Buying into Buddhism
An Excerpt from Alex Wilson’s photo-essay “More than a Brand, Xishuangbanna”
The Dai autonomous prefecture of Xishuangbanna is in Yunnan, South West China. Xishuangbanna sits to the Northwest of Laos and the Northeast of Myanmar. It borders the provinces of Sichuan and Guizhou.
In the Dai language, ‘Xishuang’ means ‘twelve’ and banna means ‘one thousand pieces of land.’ The name literally refers to the twelve regions that are under its administration. It’s traditional name was Mengbalanaxi – meaning ‘an ideal and wonderful paradise.’ And indeed, it is. It’s the kind of place you’d want to package and brand for others.
Nowadays, the population is around 1 million people, over an area of roughly 20 000 square kilometres, formed by two counties: Menghai and Mengla and the county-level municipality of Jinghong.
Since the mid-90s, Xishuangbanna, and Jinghong in particular, has been invested in as a brand. The service sector grew by around 14 percent per year from 1997 to 2007 — well above the overall economy. Xishuangbanna has several assets: namely, its heritage, codes of naturalness, people, and most importantly, its culture.
In this photoessay, we document pictorially how each of these assets is under threat, from its own self. Xishuangbanna is involved in a risky dice-game between self and otherness, playing one against each other, flirting with the shadows. Like any love affair, the results are both seductive and disappointing. And, as is so often the case in China, a dialectic belies the autonomous with the destructive, the unique with the simulacra.
The two themes emerge here which we explore in photos: the construction and consumption of authentic culture through external agents. Through the lives of people, we observe the economy of culture and the culture of economy in Xishuangbanna.
Over 95 percent of Xishuangbanna is mountainous and hilly. It is the home of Pu’er tea, which grows abundantly on the ‘Liu Da Cha Shan’ — literally, the six big tea mountains.
Pu’Er tea has successfully managed to stand out as a Chinese heritage brand — more so than the numerous other tea-types available in China. No doubt, the romanticisation of Yunnan as ‘exotic’ has influenced this perception for both domestic and international consumers.
Despite producing some of the most valuable tea – both financially and culturally — Xishuangbanna is increasingly becoming a rubber base. Looking across Jingzhen mountain, rubber carves indelible grooves into the hillsides — young rubber plantations looking uncannily like tea shrubs in their youth, will eventually grow into more profitable crops. Originally, the rubber was planted to support the war effort in the Korean peninsula — now it is a cash crop. The impact of this change in the ecological make-up of Xishuangbanna is a move towards a monoculture.
Indeed, that notion of a singular and one dimensional culture goes beyond rubber, it stretches into the peoples of XIshuangbanna. The daily lives of people are becoming rituals of commodity, there to be watched, consumed. Authenticity is intertwined with performance — and whilst the points of distinction between the two are sometimes overly defined — at others they are more subtle and opaque.
The Dai make up approximately a third of the population of Xishuangbanna. Dai are one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities and are ethnolinguistically related to the Tai peoples in Thailand, Laos and the Shan state of Myanmar. The prefecture is largely populated by minority groups; other nationalities such as Jinuo, Bulang, Hani, Yi, Lahu, Hui and Aini inhabit the area.
The Dai people themselves are ethnically other to China: they are a tribe that exists only on the borders of China, and other Mekong countries. They represent the hinterland of Chinese identity itself.
Over several waves of migration, the influx of Han Chinese, largely from Hunan, has made the commercial hub of Jinghong more akin to numerous other booming Chinese frontier cities — a sprawl of construction, wasteful and ill-considered urban planning, where the contemporary commercial aspirations of one group dominates over the cultural traditions of another. Han Chinese total a third of the population of Xishuangbanna, but Jinghong is their city.
Xishuangbanna is a cornucopia of nature. It is the only place in China to have a tropical rainforest. After Hainan, it is the hottest place in China. The climate makes it a verdant kingdom — and the prefecture contains too many scenic sites and preserved natural facets to list here.
If Yunnan is the garden of China, Xishuangbanna the most biodiverse area of the province. Besides an average annual temperature of 18-22 degrees Celsius, it sits between two continental plates that separate tropical South East Asia and subtropical East Asia. The botanical garden opened in 1959 and is heavily research focused. It’s home to innumerable species of plants, indigenous flowers, but also ancient medicines such as ‘Xue Jie’ — which is used to treat rheumatism.
The Lancang river, also known as the Mekong – is South East Asia’s longest river, which runs through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It provides food and water for over 60 million people.
The river is used for exercise and car washing. A host of activities that seem incongruous to the outsider form the ebb and flow of daily life in Xishuangbanna.
Life on the edge of the Mekong. In the centre of the photograph, a young couple are photographed for their wedding.
Development within the delta is slowly happening. For such a large river that is the lifeblood for so many people, development and intervention has been surprisingly sparse. That is changing now, and competition between the Mekong nations to dam and harness the power of the wild river is increasing. China is currently building a $4 billion Xiaowan dam will be the world’s tallest dam on completion, and it will be the second largest, only behind the Three Gorges project.
As with any dam project — the impact on human geography is as traumatic as that upon the landscape. Again, the economic potential of the Mekong — with a capacity to provide hydroelectric power equivalent to the power from all of the oil in Indonesia, is in conflict with the ideo-ecological diversity and natural beauty of the area as a sleepy backwater.
For now, the settlements around the Mekong in Xishuangbanna continue to be trading and community hubs — although daily life within villages versus the hub of Jinghong differs dramatically.
The Market at Ganlaba is an eclectic bazaar of toy rifles, wild animals, household appliances and fashion.
A small boy’s head next to a barbecue where ducks and pigs are grilled.
Mother and child wait for a hairdressing appointment. A faded patina of model photos feels curiously out of sync with both contemporary fashion of the high street and the market.
Bai women bring their pigs, rabbits, chickens and ducks to market.
A local spice vendor sits amongst his wares.
Typical of most Asian markets — fresh products are clustered at the front, segmented into fish, meat, vegetables. As the market rescinds, products become more haphazard.
Daily life in Xishuangbanna. A family of four return from school in Jinghong.
A traditional Bai house sits on stilts. Bai houses tend to be large and spacious.
Cockerel and blue jeans.
The year-round warm climate in Yunnan means the province supplies the bulk of vegetables for colder, Northern provinces.
Jinuo village. Despite its rural locale — roads in Xishuangbanna are well-paved. The network of smaller minority satellite villages that surround Jinghong make access simple. However, it’s still rare to see Chinese tourists wandering around smaller villages. Instead, the preference for contained cultural consumption outshines any desire for experiencing minority culture in ‘the wild’.
To cope with the boom in domestic tourism, international hotels are going up at a phenomenal rate.
Xishuangbanna airport was built in 1990 and enlarged in 1995. Now, a new airport built to resemble traditional architectural motifs is under construction. Flights go to Bangkok weekly, and along with Kunming airport represent the South East Asian transit hub in China.
In the new area of Jinghong, the view from the first 5 star hotel in the city shows shifting topography. Underneath the ‘south of the clouds’ – the literal translation of Yunnan, golf courses and villa complexes stretch to the horizon. During my visit – the hotel was hosting an international car brands’ convention.
The construction of the new town paints a very different silhouette to the traditional Thai influenced temple structures.
Steel frames jettison into the sky near the Stupa in Manfeilong.
Nearby the Stupa, the site of tours and pilgrimages, traditional houses have been rebuilt in a modern style. Manfeilong is one of the most popular tourist destinations. It’s symbolic of change. A new temple has been constructed at the top of one mountain.
Near the botanical gardens, detritus builds up. The influx of tourism has a lasting affect on the city of Jinghong.
Inside a Jinuo house. Local myth dictates that whilst visitors are made welcome – looking into the bedroom means you have to do housework for a number of years.
In Jinghong, work is moving away from agriculture.
In this ‘Apple’ store we see language as the convergence of cultures and the influence of technology. The Dai language is closely related to Thai script. However strong the cult of Apple is around the world, especially in China, there is a more pervasive religion in Xishuangbanna; Buddhism.
Buddhism is a major influence – and this is evident from the architecture and spiritual personality of the region. King Bhumbiol of Thailand donated royal vestments, ceremonial objects and funds for temple upkeep during state tours from envoys of the King in 1998, 2004 and 2008. Many Thais, especially those from Chiang Mai and surrounding countryside, view this as an ancestral homeland. It’s an interesting contrast to Chinese ancestry in Thailand that we explored in a previous photoessay on Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Buddhism is practiced in Xishuangbanna — and is the most salient symbol of the economy of culture going hand in hand with the culture of economy. Buddhism is tolerated in this pocket of the country, even if religious practice is largely outlawed in China.
The role of Buddhism here is itself a double-bind. It is both self – central to the identity of the Dai and the history of the region. It is also the ‘other’ — something outside of ‘China’ and society.
As a cultural product, it’s receiving considerable funding — not only through the piety of the Thai royalty. It’s interesting to note that the Theravada Buddhism centre includes private-sector investors from Shenyang.
From the flourishing of Buddhism and its welcome reception from outside of the local community — judged by the number of pilgrimages from both overseas and domestic visitors – we can see another manifestation of the momentum behind spiritual desire in contemporary China.
Conversely, to what extent is Buddhism being forced to become purely a cultural product itself — kept compartmentalised, discrete and folk like by the state — who determine how culture is consumed and experienced?
The tolerance of Buddhism is arguably just a cultural device for boosting economic growth. It’s also the most transcendant as a form of tourism. It welcomes participation, invites ritual — and most importantly — offers an authentic tourism experience that is increasingly amiss from the overburdened, falsified and commodified lives of the Dai in Xishuangbanna.
As Susan K. McCarthy argues: ‘Yet religion can allow the tourist-outsider to encounter culture in a way that, in terms of the tourists subjective experience, collapses or at least reduces the outsider-local distinction.’ McCarthy makes a compelling argument that affirms this more symbiotic relationship between culture and economy — she calls it the ‘Buddhist-industrial-complex.’
In contrast, the kind of authentic experiences offered to travellers in the realm of ethnic tourism — which precisely illustrates the dangerous game Xishuangbanna plays between a culture of economy and economy of culture — it is possible to view the annual Water Splashing Festival within the safe confines of a cultural village, with performances scheduled throughout the day for convenience. It’s also possible to watch choreographed Dai women washing in the Lancang river — at once feminising and eroticising the Dai women as an object for consumption.
Many academics and ethnologists cite these as examples of ‘internal orientalism’ and view the practice as a malevolent technique for depoliticising minorities, religion – and enhancing the masculine, authoritative historical perspective of the Han Chinese.
Borderland historical kingdoms such as Lanna — the Burmese-Thai-Laos kingdom that Xishuangbanna once belonged to — fade into an otherness detached from the moments of that history.
However, galvanising connections branch along Dai borders. Beyond the threat to a unique cultural experience due to the influx of tourism and capital — and the subsequent double-bind that many peoples and cultural products are now prey to within a Chinese and foreign tourism context — there are other opportunities for cultural dialogues between Xishuangbanna and its neighbours.
Da luo, famous for its 28m high Banyon tree, is a small border town located 3km from Mongla over the border into Myanmar. This is the major trading port for the two countries. As Myanmar opens up — and becomes not only a trading partner itself, but also less of a metaphorical / physical border between China and India — the future rail links to Vientiane, the Asean highway linking Vietnam, and the road from Daluo to Thailand will ultimately link new trade with cultural ancestry.
- Article by Alex Wilson