I had the privilege of meeting several Black Dress villagers as they were returning home for the evening. Comfortable and relaxed, they greeted me warmly and were particularly eager to share their stories.
The lead singer from the cultural center’s performing troupe had a good sense of humor and wonderful laugh. She enjoyed watching her favorite comedian on TV. She was thrilled when I asked if she had any handmade crafts for sale. I paid her full asking price for crafts that she had showed us how she had made them in her home. She cheerfully helped me pick out good colors and styles for my daughters. The friendship that we struck up was more valuable to us than the craft itself, although it was beautiful handiwork. She showed me that there is much more value in the beauty and wisdom of these special people than just the material goods they offer.
The Elderly Lady
An elderly lady was sitting with a crowd of women outside the one small restaurant in the village. The women were counting money, chatting, and playing a board game. The elderly lady wore the same black dress that the others had worn earlier at the cultural center, only hers was tattered and threadbare in places. It was obvious that this was not her costume, but instead was the way she had dressed her whole life. When I asked what had changed in the village from when she was young, she said that life was easier now with its modern conveniences. The traditional life of physical labor required to sustain an agricultural living is overwhelming for the Black Dress and other musical people, so any modern conveniences that ease the load are certainly welcome. The elderly lady taught me that change is not always considered a bad thing, even by older villagers. While she was obviously steeped in Black Dress culture and knowledgeable of their history and heritage, she was not overly sentimental or nostalgic about her life. She was a very pragmatic, self-assured, and strong woman who didn’t fear new things.
The Village Leader
The most striking feature of my visit with the village leader was the large altar in the center of his home. Colorful banners on the wall traced the family lineage. Honoring your ancestors is one of the most sacred practices among the Black Dress and many other traditional communities in China. As the village elder, he carried the responsibility of chronicling the village history family by family and generation by generation, a task that he considered sacred. He explained to me that the village would continue and essential traditions would be kept alive as long as the ancestors were remembered.
-Written by Ray Scott
-Photography by Robert Johnson
[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, September 2011]Download This Issue of TEAMHorizons