05.18.13

Xijiang: An Ethnic Miao Tourism Village

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 9:04 pm by Benjamin Ross

China is home to 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, with 92% of the population belonging to the Han majority, the remaining 8% constituting the 55 minorities.  But it wasn’t always like that, at least not officially.  In the 1950′s, the Chinese government undertook the task of classifying the population by ethnicity.  When an elaborate census of the population revealed hundreds of distinct self-defined ethnic groups, the government settled on 56 nationalities, of which all Chinese citizens must belong to one.  Today most of the ethnic minorities live in the Western and Southwestern provinces.  Guizhou is one such province, with a high ethnic minority population.  Kaili serves as the capital of the Qiannandong, an “autonomous region” for the Dong and Miao (Hmong) minorities.  But with Kaili itself being heavily Sinicized, the village of Xijiang is often considered to be the center of Miao culture in Guizhou.

Xijiang is considered to be the largest Miao village in Guzhou.
It’s also home to the largest parking lot I’ve ever seen in a rural village, used for the hordes of tour buses and private cars which come in from Kaili.  (This is only a side street, not the main parking lot).
While Xijiang is indeed a large, intact, Miao minority village, it is also an officially designated government tourist attraction, and entering the village comes with a 100 RMB price tag.
I had a lot of conflicting thoughts in Xijiang.  On the one hand, the place is absolutely beautiful, and the Miao people do actually still live there in their traditional wooden houses.  On the other hand (as will be apparent in upcoming photos), the government has poured a ton of money into the place in order to create a veritable ethnic themepark to showcase the Miao culture to tourists.
Here are some Israeli friends I met up with in Kaili.  Because of the amount of tourists, many of the wooden houses have been converted to cafes and restaurants, such as this one with the excellent view behind.
The food was overpriced, but quite tasty.  This dish is bamboo shoots with smoked bacon.
The most popular street food in Xijiang seemed to be this spicy french fry concoction.
Now we are approaching the center of Xijiang, with our traditional wooden China Mobile shop.
Ethnic tourism is a big deal in China, with two of the primary attractions being the minority dances and minority traditional clothing.  Interestingly these two facets of minority culture seem to almost invariably be associated with the ethnic women.  At the center of town, Miao women, in costume, put on a never-ending show of their traditional song and dance.
Here again I was conflicted by this contrived iteration of Miao culture.  On the one hand, it seemed as if the village had monetarily benefited a great deal by the tourism brought in.  Whether it was being a professional dancer, running a restaurant, a guesthouse, or even selling soda and beer, there appeared to be a multitude of employment and business opportunities in Xijiang, all of which benefiting from the advantages of inflated tourist prices.  On the other hand, at times it was difficult to escape from the “animals at the zoo” feeling I was getting from watching the various Miao ethnic performances.
More crowds gathering to watch the song and dance at the town center.
These are the shops surrounding the town center.
Another hot business is the selling of Miao women’s clothing, available in all shapes and colors.
For a small fee, you can even rent the Miao clothes, and have your picture taken by a waterfall.
But over-commercialization aside, Xijiang is indeed quite scenic, and worth a visit, even considering the 100 RMB price tag.
This is the Xijiang Middle School.
Xijiang is home to several aesthetically pleasing bridges as well, though I’m not sure whether these came before or after the government tourist village designation.
The influx of tourism has also led to the opening of several bars, such as this one pictured above.
What I found to be most rewarding about Xijiang was a walk outside of the village itself and into the surrounding rice patty fields.  The following pics are all from that walk, starting just outside of the village, and heading outward on a dirt road.
After a pleasant day in Xijiang, I took the bus back to Kaili, and in the parking lot was met, once again, by a troop of dancing Miao women in costume.  The more of this kind of thing I saw, the more I wondered whether the Miao women even wear their ethnic dress on a regular basis, or if it’s simply a work uniform. If we excuse how contrived and commercialized this “ethnic tourism village” was, Xiajiang did make for a relaxing and interesting day trip, and the scenery itself makes this village a worthwhile destination.  As a western visitor, it’s easy to criticize the commercialization of ethnic minorities because this kind of tourism runs so contrary to what we would hope to see from such a site.  But at the same time, I would be curious what the actual impact on these villages is, especially from an economic perspective.  I tried asking these questions to some of the locals, but unfortunately, like most heavily touristed places, the residents were not very interested in discussing these matters with an outsider.  Any insight on the matter would be much appreciated.  Next stop in Guizhou:  Zhenyuan

3 Comments »

  1. Teya United States said,

    May 20, 2013 at 1:41 am

    Wow! I was there in 2010, and what you write is so drastically different from what I experienced. You are actually the third person whose blog I regularly read to visit Xijiang since February (others are also foreigners).

    I was there in late January/early February about 2 weeks prior to the Spring Festival. Thus, it was not a busy tourist time. People were friendly and talkative when we were there. The first moment that left a deep impression to me was when on the bus someone was talking about how the road had just been constructed and prior to the government investment it was just a dirt path. It made me realize just how isolated the village was before the government investment.

    In the village, one of the first things to happen was we walked by this area where many short tables were set up and people we eating a meal. It turned out to be a wedding. As we passed by, the villagers (I assume locals) asked us to join them. Based on what you write here, I wonder if that would still be the case now? I think we were among the few guests staying at the inn, and the owner sat with us as we ate and we chatted about various things. When we went into the stores we also had conversations with shop keepers. I went to Guizhou because I really like Miao embroidery, so I often talked about that while I was there.

    Anyway, whenever we travelled to a place one of the questions we always had was how do the locals feel about the development. I have asked these questions in many places, but in Xijiang, it was the first time I asked the questions and felt the answer actually had overwhelmingly positive responses. The general sentiment we got was that the older generation was happy with the changes because it meant their kids would not have to leave the village to find work in the cities. They could remain locally and earn enough money to support the family. Second, they talked about how the tourism money revived interest in traditional music and dance and before people were not interested in it, but after the tourism people realized they could make money from learning those things and they became valued again.

    Fourthly, we also caught the circus show and I was appalled at the audience behavior. People were jumping up and entering the stage area to take photos in the middle of the performance. This also happened in Zhaoxing. I had trouble enjoying the performance when this happened, and when I asked if there would be another one at the tourist center they informed me I had already seen the performance, from that I had the impression that it was more of a job.

    In thinking of the analysis, try hard to go beyond just the economic perspective. I think it captures part of the story, but there is also the environmental, social (family) and cultural (traditions) aspects that should be given similar weight. I agree that criticism of the commercialization of minorities is one of the first things that come to mind especially as a westerner. Instead, however, I think it is worthwhile to consider how China views minorities in general, how is multiculturalism dealt with in the society, how to Han feel about minorities and vice versa. Don’t criticize the commercialization as the starting point, consider how it came to be that a culture can be commodified, whose power, how that power works in the society, what is the alternative, and whether or not this practice is all that unique.

    I also went to Zhenyuan. The best pictures we got were from the temple along the river. I looks like you skipped it.

  2. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    May 21, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Teya-
    Great comment and observations. The road is indeed a very important factor in the development of Xijiang. There isn’t much else on the way, and I can’t imagine any other reason it was built, other than in conjunction with the promotion of Xijiang as a tourist village. I recall the route being quite scary at times, in terms of the inclines and bends around mountains, but at the same time the road itself was of extremely high quality. I can only imagine how slow and scary (especially to visitors) this road must have been before improvement. My old copy of Rough Guide actually suggested accessing Xijiang via Leishan for this very reason, so I’d imagine the impact of the new road has been enormous. I wish I would have gotten a shot of the main parking lot, because it was one of the biggest I have ever seen anywhere in China.

    As for the locals, most of the people I talked with (admittedly not a large sample) seemed pretty blase towards (foreign) tourists. It’s the same kind of treatment you get in Beijing or Shanghai, where they’ve seen enough foreigners, that the novelty has completely worn off, and that token hospitality we get accustomed to as laowai (but which rarely is shown towards Chinese outsiders) was non-existent. As a Chinese-speaking foreign tourist, this was one of the very few places I’ve ever been in rural China where I have found it difficult to talk to people. It would be interesting to hear comments about this from the perspective of a Chinese tourist as well.

    I will say, however, that the inn-restaurant keeper at the place I ate with my Israeli friends was extremely welcoming, and willing to talk to us, answer our questions, help us take pictures, etc. However, this could simply be part of her business model. The place was located in one of the traditional wooden houses, had a deck with a phenomenal view, and the decor had a hip, yet local, almost backpacker vibe to it. In essence, they seemed to have a very keen notion of what tourists (or at least a certain demographic of tourists) are looking for. And unfriendly service could have easily ruined this vibe.

    I really appreciate your comments and suggestions in your last paragraph, and I think there is indeed a lot here to look at beyond the economic perspective. In terms of China’s view on minorities, multiculturalism, cultural revival, and commodification, there is definitely a lot of nuance there.

  3. Recommender United States said,

    August 5, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Highly recommended read about the Miao and ethnic tourism:

    http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=3485&viewby=title

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