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Xizhou, embodiment of a changing Yunnan

By in Travel on

Bygone architecture, awe-inspiring scenery, and vibrant traditions still define much of Yunnan's rural countryside. In the past 20 years, however, economic development with an increasing emphasis on tourism have vastly transformed Yunnan's socioeconomic and demographic composition. Culturally diverse and economically independent prefectures have gradually become more commercialized, dependent on tourism revenue for growth, and now, often only vaguely resemble the bucolic, rural Chinese hamlets they once were – this is especially true in Dali (大理) and Lijiang (丽江).

Domestic and foreign travelers are now journeying farther from developed areas in the hope of stumbling upon rural exotica. One such locale is Xizhou (喜洲), a small village roughly 30 kilometers north of Dali, with a predominantly Bai ethnic minority (白族) population. Xizhou is ensconced between the unmistakable Cangshan Mountains (苍山) and Erhai Lake (洱海). The landscape is magnificent. Still, Xizhou's history, and the architecture of the Bai, are as much of an enticement for curious travelers as is the town's open-air marketplace and bucolic location.

The very oldest written references to Bai ethnicity and a 'Bai script' (白文) are traceable to the records of a wealthy family that resided in Xizhou during the Ming dynasty. Today, the historical legacy of influential families in the area is largely embodied through the remaining cluster of government-protected sites in Xizhou. According to Brian Linden, who has worked in the region for years attempting to protect local culture, Bai architecture:

...displays a level of sophistication and grandeur seldom seen in a rural setting such as our small village. The traditional Bai style of building reached its zenith among the wealthy group of merchants who decided to settle in Xizhou. Most Bai courtyards [went] beyond the mud brick and wood architecture of the other ethnic groups. Xizhou's location near the Dali marble quarries ensured that the complexes had ample stone for the structures and decorative marble for the unique architectural highlights.

The allure of Bai architectural heritage in Xizhou has slowly but surely drawn the attention of travelers, becoming a must-see destination for increasing numbers of domestic and international tourists visiting the valley. Though still a pygmy economy, locals are now economically incentivized to revisit old ways, particularly Bai architectural style. The revitalization of local traditions affected by increased tourism is emblematic of changes happening in outlying villages across the province.

As is the case in Dali and Lijiang, increased tourism allows businesses to flourish and empowers people to participate more fully in burgeoning local economies. However, local traditions run the risk of become commodified, often pushing them to conform to the requirements of visiting tourists. Xizhou, has two faces at the moment, lovingly restored buildings located very close by new modern buildings complete with a moat and wooden waterwheel — that are in fact only a few years old.

Projects such as the latter can represent a model of tourism that threatens the survival of cultural diversity by monetizing local culture. However, the opportunities created also lift many out of the poverty ubiquitous among small villages in northwest Yunnan. This is tourism as a double-edged sword. In Xizhou, as in many other parts of the province, the complicated dance between modernization and preservation is fully underway.

Straddling these two ideas is Xizhou's Linden Centre, a hotel and cultural exchange occupying one of dozens of government-protected buildings. The center fosters a hope that encourages the veracity of local ways of doing things while also allowing travelers to appreciate the unique cultural heritage of the Bai people. Restoration of many old buildings is already complete, and the tiny town of fewer than 3,000 continues the process of renovating other homes and businesses sometimes using traditional methods. And so Xizhou wrestles with the persistent questions of what to preserve and how to go about it — providing a fascinating real-time view of the province's push-and-pull relationship with 'progress'.

Forthcoming government initiatives to strengthen Yunnan's economy are certain to affect rural areas. This year's launch of Yunnan's Thirteenth Five-Year Plan (十三五规划) puts the wheels in motion for expansive infrastructure development projects that will be carried out between now and 2020. Hundreds of billions of yuan will flow from government coffers to finance the development of road networks aimed at integrating remote areas into the greater regional economy. Off-the-beaten-path villages, such as Xizhou, are poised to reap some economic benefit, likely in the form of tourism money.

This sets the stage for an uncertain future. The potential dangers of growing regional tourism remains a reality for the survival of local traditions. It is a balancing act that has yet to be completely mastered. If Xizhou continues to successfully walk the line between tourism based growth and cultural preservation, it could create a paradigm shift for the forthcoming development of Yunnan's remote countryside.

Images: Patrick Scally

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