Miao Clay Whistles

David LeffmanUncategorized Leave a Comment

There are very few rural temples in southeast Guizhou. Most people here are from the Miao ethnic minority, not Han Chinese; they have their own beliefs, and don’t build the usual Daoist-Buddhist-Confucian complexes you find elsewhere in China.

However, all of Guizhou’s towns began life as Chinese military outposts or trading centres, not Miao settlements, and there are a few temples connected to these places. One example is Feiyunya (飛雲崖), the “Cloud-flying Cliff”, a Buddhist retreat out in the countryside about 12km east of Huangping town. Although it plausibly claims to date back to the fifteenth century, during the first major Han Chinese influx to the region, the buildings today wouldn’t be much more than a hundred years old. It’s not really a functional temple anymore either, though still the focus for various religious ceremonies through the year: as a protected historic monument, resident monks were moved out a few years ago in case they somehow started a fire. Last time I visited it mostly served as an ethnic culture museum, full of dusty cases of Miao textiles and crafts.

Zodiac clay whistles. To play, you blow up the animal’s, well, anyway…

One craft on display is brightly-painted clay whistles (泥哨) in the shape of zodiac animals. According to information at the temple, they were first made in the 1920s by a Miao craftsman named Wu Guoqing from Zhaiyong village, four kilometers north of Jiuzhou (“Old Huangping”) town. Traditionally, the Miao don’t have family names – he was actually just called Guiye – though “Wu” is a popular surname borrowed from the Chinese. His cultural inheritor,  Cheng Yingkui, still makes the whistles today. 

Entry ticket to Feiyunya

However, similar whistles have long been in use across China as toys and bird decoys, and – as far as I know – they are not made or used elsewhere across the Miao region. I wondered if in fact the craft had been brought in from outside by one of the many Han Chinese to settle here over the centuries.

Once the garrison posts were established in Guizhou during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), many Chinese settled in the region, eager to exploit new business opportunities. And in fact, “The Textile Annals of Southeast Guizhou” says that a ceramics master named Zhong Heming made clay whistles here as early as the 1530s. The Zhong family had their origins in southern China’s Jiangxi province, still known today for its ceramics industries. Jiuzhou town even has a Tian Hou temple (well, the remains of one which was converted into a factory during the Mao era), dedicated to the southern Chinese deity Matsu, proof that there were people living here with ancestral roots in the right place.  

Many thanks, as ever, to Li Maoqing for much of the research.

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