Category Archives: Culture

Yunnan’s Dulong minority isolated no more


Recently, the Ethnic Dulong Survey Team conducted a week of anthropological observation and interview research based around the remote village of Dizhengdang (迪政当村). Under the leadership of Professor Gao Zhiying (高志英), an expert on ethnic Dulong culture and society, the 21 team members spent three days heading from Kunming to one of Yunnan’s most remote river valleys.

The survey team from Yunnan University found state-funded housing and road projects are transforming the culture of the Dulong people (独龙族), who have for centuries inhabited theDulong River area largely undisturbed. Now, with the opening of a tunnel and road in 2014, their traditional way of life has been changed and sometimes disrupted by a permanent link to the outside world.


A bit of background

The town of Kongdang (孔当) sits on a plot of flat land by the Dulong River, and is also a stop on the Dulong River Road, which begins in Gongshan (贡山县). Dizhengdang is 42 kilometers further north of Kongdang and currently inhabited by 592 villagers comprising 158 households.

The narrow Dulong river valley is formed by an upstream tributary of the Irrawaddy River, which runs primarily through Yunnan before reaching Myanmar. Its course cuts across the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve. Seventy percent of the entire Dulong population — roughly 4,000 people — call this area home. A long history of isolation and poverty has for decades made the Dulong targets of socio-economic aid and government-funded ‘reforms’.


The first of these began in 1964, with the establishment of the 65-kilometer People and Horse Track (人马驿道). This footpath was built largely by the People’s Liberation Army and opened a new avenue for the supply of everyday goods to inhabitants of the Dulong valley. The seven-day hike to Gongshan was cut to four, making the transport of commodities in both directions less cumbersome. A state-operated mule caravan later shuttled vital supplies such as grain and clothing back and forth over the mountains as well, ending the need for military parachute drops of supplies that preceded the path. In 1999, a 96-kilometer road from Gongshan to the Dulong River saw its first traffic, officially ‘opening up the last minority area in China‘.

Fifteen years later, a seven-kilometer tunnel opened along the Dulong River Road, reducing travel times further and making villages once unreachable during the winter months accessible year-round. Other branch roads are planned or under construction to even more distant hamlets. These include Dibuli (迪布里), Nandai (南代), and Xiongdang (雄当) near the Tibetan border — which are still only accessible by dirt paths, tiny suspension bridges and Yunnan’squickly disappearing ziplines.


Anthropological observations

Traditionally, the Dulong practiced subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture while cultivating corn, millet, buckwheat, taro and several varieties of beans. However, the Chinese government has, since 2003, subsidized many villages with cash and handouts of rice in efforts to conserve forested hillsides. This has had multiple and often contradictory consequences. In addition to hunting and fishing, the joint cultivation of traditional agriculture is a core element of Dulong culture, relating not just to native ecological knowledge, but also to religion and social organization.

Thus, the implementation of grain and cash handouts has increased the Dulong people’s dependency on state subsidies, decreased overall agro-biodiversity, and threatened to make endemic bio-cultural knowledge a thing of the past. The extra time saved from less farm work also leaves room for some villagers to seek out timber and herbs in the mountains, which, while increasing incomes, also results in unintended natural resource depletion and a new form of deforestation.


Between 2010 and 2014, the provincial government invested a further 1.3 billion yuan (US$203 million) in “improved housing, infrastructure, social development and environmental protection”. This included the building of several modern housing clusters not necessarily located near where their proposed inhabitants traditionally call home.

For example, the research team from Yunnan University observed in Dizhengdang that each household has its own house built by the state. However, the choice of the new village site only took into consideration road accessibility. The new compounds are convenient for villagers living nearby but for those living scattered in the mountains beyond road networks, a move to a new home without arable lands is problematic.


Among the 40 households in the northernmost hamlets of Xianghong and Nandai, not one them have moved to the new compounds in Xiongdang and Dizhengdang. When asked why they had not taken advantage of government housing, many replied “We don’t have farmland nearby the new villages, and the elderly also prefer to stay in the places where they grew up”. All villagers interviewed expressed satisfaction and gratitude for government subsidy policies, but considering the high cost of daily supplies transported to this remote valley, most Dulong people still have to work very hard in the fields to lead modest lives.

Another major factor soon to affect Dulong culture is the expected inundation of tourists hungry for the opportunity to see an ethnicity most famous for tattooing the faces of its women. While this practice is no longer common, many of the older female residents do still bear the marks of this tradition.

During the researchers’ one-week canvas of the area, the fledgling tourist industry was apparent, with visitors from Kunming and Shenzhen being the most prevalent. Due to the policies listed above — as well as the opening of a permanent road — the Dulong people are undergoing radical changes to their society and culture. How they adjust to the rapid encroachment of the outside world remains an open question.


This article written by Sun Fei was first published on 8/25 here on the GoKunming website. 

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Filed under Agriculture, China, Culture, Current Events, Economic development, ethnic policy, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Shangri-la Highland, China’s newest micro-brewery

On June 20, 2015, a new face entered, or rather re-entered, the growing craft beer scene in Yunnan. The Shangri-la Highland Craft Brewery, founded and chaired by Songtsen Gyalzur (known as Sonny), officially opened for business. Though hailing from similarly mountainous Switzerland, Sonny, a Tibetan, has deep roots in Shangri-la, from where his parents emigrated.

The impetus for Shangri-la Beer began in 2009, when he first traveled to his family’s homeland in Yunnan and visited an orphanage run by his mother. Coming from a real estate background back in Switzerland, Sonny opened a restaurant to give back to the local community. As part of his mission, he worked to employ and train former orphanage residents. With business booming, customers soon began asking him if any beers were made locally in Shangri-la. That is when Sony decided to open a brewery that would use local ingredients.

After some research, Sonny learned that most Chinese beers, such as Dali Beer, are made using larger quantities of rice. Collaborating with a Swiss brew master, he instead developed beers using highland barley grown on farms near the city. They then opened and developed a small brewery, which sold four bottled beers — mostly in small quantities — to local restaurants in the old town.

These beers, which are now produced at a larger facility, include Tibetan Lager, Tibetan Pale Ale, Black Yak — similar to a porter with some hints of coffee — and Supernova, which is a strong flavorful ale with hints of licorice. The beers were, and still are, all brewed using a combination of naked highland barley and imported Belgian malts. Seasonal microbrews are also planned for the future.

Following the initial success of Sonny’s small and unofficial brewery, the local government approached him, suggesting he open a much larger, officially licensed operation with their support. Officials believed this would be a good way to help local farmers sell their barley. Construction on the new brewery facility began in March 2014, with its official opening ceremony taking place in June.

It was, for Shangri-la, quite a spectacular event, attended by notable dignitaries, both local and foreign. Large scale festivities were held, including traditional Tibetan dances. There was, of course, free beer for all. Sonny also introduced the crowd to the brewery itself and explained his philosophy of brewing good beer – at one point comparing a good beer to a beautiful Tibetan woman. The opening itself was paired with two other notable events in Shangri-la over the weekend, the annual horse racing festival, and the celebration of Shangri-la’s establishment as an official city.

To capitalize on the two-day event, Sonny and his company also worked to formally establish a sister-city relationship with the skiing town of Arosa back in Switzerland. As such, the opening celebration for the new brewery included speeches of recognition from both the Swiss ambassador to China and the mayor of Shangri-la. City and federal governments on both sides were very supportive of the Swiss-Sino relationship, and used the brewery as a vehicle to support it. Fortunately, and following much effort, bureaucrats in Beijing also came through to encourage the idea.

Sonny’s Tibetan beers are unique, a fact his brew master attributes to the alpine water used in the beer-making process. For Shangri-la Beer, brewing is not just so much about the hops which have become so popular in American microbrews. Sonny explains that, unlike hops-based beer, his are more focused on malts — for both flavor and for the utilization and development of local Tibetan yeasts and highland barley. The beer also has no additives or stabilizers, as part of an all-organic mission statement.

During our interview, Sonny explained that he feels the beer is truly Tibetan. It is made by native people with local raw materials, resulting in brews typifying the social custom of drinking barley chhaang — a strong Tibetan alcoholic drink often made from barley.

With its new brewery and bottling factory, Shangri-la Beer has moved beyond the scale of a microbrewery, but Sonny maintains the company is committed to maintaining a quality and unique product. He explains that to make a micro-style beer that can be legally bottled is very difficult due to the required production size. Obtaining an official health and bottling license from Beijing took a huge amount of effort. The minimum production capacity required for such a license is 18,000 bottles per hour. Yet even at this quantity, Shangri-la Beer remains something of a mystery to the wider world. In the very near future, however, Sonny’s brew will arrive in Kunming.

This post originally appeared on GoKunming, and appears here with full permission from the author.

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Filed under China, Culture, Current Events, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

A Tibetan Christmas in Yunnan

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Nestled on the banks of the Upper Mekong River — or Lancang (澜沧江) as it is known in China — are several Tibetan villages of mixed religion where Buddhist and Catholic families live together and often join in each other’s festivals. While engaged in research on the history and budding economy of winemaking in this region, I was able to take part in the annual Christmas mass and festival in the village of Cizhong (茨中). Here, celebrations are a two-day event and the largest festival of the year for the area.

First, a very short primer on the history of Catholicism in Yunnan’s northwest, and how the religious observance of Christmas became a major festival for local Tibetans: Yunnan’s official renaming of the nearby Zhongdian region as Shangri-La — based on James Hilton’s classic 1930’s novel Lost Horizon — actually gains a small bit of credence as the real location of Hilton’s story thanks to Cizhong and its nearby villages. In the book, the fictional Shangri-la is a mixed monastic community where Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese, and western Catholics all live peacefully in together. This is largely true in Cizhong today, though Catholicism historically faced a somewhat violent reception from some in the region, while other peopele openly welcomed it. French Catholic missionaries first arrived in northwest Yunnan in the nineteenth century, and viewed their work as a gateway to expanding their teachings across greater Tibet.Brendan 2

Never being able to reach very far into this isolated and at times violent country — often due to resistance from local Buddhist lamas — the French would eventually manage to set up a community of churches and convert many Tibetan communities in northwest Yunnan along both the upper reaches of the Lancang and Nujiang rivers. They were never quite able to penetrate much farther into Tibet. Even in these areas, religious crusaders at times faced violent repression from local religions leaders and in many cases even death.

Yet the French persisted in their missions, and were later joined in the early to mid-twentieth century by request by a group of Swiss from the Great Saint Bernard Hospice high up in the Alps. These priests had already become quite famous for providing mountain rescues and services to Catholic pilgrims crossing the Alps en route to Rome. Their expertise in mountain travel and high-altitude living were crucial in helping to continue and eventually take over the work first begun by the French in Yunnan.

Today in Cizhong, where the original cathedral built by the French in 1905 still stands, about 80 percent of villagers still actively practice Catholicism. They are led by a Han Chinese priest from Inner Mongolia who arrived in 2008, sent by the Catholic Association of China. Prior to this time, the village had no priest, and so no formal masses were held after 1952 when the remaining French and Swiss Christians were expelled. Villagers nonetheless maintained their religion and began to openly pray together in the 1980s after Deng Xiaoping lifted bans on organized religion put in place during the Mao era.

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2014 Christmas observance

Christmas today in Cizhong is a major event, and the non-religious portions of the festival are in fact celebrated by both Catholics and Buddhists alike. Major preparations and community events for the festival began on the morning of Christmas Eve, when many villagers gathered together at the church to clean the building and decorate it for the festival. Lunch was made for those working through the afternoon, and then everyone returned home before dusk.

The decorations set up in the church were predominantly what one might equate with a Western Christmas celebration: Statues of Mary and Joseph in shrines on each side of the altar were surrounded by strings of lights, and a similar statue of Christ was placed high up on the wall behind the altar for all to see. Several plastic Christmas trees which grace the inside of the church year round were also cleaned and redecorated with Christmas lights.

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A very elaborate nativity scene was set up to one side of the altar, decorated with pine boughs, with lights on its roof. In addition to the boughs, the areas in the front of the church are also decorated with branches from a local broadleaf evergreen tree with red berries from the genus Photinia. Local elders say they have called this plant shengdan shu — or ‘Christmas Tree’ — since the time of the French and Swiss fathers.
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Around 7pm, villagers slowly began to arrive and file into the church for the evening mass, which began this year around 8:30. It should be noted that Christmas seems to have become quite a publicized event in Cizhong, perhaps due to the attention it receives in tourism materials. The mass not only included Cizhong villagers but many foreign — particularly French — and Chinese tourists, photographers, and other academics including myself. Christmas Eve mass continued for just under two hours, after which everyone returned home until the next morning. Both Christmas masses, and particularly the morning mass, were much more extravagant than a typical Sunday service. Large numbers of villagers showed up from all over, dressed in their full traditional Tibetan regalia. This drew even more tourists.

The Christmas morning mass — which actually didn’t begin until almost noon despite villagers arriving around 9am — also included a full processional composed of the priest and his assistants walking into the church in their robes, with candles, a cross, and incense censer. None of this is normally used for weekly services.The language of the mass in Cizhong is peculiar.  Many familar Catholic songs sung by villagers are sung in Tibetan using the translations originally created by the French and Swiss. Conversely, the mass and bible readings themselves are conducted by the priest in Mandarin Chinese, so the service is quite syncretic and eclectic being Chinese with Tibetan chanting.

Later an engaged couple walked down the aisle to receive a special Christmas blessing from the father. They were followed by a procession of children in traditional Tibetan clothing and Santa hats, followed by traditionally dressed women bearing gifts for Christ. The priest and his village assistants accepted the gifts and then placed them in front of the nativity scene that had been set up below and to the side of the altar.

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The Afterparty

Following the Christmas morning mass, everyone — villagers, tourists, and anyone else in attendance — gathered in the courtyard in front of the church and began the afternoon festivities of drinking and performing traditional Tibetan dances and sings. During this portion of the day, Buddhist locals also arrived to join in the festivities.

To begin, everyone first simply found a spot in the courtyard to enjoy the sun, the company of others and cake donated by all the village families. It was served followed by a choice of barley liquor — known as qingkejiu — mixed with meat, or a locally made rice wine called mijiu mixed with egg.

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After a short time, traditional circle dancing began, accompanied by singing and several men playing traditional string instruments called piwang. The singing is always done as a back-and-forth exchange, with men and women each singing separately while dancing on opposite sides of the circle which rotates around as more people join.

While the merriment ensued, a lunch of several Chinese-style dishes was served in a small museum room next to the church. Here, several tables were set up and groups of locals and visitors rotated through to sit down and be served. After they finished, the tables were cleared and a new group welcomed in to eat.

Dancing continued, and by this time many of the villagers had joined in. The men particularly all seemed to be sporting a bottle or can of beer. By around 5pm things began to wind down with most people returned home, while the tourists and other visitors headed back to their guesthouses. And with that, my Tibetan Catholic Christmas on the Upper Mekong came to an end.
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Filed under China, Culture, Current Events, ethnic policy, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Rosh Hashana in Kunming

During my first year of college, I was asked to draw and divide a pie chart into five sections. From there, I was to label each section with an adjective or characteristic that I felt strongly defined me (and with which I voluntarily identified).

Immediately, I filled in four sections: Jewish, Asian American (born in China), adoptee, and traveler. Then I paused, contemplating what the last slice of my identity pie would be. Finally, I settled on cultural bridge builder.

I chose this last identifier for multiple reasons. First, it is everything I aspire to be. I aim to work in a field where I can help diverse communities connect. Second, all the activities and clubs I belonged to in high school and in which I participate at Davidson College revolve around initiatives for diversity, inclusiveness, and religious dialogue. Finally, in my view, my four other identifiers mark me as an individual who has been socialized and challenged to show the world that unique or unconventional backgrounds can lead to new perspectives.

I am not just an “other” in society that belongs nowhere. I refuse to accept such a label passively, yet it is a label so many try to pin on me when they do not understand my background. My Jewish and Asian American identities are not mutually exclusive. Rather, my understanding and connection to each group enriches my outlook on the world.

This semester, I challenged myself to study abroad in Kunming, China. Yunnan Province is known for its ethnic diversity. China has worked to incorporate these diverse minority groups into greater Chinese society, but there are still stark disparities. If anyone were to understand my struggles with fitting into Chinese society, would it not be these people?

Though Chinese by birth, I have identified myself as Jewish first for as long as I can remember. Judaism is the culture in which I was raised. Most of my role models, including close family friends and relatives, are Jewish. I never had Chinese American or Asian role models who taught me how to navigate society, deal with prejudice and discrimination, and assert myself as an Asian American woman. Rather, I consider myself a cultural and religious Jew because of the community of which I am a part and the relationships I’ve fostered since childhood. I practice certain holidays and ceremonies but also closely identify with the historic struggles of the Jewish people.

Yet the average person meets me and first identifies me as Asian, often distinguishing me as Chinese right away. He or she never assumes I am Jewish. This is a consequence of the way our society views identity—one’s race or ethnicity is defined by the viewer without ever conversing with the individual in question. Ethnicity and race become primary markers in categorizing people and subsequently applying stereotypes to that individual.

I had hoped that coming to China would help enhance my lifelong journey to define myself within a greater, international society. When I was eight years old, I remember a Hebrew school classmate asking me if it was even legal to be both Asian and Jewish. Though I’ve grown to understand that he meant no harm, these comments were painful and I reflect on them often, especially when I feel vulnerable or insecure about my identity in the context of a new place.

I have been fortunate to have spent the past three summers in Southeast Asia, engaged in both voluntary and paid experiences. As a result, I am fairly confident in my place there. To Southeast Asians I have met, I am American by culture and Asian by heritage and birth. They are curious yet respectful; no one in Southeast Asia has ever challenged my self identity or tried to suggest that how I view myself is incorrect.

I’ve had many long discussions with locals in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia about adoption—a foreign concept to many—and Abrahamic religions. I take pride in teaching these people about my identity and culture while learning about theirs. It is truly an educational dialogue. But in no way do I, or my views, represent an entire population.

In China, on the other hand, I feel out of my element completely. I have felt more insecure here in the past six weeks than I have in any other country I have ever visited. Being surrounded by native, authentic Chinese has made me struggle internally about my place in this society. While my face to them is authentically Chinese, the way in which my parents raised me is not. Since I do not consider my biological parents my family, my family is not Chinese. Yet explaining this is complex and often causes more pain than just nodding along with Chinese who inquire about my heritage and assume I am mixed race or just the child of Chinese immigrants.

Sure, on the outside I am Chinese. But, often, my clothes mark me as a Westerner. My lack of language and cultural skills also betray my physical characteristics and mark me as alien. When I explain that I was adopted, I get a multitude of reactions. Some turn to my Caucasian friends (who have better Mandarin skills than mine) and question, ”Really?” Others look at me like I am a spectacle but nod and resume the conversation. Others still just grunt and end the discussion.

Transnational, transracial adoption and the one child policy can be touchy subjects in China. Sometimes I feel that people resent the opportunities my family has given me outside of China. Many Chinese students my age aspire to learn English and subsequently work abroad, and see my situation as ideal. I believe others fear me and are worried about resentments I may hold against China. A few cannot hold a straight face when talking to me: they cannot believe that I am not Chinese. To them, I am simply one of them with a funny accent. It isn’t possible, in their minds, that I reject my Chinese facet of identity. Herein lies the gap in my and their understanding.

In other parts of the world when I struggle with identity, I resort to the local Jewish community for support and a sense of extended family and belonging. While fitting into Judaism has also been a lifelong challenge, my adoptive family raised me in that culture and I understand those nuances more than Chinese cultural traditions. My grandfather in particular took great pride in belonging to a temple and volunteering through that network, and I hope to carry on his legacy. He and the rest of my family never made me doubt being Jewish. I find more commonalities with Jews around the world than with the pan-Asian American community.

Coming to China, I hoped to find at least a small Jewish community. Usually Jewish communities become more outwardly present during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I sought assistance from my program directors and RA, hoping they could steer me in the direction of a service or gathering for Rosh Hashanah. One told me of services on Rosh Hashanah that were open to Jews all over Kunming. Many, she said, belonged to the Israeli or American ex-pat communities.

Excited, I set out on the morning of the New Year. When the cab driver didn’t know the address I showed him, I walked. I was proud that I navigated the city by myself. Despite being anxious about meeting a new group of people (I am extremely shy around strangers, especially when there is a potential language barrier), I hoped that this service would lead to the opening of a new community and relationships. Obviously I wouldn’t be engaged in the same way as in New York where I grew up, or North Carolina where I go to school, or Europe where I’ve visited various synagogues. But a new service would be part of the adventure. Going beyond my comfort zone would not kill me.

To my surprise, the address was a Chinese language school in which ex-pats in Kunming came to study Mandarin intensively. Furthermore, none of the staff knew of the Rosh Hashanah programming. Hmmm. I looked at the company’s logo: it had two Stars of David. Why? One staff member explained that Chinese people like to do business with Jews and see many similarities between the groups. I chuckled, recalling New York Times articles that discussed Chinese peoples’ fascination with Jews.

I was about to leave, admitting defeat in my quest for a service, when another woman from the language school asked me to wait. Apparently, there was a man praying upstairs and I could speak to him when he finished. Hope inside me sparked anew. I’d come all this way—why not try talking with him? I returned to my seat.

An hour later, he emerged from upstairs and I introduced myself. He did the same. He had come from Singapore and had converted to Orthodox Judaism. He prided himself on being a practicing Jew and spoke of his leadership roles in Kunming. He said the Rabbi sometimes asked him to organize gatherings or lead prayers. This all sounded along the lines of what I wanted.

Then the man asked me about my affiliation to Judaism. This is never an easy question for me to answer. Not because I am uncomfortable, but the intricacies of my background sometimes lose people. I told him that I was born in Yangzhou and adopted at five months of age. I explained that my parents subsequently had a mikvah (conversion ceremony) for me. I said that I was a Reform Jew, and told him that while it is unique to the United States, our customs follow cultural and religious Judaism.

He then asked me how I was raised. I replied that I had a bat mitzvah, had attended religious school, and was even the president of Hillel (the Jewish student organization) at Davidson College. He frowned, and I felt myself recoiling. Why were we still talking about my background? Why was he not nodding or even smiling?

Then came the question: did I have proof of my conversion? Had I stood before rabbis and sworn my allegiance to Judaism? Sure, this man was strictly Orthodox, but did he not realize that there are different types of Judaism and that I was no less Jewish than he? While he did not distinguish between religious and cultural Judaism, I got the distinct impression that he was trying to prove he was more Jewish and more devoted.

Again and again, he told me I could not truly be Jewish because my birth mother was not. He said I would have to stand in front of Rabbis before I could be a real Jew. Wasn’t this hypocritical? Didn’t he understand that an infant who was immersed in a mikvah and experienced the ritual cleansing it provides was as Jewish as someone born to a Jewish woman? His conversion, as an adult, required study and supervision. Mine did not.

As I kept trying to explain my background and why I was Jewish, I felt tears pricking at the back of my eyes. Rosh Hashanah is supposed to be about a sweet new year and the idea of a Jewish community or family. From my past experience, Orthodox Jews have always wanted to draw me into their stricter traditions and show me the way. Why was he excluding me?

Judaism had been the backbone of my upbringing and identity. Being told, bluntly, that I was not Jewish hurt me deeply. I was once again being excluded from a community. This time, though, it was a community in which I usually sought comfort after being detached from my Asian identity. If I am shut out of both my Asian and Jewish communities, to whom could I turn?

As a member of the Better Together interfaith movement, I had to remind myself that not everyone sees difference within and between religions as an asset. I call myself a cultural bridge builder, but not everyone supports my efforts. Some prefer to remain on islands, disconnected from those around them.

Living in China this semester has been difficult thus far. I look like an insider and feel like an outsider. I’ve been told again and again that I have an advantage because I look like the majority here, but if I don’t feel like the majority on the inside, does the color of my skin or my complexion matter? I know in a few years, I’ll value these experiences as important learning experiences. But now, the pain overrides the growth that I know will come from this.


Filed under China, Culture, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Misunderstanding land use, traditional values, & resettlement compensation

Yu Xiaogang meeting with villagers scheduled for resettlement in Muli

Yu Xiaogang meeting with villagers scheduled for resettlement in Muli

Due to the onslaught of hydropower construction in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River watershed, tens of thousands of ethnic Yi and Miao peoples have relocated from mountainside villages deep in the Yalong River valley into lowland resettlements in China’s Sichuan province.    A shared result of all peoples forced to leave their homes due to China’s development plans is a substandard compensation package due to the failure of local governments and hydropower firms to properly assess the impact of relocation on the villagers. In the case of ethnic peoples relocated from the Yalong River valley, the distribution of land parcels for agricultural purposes to individual households in resettlements falls short of matching the land use patterns enjoyed by villagers in their remote mountain homes. A villager in the Gubai resettlement commented that in the mountains he “used to fish at night and could usually get five, six, seven, to eight pounds of fish.  If we were lucky we might even get ten pounds.  We would boil them – it was such a good time.”

The Yi mountain village of Muli had groves of walnut trees each two to three hundred years old.  Villagers could earn extra income of more than 1000 RMB per year from each tree.  In the Gubai resettlement few opportunities like this exist.  Each household is only given two mu of irrigable land and less than one mu of paddy field for rice cultivation. Ma Erzi, Director of the Liang Shan Yi Minority Culture Research Institute identifies four functional areas of land use in Yi mountain villages each abundant with food resources and used throughout the year in the Yalong river valley.  He comments that traditional Yi people from Liang Shan autonomous prefecture lived by traditional farming methods and taking animals to pasture.  With their houses at the center, they divided land into pasture land 禾普, farming land 么普, forests for collecting timber and food like fruits and mushrooms 斯普, and water areas for fishing and fetching drinking water 日普. These areas formed a special distribution pattern each linked to the other, none of them dispensable.

Local governments may compensate resettled villagers for houses and land, but the water areas, forests, and pastures cannot be compensated.  These missing links will provide a major challenge for resettlement. There are two common misconceptions about resettlement. First the Chinese government believes that as long as compensation standards are followed, resettled villagers will be compensated appropriately and once compensated there is no need for follow-up.  In actuality resettled peoples think their losses are far from covered.  The products and services provided by mountains and forests where they could dig wild herbs and mushrooms, their religious facilities, the loss of community – all of these losses should be compensated for.  Second, the government economic compensation will solve all problems, but in actuality what people need is to be taught a new way to make a living and to build a new social network.  Only in this way can the resettled truly build a new life. The Yalong River valley is an ancient corridor for the movement and settlement of Tibetans, Yi, Pumi, and Miao (Hmong) peoples who have all lived to the south of Hengduan mountains for generations.  Will the demand for hydropower development cause us to turn a blind eye to the historical and cultural value of this corridor?  When resettlement separates the people from hundreds if not thousands of years of traditions, how will it harm the people who have lived there for generations?

Conducting a social impact assessment a resettlement

Conducting a social impact assessment a resettlement

To illustrate the loss of culture and the lack of recognition of the cultural values of indigenous peoples by local governments and hydropower developers, we should examine the near desecration of Yi family graves in the Liang Shan autonomous prefecture.  Over the last decade, the development of dams on the Yalong, Dadu, and Jinsha Rivers has sent countless criss-crosses of electricity lines through the blue skies of Liang Shan.  In 2009, a series of the electricity towers was scheduled for construction on a mountain specified for placing the Ji, Mu, Wu, and Qi family graves – the core ancestral clan of the Liang Shan Yi people. “To build an electric tower on our mountain is like hammering a nail into someone’s head – it will hurt for sure!” recalls Feng Gebo, a local leader and representative of the Ji-Mu-Wu-Qi clans.  “That tower is hammered into the head of our mountain, it gives us a feeling that we can never develop again because we are being stepped on.” Feng took my research team to a hole five to six meters deep, dug initially to support an electricity tower. “We filled this hole in on our own after the ground breaking ceremony for the tower network.  (The hydropower firm) didn’t do anything.”

The Ji-Mu-Wu-Qi ancestral tombs date back to 1556 and play a key role in maintaining and preserving Yi identity and historical understanding.  Feng pleaded to the local government to move the towers to an adjacent ridge without tombs. But his original pleas fell on deaf ears as local officials failed to understand his request or cited state development as a priority over local needs.  “They believe it’s for the construction of the state and the stated outcome of this hydropower project is to help us overcome poverty and achieve prosperity.  But we know what’s good for us, and we believe the best thing to do is to let this place stay just the way it was.” Feng acknowledged during his initial pleas to the local government he discovered that officials held different views.  He discovered some officials understood the importance of protecting the social customs, religions, and cultures of minority peoples. “At that time, I managed to arrange more than 100 people to help me, to make sure construction would not start until I finished the negotiations.”  He was only asking for the two towers to be built 200 meters away so his ancestors could rest in peace.  To keep vigil over their movement, farmers would spend nights at the construction site warming themselves by a fire in the subzero autumn temperatures to prevent construction from starting up.

This lasted until February 2010 when the local party secretary ended negotiations with Feng and asked him to send the farmers home due to exposure the extreme temperatures.   “The secretary promised me the construction would not start without the permission of the farmers.  In the end, the provincial design institute redesigned the towers and removed them.” Prior to the establishment of the PRC in 1949, ethnic groups in the mountainous regions of southwest China defended their culture, lands, and traditions with arms and kept the expanding Chinese state at arms’ length.  Feng noted, “At that time if you built something like that on top of a mountain, you would be in real trouble and make enemies for sure.” The Yi people have a saying often asserted in a quarrel or argument, “Are you an Apukeh or not?”  An Apukeh refers both to the ancestral tomb and the essence of an honorable person.  “You can mess with anything you like, but you simply cannot mess with an Apukeh – it’s a matter of life.  As a part of the next generation if you cannot protect the ancestral tomb, then you can’t protect anything.  You don’t call yourself a man or even a person.  That’s how important the Apukeh is – more important than our lives.” In September 2010, Feng Gebo’s efforts and the collective efforts of Yi people in the Ji-Mu-Wu-Qi clan successfully saved their ancestral tombs.  But how many other ancestral mountains will be flooded due to rising reservoirs behind dams or destroyed by the construction of electricity towers or roads that support the hydropower projects?

This is the 2nd in a five part series on ethnic resettlement and the impacts of hydropower development by Yu Xiaogang.  Link here to part 3 and here to link back to part 1.



Filed under China, Culture, Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, ethnic policy, Hydropower & Ethnic Resettlement in China's Yalong River Valley, SLIDER, water

The Unlikely Story of Pastor Yang Congguang

Pastor Yang Congguang and his wife

Pastor Yang Congguang and his wife

It’s lunchtime in Mae Salong, a small village perched on the spine of mountains that trail south from China’s Yunnan province to divide Thailand and Myanmar. The restaurant sign is in Thai, but the menu is written in traditional Chinese, offering peanut-flecked pad-thai noodles and steamed chicken jiaozi dumplings finished with tea grown in the surrounding hills.

Throughout the meal, English, Thai, Mandarin, and a local Akha dialect mingle along with the food, a cultural confluence that reflects the town’s unique history. Officially now called Santakhiri by the Thai government, Mae Salong is perhaps best known for its role as a heroin trading outpost and as a base for remnants of Chinese Kuomintang forces who refused to surrender to the Communists. Even today, the village has a distinctly Chinese flavor, where a dialect similar to Yunnan’s is spoken at stores, restaurants serve Yunnan-style food, and Mandarin language instruction is an option for public education.

The village of Mae Salong

The village of Mae Salong

The local economy now relies on tea production and cultural tourism surrounding the local Akha highland hill tribes rather than heroin, however the Kuomintang heritage of many villagers remains an enduring legacy. Pastor Yang Congguang of the local Baptist Church is one such resident of Mae Salong.

Pastor Yang was born in 1956 in Luxi County in Yunnan Province, during what he calls “an era of war” that followed him around through childhood and much of his adult life. By the time he was two years old, Yang had already been registered by the government to join the army upon adulthood, along with his two older sisters. Yang’s parents decided to flee to Burma, hoping to escape increasingly dismal prospects in China.

Yang’s father, a farm veterinarian, went first in 1957 to a village in Kokang in northern Burma settled by other ethnic Chinese. The head of the village there owned some 3000 horses, and his father’s skills were highly sought after. However, the Chinese population of the village were not the majority Han ethnic group like Yang’s family, but the Lisu people, one of the many ethnic groups of upland Southeast Asia.

Yang’s father found the Lisu not at all as he had imagined “backwards” minority people to be. He was impressed how many of the Lisu, especially the Christian population, did not smoke, drink or gamble, and furthermore were educated enough to read. Yang’s father told the chief that he wanted to bring his family to the safety of Kokang, and that if the villagers prayed for the family’s safe passage, they would all convert to Christianity.

Yang supervising construction of his new church.

Yang supervising construction of his new church.

By this time it was 1958, and leaving China had become increasingly difficult and dangerous. Yang’s extended family, numbering sixteen people in total, required three trips and traveling only at night through the forests. During the final trip, it rained hard all night just before they were to cross the border and the group lost the right path. When the sun came up, his father realized they were very close to the only road across the border, manned by a PLA checkpoint. Despite the danger of trying to cross during the day, Yang’s father decided to take the risk. At the border, chance had it that checkpoint patrol house was empty, although the stationed soldiers had built a small fire. Yang’s uncle stopped briefly to warm his hands, telling the group to go on ahead. Today, Yang estimates that his family must have had only a few minutes’ window of time to sneak across the border.  His uncle did not rejoin the group and was never seen nor heard from again.

Once in Burma, the Yang family reached Kokang safely and converted to Christianity as promised. The Kokang authorities did not permit education in Chinese, so Yang learned through studying the Bible. In Kokang the family had a few years of peace, until 1966 when the Burmese Communist party swept into the northern border region, beginning a period of civil unrest as well as tumult in Yang’s life. The family moved further south, to an area in Burma populated by the Shan (Dai) ethnic minority, where they stayed for three years until once again the Burmese communists arrived. The Yang family to Lashio in the eastern Shan state, and then again even further south to an area with very few ethnic Chinese.

Yang’s adolescence occupies a murky place both in memory and time, a period of transience and uncertainty that also coincided with the rise of the heroin trade in Southeast Asia. Former Kuomintang soldiers clashed with Burmese communists, with unrest and violence spilling across the borders of Thailand, Burma, and Yunnan. During these years, Mae Salong sprung up as both a drug trading outpost and a refuge for Kuomintang soldiers recruited by the Thai government to counter Communist threats.

A homegrown depiction of the KMT's path of flight from China to Mae Salong

A homegrown depiction of the KMT’s path of flight from China to Mae Salong

“It was like trying to escape from a jaguar only to run into a tiger,” says Yang. “My parents didn’t want me or my siblings to grow up to be soldiers, so every time the armies came we left. But everywhere we went, they kept coming.” In 1973 he reluctantly joined the Kuomintang for a little over a year and fought against the Burmese. During this time, his faith kept pushing him to seek a different path. “I kept thinking some verses were especially speaking to me – that I should rather be a guard outside the house of God than live in the opulent tent of an evil person. The army for me meant living in an evil person’s tent,” he remembers on his decision to desert.

Yang escaped across the Salween river to Thailand at great personal cost. His commander came to his family’s house, and threatened Yang’s father to make him return. Yang’s father refused, and was taken away by the army along with nearly everything from their house, which was then burned. Yang’s brother escaped to the forests, but Yang found out later that the army shot his father by the side of the road.

For six years Yang drifted, stateless and without identity like many Yunnanese refugees in Thailand, feeling both immense guilt at the death of his father and a responsibility to lift his family back on their feet. He worked odd jobs to try and make money, “but life had no color, and I thought God had perhaps forgotten me.” But in 1981 he received an opportunity to enroll in Bible college in Bangkok, and a new beginning. His first job afterward was working at a church in Mae Salong, the village known for its KMT heritage.

Today Yang is the pastor at the Mae Salong Baptist Church and with a wide smile proudly shows off a gleaming new building opened just this past year.  Over the past three decades, Pastor Yang has developed his own parish into a congregation made up of two hundred families who travel over the hills and footpaths to his church for worship, schooling, and community programming.  In the early 1990s, Pastor Yang and his wife built a single room church with the little donations they could gather from local villagers and began offering free Chinese language education to Yunnanese, Akha, and Lisu families who could not afford tuition at the state sponsored school.


Mae Salong's new Baptist Church

Mae Salong’s new Baptist Church

The newly built church has eight large classrooms for free Chinese language and free primary education classes taught by a cohort of regional volunteer teachers from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and mainland China. Many of the students are Akha, as most of the Chinese residents of Mae Salong can now afford to attend school further down the mountain, reflecting a growing assimilation with Thai culture as more and more move away from the village to bigger cities. Yet Yang remains confident that his church and school can serve as a bridge between the past and present, as well as provide opportunities to educate the Akha residents of Mae Salong. Yang says the students are not required to be Christians to attend the school.  The Baptist Church also has a healthy relationship with the small Yunnanese Muslim population of Mae Salong, sharing access to public water resources and cooperating to bring a new pipe to the village. Yang is content, and although his life is modest he finds fulfillment serving his community.

Pastor Yang and Mae Salong may share a history that began in an era of war, but more importantly they both have a future supporting a community where multiple cultures can mix, and peacefully coexist.  “Life is good,” he smiles while looking over the town, across the green ridges of tea terraces and mist-covered mountains towards the border of Myanmar some fifteen kilometers away.

(from left) Pastor Yang with ExSE contributor Zhou Dequn and Ashi, the first of his family to attend college after matriculating through Yang's school

(from left) Pastor Yang with ExSE contributor Zhou Dequn and Ashi, the first of his family to attend college after matriculating through Yang’s school

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Filed under China, Culture, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER, Thailand, Uncategorized, Yunnan Province

Space and Spectacle in the Bangkok Protests

Part of the spectacle at Democracy Monument.


Bangkok has been rocked with the largest political demonstrations since 2010, with protests escalating into isolated pockets of violence.

Yesterday’s D-Day is part of the “final battle” by the anti-government protesters, with morning marches from all major rally sites converging at Government House. Prime Minister Yingluck announced that she would dissolve the lower house of Parliament, as a reported 100,000-150,000 protesters flooded the streets of Bangkok and members of the Democrat party resigned.

Clashes on so-called V-Day last Sunday left a reported five people dead and 64 injured in the confrontation between anti-government and pro-government protesters, including one who died when a bus was attacked.

Over the last two weeks, anti-government protesters occupied key ministries, government complexes and police headquarters.

The police attempted to alleviate tensions after the worst of the clashes, as they opened up barricades to major government offices – even offering roses to protesters in a symbolic gesture just days after taunting protesters and firing tear gas at crowds.

These protests showcase the complicated intersection of history, social changes, and legitimacy in current Thai politics.

And the very spaces of the rallies themselves become entry points into these deep, complex waters. What do the protests and occupied sites in the city reveal about the myriad of claims and competing political aims among the factions? What can the symbols and aesthetics of this protest tell us about what is happening and why? Continue reading

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Filed under Culture, Current Events, Governance, SLIDER, Thailand

Fire, Spirits and Ritual Self-Injury in Phuket: The Vegetarian Festival

Photograph by Amy Devlin (2013).

Fireworks explode in a loud cascade in the middle of the street, but no one flinches. I watch as a young barefooted man passes me – a pair of guns are impaled in his face, the barrels poking into the open flesh of his cheeks and out of his open mouth. He’s dressed in a black costume embroidered with Chinese symbols.

He is a mah song, a spirit medium, and he’s not the only one. Throngs of men and women are parading down the street, with metal skewers, needles, and even weapons inserted into their cheeks, arms, torsos and elsewhere on their bodies. They are in trances – their heads are twitching rhythmically, eyes rolled back, and their hands are clenched. Groups of devotees reverently carry statues of the gods. As far as the eye can see, everyone is clad in white. Continue reading

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Filed under China, Culture, Current Events, Reviews, SLIDER, Thailand

Art Exhibition: Yin Xiuzhen, Nowhere to Land (Pace Beijing)


It’s a microcosm of how rapid consumer-driven development has taken root in modern China: 798 Art District, once an esoteric artists’ enclave on the fringes of the city, has emerged as a prime tourist destination in Beijing, replete with international galleries.  Fashioned from a former military factory complex from the Mao era, industrial Bauhaus-inspired spaces serve as stark galleries for an array of contemporary Chinese artists.

Among these, the name of Pace Gallery may ring a familiar bell – earlier this summer, their sister gallery in NYC made a splash when Jay-Z rapped for six hours as part of a performance art piece.

In slightly more subdued fashion – but no less telling for the times – the irregular arches of Pace Gallery Beijing make a striking backdrop for Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen’s current exhibition. In evoking the human aspects of globalization, Nowhere to Land is especially timely in the dynamic Chinese context, and Yin’s work gives a compelling account of what the view from inside the seismic changes of the country might look like.

Yin (b. 1963), a true Beijing native, presumably bears the perfect vantage point from which to witness the massive Chinese economic transformation. Since graduating from Capital Normal University in Beijing in 1989 with a B.A. in oil painting, the artist’s work has been featured internationally. Recent exhibitions include solo showings at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands (2012) and New York’s MoMA (2010), as well as a smattering of group exhibitions in cities across the world, including Moscow, Shanghai, Venice, Sydney, Sao Paolo and San Francisco.

Yin’s work is all about the art of looking and deciphering. Incorporating homely, intimate and personal items into larger constructions, she emphasizes the superficial qualities of what seem at first impression to be straightforward sculptures. And in doing so, she problematizes the underlying assumptions behind glossy Chinese narratives of progress and globalization.

Yin Xiuzhen 2012_Nowhere-to-land

Yin Xiuzhen. Nowhere to Land. 2012. Mixed media.
Image courtesy of Pace Gallery. Continue reading

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Filed under China, Culture, Reviews, SLIDER

Mekong study tour update: 7.19.2013

Other than top-notch commentary on China and SE Asia, ExSE isn’t known for too much and it’s quite clear now that keeping promises isn’t a strongpoint of ours. If you were expecting regular updates on our excursion to Thailand and Laos, we deeply apologize for not delivering. However, if there’s any worthy excuse, it’s that Brian, Dequn, Tai and I have been too busy learning. The following is simply a recap of what’s been going on so far; the true implications of the things that we’ve learned are too much for me to explore in any one post.

Our first two days were spent rather relaxingly, and thankfully far away from a 3G or broadband connection, taking a cruise down the Chao Praya River with Traidhos Three Generations Barges. On the cruise, we learned the river’s watershed, conservation efforts on the river and its significance to Thailand. It was a wonderful introduction to the country through its principal waterway.

The next morning, we met with Pete Cutter at the World Wide Fund for Nature Greater Mekong Office in Bangkok. The WWF Bangkok Office is involved in some very important efforts to preserve more than a half-dozen endangered species in the region and coordinates often with other NGO’s and governments in the GMS.

Our two days in Chiang Mai, where I’m writing from now, have been our most fruitful. Thanks to our friend and ExSE team member Tom Fawrthrop, we were able to meet with many of the top journalists, NGO heads and scholars in northern Thailand. On the 16th we had a lunch talk with Tom himself and learned a ton on the region in general, and specifically the dangers of the 1250MW Xayabouri Dam in the Lao Mekong and the movement to resist its completion. We then two lectures by Professor Narut and Professor Panuwat from the Chiang Mai University Political Science Department on Thailand’s economic role in the GMS and democracy in Thailand, respectively. Afterwards, we met with the Forest Restoration Research Unit at Doi Suthep National Park and learned about their groundbreaking research on tropical forest care. Continue reading

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Filed under ASEAN, Culture, Economic development, Energy, GMS, Governance, Laos, Mekong River, Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, water