The Xibo: a Dongbei people in Xinjiang

Travel | by Aimee Groom
Posted: October 27th, 2010 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments

Southern China's Miao ethnic minority

Xibo restaurant, Shanghai With a population of 1.3 billion and counting, China constitutes just under 20% of the world's inhabitants. Making up the vast majority of residents (91.59%) are the ubiquitous Han, leaving just a little over 8% to the 56 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the People's Republic. In Minority Report, we explore the colorful characters, customs and cultures of these fascinating peripheral groups. >>> One of the 56 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the PRC, the Xibo people of China number just over 170,000—a speck in the dust when you think the total population is 1.4 billion, and even a modest-sized town usually constitutes several hundred thousand. Originating from the mountainous regions of what was once Manchuria (which covers what is today the three most northeastern provinces of China), the Xibo now live at opposite sides of the country, the tribe having been split back in 1764 when the Qing Dynasty emperor Quanlong dispatched a garrison to protect the eastern borderlands of today's Xinjiang. While the Xibo of the Dōngběi (东北) (as China's most northeastern three provinces are collectively called) have largely been assimilated, in Xinjiang they have proudly held on to their traditions, language and culture.

Xibo in Shanghai

Little known as they may be, the recent opening of Xibo, a Xibo-style restaurant in Shanghai has garnered them some attention. Owner Atina Kuo comes from Qapqal Xibo Autonomous County in Ili Prefecture, Xinjiang and her goal is to preserve her heritage and introduce the Xibo people, culture and food to a wider audience. Xibo eggplantand red peppers Very much in the Xinjiang tradition (a cuisine that is wildly popular throughout China for locals and foreigners alike), Xibo food features lots of homemade breads, stews and lamb spiced with chili and cumin. Though there is much that is familiar, the menu also features plenty of genuine Xibo specialities, such as Xibonese roasted eggplant with red and green peppers (RMB 30), Xibo Jiaohao fish (RMB 88) and Xibo Susskind (homemade dried cowpea and chili pepper with beef, carrot, Chinese cabbage and potato, RMB 60) and Kuo hasn't felt the need to tone things down for foreign tastes. Her formula at Xibo is to serve up traditional food in a sophisticated  environment that reflects the culture while also appealing to more modern sensibilities... and all to a mellow, loungy soundtrack. She's kept the prices down too, a wise move considering quality Xinjiang food can be had for pocket change on virtually every street corner in the city, though of course there's no way the ambience of a local la mian shop can compete with the slick interiors Atina has put together. Featuring lots of quirky, personal touches she has used Xibo relics and artifacts garnered from family and friends, displaying a fantastic wall hung with embroidered hats, her grandmother's tunic and a screen made from frames that in a former life spent their days drying grapes in the sun. Her friends, family and the extended Xibo community have all been very supportive to the project and she's found a great sense of community with other Xibo in the city, inviting them all to eat for free at the opening. "We're such a small community that even though we don't know each other, just being able to talk Xibo together we feel really close," she says. Xibo Jiaohao Fish Atina also introduced me to her good friend and photographer, Xinlei Wang who had recently returned from Xinjiang and Kashgar where she was documenting the area's people and culture. She spent time in Ili Prefecture and kindly took some time out to  share some of her images and commentary on her experience with one of China's least known ethnic groups, which you can read about in her post: China Through My Lens: Images of Xinjiang's little-known Xibo people.

More about Xibo history and culture

  History: Originating from the mountains of central Manchuria, the Xibo culture dates back to 400 AD. Thought to be descendants of the ancient nomadic Xianbei tribe who lived along the Greater Xing'an Mountain area, today the Xibo are found in two quite disparate areas. Unsurprisingly, the majority remain in the northeastern provinces of China's Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin, but there is also a pocket of 42,000 Xibo people far away in the very western reaches of Xinjiang, around Ili Prefecture. It was during the mid-18th century that this chunk of the Xibo population was displaced, ordered to a far-off land by the Emperor Quanlong of the Qing Dynasty. In 1764, he gave the order for 1018 Xibo troops to form a garrison in the  Qapqal region, south of the Ili River to protect the northwestern border. After a long and treacherous journey that took over one-and-a-half years of hardship and trekking across grasslands, deserts and mountains with their families in tow, they finally arrived in their new homeland. Xibe archer Historically, their Xianbei ancestors had lived by hunting and fishing, though as they moved eastwards and fell under the Manchurian Eight Banners system in the 16th century, they gradually became more pastoral. In the new and arid environment of Xinjiang, the hard-working Xibo had to further develop their farming skills, cultivating the rough, virgin land in which they found themselves. Despite this, they maintained their warrior skills and remain gifted horsemen, wrestlers and archers to this day. In fact, the entire national Chinese archery team is of Xibo descent. Today, the Xibo Autonomous County in Xinjiang is the only place where Xibo culture is truly preserved. The people here continue to cultivate the land, and, unlike the Xibo of the northeast, they have preserved their language, which today is believed to be the closest existing dialect to that of the Manchu. Like many rural communities, they face the challenge of a dwindling and aging population as the younger generations are tempted away by the promises of big-city living. However, beyond their homeland, ethnic Xibo find their heritage continuing as the basis for strong bonds wherever they may find each other. Culture & Customs Language: The Xibo have preserved their language, believed to be the closest existing dialect to that of the Manchu, however in Xibo Autonomous County, most Xibo are multi-lingual and also speak Uyghur and Kazak. Festivals: Every year the Xibo people celebrate their move westwards with the Festival of Migration. Held on the 18th day of the fourth lunar month, the festival celebrates the heroic journey made by their ancestors and features archery, martial arts and traditional singing and dancing. In another annual festival known as the Blackened Festival, held on the 16th day of the first lunar month, the Xibo blacken their faces with soot to ward off evil spirits and misfortune, and hope for a good harvest. Food: The Xibo enjoy a number of different foods with rice and flour as staples. Flat breads, rice, lamb, dumplings and stews  feature heavily. It is taboo to eat horse meat, donkey meat or dog. Every autumn they pickle vegetables to preserve them for the coming winter and spring, known as Huahuacai. Special dishes are prepared to celebrate honored guests. The most highly esteemed of these specialties is the "Morxueke" or "whole sheep banquet" where an entire sheep, entrails and all, is carefully prepared and split among a number of different dishes. The cleaned intestines are stuffed with various combinations of meat and sweetbreads, herbs and spices—a kind of Xibo haggis if you will. Another popular local dish is Ili River fish boiled into a soup made with water drawn from the Ili River. Dress: Similar in style to that of the Manchu ancestors, Xibo dress is colorful and includes long loose dresses for women and embroidered waistcoats for men. The women wear headscarves and embroidered cloth shoes. Xibe woman, ancestor scroll Marriage: Traditionally, Xibo society was patriarchal and women held a low status with no right to inheritance. Though marriage must be approved and arranged by the parents, boys and girls can initiate a relationship through an arrow shooting event, the boy winning his sweetheart via his shooting skills and the girl showing her acceptance by drawing the bow with him. Weddings last for five days with feasting, singing and dancing to celebrate the formal rites.   Archery: Archery has been ingrained in Xibo culture since ancient times and remains an important part of Xibo life with young children (boys and girls) taught to ride a horse and shoot a bow and arrow as soon as they can run. The Xibo are regular hunters, particularly in the slower farming periods. Any animals caught are distributed evenly among the village as the Xibo believe animals do not belong to anyone and even in death should be shared. Religion: Xibo beliefs encompass elements of Buddhism, Animism and Shamanism with important deities including the god of grain and their goddess of fertility known as "Mother Xili." They also practice ancestor worship, sweeping their tombs annually and keeping a rolled scroll painted with their image in each home. Arts: The Xibo are a colorful and lively people, who enjoy singing, dancing and making music. Favorite instruments are the Dongbu'er, a single stringed instrument similar to the Kazak Dongbala and the Maken, a kind of mouth organ. Xibo women are also known for their skills in paper cutting.
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