The steep mountain slopes of China’s southeastern provinces lay home to the She people (畲族), with a majority living in Fujian province and others found across Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi and Guangdong. As with most of today’s Chinese citizens, daily She attire is that of any modern individual, but annual She festivals call for a donning of traditional dress.
Hand-embordered clothing featuring elaborate flowers, birds and geometric shapes is a custom of men and women alike. For the women in particular, further flourish is taken with lace-trimmed clothing, silver jewelry, and red yarn-wrapped hair. One such festival, Sanyuesan (三月三), takes place on the third day of the third month of the lunar calendar and is centered around traditional She folk singing.
Analysis of She folk song lyrics reveal similarities with Shijing (诗经), China’s oldest book of poetry, leading experts to believe that the origin of She folk songs can be traced back to the Zhou dynasty (1050–221 BCE). These poetic themes of love, emotions, weddings, funerals, farming, legends and faith yield a small glimpse into what She lifestyles have been like through the ages.
Another distinguishing element of She folk culture is the singing styles, most notably antiphonal singing – singing that alternates between two individuals or groups – which holds the stage as the most distinctive form of She expression and is usually performed by a male-female pair.
For those seeking She culture in Zhejiang province, there is no better place than the She enclave of Banqiao Town, Songyang (板桥乡). For the Sanyuesan festival in particular, hundreds of singers wielding ceremonial torches gather in Jin Village (金村) for the traditional celebrations.
This year, with the donning of the modern age converging with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the festivities were live-streamed for the first time ever, gathering an audience of 560,000 viewers from across the country.
This effort to make traditional cultures more accessible has an aim – to encourage a renewed interest in intangible cultural heritage before it dies out completely. Many of the She people leading the event inherited the traditional songs, clothing, and customs from generations before them, but a stark absence of youth in these events reveals a persistent draw toward modern life and society, and away from the countryside and its deep-rooted traditions.
So we are left with this question: how can we keep these unique cultures alive in the modern era? As with all movements, the first step is awareness. And so, we encourage an exploration into She culture so you can decide for yourself if this is a piece of cultural heritage worth saving (we’re convinced your answer will be the same as ours, a bold and resounding “yes”).
Visit Banqiao Town, Songyang in person
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