Robert: The Wind at Our Backs

November 4, 2009

Wooooooooooow… Really loving the last two weeks of this life, traveling through northwestern Yunnan. We swung through Weishan, the first capital of the Nanzhao kingdom during the Tang dynasty.  A low-key, beautiful town, with a great deal of original architecture still shaping the layout of the village.

After spending a day on nearby Weibaoshan, one of twelve holy Daoist sites in China, we headed to Shibaoshan and its monastery, ate amazing temple food, woke up to see the sunrise, were confronted by local monkeys, and watched shooting stars at the foot of a giant, unlit golden Buddha.  Almost stayed and spent the next month studying temple food.  So tempting.

IMG_1663 The next day marked the start of a four-day homestay in a rural village called Sideng, in the Shaxi valley.  On our way, we hiked up through the grottoes of Shibaoshan; Nanzhao-era reliefs that are relics of the advent of Chinese Buddhist art, but still displaying attributes that point to the confluence of Indian, Tibeto-Burmese, and Chinese culture that was occurring in the region.  It took a lot of guanxi to preserve these during the revolution, only to later have a group of angry Muslims go at some of them with hammers and chisels.  Oh, religion.

We hiked over the pass, and came down into the Shaxi valley. Lunched at a place that felt like the south of France or the Anderson Valley in California. Sideng is a fairly straightforward Chinese farm-town. Virtually everyone grows grain, maize, broadbeans, tobacco, or a variety of greens in a combination of large-scale fields and small, 1000-sq. ft. plots at their homes.  Once we found ourselves in the town square in Sideng, I met my host, Duan Bo Shan, a man in his sixties with leathery skin, a few remaining teeth, a huge heart, and wonderful family.  We spent much of the next four days improving my erhu technique, learning Yi folk songs and Mao tributes such as Dongfeng Hong.  I conducted a brief survey of agriculture in and around Sideng– great practice for my upcoming ISP– and the stay culminated with my getting roped into performing erhu in front of the entire village.  Yikes.

From Shaxi we went to Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-la.  I’d been aware of the fictitious origins of the name Shangri-la, but only after arriving there did it become clear why this, of all places, had been appropriated the name.  Lijiang, to the south, had long claimed itself to be the place James Hilton’s Lost Horizon had referred to.  But in the mid-90s, the logging industry around Zhongdian had led to such horrible soil erosion that flooding began to get out of control.  Ultimately the central government instituted a logging ban, leaving the area with virtually no economic base.  Lijiang had gone through the same transition, but their tourist economy, though still in its infancy, was about to boom significantly due to its impending nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and informal use of the name Shangri-la.  After it petitioned for and was granted an official name change to Shangri-la, tourism became the principle industry in Zhongdian, er, Shangri-la.

Now, about that little point of sarcasm above:  A great deal of contemplation and debate went on while we visited Zhongdian and Lijiang, regarding the commodification of culture, authenticity, agency, and even the process by which official minority status is granted here.  First of all, it’s important to recognize that minorities are defined by and for the state, in lieu of the differences the groups perceive between themselves.  One town of Naxi will certainly demarcate themselves from another town of Naxi people living on the other side of the Sichuan border; conversely, the central government will lump them together as “Naxi” simply because of a (partially) shared linguistic basis. In that position of ultimate power that the state holds, the disregard for the values of the people being defined comes the opportunity to control the public perception of minorities by employing an in-group/out-group dynamic that portrays minorities less as unique groups living in concert with one another and more as non-Han “others”.

The execution of this practice is most evident in Lijiang, where the promotion of “Dongba Culture” serves as the touchstone of minority tourism in the county.  But the thing about “Dongba Culture” is that there’s no such thing.  Dongbas are essentially the holy men of Naxi spirituality, and there are as few as 20 still living.  Actual Dongbas have absolutely no purpose in Lijiang, and thus live primarily in the mountains, isolated from one another.  But the promise of seeing ancient Naxi script– a dying language traditionally only used for religious and to a small extent economic purposes– used on the side of a Han-Chinese-owned tour bus is a prime example of how a component of minority culture is abused to reinforce their “otherness” and create exotic tourist destinations for eastern Chinese without having to leave China.

Soon you have Dongba impersonators, Han women dressed in minority clothing welcoming you to their restaurant, and, not surprisingly, Han women migrating to tourist destinations to don minority attire and work in the sex industry catering to Han men on holiday.  The irony of this latter situation is that it often involves minorities like the Hui (any Chinese citizen who follows Islam– again, not the most fine-toothed comb), who often have drastically more conservative values than the Han artists who subsequently paint eroticized works of bare-breasted, dancing minority women in romanticized primitivity, or misconstruing the “walking marriage” practice of the matrilineal Mosuo as a backwards society of free-love, open to anyone willing to make the journey to Lugu Lake.

Furthermore, there’s the issue of agency, most poigniantly discussed in the context of Tibetan peoples living in Kham, or what used to be eastern Tibet before the 1950s. First of all, there’s the preceding issue of Tibetan autonomy, which accentuates any spin one might apply to the situation.  Secondly, though the argument that choosing tourism over farming or herding or logging has led to an improvement in quality of life for some of the region’s residents, the sudden transition into a tourist economy perpetrated and often dominated by Han Chinese has left many local young adults with few options.  Now, in light of the few options for education beyond high school or even middle school, minorities in Eastern Tibet are increasingly faced with the lone option of entering the service industry, working check-in counter girls or tour guides.  While these positions can allow for some upward mobility, it is limited, and again, the underlying question of how such a situation came about can make it difficult to substantiate the claim that the “modernization” of ethnic minorities is any kind of favor.

Speaking of substantiating claims, I’m leaving Kunming today to begin a month of work on my independent study project, heading back to Xishuangbanna.  I’ll be living on a (Theravada) Buddhist monastery, and hopefully studying a group of Dai (ethnic Thai) people living and working on a banana and rubber tree plantation.  It’s feeling like a little bit of an insane undertaking right now, trying to accomplish what should really be at least six-month project in about three weeks.  Worse comes to worse, there’s always the Temple Food idea, and of course, the erhu.


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