Mao people structure life around the maple / Alamy

The Rainbow Hunters - One mother, two boys, on a trip to seven countries to find the origin of seven colours

There are two things going on when we arrive in Baigao, a small Mao settlement that clings to the mountain slopes. There is the preparation of a feast to be cooked by the roadside in thanks for the free labour given on a new house; and then there is the expectant death of a village elder.

We are here to find the embroiderer Miss Xu. As we head down, our guide, Teddy, explains: "The Mao people find a maple tree first, then build a village. There is no village without this tree. With each newborn child they plant a new tree. It grows as they grow and is chopped down when they die, to create the coffin they are buried in. Then they plant another so the soul keeps growing."

As we head down the cobbled steps we pass three men with large, squirming sacks flung over their shoulders. "Pigs for the feast," Teddy explains.

Miss Xu pokes her smiling face out of a nearby door. She ushers us inside. Proudly she shows us the embroidery she has spent a year creating for the soon-to-be widow of the village elder: a fire bird in flight, with wings spread wide. It's coloured with natural dyes and it is the green that draws my eye. It looks too bright to be natural. "It comes from the green maple leaf," I'm told. She boils it with alum, tea tree or yarrow to create the vivid dye. Then, fire crackers sound from the slopes. "It is the old man," says Teddy. "He has died."

We head back to the village square. The three pigs have been killed and are ready to be cooked. The men are heading to the dead man's house. "So they'll cut down his tree?" my youngest son asks. "Yes," I tell him. "But they'll plant him another," he says, looking at the surrounding slopes covered in maples, from red to yellow to brightest green.

Audley Travel (01993 838200; offers tailor-made trips to China, including villages in Guanxhi and Guizhou. The Rainbow Hunters are raising money for War Child (; You can read more at