Notes from the Field in Rural Ethnic China
In Longcun village, the business day started every morning with the first sound of the Chinese shawm (suo na) arising from the village gate, announcing the arrival of the first tour group of that day. Longcun is located in the north of Fenghuang County in West Hunan of China, a mountainous region with a dense Miao population. Amid Fenghuang’s tourism boom (Feng 2008, 2012), an outside investor, Lu, obtained a 40-year lease in 2007 to develop ethnic tourism in this remote poor Miao village. The essential part of the village tour was the show performed on the stage erected on the farmland-turned-into-performance ground newly constructed by Lu; flanking both sides of the stage was a two-story wooden shelter with seating on the second floor for the tourists to watch the show. The set of new structures created a central tourism space in the village, marking Lu’s private ownership and lending him power over both the tourists and villagers.
Lu’s tourism spatial planning in Longcun, as discussed below, vividly illustrates the connectivity between space and power in tourism. Tourism space has not been hitherto primary in the theoretical concerns of power relations, and relationship between space and power theory in tourism analysis deserves further conceptualization and contextualization. Space and power are both socially produced, and power relations constitute the structure of social space (Foucault 1975, 1984; Bourdieu 1989; Lefebvre 1991; Harvey 1990). As a mode of social (re)production to reinforce the dominant power, spatial ordering serves as both a means of regulation for social control and a business to be managed for profit, especially in the context of tourism, in which the construction and modification of tourism spaces driven by economic gain creates a “landscape of power” (Zukin 1993, cf Chambers 2010: 116).
“No Trespassing While the Show Is On”
Space contains power relations in the form of built environment. Rooted in imperial China, the symbolism of the center was constructed as the nexus of inner/outer and upper/lower, and what was most inner equaled what was most upper (Rofel 1997; Zito 1997). The performance space in Longcun exhibited and reinforced Lu’s power: the raised-up stage and enclosed seating areas helped secure on one hand his control over the tourists by keeping them in, and on the other hand his discipline over the villagers by leaving them out. The architectural design of the performance space clearly defined the village’s tourism center as “private” instead of “communal.” It served as a manifestation of hierarchy, facilitating Lu to exercise his monopoly over tourists, and thus tourism business profit.
Spatial relations render the power to shape subjectivities. Realized by the architectural design, the performance area generated an imposed consensuses that such a space is supposed to be quiet and “trouble-free” for the tourists to enjoy their time. Thus, Lu succeeded in enforcing a respectful distance between the tourists and the villagers in a subtle way. Consequently, there was to be no constant fighting over keeping the villagers out to maintain the “order” desired by Lu, from whom the message was clear, “No trespassing while the show is on!”
Lu denied there was much conflict between him and the villagers, claiming “the villagers are generally supportive of me, because I brought tourists in and they are benefiting.” It was a different story from the villagers’ side, and their responses were mixed. A few village elites, represented by the village cadres, expressed their strong position of supporting Lu. Some villagers rather complained about him. Others, however, engaged in different forms of resistance: a villager sneaked up onto the performance stage at night, and damaged one of Lu’s performance drums; another slapped a tour guide’s (one of Lu’s employees) face during a escalated quarrel; more actively tried to challenge the spatial boundaries laid out by Lu to get access to tourists.
“Keep the Village Vendors in Order”
Lu’s endeavor to mold the village’s tourism space did not stop at the performance center. Claimed as his effort to maintain order and improve tourists’ experience, in the summer of 2011 Lu launched the construction of about 120 stands where tourists normally spent most of their time, including the performance area and the parking lot for tour buses. Lu planned to offer these free stands to those villagers selling goods to tourists, under the condition that they must obey his management. He explained to me, “my intention was to keep them [the village vendors] in order, and that’s all.”
The new stands were quickly taking shape, so was the tension within the village. Seemingly a wise strategy, Lu left the village tourism leadership team, composed of the main village cadres, to handle the allocation. With the thorny issue in hand, the village tourism leadership team was particularly concerned. Mi, who was the village treasurer for more than ten years and a member of the leadership team, prioritized the stand allocation as the most urgent problem facing the village officials, “we are very worried, so is the township government and Lu. Whether it could be handled well or not is critical. If it goes well, it will be a very good thing; if not, then very bad, and Lu might have to close his business here. We are a big village, and this is directly relating to the benefit of our more than one hundred households.”
While the completion of stand construction was only days away, the allocation plan was still far from ideal. Based on Lu’s intention, those who had already been selling goods to tourists would be guaranteed a stand. Therefore, a few would be left available to the interested villagers who were newcomers. The original plan was to settle it by casting lots, to determine the order of who to pick a stand first. For those with a guaranteed stand, the order would be the key to pick a better location; for those competing for a stand, the order would make all the difference. Those who had already been doing business on a good spot were against casting lots, and the others were for it. The divided positions aborted the officials’ original plan.
Much discussion on the stand allocation was still going on within the village by the end of my stay in 2011. This was undoubtedly a big issue. For the villagers, it was a matter of livelihood. “Even though it is only a stand, for the left-behind older villagers who could not work as migrant laborers, having a stand is the guarantee for earning some extra cash a year, and not having it means no chance for any tourism income at all,” as one villager put it. For the officials, it was a matter of social stability, as it already caused friction among the villagers and between them and Lu. More importantly, their personal economic gain, derived from their political status, depended on Lu’s success (Feng 2013).
Built forms help to define new spaces, represent changing social relations, transform and maintain new socioeconomic practices (Lawrence and Low 1990). As the spatial consequences of combined political and economic power, the site plans for the tourism village of Longcun consisted of clusters of built form in a particular arrangement, and acted as a structural organization of space serving disciplinary ends. The examination of the contestation of tourism space in the case of Longcun sheds light on how spatial and architectural reconfigurations reflect, and more importantly, transform the modes of social life and local politics. Placing spatial practices center stage in touristic power relations, Longcun’s case demonstrates how spatial ordering enacted practices, and (re)produced a “socio-spatial hierarchy” (Chatterton and Hollands 2003: 184, cf. Su and Teo 2008: 161). In this process, the powerful enforced their hegemony, resulting in an intensification of marginality of the powerless.
Xianghong Feng is an assistant professor of anthropology at Eastern Michigan University. She is a native of China. She has been doing ethnographic research in Fenghuang County in West Hunan of China since 2002. Her current research interests are in tourism analysis regarding power and scale, space, gender and sustainability.