We craned our necks to look at the tiny screen of our driver's phone. He tapped at the picture of the water buffalo bull he'd pulled up and then pointed across the festival's dancing grounds, his sleeve shaking with the force of the point. "We need to get over there. Now!" He didn't need words to tell us that if we kept lollygagging we'd miss the bullfights. Bullfights are popular among the Miao and no festival, especially not one of the significance of the Zhouxi Lusheng festival, would be complete without one. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, our twin hometowns, there's an enormous Hmong population (Miao is the Chinese name for the Hmong ethnic group), and if you visit cultural enclaves like Hmongtown Market in St. Paul, you can view and even buy DVDs of particularly good bullfights. And now, we had our chance to see the spectacle in person. We nodded vigorously to driver and he took off like a shot, with us trotting alongside him.
He paused in front of the jumble of a construction site, barricaded by a fence, and gestured that we could take the long way around it, which led who knows were—out of sight, certainly—or just go through it. Cory, never one to miss an opportunity to lead us through a desolate garbage pile in search of something cool, pointed out that we should just go through the construction. And so up went, over the fence, across the rubble strewn with rebar and nail-studded boards, and over the fence on the other side, which landed us on the narrow retaining wall of a dry ravine. Up ahead, we saw people clambering up hillsides and jockeying for spots along the floor of the ravine, forming a human wall—and, as it turned out, one end of the bullfighting ring.
We crossed the ravine to climb up a slippery, steep path-but-not-really-a-path on one of the hills overlooking the fighting grounds. It provided a bird's eye view, but the constant flow of people made it tough to both see and not go tumbling down the hillside. I grabbed onto some grass on the hill behind me to steady myself and looked out onto a fairly calm scene—two bulls doing little more than looking at each other. They were eventually led out of the ring and replaced by two more bulls who had a bit more fire in their bellies.
Sometimes bullfights don't work—the bulls don't care or one is afraid and won't fight—and other times they do, with the animals charging one another and locking horns. Watching these enormous masses of flesh, bone and horn hurtling toward each other is almost surreal—to see them placidly standing along a roadside or wandering through a field, you'd never think that they could move with such force, precision and power. The power is really the thing here—the violence of their charging and clashing seems to disrupt the energy in the air, reverberating up the hillsides.
Water buffalo are incredibly important to the Miao people, serving as an integral agricultural tool, a food source, an indicator of wealth and, traditionally, a sacrificial animal in ancestor-honoring rituals. It's common to see protective skulls with scythe-like horns decorating homes throughout the Miao-dominated regions. In the fights we watched, time and time again, people jumped in to pull the bulls apart when things were getting really heated and one bull was clearly dominating the other. We never saw a bull become injured beyond some scratches.
But it's not uncommon for these fights to go to the death—and we did see the aftermath of a fatal bout. Along the roadside next to the fighting field, a bull was being butchered—its organs slithered out onto the concrete and its head laid, with open, glassy eyes, at the front of the mess. (I have a picture, but I'll spare my more squeamish readers.) In cases like this, the bull becomes part of a celebratory feast, contributing yet again to the community by filling bellies. If there's one thing you'll learn in rural China, it's that squeamishness about getting your protein—and seeing exactly where it comes from and how it gets to your plate—has no place.
We watched the proceedings from the hillside for a while, but eventually, we had to think about getting back to Kaili. We crossed the ravine as two more bulls were being led to the grounds. We looked through the human wall at the end of the field to see the bulls being released and generally not doing much. We clambered back up the wall and the bulls were starting to move around, eyeing each other up. And then, with surprising nimbleness, one of the bulls pivoted on its back hoof, turned toward the human wall and broke away at a gallop, the other bull hot at his heels and swiping away with his horns. The crowd roared and burst into movement, trying to either stop the bulls or get the hell out of their way.
The bulls thundered down the ravine, with a group of men running alongside with shouting urgency. They swatted through the air with sticks and tools, trying to distract and stop the pursuing bull and the cowardly runaway.
The crowd produced a sea of cell phones, taking videos of the unfolding chaos. They laughed and chatted and yet again, we didn’t need to share a language with any of our fellow onlookers to say to each other, "Can you believe that? Crazy!" Eventually, the chase petered out and the bulls were kept safely apart from one another. We climbed the fence, crossed the rubble heap and followed our driver across the festival grounds and back to the car, knowing that next time we went to the Hmong Market back home, we'd be able to tell our own good story about a bullfight.