The Feast in the Trees

A dispatch from China's Fujian province

By / April 2013

“Good things come in pairs,” the Chinese like to say. And indeed, as we hike up the mountain road in northern Fujian province toward a bride sendoff feast far above, I am lugging two matching cartons of whole-fat milk. The milk is for the hostess, Mrs. Lan, a friend of a friend whom I’ve met twice in town. My twin twelve-year-old daughters walk alongside me. Our party is a parade of pairs.

It’s a late January afternoon, warm, not like normal. My girls have shed their outer jackets. The road narrows to a dirt trail and steepens. We hike for ten minutes before one of the strangers who exited the dusty bus from Fu’An City with us shares a just-in piece of wedding gossip. The bride-to-be will be absent tonight from her own chu jia, the traditional pre-departure feast for Shê brides. It seems her younger sister has gone into labor and, because the rest of the family is consumed with feast preparations, the bride has opted to spend the day with her sister in the hospital.

The news, a confirmation of the Chinese cliché, makes the people in our group cackle. However inconveniently timed, a baby is a major blessing, an absentee bride, by comparison, a matter rather small. So long as she turns up tomorrow in a traditional red gown, hair sprayed to unmoving in a gorgeous up-do, all will be well.

Besides, tonight’s spread is largely about the bride’s parents, a time for acknowledging the many ways they have prepped their daughter for marriage. But the honor is replete with responsibility. The mother of the bride, who usually lives in an apartment in Fu’An City, has invested weeks cleaning the walls, woks, and tables in the family’s ancestral home up the mountain in Wohlng Mbu Village. Her husband has shelled out  a small fortune. 

In recent years northern Fujian has modernized. High rises, highways, and high temples spiral upwards from the valleys below, moving ever closer to Fujian’s terraced vegetable fields and thick bamboo groves. Yet remote villages such as Wohlng Mbu, where China’s ethnic minority Shê people have lived for centuries, retain an old-world remove. Tomorrow, before the wedding, there will likely be a line of BMWs and Benzes parked at the foot of the mountain, but navigating by foot is still essential in the heights.

The village is a cluster of about twenty earth, brick, and wooden homes tucked among trees. We step carefully along dirt paths or on flat cut stones beneath a multigreen canopy, the last road now hundreds of feet behind. Bare lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling of a pathside house betray our destination.

As we enter Wohlng Mbu, firecrackers snap fiercely, echoing across the mountainsides, but startling none of the locals. The men go on smoking, the women chatting in the lilting language of the ethnic Shê people. The birds, from which historians and locals claim the Shê people derive their pentatonic musical language, are also accustomed to firecrackers; they quickly resume their carefree songs, sung in precise eighth and quarter notes.

It doesn’t take long for the meal to commence. By the door my daughters and I are the only ones who dither; the others disperse smoothly, in accordance with unspoken ritual. Apart from my girls, the youth are missing. Tomorrow is an examination day at the local schools. End-of-semester tests are now on equal footing with the rite of marriage and the birthing of babies, even in Fujian.

As darkness and evening mist settles over the forested village, we sixty guests sit on wooden stools around square tables scattered throughout several dirt-floored rooms. Food served by aunts, cousins, and neighbors pours from the kitchen. Dinner is long noodles in tangy gravy with quail eggs, followed by pig’s foot in anise-flavored broth, a large fish with green onions gracing its slender belly, and a hearty countryside Hot Sour Soup, flush with fish bladders and cauliflower.

Wine and beer flow freely among the men at the next table over. My daughters and I drink red guava and coconut juice. A few of the women will eventually accept alcohol, but it’s best, given the occasion, not to hazard a trim figure on overindulgence.

When the father of the bride makes his way to our table for a toast, he apologizes dutifully for what he calls the “poor spread.” We take exception, assuring him the food is terrific. He lifts a glass. “Today I am grandpa,” he says, “and tomorrow I get a son-in-law!” In China in pairs are how the good things come.


Laurie Smith lives and writes in China’s Fujian province.