Nestled in the foothills of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain sits a cobblestoned city, the ancient stronghold of the Naxi Kingdom. Although hundreds of years have passed since the Mu Chieftains ruled Lijiang, the city’s soul has remained untouched, as pure as the water flowing through the canals alongside every winding street.

The local Naxi people live in perfect Harmony with nature, carrying on the traditions of their ancestors. They are a peaceful people who rise with the sun to dance every morning, the women’s sheepskin capes flapping with their steps, and the men chanting A-Li-Li and Hua-Hua-Se.

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If this is your first time in Lijiang, you might feel out of place as a modern urbanite among the ancient sod-brick houses and crumbling stone bridges. But Lijiang is a welcoming place, where nobody is an outsider for long. As soon as you arrive, you can settle into a traditional Naxi guesthouse with a cobblestone courtyard. You can eat yak meat, rose-petal cakes, and other exotic local foods. You too can buy flowing ethnic-print pants and cloth shoes and silver headpieces just like the local minorities have done for centuries. You too can braid colorful threads into your hair like the Tibetan nomads (or was it the Qiang?), and drape a hand-woven Mosuo shawl around your shoulders. You can learn to play wooden drums like the locals. You can sit atop a majestic horse and ride through the streets, posing for pictures as the sun sets behind the magnificent Snow Mountains.

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This is the Lijiang that persists in the imagination of the tourist.

It is a fantasy.

For most tourists visiting from China’s polluted metropolises, Lijiang represents the ultimate exotic escape. The average tourist arrives, checks into a romantic guesthouse, buys colorful clothing and ethnic jewelry, sits on a horse, plays a wooden drum, poses for pictures, and then leaves. He or she might continue on to Dali, Shangri-la (Zhongdian), Jinghong, or another southwestern Chinese city where the process is repeated anew. The fantasy remains intact.

Most tourists do not know—or do not wish to know—that the majority of romantic guesthouses in Lijiang are owned by wealthy Han who moved in from elsewhere, pursuing exotic fantasies of their own. They do not stop to notice how dirty and underfed the horses are. They never think about how the wooden drums are actually African bongos.

The tourists don’t know that the Tibetan hair braiding trend was started by a couple of hippies from Canada. They purchase their flowing pants and silver headpieces knowing full well that they will never wear them again, because the Lijiang Fantasy stops once you leave Lijiang. The hippies strolling along the cobblestones with flowers in their hair are wearing costumes. It isn’t real. In all my time in Nanjing, I never once saw anybody wearing a Dongba-printed maxi skirt or shoulder-length tassel earrings. It doesn’t even matter that the Dongba print was shipped from a sweatshop in Dhaka, or that the earrings were manufactured by the millions in a Guangdong factory.

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Tourism anywhere is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it brings crucial income and infrastructure to impoverished areas. Thanks to the tourist industry, Lijiang is currently a modern, well-developed city with beautiful roads, an airport, and a worldwide reputation. On the other hand, an influx of tourists damages the ecosystem through habitat destruction and pollution, highlights the gap between the rich and the poor, and irreversibly alters the local culture. Rural farming villages that were once no different from Lijiang now seem desperately impoverished in comparison. Every year the snow line climbs higher and higher up the side of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. For most tourists, Naxi culture has been reduced to some pretty costumes, mysterious writing, and a quaint way of life.

Some say that the Lijiang Fantasy is a harmless escape for romantic tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of something extraordinary. Some say that it is racism. Some say that it is a careful manipulation on the part of the Chinese government.

In my last post, I touched on the fetishization of Muoso people living on Lugu Lake. This commodification of minority culture is astonishingly common across all of China. It is considered perfectly acceptable for Han people to dress up in traditional minority costumes for performances, work, or just for fun. This practice drew international criticism during the 2008 Olympics, when a group of 56 adorable children representing China’s ethnic groups paraded through the opening ceremony carrying the Chinese flag. Later, all 56 children were revealed to be Han.

Many suspected that the government opted not to use real ethnic children in order to avoid any potential disturbances, since the Olympics occurred during the midst of violent protests in Tibet. While this fear no doubt played a part, I suspect that the Chinese government never even imagined that the Han children in ethnic costumes might be offensive. In China, the Han majority doesn’t consider this a problem. It’s common in Lijiang to see Han women dressed in elaborate ethnic clothing and posing for pictures. There is a booming business of “costume shops” all around the city, where women (and sometimes men) can get their hair and makeup done, don flashy ethnic garb, and have professional pictures taken.

In the US, this would be called “cultural appropriation,” akin to rich white folks wearing Native American headdresses to music festivals. It would be considered unequivocally offensive.

As an American in Lijiang, I felt uncomfortable seeing Han women in ethnic costumes. But after spending more time here, I’m not really sure it’s perceived negatively by the locals. Once my office took a trip to the mountains to help some Beijing designers photograph traditional Lisu clothing and handcrafts. The Lisu women were jumping up and down trying to get me, the foreign girl, to try on their clothing. They thought it was an awesome idea. I agreed in the end…but those pictures will never see the light of day!

A few weeks later, the Naxi women in our office brought traditional clothes in to work to wear to the COART arts festival. Before we left for the festival, everybody in the office took turns trying on the clothing, and the Naxi women were the ones holding the camera and cheering everybody on. They saw this as a fun, lighthearted way to share their culture with others. After all, cultures have been exchanging clothing, objects, ideas and beliefs since the dawn of human civilization. The American obsession with cultural appropriation sometimes goes too far, and only further heightens the perceived divide between the Modern and the Primitive. Nobody would ever blame my Naxi coworker of appropriating American culture when she changed out of her traditional costume and into jeans at the end of the art festival. Sometimes—especially in the US—our desire to be politically correct limits us from exploring other cultures at all.

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That said, I believe there is a darker side to the commodification of ethnic minorities in Lijiang, Yunnan, and China in general. There’s a big difference between trying on clothes with friends, and paying somebody on the street to try on a traditional headdress for a picture.

Regardless of whatever the Chinese government says about harmony, the prevailing discourse throughout China is that the Han are at the center, and the minorities are at the periphery. This is evident at parliamentary meetings when the few token minority representatives are expected to dress in their traditional costumes, while the Han representatives all wear western-style business suits (not traditional Han clothing). This is evident when entire theme parks are created around minority culture, and Han tourists pay to see minority people engaged in traditional activities like making handcrafts and dancing.

China’s minority cultures are thus frozen in time. Unlike the Han, minority cultures are stuck inside a set of stereotypes that appeal to outsiders—they are quaint, close to nature, primitive, exotic, and charming. There is no room in Chinese discourse for them to be otherwise.

It has been well documented that when cultural theme parks are built, the managers—almost always Han businessmen—pick and choose which aspects of the culture are most attractive to urban, short-term Han visitors, and focus only on those aspects. This means that many superficial characteristics of the culture are preserved—things like craftwork, architecture, music, and clothing. Other cultural features like religion, rituals and indigenous worldview, however, are ignored completely. Over time, they are in danger of disappearing. Meanwhile, stereotypes of exoticism and primitiveness are reinforced over and over again in the eyes of the tourists.

Many argue that these stereotypes are deliberately promoted by the Chinese government. Showy theme parks help maintain an image of territorial unity and ethnic harmony, keeping the undesirable aspects of minority culture out of sight—things like organized religion, political values, and separatist leanings.

Although Lijiang isn’t strictly a cultural theme park such as Dai Minority Park in Xishuangbanna or Yunnan Ethnic Folk Villages in Kunming, it nevertheless perpetuates many minority stereotypes. The average Han tourist only glimpses a few visible aspects of Naxi culture before leaving, reinforcing the perception that the Naxi are happy, nature-loving, female-centric, and exotic.

And yet, Lijiang retains a below-the-surface authenticity that can never exist in a true theme park. The Naxi people who have called Lijiang home for centuries still call the city home today. They live and work and carry out their everyday lives just outside the gates of the Old Town. Their language is alive and well (although less so among young schoolchildren). The Dongba religion, while not universally practiced, is still studied by many Naxi people. For tourists who are truly interested in the complexities of Naxi culture, there are numerous resources on Dongba traditions available for their exploration.

So where am I going with this?

I first decided to write this post over a month ago, when I saw two horses grooming each other in the middle of Square Market, the busiest part of Old Town Lijiang. Oblivious to the crowds of people and the flashes of cameras, the two chestnut ponies stood neck to neck, noses jingling under the weight of their flashy decorative bridles as they groomed each others’ manes. They were an island of serenity and authenticity amid the chaos. After a few minutes, their handler pulled them apart and led one pony away, where a fat tourist in a sunhat was waiting to live out his Lijiang Fantasy. The spell was broken.

This post took me over a month to write because I couldn’t put my finger on what to make of it all–the crowds, the souvenirs, my friendly coworkers, the stunning snow-capped mountains. Like almost every issue in China, it is impossible for me to draw any finite conclusions about the tourism fantasy in Lijiang. China is full of contradictions. Everywhere I look I see both modernity and tradition, strangeness and familiarity, good and bad, immense wealth and staggering poverty. Lijiang takes all these contradictions and condenses them into one valley.

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