Yunnan pt. 1: The diversity of Chinese culture

I spent four crazy days in Yunnan over Thanksgiving break with my mom and my friend Peace. Lonely Planet has a good overview of Yunnan:

“Yúnnán (云南) is the most diverse province in all China, both in its extraordinary mix of peoples and in the splendour of its landscapes. That combination of superlative sights and many different ethnic groups has made Yúnnán the trendiest destination for China’s exploding domestic tourist industry.

More than half of the country’s minority groups reside here, providing a glimpse into China’s hugely varied mix of humanity. Then there’s the eye-catching contrasts of the land itself – dense jungle sliced by the Mekong River in the far south, soul-recharging glimpses of the sun over rice terraces in the southeastern regions, and snow-capped mountains as you edge towards Tibet.

With everything from laid-back villages and spa resorts, to mountain treks and excellent cycling routes, Yúnnán appeals to all tastes.”

Yunnan province is in the southwest of China. Parts of it are like Tibet and parts of it are like Southeast Asia (Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam), making for a varied landscape in terms of geology, flora and fauna, and climate. Yunnan’s ethnic populations reflect the diversity of the unforgettable landscape and experiencing different cultures is one of the main draw for the Han Chinese who make up almost all of the tourists to this domestic destination.

China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, 55 of which are minorities (shaoshu minzu). Many of these minorities don’t look like minorities (able to pass as stereotypical “Chinese” or “East Asian”). Others look more Middle Eastern, Central Asian, or Southeast Asian. Some groups are the ethnic groups of other nations or former nations, such as the Russian ethnic group, the Korean ethnic group, the Mongolian ethnic group, the Manchurian ethnic group, and the Tibetan ethnic group.

The main Chinese ethnic group, comprising 92% of the population, are the Han Chinese. Because reasons (I’m not going to explain 5000 years of history on this food blog but they include very complicated economic, cultural, educational, religious, military, and technological factors), the Han Chinese dominated China and still do (besides the two periods when Mongol and Manchu invaders ruled). Nearly every famous Chinese person you know of (from Confucius to Jackie Chan) is Han Chinese, and as a result, most of the Chinese culture people know is just Han culture. MulanAvatar: The Last AirbenderCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – all Han.

One of my favorite representations of Han Chinese culture is the Chinese philosophy part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. This was directed by Zhang Yimou, whose show Impression Lijiang I’ll be reviewing later.

Han culture is so synonymous with Chinese culture that the only prominent non-Han Chinese cultural export i can think of is the qipao, which is a combination of Manchurian and Western aesthetics that took its modern form in 1920s Shanghai when the U.S. and various European nations were involved in imperialistic activities in China.

While Han culture is awesome (I’m Han, so of course I think so), China is more than Han and the staggering cultural diversity of China should not be thought of as monolithic, because it isn’t. Yunnan is a great place for seeing this diversity, and I hope my photos can show you some of what China looks like beyond the easily accessibly pop culture stuff, like the flattering dose of huaxia in one of my favorite movie scenes, the opening of Mulan. R.I.P brave Great Wall guard. Huaxia can be understood as the concept of Chinese identity according to the Han Chinese and it’s huaxia which is used to represent the Chinese identity (including in relation to Taiwan, which is 95% Han). However, China is bigger than Western Europe. If Sweden and Denmark can’t be lumped together as the same culture, then Chinese identity can’t be all represented by huaxia.

Unlike that of the Huns in Mulan, our night arrival in the city of Lijiang after a 5-hour flight from Shanghai was legal and peaceful. #nowallofchinaknowsyourehere #not

After checking into our gorgeous hotel, to which we were brought by a very nice taxi driver, we went to bed.


We stayed at the Grand Hyatt Lijiang, a 5-star hotel that incorporated Chinese aesthetics and feng shui principles into the architecture. Check out that view of the mountain and the cloudless blue sky! Postcard-worthy views all around.


Ok, Yunnan is basically one big tourist trap because the people there have integrated the tourism industry into their lives and know that we’re going to spend money because we’re here and have no other options. I felt kind of exploited by Yunnan because of how many dishonest people were, and Yunnan was truly expensive – four days here cost as much as my two week, five country spring break last year. But I also admire the entrepreneurial spirit of these people living in this rugged place.

A Yunnan city called Zhongdian re-named itself Shangri-La to capitalize on the connotations of Shangri-La, when the original (and fictional) Shangri-La was described as being in Tibet. That tells you a lot about attitudes here in Yunnan.

A preview of tomorrow’s post: horse-riding!



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