Ethnic Minorities and Theme Parks

Axi women dressed in traditional outfit, a sub-branch of Yi minority, Southwest China
Axi women dressed in traditional outfit, a sub-branch of Yi minority, Southwest China. Photo courtesy Jan-Eerik Leppänen.

What is a “Chinese Dream”? Can a country have a dream and impose it on its people?  What underlying assumptions are linked with the notion of “Chinese people”? This column will explore field observations on Chinese individuals and populations.

In November 2012, shortly after the closing of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), President Xi Jinping set forth the idea of the Chinese Dream at the Chinese National Museum. Xi emphasized that the Chinese Dream meant that all the Chinese people have the opportunity to realize one’s dreams, experience a successful life, and the prospect to grow and progress together with the country.

It is not first time in Chinese modern history that a paramount leader picked a catchphrase to illuminate their vision, political thinking and, perhaps, personal positioning towards the world. Chairman’s Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao believed in scientific-development and the leader before him addressed three represents’ theory. The current Chinese Dream is compared with the American Dream, freedom to think and dream; a bigger car or home – or better prospects for one’s children? The idea of the Chinese Dream is to let people enjoy better housing, education, more income, employment, improved social security and healthier environment. The visions of the Chinese political leaders carry significance as the Chinese social scientists have to address and understand its content in their research funding proposals.

An Ethnic minority male posing in an ethnic culture show
An Ethnic minority male posing in an ethnic culture show. Photo courtesy Jan-Eerik Leppänen.

Looking at the content of the Chinese Dream, the vision stresses the “great rebirth of the Chinese nation and its people”. According to the theory, only when the country is doing well, can the nation and people do well. The people of China consist of 55 ethnic minorities (Chinese government’s website on recognized minorities) and the dominant majority is Han people. The Chinese concept of “national harmony” serves as a backbone of well-being of the mosaic of a Chinese family with different nationalities. This comes from the idea of Chinese Nationality. Here, the unified Chinese nationalities constitute a single whole, the family of Chinese nations.

As we are gazing at such a vast nation and diverse population, what can we actually say about different roles given to different nationalities to fulfill the Chinese national story of our time? In my research, I have observed that ethnic minorities in Southwest China are provided with opportunities to perform their ethnic identity in their own home village or in designated ethnic theme park.

Reflecting the Chinese Dream’s promise of improved income and employment for the ethnic individuals, the parks can provide employment and related income generation alternatives. Ethnic parks are chosen by the Chinese government as exemplary cultural sites that purposely generate wealth for the larger ethnic community

However, for many ethnic individuals participating in the industry, public performances for visiting guests demand roles that are rehearsed, repeated and replicated based on tourist tastes and expectations. Ethnic parks typologize ethnic groups by ethnic outfits, cultural traditions, food and societal structures. In an ethnic theme park, all minorities represented are expected to stand out as distinctive and unique. Then again, it would be incorrect to perceive ethnic individuals as passive recipients of country’s new socio-economic policy. To illustrate this thought, in a rural town in Southwest China, two of my informants, siblings, have been taught to hide their true identity as Miao minority. The siblings have learned to alter between two identities, that of Han and Miao – in the workplace and government’s workplace they are Han and in their hometown, Miao. For them, ethnic identity is a practical choice between different alternatives that may change depending on the circumstances. In anthropology, agency is often understood as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to manage their own, unrestricted choices. Knowing how the system functions, the siblings made informed decisions regarding their identity and crafted opportunities for themselves.

Chinese nationalities may be performing explicit ethnic roles that have specific policy connotations, such as the Chinese Dream. My field observations address that on one hand there may be the promise of improved well-being for individuals. On the other hand, well-being and benefit of the ethnic individual may not be merely about better income and material possessions but it also coincides with the values of family, community and ethnic identity.

In Chasing the Chinese Dream: Reflections from the Field I will be looking at aspirations and objectives of modern China. Chinese Dream as a slogan is a fabric of conflicting narratives displaying diverse populations and socio-economic systems in transition. These narratives display windows to today’s China portrayed in this column. 

Jan-Eerik Leppänen is a PhD candidate at the U of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR), Department of Sociology and Anthropology and currently based in Hong Kong. The fieldwork for this research consisted of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in southern China (Yunnan province and Hong Kong). Jan-Eerik’s broader project is intended as a contribution to the ethnography of academic institutions and the anthropology of genetics, with the focus on authenticity and on Chinese academic institutions working on ethnic minorities. 

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