(An old essay from travels in Asia)
Modern twenty-first century China, like a lot of Asia, is a combination of old and new ideas. The Cultural Revolution of the 60’s and 70’s aimed at eliminating most of Chinese traditional elements from society, but just as none of us can fully escape our genes, China can never fully break free from its past.
Partly the product of the Century of Humiliation, the period lasting from the mid nineteenth century until 1949, in which China was at the mercy of Britain, France, Japan and other Western Powers, China sought to completely reinvent itself and a bit ironically, reestablish itself as the center of civilization by torching its past elements that once awed and humbled western voyagers like Marco Polo and sixteenth century Portuguese missionaries.
During my studies in college, I often thought about what remained of China’s esoteric past and despite the quest to modernize and become the next great world power, I wondered what traditional elements the Chinese people still held on too.
Well in 2017 I got the chance to go and find out. After completing my Anthropology degree at the University of Iowa, I was awarded a post graduate research grant to go and conduct an ethnographic study on the Dai people, an ultra-religious ethnic minority group, of southern Yunnan Province. Yunnan has a storied reputation in the history of The Middle Kingdom and is today known as China’s most ‘diverse province.’
I was ready to break free from the chains of being a, “armchair-anthropologist” as the term is used in social science circles, that indicates a person who has never actually gone to the place and people that they studied.
Though I had no idea what I was in for when I landed in Kunming, a city that sits at over 6000 ft. in elevation and is the capital of Yunnan Province.
Jetlagged, nauseous and alone, the little mandarin I knew proved to be quite futile as it took me over 5 hours on the first day to find the hostel I had booked to stay. Roaming around the city of over six million inhabitants with a 75-liter backpack on my shoulders and a smaller pack strapped over my chest, it felt as though I had been dropped onto another planet. The atmosphere of the city was clearly Asian but what I thought that would feel and look like, was completely distinct from actually being immersed in it.
Cars and motorbikes frantically zoomed past, often just inches away from a collision. There was construction going on everywhere, gleaming LED lights in every direction and the faces of the people passing on the street were all of Asian origin. This may be an obvious and unremarkable observation to some but I found it unique that I was in a city almost the size of Chicago and yet there was only one people, one race seemingly inhabiting its streets and sidewalks.
One would be hard-pressed to find a city in the west, that was this homogeneous.
Yet it was vital that I reminded myself, that while I only saw one people, the reality was that a local looking into the same crowd I was looking at, would see, Han, Dai, Yi, Bai, Lisu, Wa and other distinct groups.
The next few weeks began slow and then went by fast. I met other western travelers at the hostels, caught a nasty stomach bug that nearly left me bed bound for a couple days and soaked in all the Yunnan culture that I could.
Despite the modernization taking place, I clearly saw evidence of ‘real’ Chinese elements and practices going on everywhere. From the quant and beautiful parks in the middle of the cities where locals practiced tai-chi and traditional dances, to the monasteries and old Paifang gate architecture, barely ever a short bus ride away.
I hiked the stunning Tiger Leaping Gorge in the north of the province and briefly stayed at a Shaolin monastery near the city of Dali, where I yet caught another nasty stomach bug (or was still dealing with the same one) that cut my week long stay, a few days short.
Eventually, I arrived in Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan where I would be conducting the bulk of my field work. I would be based in the region’s largest city, Jinghong. As I departed the airport in a taxicab, It became obvious very quickly that the area’s Dai cultural heritage, was crucial to the identity of this region. With street signs in both Mandarin and Dai languages, palm trees and jungle covered rolling mountains in the horizon and the Great Mengle Buddha standing tall, overlooking downtown Jinghong, it became evident that Xishuangbanna was the perfect advertisement for Yunnan’s ‘Most Diverse Province’ reputation. Another thing that became apparent during my first few days, was that I stood out like a sore thumb. I came to realize quickly that Westerners were even fewer and more far between in this area than the rest of the province and we were already quite sparse.
Locals would often approach and take a picture with me when I dined at restaurants and hung out at bars.
The guesthouse that I stayed at was owned by a woman of Dai descent. She spoke English and was married to a man who was Han Chinese. Through her, I was able to learn many things about Dai culture and also the right places to go and people to meet.
I spent most of the month of September roaming around a good breadth of the region. I visited every Theravada Buddhist temple I could find and conversed with any willing locals. I met English speaking monks who despite my preconceived, somewhat romantic and esoteric views, turned out to be (robe and shaven head aside) quite ‘normal’ people.
It was around this point, I recognized I was no longer an ‘arm-chair anthropologist.’ This experience is just one of the fruits and benefits of travel. Learning from a book and classroom will only teach you so much but learning from direct experience tears down the doors of separation, that not only provokes speculation but ultimately prevents a person from authentically knowing.
During my fieldwork, I also made my fair share of amateur mistakes. One being, a day when I chose to cycle out to a village that was more than a few kilometers from Jinghong. The Dai are a lowland people who traditionally settle by the rivers so I naively concluded that if I were to ride out on bicycle to one of their villages, it wouldn’t be to arduous of a journey. This particular incidence proved not to be one of my more brighter moments, as I left early in the morning and soon found that the route was taking me through some steep rolling hills.
It was hot, a bluebird day and the sun was beating down on my fair skin. I failed to bring enough water or sunscreen and a few hours into the journey, my state of my mind turned quite negative. I felt imposter syndrome creep in, as thoughts of unworthiness and the feeling of being in way over my head, became front and center of my conscious mind. After hours of cycling through thigh busting terrain, I arrived at a small Dai village on the banks of the mighty and live giving Mekong river. The locals were quite shocked to see a sweaty and exhausted foreigner but soon treated me with bottled water and a barrage of photos.
In this moment, if what I saw didn’t sum up modern china, I don’t know what else does. In the midst of a small traditional Dai village with rice terraces nearby, a rubber tree plantation and a Buddhist temple standing tall in the center of the village, one of the locals with a bamboo hat, pulls out an iPhone and takes a selfie with me.
All in all, for about a week afterward, my skin and quadriceps were sore to the touch.
Towards the very end of my stay in southern Yunnan province, I hired a local guide named Sam who was fluent in Mandarin, Dai and English and he took me miles south of the city of JInghong, close to the Burma border, in what seemed like was the heart of Dai country. We visited millennium old stupas and temples, one of which the Buddha himself apparently visited over 2000 years ago.
We went to Dai markets where I saw first-hand what Sam meant when he said, “Dai, eat everything. Waste nothing.” With limbs, heads and bottles of blood on display everywhere, these markets were no place for vegetarians.
During the long drives between villages, Sam told me everything he knew about his people and history. He told me that in the past two decades, the Chinese government had actually helped the Dai rebuild the Buddhist temples that they had destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
Walking through the villages, we would often come across large photos of Mao Zedong placed on the walls of gates and buildings.
“People see him as a God, as a father.” Sam said.
“Even after the monks beaten and the temples burnt?” I asked.
“Most people don’t remember that now. Dai see him as a God.”
I pondered this particular conversation with Sam long after my field work ended and I had departed China.
Mao Zedong, the man who famously said that “Religion is poison,” is now viewed as a God among one of China’s ultra-religious minority groups.
I shrugged the Irony off. I suppose that it symbolizes modern China. A mix of old and new and perhaps some contradictions.