My visit to the Yunnan Nationalities Village in Kunming was one of my most memorable experiences in China, partially because of how enjoyable it was to see things I wasn’t familiar with and partially because of how strange the whole thing was to me, an American with the typical liberal-leaning college student’s awareness and sensitivity for things like class and race.
Yunnan Nationalities Village can be explained as Disney World, except instead of Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and EPCOT, you’re gawking at replica villages built in the styles of dozens of China’s minority ethnic groups, populated by performance troupes of people from those ethnic groups.
As I explained in my first Yunnan post on the diversity of Chinese culture, 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. So that’s 55 non-Han ethnic groups dividing 8% between them. Han culture has become synonymous with the concept of Chinese culture but we need to realize that China is bigger than Western Europe! Scottish people and Irish people don’t have the same culture. Han culture isn’t the same as Naxi culture.
The Yunnan Nationalities Village makes “exoticism” a commodity, in that we paid (90 RMB if I remember correctly, a good price) to get into this very artificial development where 26 ethnic minorities’ cultures (some who aren’t at all connected to Yunnan) are a packaged tourism product. The…for lack of a better term, ethnic theme park…is huge:
An equivalent would be having a park in a random part of the United States where there were dozens of mini Native American settlements from various tribes with Native Americans of those tribes holding powwows, playing lacrosse, smoking peace pipes, and selling salmon and buffalo hides. Of course, this would not exist, because American public opinion would consider this very exploitative. America has a long history of white people displaying people of color to the public as curiosities – the specific term is “human zoo” or “ethnological exposition” – but America also has a history of racism (slavery is just one part of it) that is almost unique to America. The Chinese never imported people from another continent on a national scale to use as slaves and didn’t have national laws preventing people of different skin colors from using the same bathrooms or marrying. The American concept of racism is not something most Chinese people understand. There is discrimination in China, including discrimination based on skin color, but this discrimination is xenophobia or classism, not racist.
I personally find xenophobia and classism more understandable and logical than racism, and I think this an opinion something most people, including Americans, share. You can be classist and xenophobic against people of any color, because people often have truly become different through the culture they were raised in or their economic status. However, racism is a negative feeling towards all people of a group simply because of their appearance, and that is illogical and just not ok. (From social media, especially in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election, I have seen a lot of what can only be described as guilt from people who hold racist attitudes yet know on some level that they are wrong so attempt to justify and reconcile their attitudes without changing them. Chinese people do discriminate on skin color (for example, people have said that I “was pretty even though I was dark” – UM, OK?) but they will not feel guilty about it because there is no concept of racism, just concepts of classism, xenophobia, and pure aesthetics.)
What I’m trying to get at here is that this ethnicity theme park must be understood in the context of Chinese society and not through the context of American society. While we would be offended by a theme park of Native Americans, feeling offended is not an appropriate attitude here because the Chinese, including the shaoshu minzu, do not feel offended themselves. Minority cultures are represented in China not as inferior, but simply different, in the same way that Japanese culture or Korean culture or American culture are different.
One of the most popular forms of entertainment in China is the gala/wanhui, a variety show with singing, dancing, music, comedy, and more. I grew up watching wanhui and performed in several. Minority cultures were always disproportionately overrepresented – there would be Tibetan and Dai and Uyghur and Korean dances and Mongolian folk songs and more, with ethnic costumes. You can be virtually assured that no performers or audience members were of any ethnicity but Han. Now, if this was America, there would be cries of cultural appropriation if white people put on a concert of African and Hispanic dances along with square dancing and other white American cultural expressions without any African American or Hispanic people in the building, and that is an appropriate reaction because of the history and current role of racism in American society and culture. However, because racial politics have never been ingrained in Chinese society the way they are in America, we can’t just easily and automatically apply our American discourse to the Chinese situation, because the situations are fundamentally different.
As an American, I found the concept of a theme park of ethnicity to be strange and unfamiliar. As a person connected to my Chinese heritage, I did not find this theme park to be degrading. While cultural differences were highlighted, they were not portrayed as superior or inferior, just different – just as if Han Chinese compared Confucian culture to the American Dream. Neither is superior or inferior, they are just different.
All of the performers we saw were very enthusiastic and seemed genuinely happy with their jobs. They get to make a living sharing their cultures with others. I would love to make a living sharing Chinese culture with Americans. If you think your culture is really great, why wouldn’t you want to show other people how great it is? If we think our lunches were really great we post photos on Facebook, knowing none of our friends will eat it, but we share anyway because we thought the food was that awesome.
I would not like to share fetishized and inaccurate Chinese culture (for example, Chinese brocade kimonos) with other people and I don’t want Black Americans sharing fetishized and inaccurate Black culture (for example, minstrel shows) with me, because that’s offensive, reductive, ignorant, and often mean-spirited content. However, the Yunnan Nationalities Park was not corrupting culture through shallow fetishization. There was actually a lot of work put into researching the history and customs of each minority group, and it was obvious that a lot of work had gone into creating accurate, detailed buildings of many different architectural styles. My overall impression of Yunnan Nationalities Park is positive because it was a true educational experience that tried and succeeded to impart an awareness and appreciation of the cultural diversity of China. And very few people, Chinese and American, have the money and time to see grass huts and stupas in Yunnan, yurts in Inner Mongolia, family compounds in Manchuria, and palaces in Tibet. Yunnan Nationalities Park lets you see all this and more in an afternoon.
We entered the park through the tropical Southeast Asian area of the park, which featured some minorities of Yunnan. If you had shown me pictures of this area and told me to guess what country I was in, I would have assumed Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia before China. Much of Yunnan is culturally Southeast Asian and huaxia doesn’t extend everywhere here.
I can’t give many specifics on what culture is being depicted in each photo because I don’t know enough about the 55 minorities of China. How many Americans have memorized the specific differences between Native American nations?
Very different from the stereotypical Chinese aesthetics, but still Chinese.
This group of performers sang about how proud they were of their beautiful dark skin. As Chinese people, they referred to themselves as black-skinned.
Indigenous people of Yunnan here.
Below: representing one of the minorities that isn’t obviously non-Han in terms of appearance and culture.
A Hui (Chinese Muslim) mosque. Hui restaurants selling halal beef noodle soup are very popular in cities.
Right next to this was a Manchurian compound. You could get a photoshoot done there and dress up like royalty (the last dynasty of China was Manchurian, not Han). There are significant differences in language and clothing although physically Han and Manchus don’t look different.
These painted faces are iconic in Chinese aesthetics.
The pictures below are from a home built in the style of Mongolians who came to Yunnan.
And now Mongolian yurts, traditional homes on the grasslands.
The last “place” we visited was Tibet. This is an interesting example showing how diverse just Yunnan is – part of it are near Tibet and are mountainous, dry, and very cold while parts of it are tropical Southeast Asian with lush forests and lots of water and sun.
There was more we saw, and even more we didn’t see because we came pretty close to closing. I learned a lot about different Chinese people, art, architecture, and lifestyles and I think this will be a fun, educational, and positive visit for anyone (budget a whole day). The park is a great deal because of the huge variety of places to explore, people to meet, and things to do and see (so many free performances). Souvenirs and food are reasonably priced in the park and in the tourist trap stores outside, but there’s no bargaining inside the park.
We didn’t eat anything here because we were heading to dinner right after. That’s the next post!