An Analysis of Dongba Art and Culture within the context of Tourism

An Analysis of Dongba Art and Culture within the context of Tourism

To investigate the history, structure and current characteristics of tourism development in the minority ethnic area – Lijiang City, Yunnan Province, China

To evaluate the extent to which Naxi people’s handicrafts, traditional music and culture, etc. figures as tourist attractions/assets in the tourism industry

To examine Naxi people (e.g. emerged ‘Middle classes’ and local farmers) in the tourism industry in Lijiang City, in the role of conserving Dongba culture

To assess the role of Dongba culture in sustainable tourism development within the context of globalization and commercialization

To scrutinise the processes of commodification with Dongba art and culture and an analysis of the impact of this on their way of life

3.         Background of Research:

Lijiang City, where this research is mainly focus on, is a minority autonomous district, situated in the western part of Yunnan. In 2002, the total population of the region was about 351 thousands of which 58.6 percent are Naxi people. The history of this ancient town dates back 800 years. It is one of the 99 most famous state history and culture cities of China, and in December 1997 was listed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List (Duang S., 2000: 3; Zhang H., 2003: 6; Sofield, H.B, 2000). In the past two centuries, one of its unique cultural phenomenon—the Dongba culture, has drawn much attention from researchers both at home and abroad.

The relationship of this investigation to previous work in the area

(1). Previous works

Cater (2000: 475) and McKhann (2001: 162) both argue that the tourism development in Lijang has caused unpleasant social, cultural and environmental impacts. For instance, Lijiang’s 2,600% growth rate in tourist arrivals in nine years and a 6,600% increase in tourist revenue in eight years have seriously destroyed the original ecological balance in Yulong Snow Mountain. The very limited carrying capacity of the city has to accommodate a bewildering market demand so that the quality of service and product has been impaired significantly (McKhann, 2001:149; Zhang, 2003).

A number of problems concerning tourism development in ethnic areas are documented by Sofield and Li (1998) these are: political domination, assimilation, lack of empowerment, discrimination, exploitation (by the majority group), economic impoverishment, cultural degradation, and ‘museumization’ of ethnic culture. From here, we can realize that the issue of ethnicity in China is far more than an economic matter, rather a political and sociocultural issue. Tourism, be it cultural tourism or ethnic tourism, is a good place to examine all the issues of the country’s ethnic policies.

Wen (1998: 474) continually complements the commercialization of ethnic culture in China manifest in the changes in traditional family structure, moral system, social values, lifestyles and even ideological attitudes. To sum up, in terms of ethnic tourism in China, it is not purposely served for sustaining ethnic groups. All their studies have left enormous chances and challenges to be explored in my research.

(2). My research

Lemcine’s (1989) study in Yunnan shows that most of the minority have a very strong will to identify their ethnicity, proudly assuring their minority status. My research would try to answer those questions raised from his study, such as to what extent can clothing, housing and folklore, etc keep ethnicity alive? To what extent should a traditional culture adapt to new economic and technological progresses? To what extent can tourism stimulate this process appropriately?

Implementing ethnic tourism in Lijiang should beforehand consider several questions (Tisdell, 1997: 1367), i.e. what characteristics of a local community should be sustained or preserved? Is it the social cohesiveness of the local community, the political control of the community over local resources or the economic viability of the local community, or all of these factors? And for whose interest? Sometimes when we say ‘the Lijiang’s tourism is out of control’ (McKhann, 2001: 150), we’d better make it clearer out of whose control and for what reasons.

Besides the participations of community, individual’s initiatives should also not to be ignored. Tisdell (1997: 1365) analyzes that people’s different roles in a society would involve certain duties correspondingly. These traditional or customary restraints function as cushion by promoting social cohesion and limiting selfish behaviour in social responsibility. Once this senses of duty become weak, social disintegration is inevitable. In reference to Lijiang, Dongbas are the interpreters between nature and humans. They bring spiritual calm and comfort to people by translating the god’s instructions and ideas. They are the spiritual leaders of the villages. However, their position and influence have been weakened since 1956, so it would be necessary to examine whether tourism work as a catalyst revitalizing their functionary role in the social life.

Analyzing tourism through an anthropological perspective

In view of the essence of this study, it is inevitable an anthropological account. From the anthropological point of view, culture and cultural identity may contain different connotations. Because an ethnic group might always face a continuous process of contracting with other groups in which assimilating other cultures or being assimilated by others is inevitable (Wu, 1989, 11-12), so one concept of culture does not always reflect a clear-cut cultural identity. The term ‘situational ethnicity’ is introduced by Wu to highlight his point that in reality the preservation of one group’s genuine tradition is only the partial content. The other function of preservation should include the ability of the culture to redefine and interpret the meaning of ‘new’ culture. A dynamic culture would be active enough in interpreting the symbol of new behaviour, value and identity.

As MacKerras (1994: 181) argues, tourism is one of the industries that is mostly associated with globalization investment from various parts of the world to the destinations, including some ideas and fashions which exert effects upon the local community in many ways. The significance of studying China’s international tourism upon ethnic areas lies in the speed of China’s rapid tourism development. China is expected to be one of the top destinations of the world by 2020. Tourism invariably contributes to the process of modernization and globalization with the consequences that positive impacts outweigh the negative. With regard to the issue of undermining cultural identity and differences, it is easy to blame the government’s policies, but more concern and attention should also give to the ethnic groups themselves. Both the government and the minorities welcome tourism, mostly because of the economic advantages. In terms of preserving ethnic culture, the attitude and awareness of the ethnic groups is paramount to success. Policies can be unfair, distribution systems can be unequal but culture and identity will survive, as long as the ethnic groups are aware and willing to do so. Tourism will intensify the process of globalization in which some ethnic cultures will weaken or even disappear. However, some stronger ethnic cultures will survive and thrive during this process. This can be proved by the fact that the assimilation of ethnic groups in China vary from group to group. Some remain very distinctive while some do not. As Grunfeld (1985: 54) put it, the smaller the group, the easier they are assimilated. The more impregnable to Han culture, the more sensitive they will be perceived by Han with regard to their unique characteristics.

(3). Research issues

Although Dongba culture has been examined in many works, few of the papers are purposely and exclusively evaluating them as tourist assets. In addition, the role of Naxi people in conserving their culture has not been fully addressed.

Both Zhang (2003) and Cater (2000) argue that as the majority of the Naxi are farmers, so the key issue becomes how to optimize tourism resources to improve farmers’ economic and social conditions, e.g. using more local manufacturing materials and skills to sustain their subsistence. Therefore, this study would pay more attention to those local farmers who are living outside Dayanzhen, evaluating their way of live and attitudes towards the social-cultural impacts from the tourism industry upon their tradition, culture and belief.

With the rapid social, especially economic development in the past twenty years, the middle classes have emerged in some ethnic areas in China, including the Naxi. The new ‘middle classes’, labeled with new means of production, new class interests, new class consciousness and new way of thinking, mushrooms steadily (Mackerras, 2005: 814). Unfortunately, few studies have ever evaluated their roles and functions in conserving Naxi art and culture. Would they become an agency of propelling the conservation of Naxi art and culture and awaking their awareness of minority identity? All these issues need to be assessed by this study.

4.         Research Methodology:

Denscombe (1998: 103) claims that a researcher should consider which method is the most appropriate one in practice, or best suitable for the task, rather stick to the one which is superior to others in an absolute sense.

Case study and research design

Case study (participant observation and in-depth interview) would provide the real-life situations (Flyvbjerg, 2004: 424) on the role of Naxi people in reference to conserving the Dongba art and culture. This is not something that survey strategy can carry out. With regard to the selection of cases to be studied, Denscombe (1998: 33-34) argues that any case that is selected should be subject to the purposes of the study. The cases should be typical, meaning they contain crucial aspects so that possible findings that are generated from this case could be applied to the whole thing. Recently, multiple-case becomes popular for its strengths. For instance, evidences from multiple cases are often regarded as more compelling to the extent of which the overall research is considered as more robust. Similar or contrasting results could be stimulated so that the evaluation of propositions can be intensified from either extreme. Apparently, analytic conclusions that are produced individually from different cases are much more reliable than those from a single case. Last but not least, the skeptical fears about single-case of the uniqueness or artifactual condition will be blunt (Yin and Robert, 2003: 46-54).

Ethnography & participant observation

Since 1970s, the term ethnography became a preferred term in relation to participant observation. Ethnography is a procedure during which observation and participation are interwoven. Spending considerable time, an ethnographer or a participant observer would input extensive involvement in their social life, watching things happen around him/her, listening when people talk, asking questions and finally analyzing all the data at a theoretical level. The characteristic of ethnographic research is in adequately placing entities, widening and deepening our understanding of their social and cultural significance (Forrest, 1991: 49). Different from other research methods, ethnography is not a report of the researcher’s analysis of the situation, rather it claims to be an account of the people who are being studied, their visions of the world, understandings of the society and perceptions of their relations to life. To do this, the ethnographer has to abandon his/her own perspective and preference. The most distinctive aspect is that it is not a description but a reconstruction, setting up a passage, by means of the researcher’s writing skills or rhetoric, between the given social setting and the ethnographer’s own experiences, belief, knowledge and mentality (Delamont, 2004: 218).

In-depth interview

As far as interviewing (in-depth) is concerned, it is useful when tending to obtain more detailed and in-depth information, from a relatively small number of informants, in order to form an insight view of a topic. Interviewing is design to help the researcher to go for depth rather than breadth of a topic. It is an efficient way to explore people’s emotions, feelings and experiences. In particular when the research topic is concerned with some sensitive matters, a face-to-face approach is necessary to carefully handle informants’ emotions, keeping them open and honest for the purpose of obtaining a better quality of data. If some privileged information is requested, interviewing proves to be invaluable for providing contact with some experts or ‘key players’ (Denscombe, 1998: 111-112). When doing field research, an ethnographic interview is widely used alongside participant observation.

5.         Project Significance and Value:

According to census in year 2000, China has 55 minority nationalities with a population over 106,430,000 people (Mackerras, 2003: 814). Apart from Hui, Manchus, Mongolians, Tujia, Yi, Uigur, Tibentans and Zhuang, whose population is over five million, the rest are small in numbers. Most of them like Naxi, no ethnic relations across borders, no intention to claim independence and even no many Han Chinese can name them correctly. From the references provided by Chao (1996), White (1998) and Mackerras (2003), we can confirm that Dongba books are religious, or at least containing some religious context. Therefore, it is necessary to assess this ethnic religious culture appropriately. Hopefully, this study about Naxi will set a benchmark for us to know whether they can promote their religious practices as cultural practice as the Naxi did.

The academic contribution of this study will try to enrich the contemporary literature regarding to the nature of modern tourism and its impact upon the ethnic community. It will try to demonstrate that the intrinsic meaning of local culture will not disappear in the process of commodification. The destruction of local culture’s authenticity, which resulting from the contrived cultural products for tourist, will not significantly influence the essence of the local culture’s authenticity. The aim of the study will try to outline a positive significance of the modern tourism in the effort of conserving ethnic culture appropriately. If this purpose is eventually achieved, so the experience of preserving Naxi culture by themselves would illustrate that the authentic Chinese modernity should rely on their own social, economic, political and cultural conditions.


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