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The Oldest Valentine's Day: the Sisters' Rice Festival of Miao Minority Group

the Sisters' Rice Festival of Miao

The Sisters’ Rice Festival, held annually by girls on the 15th day of the third lunar month, is one of the most active festivals of the Miao people in Taijiang, Shibing and Jianhe County, Guizhou Province, China. The date of the festival is different according to places. The ceremony is simple, unsophisticated, and distinctive and the Sister Festival in Shidong, Taijiang County on Qingshui River is the most typical one.

Girls, who are the center of the festival, invite their sweet hearts to eat Sister Rice, play a drum, dance, sing, give tokens to each other, and get engaged, which displays the fact of love between the lads and the girls during the course of changing from the matriarchal clan society to the patriarchal clan society. In the festival, there are centuries-old songs and dances, the dragon dance and bull fighting activities, the interaction between the tranquil and soothing rural life and the modern tours seeking nature are likened to "the festival hidden in the pistil", which is "the oldest oriental Valentine's Day" and is becoming a brilliant landscape in the modern tourism economy in Southwest China.

The Legends of the Sister Festival and Its Changes

The Sister Festival is celebrated widely and its ceremonies and legends are largely identical. There are mainly three kinds of legends.


An unverified story says that there was a big Miao village in a district of Taijiang County. The men there went hunting at a faraway place and didn't return for a very long time. There were many women and children and 70 beautiful girls in the village. The women raised their sons and daughters after returning from the farm and led an eternal life. The girls picked fruits on mountains and worked on the farm and spun, weaved and embroidered at home. They worked so hard that the boxes were full of colorful cloth and brocades. The brocades they weaved were even more beautiful than the rosy clouds on the sky and the flowers they embroidered attracted many bees and butterflies, but the 70 girls, who were at the age of 16, always felt that they were short of something, which always made them unhappy.

Then they concentrated in opening up wasteland at a place with abundant water. They worked and worked and finally opened up an extremely large area of farmland. So they put many fish in it and sowed sticky rice in spring. Thus, they had a good harvest in autumn and their storehouses were full of sticky rice. They also made jars of sticky rice wine. However, they still felt that there was a lack of something in their life although they led a well-off life, so they seldom sang and laughed.

The old people knew what they needed and thought of a good idea. They suggested that they put the remaining sticky rice and wine in storage and when the next spring came they made the sticky rice into tasty meals and captured some fish, shrimps, and snails in the farmland, and then invite the young boys from faraway villages to eat Sister Rice, drink wine, dance and choose their sweet hearts. The next year, some of these girls realized their dream and got married. From then on, eating Sister Rice has become their particular festival.

  2. Another unverified story says that the Miao people formerly lived in the faraway east. Then they had to migrate westerly because of their difficult life caused by the increase of population and disasters and wars. Whenever they got to a place and lived for a period of time, some girls got married and when they migrated again, the married girls couldn't get home any more. How difficult was it that they met and parted! So they decided to capture some fish and shrimps every spring and invite the married sisters to have Sister Rice and pour out their heart with the unmarried. After that they said goodbye reluctantly. Thus the annual Sister Festival came into being.

The legend of the Sister Festival mainly originated in the Sister Festival Song of over 500 lines in length. A story is going about that a boy named Jin Dan and a girl named A Jiao, the children of two women, were childhood sweethearts and innocent playmates. After growing up they fell in love with each other and were determined to get married but the parents of A Jiao forced her to marry her the son of her mother's brother. A Jiao refused this resolutely. Jin Dan also refused to marry another girl and kept waiting for A Jiao.

They dated secretly in the open field every day to avoid being found by their parents and others. Every time A Jiao put rice secretly in a bamboo basket, which was used for loading needlework and took it to Jin Dan. Finally they became a couple after a series of tribulations and struggles. Thus the literary quotation of "Sister Rice" came into being, which is called "Gad Liang" in Miao language and is transcribed as "Sister Rice" in Chinese.

Many years later, a story said that 800 girls remained unmarried in Shidong, Taijiang County as they couldn't find their boyfriends and in contrast, 800 lads in Datang couldn't find their girlfriends either. Thought of the literary quotation of A Jiao and Jin Dan who ate Sister Rice, the old people advised them to invite the 800 lads to eat Sister Rice. In this way, everyone found the lad of their own heart and got married one after the other. From then on, eating Sister Rice evolved into a festival mainly for youths to choose their partners.

The activities of eating Sister Rice in Shidong are quite hilarious. In the third lunar month, as the festival is drawing near, all the Miao people start to become busy preparing for the annual grand festival. On the 13th day of the third lunar month, the Miao girls gather black leaves and yellow blossoms used for dying sticky rice black and yellow or colorful on mountains. On the morning of the 14th day, they capture fish and shrimps on a farmland. In the afternoon each of them takes a big bowl of sticky rice, two duck eggs (used for frying shrimps) and some money (any amount will do) to buy ducks. Why do they only buy ducks and duck eggs instead of chickens and eggs? Because ducks are able to cross the river, which symbolizes that they can go to the other shore and to be paired with the person they love. After getting ready, the girls of the same age separately go to one household (it is better that there are no boys or just little boys in the household to receive the lads from other villages) and then at night they eat Sister Rice with the lads. After dinner, they go to the square or lanes to sing and court one another all night.

From 15th to 17th are the formal peak dates of the festival. At daytime, wearing beautiful dresses and ornaments, the girls go to Langxi (called Yangjiaping in Chinese) to watch bull-fighting, sparrow fighting, play lusheng and drum dance with the lads who have eaten Sister Rice with them. At night, they sing and court one another in the square or lanes just like that of the night of the 14th day.

During the course, the girls (divided into many groups according to ages) give the lads colorful sticky rice, fish, meat and duck eggs, which are put into bamboo baskets. When the next Sister Festival comes, the lads will raise money collectively and buy them some presents, such as floss, silk by filling in the bamboo baskets (called returning the bamboo basket). After affiliating with each other for several times, they know more about each other and then fall in love and begin to confide their attachment to each other. Finally they become couples.

Now, several days before Sister Festival, the girls climb a mountain to gather the leaves of south candle trees and flowers and grass of all kinds of colors such as buddleia flowers. Then they make juice of black, red, yellow, and green by dipping in the cold water and boiling the water. After that, they dip the sticky rice separately into the juice. One or two days later, after the juice has dipped the sticky rice fully, they pick them out, filtrate them separately, and wash down the superfluous colorful juice on the surface with clean water. Then they divide the sticky rice evenly and cook it on the rice steamer. Finally the brilliant, colorful, and fragrant Sister Rice comes into being. This kind of Sister Rice dyed by sorts of wild flowers not only has a bright color and a good taste, but also can be stored for a fairly long time, and besides, it can improve our eyesight, nourish and strengthen our body, so it is an excellent food for friends to share and give as presents at festivals.

The Process of the Festival

In most places the girls collect duck eggs, meat, fish, wine and Sister Rice on their own. After the lads arrive, the girls, as the hosts, will invite other girls in the village to dinner and sing. In Laotun and Shidong, the Sister Rice is dyed red, purple, green and yellow while in other districts, it is dyed black, so it is also called Black Rice. Before singing, the lads and the girls are seated in two separate rows. There is a wide range of songs.. The girls sing to cross-question the derivation of the Sister Festival and the symbolization of Sister Rice and the lads sing in response.

Finally, the side that gives no response or sings off beat or gives irrelevant answers loses the game. If the girls are defeated, they will give the lads a present, such as a bangle, a pair of earrings, a finger ring, while if the lads lose the game, they will give the girls a memorable present, such as a silver bangle or a watch. The side that wins the game will also give the other side a present of equivalent value in return. During the festival, just like the youth, some middle-aged and old men also go to the neighboring villages to respond to singing with women of the same age.

There are some other activities such as drum dancing, bull fighting, cock fighting and horse racing during the festival. At the end of the festival the girls give the men Sister Rice filled in a new bamboo basket or a new handkerchief as a present before they return home. Those who get Sister Rice means that they have gained favor of the girls. But if not, they can beg them for the present pretending piteous, saying, "Please give me a little Sister Rice to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes." Then the girls will give them generously with sympathy. Some sharp-witted girls will hide some keepsakes such as pine leaves, bamboo hooks, live chickens or ducks, Toona sinensis, capsicum, garlic in the bamboo basket or handkerchief to convey their affection.

The Symbolic Meanings of the Color of Sister Rice

Green means their hometown which is as beautiful as Qingshui River, red means their prosperous village, yellow means a bumper grain harvest, indigo means a well-off life, and white means the pure love.

The Meanings of the Keepsakes:

  1. Pine leaves represent embroidery needles, indicating the lad should present embroidery needles and thread in return.
  2. Bamboo hooks indicate the lads should return the favour with umbrellas of the same number. Two crossed ones indicate the girl hopes to affiliate frequently with the lad.
  3. Toona sinensis means that the girl is willing to marry him at an early date, as it is called "moth" and means "marry" in Miao language.
  4. Cotton indicates the girl misses the lad very much, as it means "bear", the same meaning with "miss" in Miao language.
  5. Parsley has the same meaning with Toona sinensis.
  6. Cotton and parsley indicate being anxious to getting married.
  7. Live ducks mean that the girl hopes to get a pig in return to breed it for the feast of the next Sister Festival.
  8. Capsicum or garlic indicates the girl doesn't want to communicate with the lad any more or wants to break off with him.

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