Where's the real China?

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  ,
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Funny the things people think and say.
For example visitors coming to Lijiang in southwest China are led to believe it is a UN World Heritage site where the Naxi ethnic minority people practice their matriarchal ways.

It's not true really. The Naxi are now a minority in their town. Lijiang has more Bai traders than Naxi shopkeepers, and each day a new hotel or restaurant opens, run by people from Shenzhen or Beijing.

As for its World Heritage status, that is under review, though earlier this year when the inspectors visitors, the Beijing government did all it could to present the best of Lijiang: red lanterns were taken down, music had to stop at 11pm and everyone had to wear ethnic costumes.

I came across the story about the other Chinese who are settling here:

Discovering the real China
by Yap Mun Ching
THE Beijing Olympic Games has begun - the culmination of China's Great Preparation to show the world that it has arrived after almost 20 years of lobbying for the honour to play host.

It must be a relief to the leaders in Beijing as well, for who would have thought that this singular event would come to test Chinese fortitude as much as it has over the past year. In as much time as China took to put together the greatest sporting event on earth, its critics' pitch rose over its track record on human rights and democracy, foreign policy on Darfur, position on Tibet, widening income inequality and environmental degradation.

While criticisms have been on the rise externally, internally, China seems to have drummed up a great deal of nationalist fervour. But this was a different kind of fervour - not the red book waving loyalty of Mao's China but a quiet burning pride in the great leaps forward that the country has taken since Deng Xiaoping's economic liberalisation.

During a trip to Yunnan province late last year, I was fortunate to meet Jiansong and Xueping, a typical yuppie couple of this new China. In their late twenties, both left their hometowns in eastern Guangxi for jobs in the southern economic powerhouse of Shenzhen. There, they rent an apartment and drive a Volkswagen sedan. ("I would never have anything Japanese after what they did to the Chinese," Jiansong asserted).

Although both held regular white-collar jobs, they were also lucky beneficiaries of the stock market boom. After cashing in on their investments, the couple decided to quit their jobs to travel around the country.

By the time we met at the old Muslim stronghold of Dali, Jiansong and Xueping had already been travelling a month up from Xishuangbanna. Curious about us (my friend Mae and I) as Chinese of the diaspora who spoke poor Mandarin, the couple invited us to travel up Yunnan with them.

Along the way, we saw not the brash, nouveau riche China of the coastal cities, but a different side that seeks self-discovery as a means to engaging the world. In every city where we stopped, we were introduced to young independent travellers who venture to these parts to make a connection with the less developed and ethnically diverse regions. Few aspire yet to head out to the United States or Europe. Instead, their preferred destinations were the 3X's - Xishuangbanna, Xijang and Xinjiang.

To these young Chinese, the argument that the large influx of Han tourism into the interiors would lead eventually to an outnumbering of indigenous minority groups are moot. What the world didn't know, they said, was that the government has preferential policies for minority groups. One example is the exemption of China's strict One Child Policy for minority groups. This notwithstanding, in an increasingly mobile world, what country isn't experiencing people movement? The expansion of the EU community is pretty much the same process in motion. Why then should the Chinese be singled out for criticism when their migration is within their own borders?

By the time we reached our last stop in the mountaintop town of Zhongdian, we had become close enough to broach the issue of Tibetan self-determination. Zhongdian, a town officially renamed Shangri-la by the Chinese, is a part of Yunnan but its Tibetan identity is unmistakable. In the daytime, the village square is crowded with barbecue stands and stalls selling Tibetan trinkets. In the evenings, local tribesfolk gather to dance a particular soaring dance mimicking the moves of birds of prey.

Hoping to cash in on the Tibetan tourism boom, local authorities have started expand-ing the nearby centuries-old Tibetan monastery. Right next to the monastery are new homes and shops, all waiting to be filled by enterprising Hans from the lowlands. Would this eventually spell the end of the mystique of these regions? Are the critics not right in lamenting the destruction of China's diversity through a purported policy of economic development?

Yet the battle of words is one that no one side can truly win. If development is frowned upon, how else can China close the income inequality gap in these stark, bare regions? How can national integration be achieved if the minority regions are to remain ethnically separated?

On our last night together before parting, Mae and I asked Jiansong if he would leave us a message that he felt most defined his feelings after his long journey. In the musky, dark interior of a Tibetan teahouse where we had bowls of yak butter tea, Jiansong proudly belted out an old patriotic song: "Cities come and go but to the poetic Chinese, it is the red earth, blue skies and green mountains that calm their souls. There was no way China would destroy or give it all up."

In case we didn't understand, he added in English: "I love my country. China is Great!"

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