The Language of Longji

Words and Photographs by Amron Gravett
Dragon's Backbone Terrace, Longji, Guangxi Province, China
Dragon’s Backbone Terrace, Longji, China

I have just arrived at the steep, lush mountain region of Longji, a rural region made up of a few village clusters of traditional wooden houses located northwest of Guilin in Guangxi Province, China. Here, the mountains reach magnificent, sheer heights of 800 meters. What attracts travelers to this region are these staggering farmed slopes of rice paddies that stair-step up these lush highlands. Translated, Longji means Dragon’s Backbone. The Yao and Zhuang people, two of the fifty-five ethnic minority groups in China, have engineered hundreds of these eight-foot-deep shelves along precipices in a location that is surprisingly suitable for agricultural means. These hills have been farmed for centuries originating back to the Song Dynasty of thirteenth-century China. 

I catch the thirty-year-old diesel minibus that brings locals and travelers alike to the mountainside village of Ping’An. The bus is equipped with holey seats, full of corn and rice baskets, a door that doesn’t quite latch closed, and heavy cargo bound to the roof by frayed rope. Half way up the hillside, the bus gives out. Unphased, the driver cranks the emergency brake and announces that anyone hoping to find lodging in the village above will have to walk the rest of the way.

Yao women in beautiful hand-woven clothing

Setting off on foot, I follow snakelike rice paddies through the damp fog. It affords me a panoramic of ethereal valleys that inspired legends of fiery dragons and of wise old men on spiritual journeys. The villages are nested in a place where few speak English, where beautiful women and men live in isolated peace. The Yao women wear bright pink and black hand-woven clothing. They go their entire lives without cutting their thick, black hair and so are said to have the longest hair in the world. Typically wrapped up in a turban-like bun underneath a black headscarf, the three- to six-foot tendrils are hand washed in the river below. One of the more outspoken young women walking with me notices that I’m glancing at her hand-woven belt. She unwraps it from around her waist and offers to sell it to me for an absurdly low price, which she communicates with her fingers. When I give her three times that, she bows, then giggles and shows her friends. I wrap it around my waist, the way the other women are wearing theirs and caress the weave, delighting in the intricate handmade beauty. I have to laugh when the women offer to be in a photo with me; I’m obviously not the first outsider that they’ve met.

Drying corn and chills with Mao sayings tacked around doorway
Drying corn and chills with Mao sayings tacked around doorway

Once I reach the village at the top of the hillside, I find lodging with a lovely Zhuang family in the most luxurious mountainside retreat—a tiered three-story villa with a bamboo roof. It’s light and spacious with private rooms made from locally harvested pine. I nestle into fresh, white sheets and a firm pillow and slip into a heavenly afternoon nap. After a deep, high-altitude sleep, I return to the common room where an informal celebration ensues. The father of the family teaches me a handful of words in what I assume is Mandarin (the “Common Language”). He is jovial, expressive and delighted with his new student. I am equally pleased because the words are easy for me to repeat and remember.

A feast for twenty is placed on a large harvest table. I am surrounded by the mother, father, son, girlfriend, mother’s friend, and family cat. From what I gather, they all live here together. We toast with bowls of rice liquor so many times that I grow impatient to eat! No one speaks any English, except the son, who translates only three things to me: the price of the room, who everyone is at the table, and what the mother toasts as she smiles at me, “Cheers and thanks for you here.” We laugh together as we eat a country-style Chinese feast of garlic, seaweed, eggplant, tofu, and chili, all smothered over a bed of rice. It isn’t an hour before I feel like an extended member of this joyful family. By the end of the evening I have a mild buzz, a full belly and a satiated feeling that if the world were to end right now, I would already be half way up to heaven.

The next morning, I trek down from this hamlet and hop of a bus, where I share with the broken-English speaking bus driver a few of the words I learned the night before. Turns out that what I’d assumed was the Common Language was actually the local Zhuang language, a dialect spoken only in this part of the world, in this particular region, by the people living in these remote hills.

What to Read

Although a handful of travel guides and blogs will reveal the basic details of where and what to know about this idyllic region, a curious reader would be better satisfied to devour the part-autobiographical, part-fictional 1990 book Soul Mountain by the Nobel Prize-winning author Gao Xingjian. If one is looking for something a bit lighter (both in heft and in content), I highly recommend the lovely novella Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. Both would excite a foreigner and get them in the proper mindset to visit this wondrous countryside.