Xiangxi culture: unique culture grows from local natural environment

Apr Tue 2023

Situated in the northwest of Hunan Province, Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture borders Hubei, Chongqing and Guizhou. The Wuling Mountains stretch across Xiangxi from northeast to southwest. There are many rivers in the region, which help form a distinctive geographical environment and create natural barriers for its exchanges and interactions with Central China. Complex terrain has given birth to diverse climate and living species, which lays a solid foundation for a productive land and diverse culture.

Xiangxi culture is composed of polytheism, witchcraft, the spiritual strength of singing and dancing, free will and a romantic life attitude, which are born from the region’s special natural geography.

In 686, the central government of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) created Weiyang County in current Fenghuang and built a garrison titled Fenghuang about 25 kilometers away from the county. Mount Fenghuang got its name because the mountains which surround the garrison seemed to be a Luan bird, which is a Chinese mythical bird like the phoenix. The Fenghuang garrison was elevated to a higher administrative level and moved to Wuzhaisi Town, the location of the current Fenghuang County, during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Fenghuang was upgraded to a county-level area in 1913.

The Tuojiang River is the mother river of Fenghuang and it is also the first stop for visitors to the county. The river flows along beside the city wall and has nurtured local people for hundreds of years.

Hongqiao Bridge on the Tuojiang River was built in the early years of the reign of Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398) in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Colorful sunshine is cast upon the Tuojiang River from Hongqiao Bridge when the weather is good.

Many people came to know Fenghuang by reading the novel “The Border Town”, which was written and published in 1934 by renowned Chinese author and scholar Shen Congwen.

Shen spent his childhood in Fenghuang. He depicted beautiful scenery and hailed the virtues of the local people in the novel. Nowadays, readers can still discover the beauty of Fenghuang and feel the pride of its people from Shen’s treatment in the novel.

Fenghuang is a beautiful place. Its beauty has already gone beyond geographical concept and become integrated with the lives of all people. Five rivulets have supported the life and transport of locals and relieved them from urban noise and pressure. In another literary work, titled "Letters to Zhang Zhaohe from Xiangxi”, Shen described beautiful scenes and people in the area and incorporated his complicated feelings into his treatment of the local rivers.

Fenghuang is an ideal place for people to pursue poetry and the visionary life. Its poetic values come from nature and the spiritual image of distant horizons derives from a traditional lifestyle.

Fenghuang is a beautiful place with four distinct seasons and sufficient supply of daily necessities, which enables locals to find fulfillment.

The spirit of Fenghuang people is closely related to the Miao ethnic group. Miao people believe that their ancestors are Fuxi and Nyuwa, two mythological figures in traditional Chinese culture, and attach great importance to the principles of self-inclusiveness and self-unity among people with the same blood.

There used to be a common language used by Miao people, who didn't yet have universal characters. People of the Miao ethnic group would live together and defend each other in the battlefields during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period when they identified each other with the same language. The time-honored spiritual belief has nurtured strong affection for the country among people in Xiangxi.

Shen depicted the landscape and spirit of the Xiangxi region in his literary works. Meanwhile Huang Yongyu, who was also born in Fenghuang and was the nephew of Shen, has shown the strong will and romantic attitude toward life among local people with his paintings.

During his visit to Fenghuang, Chinese Nobel laureate Mo Yan spoke highly of its natural beauty and cultural deposits, which are endowed with both fictional and realistic elements as well as a traditional and yet contemporary atmosphere.

It is easy for visitors to meet residents dressed in traditional costumes and silver jewelry and find many stores of silver products in Fenghuang. Silver jewelry has become one of the leading symbols of the county. As a cultural symbol of the Miao people, the traditional handicraft of making silver jewelry has been listed as a national intangible cultural heritage item and occupies an important place in Miao life.

Many traditional ceremonies have been preserved in Fenghuang. For instance, a Miao family or even a whole village will jointly greet the arrival of their guests at the entrance and invite them to taste a bowl of Miao liquor. It is a traditional ritual for people of the Miao ethnic group to show their sincerity and hospitality to guests.

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