Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights

CULTURE-CHINA: ‘Shangri La’ Under Tourist Siege

Antoaneta Bezlova

LIJIANG, Nov 14 2008 (IPS) - The ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road has come back to life. On top of sturdy short-legged horses, dark-skinned men wrapped in furs are making their arduous way up the narrow paths of the silver-clad Dragon Jade Snow Mountain.

Scenes from the show 'Impressions Lijiang'.  Credit: Antoaneta Bezlova

Scenes from the show 'Impressions Lijiang'. Credit: Antoaneta Bezlova

Midway they stop to feast and get drunk, they hunt and court, they sing and beat their huge round drums. Once in a while exotic maidens join the riders on horseback, adding a blaze of colour to the rugged landscape.

A flashback to forgotten 13th century history of a remote border territory? With spectacular open-air stage, cast of 500 amateurs from ten ethnic groups and directed by China’s internationally-acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, “Impressions Lijiang” is a true cultural extravaganza.

It blends folk elements in a visually striking mass production, reviving the history of trade and hazardous life along the ancient caravan road winding its way from China to India.

The show is one of a several Hollywood-style outdoor spectaculars playing across the country – all created with an eye on marketing China’s rich cultural heritage and generating tourism revenues. Yet this one – staged at the foot of Naxi people’s holy mountain in China’s western Yunnan province – is somewhat special. The effects it produces on the audiences are unusual.

A crowd of 1,500 spectators – most of them tourists from the Han majority, erupt in breathless cheers throughout the performance; they follow mesmerized the gyrating movements and incantations of the Dongbas – the shamans of Naxi people. The end of the show brings the crowd on its feet, shouting “We like you”; “We will be back!”

As the audiences file out of the theater, not a single person misses the chance to line up and receive the Dongba’s symbolic blessing. Clad in mandarin coats of embroidered silk, the Dongbas stand next to a ritual urn. Every spectator scribbles a wish on a piece of paper and drops it in the shamans’ urn in the hope that their magical spells would render it true.

The show taps into a growing fascination among Han-majority Chinese for the lives and experiences of the country’s exotic “others” – the minority groups that inhabit some of the mainland’s most pristine and beautiful areas. The sedentary and increasingly wealthy Han confess to feeling attracted to the free ways of life and love of ethnic minorities. And they come in droves searching for the experience.

“I have been to see all of Zhang Yimou’s shows,” says a tourist from Zhejiang who gives his name as Peng. “I have been to Henan and I have been to Yangshuo but this is the best one. The scenery is the best and the scenes of people on horseback are awesome. I like it best because it is about a life that is very different from mine.”

A couple dressed up in furs, not unlike the actors on the stage, exchange kisses before they drop their wish in the urn. They come from Guangzhou in the southern province of Guangdong and the girl says they are on their honeymoon. Judy Ping who worked in Britain before deciding to settle back home explains in perfect English that this is their third trip to China’s Shangri-La.

“We love this place,” she says. “People here are so uninhibited and different from our hometown. The nature is fantastic. We wanted to have a special place for our honeymoon and we chose Lijiang. It is as close to paradise as one can find in China.”

The Naxi people, who make up 70 percent of Lijiang’s population, have a matrilineal society led by shamans (the Dongbas) who developed their own hieroglyphic writing system that dates back to the 14th century. The neighbouring county of Zhongdian tried to cash on the place’s unique history, culture and nature by renaming itself Shangri-La and asserting that it is where the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton was set.

In the novel a party of outsiders stumbles into the valley of Shangri-La, discovering an enclosed paradise of carefree happiness. The place flourishes free of contamination from the outside world.

Indeed, with its unique mix of diverse people – Naxi, Bai and Tibetan – and serene nature and lingering charm, Lijiang has come to be described by travelers as a scene from paradise. But modern Lijiang is no sanctuary.

In 1997, the ancient town was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and the selection provided an immediate boost to tourist numbers. A UNESCO mission earlier this year found that from 1997 to 2007 the old town’s visitor numbers grew from 1.7 million to 4.6 million.

China’s new wealth has provided more and more people with the means to travel and this is visible on every step in this small, cobbled-street town. The narrow winding streets are packed with tourists, mainly from the Han majority. They crowd the small artisans’ shops, fill the boutiques and spillover the streets from restaurants and coffee shops.

“It is suicidal,” a shopkeeper on Sifangjie, or the Square Street, tells me. “Lijiang people live off tourism but it is tourism that is going to kill this place.”

Zhang Lishun comes from Dali, another ancient trading spot on the Tea and Horse Caravan Road. Dali grew rice and was much wealthier than Lijiang and he says its wealth destroyed the old city. “People got money and knocked down their old houses. They built western modern houses and the old place is now gone. The same is going to happen here.”

On paper at least, Lijiang is safe from development frenzy. As a World Heritage Site the town is under careful observation for any damage that could be done by demolition or careless development.

Nevertheless, the January report issued by the UNESCO mission noted with concern that “commercial interests have driven measures to facilitate large numbers of tourists, compromising the authentic heritage values which attracted visitors to the property in the first place.’’

What is more, local residents are increasingly displaced by newcomers. As the prices go up, many Lijiang residents have found that the only way to survive is to rent their traditional houses to outsiders doing trade and other businesses. Shops along the quaint streets are run by people from Hunan and Zhejiang, Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces.

More than 50 years ago one of Lijiang’s most affectionate and keen observers, Russian traveler Peter Goullart, related Naxi people’s reluctance to see their idyllic land destroyed by the influx of outsiders.

“They said that the highway would bring much more trouble than benefit to their peaceful land,” Goullart wrote in his book ‘The Forgotten Kingdom’. “The little town would be swamped by hordes of Chinese crooks, in the guise of small traders, drivers and mechanics. Native businesses and industry would be ruined by keen competition and home life disrupted by evil influences.”

Among locals nowadays there is s sense of resignation about the tourist onslaught. Aming Duo, one of the 50-odd remaining Naxi shamans, who sells inscriptions with Naxi’s unique hieroglyphs to tourists at the Dongba palace, says he could not have survived without the money this job brings him.

“The problem is that our script was meant to record history and philosophy. Now I’m being asked to write jokes and people’s names. It feels like a profanity to my tradition,” he says.

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