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Kavitha Dispatch

What! Can Tourism PRESERVE an Ethnic Culture?
July 8, 2000

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The lush green fields of the Yunnan province
In the middle of the beautiful rolling hills of southwestern China, amidst lush, green rice fields and terraced farms, something stood out in the distance... "What's that?" I thought, squinting to get a clearer view of the gray splotch on the horizon. The sweet old woman sitting next to me who had been speaking on and on in her Chinese dialect to me all morning long during our bumpy bus ride said the first thing that was understandable to my ears, "Lijiang!" she said, pointing. As we approached, the gray splotch grew larger and larger. We were about to arrive at our destination, the city of Lijiang in the Yunnan Province of China.

"Oh no!" I thought. "Goodbye to the peaceful beauty of the countryside, Lijiang appears to be yet another ugly, sprawling Chinese city." The green fields gave way to paved parking lots and factories spitting black smoke. Our bus dropped us off downtown, in the middle of high rise buildings and corner stores selling cheap plastic goods. Abeja and I scratched our heads in confusion.

"I thought Lijiang was supposed to be a beautiful little town!?" said Abeja.

"Yeah, I wonder why so many tourists rave about this place." I said. We started wandering the streets, looking for a cheap hotel, when we saw it...

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Abeja's happy to escape to the quaint cobblestone streets and Naxi architecture of the Old Town
In the middle of the ugly endless pavement of Lijiang, amidst loud traffic and boring buildings, something stood out in the distance...\ "What's that?" I thought again, squinting to get a clearer view. Ahead of us, in between two dull gray buildings, was a large wooden water wheel, spinning with clear spring water. Behind it were beautiful old buildings with traditional sloping roofs and red lanterns hanging above the narrow streets. "That must be the Old Town!" I exclaimed. "That's the part of Lijiang everyone loves!"

Walking into Lijiang's Old Town felt a bit like entering a theme park. All of a sudden, the fast pace and noise of the modern Chinese city disappeared and we were immersed in quaint cobblestone streets lined with canals and picture-perfect homes. Every home front had been converted into a shop or restaurant and some of the signs posted were written in English to guide tourists and travelers like us. Similar to the Bai people of Dali that I wrote about in my last dispatch, the ethnic minority group that lives in Lijiang, the Naxi people, have learned that their traditional costumes and culture can be a great tourist attraction. Traditional Naxi cuisine was offered by restaurants next to shops offering to personally paint something for you in "Traditional Naxi Pictographs," the ancient script of the Naxi people.

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Women wearing traditional Naxi clothes welcome visitors like me to hear the Naxi orchestra
The Naxi people are descendants of Tibetan nomads who live, traditionally, in matriarchal families. I was so excited to learn about the Naxi people because their matriarchal society seemed to be in such contrast to the rest of China, where female infanticide is still practiced. Traditionally, Naxi children would grow up and live with their mother, while their father continued living with his family. Naxi women inherited all of the family's property, and female elders were the judges for their society. After arriving in the Old Town of Lijiang, though, and being blinded by all the tourist signs everywhere, I started to doubt whether authentic Naxi culture still existed or if it was just a big show for all the tourists.

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This Naxi woman still sells her veggies on the same streets, tourist stores or not!
Fortunately, after spending a few days in Lijiang, I started realizing that although tourism is a necessary source of income here, it is not the only thing that keeps Naxi traditions alive. For example, the Naxi orchestra, made up of more than 24 Naxi musicians, has been playing and practicing together for many years. This is one of the only orchestras in all of China that still plays ancient songs from the Han, Song, and Tang dynasties using ancient and rare musical instruments.

Other examples of Naxi traditions being upheld can be seen in the city's architecture. In 1996, a major earthquake destroyed much of the town and while the more modern structures and skyscrapers crumbled, the older buildings survived. As a result, the government decided to rebuild using the sturdier, old-style architecture. Today, they are actively rebuilding most of Lijiang county with the traditional Naxi architecture and the cobblestone streets of the Old Town. Obviously, this effort is more than just an attempt to increase tourism to the area.


matriarchal - dominated by females
infanticide - the killing of an infant
renowned - widely acclaimed and highly honored

After awhile I was able to look beyond all the tourist activity and I started to enjoy my time in Lijiang. We escaped to some of the quieter back streets, and I began to appreciate all of the city's beauty. Early in the morning, the central square lights up with a lively market where women dressed in their traditional blue Naxi clothes sell yummy Naxi breads and old men walk around displaying hunting falcons on their arms.

Among all the tourist shops and restaurants, people still live in the old town much as they always have, washing their clothes and vegetables in the canals, and drinking tea and playing cards on the cobblestone streets. The quaint little guesthouse we stayed in was run completely by women too, a first for us since we've been in China. I wonder if this is a remnant of the true Naxi legacy. Visitors like me are very lucky to be able to come to a place like Lijiang where one can discover the Naxi culture and traditional architecture existing among the chaos and activity of a quickly modernizing Chinese city.

The Naxi language also reflects the matriarchal beliefs of their society. When the word for "female" is added to a noun, the word increases in meaning; whereas, addition of the word for "male" will decreases the meaning. For example: the word "stone" + "female" = a boulder, whereas ''stone" + "male" = a pebble. Compare that to how the use of the English language reflects the beliefs of a traditionally male-dominated society.

For example, the word "man" is usually used to express human achievements or: "One small step for man, one giant leap for MANkind." Imagine what kinds of things people in the future might determine about our culture just by studying our language in order to learn about our history.

Do you want to visit Lijiang yourself and learn more about the beautiful Naxi culture? Are you interested in music? I was surprised to find 15 young students from universities all over America walking up on stage while I attended a performance of the Naxi orchestra. These students were the first ever to benefit from a new cross-cultural program where students get to spend a month at this renowned music institute to study the classical instruments and music of this region. Traditional Chinese music is very different from anything we're used to, so it is no minor thing that these students are willing to attempt learning entirely new instruments while living in an entirely different culture. All of the students I talked to love it, and love the new music they're learning.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Talk about a bad hair day... how about a bad hair dynasty?
Yang-Yang - MAD About Air Pollution in China's Big Cities

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