Meet China's Bai Minority
July 1, 2000
Did you know that China has over 50 minority groups? As you know, we arrived in Kunming, in the Yunnan Province in southern China. Did you know Yunnan is home to one-third of all of China's ethnic minorities? About half of the province's population is non-Han! The Han are the vast majority here in China, and it is their culture and language which have pervaded the life of the entire country. But even though all the minorities of China combined only make up 7% of the population, that is nothing to be ignored---7% of China's population is still over 84 million people!!! Abeja and I left the big city of Kunming to make our way out to the smaller towns and villages
of Yunnan and learn a little more about some of the many different minority
groups that call this province home.
We traveled west into the beautiful green mountains of southwestern Yunnan and made our way to Dali. Dali is a small town on the coast of the majestic Erhai Lake and it has been home to the Bai people for more than 3000 years. The Bai people are just one of ten minority groups living in the Yunnan province and they are the second largest. When we first arrived, I couldn't really tell the difference between the Bai people and culture and that of the majority, Han Chinese. The people looked the same and even the food, which was boldly advertised as "Traditional Bai Cuisine", tasted very similar to traditional Chinese food.
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But then, slowly I started noticing small differences. First I noticed that my friend Kim (who speaks great Mandarin) couldn't really understand the local people. Then I noticed that the local paintings and batik wall hangings depicted images of tropical-looking women and did not seem to be traditionally "Chinese" in my opinion. I learned that due to Yunnan's location on the border of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Tibet, this province, historically, has been a crossroads of culture and trade. The ethnic minorities of this region have links to southeastern Asian culture and/or Tibetan culture as much as they do, Han, or dominant "Chinese" culture.
In fact, China's minority groups have very different customs and languages, but, unfortunately, they have been repressed by years and years of domination by the Han. I spoke with He Liyi, the owner of a little cafe here in Dali and the author of Mr. China's Son. Mr. Liyi said, "At home we speak Bai rather than the official language of my country, Mandarin. In the past, because our contacts with outsiders were limited and frustrated by this language trouble, we were looked down upon as ignorant and backward. We never found it easy to compete with the Han people."
In the 1950s, after the Communist Party took control over China, the government spent more than two decades repressing cultural differences amongst the country's minorities. Communist ruler Mao Zedong promoted unity by enforcing a national cultural homogenization which meant that all Chinese people were pushed to adopt the dominant Han culture. For example, the blue workers' uniform of the Communist Party was selected by the government as the uniform for the entire population. During China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, people were punished for wearing their traditional, ethnic clothing or simply for calling themselves by their minority ethnic origin.
Although most of the minority groups in China have been allowed to practice their customs again, not all minority groups enjoy this freedom. Both the Uighur people of northwestern China and the Tibetan people of western China still face considerable repression by the government. We've already learned a little about the Tibetans, but who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs are Muslims and have a language and culture that more closely resembles Turkish peoples than Chinese. Despite the government's attempts to repress them, both the Uighurs and the Tibetans have stuck to their traditional and religious practices, and separatist movements are strong among both groups. This presents a huge threat to the Chinese government because the Tibetans and the Uighurs both live in sensitive border regions of the country. In addition, their lands are high in mineral resources such and oil supplies and the government wants to maintain access to these resources. As a result, the Chinese government has heavily occupied both Tibet and Xinjiang (the Uighur's homeland) and the military restricts free travel in these regions.
Most of the minority groups in China live in the sensitive border regions of the country and separatism is a constant threat to the government. In the 1960s, the majority, Han Chinese were encouraged to migrate to regions where minority groups lived, with the hope that they might begin to out number the indigenous peoples. By 1978, the government started to ease up on their firm grip over minority groups, but already, much damage had been done. By this time, the younger generations of these groups were not learning about their traditional customs and folklore.
Nowadays, in an effort to bring more tourism to China, the government has actually started promoting a revival in ethnic minority customs. And... believe it or not, the effort is working. For example, every year, during the month of July, tourists flood the town of Dali to witness the Bai People's celebrated Torch Festival. The tradition of this festival dates back thousands of years, but from the late 1950s through '70s, the Communist Party tried to suppress this kind of local ethnic ceremony, calling it "feudal" and "primitive." Mr. Liyi, our friend at the local café, said that he has witnessed a great deal during his long years of living in the Yunnan province. He claims that the Torch Festival displayed for the tourists today bears little resemblance to the original festival of his people.
Walking through the quaint streets of Dali, we were almost immediately met
by women wearing the traditional headdress with red ribbons and clothes of bright
colors on a white base, the sacred color for the Bai people. It
was a beautiful sight to see, but all too soon we realized that the women only
wanted our business. Unfortunately, Abeja and I did not easily blend into the crowd. Even in a crowd made up of many Chinese minorities, we were clear targets for tourist business. After a day or so we began to notice that most woman in Dali wearing the bright traditional costumes, were either working to lure people to purchase handicrafts, to buy a tourist packages or to enter a museum. The women working in the local markets or in the fields of the surrounding villages wore the navy blue clothes of the Communist Party.
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Communist officials deny repression of China's minority peoples, claiming that before "liberation" minorities lived in remote areas and lacked what the Communist officials called "necessities" such as highways, telephones, and electricity. After liberation, according to these officials, minorities became involved in commerce and industry and were given jobs in factories. Either way, the government's treatment of most of the minority groups in China has gradually improved over the past couple of decades. In addition to promoting cultural traditions for the sake of tourism, minorities have been given further advantages similar to affirmative action in the United States. For example, minorities are given special treatment in national college entrance exams and certain exemptions on China's family planning One Child Policy.
pervaded - spread through every part of, permeated
batik - a method of printing colors on cloth, by covering with wax portions to be unprinted
repressed - put down, subdued or kept under due constraint
homogenization - to make similar in kind
separatism - the act of separating or withdrawing
indigenous - native, originating in a particular region
Hopefully, the combination of this special treatment from the government and continued tourist interest will help China's minority groups revive their unique traditions. Then, over time, many of us will learn and benefit from all of the beautiful cultures that live in this enormous country.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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