Maonan Feitao: The Divine Ritual
Publication time：2021-07-01 16:34:05
（By Xie Zongming）Guangxi, the autonomous region with forested mountains and winding rivers. Behind this landscape, there lie numerous ethnic groups with their unique but interrelated culture, one of which is called Maonan. The great nature is their friend and foe. The mountains and rivers are what feed but hinder them. Under this threshold, Maonan people forged the faith in their gods. For hundreds of years, Maonan has been practicing their rituals to thank the gods for granting and protecting the descendants of the clan. This set of rituals is called Feitao, which means redeeming the pledge.
People in the mountains
The Maonan is a minority group in China with a fairly small population. Historic records of these people can be traced back to Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) and the name of Maonan first appeared in Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368 AD). Maonan speaks a unique language without a written form. In their tongue, Maonan means “local people”, by which they call themselves to the outsiders. Later, this name officially became their nationality.
Historians believe that Maonan people have the same ancestors as other minorities like Mulao, Kelao, and Bouyei in Southwest China. Like these relative groups in Guizhou, Maonan people favor the sour taste in their food. For people located inland and surrounded by the mountains, salt was a luxury. So instead, Maonan cooks created the Maonan Three Sour Dishes, namely the Nanxing, Suofa, and Wengwei, all of which have the appetizing sour. Maonan cuisines showcase their creativity and positive attitude, for the mountains could not hold back their pursuit of happiness.
Their positive characteristics are also embodied in their language. Though they use the Maonan dialect in daily life, they can also speak many other ethnic tongues. Aside from Mandarin, they also speak Zhuang and Bouyei dialect. Because of the absence of written language, they borrowed Chinese writings and used them in the grammar of Maonan dialect with their own vocabulary. At one point, Maonan people even invented a set of Maonan characters by modifying Chinese characters, just as Vietnamese once did about Chu Nom. For Maonan, the people in the mountains, the limited resources urge them to succeed all they can, which is why they actively learned dialects and writing just to keep records of who they were.
Luckily, these efforts weren’t in vain. Through generations of inheritance, the Feitao shamans preserve their rituals well, in which the moderns can have a glance of their mysterious culture.
Tips: Currently, Maonan people in Guangxi mainly reside in the Huanjiang Maonan Autonomous County. In the fifth lunar month of each year, people there celebrate Fenlong Festival, hoping for nourishing rain to come. The most solemn Feitao rituals will be conducted at the ceremony.
Ritual connects people and gods
Feitao is a set of ancient rituals of Maonan culture and religion. It is the foremost event that every Maonan man must experience at least once in a lifetime. Maonan men with children, once turn 36, are required to organize a Feitao to thank their gods for granting fertile descendants. The ritual is so important that if one missed the Feitao at his 36, he would not have the chance to do it again. The ritual must be completed by his children at their 36, with doubled offerings and duration just to make up for their father’s fault. Feitao is perceived as their commitment to the gods, through which Maonan people teach themselves to keep their promises.
The tradition of Feitao came from a Maonan myth. In the myth, an orphan named Zhong Ding couldn’t get married due to his poverty. He came to Queen Mother Wan Sui, goddess of fertility, and prayed for descendants. The goddess granted him a fairy to marry with. Zhong soon had 7 kids with the fairy but forgot to redeem the pledge to the goddess, which enraged the Queen Mother. The goddess took all his children away. Only then did Zhong remember to offer sacrifices. After the ritual, he had his kids back and lived a happy life ever after. This myth is considered the origin of Feitao.
Originally, ancient Maonan people practiced their own primal religion. Around the end of the Ming Dynasty (1600-1644 AD), Chinese Taoism entered this place and was soon welcomed by the majority. Therefore, Feitao rituals carry certain Taoist characteristics in their implements and musical instruments. Their shamans, called Botao, can also be referred to as Shigong (the informal title of a Taoist) by the locals. On the other hand, Feitao maintains the mysterious dances and spells which belong to their witchcraft beliefs.
Feitao consists of a series of different rituals. Before the actual process, the shamans will prepare the altar like in Taoist rituals. The offerings will be put on the altar along with candles and incense. The portraits of the gods to be invited in the ritual will be hung above the altar. When the Feitao begins, the shamans will dance to the music and chant the spells. During the dances, all of them need to wear Maonan wooden masks, which are the faces of the gods the shamans are inviting. This special mask dance is called Tiaotao in Maonan dialect, which means “dancing part”.
The mask used in Feitao is called Nuomian, the face of gods. These masks are the main item in the ritual and, to some degree, represent Feitao. There are 36 masks in Feitao. Each of them represents a Maonan god, whose facial expressions are vividly carved according to their characteristics. To some degree, it feels creepy to look at these vivid yet static faces, which adds a sense of mystery to them.
Combining the creepy masks and the ritual dances, it is thrilling to watch the ritual because of the indescribable sensation it presents. Maonan people dare to utilize this fear as their prayers, which reflects their actual attitude towards life: being brave against fear and turning it into wishes with a positive mindset.
Tips: Nuo culture (Nuo as in Nuomian) is the most primal belief in the south of ancient China, which was the origin of Taoist Religion. Maonan Feitao contains both Nuo culture and Taoist style, which is a strange example among Nuo rituals.
Source: China-ASEAN Panorama