Minorities on Parade

Bai woman selling fruits at market. Old City Dali, Yunnan.

The Chinese Cultural Dialectic
March marked the 50-year anniversary of the expulsion of the Dali Lama from Tibet and the annexation of the Tibetan territories. In anticipation of demonstrations against China's policy in Tibet--particularly in Western provinces--the Chinese government ceased the granting of visas into Tibet, stepped up police presence in cities with heavy Tibetan influence and implored the international and domestic media to take an "objective" stance in assessing the dispute. Typically, discourse on the Chinese government's policy towards ethnic minorities is relegated to the half-century's old dispute over Tibet. The plight of the Tibetans dominates international headlines. Although they make up a rather large ethnic group, Tibetans are only one of many minority groups struggling for any sort of voice in China. Other ethnic groups, particularly the Uighurs (pronounced, "Wee-gur") in the north west, share similar difficulties. The Uighurs and Tibetans have been to a large extent corralled into ironically named Special Autonomous Zones, where the Chinese government can keep close tabs on them and systematically wipe out their culture through a number of methods. The most effective method the government has employed to reach such ends has been its granting of economic incentive and land rights to Han entrepreneurs in such regions, thus promoting domestic immigration. Outside of the Uighur state and Tibet however, veins of ethnically distinct peoples run through China's countryside and its cities. It is these groups and their rich dress, distinct food and customs that contribute so much to the overall beauty and appeal of China. Yunnan province, which is situated in the southwest of China, bordering on Tibet, is home to one-third of China's ethnic minorities. It was in the Yunnanese cities of Kunming, Dali and Lijiang that we were first confronted by the beauty and nuance that China's minority people's offer.

Keeping with tradition. Despite Lijiang's metamorphosis into a vacationer's playground, the local Naxi people still call the Old City Lijiang home.

However, as one very knowledgeable American ex-pat we met in a Dali bar put it, these people "...don't have the numbers, or a rock star like the Dali Lama buddying up with people in Hollywood." As a result they are being marginalized at dizzying rates, by a government who wishes to exploit their culture through tourism.

Mosuo woman. Lijiang, Yunnan.

Follow the Yellow Flag
Only by mere happenstance did it work out that we were in China during the low tourist season. Due in large part to my admittedly Westerncentric world view, I completely neglected to consider that given its population, China might just have a booming domestic tourism industry. So even in the low season we were competing with throngs of Chinese tourists at every bend. Like many other things in China (i.e. trains and bureaucracy) the Tourism industry runs like clockwork. Busloads of tourists dressed in the latest trekking gear are unloaded on tourist attractions, they follow a man or woman carrying a colored flag, snap the obligatory photos, buy arbitrary souvenirs, are funneled through prearranged restaurants and corralled back onto the bus headed for the next destination. This fast-paced and consumptive form of sight-seeing is no doubt a consequence of the limited time most Chinese have off from work or school per year, but it is also straining local populations, resources and landmarks in popular destinations.

The local Lijiang government pleads with the throngs of tourists to keep the World Heritage sight clean.

Chachkies & Beer
Although the marginalization of China's minorities is rooted in the Han nationalist philosophies of Sun Yat Sen and Mao Zedong, their commodification is a function of China's insatiable appetite for economic growth. The ancient cities of Dali and Lijiang, the latter of which is a UNESCO World Heritage sight--China has many--still maintain the basic architecture, but the cultural dynamic is quickly diminishing in places such as these.

Old City Lijiang's tourist district is jam-packed with shops selling anything from Yak jerky to lamp shades.

Dali is home to China's Bai people and Lijiang to the Naxi people's, both with their distinct languages and customs. However, the economic opportunities provided by tourism in these places have been largely snapped up by Han entrepreneurs who exploit the local minority crafts, foods and music to fill their own pockets. A classic example of such exploitation is Bar Street in Lijiang. Women and men dressed in minority garments--many of them Han--herd people into discos and bars blaring the latest Chinese pop music.

Disco World Heritage? "Bar Street" as it's called, has prompted UNESCO to threaten revocation of Lijiang's World Heritage status.

Very few Bai and Naxi live in the "Old Cities" of Dali and Lijiang respectively. Minority properties have been bought out and converted into souvenir shops, guesthouses or restaurants; whether or not these people had a choice to sell their homes during this rapid transition remains a mystery.

Local Naxi women walk one of the less tourist ridden streets of the "Old City." Lijiang, Yunnan.

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