui Provinces, and there are a few living scattered elsewhere.

Historians tell us they moved to these locations from Chaozhou and the Phoenix Mountains. Thus, they moved from one mountainous region to another not by choice but because they were not welcome where they were. This was before and during early Tang Dynasty years (618 - 907 CE). Their young women, when dressing up, wear a phoenix headdress in remembrance of their early origins. One of these headdresses is seen on this page.

The 'She' people often eat dishes made with rice, sweet and regular white potatoes, wheat and rye, the vegetable called rape, and with mushrooms and various kinds of beans. These are still the staples of their diet; and they eat them steamed or cooked in other ways, and drink their world-famous tea known as 'huiming cha or with lots of wine.

This famous tea, also known as jingning huiming tea, in ancient China was called ‘White Tea.’ It was first planted in Jingning some time between 847 and 859 CE. Then, in 861 CE, monk Huiming built a temple on Nanquan Mountain and planted that tea around it. That is why it was named after him. It is of superb quality and now more than eleven hundred years later, these tea plants on the right side of that temple are still producing yellowish to ivory leaves that look white when steeped. Their fine color, great aroma, and good taste continue to be popular; and one can find them in the marketplace sold as Superb Tea or Orchid Tea.

The actual origins of 'She' people are not very clear. They are probably descended from Dongyi, Naman, Yao, Yue, or Hakka-related people, maybe from Wulingman folk who originated in the Hunan Province. Not much seems to be known about their heritage other than they did try to form a nation of their own in the 13th century, but did not succeed.

One thing for sure is that they spoke a language related to Hakka or Miao, though now almost all of them speak the Chinese national language as most other Chinese do. Their dialect was close to that spoken by Bejingers which is what most other Chinese people speak. The only difference is that is is only an oral language. When written they use Chinese characters as do their Han neighbors.

Though the origins of the 'She' may be unclear, there is no lack of clarity about their many festivals. They sing at all of them. Another thing known is that they have many taboos such as never eating dog in any form. The reason for this is that 'She' people believe dog has some connection to their ancestors. Another taboo is that they like and have very clean floors. The first week in January they sweep them clean, then they burn all dirt and all other rubbish. Yet another taboo is that their women do not marry before the age of eighteen, their men not before the age of twenty. This taboo says that if they do, the women will never become pregnant, the men never have any children, either.

These mountain people celebrate many festivals, all on their Lunar calendar. They sing at all of them including at weddings and funerals. At the latter, their songs are closer to laments. They also sing on days set aside to worship ancestors, and there are quite a few of these days each year.

When watching them sing, one sees that their married women have polished their hair with tea-seed oil and intertwined it with fake hair to make them look taller, their hair fluffier and shinier. Unmarried girls simply twist their hair with red wool or they braid some with the same red wool. Both married and unmarried women love earrings, particularly silver ones. Mothers of little girls pierce their baby’s ears and deck them out with earrings, too. Older women like gold teeth. Many used to remove their good teeth and replace them with gold ones, however, this behavior is on the decline.

'She' people worship their ancestors; and they worship Panhu, their divine dog. They believe this dog is an ancestor, their ancestral father, so they worship him and their human ancestors. Other than singing to him, we know of no other activities that honors him. If you do, we would appreciate knowing about them.

'She' people’s staple foods are rice and sweet potatoes. Not only do they steam them directly, but in actual fact, they prefer to process them into varied shapes and flavors, and then steam them. They are also very good at making rice noodles and preparing steamed rice cakes. One of the most popular of these cakes is called ci ba. Ci means sticky while ba is the usual way they refer to a rice cake. These are typical in southern China, only different in detail. These days, 'She' people still make and eat ci ba in their traditional ways. This foodstuff is normally served in Mid-July and in the winter.

They soak the sticky rice overnight, then drain any leftover water the next morning. The soaked rice is put into a wooden and bamboo steamer basket, and when the rice is done, they move it to a stone mortar and pound the rice with a wooden or stone hammer. They pound repeatedly until it becomes a paste, and then they shape it with the palm of their hands making a whole bunch of round cakes.

They like to serve these when very hot and eat them with brown sugar and white sesame powder. They say they taste sweet, soft, and sticky. That is the flavors 'She' people describe for happiness. Let me mention that pounded and steamed ingredients are very typical as one way they process food. It does take time and energy, but they say their native philosophy is: “You have to work hard to get happiness.”

'She' people know how to make different rice foods. They like one that have different looks and different tastes. They use different foodstuffs at different festivals and in different seasons. As do the Han people, they serve rice dumplings for the Dragon Boat Festival, but call them ‘horn of cows’ and not zongzi as Han people do. Sometimes they call them jian zong. Jian is the leaf of Villous themeda, and local people use these leaves to wrap their rice dumplings.

A few days before the festival, they pick another important plant belonging to Symplocaceae also known as yellow alkaline. This is a kind of wood that they burn making ashes, and they add water to make it a yellow soda water. The day before making these ‘horns of cow,’ people go to their hills and gather wild or planted leaves of jian. They put these leaves into boiling water to make them soft and prevent them from breaking. Their sticky rice is soaked in the yellow soda for several hours; and then after this pre-preparation, women begin to wrap them in traditional ways which most often is about eight inches long looking like a corn cob or something similar to bamboo. As soon as they finish wrapping them, they put them into a big wok or pot and steam them for six or even ten hours. These are then served at the table. Sometimes, they add pork with the rice to give them a different flavor.

Steamed dark rice is another seasonal food, usually made in March on their Lunar calendar. The main ingredients for these are sticky rice and oriental blueberry leaves Vaccinium Bracteatum Thunb. This particular leaf is key with the dark rice. To make them, they gather enough leaves, smash them with a stone mortar, put them in a clean cotton bag and boil the bag in a wok full of water. This makes the water dark, like a purple soup.

If one cannot use this bag, just soak the rice in water or soup for a couple of hours. When the color of the rice changes, then take it out, move it to a steamer, and steam for thirty minutes; and then it is done. How clever they are to do this. The purpose of making the rice dark is not only for color magic, it does change the taste and fragrance. The oriental blueberry leaves preserve this dish, increase the diner’s appetites, and has the symbolism that says they are ready to work hard in spring and get a large harvest in autumn.

'She' people never live without bamboo shoots; locals have more than ten kinds of them. People say that these shoots are only absent in August, and then wild rice shoots can be used instead. These shoots are the stems of Zizania aquatic, and have a taste similar to bamboo shoots. Besides, cooking them when fresh, bamboo shoots can be preserved for a long period of time. They boil the fresh ones until done, cut them in the middle, then dry or smoke them; and everyone does love them!
Wang Si, this magazine's China correspondent, is completing her PhD at Yunnan University. There she has studied many ethnic populations including the Bai, and should receive her degree before or soon after summer.

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