schools at the edge

These past few days, I have visited elementary schools in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.

The prefecture capital, Jinghong is undergoing a small (by coastal standards) boom: in 2003, Jinghong had an estimated population of 370,000 and roughly ten years later, school officials estimated a population of over 1.2 million people, suggesting that the same processes of internal migration and rural urbanization that we have seen along the coast; China’s population is not growing so much as it is redistributing (results of the 2011 Census). Indeed, the goals of China’s socialist new village campaign sound explicitly urban — “to develop production, enrich life, civilize the countryside, clean up the villages, and use democratic governance (生产发展、生活宽裕、乡风文明、村容整洁、管理民主的社会主义新农村)”.

Extraction and tourist capitalism have fueled the boom. On the one hand, the primary source of production revenue has been the expansion of rubber tree farming. However, the region also produces pu’er tea, mahogany, and has ancient jade mines. In addition, because Banna (as it is colloquially known) borders Burma, Thailand, and Laos, the prefecture also serves as an entrepôt for Burmese jade, Thai agricultural products, and Laotian hard woods. On the other hand, internal tourism to experience stylized representations of minority cultures continues to grow. Indeed, much of the building development in Jinghong involves adding stereotypical Dai flourishes to concrete buildings, which are structural heirs to Maoist dormitory and mass architecture.

The boom is a reform twist on Maoist efforts to integrate minority communities into the larger Chinese state. The situation of Yunnan ethnic minorities varies, reflecting indigenous pre-Mao state building (the Bai Kingdom at Dali, for example, in contrast to the rain forest tribes of Mengla, Banna), integration into the ancient tea trade, and the building of modern roads and transportation systems. During the Mao era, for example, it took several days to make the trip from Jinghong to the provincial capital, Kunming. Today the trip is a 40-minute plane trip and ethnic Han people hold most political positions and control access to economic opportunities. Indeed, the situation of ethnic minorities in Yunnan resembles that of villagers in Han cities like Shenzhen; whatever opportunities locals have it is tied to traditional land rights as they have been re-interpretted by the state.

However, unlike in Han settlements, where (crudely speaking) rural urbanization has meant making access to some aspects of elite Han culture accessible to peasants, while strengthening class differences, in Yunnan, rural urbanization has had a double thrust — cultural homogenization while asserting Han superiority. In other words, through new village programs, Banna minorities are both sinified and regulated to the lowest rank within Han hierarchies. Of course, many of the Banna born Han are themselves relatively impoverished, but nevertheless better placed than ethnics to capitalize on extraction and tourist opportunities. Thus, what seems to have emerged in Yunnan generally, but Banna specifically, is a situation similar to other colonial situations — on US American indian reservations and throughout the Brazilian Amazon, for example.

The Banna schools that I visited teach the national curriculum to ethnic children. The schools are not destitute, but the problems they face are similar to those faced in peripheral societies elsewhere.

  1. There are not enough students to for large scale investment in education. Consequently, in Banna there are three kinds of elementary schools — education spots (for settlements that only have resources to educate grades 1-2), early elementary schools (combined schools to educate grades 1-4), and complete elementary schools (combined schools that teach the full primary curriculum).
  2. In order for higher level education, most students must leave their home settlements at a young age, some as young as 8 years old to board at an early elementary school. However, any education beyond elementary school entails moving to a county seat; for high school, Jinghong offers the best opportunity to succeed on the gaokao. Not unexpectedly, in Yunnan, Han children, whose parents use a version of Mandarin, are most likely to achieve relative high scores, which are not so high when compared to the results achieved in coastal city schools.
  3. The low birth rate means that even when a complete elementary school exists, there are not enough children to have a class. Consequently, many students end up waiting 2 years to begin their education.

The children were wonderful. The teachers generous. The officials (mostly Han, but some ethnic representatives) determined to improve the situation. However, unless, the values motivating the integration of Banna minorities into the Han state change, I am not sure that the results will differ from other national efforts to integrate minorities elsewhere — cultural loss, relative impoverishment, and the destruction of rain forest. It bears repeating: Underdevelopment and concomitant forms of inequality are the result of human actions, which arise when we confuse profit with the common good.

Impressions from Banna schools, below:

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lotus east: the horse gang village

Half an hour outside Weishan, Lotus East Village (莲花东村) stands apart from the surrounding villages, both historically and culturally. Unlike mountain villages, like those around Lushi, which cultivated Yunnan Red (滇红茶), Lotus East once supplied the horses and guards for the caravans that moved tea and other goods along the Tea and Horse Route (茶马道). Although small, the village was powerful and relatively wealthy. In fact, during the Nationalist era, the clan heads – brothers Ma Shiji, Ma Shiqi, and Ma Shixiang – were aligned with Long Yun, the former Party Secretary of Yunnan Province.

Culturally, the residents were and remain Muslims, who elegantly synthesized elements of Han and Bai traditions within the context of Islam. The couplet that graces the entrance to the village mosque exemplifies the hybrid cultures of Southwestern China. In Mandarin, the word for “mosque” is literally “clear truth temple (清真寺)”.  The author has taken those two characters and used them as the opening characters of a Mandarin style couplet:



The pure rises, the polluted sinks, ultimately 10,000 teachings return to one

Truth and piety are not different, the entire universe praises Allah

Today, the Mosque and former homestead of the Ma brothers are open to the public, as is a small museum that introduces horse caravan culture (马帮文化 – literally “horse gang culture”) and the cross cultural breadth of China’s southwestern trade in tea, horses, and other luxury items. Impressions, below:

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daoist china: weibaoshan

Another commercial center on the Tea and Horse Route, Weishan (巍山) is located about 75 minutes from Dali. Weishan was the first capital of the Nanzhao, but was soon replaced by Dali, which has a more temperate climate because located on the banks of Lake Erhai (洱海).

One of the main Weishan tourist sites is Weibaoshan (巍宝山), which literally means “Treasure Mountain Wei”. The mountain has been designated a national park and walking paths that thread from and between Daoist temples have been laid. Contemporary Daoists have occupied many of these temples and it is possible to stay the night there for a donation. However, the architectural treasure is the Long Spring Retreat (长春洞) which was constructed between 1779 and 1799 and is dedicated to the Jade Emperor, the Lord of the Underworld.

Sites like Weibaoshan vex me. I studied Chinese language and history in order to experience places like Long Spring Retreat, as if the poetry and philosophy of classical China still animated everyday life. However, 17 years in Shenzhen have taught me that even if the contemporary cultural mix includes Daoism, nevertheless capitalist forms and modern desires more obviously structure human relationships and desires in China.

And yet, if not for capitalist forms, I could not have visited Long Spring because I not only needed to purchase a ticket to enter the park, but also get myself from Shenzhen to Dali, Dali to Weishan, and then from Weishan to the mountain. Alas, none of those plane rides and car trips  manifest the Daoist virtue of regulating my life by according to natural rhythms. Instead, they more properly manifest the US American virtue of satisfying individual desires through post-industrial convenience.

The point seems to be remembering to take time to reflect on our place in the world, not only as individuals, but also as a species. What does it mean to be human? What does Long Spring Retreat teach that we cannot learn through Shenzhen’s rush to reproduce and exceed the material wealth of North America?

Impressions below.

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sunny day, lushi

Although less famous than the Silk Road, the Tea and Horse Route (map) had three branches: the commercial route (Lhasa to Chengdu), the official route into Tibet (Lhasa to Kangding, where it reconnected with the commercial route), and the Yunnan-Tibet route (Mangkang to Kunming), which threaded through the Lincang mountains until it met up with the official route in Kangding. A small commercial center on the Yunnan-Tibet route, Lushi was located at the nexus trails that threaded through the Lincang Mountain Range.

Local farmers continue to live in villages along those ancient trails and still use pack mules to bring supplies from the town to surrounding villages. Mrs. Zhang discovered us wandering on one of the partially cemented trails that led to the river and invited us into her family compound for tea.

Mr. Zhang’s grandfather built the first building in the in the 1930s. Each subsequent generation added to the complex, and today the compound has three main buildings and a separate section for farm stock, a kitchen, and solar panels for heating water. With the family responsibility system, the Zhangs obtained several mu (666 2/3 sq meters) of land, where they have planted feed corn, walnuts, and vegetables. Their daughter has moved with her husband to Kunming and their son has opened a small shop in Lushi. One of the three buildings is for him and his girlfriend upon their marriage. The Zhangs earn between 10-20,000 rmb ($US 1,750 – 3,500) a year, which has been almost completely invested in building the house and their children’s education.

We chatted about their lives and in turn, they asked about ours. After half an hour, we took our leave and headed back toward Lushi. I remarked on the difference between walking in Lushi and Shenzhen, where I have been stopped by guards when trying to climb Jingshan Mountai in Shekou, let alone invited in for tea. My friend replied that the more commercialized a village or town, the less hospitable the residents.

This experience has me thinking about the potential and paradoxes of hospitality. In Lushi, if a door was open, we could walk into the compound and expect to be welcomed. The previous day, for example, Old Mr. Zhang (same surname as the village Zhangs) sat with us for 40 minutes, chatting about local history. We offered to continue the conversation by sending photos to the qq accounts of younger family members, who are online. At the same time however, when deflected through tourism, hospitality slips from a social practice into a commercial strategy. During this trip to Dali and its hinterland, we have stayed at hotels where our hosts are friendly, helpful, and pleasant and yet we do not feel obliged to grow the relationship.

Today I am wondering about hospitality in globalizing times. Social hospitality remains an important means of transforming strangers into acquaintances, even as commercial hospitality has expanded with the growth of tourism. The difficulty, of course, is that many of us travel hoping to encounter social hospitality and end up frustrated by differing expectations about the obligations of commercial hospitality. So just what do hosts and guests owe each other when the bill can be paid in full and yet we now live in a global village?

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