Dreamworld, Shambala, Gannan
THE SHANGRILAZATION OF CHINA’S “LITTLE TIBET”
IN the summer of 2009, I was sitting in Leisha’s, a popular travelers’ café in Langmusi, a small multiethnic (primarily Tibetan, Han, and Hui) village in southern Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (see map 1, A), on the border of Gansu and Sichuan. Since my initial visit seven years before, a flurry of scarcely controlled tourist development had changed the village almost beyond recognition. Though it still huddled in a valley below mountains seemingly plucked from a Caspar David Friedrich painting, the narrow and winding dirt track running from the main road into town had been replaced by straight, well-graded asphalt. The small creek that once danced alongside the main street turning prayer wheels with its waters had been relegated to the backyards of the new hotels and restaurants. Leisha’s, too, had changed, relocating from the small space across the river where the kitchen doubled as living quarters to a much bigger, purpose-built restaurant in the center of town. Clearly people were capitalizing on the town’s inimitable location. And business was good.
The restaurant was crowded and noisy. Members of a boisterous contingent of Chinese tourists concluding a motorcycle tour of the province were hoisting a commemorative T-shirt bearing their autographs up to the rafters to hang alongside other similar garments (the older ones Western, the newer and more numerous ones Chinese) left by previous visitors. Others chatted animatedly, snapping innumerable pictures of the cards, notes, pieces of currency, and other bits of tourist detritus that covered the walls of the restaurant. As I ate my spaghetti, at one of the few empty tables in the house, two well-dressed Han backpackers asked if they could share my table. I agreed, and we soon struck up a conversation, at first in English and then in Chinese. “Greta” and “Bluse” (“Not ‘Bruce’!”) were very well traveled indeed. She hailed from Beijing via Shenzhen and was on vacation from her job running a small travelers’ hostel near Sun Island in Lhasa. He was working in Kunming and had recently joined her on what would ultimately be a three-month trip (including a spell in Laos—his first time, but not hers). Her previous travels also included three trips to Nepal and one to India. Closer to home, she proclaimed herself to be “the expert” for a chapter on a nearby Tibetan region for the new Chinese-language edition of a famous Western guidebook company’s volume on the People’s Republic of China.
They noted that Leisha’s itself had become something of a required stop for adventurous Chinese travelers. Having heard from many people that the food was quite good here but that the staff’s attitude could be problematic (and that it was also a good place to experience both Tibetan and Western backpacker culture), they were a little concerned about what to expect. While they waited for their food to arrive, we chatted about traveling to “Tibetan” places. After discussing the merits of various destinations—“Lijiang isn’t worth visiting: every other store is a tourist shop. Just go straight to Shangrila”—Greta commented, “In Tibetan places, you have to keep your expectations in check. The service here is like the service you would get in Nepal—you order your food and then you have time to walk around the neighborhood and come back and your food still might not be ready. Here it isn’t like Guangdong or other eastern places with quick service. But if you just get used to it, it stops being a problem; it’s just how things work. The higher you go [in terms of altitude], the lower your expectations [should get]!”
Bluse and, especially, Greta were both very (if rather ostentatiously) knowledgeable travelers, but both were still somewhat flummoxed by our host, Leisha, hot-tempered and voluble one moment, charming and expansive the next. While Langmusi was (and is) renowned as one of the most charming small Tibetan villages outside of Tibet,1 and while Leisha’s main calling card (after its [in]famous apple pie) was a hubcap-sized “burger” of that paradigmatically Tibetan meat, yak, Leisha also wore a hat that appeared to resemble the haomao commonly seen on the heads of female members of China’s Hui Muslim population. Though her restaurant did bear the Chinese characters qingzhen marking it as serving halal Muslim cuisine, it did so in Tibetan as well. Thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, Bluse and Greta were of divided opinion on Leisha’s minzu. While Greta suspected that the hat marked her as Muslim, Bluse argued just as forcefully that it had to be for hygienic purposes. After a couple minutes of debate that left them still at loggerheads, I had to settle the matter for them. I told them that I knew from previous visits that Leisha was in fact Hui. To mollify the slightly put-out-looking Bluse, I admitted that I, too, had initially thought her hat was for hygiene. Further, on my arrival in the region in 2002, I had been struck by how difficult it could be on casual inspection to tell Han from Hui from Tibetan, quickly learning that dress and linguistic ability in particular were unreliable indicators of an individual’s ethnicity.
In addition to the general ambiguity of external ethnic markers in the region,2 it seems likely that Leisha herself was complicit in such misunderstandings. The next day, with Bluse and Greta on their way to the source of the Yellow River, I witnessed a typically animated exchange in which she cajoled a family of prosperous-looking Henanese, a mother and father in fashionable windbreakers with expensive-looking cameras and bored seven-year-olds in tow, to try Tibetan tea and the characteristically Tibetan, barley-based dish of tsampa. When they looked skeptically at the unfamiliar concoctions, she became impatient, exhorting them to eat, concluding, in something approaching high dudgeon, “We Tibetans eat tsampa!” (Women zangzu chi zanba!). When I later asked her about this statement, her response was a mixture of humor and dismissiveness that signaled the malleability of minzu categories in her estimation: “You could be a Tibetan, too, no problem. You’re Chinese, aren’t you?”3
When I told a Tibetan businessman friend in town of this incident, he was incensed. “I don’t know why she has to keep doing that!” he exclaimed. “Her business is good enough as it is.” Elsewhere in the region, I found similar tensions between Tibetans and Hui (see Vasantkumar 2012). In particular, Tibetans and local Han often found common ground in a distrust of the Hui that stemmed from the latter’s dominance of local commerce. In Xiahe (Tib. Labrang), for example, a strikingly high percentage of the stores on the high street (even those selling “Tibetan antiquities”) were Hui-operated before the unrest that began in the spring of 2008.4 Indeed, afterward, some locals expressed sentiments suggesting that some of the turmoil of that unhappy period was directed more against these Hui merchants than against the central government.
Tibetans (and many local Han) I met across the region spoke with grudging admiration of the “good brains” of the Hui (Vasantkumar 2013) that allowed them to succeed in business without formal education while also criticizing their perceived clannishness and questionable ethics. Leisha’s reputation also preceded her in this respect. A Han bus driver familiar with Langmusi told me he had heard that she speaks “six or seven languages even though she is uncultured and illiterate.” In response, echoing tropes I had heard many times before, I suggested, “But she’s smart, she is good at business.”
“Of course she’s good at business,” came the reply. “She’s Hui! China’s Hui are like the [rest of the] world’s Jews.”
Yet despite this vivid and oft-repeated analogy and the prominence of tension I observed between non-Muslim locals and the Hui during my time in Gannan, Hui and Han play little if any role in either popular or official depictions of the region for tourist consumption. This is unlikely to be a coincidence.
Though Greta and Bluse spoke of Leisha’s as typical of a restaurant one would find in Tibetan areas, Leisha herself is not Tibetan. Moreover, though Leisha’s is not actually a Tibetan restaurant, many of those who pass through, such as the Henanese family whose dining experience I had witnessed (and indeed many of the Westerners who attempted to conquer the yak burger back in the day), absolutely have experienced it as such. Such misapprehensions are made more likely, indeed, are even actively encouraged, by the particular ways in which Langmusi and other parts of the autonomous prefecture in which it is located have been zoned as locations of authentic Tibetan difference (as special ethnic zones, to put a new spin on the SEZ).
“LITTLE TIBETS” AND OTHER MINIATURES
This zoning is part and parcel of a series of official and quasi-official efforts over the past decade and a half that have fashioned the town of Xiahe, the prefectural capital of Gannan, and the prefecture as a whole as exemplary models of consumable Tibetan culture despite the multiethnic makeup of their populations. Whether casting the region as “China’s ‘Little Tibet,’ Gansu’s Back Flower Garden,” as was the case from the late 1990s until the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, positioning Xiahe as the home of a unique but essentially Tibetan “Labrang Culture,” or echoing the shangrilazation of Diqing by locating the Tibetan Buddhist Elysium of “nine-colored Shamb[h] ala” (Gongbao 2006, 1) in the prefecture, an attempt that has been ongoing since 2005, all have been aimed at harnessing local religious, cultural, architectural, and scenic resources for potential tourist development.5
The shangrilazation of the region has taken place against a backdrop of two important transitions as well as one perhaps unexpected continuity in Chinese tourist practices. First, in the past decade, as a result of China’s internal turmoil since the spring of 2008 and the new mobility of its expanding urban middle class, the region has witnessed the almost wholesale replacement of Western backpackers with their nouveau riche Han doppelgängers. Second, this replacement of Western backpackers with their domestic counterparts has occurred in the context of a transition in the dominant modes of experiencing the ethnic diversity of the Chinese nation-state among urban Han easterners that can best be summed up as a move from the “theme park fever” (Nyíri 2006; Oakes 1998, 50) of the 1990s to what I term a “guidebook moment” in the burgeoning domestic tourism market. While both of these changes have significantly affected quotidian tourist encounters, the quasi-official representations of these places for tourist consumption and the experiences of the new crop of backpackers continue to be shaped by miniaturizing modes of producing “cultures of landscape” (Wylie 2007) that derive not from familiar Western genealogies but from older “Chinese” modes of spatial engagement.
The practices of spatial organization involved in shangrilazation and the zoning of multiethnic Gannan as a special ethnic zone of consumable Tibetanness are related to but not necessarily coextensive with European and American thought on the concept of landscape, which itself has a notably long and variegated history (see Wylie 2007 for a review). In its more recent incarnations, landscape has moved further and further afield from the “‘Vidalian’ landscape-as-essence and . . . ‘Cosgrovian’ landscape as ‘way of seeing’” that lie at the heart of most Eurocentric approaches to contemporary tourism’s fraught relationship to the concept (Minca 2007, 433). Recent reenvisionings of the term have moved it away from a focus on practices of seeing to conceptualizing it as alternately an amalgam of the material and the sensible “with which we see” (Wylie 2007, 152) or as simultaneously this “performative sensorium and site and source of cultural meaning and symbolism” (161).
While this expanded compass of theorizing around landscape has many salutary aspects, one worries that with this broad of a purview the term might slip off into the realm of words like “culture” (Trouillot 2003), “ontology” (Carrithers et al. 2010), and “modernity” (Ferguson 2006) that have arguably become too broadly applicable for their own good. Even if “landscape” can be seen as a term that binds together conceptual domains often kept at arm’s length, allowing theorists to work, apparently effortlessly, across boundaries that separate the material and the ideological, scholars must still ask what things it can’t do. What are the dangers of proposing “a productively diffracted vision of landscape [as] ‘always already natural and cultural, deep and superficial . . . impossible to place on either side of a dualism of nature and culture, shuttling between fields of reference’” (Matless 2003, 231; quoted in Wylie 2007, 120)? Do such formulations conceal the degree to which landscape in contemporary geographic usage almost always proceeds via a particular Euro-American genealogy of concept and practice that might not be entirely appropriate for interpreting the hybrid “Chinese”-“Western” forms of tourist space in today’s People’s Republic?
This question of the appropriateness of Western concepts of landscape for “Chinese” materials might not be a very big deal if we could simply assume that Western and Chinese modes of tourism are basically one and the same. Yet such a belief has not been tenable since the publication in 2006 of Pál Nyíri’s brief but important book Scenic Spots,6 which argues that domestic tourism in China, however recent its dramatic efflorescence, draws on traditions of sojourning that date back to the journeys of sixteenth-century literati (Nyíri 2006, 7). A central focus of both these modes of travel and their contemporary analogues are a (now state-)codified set of “scenic spots” (lüyou jingdian) that serve as the preeminent nodes in the construction of tourist itineraries.
Where more familiar Euro-American models of travel are based on notions of discovery and of departing from the beaten track in order to access a realm of more immediate and authentic encounter, in contemporary China, domestic tourism is predominantly concerned with beating a path to state-sanctioned points of predefined interest. Western “journeys of discovery” are subordinated to journeys of “confirmation”7 (Nyíri 2006, 93; following Ivy 1995). Ultimately, a preponderance of Chinese domestic tourists are not involved in a search for authenticity through a romanticizing tourist gaze tied to modes of landscape substantially consonant with inherited Western models;8 these tourists are instead approaching their travels from an angle that is less about getting off the beaten track than about beating the track in the proper sequence (Nyíri 2006, 7, 78; also see Harrell 1995). Thus the tensions that many Eurocentric analysts see as fundamental to modern, Western tourists’ engagement with landscape (e.g., Minca 2007) would seem to work rather differently in mainstream Chinese tourist circles.
Moreover, a scenic-spots-based mode of Chinese tourism appears to have much in common with older “Chinese” modes of interacting with space that draw more on notions of the miniature than on more usual landscape genealogies. In her 2011 essay “Miniatures of the Nation,” which makes these arguments, Marizia Varutti takes from Bennett (2006) the notion of “museums as sites for the development of ‘civic seeing’” whereby particular modes of displaying the material culture of China’s ethnic minorities “can be understood as imparting a ‘civic lesson’ . . . on the unity [in] diversity’ of the Chinese nation” (Varutti 2011, 1). She also draws from Lévi-Strauss (1966) the idea of miniatures defined not so much by “reduced scale as by the loss of some of the features of the original: details, volume, smell, colour, etc.” (Varutti 2011, 3). This point about how figures, maps, and dioramas allow for cultural difference to be reduced and contained is applicable more broadly to the role official and unofficial miniaturizations play in shaping understandings of the terrain of social difference in contemporary China.
We must be attuned to the historical and cultural specificity of such forms. In particular, it should be noted that Chinese theme parks, as one of the “most recent interpretations of the concept of the miniature” in China, may have been drawn from a “tradition of reduced scale landscape architecture (Stanley 2002, 272), of which the Forbidden City may be taken as the most brilliant example” (Varutti 2011, 3–4).9 This miniaturizing mode is potentially incommensurable with more familiar Western spatial sensibilities. Understanding the ways in which the two traditions diverge is essential for the proper experience of Chinese and Western theme parks:
There is . . . a tradition in Chinese garden aesthetics of representing landscapes with architecture and even performance readily available for the modern constructor of theme parks. Indeed, many of the themes evident in contemporary Chinese theme parks are already present in traditional Chinese garden design: miniaturization, shan-shui hua, viewing pavilions, and performance. Even the business, the sudden changes of vista, the piling up of detail to the extent of creating disorientation in the viewer—all of these are present in the parks discussed below. This is not theming in the Western sense of the term but the creation of a terrain that is specifically Chinese. There is no resorting to the easy visual cultural stereotypes of Epcot nor to the internationalist universalism to be found throughout Disney creations and copied assiduously in other Western parks. Chinese parks require work and recognition in both time and space. Viewers need to bring specific historical and topographic knowledge to their visit. (Stanley 2002, 272)
The overgeneralization of “Chinese”-ness in this passage is lamentable, but the larger point is worthy of consideration, given the links between China’s “theme park fever” and contemporary Chinese tourist practices (Nyíri 2006).10 The “theme park fever” of the 1990s was crucially important to the development of tourist modes of enacting, interacting with, and experiencing landscape in contemporary China. The two thousand–odd theme parks that opened during that decade became models for later tourist interactions, shaping the expectations of planners, visitors, and visited alike (Nyíri 2006). Prominent among these parks were a number devoted to the display of China’s ethnic minority cultures in conveniently accessible less-than-full-scale form (see Ren 2007; Makley 2010). Before the massive expansion in domestic tourism of recent years, such parks were often the only way urbanites could experience the minority cultures of China’s periphery.
Over the past decade, as Chinese tourism has moved from “theme park fever” to a “guidebook moment,” the primary locus of miniaturizing models of ethnic difference has moved from the museum and the minzu park to the handbook, the Internet chatroom (Lim 2009), and the scenic spot. On the latter, Nyíri relates a conversation between a Chinese anthropologist and village officials in a Qiang village in Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan. “For these officials, ‘developing’ a tourist village meant undertaking what the leisure business terms ‘theming’: creating a ‘tourist product’ with a clear narrative of meaning, supported by a multitude of performative and interactive features—displays, shows and visitor activities” (Nyíri 2006, 50). Both theme park and scenic spot are marked by standardization of meaning and narrative. In both contexts, the ostensible point of tourism is not to make one’s own meaning through novel or fortuitous encounters but to participate in a specific, state-sponsored structure (or, better, itinerary?) of feeling (78). Both instances, moreover, are “powerful illustration[s] of the argument that ‘in the case of miniatures, in contrast to what happens when we try to understand an object or living creature of real dimensions, knowledge of the whole precedes knowledge of the parts’” (Lévi-Strauss 1966, 23–24; quoted in Varutti 2011,10). Proper understanding of this whole is not instantaneous, however, but must be inculcated.
Miniature figures, whether mannequins, scenic spots, or “little” Tibets, work in part via “claims to the ability not only to reproduce variation and diversity in ethnic outfits’ styles and materials, but also to reduce the complexity of ethnic minorities’ physical, cultural and historical features” (Varutti 2011, 5).11 As with mannequins, ethnic villages in minzu parks, and specific scenic spots, regional cultures undergoing shangrilazation also rely on “the loss of some of the features of the original: details, volume, smell, colour, etc.” (3). Further, as with museological paraphernalia designed to impart a civics lesson about the “unity in diversity” of the Chinese nation-state (1), the scenic spots produced via the miniaturizing methods of Chinese tourist development do not invite their visitors to “look into” their particular detailed social worlds but rather attempt to “educate [them] to look along the relations that bind them” (10).12 The kinds of relations tourists are being trained to look along are twofold. On the one hand, we see something akin to the relationships of common national unity familiar from museum contexts (cf. Varutti 2011). On the other hand, there is the sequence of proper movements involved in journeys of confirmation (cf. Nyíri 2006).
In the ethnic museum, the theme park, and the scenic spot under shangrilazation, the “visitor is given to see ethnic groups in terms of harmonious relations, docile character, laboriousness, dancing and musical skills, and folklore traditions. Conversely, what is concealed from view are the effects of modernization, hybridization and change, as well as inter-ethnic conflictual and hierarchical relations” (Varutti 2011, 13). Such reductions inform both everyday ethnic misunderstandings in tourist encounters and (quasi-) official government attempts to produce Gannan as China’s “Little Tibet.” The elision of particular (uncomfortable) ethnic details has been key to shangrilazation as a miniaturizing method. In many instances, the quasi-official formulations of the miniature have come to stand in for actual places in tourists’ interactions. Tourists don’t look into the messy quotidian ethnic mix of such places but look along them to larger narratives of national unity or cultural distinctiveness. Such instances also reveal the degree to which the miniaturization of ethnic groups renders them ahistorical. Scholars have tended to understand the miniature as “offer[ing] a world clearly limited in space but frozen and thereby both particularized and generalized in time” (Stewart 1984, 48). Yet, in contemporary China, something similar has also happened with regard to space—the Tibetannesses constructed for tourist consumption in various parts of China’s Little Tibet are both particularized and generalized in space even as they are spatially circumscribed on Euclidean terrain.
MINIATURIZATION IN ACTION
Two recent publications sanctioned by both the county and prefectural governments and directed at tourists, both foreign and domestic, have sought to alternately recast the diverse, multiethnic town of Xiahe, Gansu, and Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture as exemplars of a distinctively local yet recognizably Tibetan culture primed for tourist consumption. Taken together, these attempts at shangrilazation illustrate both the miniaturizing method at the heart of Chinese tourist engagements with space and the degree to which earlier scholarly interpretations have overplayed the univocality of the meanings surrounding ethnic difference in Chinese tourist (and museological) practices (cf. Nyíri 2006; Varutti 2011). Journey through Labrang Culture: Labrang English Handbook (2005) and A Dream World—Shambala, Gannan (2006), published by Lanzhou University Press, were both edited by Gonbo Namjyal (Gongbao Nanjie),13 a Tibetan. Although they predate the influx of Han tourists into the region after 2008, the hybrid Western-Chinese idiom they evince provides a particularly clear illustration of the degree to which miniaturizing modes of Chinese tourist promotion depart from familiar Western models of landscape even as Chinese and Western tourist practices increasingly converge.
Featuring parallel Chinese and English texts and almost identical in form, each book begins with a preface from the governor of the relevant political unit, the county for Journey through Labrang Culture and the autonomous prefecture for A Dream World—Shambala, Gannan. Each preface is followed by the editor’s introduction to the region in question. Journey then turns to a list of tourist attractions within Xiahe County, while A Dream World features a county-by-county rundown of tourist attractions. In both books, the enumeration of tourist attractions is followed by nearly identical sections on “folk culture” and several advertisements for hotels and other “tourism service[s].” The volumes conclude with postscripts that, again, are identical save for the replacement of “Labrang” with “Gannan” in A Dream World.
Despite the formal similarity between these two works—which, in places, borders on plagiarism—on closer examination, subtle differences emerge. While Journey through Labrang Culture deals almost entirely with long-established tourist destinations and, perhaps as a result, hews very closely to its explicit theming of Labrang as a repository of timeless Tibetan culture, A Dream World—Shambala, Gannan is more composite and compelling. In A Dream World, the authors do not simply put a particularly Tibetan stamp on an already known tourist landscape; rather, they also attempt to bring new destinations onto the map of international tourism. Thus they write concerning the Zecha stone forest in Luqu County, “when tourists arrive here, they are often on the scoop. There are many other scenic spots to be developed in the area, [and] tourists can name them freely according to their imaginations” (Gongbao 2006, 64). In contrast to envisionings of the hegemony of state-sanctioned meaning at already established scenic spots (cf. Nyíri 2006), A Dream World instead shows state-sanctioned meanings that are not yet hegemonic—scenic spots in formation (also see ch. 3 in this volume, on incorporation and inscription).
Comparison of the two volumes also highlights small but important differences in the way each deals with ethnic diversity and Tibetanness. While both employ miniaturizing modes of representing the region’s ethnic mix, they do so in divergent fashion. In brief, whereas Journey through Labrang Culture erases both interethnic and intra-Tibetan differences in the service of constructing Xiahe/Labrang as a distinctly local but recognizably Tibetan scenic spot, A Dream World—Shambala, Gannan simultaneously foregrounds and erases ethnic difference while emphasizing the local variability of Tibetan culture and the potential for tourists to bring new itineraries onto the map. Journey constructs Labrang as a locus of immanent Tibetanness posed as a worthy alternative to Lhasa and other famous locales of central Tibet (“See it here!”). By contrast, A Dream World is more ambivalent about the ultimate Tibetanness of the region it describes, incorporating not simply sites of Tibetan religious and folk significance but also tourist attractions linked to famous moments in both imperial and Communist history (Gongbao 2006, 115), while acknowledging the diverse ethnic makeup of the region. Further, the Tibetanness it elaborates is less unified and immanent than it is localized and diverse (“See them all!”).
Journey through Labrang Culture sets up a bounded realm of locally specific but consumable culture. Cairang Danzhi, the head of Xiahe’s People’s Government, presents things this way in his preface: “When you enter into Labrang in Xiahe County, you will find that you arrive at the world of Tibetan culture and the garden full of primitive simplicity, original truth, goodness and heroism. It is a harmonious place between man and nature, and you will feel that it is a completely different kingdom—the world of Labrang culture” (Gonbo 2005, n.p.; emphasis added). In this passage, Cairang Danzhi (as the Tibetan name Tsering Dhonjub is rendered in pinyin), articulates both the separateness and the distinctiveness of the culture that the tourist will find and can find only in Labrang. The overall goal of the book is to expand the tourist visibility of “Labrang culture.” The postscript to the guide makes this clear:
In order to make the Labrang culture known worldwide, we dedicate Journey through Labrang Culture to the overseas tourists and travel agencies. Meanwhile, we set up a website in English so that the tourists will get to know the magical and charming Labrang culture as soon as possible. We hope this book can be widely accepted and provide the tourists [at] home and abroad with corresponding guidance and tour information. Besides we hope this book can provide the local tourism departments with some help. (Gonbo 2005, 101)
This is an interesting project given that Xiahe is already widely known among both foreign and domestic tourists.14 Before the spring of 2008, when the unrest in the region began, Xiahe was firmly on the adventurous Western backpackers’ route from Lanzhou in Gansu to Chengdu in Sichuan via the upland reaches of Amdo and Kham. Thus, it seems that the real purpose of this guide is less likely the popularization of a place that already figures highly on many tourists’ itineraries than the production and promulgation of a particular vision of miniaturized, consumable Tibetan culture.
Interestingly, what this volume seeks to make known to the world is not “Tibetan culture” broadly construed, or even “Amdo Tibetan culture,” but specifically “Labrang culture,” a resource that can be found only in Xiahe and its environs.15 The name Xiahe originated in an attempt to replace the authority of Labrang Monastery with that of the Republican government in the late 1920s.16 For the past eighty years, government authorities have sought to deemphasize local structures of power and social organization, with the goal of integrating Xiahe more fully into the Chinese nation-state. In the context of this struggle, especially under the communists, the name Labrang, associated with the “feudal” social structure of the monastery, was virtually wiped from the maps of the nation. Yet in Journey through Labrang Culture, it returns to prominence precisely because of its associations with “traditional” Tibetan culture. In the introduction, the editor Gonbo Namjyal describes the nomenclature in this fashion: “Xiahe is the name of this administrative region, while Labrang is the Tibetan historical name given to the monastery and surrounding region” (Gonbo 2005, 2). Here he is certainly reinscribing the difference between God and Caesar, but unlike past visions that sought to eradicate the influence and culture of the monastery, he constructs traditional, ecclesiastically informed but eminently consumable culture as precisely that which will draw visitors to the region.
In his preface, Cairang Danzhi presents the potential tourist with the panoply of experiences available for enjoyment. These run the gamut from the sacred, “When you enter Labrang you are able to appreciate the supernatural and reconditeness of Tibetan Buddhism, visit the relics with a long history, enjoy detachment and recitation of the sutra and find out thousands of monks, pilgrims, and learners in endless stream”; to the aesthetic, “When you arrive in Labrang you will be able to take beautiful pictures while you randomly press the shutter of your camera. As you walk the streets there is no shortage of photo opportunities”; to the transgressive, “You will find . . . the chance to enter into a Tibetan home or monk dormitory”; to the gustatory, “You will find the pure-hearted and brilliant smiles of the nomads and enjoy a cup of buttered tea with your newfound friends” (Gonbo 2005, n.p.).17 Tourism here is less a set of predetermined sites and views (cf. Nyíri 2006) than a set of potentialities, of possible experiences. Tellingly, this panoply of consumption is framed in the second person, highlighting the openness of these itineraries to all potential visitors, inviting the reader to picture himself or herself being welcomed by locals (though perhaps not by government officials) “holding white hada [Tib. khatak] scarves traditionally used to welcome guests and eagerly awaiting your arrival” (Gonbo 2005, n.p.).
The last line of this preface is even more remarkable, highlighting precisely the weird sort of alchemy that has gone into the production of “Labrang culture.” The preface concludes with “Tashi delek!” a Tibetan greeting wishing the recipient happiness and luck (Gonbo 2005, n.p.).18 This phrase is also printed in golden letters across a photograph of a bird’s-eye view of the monastery that sprawls across two pages at the volume’s end. While “tashi delek” is indeed a Tibetan greeting, it is not commonly used among residents of Amdo. Originally popularized in the refugee communities of northern India, the phrase later gained currency among speakers of the Lhasa dialect in central Tibet. The dialect spoken in Xiahe, by contrast, a topolect of the larger Amdo dialectical grouping, borders on being unintelligible to speakers of Lhasa Tibetan, and vice versa. The usual greeting in Xiahe is, thus, not “tashi delek” but “cho demo” (Wyl. khyod bdemo).
The use of “tashi delek” here could be seen as an instance of the miniaturizing method in action—here tourists are trained not to look into the ethnolinguistic details of Labrang as a particular historical location in contemporary Amdo but to look along the lines of relations that bind it to an ahistorical yet spatially generalized form of traditional (central) Tibetan culture, on the one hand, and to their next destination, on the other. The decision by the head of the People’s Government to conclude his preface with the Chinese transliteration of the central Tibetan greeting instead of with its local equivalent points to the ways in which even as Journey through Labrang Culture argues for the distinctness and distinctiveness of Labrang regional culture, it also makes this culture into an instance of essential Tibetanness, a Tibetanness that is not shaped by place, region, or dialect but rather exists immanently, eminently available for consumption by all interested parties.
In this sense, China’s “Little Tibet” is well positioned to serve as a substitute for “the real thing.” In his essay “Labrang Culture” (Laboleng wenhua), Gonbo Namjyal writes, “At present, Labrang is a center focus of Tibetan culture after Lhasa in Tibet. Many say that Labrang has even retained its sense of Tibetan culture more so than Lhasa, the capital of the TAR” (Gonbo 2005, 2; emphasis added). Strangely, the latter sentence is missing in the parallel Chinese text. Gonbo Namjyal goes on to detail the richness, antiquity, and supernatural mystery of Tibetan culture in the region, noting that the Labrang monastery “is a symbol of the soul of the Tibetan culture” (2) that it is “now the largest Tibetology university in the world” as well as a “large Tibetan Buddhist museum filled with . . . relics from the past which tell a story of the history of the Tibetan nationality [Zangzu]” (3). Perhaps unconsciously, the author captures the ambivalence between Labrang as a seat of active religious learning and Labrang as reliquary by noting that it has been called the “‘Eastern Vatican,’ or ‘Eastern Louvre’” (3), references that index very different relationships between cultural heritage, political power, and religious authority.
Gonbo Namjyal goes on to list in detail the monastery’s holdings of sacred texts as well as the long line of eminent figures it has produced. Having established the “depth” and “breadth” of Labrang’s contribution to Tibetan (and Chinese) culture, he then discusses the folk customs of the region, emphasizing their distinctiveness: “In the core of Labrang culture (Xiahe County), customs have a particular individuality by themselves. Its customs, etiquette, various clothes, food, religion and folk festivals are all different from those found in any other Tibetan regions.” Yet despite this putative uniqueness, Labrang is also emphatically an embodiment of immanent Tibetanness to the extent that, because its culture is “so broad and deep,” it is “sometimes called the ‘second Tibet [di’er Xizang]’.” Ultimately, Gonbo Namjyal hopes that the simultaneous Tibetanness and distinctiveness of Labrang will lead to its being “listed in the world cultural heritage because of its beauty, majestic appearance and rich cultural and historical background” (Gonbo 2005, 6).
While this is indeed a grand envisioning of Labrang’s tourist potential, this vision is also freighted with a particular constellation of forgettings. First, the vision of Tibetanness with local characteristics that the book presents is premised on an essentialized and utopian vision of Tibetan culture that emerges from a process of shangrilazation. Second, the only hint in the book that there might be something other than Tibetanness going on in Labrang is a brief mention of the fact that “Xiahe county has 14 nationalities including Tibetan, Han, Hui, Salar, Dongxiang and Mongolian. . . . Tibetans account for 78% of the total population” (Gonbo 2005, 8). In a text that stretches to 103 glossy pages, this is the only mention of the non-Tibetan aspects of local society. Thus, this project of aligning local prospects with national imperatives of targeted development can be understood as employing a recognizably miniaturizing mode of creative metonymy for the purpose of making an idealized traditional Tibetan culture stand for the borderland region as a whole.
In the process of producing Xiahe as China’s “Little Tibet,” government rhetoric seeks to align itself with both the whims of trans-local finances-capes and the influential terrains of tourist desire that locate purity and supernatural mystery in Tibetanness. By attempting to convert Xiahe from a heteroglot borderland into a commodified “minority area,” an avatar of Tibetan spirituality or an art museum (they cannot quite decide), Journey through Labrang Culture seeks to place Labrang at a privileged intersection of development and ethnicity where reified ethnic difference itself provides the means of bringing the local into articulation with macro-scale economic and social phenomena. What is lost in the process of zoning Xiahe for consumable Tibetan culture are the quotidian diacritics of social difference that render the Han and Hui presence in “a Tibetan place” not only intelligible but integral. In such a vision, the haomao of the Hui can only be for hygiene.
Yet, though most English-language guidebooks divide Xiahe into the Han and Hui part of town—which runs from the bus station southwest up the high street to the monastery, the monastery itself, and the “old Tibetan part of town” beyond—patterns of residence do not follow such ideological boundary lines. Tibetans live doors down from the mosque, Hui live up in the high valleys and take their sheep up the hills surrounding town in the mornings, and Han are sprinkled throughout. One of my Tibetan informants described growing up in a nearby pastoralist region alongside Hui who spoke the Amdo dialect “just like nomads.” Others found community in an emergent multiethnic local market culture premised on the ability to speak the local dialect of Tibetan (see Vasantkumar 2012).
It is hard to find useful estimations of the relative makeup of the local population. Most estimates are either two decades out of date (e.g., 48 percent Han, 44.7 percent Tibetan, and 6 percent Hui [Hansen 2005, 28]) or likely distorted by ulterior motives (e.g., 78 percent Tibetan [Gonbo 2005]). What is certain is that there is great diversity. It is telling that one of the first anthropological works on the region, Robert Ekvall’s (1939) oddly compelling, proto-structuralist Cultural Relations on the Kansu-Tibet Border (written largely from memory in 1938), took Han, Hui, and Tibetans (as well as subdivisions thereof) as its purview instead of focusing on some putatively distinctive Tibetan character to the region. It thus takes significant rhetorical and ideological work in a miniaturizing mode along with creative use of metonymy, all aided by the overarching architecture of the minzu classification scheme, to transform this hodge-podge into something emblematically Tibetan on either the macro-scale of the region as a whole or the micro-scale of neighborhoods in a town.
In descriptions of Xiahe on tourism-related websites, there is a marked ambivalence between stressing the attractions inherent in the diversity of the region and emphasizing the appeal of authentic Tibetan culture. The Xi’an-based website presents things this way:
Another reason for a visit to Xiahe is that it is a melting pot of Chinese, Middle Eastern, and nomadic cultures. In the villages outside Xiahe it is not unusual to see Muslims in white skullcaps hawking Tibetan jewelry. Tibetan nomads usually come from the grasslands to the nearby Hui trading cities. When you wander the streets of Xiahe you will see the flashes of bright maroon robes and have to dart between bicycles and taxis. Old monks meditate and pass prayerbeads through their hands at the street corner.
While the Han are absent from all but the first sentence, there is a real sense here not just of the hustle and bustle of the markets but of the texture of human difference. Interestingly, the cities are glossed as Hui rather than Han or Tibetan—signaling the commercial dominance of the former despite their relatively small numbers. Another website, , maps things rather differently:
Xiahe is a tiny, bustling town centered in a valley of the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, southwest Gansu. . . . This rural haven hugs its neighbor Tibet.”
The site overview refers to Xiahe as “the most famous of the Tibetan towns outside Tibet.” The existence of such English-language versions of tourism-related websites is one clue to the source and utility of rhetoric that maps Xiahe as China’s “Little Tibet.” Charlene Makley has suggested that “one of the state’s strategies to circumvent the ‘Tibet Problem’ [the unrest and crackdown in central Tibet in the late 1980s] and the obstacles it posed to the ‘rigorous development of international tourism,’ was to target Xiahe and its famous Buddhist monastery, geographically distant from the centre of Tibetan dissident activity in and around Lhasa as a ‘little Tibet’” (1999, 352). In this formulation, far from “hugging” its Tibetan neighbors, Xiahe’s very distance from the problems of central Tibet made it attractive to tourist development.
The events of March 2008 have made it clear that geographic distance is no longer an effective barrier to the spread of ethnic unrest. Indeed, after the turbulence of the Olympic spring, Xiahe was closed entirely to foreign tourists for more than a year and has been open to foreign tourism only intermittently in the intervening years. One side effect of these developments has been to highlight the prescience of the local authorities’ attempts to articulate an alternative touristic theming of the autonomous prefecture in which Xiahe is located. A year after the publication of Journey through Labrang Culture, the same editorial board brought out the similar but geographically more ambitious A Dream World—Shambala, Gannan, which highlights the attempt of the Gannan prefectural government to emulate the successful theming of Zhongdian in Yunnan as Shangrila.
Whereas Shangrila is a fictional place plucked from the pages of James Hilton’s eponymous novel and (re)located to Yunnan’s northwest frontier, Shambala has historically been part of Tibetan mythology or, in the authors’ words, has been “the Elysium in Tibetan Buddhism” (Gongbao 2006, 1). Yet the guidebook makes no attempt to argue that Gannan is the original location of this mythical place. Instead it evokes Shambala as a placeless paradise of tourist consumption. As editor Gongbao Nanjie writes, “Shambala, Gannan [is] the Pure Land for every tourist to realize his dream for travel” (1). What is most compelling about this volume, however, is the subtle manner in which its treatment of the realities of human diversity on the ground diverges from that of Journey through Labrang Culture. The volume’s preface is authored by the autonomous prefecture’s Tibetan governor, who writes, “Shambala, Gannan, is the paradise for Tibetans to live in, smile and revel; it is also the Shangri-la of the world.” Oddly, in the parallel Chinese text, this last clause is rendered “it is also the last piece of blue sky in the world” (ye shi shijie shang zui hou de yipian lantian) (n.p.). He also alludes to “Shambala” as “a Tibetan world that one dreams of, inebriated and reluctant to leave.”19
So far this is quite reminiscent of the rhetoric in Journey through Labrang Culture, yet even in the preface, a few subtle differences start to creep in. Where, in Journey, Gonbo Namjyal alludes to Labrang as “the wisdom of Tibetans, [an important constituent part] of Chinese culture and . . . a bright pearl in world culture” (Gonbo 2005, 6), Shabaicili, the prefectural governor, writes in his preface to A Dream World, “Shambala, Gannan, is a world like dreams—a treasury of snowfield culture, a place full of splendid Chinese civilization and a dazzling pearl in the brilliant world culture” (Gongbao 2006, n.p.). Here “snowfield culture” (xueyu wenhua) replaces “Tibetan wisdom” (zangzu zhihui). The former is a geographic term, at least in principle ethnically unmarked (even if the related and more usual term “snowland” is commonly associated with Tibetan, or apparently Tibetan, commercial establishments). And, indeed, Shabaicili notes, “hardworking and virtuous people of Tibetan and other nationalities live in this wide land” (ibid.).
The editor’s introduction also acknowledges Gannan’s diverse human terrain. It notes that while Tibetans compose 50.76 percent of the prefecture’s total population of 678,900, Gannan is home to a total of “24 nationalities such as Han, Hui, Tu, Mongol, Manchu and others” (Gongbao 2006, 10). Further, apart from the chapter on heavily Han Hezuo City, each of the chapters on tourist attractions gives details on the ethnic makeup of the county in which they are found, from 88 percent Tibetan Maqu to 77 percent Han Lintan. Yet the preface sets the tone for the volume in that even as the multiethnic makeup of Gannan is acknowledged, its ultimate Tibetanness (or the ultimate interestingness of its Tibetans) is reasserted. The governor’s preface concludes with these welcoming lines:
My dear friends, Shambala is dancing! Dancing and waiting for you to enter into the world of hada [Tibetan scarves] flying—Shambala, Gannan. (Gongbao 2006, n.p.)
Readers are not summoned to enter a multiethnic paradise, nor are they hailed to dance in a world in which Muslim skullcaps and Han fashions fly alongside Tibetan scarves. No, the dreamworld that they enter is Tibetan. The guide devotes twelve pages to “folk culture” that deal exclusively with Tibetan traditions (Gongbao 2006, 138–50). Indeed, almost the entire section on folk culture is culled word for word from Journey through Labrang Culture, with Gannan merely substituted for Labrang. Yet just as the treatment of human diversity in A Dream World differs subtly from the treatment in Journey through Labrang Culture, so, too, does the consumable Tibetanness it seeks to construct.
A Dream World is very self-conscious about the marketability of Tibetan culture. In the chapter “Introduction to Gannan,” the authors describe local resources for economic development. “The region has five advantageous resources, which are tourism attractions, pasturage, water and electricity, mines and Tibetan medicine and wild products in the mountains. Based on them five industries are developing vigorously” (Gongbao 2006, 12). Of the three main sets of tourist resources in Gannan, the guide explains that “first of all is the primitive and beautiful Tibetan Buddhism culture” (13). The authors note that Gannan has “not only static Buddhist architecture and invaluable cultural relics, but also dynamic Buddhist culture, art and various Buddhist activities” (13). “Second is the colorful Tibetan folk custom” (14), and “third is the wonderful scenery of vast prairie and dense forest” (15). Here we can see the manner in which the imperative to develop locally specific resources central to development schemes such as the Great Western Development (Xibu Da Kaifa) strategy of 2000 is productive of both the enhanced visibility of Tibetan culture and the invisibility, at least in the explicitly themed section of the text, of the traditions of other minorities (not to mention those of local Han).
Yet the manifold Tibetanness that A Dream World envisions as a tourist resource par excellence differs from the local but immanent Tibetan culture that Journey through Labrang Culture attempts to construct. “Although Tibetans in different areas belong to the same nation,” the authors note, “they have differences in the folk customs of weddings, funerals, living, food and culture” (Gongbao 2006, 15). A Dream World emphasizes the effects of Gannan’s varied environments upon Tibetanness. “As a result of different living conditions, Tibetans in Gannan have both common and different traditions compared with Tibetans in other areas. The customs of Tibetans in various areas of Gannan are dissimilar to each other too due to the environment” (14). The authors then contrast the customs of Tibetans living at altitudes above 3,000 meters (in places like Xiahe, Maqu, and Luqu) with those of Tibetans living at 2,000 meters or less in the mountains of Diebu or Zhouqu along the Bailong River. Whereas those at high altitude “mainly dwell in tents made of yak hair and cloth,” those at lower altitudes “dwell in two-story houses made of soil and wood with rich characteristics of Qiang, Miao and Di [sic] minorities” (14). Clothing is also a critical vector for enumerating the differences between Tibetans in Gannan. In a passage absent from Journey through Labrang Culture, the section on folk culture clarifies, “There are 86 different kinds of Tibetan clothing in Gannan Prefecture. In Xiahe, Zhouqu, Diebu and Zhuoni counties, Tibetan clothing is completely different. . . . The most spectacular costumes are that of Wujihe (Tibetan gunmen) in Xiahe and Luqu counties” (148). In place of the internally unified, distinctly local, but recognizably Tibetan culture of Journey through Labrang Culture, here the potential tourist is confronted with dizzying variety and the corresponding necessity to venture into various corners of the prefecture to view local Tibetans and their diverse ways. Such tropes of plenitude and plurality appeal to the collector or the completist rather than to the romantic or the time-challenged. A further, not undesirable by-product of such miniaturizations for state purposes is a portrayal of Tibetans as disunified and culturally divergent. Where Journey through Labrang Culture casts its eponymous subject as an iteration of an immanent, apparently unitary, Tibetanness for which Labrang serves as a conveniently bite-size setting, A Dream World pluralizes Tibetanness, emphasizing environmentally influenced variation and the interpenetration of Tibetan customs and those of neighboring minzu.
Comparing Journey through Labrang Culture and A Dream World foregrounds the degree to which official tourist meanings in contemporary China can be ambivalent or multivocal, even if only in subtle ways. We can see the texts in question as marking a process of trial and error, of casting about for the proper formulation of tourist meanings. Once the latter are found, they may indeed take on hegemonic significance. Yet the power of official representations of scenic spots should not blind us to the contingent, sometimes fraught, processes of negotiation through which even official narratives are produced. Further, given both the recent instability of the region as well as the relatively unknown status of many of Gannan’s scenic spots for foreign travelers, it would be premature to declare that the tourist geography of the prefecture is fully mapped or that current official representations of tourist sites will remain static or retain their hegemony.
Ethnic difference and distinctiveness have figured prominently if ambivalently in these attempts to cultivate tourism in the service of economic development since the beginning of the Great Western Development strategy in 2000. The striking contrasts in the treatment of ethnic differences in quasi-official texts promoting the region’s tourist attractions and the everyday frictions, ambivalences, and resentments in what has historically been a polyglot and culturally multifarious multiethnic borderland highlight both the particularly “miniaturizing” (Varutti 2011) cast of the landscapes produced and negotiated in new tourist encounters and the extent to which visions of “tourist landscapes” as essentially monistic and “modern” in character (e.g., Minca 2007) may overlook specifically “Chinese” modes of tourist practice (Nyíri 2006; Stanley 2002). Ultimately, both processes of shangrilazation and their discontents need to be understood, not just in relation to largely Eurocentric work on the cultural landscapes of tourism but with attention paid to hybrid Chinese-Western modes of tourist and other miniaturizing practices that, despite surface similarities with Western forms, may operate in ways that are uncannily but distinctly unfamiliar.
CHAPTER 2. DREAMWORLD, SHAMBALA, GANNAN
1I had heard Western backpackers speak of Langmusi in awed tones long before my first visit.
2This ambiguity of external ethnic markers in the region is apparently of long historical standing. See Ekvall 1939 for a discussion of the then common process of the Tibetanization of in-migrant Han.
3I am not Chinese, though I have been mistaken for a Uyghur on occasion.
4Hui dominance of the local economic scene could be gauged by observing the number of closed storefronts on important Muslim holidays.
5These attempts to harness local religious, cultural, architectural, and scenic resources for potential tourist development duplicate to a certain extent similar processes of creative metonymy that have gone into producing tourist landscapes in minority areas of China more generally (cf. Schein 2000 on “internal Orientalism”) and even further afield (e.g., D’Arcus 2000 on “Southwesternism” in New Mexico).
6The brief account that follows draws on a more extended treatment in Vasantkumar 2009.
7Marilyn Ivy notes of tourism in Japan before the 1970s that, “travel to [Mount Fuji, Lake Towada, etc.] was an exercise in confirmation: the sightseer . . . expected no unusual encounters, no solitary experience. The purpose of travel was to see what one was supposed to see, to view an already culturally valued scene, and to acquiesce to general opinion.” (Ivy 1995, 44–45; quoted in Nyíri 2006, 93) Of course such approaches are not unique to the “East.”
8This is not to say that Chinese travelers are not in the process of becoming habituated to such Western modes of conceptualizing landscape. While not simply imitators of a Western model, China’s new backpacking contingent has, at least in part, been motivated to travel not simply to find confirmation of received wisdom but to uncover novel landscapes and experiences. For an extended treatment of tourists’ practices of “discovery,” see chapter 3 in this volume.
9Another, perhaps even more apropos example of this miniaturizing tradition might be the Qing-era royal retreat/ceremonial site at Chengde, north of the capital, where a series of grand models, slightly smaller than life-size, of famous Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongol sites were constructed between 1703 and 1792. James Hevia (2001) notes that the configuration of the complex “prefigured Splendid China [one of the theme parks Stanley discusses], incidentally” (225).
10Stanley’s argument also casts Coggins and Yeh’s comment in the introduction to part 1 that “a critical reading of the restoration of Dokar Dzong could easily relegate the place to the likes of a Disneyfied Tibetan tourist trap, but that would require a static conception of the landscape, one that elides the involvement and agency of local people in making and remaking the Old Town to suit their own desires, interests, and values” in a slightly different light. Not only would such a reading require misreading landscape; it would also require a misreading (or at least ethnocentric reading) of the theme park. For an account of how even theme park spaces can be reworked by the “involvement and agency” of ethnic minority performers, see also Makley 2010.
11One particularly noticeable aspect of the relationship between a miniaturizing method and the ability to construct the real as manifested in the process of shangrilazation is the trend in “Tibetan” areas in recent years to rebuild what had been anonymous “white tile” modern townscapes in faux Tibetan-style architecture.
12The full quotation is “Chinese audiences are not invited to look into the figurines of ethnic minorities—in fact, museum displays make no claim as to their artistic, historical, cultural or scientific relevance—but they are being educated to look along the relations that bind them, that is their common Chinese identity.”
13For the second volume, A Dream World, Gonbo Namjyal uses the pinyin spelling “Gongbao Nanjie.”
14Locals are aware of Labrang’s fame but are not precisely sure how it works. A hotel caretaker at an establishment popular with Western backpackers once remarked to me that the owners of the hotel at which he was then working “must have good advertising in the U.S.!”
15It thus fits particularly well with recent calls to “develop locally specific economy.”
16For a historical and ethnographic account of Labrang’s incorporation into the Chinese nation-state, see Makley 2007.
17Gonbo Namjyal also emphasizes these sorts of pleasures in his introduction: “Some foods to try are Tibetan wine, milk tea, Tibetan dumplings, tsamba and Jiaoma rice. Travelers can experience true Labrang culture as they eat Tibetan food, live in Tibetan homes [which may not be legal], listen to Tibetan songs and dance with Tibetans” (2005, 6).
18The Chinese version does without the parenthetical explanation.
19There may also be resonances here with the dialectic between the real and the really real in traditional Chinese aesthetics that Emily Wilcox (2012) discusses in fascinating detail. Her analysis of the intended aesthetic impact of dance performance is reminiscent of the language used to frame tourist encounters as well: “The audience has become nearly intoxicated by the beauty of the piece, and he or she has been drawn into a dialectical experience of real and Real, represented here by ‘reality’ and ‘a fairyland’” (109).