The Akha people live high up in the mountains of Yunnan, one of the most ethnically diverse regions of China, but their culture is under threat as younger people choose to leave their villages and assimilate into mainstream Chinese culture. One artist hopes to change that by preserving the traditions of his people for generations to come.
When we read about China, it’s easy to assume the country is made up entirely of one ethnic group. The Han people, after all, comprise 92% of China’s population and dominate politics, culture, and society.
What often escapes our attention is the extraordinary diversity of China’s ethnic groups.
The Chinese government officially recognizes 55 ethnic minorities. In reality, there are even more tribes with their own distinct customs, traditions, and languages than the number suggests.
Perhaps no place highlights that diversity more than Xishuangbanna, in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. This mountainous region of just over a million people is home to more than a dozen of the country’s 55 official ethnic minorities.
Xishuangbanna’s cultural diversity, lush forests, and tropical climate have cemented this place as a romantic, exotic land in the imaginations of many urban-dwelling Chinese and travelers from outside of China.
Since the 1990s, the region has been a major destination for cultural and ecotourism, spawning tourist villages and cultural experience centers.
But while these industries have brought economic gain to ethnic minority communities, they have also accelerated the commercialization of their cultures.
It is common in Xishuangbanna to see members of an ethnic minority perform their culture for others, particularly Han Chinese tourists, at the behest—and to the financial gain—of an employer who often does not belong to that ethnic group. Some may even be asked to perform the culture of an ethnic group other than their own.
(Read more: Life inside Taiwan’s most remote tribe)
Many communities feel constant tension between their desire for economic advancement and desire to safeguard their cultural heritage. Shuosan, an Akha artist from the mountains of Xishuangbanna, hopes to tackle that challenge with Dianhangcao, a roughly one-acre center committed to preserving the culture of his people.
The Akha population is small, numbering only in the tens of thousands in Xishuangbanna, but they are renowned for their music and embroidery, which serve not only aesthetic purposes but also act as forms of storytelling.
For most of their centuries-long history, the Akha people had no written language and traditionally recorded their experiences with embroidered symbols on hand-dyed fabric. They also passed down their traditional language and folk stories through lyrical music often sung while working in the fields.
Their reliance on oral tradition has made their traditional culture highly vulnerable in today’s China, where people are more mobile than ever and communities that were once tight-knit are prone to break apart because of migration.
Shuosan left his home village of Mangang to go to school in the county’s town. He spent the next nearly 40 years away from his village, pursuing a career in the city.
Many Akha children have followed similar paths. Because villages like Mangang only have a preschool, many young people go elsewhere to continue their studies. With more money, modern comforts, and job prospects to be had in cities, Akha people—who have traditionally lived in mountain villages and worked the land—are leaving villages in favor of bigger towns.
In the process, many lose touch with their culture.
“Children only learn Mandarin Chinese and can’t speak their ethnic language.”
“Children only learn Mandarin Chinese and can’t speak their ethnic language,” says Shuosan. “Valuable traditions are being cast aside or forgotten. Everybody follows the mainstream. We model ourselves on the Han Chinese, Westerners, Americans, while our own unique culture fades.”
Shan Fu, a language teacher who left Mangang Village when she was 10 and frequently visits Dianhangcao, recalls feeling alienated because she couldn’t speak Mandarin Chinese as fluently as other kids.
“I was too shy to tell anyone I was Akha. I was even embarrassed by my own name.”
“I couldn’t understand what my classmates were saying,” she says. “I was too shy to tell anyone I was Akha. I was even embarrassed by my own name. I felt ashamed and inferior to everyone around me.”
For Shuosan, the more time he spent away from his village, the more he felt a pull to return.
Living in the city left him feeling discouraged about the fate of minority cultures like his own. So in 2014, he retired early from his government post and returned to Mangang Village to build the Dianhangcao Cultural Center.
He used the pension from his job and earnings from his artwork to fund the project, and relied on friends and neighbors to volunteer their time to help build and run the center.
In the Akha language, dianhangcao 滇绗草 refers to a stage for singing and dancing. It was once the center of life for any Akha village. The dianhangcao was where young Akha people would gather together to study and practice traditional arts.
Shuosan noted the disappearance of such gathering places and decided to create one on an unprecedented scale. Today, his center boasts a main building with art galleries, libraries, and exhibits; a building dedicated to traditional embroidered clothing collected over 30 years; guest houses in Akha architectural style; gardens; a tea house; and, of course, a performance stage—the dianhangcao.
The experience of the center is not confined to its buildings. Because of its location at the edge of the jungle, visitors can learn how to forage for edible plants and use them in Akha medicine and cooking.
Shuosan’s primary goal in running Dianhangcao is to draw young Akha people back to a village setting where they have the time, space, and encouragement to learn about their own heritage.
Many visit from the city during weekends and breaks to participate in communal feasts, musical performances, and other activities. Some end up staying at Dianhangcao for weeks studying traditional instruments and folk songs. Shuosan hopes the environment of Dianhangcao can deepen their relationship to their heritage and make them feel proud to be Akha.
Wary of the commercialization of ethnic traditions, Shuosan decided from the outset that Dianhangcao would be independent of the government and the cultural tourism industry. So far, he has yet to come up with a steady revenue model for the center and continues to fund it out of his own pocket.
The only people who pay to visit Dianhangcao are those who arrange in advance to stay multiple days. On those occasions, as well as when the center hosts big events, Shuosan will pay local villagers to prepare food and help maintain the grounds. Most guests at the center—both Akha and non-Akha people—take part in the activities for free.
For now, Shuosan’s intention is just for visitors to come away with a deep cultural experience at Dianhangcao.
“I want younger generations to come and see the places we used to live in, the clothes we wore, the language we spoke, and the songs we sang,” he says. “I can't teach every single one of them myself, but by giving them this place, I can help them find their roots.”