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  • The girl flinched as her mother lifted the silver headdress on to the dish towel wrapped tight around her head as protection from rough edges.

    Dressing daughters requires delicate negotiation and creative fortitude for mothers of the Miao minority groups in southwestern China. Wedged into a tiny space under a village school’s stairwell, Clear Water Miao mothers and daughters pulled layers of festival adornment from nylon bags carried upon their backs. Up the misty mountain trails and down the slippery rice paddy ledges, the journey can take days.

    Out on the muddy field where the festival dancing would soon begin, the men and boys goaded the water buffalo to fight by dousing them with rice wine and lighting fireworks beneath their tails. The birdlike trills of lusheng pipes warned the mothers that soon the water buffalo would be led back into the thickets, and it would be time for the manure-spackled field to become a dance floor.

    Younger girls crept on to the stairs to peer longingly at the festival rituals that would one day be their lives. Delicate earrings brushed against tiny shoulders. The 24-inch bonnets filled with 100 intricate pieces nested upon heads like layered cakes. Maybe, the ancestor spirits would be pleased and not troubled at the cheaper metal now used instead of the heavy silver of long ago that burdened a girl with 30 extra pounds and staggering financial cost.

    Every piece of imperfect silver still came at a price – sacks of rice harvested and sold in a year doomed by drought.

    Every piece of imperfect silver still came with a message – “My daughter is fairest of them all.”
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