Saturday, March 22, 2014

Marketing Dai Culture in Xishuangbanna

                                                       by Jim Goodman

    For some three decades now Xishuangbanna has been one of Yunnan’s top tourist attractions.  The prefecture opened its doors to foreign visitors in 1985, but it was already becoming a popular destination for Chinese tourists.  Bordering Myanmar and Laos, with a climate, ecology, population
royal palms lining Xuanwei Dadao, downtown Jinghong
 make-up and culture more akin to that of its southern neighbors, it was like a slice of Southeast Asia, but still within China.  Other than Hainan Island, it was the only truly tropical part of the country, not only very different from the rest of China, but with sights, smells, sounds and tastes even different from pretty much the rest of Yunnan province.
    Advertising geared to the tourist market stressed these features, highlighting images of tropical fruits and flowers, forests and rivers, displays of local food, tea plantations and colorfully dressed ethnic minorities.  Promoters hailed its tropical landscape and atmosphere as well as its exotic ethnic cultural environment.  And for any visitor arriving in Jinghong, with its  
Dai girls i Jinghong
downtown streets lined with royal palms and local Dai women in their blouses and sarongs, flowers pinned to their hair buns, the tourist brochures seemed to be quite accurate.
    To arrange for visitors to appreciate the physical attractions of Xishuangbanna was relatively easy.  Tour operators simply took them to places like the Tropical Flowers and Plants Garden right there in Jinghong and the bigger and more impressive Tropical Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences next to Menglun.  Other popular excursion were to the oldest cultivated tea tree above Nannuoshan, near Menghai, the Single Tree That Makes a Forest--a multi-rooted banyan tree near Daluo, and the Mengyang Nature Reserve, with its Wild Elephant Valley Park.
    Promoting local Dai culture as a tourist experience, however, was a little more difficult.  Visitors were aware that the Dai practiced a type of Buddhism different from that elsewhere in China—Theravada rather than Mahayana.  They were not likely to know anything more about them, other than they lived in stilted houses, which they could observe while passing villages on their excursions.  They could appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the Buddhist temples and monuments, but the most impressive experience they were likely to enjoy that had anything to do with local culture was the Dai dinner and dance show.
Dai-style banquet
    The dinner, usually served on a round, split-bamboo table, with the guests seated on small stools, comprised a dozen or more Dai special dishes, some spicy, some not, fish both grilled and steamed, pork baked in banana leaves, local vegetables, some of them from the jungle, semi-dried beef, etc.  In the center of the table sat the filler—sticky rice steamed in pineapple.  Diners washed it all down with tea, beer or spirits.
    After this repast came the dance show.  The performances generally featured a troupe of several girls, the choreography consisting of slow, graceful movements of the arms and legs, with props such as water jugs, umbrellas, lamps or candles.  For one dance they would twirl the little stringed purses used in the traditional courting ritual and at the conclusion toss them to the males in the crowd.  Some shows also included vigorous, high-stepping young male dancers beating elephant-leg drums.  There might also be a soloist on flute or the gourd-pipe called hulusi.
the lovely Peacock Dance
    The highlight of the show was the Dai Peacock Dance, easily the most beautiful in the native repertoire.  The dancer wore a long, sleeveless, flowing dress, usually yellow or white, mottled with the “eyes” of the male peacock’s tail.  Besides swirling around showing off the dress design, the dancer also makes the peacock form with her fingers and quivers her neck and shoulders to mimic the bird’s movements.  First created in the early 60s, the Peacock Dance is now famous nationwide and a standard image advertising Xishuangbanna.  
    Dance shows, without the banquet, also took place on the stage inside Manting Park.  They comprised much the same set as in the dinner show, though the bigger stage allowed for a greater number of performers at once.  Because the audience sat in seats a little ways from the stage, the set also included a sample of the action of Poshuijie—the Water-Sprinkling Festival.  No one got very wet, of course.
     Entertainment was not the only interesting aspect of minority culture in Banna, just the easiest to present.  It was something tourists could watch and listen to without having to really understand it.   Most tourists, there for a short time only, were anyway not keen on acquiring a deeper knowledge of the ethnic minorities, their way of life, customs and cultural outlook.  The dinner and dance show was quite enough exotica.  Other than repeated temple visits, not much else was set up for tourists to appreciate, culturally speaking.
traditional house in Dai Park
    To fill this gap and encourage visitors to stay longer, spend more and have a more direct experience of Dai culture, at the end of the century the Dai Nationality Park opened.   Encompassing five traditional villages at the eastern end of Menghan, in Ganlanba, the Olive Plain, 23 km from Jinghong,  it was originally the brainchild of a Guangdong businessman who sold it to the Ganlanba State Farm, a government-owned rubber company.  Dai Park opened in 1999, the same year as the International Horticultural Exhibition in Kunming.  The park management organized a range of activities and exhibits for the tourists, including a display of tools,
roof decorations, Dai Park
containers, machines and implements used in the traditional material culture, the thread-tying custom, cock-fighting, songs and dances and, inevitably, a daily Water-Sprinkling Festival.  Visitors also took in the pagodas and temples, like the beautiful and ancient Manchunman Temple, and had the option to stay overnight in a Dai house.
Manchunman Temple
    After a slow start and inadequate advertising, from its third year Dai Park began getting more publicity and it became part of the itinerary for over 80% of the tourists who came to Xishuangbanna.  Five years after its opening, 1.8 million tourists had visited Dai Park.  A good portion of them had stayed overnight, for the park management had made arrangements for villagers to offer such accommodations.  Tourists would eat with the family, on stools around a split-bamboo table, and sleep like the family, on thick mattresses on the floor.  Such houses had modern toilets, but other than that consideration, overnight visitors could enjoy a true cultural experience in the same way that trekkers did in remote areas.  And they didn’t have to make a grueling hike to do so, for Dai Park was but a half hour’s drive from Jinghong.
    If tourists knew anything about Dai culture before arriving they were familiar with the annual Water-Sprinkling Festival—Poshuijie in Chinese.   After the turn of the century this festival just got bigger and grander, but not entirely because of tourism, for the local government sponsored it and paid for the participation of minority contingents from all over the prefecture to march in the opening day’s procession and to perform in the evening stage shows.
the Umbrella Dance for Poshuijie
    In recent years the tourist industry has promoted a new slogan—Tian tian huandu Poshuijie (Every day enjoy the Water-Sprinkling Festival).  This became a daily feature at the Dai Park in Ganlanba, where tourists rented traditional Dai costumes for 50 yuan and a basin for 30 yuan and jumped into the pool in the park’s central square and splashed each other for about 20 minutes.
water-splashing at Dai Park
    Between Ganlanba and Menglun two other villages became Poshuijie villages for busloads of Chinese tourists.  The notion behind Tian tian huandu Poshuijie was that tourists cannot always come at festival time in April and by staging that part of the festival daily tourists, no matter when they came, would be able to enjoy something integrally part of Dai culture.  The same argument, however, was not used to make the Lantern Festival, an integral part of Chinese culture, a daily affair in Beijing or any other city.
    Besides Dai Park in Ganlanba, another venue opened in Jinghong designed to promote Dai culture as a tourist attraction.  This was the new Mengle Temple, lying at the foot of a small hill south of the city, featuring the fanciest Dai-style temple in Banna, well endowed with decorative figures on the roofs, sculptures and woodcarvings, huge images, mural paintings and other embellishments.   But Mengle Temple is not entirely a temple.  It is more of a Dai religious theme park, designed to make money for the non-Yunnanese company that built it—Shengyang Longsheng Real Estate Development Co. Ltd., from Liaoning Province.  Visitors pay 120 yuan admission fee to the compound.  They get to marvel at the furnishings, admire the big Buddha image, pay another 100 yuan if they want to light a votive lamp, buy and light incense at five times the normal price and climb up to the Buddha statue for a view of the city.  The climax of the visit takes place at the pool in the compound, where first five or six monks recite prayers from palm-leaf manuscripts and then, when they retire, visitors jump into the pool to throw water on each other, an act they could not indulge in within any other Theravada Buddhist temple compound in Southeast Asia. 
local dancers at Dai Park
    As a “Dai experience,” though, a visit to Mengle Temple was still much less rewarding than a trip to the Dai Park in Ganlanba.  By 2010 the park was drawing a half million visitors per year.  At 120 yuan per entrance ticket, Dai Park was big business and residents of the five villages complained that they were receiving too little a portion of the receipts.  The company in charge mollified them somewhat by agreeing to pay an extra 20% in rental fees.  Still, the managers, clerical workers and even the guides were almost all Han outsiders.  The Dai villagers wound up with the menial jobs like dancers, handicraft workers and tourist welcoming groups, such as the row of young men beating gongs and young women standing up to wave their arms in ramwong dance movements as tour groups walked past them to visit the handicrafts display.
    The nature of the “Dai experience” also changed.  Han tourists, who made up the overwhelming majority of visitors, came in larger groups and fewer of them stayed the night.  And when they did they preferred to sleep in bedrooms separate from the host family, on raised beds instead of floor mattresses.  For the richer breed of Han tourists now coming to Xishuangbanna, anything else was “too primitive” and uncomfortable.  With the highly organized group tours, with their time limit of less than a full day, some places in the park got more attention than others.  Manchunman, close to the center and endowed with the most beautiful temple, got the lion’s share, while Menga, furthest from the center, was all but ignored.  Thus the money generated by tourism was not evenly distributed, leading to jealousies and animosities among the villagers that did not exist before they were all grouped together in Dai Park.
    At least the architecture and the traditional lifestyle of the Dai Park villages remained intact, while such features disappeared in other Dai villages, especially in Menghai County, as people got rich from the tea or rubber business and replaced their stilted houses with concrete boxes in the modern Han style.  But with official promotion of Dai culture, some villages that had not grown rich from rubber or tea and still had most houses in the traditional style applied for official recognition as “culture villages,” such as Manhefeng, near the new prefecture museum, and Mandui, on the way to the airport   Tour operators then steered their clients to these places to buy locally made handicrafts or items in the local market. 
    So now there is an economic motive for Xishuangbanna’s Dai people to hang on to their traditions.  Whether this will stem the inevitable erosion of traditional values that ordinarily comes with modernization remains to be seen.  But it encourages the thought that not maybe everything traditional is bound to disappear.
traditional Dai village in Xishuangbanna
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                   for more on the Dai see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan

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