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Archive → April, 2012

‘Avoiding Donkeys’: Critical Reflections on China’s Emerging Outdoor Culture

As I mentioned in the previous post, in addition to my interest in the cultural heritage of the Ancient Tea Horse Road, I am also actively engaged in research on China’s emerging outdoor adventure culture (the two research projects do coincide insofar as it is my ambition to be involved in the promotion of the ‘tea road’ as China’s first long distance branded hiking trail, a copy of a paper on this topic in Chinese is available here. An English version is expected to be published in 2013). I also introduced the notion of the ‘donkey friends’ (驴友) (that is, ‘Chinese hikers’) in a previous blog here. In this post I present an English translation of an essay by Yang Xiao (杨肖), one of China’s top outdoor adventure specialists. As someone who has been involved in the Chinese outdoor adventure industry since its earliest days, Yang Xiao has seen the rise and rise of ‘donkey culture’, and he has not been very impressed by what he has witnessed. In the essay presented here, ‘Avoiding Donkeys’ (避驴), Yang Xiao outlines in acerbic tones his critical view of China’s outdoor culture.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Yang Xiao through his work with Ed Jocelyn at Red Rock Treks. He displays a demeanour towards local cultures and nature that expresses a deep knowledge, respect and sensitivity. He is also very handy to have nearby when your in the ‘middle of nowhere’ and it is about to pour down with rain.

Yang Xiao's first encounter with the mysterious black gunk that is 'vegemite' ...

Yang Xiao, who describes himself as a ’21st Century Muleteer’, keeps an active blog titled (in Chinese) ‘Long March 2′ here. He does a lot of equipment reviews and is known as one of China’s leading experts in outdoor equipment. He also writes for many of China’s leading outdoor adventure websites and magazines and has taken part in promotional activities (that is, to promote an awareness amongst Chinese hikers of quality hiking trails and experiences) along the Appalachian Trail (United States) and the Overland Track (Tasmania, Australia). The original Chinese text of ‘Avoiding Donkeys’ can  be found here. A search engine search using the term ‘避驴’ will take you to pages in Chinese where this essay has been reposted. The remarks by readers are worth noting. The essay has thus generated a lot of attention and discussion, which was no doubt the precise purpose (as well perhaps to let off a bit of steam!). Special thanks are extended to Robert Xia for assistance with this translation.

Yang Xiao demonstrating how Tibetans go about acquainting themselves with strange horses/mules by spitting into their hands and offering it to the animal. Rest assured that when meeting people for the first time he shakes hands (without the spittle).

Avoiding Donkeys

By Yang Xiao 杨肖

The outdoor community in China is saturated with a strong sense of the ‘Jianghu underworld’  (江湖气) and ‘code of the donkey’ (驴气). In browsing through outdoor websites and magazines you will see a plethora of outdoor nicknames [avatars] and gossip about ‘donkey persons and donkey affairs’. [translator note: ‘Jianghu underworld’ is a popular literary reference to the ‘murky brother/sisterhood world’ of gallant heroes and wicked villains, well captured in the film ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’]

Take for example this typical post from a donkey forum (驴坛) which is an excellent example of how some people understand the ‘donkey outdoors’ (驴户外): ‘Equipment is the foundation, self-punishment is the method, corruption (腐败) is the essence! Hanging out in bars is a petty [bourgeois] indulgence, hiking is the method, and the photos will last for many years! Travelling is only an excuse, bonfires flame the passions, and amorous encounters are anticipated! Going outdoors is all about being corrupt! If you don’t go exert yourself in corruption then it’s a total waste!’. [translator note: ‘corruption’ here refers to hiking trips that include lots of opportunities for eating and drinking in restaurants and other such places along the trail]

So donkey!

‘Self-punishment, corruption, flaming the passions, hanging out in bars, amorous encounters’, and what the donkeys (驴子) relish as ‘mixed gender tents’ (混帐), these are key terms that summarise well what is implied in ‘the donkey outdoors’.

Starting at first from the travel forum on Sina.com (新浪旅游论坛), Chinese outdoor enthusiasts since then proudly declared themselves to be ‘donkeys’ (驴) and the forums where they congregate are thus called ‘donkey stalls’ (驴棚) or ‘mills’ (磨房) [translator note: in which beasts of burden such as donkeys were used to grind the grain]. ‘Donkeys travel across the land’ (驴行天下), ‘the power of the donkey web’ (网聚驴的力量) and ‘using donkey eyes to see the outdoors’ (驴眼看户外), all of these phrases are commonly found in the outdoors media. Some strong and fit donkeys who favour this so-called ‘self-punishment’ are more than happy to crown themselves as ‘fierce donkeys’ (猛驴).

Yang Xiao is an important mentor for young guides across China. Here he is sharing a mentor moment with Xiao Li from Haba Village.

For some even this is not enough and they refer to themselves as ‘mules’ (骡子) to show that they are even stronger and fiercer. They specialise in punishing and arduous outdoor activities. They disdain the company of all donkey kind. Some of those who are photographic enthusiasts simply call themselves ‘colourful mules’ (色骡).

Even more ridiculous is one outdoor magazine which has a golden rhinoceros as its emblem referring to the idea that the image of the ‘outdoor elite’ of this magazine is not the donkey or mule but the tough rhino.With regards to all of the above all I want to say is, ‘Hoovies (蹄子们), you have way too many labels!’. Your understanding of the outdoors is too crude. What’s the rush? Why do you need to set up such a tough ‘Jianghu underworld’ (江湖气) donkey image?

No matter how donkeys see the outdoors, at the end of the day the thing they find most attractive is the frivolous gossip of the outdoor community. For a people who usually prefer to take the middle path (中庸) when it comes to the outdoors, the Chinese tend towards the extremes: they have to give labels indicating self-punishment (自虐) and corruption (腐败) and aren’t capable of coming up with anything else.

As you can see, the donkey forums (驴坛), in describing outdoor activities, cannot do so out of the confines of these two terms [self-punishment and corruption] and the donkeys (驴子们) wander between these two ‘camps’ often declaring that ‘both self-punishment and corruption should be firmly grasped by both hands’ [translator note: playing on a Communist Party slogan about ‘grasping the two civilisations of the spiritual and material’].

These terms have been around since the emergence of the donkey clan (驴族). They have now became as stale as those songs that have been played over and over for decades. Likewise, clubs and equipment stores all use the term ‘outdoors’ in their names, making the term extremely clichéd. There is no innovation to speak of at all. Let’s consider the Chinese ‘outdoors’ stores. Only a few large stores sell some sophisticated equipment, while the vast majority of the stores are full of shoddy products. This naturally reflects the level of ‘donkey outdoor’ activities in China.

In actuality, the English word ‘donkey’ means stupidity and clumsiness. Will China’s donkey magazines come up with a Golden Donkey Award, which will be as ridiculous as the Golden Rooster Award for the Chinese film and television community? The English connotation of both award names will make people laugh their heads off.

I did an Internet search on the phrase ‘donkey outdoors’, and what I got were a number of donkey organizations: Lazy Donkey Outdoors, Wild Donkey Outdoors, Stupid Donkey Outdoors, Foolish Donkey Outdoors, Mountain Donkey Outdoors, Veggie Donkey Outdoors and Donkey of Guizhou Outdoors. There is even Wolf Donkey Outdoors! It seems that there is everything except for Dumb Donkey Outdoors. To call donkey outdoors lazy or stupid is fine, but I don’t get how wolf and donkey can be used in the same name! Could it be that someone is trying to be different by creating a new rare species called wolf donkey? We can really find anything in the Jianghu culture of China. No wonder you can find all kinds of people in the outdoor community.

But why is there nothing new now that donkey outdoors has been around for so long? In China, something is fashionable if it’s been around for a couple of years, but disgusting if it’s been around for a decade. It’s not hard to imagine a noisy scene in the fashionable outdoors:

A crowd of noisy donkeys in ‘charge uniforms’ of multiple colors are carrying a huge backpack filled with water bottles, moisture-proof pads, plastic bags and even loudspeakers. They march in the wild, shouting to each other through walkie talkies. On the campsite, tents are very close to one another. There is singing, drinking competitions, shouts, games around the campfire. Used cups and plates are discarded everywhere. It seems that outdoor activities must be done indulgingly and recklessly.

What a bunch of losers! The fact that they copy each other reminds one of ‘One World, One Dream’, the slogan of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and the uniform dance arranged by North Korea for celebrations.  People can’t even dream freely. No wonder everybody has to do the same donkey outdoor activities.

Do you still remember that American guy called Nate? He was the only backpacker that we met on Chang2 Road. He is pretty wild and very capable too. He often walks in the wild for many days on end by himself. And he observed wild black bears in Deqin county, Yunnan Province.

An example of the poaching in the mountains of Yunnan. Here Yang Xiao displays a wild bird just recently captured by local villagers.

We thought we would see a bunch of ‘donkeys’ in ‘charge uniforms’, but we didn’t see any. This was quite unexpected. This shows two things: First, Chang2 Road is far from donkey nests and donkey paths, it is a wild road for adventurers; second, even though donkeys carry huge backpacks, they can’t stand the real outdoors and loneliness. So they end up hanging out in bars in Lijiang and Dali, where donkeys cluster. Let’s listen to what the locals think about these backpackers: ‘They came here to relax, but they brought with them many bad habits typical of urban dwellers, and are making things worse.’ A real backpacker knows they should appreciate beautiful scenery by keeping silent. They know how to quietly entertain themselves. Therefore, they will try to avoid the donkey code when deciding on equipment and activities.

You can’t enjoy quietness if you travel with donkeys. Some donkeys even blast music through loudspeakers hanging on their backpack the whole time they are walking, as if they are not aware that other people might not necessarily care for the music they like. Everybody has different tastes in music. Even if you have very good taste, you still shouldn’t blast the music to force others to listen. Things such as ‘one song’ and ‘one dream’ are really things of ‘Chinese characteristics’. Once a song catches on, everybody knows how to hum it. This is really scary. The donkey outdoors phenomenon has its cultural roots too. You will get it just by visiting one of those noisy Chinese restaurants.

In order to avoid donkeys, we didn’t camp where donkeys call the ‘traditional corruption camp’, a filthy place at 2,200 meters high. Instead, we camped on a sunny slope 300 meters above there. At sunrise, we quickly left the site in the warm sunshine, rushing towards the main peak of Mount Xiaowutai before the donkeys arrive.

I never doubt that there still are a small number of outdoor enthusiasts who are self-disciplined and environmentally friendly. But the 2,200 meter-high campsite on eastern Mount Xiaowutai is becoming filthier and filthier, serving as the best sample for studying donkey outdoors. Here you will find out that the outdoor activities done by donkeys are so gross and disgusting. They only know how to make a big mess.

The major purpose for outdoor activities is supposed to be returning to nature and enjoying the spaciousness, tranquility and real wild fun that cities don’t offer. In developed countries, the quietness of a campsite is paramount. There will be nobody shouting or singing out loud. Tents are far away from each other so that no one will be disturbed. People often say they want to have a private moment. This is my ideal kind of outdoors.

When I was a trekking guide, I managed a campsite for as many as 60 people. Those trekkers were very quiet when they saw the sunrise. Nobody felt they had to shout to express their excitement. But whenever we bumped into those noisy and colorful donkeys, I couldn’t help but shake my head.

Why do we despise those noisy donkeys so much? Because they have deprived us of the fun of the restful outdoors. They can do whatever they want as long as they don’t disturb us. But if they do, there won’t be any relaxation on our part.

I disdain ‘donkey outdoors’ not simply for personal reasons. Personal freedom must not be built on other people’s agonies. This is the same with second-hand smoking. If someone smokes in a public place, he will have a good time but I will suffer. If he doesn’t smoke there, nobody will be disturbed. The same goes for shouts. No one would mind if some seniors clear their voice while doing morning exercise on top of Mount Jing or Mount Xiang. We don’t go to those places anyways. But it’s a different story when people shout in the outdoors, our paradise. What on earth are you shouting for?

Since the outdoor activities with Chinese characteristics created the donkey clans with Chinese characteristics, ‘outdoors’ has become a fashionable label for this national sport. You can see arrogance on some donkey faces, as if they were saying: ‘Are you outdoor enough?’ Initially, the outdoors to me was all about being independent, quiet and wild. But in China, once something becomes popular, there will probably be nothing new about it pretty soon.

That’s why I have to question ‘outdoors’ but worship ‘wilderness’, I mean, true wilderness. There are some Chinese people who know how to be wild, but they still know nothing about the real wilderness philosophy. So they are still donkeys, wild donkeys at best. The ‘BBS culture’ has indeed cultivated many bad habits, and it is inevitable to be influenced by donkeys when one spends too much time on donkey forums.

Only by not disturbing nature, can one truly return to nature. So the idea of avoiding donkeys came to mind.

Yang Xiao in Napoleonic pose on Yak Meadow (a famous campsite for caravans along the 'tea road' with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looming in the background).