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Commoditizing Ethnicity in Southwest China

Margaret Byrne

Domestic and international tourists alike are drawn to China's southwest region, which borders Tibet, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, by its tremendously varied scenery and its unique indigenous people. Ethnic tourism - the "marketing of quaint' customs of indigenous and often exotic peoples" (V. Smith 1989:2) - is promoted by China for local economic development and foreign currency. Yunnan Province, with 24 recognized minority minzu (nationalities or ethnic groups) forming one-third of its population, has actively pursued ethnic tourism development. The neighboring provinces Sichuan, Guizhou, Guanyxi, and Hainan, an island off the Vietnam - southern China coast, also have tourism plans that incorporate indigenous ethnic populations.

These ethnic groups are incorporated into tourism through the commoditization of ethnicity - the production and exchange of ethnic goods and behaviors for consumption by others, a process found worldwide. I use this term, rather than "cultural commoditization," because ethnicity can be defined with a political power dimension critical to my analysis. As ethnic goods and behaviors are transformed into commodities for tourist consumption, the interplay of cultural and political factors in the economy affects just how sustainable this tourism development can be. Some argue that tourism perpetuates inequalities between an indigenous group and its dominating nation and also between rich and poor countries (Lea 1988: 11). In stable natural and political environments, ethnic tourism can promote economic development for an indigenous group if the group owns the process in terms of its own cultural continuity and power (Swain 1989). In China, power dynamics among the ethnic group, the socialist state, and multinational tourist capitalism creates a complex picture. The role of the state is critical in defining China's ethnic tourism industry through its regulation of tourism investment, production, and consumption.

Exotic Others

In a nation where 94 percent of its 1.1 billion inhabitants are ethnically Han Chinese, the remaining 6 percent, comprising 55 other "nationalities," are indeed "exotic" to the majority. China has a long history of intrigue and strife over ethnic boundaries, symbolized to the north by the Great Wall. Official Marxist cultural evolution theory maintains that minorities are "less evolved" than people in "modern" society, but that they are capable of reaching an ultimate goal of assimilation. Since the mid-1050s, the People's Republic of China's (PRC) nationalities policy has granted minority ethnic groups specific "autonomous" reserves - areas officially governed for and by local indigenous peoples - and specific legal rights at the state's discretion. Who comprises an ethnic group and where group lands are located is defined by the state. Minority reserves vary in size from small counties to large province-sized units, including Guangxi (Zhuang Autonomous Region) and the long-contested Xizang, or Tibet, homeland of many Tibetan peoples (see W. Smith 1989).

Most of China's minorities live in regions with important natural resources or strategic international borders. China's southwest is home to the nation's greatest geographic and cultural diversity. Domestic tourists visit for its scenery, often incorporated into state parks and ranging from tropical jungles to snow-capped mountains. The area's indigenous people are in added curiosity. For foreign tourists, too, the "natives" can become a generic category marked only by distinct traditional dress. Both the image and the political situation of China's minorities parallel the lives of ethnic minorities in other multiethnic states around the world. Sensational popular accounts of non-Han Chinese, such as the depicted in China's 1989 him movie, Amazing marriage Customs, resemble Hollywood's stereotype of American Indians. An appreciation for linguistically and socially distinct cultures is a gap that tourism education can and should address in China.

Southwest Ethnic Tourism

Local people have varying degrees of input in the national government's tourism plans for southwest China. Examples of ethnic tourism noted in US guidebooks to China illustrate this point. In some cases, an area's remoteness, enhanced by tortuous transportation, has kept tourism activity in ethnic autonomous areas low, courting only "alternative" tourism serviced by local entrepreneurs. The government has many plans to open up these areas, however, and such development could perpetuate inequality between minorities and the majority. Tourism among the Sani Yi provides an example of state and indigenous efforts to balance these plans, which might be working due to the serendipitous effects of an informal economy.

Sichuan Province is home to Tibetan people living in varied environments. In the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, a grasslands region, Sichuan University and China's International Tourism Service (CITS) made preliminary plans in 1988 for a US educational tour offering a taste of horseback adventure riding with recruited Tibetan hosts. Northeast of Aba at Jiuzhaigou, a mountainous state nature reserve is becoming very popular as a domestic and foreign tourist destination. Several roads out from Chengdu entail an overnight trip to reach the park. This area, which boasts numerous waterfalls and lakes, was logged until it was protected by the Chinese government in 1979. Within its boundaries are Tibetan villages, virgin forest, and rare wildlife, including pandas.

Tourism in this region is developed along ethnic, scenic, and wildlife dimensions. A China Reconstructs (May 1988) article describes the difference in park accommodations between the 850 beds available in three state guest houses and 500 beds in small inns run by Tibetan families: in Tibetan inns "facilities... are limited, but the experience is unique." Tibetans also run small tourist restaurants in their villages under the government's nationwide "responsibility system," which permits household enterprise. The government is planning a great increase in mass tourism (100,000 foreign tourists annually at the park in the late 1980s) for the 1990s by constructing a tourist village, a helicopter pad, and a landing strip just outside park boundaries. This projected increase is bound to affect local Tibetans. How Tibetans are incorporated into the process will shape their political and cultural response to booming tourism. Relocating some Tibetan villages within and outside the park would certainly limit their participation in any potential "benefits."

Hainan Island is a new province that was incorporated in 1988 as a Special Economic Zone, with heavy emphasis on mass tourism development, including the construction of 6,000 new guest rooms. Hainan's tropical climate, scenery, and beaches make it an ideal vacation center. Literally underdeveloped, the island had little existing infrastructure. Efforts to bring in communications, transportation, and utilities have become state priorities, and the promise of good times has lured thousands of educated people from the mainland looking for jobs. Profiteering is an ongoing problem for central government officials.

Meanwhile, the local population, Han and minority alike, has been relegated to the sidelines. Peasants farm the countryside and fish the ocean. Some 40,000 Miao and 700,000 Li peoples live in an autonomous prefecture in the south-central part of the island. Hainan Island's center is being developed for ethnic tourism, as hotels, minorities "them" restaurants, and tours into Wuzhi mountain minority villages spring up. Minority women work as hostesses for guests attracted by packaged "primitiveness," an ironic imitation of Taiwan's bourgeois aboriginal tourism business. In an article on China's "Hawaii of the Orient" (Biers 1988), a young Li researcher is quoted as saying that all development in the autonomous region is for show: in areas away from the visitor's view, "the central government is not providing money to improve the standard of living." Certainly if the state judges the local peoples as being too backward to shape the commoditization of their cultures, and actual benefits that they will derive from tourism are hard to find.

Yunnan Province has both steaming tropics and soaring mountains. The best known tropical tourist area, Xishungbanna, is quite different from Hainan Island. Set in the Mekong River valley, it is a land of Buddhist shrines; here, some 270,000 Dai people (a total of 770,000 Dai live in Yunnan) speak and dress much like their relatives in Thailand. Other minorities living in this area are also visited by domestic and foreign tourists looking for good photo opportunities and handicraft souvenirs. Tourism business appears to be locally regulated, and includes facilities such as minority-run guest houses. Because the bus journey from the provincial transportation hub of Kunming to Jinghong is arduous and plane travel is limited, the tourist flow has not been over-whelming. The most crowding occurs during the Dai spring "Water Splashing Festival," which is very popular with Chinese tourists.

West into the mountains, the Dali Autonomous Prefecture around Lake Erhai is home to the Bai ethnic group of 1.3 million. Since this area was opened to foreigners in the mid-1980s, it has become a popular spot for Western "Adventure" tourists. A day-long bus ride from Kunming takes tourists to a marketplace featuring cosmopolitan ethnic goods (modern clothes manufactured out of local blue tiedye fabric) and services in a dramatic setting. Factories make Bai marble souvenirs and textile goods for direct sale and export. Bai women sell their embroidered handicrafts along the streets, and local restaurants serve hamburgers and cokes to browsing tourists. In the fall of 1989, when there were virtually no tourists in Kunming, Dali was still a busy alternative. It is too remote for larger-scale tour groups, making it all the more attractive to foreigners, who tout it as "the next Kathmandu" (Smagalski, Strauss, and Buckley 1988).

The mountain city of Lijian is another day's bus trip north of Dali, toward Sichuan. The government has great plans for Lijiang as a tourist center if and when a major airports is constructed. Spectacular scenery draws visitors to this area. Which is the Next ethnic group's autonomous county. The Naxi, now numbering 250,000, have a history of matrilineal organization and a religious tradition that incorporates indigenous, Chinese, and Tibetan elements, Most Naxi are now assimilated into the Chinese state, but their culture and society are unique enough to intrigue both Han Chinese and foreigners.

Sani Yi Tourism

In contrast to other ethnic tourism in Yunnan and the south, the Sani Yi have been coping with mass tourism since the early 1980s (see Swain 1989). Their location is a critical difference. The Sani, a Yi linguistic group of some 50,000, live in Lunan Yi Autonomous County, site of the Stone forest, or Shilin, tourist attraction. This area is only three hours by bus from Kunming, making mass tourism and group day trips to Shilin possible.

Shilin, acres of fantastic karst (limestone) formations, has been a Chinese scenic attraction since the early Qing Dynasty (1600s). The Sani have lived there for centuries, a fact documented by both Chinese and Sani Yi script records, myths, and stories. In the early 1950s, Zhou Enlai promoted Shilin's protection. After the Cultural Revolution's decade of turmoil and through the 1970s, Shilin, like the rest of China, began to rebuild. By 1981, local efforts to market Sani women's embroidered handicrafts began. The old government hotel at Shilin was refurbished to 300 beds, and new, Sani-owned hotels sprung up. Up to 500,000 tourists annually are expected in Shilin in the 1990s. By 1984, some Sani women were marketing their tourist goods in Kunming, a direct commoditization of ethnicity to tourists who did not make the trip to Shilin and an informal who did not make the trip to Shilin and an informal enterprise that brought in additional hard currency. The Chinese state encouraged this commoditization through benign neglect, failing to enforce urban laws restricting street peddling and money changing. In Shilin, handcraft marketing is somewhat confined to 125 rental stalls next to the state hotel, but it is as easy to be engulfed into a sea of Sani selling bags here as it is outside any major hotel in Kunming.

One repercussion of the Sani's easy accessibility to tourists has been the image of them as "typical" indigenous folk. The Sani are often the only non-Han a foreign tourist sees, and Sani embroidered bags are sold throughout China and exported as generic ethnic goods. Indeed, a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (1989) report on tourism ranks "Sani satchels" along with jade and porcelain as typical souvenirs of China. An August 1989 China Reconstructs tourism article refers to Tibetans and Sani as typical of grassroots developments: "In Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan province, a poor group of Tibetans changed their own lives by... setting up family-run small hotels catering to foreigners. At Shilin... women of the Hani [sic - Sani] nationality have taught themselves simple English, French and Japanese in order to communi-cate with foreign customers." This exposure has prompted some travel writers (Samagalski, Strauss, and Buckley 198:689) to find Sani relatively uninteresting or inauthentic:

Considering that so many "ethnic" areas of Yunnan are now open, you could be disappointed, if you make the trip [to Shilin] just to set the Sani... Off to the side is Five Tree Village which has the flavor of a Mexican Pueblo, but the tribespeople have been somewhat influenced by commercialism... The Shilin Hotel puts on a Sani song-and-dance evening... Surprisingly these events turn into goodnatured exchanges between Homo Ektachromo and Sani Dollari.

Sani commoditization of ethnicity has been along two paths: local marketing of ethnic goods and tourist services, such as "authentic" transportation in horse carts, guides into the forest, dance performances, foods, and accommodations, to both domestic and foreign tourists; and expanding urban circular migration to Kunming for selling ethnic goods to an otherwise untapped foreign tourist market. It is alternative economic development - not so much because of the scale of tourism (low-level "alternative" versus mass) but because tourism provides an alternative to an otherwise improverished local agricultural economy. Not all Sani are dropping their hoes for megaphones, however. Household income generated in other programs such as goat raising. Plans made by their autonomous county government in 1986 include tourism as one part of an overall program that emphasizes environmental protection and economic diversification (Swain 1989). The sociocultural effects of this economic development can be seen in gender roles, household organization and differentiation, and ethnic identity practice. The results of any minority of any minority development, however, are shaped by the Chinese state - the ultimate authority.

The Chinese State and Ethnic Tourism

All of China's ethnic minority groups have a history of conflict and negotiation with the Chinese state. Some, such as the Tibetans and the Dai, have a contemporary politico-religious structure in varying degrees of opposition to the state. Others such as the Bai have histories of their own state development, but were subjugated by China centuries ago. The Chinese colonized the Naxi area through a system of native overlords, then garrisoned Lijian in the 1700s. The Sani were probably subjects of the more powerful Yi, and then were incorporated into the state by Han Chinese pushing into Yunnan from the north-east. For all minorities, the state's rule became absolute.

The state is the arbitrator of relations among producers, marketers, and consumers in China's ethnic tourism. It is the state which defines the commodity and who and what constitutes and ethnic group. There are definite economic advantages to promoting ethnicity for commoditization. It stimulates the national economy and attracts foreign capital. Official Chinese ideology both protects national minority groups and promotes their ultimate assimilation. From this perspective, ethnic tourism is intended to be used economically, as a temporary cultural phenomenon, not as a vehicle for ethnic group sustainability. The Chinese state is also a primary factory affecting the flow of consumers, as the dramatic change from a booming to a virtually dead domestic and foreign tourism market in the wake of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre illustrates. Although an indigenous group can make its own tourism plans, it is the state which channels funds and allows foreign investors access. Flourishing informal tourism activity such as the Sani women peddler exists at the wish of the state and the availability of consumers.

For indigenous groups in China, ethnic tourism reinforces their separateness from the majority while integrating them into the state economy. Whether tourism promotes cultural continuity of touristized ethnic groups or ethnic group assimilation depends on the state's allocation of control in the process of ethnicity commoditization. If the ethnic group, through individual actors, has no control over tourism activity - as seems the case on Hainan Island - then it is likely that their participation is exploitative and devalues their culture. If the ethnic group can take control - as the Sani have through their own actions and programs - then ethnic tourism can well give the group economic power to reinforce its identity as it adapts to new definitions and cultural values for ethnic markers. This type of "indigenous tourism" development validates the power groups - in theory - have from the state.


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Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.