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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The new China is still in the midst of celebrations for the lunar New Year. We turn now to look at how one of the country's largest ethnic minorities welcomes in the Year of the Pig. There are more than seven million Miao in China -elsewhere also known as the Hmong.

In the rush for modernity, some fear their culture could disappear, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

LOUISA LIM: From a clearing surrounded by mountains, a distinctive sound rings out. It's a Lu sheng - a wind instrument made from six bamboo pipes. The Lu Sheng player performs an elaborate dance, leaping and hopping around a tall flagpole in the clearing while blowing his pipes.

He and members of the Miao are celebrating the New Year with the Flower Mountain Festival.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in Chinese)

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: It's on this day that would-be lovers court each other through song. Legend has it that the Miao's distinctive piercing tones carry far in order to attract distance partners outside their own kin. At this particular village festival, Old Gao is the boss, the man in charge of the flagpole. And he explains how he sees the differences between Miao and dominant Han Chinese.

Mr. OLD GAO (Boss of Festival): (Through translator) Han Chinese don't sing mountain songs. They look at a partner's talents - their figure, their weight, their family property, things like that. But we find a partner through singing. Even if someone is very ugly, the main thing is if they can sing, then they might be able to show love. People who are too good-looking just love themselves.

LIM: Nowadays some sing just for singing's sake - miked up so their voices are broadcast over the hills. The festivals held across Miao areas are more community occasions than courtship rituals, with simple fairground games and stores selling barbecued snacks. The clearing is dotted with color as many of the women still wear the intricate embroidered pleated skirts and leg wrappings distinctive of the Miao.

Ms. XIU HUIYING (Festival Participant): (Chinese spoken)

LIM: But things are changing, according to Xiu Huiying, flashing her mouth full of silver teeth. She adds most women no longer shave back their hairline or wear turbans. But the traditional clothes are just too uncomfortable and hot, says 22-year-old Wang Yinliang.

Ms. WANG YINLIANG (Festival Participant): (Chinese spoken)

LIM: She's dressed in black jeans, a yellow windbreaker with purple fur fringe and a yellow sweater with Diamante decorations. Some Miao deride their customs as backwards. Others fear these traditions are under threat - like 70-year-old Qi Shaoba, who spent 20-odd years learning the courtship songs.

Mr. QI SHAOBA (Singer): (Through translator) Very few young people can sing. They don't want to learn the songs. They just watch television.

LIM: But he embraces many of the changes, remembering that ten years ago the village was so poor it couldn't even afford the flagpole at the center of today's festivities. And even if the young aren't singing there's still a true-life romance playing out at today's festival.

(Soundbite of singing)

Ms. YIN XIUFAN (Singer): (Singing) (Chinese spoken)

LIM: Forty-eight-year-old Yin Xiufan is singing her heart out. She faces away from her dueting partner. Her eyes are closed, all her passion in her voice.

Ms. XIUFAN: (Through translator) I feel very happy. I don't know whether other people are happy when they sing but it makes me feel very happy.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: This eloquent sung conversation is with none other than the veteran singer Mr. Qi.

(Soundbite of singing)

Mr. QI: (Singing) (Chinese spoken)

LIM: He's a widower, she's a widow. He sings nicely, she says, smiling shyly. But a single voice never sounds as good as two together. We need a rest now, he says to me, but come back later and we'll sing for you some more.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Hunan Province, Southern China.

(Soundbite of singing)

Mr. QI: (Singing) (Chinese spoken)

MONTAGNE: You can hear more courtship songs and see traditional dress on display at the Flower Mountain Festival but paying a visit to npr.org.

(Soundbite of singing)

Mr. QI: (Singing) (Chinese spoken)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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