Tourism Traps Ethnic Minority in Tradition
Each morning, a rhythmic banging wakes the residents of Zhaoxing. With broad, wooden hammers, women are breaking up particles of indigo dye in long stretches of fabric, releasing a deep purple sheen that is a quintessential characteristic of the traditional garments worn by the Dong, the ethnic minority they belong to.
As the first sunbeams imbue the mountainside of this small village in China’s southwestern Guizhou province with a warm light, those who aren’t yet awake soon will be. For more than a thousand years, the Dong have lived in houses made entirely of wood — with hardly the soundproofing to block out the incessant hammering. When boys come of age, they learn from their fathers how to build the intricate domiciles out of Chinese fir trees, while girls learn from their mothers how to dye and pound the fabric.
But more and more, the sound of the Dong women’s rhythmic hammering is overpowered by the much louder, jarring drills of jackhammers. Traditional homes are rapidly being replaced by concrete structures. Those who already live in modern homes are often the last to arrive at the market, where fresh produce is weighed not electronically on a digital scale, but manually on a beam balance.
Zhaoxing is at a crossroads. As the largest Dong ethnic minority village in Guizhou, it is struggling with fundamental questions of cultural preservation: How do you preserve long-held traditions while still allowing for development, and at what cost?
“We have no choice,” said Lu Peicheng, a hotel owner who shares his surname with most of the locals in Zhaoxing. “If the hotels do not have good toilets and bathrooms, visitors won’t stay there,” he said. Almost 10 years ago, Lu Peicheng was one of the first residents to open a hotel made of concrete. Business back then wasn’t great, but his lodging house was an early herald of changes yet to come.
The rapid influx of tourism has only inflamed the longing for modern architecture among the locals, he said. Since the government decided to develop Zhaoxing as a top sightseeing destination and officially opened it to tourism in 2014, the village has seen a dramatic increase in visitors who take pictures, pose and mill about in front of the indigenous wooden houses built next to the small creek that runs through the valley.
Today, Zhaoxing has 5,000 residents and close to 2,000 beds for visitors. When he was young, Lu Peicheng, now 46, said there were no tourists, and that everyone used to live in wooden houses. The community would log Chinese firs from the surrounding forest, and together they would build the stilt homes, from the corridors to the eaves to the tiled roofs. Nails and modern building materials weren’t needed.
Now, however, cement bags and mixers are found near every corner. On the newly paved street in front of Lu Peicheng’s hotel, two chopped-up dogs are simmering in a huge pot with fresh chilies and herbs. His neighbor is preparing a feast of the expensive meat to celebrate the purchase of his new white SUV, which cost more than 100,000 yuan ($15,000). Red ribbons adorn the vehicle’s side-view mirrors.
Economically, tourism has benefitted Zhaoxing, but it has also caused a dilemma, said Zhou Yating, who was put in charge of the town’s party affairs in 2013. “Now that people’s lives are getting better, they want to live in concrete houses,” she said.
The Dong are one of China’s 55 recognized minorities, so the government is trying to preserve its culture, Zhou said. “But if all the houses are concrete, it’s not a Dong village anymore. Then there would be no difference between the Dong and Han ethnicities,” she said, comparing the local minority group to China’s dominant ethnic group.
Modernization and new construction have to be controlled, Zhou said. Along the creek, the main artery around which the majority of village life takes place, houses are under government protection for historical preservation, so they can’t be modernized. In some areas, residents are allowed to replace the ground floor with a cement base, making it possible to incorporate modern plumbing.
Apart from specially designated exceptions, though, cement houses are allowed, as long as they are covered up with wooden beams and planks. At least on the outside, the village needs to keep up appearances — even if it’s just a veneer.
The facade is easy to see through, however, and tourists who are in many ways the driving force behind this modernization have started to complain. Wei Qiaoling, a tourist from Guangdong, said of the concrete houses, “They don’t match the natural landscape here.” She doesn’t understand why they would desire the modern homes they’ve come to know from larger, more developed towns and cities. “I don’t think it’s difficult for them to live in ancient wooden houses,” Wei said. “Yesterday, we visited our driver’s house, and the conditions there were not as bad as we had imagined.”
Still, like the vast majority of tourists, Wei is staying in a hotel with air conditioning and a modern bathroom with shower, toilet, and hot water. Some hotel rooms in Zhaoxing cost as much as 900 yuan a night.
In Guizhou, one of China’s least-developed provinces, about 5 million of the 35 million inhabitants live below the poverty line. Poverty here is so pervasive that the Dong people have a saying to describe their native home: “Not three feet of flat land, not three days without rain, not a family with three silver coins.”
The national government, however, has said that it is determined to change that. Developing tourism can be one of the fastest ways out of poverty, partly because little skill or training is needed to work in the industry, and partly because the sector relies on the spending power of people who live in already-developed, high-income areas.
Billions of yuan have been invested in developing the area. The Guizhou Cultural and Natural Heritage Protection and Development Project, led by the World Bank, is worth $90 million alone. The project is aimed at helping local governments alleviate poverty through “increased tourism and better protection of cultural and natural heritages.”
In Zhaoxing, the money has helped authorities build newly paved roads that lead to a parking lot for tour buses, with public bathrooms tucked behind an artificial waterfall that cascades over artificial rocks. There’s a visitor’s center, a general map of the area, and a stage where the “Grand Song of the Dong,” which was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, is performed for visitors.
In terms of tourist numbers, the investment is paying off. In 2015, more than 110,000 of the 100-yuan tickets for Zhaoxing were sold, up from just over 60,000 in 2014, when the ticket sales office first opened. An additional 22,000 came from southeastern Guizhou, whose residents aren’t required to pay for admission. That would bring the average daily number of visitors who flock to the small settlement to more than 350.
“If you talk about economic profit for the government, I assume it’s better,” said Li Kuanghan, who works on the preservation of ethnic Dong architecture as the China program director of the international nonprofit Global Heritage Fund. “In terms of preservation, though, it’s not better.”
Across China, the over-commercialization of historic towns and villages has meant that conservation efforts are often ignored, Li said.
While local authorities may believe they’re doing a great job preserving and developing the village at the same time, Li said that forcefully turning a whole village into a tourist attraction can be problematic. “I’m not saying tourism is bad — it’s bound to happen,” she said, adding that the transition should happen organically.
“My observation is that unless there is large-scale tourism in an area, most people won’t choose to build modern concrete structures,” instead of their traditional homes, Li said. “This isn’t something they suddenly decide — people don’t just spontaneously abandon their traditions.”
Especially in poor, rural areas where tourism money can seem like the only way out of poverty, commercial benefits are quickly prioritized above preservation of culture and traditions, Li said.
And that is already happening in Zhaoxing. Some of the most beautiful Dong architecture can be found there, but villagers are now abandoning their carpentry skills to spin cement mixers instead. Whenever a new roof is built, it is supported by concrete walls, not wooden beams.
Last year, the construction boom reached a new pinnacle: Houses grew more than four stories tall, instead of the traditional two or three. With millions already invested in tourism development, the local authorities weren’t willing to take a chance on the future of tourism in Zhaoxing. A demolition team was sent in to take down the houses deemed to taint the village’s appeal.
“I was so terrified that I didn’t even go outside to have a look,” Lu Hongxiang said. She and other villagers Sixth Tone spoke to said that armed forces arrested people, and that several houses were torn down while others were ordered to stop any further construction. A local TV station reported that about 1,000 people protested, flipping over more than 10 cars, and that a woman died in the turmoil.
Videos and photos were shared on messaging app WeChat and other social media platforms, said Lu Kuixiang, who works at a hotel. “If other people knew about the protests, maybe they would support us,” she said. But the pictures were taken offline, she said, and today most residents don’t want to talk about the demonstrations.
After the protests, the government decided to give the tight-knit community more autonomy over construction. Part of the town’s appeal to tourists stems from its five pagoda-shaped drum towers. Built as central landmarks where meetings, discussions, and festivals are observed, each clan identifies with one of the five towers.
As of last year, villagers said that only a handful of construction projects would be allowed for each drum tower at a given time, and that families within each clan would determine the order of the projects.
Most villagers Sixth Tone spoke to claimed to have no knowledge of the violent protests that took place at one of the village’s main intersections. Some said that they now understand why preservation is important and would obey the government’s rules in the future, adding that they just wanted to move on.
Despite the limitations, rules and regulations, and social tensions, nearby villages like Tangan envy Zhaoxing for the visitors it attracts. A 20-minute car ride up a newly built road that meanders through the lush mountains and rice terraces, Tangan is much smaller than Zhaoxing. Fewer tourists come here, and even fewer stay overnight. Because the governments of Norway and China decided that the village as a whole — from buildings to residents — is a so-called ecological museum, it’s almost impossible to get construction permits.
“Years ago, Tangan was much more famous than Zhaoxing, and tourists only came to Zhaoxing because of Tangan,” said Lu Jinsheng, a 65-year-old villager who has farmed the steep mountainsides of Tangan all his life.
But after all the investment and promotion for Zhaoxing, visiting Tangan is only an afterthought for tourists, or an afternoon diversion if there’s still time to kill. Tangan’s elderly beg visitors for money, and instead of going to school, teenagers get married and have children before reaching adulthood. Tangan is impoverished, but outside investment on a similar scale to Zhaoxing could change its fortunes, Lu Jinsheng believes.
“I really want Tangan to develop in the same way Zhaoxing has, but for that to happen, we would have to maintain the appearance of our wooden houses,” he said. And that, the villagers believe, would only be possible if government regulations remained in place — creating a frustrating conundrum.
Lu Jinsheng and other residents believe that Dong villages with too many modern buildings disqualify themselves from ever being developed into tourism sites. They’d happily continue to live in their old, wooden homes if it meant more income from tourism. In a way, being stuck in the past is the only hope for moving forward.
Some Dong from nearby villages have come to Zhaoxing to seek employment, or to marry into a wealthier community. Wu Fangqiong is one of these — she started singing for groups of tourists who booked private shows, making an average of 500 yuan a month.
Since last year, Zhaoxing has had a proper stage on a square with an arc of benches in front that can accommodate hundreds of tourists. A daily event that showcases the “Grand Song of the Dong” is heralded as one of the highlights of Zhaoxing.
With thick layers of white makeup pasted on their faces, Wu and more than a dozen Dong women twist and twirl. Under bright LED lights, English and Mandarin translations of the lyrics flash past on screens bordering the stage, giving visitors an understanding of the songs, which describe the farming cycle and a love story akin to Romeo and Juliet. Thanks to the daily performances, Wu said she can now make 1,500 yuan a month — three times as much as before.
When Wu first learned to sing more than 25 years ago, many of her peers had no interest in the traditional music. “It’s a pity,” she said. “This is our culture, and we should preserve it.” With the shows as a prospective source of income, more young girls are taking an interest in the local singing culture, she believes.
Wu said that to her, performing for tourists doesn’t feel inauthentic, but rather the opposite: “I’m happy with the tourist attraction because it can protect our traditions.”
Zhaoxing’s population is divided over the town’s future. There are those who see the development critically — the villagers who lost their homes when the parking lot was constructed, who long for glitzy modernity, and who feel restricted by the government’s invasive policies — and there are many like Wu who say that they are trying to have a positive outlook on the future, which for now forecasts more tourism and higher incomes.
As the traditional performance comes to an end, the singers and dancers invite the crowd of spectators to dance hand in hand with them, a mass of bodies moving to the beat of the music. The tourists are dressed in shorts and T-shirts; expensive cameras dangle from their necks. The Dong, on the other hand, wear traditional clothes and heavy jewelry, looking the same as they have for hundreds of years. Behind them, the old drum tower is illuminated by recently installed spotlights. Some modernity, after all, is allowed.
With contributions from Li You.
(Header image: A Dong boy behind a wooden guardrail in Zhaoxing, Guizhou province, Dec. 19, 2009. Peng Nian/VCG)