Saturday Features

More than a museum

- Binod Ghimire
Ethnic minority village in Kunming, China shows how endangered ethnic minority cultures can be preserved, while also generating money through tourism

Sep 9, 2017-Hardly 10 kilometers from the busyness and chaos of downtown Kunming—the capital of China’s Yunnan Province—is Minzu Cun, which translates into ‘Ethnic Minorities Village’ in English. Located on a narrow peninsula on the sprawling Dainchi Lake and the Western Hill Forest Park, this village is home to a host of villas, one each for the 26 ethnic minority communities of this south-western province of China that borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. 

Unlike Nepal where no one community has predominant stake over the demographics, around 92 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people belong to the Han ethnicity. The remaining eight percent of the population belong to 53 different ethnic minorities, some of which have population counts as low as 5,000 individuals. Twenty six of these minorities hail from the culturally diverse Yunnan Province. 

Over the past half century, China’s economic boom has resulted in its citizens gravitating away from villages and townships in the countryside towards urban clusters on the country’s eastern seaboard. And while this has made economic opportunities available to those who had not been able to access it in the past, it has also accelerated the homogenisation of cultures. Realising that languages, cultures and traditions of the minority ethnic groups were in acute danger because of the urban rush, the Chinese government established the Ethnic Minorities Village complex in 1992. What initially began as a small cluster of four villas has today expanded into a sprawling estate that now boasts 26 homes, each depicting the uniqueness of each of Yunnan’s minorities.

Walking into Minzu Cun is surreal for obvious reasons. Not only do the villas showcase exquisite indigenous architecture of minority communities such as Achan, Jinpo, Lisu, Nu, Pumi and Wa, the spaces are also allow visitors to interact and sample the cultures, cuisines and traditional clothes that stitch together the diverse tapestry of the province. “The village does not just preserve the diversity of different ethnic communities but also serves as a school to learn about cultures, music, cuisines and costumes of these communities,” said Zhu Mei, a journalist with China International Radio and a Nepali interpreter, referring to trained instructors and artisans who teach dances, music and the craft of making instruments, while living within the community.

Spread out over 208 acres, the Ethnic Minorities Village is fully managed by the Chinese government, and the community’s residents receive fooding and lodging, in addition to free education. Furthermore, the ethnic minorities who have migrated to the community from the province’s rural belts make handsome incomes by showcasing their dances and cultures to the millions of tourists who visit the Village each year.

 “The government has provided so many incentives that every individual from the representative ethnic communities is happy to belong to this larger community,” Zhu added. The Village is open to tourists from nine in the morning to the five in the evening, where they can observe firsthand the lifestyle of the each community, along with the live performance of cultural songs and dances. The visitors can also try traditional cuisines available round the clock. If planned ahead, tourists can also partake in the different festivals observed by the different communities at different times during the year.

Ethnic Minorities Village is also home to the Yunnan Ethnic Museum, the largest ethnic museum in China, that has on display every facet of the lives and cultures of the 53 minority groups across China. And even though the Village is in itself an open museum, it feels so much more. Because the residents actually live in the Village, celebrating each other’s uniqueness, the performances do not necessarily come across as contrived, even if they are at some level. Instead, because you are interacting with the people in their lived-in spaces, the Village is able to give its visitors an air of authenticity that perhaps a museum or a theme-park might not have been able to.

At a time when ethnic minorities around the world are staring down the palpable threat of erosion, and even extinction, Minzu Cun is a great example of a modality that can be adopted to ensure the preservation, if not the flourishing, of the said cultures. In Nepal, for instance, there are 125 different communities that make up our diverse nation, but a sizeable portion of these cultures are on the verge of disappearing altogether within the next generation. An Ethnic Minority Village of our own could potentially be a viable step towards preserving those in immediate danger of extinction. If arresting the inevitable homogenisation of cultures due to urbanisation, migration and assimilation might not be possible, it certainly is feasible that disappearing lifestyles and traditions be conserved and passed on in spirit. 

Published: 09-09-2017 08:53

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