Before this semester, I did not know anything about ethnic minority groups in China. I did not even know that ethnic tourism existed. During our time in Jinghong, however, we dedicated a full day to studying ethnic tourism, and we even got to visit a tourism village—a sort of theme park of the Jinuo people.
The Han people comprise about 92% of the population in China. The rest of the population is made up of 56 officially recognized ethnic minority groups, and 25 of those call the Yunnan province home. This makes Yunnan a very diverse area, and over the past decade or two, the region has tried to capitalize on that diversity. Many ethnic minority villages have opened themselves up to tourism, and some villages (with financing help from large companies) have even built tourism villages right next to their actual villages. Han Chinese from all over the country come to Yunnan to see these villages.
At first, I assumed that communities built the fake villages so that their real homes would not be overrun by tourists. However, Madeline explained that the reasons extend far beyond that. The ethnic minority groups which decide to embrace tourism are torn between two types of performances. On one hand, they perform for the tourists, who actually get upset if things are too modern. On the other hand, they must perform for the government, which pressures them to develop and modernize. To successfully perform for both audiences, several villages, like the Jinuo one which we visited, decided to build separate villages for the tourists.
The tourism village reminded me more of a Disney theme park than of an actual village. The first thing we saw was a huge parking lot filled with empty buses. As we climbed the giant staircase to the village, we noticed how some tourists opted to be carried in a lawn chair by two Jinuo people. Watching the Han Chinese showcase their Gucci sneakers and Supreme shirts as they recorded themselves using their iPhone X’s was definitely an interesting sight. We walked to the main stage, where a couple hundred Han tourists watched Jinuo performances. The outdoor stage, along with the loud drums and fire, made the place eerily similar to the Indiana Jones set in Disneyworld’s Hollywood Studios Park.
Since Madeline had friends in the Jinuo village, we got to see the real village as well. As we walked over to where people actually live, wooden houses with straw roofs were replaced by concrete houses, several of which had cars in the driveway. Traditional Jinuo clothing was replaced by jeans and sweatshirts. After talking to Madeline’s friends, we learned that the songs and dances from the performances are not even Jinuo. Rather, they more closely resemble traditional Han music and dance. We also learned that many other things we saw throughout the village, such as cow skulls and totem poles, are not at all part of Jinuo culture.
It’s been over a week since we visited the village, but I’m still not sure how to process my experience. When we talked to people who worked in the village, they all seemed grateful for the opportunity. While the work may be emotionally draining, they all preferred it to the likely alternative of working on a rubber plantation. Of course the village is not authentic, but does it matter? The people enjoy the work, and the tourists enjoy the illusion. While the tourism village unfortunately does not help preserve Jinuo culture, it does not necessarily harm it either. Yet, as much as I want to believe this, it still feels too strange. The performances were just Han people watching thinly veiled Han dances that supposedly represented Jinuo culture. Overall, I’m happy that the tourism village has provided greater economic opportunities for ethnic groups such as the Jinuo people. But putting people on display will always feel weird to me, especially when they’re minorities.