(3) The poppy harvest provides the only marketable commodity, and is produced on a very inegalitarian basis: the earliest and (first-come) households sniff out ad “lock in” the best land(s), later-comer families get the poorest and in smaller scale. Processing goes only as far as is needed for trading, which is done in the form of a crude mash made from the wax-like excretions of the bloom-pod. Getting the sap to extrude at maximum and most easily removed yield is a highly skilled task performed it would seem by the family expert, using a three-bladed “razor”. The scrapings are then rolled into a kind of ball, then wrapped in a casing of poppy-flower petals. The villagers (or for that matter, their co-ethnics) do not purchase or resell, though older (richer?) males seem to use a portion of their harvest for self-consumption, which involves no refining, just melting the raw putty into a pellet of (relatively) pure opium, then letting the residue slowly burn down as its smoke is inhaled.
(4) The petal-wrapped balls reach market through Han (ethnic) Chinese middlemen who circulate the hills, and buy directly from the producing household heads – there being no regular local short-cycle markets. Probably small-batch, as needed transactions are the norm, as the oppies mature along a time line that stretches from perhaps October until January – the core of the dry season.
(5) The only counter-traded commodity seems to be minted silver from Thailand or Indian coins. The minting verifies the high silver content, a key since that metal is (for the Miao) the only price-secure means of accumulating purchasing power either for status-related or for survival related needs. (The cash intake does not seem to be part of the regular budget for any necessities, but can become so when/if everything else runs out, in which case certain probably expensive imported foods can be purchased – no details.) The “skim” at the point of trade with the Chinese buyer probably subsidizes whatever collective protection is organized, but it would seem that guns and bullets are not plentiful at the village level. Thailand is these days a far better policed hinterland than West Hunan was as late as the 1950s.
(6) Depletion of soil and thus of poppy (but also all other) yields seems to shorten the life (as well as integrity) of each settlement (in Chinese, in Yunnan-Guizhou-Hunan called 寨, stockade, but here not so because residence is not expected to last long enough to justify the costs of fortification).
Probably because there is no control of (excess) water – no terracing – the topsoil is too vulnerable to rain slide or wash off during monsoon season to make artificial fertilization labor-practical. In any case, the kind of deep plowing that would be needed for soil enrichment/replenishment isn’t available, for the Miao (here) keep no plow-animals. That being said, certain “investments” of long term value do show up. A bumper (opium silver) year seems in this village to trigger a mini-boom in “modern” consumption. One family has managed an aluminum roof for its main hall (presumably, it can be disassembled and removed to wherever the family goes next); and (as everywhere in SE Asia), there has been a boomlet in radio-cassette sales (mentioned, not shown), which bodes not well for the ancient art of falsetto field-song.
(7) The most intensely hoarded form of opium-derived “insurance capital” is girls’ costume ornament, of pure silver but beaten into an ethnically or even trans-ethnically prized paired-horn or cornucopic profile, and often hung from more finely wrought silver chains or headbands. These, along with a wardrobe of top-of-the-line batique skirts and tunics, embody and determine the marriage-marketability of the opium farmer’s daughters, since they pass as dowry to the groom’s family. Bargaining for a bride is not all that different from putting in a bid on a portable silver-jewelry market-stall. But at least the tedium and risk of all that work in the poppy fields will finance the extension of the gene-pool, though not in the strictly patrilineal mode that Han Chinese normally target.
This is NOT a matrilineal or even matriarchal society, but the lateral transfer (from accumulating bride’s family to receptive groom’s family) of opium-earned silver-embodied DNA repro-licensing power and the impossibility of co-burial of ancestors probably explain why Chinese folklorists have that impression.
The Tujia (Hunan) version of silver hoarding via ornament (below) and batique accumulated handicraft labor (above)