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Baoshan Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve Ecotourism and Project Site Report

Yiluo Meeting

Team members gather for an obligatory group photograph. Taken at the entrance to the impressive Wenchanggong Temple in the village of Yiluo in Tengchong County. A Daoist temple devoted to scholarship, literature, culture and civilisation. The perfect venue for us to summarise our observations and think about the future.

ChinaWatch2050’s first blogpost for 2015. Better late than never. I hope this year to bring you more interesting insights into China from my perspective. The first cab off the rank is formally releasing the report on last year’s (November 2014) ecotourism excursion and project site inspection on the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve (Baoshan). The report was compiled by Dr Ed Jocelyn and can be found in pdf form here. Ed and I have been to this site before and I’ve summarised those trips here and here.

Special thanks to Frank Hitman of Zouba Travel for providing logistical support and boundless enthusiasm.

Special thanks to Frank Hitman and Matthew Hartzell (pictured below) of Zouba Tours for providing logistical support and boundless enthusiasm.

I would like to thank the sponsors and supporters of this project: The Faculty of Arts at The University of Western Australia; Zouba Tours; Red Rock Treks; Beijing Hikers; Osprey Packs (China); and The Tea Exchange. The local Baoshan Government, especially the Cultural Affairs Bureau and Baoshan Museum, were very supportive.

Wherever outdoor types gather you can be sure that someone has a map and someone else has a headlamp. Pictured here Matthew Hartzell (many thanks for your support) and Yang Xiao (who has appeared previously on this site).

Wherever outdoor types gather you can be sure that someone has a map and someone else has a headlamp. Pictured here Matthew Hartzell and Yang Xiao (who has appeared previously on this site).

I will bring you more news about our project plans and events in the coming weeks and months. As Ed’s report suggests, the growth of outdoor tourism in China is booming. Unfortunately the resources and abilities of local communities to deal with the dramatic increase of ecotourists and hikers is limited. We hope to do our bit to alleviate the deleterious effects of China’s ‘return to nature’.

One of the highlights for me was taking time to enjoy a good brew of quality Chinese black tea at 3,200 metres.

One of the highlights for me was taking time to enjoy a good brew of quality Chinese black tea at 3,200 metres.

 

 

Report from the 5th Annual Meeting of the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC)

During the APEC meeting in Beijing the skies were clear and blue. By the time of the meeting at Beijing Normal University just over a week later the haze had returned. The moral of the story is that the Chinese government can control the heavens (天下), but not for very long.

During the APEC meeting in Beijing the skies were clear and blue. By the time of the meeting at Beijing Normal University just over a week later the haze had returned. The moral of the story is that the Chinese government can control the heavens (天下), but not for very long.

On the 28th and 29th November 2014 I attended the 5th Annual Meeting of the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC) (中国文化国际传播研究院第五届年会). The theme of the meeting was ‘International Communication of Chinese Culture: Discourse System and Cultural Image’ (中国文化国际传播:话语体系与文化形象). The AICCC is located in Beijing Normal University (北京师范大学). Here is a brief report from the Chinese media on the meeting (in Chinese).

The AICCC’s mission is to ‘introduce and disseminate Chinese culture worldwide more effectively and contribute to a harmonious world culture through solid, in-depth research and art works with Chinese characteristics’.   Besides holding regular conferences and meetings the AICCC also is actively engaged in encouraging content production (novels, films, documentaries, art, and so on). It must be said that the approach is very state-centric, as one would expect from any ‘academy’ attached to a prestigious Chinese university. Don’t expect anything too critical of the government or forms of content that are not in ‘harmony’ with the mainstream. I nonetheless found the meeting very informative on a number of levels and, since I’ve now been appointed as a ‘guest researcher’, I hope to be able to utilise this platform to engage, especially with fellow ‘guest researchers’ and local Chinese scholars, in some very serious work on the ‘Chinese culture and cross-cultural communication’ front.

The title of my paper was 'Chinese Tea: Past, Present and Future'. It examined the possible role of tea as a form of cross-cultural communication. Note that my name in Chinese should be '席格伦'.

The title of my paper was ‘Chinese Tea: Past, Present and Future’. It examined the possible role of tea as a form of cross-cultural communication. Note that my name in Chinese should be ‘席格伦’, although ‘咖喱G’ does have a certain ring to it.

The AICCC is headed up by the indefatigable Professor Huang Huilin (黄会林). Professor Huang has a CV longer than the Great Wall. Her main area of focus is film and drama. At 82 years she is full of energy and enthusiasm, a prime example that you can keep doing what you love so long as the mind is clear and the body willing. She would have been in her late teens when the People’s Republic was founded (1949) and then subsequently experienced the various trials and tribulations of the Maoist period, and in turn the ups and downs of the reform era. In this sense Professor Huang embodies a life experience that crosses four major periods in modern Chinese history: pre-1949, the Maoist period, the Deng Xiaoping reform period, and the period China is now embracing of the ‘socialist market economy’. I think her life cycle definitely plays into the kind of work she does as a strong supporter of the authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and as defending the legacy of the May Fourth Movement (1915-1921). Most notably, Professor Huang has recently written extensively on the notion of the ‘Third Pole’ – her great theoretical legacy. To put it briefly the ‘Third Pole’ theory holds that there are three major ‘cultural poles’: 1) Europe; 2) the United States; and 3) China. This is how it is explained on the AICCC website:

Among the current diversified culture patterns around the world, there are three major forces that have high influences on the world culture: the European culture, the American culture and the Chinese culture. If the European and American culture are the ‘Two Poles’ representing the western world, then the Chinese culture, with its deep root and strong vitality developed over thousands of years, can be called ‘The Third Pole Culture’. Rooted in the traditional Chinese civilization, the Third Pole Culture advances with the times and respects cultural differences under the premise of initiating cultural diversities. Currently, the diversified patterns of world culture co-exist under mutual influences. The Chinese ‘Third Pole Culture’ advocates the idea of ‘harmony’ through a practical and creative approach, adjusting itself with the times and learning from each other with the purpose to build a commonly recognized code and order for the world culture and to contribute to the ever-evolving development of human society. ‘The Third Pole Culture’ is not only an academic subject, but more importantly a cultural mission with strategic significance to enhance the soft power of Chinese culture. Academic research, creative production, cultural communication and resource integration are the most important means to achieve this mission.

Note here the explicit mention of ‘soft power’ (软实力). In China ‘soft power’ does not have any negative connotations, but instead simply refers to the ability of a nation to be able to project its cultural values upon the world stage. Whereas until recently it is Europe and the US which have been very successful at doing so, the Third Pole theory argues that it is now China’s turn to project its culture upon the world. The Chinese government has been attempting to do this, for example, through the establishment of Confucius Institutes around the world, a project that is beginning to attract a lot of negative publicity and may require a bit of rethinking on the party of the Chinese authorities (I will write on this subject in the coming weeks).

China has a very rich and diverse cultural heritage. It has a large population full of well educated and talented people. It has a government that, when it so desires, can implement effective policy. All the conditions for China to create cultural products that will appeal to a domestic and foreign audience are in place. And yet, in my opinion, the primary stress on social stability and public security is taking the wind out of China's creative sails.

China has a very rich and diverse cultural heritage. It has a large population brimming with well educated and talented people. It has a government that, when it so desires, can implement effective policy. All the conditions for China to create cultural products that will appeal to a domestic and foreign audience are in place. And yet, in my opinion, the primary stress on social stability and public security is taking the wind out of China’s creative sails.

It should be noted that the AICCC has no links with the Confucius Institutes and has no intention of cooperation on the ‘soft power’ front with them. One thing they do have in common, however, is an emphasis on ‘harmony’. The Chinese are well aware that the rise of Western power was accompanied by a great deal of violence and power mongering in the form of imperialism and colonialism. As Chinese rises the Chinese authorities, and auxiliary agencies such as the Chinese higher education sector, are keen to alleviate any anxieties that China is going to follow the Western pattern of war and violence. Hence the emphasis on ‘harmony’. This does indeed have deep roots in Chinese statecraft as an ideological means of presenting an idealised Chinese culture that is benevolent and peaceful. Of course traditional Chinese statecraft also viewed the world in very hierarchical terms with China as the ‘civilised centre’. The further one moved away from the Chinese centre the less civilised and cultured the world became. Hence, in addition to ‘harmony’ the Third Pole theory also stresses ‘equality’.

Of course I hear many people already shouting ‘what about the rest of the world! Sure there are more than three poles!’. I was a bit taken aback too and in the final plenary session of the meeting – of which I was a keynote so  had a good chance to express my opinions – I asked politely how Australia fits into the scheme of things. Some professor from the audience said in response that Australia could be regarded as part of Europe. After just having delivered a unit last semester on ‘Australia and Asia’ I noted that if Chinese scholars were going to put Australia into this category they were sorely misguided. Anyway, Professor Huang and others explained that the notion of the three poles was not meant to exclude other cultural centres, it is more of a reaction to the way they, as the officially endorsed cultural elite, see China’s cultural challenge in the 21st Century. It still smacks of Sinocentricism, but I think I can offer something of an explanation. The first part of the explanation refers to the notion of ‘civilisational self-worth’. With a rich and ancient ‘civilisation’ Chinese cultural elites rightly regard Chinese culture very highly. Despite all the trials and tribulations Chinese culture has experienced in the last century, they feel it is only right and proper that Chinese culture – with the aforementioned emphasis on ‘harmony’ and ‘equality’ (thereby highlighting what is also regarded as the innate benign nature of Chinese civilisation) – should take its rightful place on the world stage. China is now (re)emerging as confident and powerful force. This indeed is the precondition for cultural resurgence. The party-state and the cultural elite are keen to compare Chinese culture to what they regard as ‘world class’ (they are doing the same in almost all fields of endeavour: education, scientific research, business, sport, and so on). So, therefore, it seems logical that ‘Europe’ and the ‘US’ – as the two major hegemonic cultural centres of the last century – should be the ‘benchmark’ for an resurgent Chinese culture.

Secondly, the first two poles – Europe and the USA – refer to those cultural centres that have dominated the last two centuries and that have, in turn, had a huge impact on the rest of the world. The influence of Hollywood was raised numerous times throughout the meeting, in fact one could say they were quite fixated on Hollywood and its impact on the Chinese box office. Why should Chinese scholars and officials be concerned? In short, they hold that culture embodies social values and through the dissemination of culture a receiving society can, over time, experience ‘social value transformation’. The CPC is currently promoting what it calls ‘Core Socialist Values’ – these are list of patriotic, good citizenship and party loyalty values (see the image and caption below for more details). Since China opened to the outside world in the late 1970s the ‘cultural world’ of China has indeed undergone a dramatic transformation – too complex for me to outline here, other than to stress that there are two elements that seem to be of particular concern to the scholars attending the meeting: 1) globalisation (read ‘westernisation’) and, 2) commercialisation (that is, the impact of market forces in the realm of culture and social values).

The list of 'Socialist Values' being promoted by the CPC. 'Strength and Prosperity'; 'Civilisation'; 'Freedom'; 'Justice'; 'Patriotism'; 'Integrity'; 'Democracy'; 'Harmony'; 'Equality'; 'Rule of Law'; 'Professionalism'; 'Friendship'.

The list of ‘Socialist Values’ being promoted by the CPC. ‘Strength and Prosperity’; ‘Civilisation’; ‘Freedom’; ‘Justice’; ‘Patriotism’; ‘Integrity’; ‘Democracy’; ‘Harmony’; ‘Equality’; ‘Rule of Law’; ‘Professionalism’; ‘Friendship’. Note that the assumption is that all of these values have ‘Chinese characteristics’ (that is, they are to be determined and expounded by the CPC).

Hollywood is definitely having a major impact on Chinese cinema. Chinese citizens are flocking to the cinemas to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters, so much so that Hollywood now sees China as a major market and is beginning to produce films specifically for a Chinese audience (the latest Transformers movie being a good example). In 2013 China earned the American film industry US$3.6 billion (42% of the Chinese box office). The conservative elite in the CPC and society more broadly are concerned that younger generations are not getting very healthy ‘spiritual sustenance’ (精神粮食) from the influx of foreign cultural products (which also includes the popularity of, for example, Korean television dramas). Actually these discussions are very reminiscent of early 1990s debates over the ‘loss of human spirit’ (人文精神) (unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be anything on this debate in English). I’ve a feeling a number of the participants would have been very active in those debates. It seems to me that, firstly, what they fear is the influence of products and texts over which they have little control. And secondly, as the cultural elite, that their influence over Chinese cultural production is also very limited. A foreign and domestic double whammy. Whilst the authorities, as we shall see below, do still exert a high degree of overall authority over the cultural market, the commercial imperative to appeal to the audience does not coincide with the visions of ‘culture’ espoused by the the cultural elite (which can be crudely summarised as the divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture).

As a form of cultural critique on the impact of contemporary forces on society I found the focus on film and Hollywood to be very narrow. I attempted to draw attention to the fact that it is not Hollywood that is the major influence on the values of society, but instead that Hollywood is only a reflection of what the mainstream regards as acceptable (and we know that the American film industry is actually quite conservative in many respects). I suggested we should focus on the more obvious impact of consumer culture, fueled by advertising and the projection of consumer appetites, that is creating a certain form of individual (that is, ‘I shop therefore I am’) and a cycle of unsustainable growth, economically, culturally and environmentally. My comments, however, seem to fall on deaf ears and blind eyes. In fact I found that at this meeting there is clearly a big divide between the older generation (there were many scholars and ‘cultural workers’ in their 60s and 70s) and the younger generation, particularly those cohorts born after 1980. Even a number of these older scholars openly acknowledged that they have difficulty understanding the digital and social world of the younger generation. There truly is a huge generational gap in China between those who still have strong memories of the Maoist era and the old-fashioned planned economy, and those whose formative years have been the world of the Internet, television dramas and popular music. I often wonder what China will look like when the ‘old guard’ finally departs.

Any well trained historian, sociologist, anthropologist, cultural theorist and so on, would have little problem in taking apart the notion of ‘traditional culture’ that is forwarded in the ‘Third Pole’ theory. But this critical approach to ‘culture’ is not to deny the actually existing cultural and artistic forms that, if they are going to survive, need to respond somehow to the 21st Century (this is why I include ‘culture’ in the cycle of unsustainable development, ‘culture’ in China is being crudely packaged and reworked for the market in ways that undermine its intrinsic value and appeal). Therefore, I think the overall mission of the AICCC is meaningful but it certainly needs more input from different directions to gain traction. Unfortunately in China the authorities are more concerned with ‘security’ than they are with ‘creativity’. The aforementioned notion of ‘harmony’ is also an important domestic policy. As Chinese society continues to develop and transform it naturally becomes more difficult to govern. Fracture lines are appearing all over the country. The current stewardship of President Xi has firmly put ‘harmony’ on the agenda with a large scale party rectification campaign (which I have discussed in a previous post) and intensification of existing security measures. Under these circumstances ‘creativity’ will come a poor second.

Here are two recent examples of how the Chinese authorities attempt to control creativity, and in so doing thwart the development of cultural products that might have appeal on the world stage.

The first example concerns time travel. In 2011 the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) effectively placed a ban on the production of television dramas which incorporated time travel. SARFT announced that “the producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.” The television dramas were also criticised for encouraging belief in superstition, reincarnation and fatalism. Since this ban was announced I’ve asked a people I know in the film and television world what they make of this. I really haven’t received a very satisfactory answer. The strongest justification seems to be that time travel – and it should be noted that in Chinese the notion of ‘time travel’ (穿越) overwhelmingly refers to traveling to times past, an indication of the strong sense of the ‘cultural past’ in China (I’ll save analysis of this for another time) – in these dramas could give the misperception that people where just as happier if not – heaven forbid – happier than they are in the present. I guess it just goes to show that the CPC still believes in only one version of history in which it is the sole author, producer and actor.

The second example concerns puns. Puns are an important linguistic element in any language, especially as far as humour is concerned. Given that Chinese has a large amount of homonyms puns are particularly important, and are indeed the bedrock of poetry and humour. This year SARFT released a directive stating that: “Radio and television authorities at all levels must tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms … Idioms are one of the great features of the Chinese language and contain profound cultural heritage and historical resources and great aesthetic, ideological and moral values”. Most likely the real reason is that puns can be used as a form of political satire. Chinese Internet users have also been very adept at getting around the banning of certain key words and phrases by clever use of homonyms. A particularly clever example, which was also backed up by a large seemingly uncoordinated grass-roots and Internet campaign, is the rendering of ‘harmony’ (hexie 和谐) as ‘river crabs’ (hexie 河蟹). Over the last couple of years ‘river crabs’ have appear in iconic form to inform people that a piece of writing or content has been ‘harmonised’ (that is, deleted by the authorities).

The Chinese party-state certainly has resurrected tradition – the tradition of old-fashioned moralist Confucian statecraft combined with the hard and heavy hand of Legalism. This ‘tradition’ puts an overwhelming emphasis on ‘harmony’ and ‘stability’, and relies almost exclusively on the power of the prohibition (it’s safer to just say ‘no’). In the world of cultural production it prefers to control creativity and attempt to ‘pick winners’ that conform to its moral and aesthetic tastes. There is, however, another ‘tradition’ in China that values spontaneity and chaos (in a constructive sense): Daoism. Cultural creativity requires an environment that fosters risk and the acceptance that ‘accidents’ may actually produce results. Daoism has often been the refuge of scholars and officials tired of the prohibitive declarations of Confucianism/Legalism. It is also a major inspiration for China’s artists, writers and cultural creationists. It is perhaps also the best Chinese ‘tradition’ to promote creativity in the broad cross-section of the arts and cultural world. I look forward to the day when Daoism – as a force for creativity – finds its place back at the table of Chinese ‘traditions’.

Anarchy anyone?

Anarchy anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wuyishan Cross-Straits Tea Expo and the ‘10,000 Mile Tea Road’

 

A crash course in 'Rock Tea' (岩茶) through a 'four classic rock tea' tea tasting.

A crash course in ‘Rock Tea’ (岩茶) through a ‘four classic rock tea’ tea tasting.

From the 16 – 22 November 2014 I attended the 8th Cross Straits Tea Expo (‘Cross Straits’ refers to the inclusion of both mainland China (the People’s Republic of China) and Taiwan (the Republic of China)). The Tea Expo was held in Wuyishan (武夷山) in Fujian Province (福建省) from 16 – 18 November. The remainder of the time was spent in nearby Baitashan (白塔山).

You can see where Wuyishan is here on Bing Maps. You can view a selection of images from this trip on my Flickr site here.

This was my first time to attend such an expo and it was quite an experience. There were more than 1,200 booths in the exhibition centre, ranging from tea factories displaying their wares to booths focusing on tea-related paraphernalia. There were a number of stages devoted to various cultural performances. Over 100 tea and tea-related enterprises from Taiwan were in attendance. Apparently over US $5 billion worth of trade deals were signed. An estimated 130,000 people attended the expo.

My efforts to discover the source of the 'Ancient Vegemite Road' continue ...

My efforts to discover the source of the ‘Ancient Vegemite Road’ continue …

For me this was a valuable opportunity to see firsthand the commercial scale of China’s tea culture revival. It was also a perfect chance to understand the teas and tea culture of Fujian, one of China’s most important centres of tea production. This was my first ever visit to Fujian with tea and tea culture as the primary objective. Many thanks to Mr Li Haibing (李海兵) for organising the invitation and taking the time to introduce me to various scholars and tea entrepreneurs as well as giving me a personal guided tour of the historic village of Xiamei (下梅), which also happens to be Mr Li’s home town. I also met a number of tea industry journalists and writers, not to mention many tea entrepreneurs from all over China. A perfect venue for networking. Special thanks to my new acquaintance Mr Warren Peltier (夏云峰). Warren is a specialist in Fujian teas and has written a very valuable book on Chinese tea culture that includes translations of primary resource material from throughout Chinese history. You can see a synopsis of the book and reviews on Amazon here.

A typical rocky mountain vista of Wuyishan. It reminds me somewhat of the terrain of Southeast Queensland and Northern New South Wales. Both regions share a subtropical environment. I've always said SE Queensland is prime tea growing country.

A typical rocky mountain vista of Wuyishan. It reminds me somewhat of the terrain of Southeast Queensland and Northern New South Wales. Both regions share a subtropical environment. I’ve always said SE Queensland is potentially prime tea growing country.

Wuyishan is a UNESCO World Heritage site noted for its unique biodiversity and important tangible and intangible culture. Wuyishan, and neighbouring Baitashan, were important centres for the emergence and development of Neo-Confucianism (宋明理学). Neo-Confucianism emerged in the region in the 11th Century and was partly a reaction to the rise and spread of Buddhism. Neo-Confucianism spread from Fujian to the rest of China and its philosophical debates were also influential in many neighbouring countries including Japan.

Three different leaves from three different tea cultivars. Courtesy of a visit to the Baitashan Tea Factory.

Three different leaves from three different tea cultivars. Courtesy of a visit to the Baitashan Tea Factory.

Wuyishan is, of course, also famous for its tea. In fact in China it is most likely ‘tea’ that people think of when they hear ‘Wuyishan’ mentioned. The region is famous for its red tea, but more so for its ‘rock tea’ (岩茶). ‘Rock tea’ refers a particular type of tea and tea production process. Wuyishan is indeed very rocky and some of the tea does literally grow in rocky crevices, but most of it grows on the small basins and terraced hillsides, many of which are dominated by towering rocky outcrops. The most famous types of ‘rock tea’ are known as the ‘four famous bushes’ (四大名枞), which includes Big Red Robe (大红袍), Iron Arhat (铁罗汉), White Cockscomb (白鸡冠), and Golden Turtle (水金龟). From my brief stay in Wuyishan I discovered that different people had some different variations of these four teas.

Pictured here is the ancient art of 'tea drawing' in which a special tea broth is created as a basis for doing visual art and calligraphy. This art form was popular in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and finally died out in the 19th Century. It has since been restored by the gentleman pictured here. Another part of China's fascinating tea culture revival.

Pictured here is the ancient art of ‘tea drawing’ in which a special tea broth is created as a basis for doing visual art and calligraphy. This art form was popular in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and finally died out in the 19th Century. It has since been restored by the gentleman pictured here. Another part of China’s fascinating tea culture revival.

The tea from this region has also been exported to foreign countries for many centuries. Most famously the tea found its way across the Asian land-bridge to Russia. This trading route – following a trend in the ‘discovery’ and ‘naming’ of such tea-based trading routes that I have been researching for several years – is now known as the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ (万里茶道). Local authorities in China are keen to develop such routes as a way of increasing their ‘brand recognition’ in terms of local products but especially for cultural tourism. At the highest level of government in China, President Xi Jinping has developed a specific platform of foreign policy that uses the famous ‘Silk Road’ (including the ‘Maritime Silk Road’, but unfortunately – and to the great frustration of my colleagues in Yunnan – not the ‘Southern Silk Road’). In a recent trip to Russia President Xi also mentioned the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ (indeed President Xi has made numerous references to tea and tea culture in his official speeches during visits to foreign countries, something I will write about in more detail on another occasion).

The 10,000 Mile Tea Road Summit. Interpretation was only in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian. A reminder that there is a world of networks emerging beyond the Anglophone world.

The 10,000 Mile Tea Road Summit. Interpretation was only in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian. A reminder that there are networks emerging beyond the Anglophone world.

As part of the tea expo a special ‘Chinese, Mongolian and Russian Mayoral Summit’ was convened to celebrate the tea road and discuss how it can be leveraged for trade, culture and diplomatic exchanges. Mr Li Haibing made arrangements for me to attend as an observer. There were quite a few Chinese representatives from the major cities along which the tea route traveled (it should also be acknowledged that some of the tea also was transported via the maritime trade routes through Southeast Asia and India), several from Mongolia, and a few from Russian cities that I never knew existed. There is an official government website in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian, but no English. After a search on the Internet I found virtually nothing on this in English. This is one of those instances where ‘English’ doesn’t have much cache, a sign of things to come perhaps?

A panoramic picture taken from Xiamei of the 10,000 Mile Tea Road.

A panoramic picture taken from Xiamei of the 10,000 Mile Tea Road.

Apparently the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ has been submitted for World Heritage status, just as in the case for the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ of Southwest China. China’s fascination for ‘World Heritage’ status, especially in terms of the relatively new category of ‘cultural routes’ continues. I’ll be watching developments with much interest.

A private residence in the historic tea trade village of Xiamei. It was from here that the tea was transported via rivers and canals to central China and then on to Mongolia and Russia. The impressive residence reminds us of the fortunes that were made on the back of tea.

A private residence in the historic tea trade village of Xiamei. It was from here that the tea was transported via rivers and canals to central China and then on to Mongolia and Russia. The impressive residence reminds us of the fortunes that were made on the back of tea.

 

 

China’s Great Tea Revival: An Interview with Zhou Chonglin

Zhou Chonglin at ease with the pen, the microphone, the mobile social network platform ... all for the revival of China's greatest gift to humanity: tea. Image courtesy of Chaye Fuxing.

Zhou Chonglin at ease with the pen, the microphone, the mobile social network platform … all for the revival of China’s greatest gift to humanity: tea. Image courtesy of Chaye Fuxing.

On the 1st April 2014 – and this is definitely not an April Fool’s joke – the President of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party – Mr Xi Jinping, gave a speech in Brussels in which he contrasted the cultures of the West and China by comparing the former to wine and the latter to tea. President Xi’s purpose seems to have been to note the different cultural and political traditions in East and West and figured that, in the case of China, nothing better than tea could highlight the unique features of Chinese sociability. The West, he was reported as saying, celebrates friendship and important occasions with wine, whereas in China tea has been the beverage of choice. The President’s choice of tea for China is somewhat disingenuous as we all know that wine in Chinese culture has also lubricated many a festive occasion, indeed some of China’s greatest poets did their best work ‘under the influence’. But we get the point and there is no point pursuing the matter any further (not here at least), suffice to say that in my opinion East and West can both be characterised as ‘tea cultures’, albeit with different connotations and nuances. Western style wine is just making its mark in China whereas tea, by contrast, has shaped the interactions of China and ‘the rest’ for well over a thousand years.

To learn more about the true nature of tea in world history we are well advised, of course, to turn to the expert opinion of those who devote their lives to its study, and invariably if he or she is wise enough, to its consumption. In this blog I have previously provided transcripts of interviews with some of contemporary China’s most influential tea and tea culture scholars, notably, Professors Mu Jihong and Shen Dongmei. Today it is my pleasure to share with you the abbreviated transcript of an interview with Zhou Chonglin. I met Chonglin several years ago when I commenced my research on Southwest China’s ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. At that time he was working closely with Professor Mu Jihong in the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute’ at Yunnan University. We had long discussions, many cups of tea, and a few memorable (sic!) bouts with Chinese wine. Chonglin introduced me to the world of the young Chinese scholar. It was so refreshing and enlightening to meet someone so passionate about their research and, of course, about tea and China. Chonglin published the book The Tea War in 2012. The book, which is a reassessment of the Opium War (1840) through the lens of tea, was a huge success and catapulted Chonglin onto the national stage. To put this in context we need to understand that as China is rising there is much discussion about the nature of cultural change, and what kind of ‘culture’ China needs to develop in the 21st Century. Of course the role of ‘traditional culture’ in this scheme of things is very important. In Chonglin’s case the question is what is the role and place of tea in Chinese culture and society? As you shall see in the interview below there is much more to this than just the pleasant feeling you get when drinking quality tea in aesthetic surrounds with your friends – it also speaks to the anxiety many people have in China, and around the world, about the pace of change and the disruption modernity brings to our daily lives. Personally I detect here the beginnings of a great work on political economy that takes tea and its production, distribution, branding and consumption as its focus. More on this in the future.

Most recently Chonglin, along with support from the Chinese tea industry and research community, has established an organisation aimed at promoting the development of Chinese tea in China. The movement – as they refer to such things in China – is called ‘The Tea Revival’ (茶叶复兴). I like to think of it as a movement dedicated to ‘reviving China through tea’. One of the great ironies of China’s engagement with the West since the so-called ‘Opium Trade’ (in which, to put it crudely, the British traded opium from India for Chinese tea) is that now, as the Chinese economy is opening to the outside world, that the company with the largest market retail for tea in China is Liptons. This represents a humiliating slap in the face to the Chinese tea industry. It is also a reminder that as China embraces global capitalism it will have to think quite creatively about how to protect and promote its own industries, including tea, in the face of multinational behemoths that have almost unlimited resources and decades of experience in market competition. A lot more could be said on this front but let’s ask Chonglin to do the talking for now.

Just a few quick words about Zhou Chonglin’s background. Chonglin is from Yunnan Province, a native of Shizong (师宗) in eastern Yunnan near the border of Guangxi and Guizhou. He attended the Chinese Faculty at Yunnan University. Upon graduation he was a journalist in Beijing for one year whereupon he returned to Yunnan. Since then he has been intimately involved in all things tea-related. His books include The Tea War  and The Tea Secret. He is a Research Fellow in the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute at Yunnan University, and one of the Founders and Directors of the ‘[China] Tea Revival Movement’ In 2013 he was nominated by an influential Chinese magazine as one of the young and upcoming people to keep an eye on. He is in his 30s and is the recent proud father of a baby girl.

Note: The interview was conducted in Chinese and has been translated into English by yours truly. The text has been back-translated into Chinese and be found here.

1. I know that tea has always featured strongly in your life since the day you were born. What are your earliest recollections concerning tea?

I started drinking tea when I was just a child, but it wasn’t a regular daily habit at that time. Nonetheless the stage was set for tea to become a lot more central to my life later on. My most vivid recollection is the holding of the ritual offering ceremonies to the family ancestors. My father would get the tea ready for the offering. The everyday ritual items and food were always the very vest we could offer, and tea and alcohol couldn’t of course be forgotten. I remember that there were always people who aren’t tea drinkers but needed it for the ritual offering – they would come around to our house to ‘borrow’ some tea. Hence it is clear that the ritual offering couldn’t be done without tea. The fact that in our lives tea occupies such a very important position is thus one of the deepest motivations for me to do tea culture research.

2. Why did you decide to write The Tea War (《茶叶战争》)?

There has been a consistent position in the Chinese tea and cultural worlds, that is, to describe the Opium War (1840) as a tea war. Of course evidence was needed to make the argument stronger. It was only later that I learned that in Western academia the Opium War was also highly controversial. I spent several years looking for the evidence and during the 2012 European Cup wrote the manuscript in one hit.

3. What has been the reaction of the reading public to The Tea War?

Within one year the book sold several ten thousand copies when it was published on the mainland. It was well reviewed in the media and won numerous book awards. It was also very well received when it was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Many said such an influential book in the tea history field had not been seen for many years. As a result I received many invitations, went on television, and gave countless lectures. In fact the book is still generating interest. So The Tea War has certainly put me in the spotlight. I couldn’t have imagined the success and popularity of this book, especially since the style is a bit bookish. I wrote it without the intention of it being a popular-type book. So I’m very satisfied and honoured by the success.

4. Please speak to us a bit about the ‘Tea Revival’ project. What is the idea behind it? What are its objectives? And what form does it take?

China has been studying the West for over a hundred years. China’s GDP is now ranked number two in the world. But people still aren’t satisfied or happy because the environment is polluted and the villages are disappearing. We studied and adopted parts of the Western style of economic development, but China hasn’t adopted the Western political system or yet developed a good system of social welfare. Scholars like me need to eliminate the anxiety that modernity brings and concentrate on reviving traditional culture, and bring out the beautiful things in life, and thereby let people live a life of security and dignity. In China all the people in the tea business are very idealistic and spirited, with the finest tea vessels, ceremonial attire, mountain tea, pure spring water, and fine fellow travelers with who to chat; it’s an exciting and stimulating field to work in with many pleasures along the way.

Since I started the Tea Revival Movement I’ve encountered many like-minded people who are concerned about China and hope that tea’s traditional core role in daily life can be re-established. So this is our goal and for which we are developing programs and activities. For instance, we have launched a ‘Chinese style afternoon tea’, the purpose of which is to let more people understand and appreciate the place of tea in Chinese culture. We are utilising social networking platforms such as WeChat to spead our message and it has proven to be very effective.

Zhou Chonglin takes to social media like a fish takes to water. Not is he a prolific writer of academic texts, he also a modern day digital mass mobiliser. Very effective indeed.

Zhou Chonglin takes to social media like a fish takes to water. Not only is he a prolific writer of academic texts, he is also a modern day digital mass mobiliser incarnate. Very effective indeed.

5. What is the biggest challenge facing the Chinese tea industry?

Firstly, there is no strong and competitive brand; if you add up the entire Chinese tea industry it still falls short of the size and sophistication of Liptons, one single English company.

Secondly, value adding in the industry is underdeveloped and the tea industry is still primarily agricultural in orientation. In this connection there is also insufficient participation of scientific research and innovation.

Thirdly, the consumption base of tea has been significantly disrupted. The consumption of tea in China has in modern times been disrupted several times. For a time tea was replaced by opium and tobacco; later it was ideological objections to the drinking of tea – as it was seen as a petit-bourgeois pleasure during the 1960s and 1970s – that put restrictions on the aesthetic consumption of tea. After the launch of ‘reform and openness’ in the late 1970s coffee and soft-drinks – such as Starbucks and Coca-Cola – poured into the Chinese market; not to mention the competition from an experienced multinational player such as Liptons. As a result the Chinese tea industry has been unable to react effectively. Nowadays the ‘teahouse’ is synonymous with a place for senior citizens to play mahjong; not a very attractive environment for young Chinese. We are trying to the fortunes of tea around and make it more attractive for young people.

6. In light of the above, how has Chinese tea culture developed in recent years? What are the main trends?

In recent years, due to the support from the Yunnan puer tea folks, the Fujian ‘iron buddha’ (铁观音) and black tea producers, the lifeblood is being slowly pumped back into the Chinese tea industry. The number of tea consumers in China has also significantly increased in recent years. As the tea industry revives research on Chinese tea culture has also picked up. By 2006 in Yunnan alone there were at least ten tea journals and over one hundred tea-related books published. Hence the visibility of tea in the media has improved considerably. Furthermore, in 2013 the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ was officially recognised by the Central Government as ‘China National Cultural Heritage’ (国家文物保护单位). China Central Television (CCTV) produced and broadcast two well-received documentaries on tea. So tea continues to increase in visibility and is becoming a source of cultural pride for more and more Chinese people.

7. What do you mean by ‘tea life’ (茶生活)? What relationship does it have we the so-called ‘slow movement’?

‘Tea life’ means to take tea as a central part of life. It could be as routine as part of the list of essential daily necessities in Chinese family life, that is, ‘fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea’ (柴米油盐酱醋茶); or it could be part of the more aesthetically refined notion of ‘music, chess, books, art, wine and tea’. No matter whether ‘ordinary’ or ‘refined’ both of these include tea as an essential element. And both note ‘slow time’ as a core platform.

Indeed the traditional Chinese life-style is characterised by ‘slow time’, such as ‘kungfu tea’ (功夫茶). In Chinese ‘kungfu’ actually means to ‘consume time’. ‘Slow time’, not surprisingly, can be found in the ‘less developed’ regions of China such as Yunnan. I was raised in this kind of ‘slow time’. Part of our agenda is to help people rediscover the importance of ‘slow time’ through the social consumption of tea. [note: this fits well with my own position towards the ‘slow tea movement’ for which I have written a manifesto on this blog].

8. What message would you like to directly convey to a foreign audience?

If foreigners are interested in Chinese culture they can discover an ‘interesting China’ in tea culture. Tea in traditional Chinese culture – including the important elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism – was developed into a spiritually refined beverage and art of consumption. Just as I noted at the beginning of this interview, tea is still an important ritual item for Chinese to pay respects to their ancestors. In these times of a changing China, out of the three commodities that once made China famous and powerful – silk, porcelain, and tea – only tea remains in any significant way. China has much more than just ‘fake products’, it also has something as beautiful and refined as tea. I encourage our foreign friends to discover the ‘real China’ through tea.

'Hey Chonglin, we're putting a lot of effort in here but not making an progress ... time for tea break!'

‘Hey Chonglin, we’re putting a lot of effort in here but not making an progress … time for a tea break!’ ‘Gary, this IS the tea break!’

Tea in Chinese History: Interview with Professor Shen Dongmei

Every office should be equipped with a functional tea station, in my humble opinion.

Every office should be equipped with a functional tea station, in my humble opinion.

Several months have elapsed since my last post. Avid readers of this blog have been wondering if I finally retreated to that hermit cave I’m always talking about. Alas no, I’m still firmly in samsara enjoying the worldly delights and suffering from the quotidian pitfalls of being human. The last few months have been extremely hectic. One of the main preoccupations has of course been teaching. But I have also been very active on the research front, most notably with the holding of the inaugural ‘Australia-China and the Great Outdoors Forum’ at the end of September. This is part of my ongoing collaborative research on China’s emerging outdoor tourism and lifestyle sector, and my first real foray as an activist to hopefully leave behind a legacy of not only words but also interventions that will positively shape the appreciation and preservation of China’s own ‘great outdoors’. A full report on the workshop and our plans for the future will be forthcoming in a few weeks. Very exciting indeed.

As I write this post I’m in Auckland, New Zealand, where I have just attended a special event hosted by the Confucius Institute at The University of Auckland. The event was the inaugural ‘Oceania Forum: China in Change’. I gave a presentation exploring the role of tea in Chinese culture and the potential tea culture itself contains in terms of forging understanding and connections between China and the rest of the world. It was a very valuable opportunity to put my thoughts on this subject matter into more explicit shape and share them with a responsive audience. Many thanks to the team in Auckland.

In today’s post I’m delighted to share with you extracts from an interview with Professor Shen Dongmei (沈冬梅教授). Professor Shen is a researcher in the Center for Historical Research at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社科院). Her area of expertise is the history of tea in China, and in particular the Tang (618 – 907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) dynasties. Professor Shen was responsible for providing the interpretive content of the China National Tea Museum nestled in the World Heritage listed tea fields of Hangzhou. Professor Shen hails from the historic city of Yangzhou (a once busy Jiangsu port on the Grand Canal and major centre for the distribution of tea). She completed her undergraduate studies on ancient Chinese history at Shandong University and her doctoral studies at Hangzhou University (now part of Zhejiang University) under the supervision of the eminent tea historian Professor Liang Taiji (梁太济教授). The interview was conducted in Beijing on the 25th of July 2013. The interview was in Chinese Mandarin and has been translated by yours truly (I take full responsibility for any errors).

Tea buds in Hangzhou that make the famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea.

Tea buds in Hangzhou that make the famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea.

Q: Professor Shen thank you very much for accepting this interview. Some of the questions are of a more technical nature and relate to my own interests in the history of tea. But most of the questions have been devised with a few to satisfying the curiosity of the general tea enthusiast. To get us started when did the character for ‘tea’ (cha 茶) first appear in the Chinese historical record?

A: This is difficult to pinpoint accurately, but most experts agree that the first reference to tea can be found in the Classic of Poems (诗经) [a collection of over three hundred poems said to be compiled by Confucius (551–479 BC) from poems that predate his era by many centuries]. It was probably compiled by different persons between the 10th and 7th centuries BC. There is a character in the collection which is today pronounced ‘tu’ (荼). It looks like the character for ‘tea’ (茶) but with one additional horizontal stroke. This character can also be pronounced as ‘cha’ (tea). Some experts don’t agree, but in my view the evidence is quite strong in favour of ‘tu’ meaning ‘cha’. It was common in ancient China for one character to be used to indicate a number of different objects. Only later as the script became more sophisticated did more object specific characters emerge.

Tea Character

Q: During the time of Confucius, when many experts believe the Classic of Poems was compiled, was tea drinking already a popular past-time?

A: The current archaeological and historical evidence does not indicate that tea was popular at that time. It was not until a few hundred years later during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) that we find tea readily available for purchase in the market, thus giving some indication of its development as a commodity. In regards to the archaeological evidence there have been some discoveries in recent years that warrant mention. Most significantly is the 2004 discovery at the prehistoric site of Yuyao Tianluoshan (余姚田螺山) [near the historic tea port of Ningbo in present-day Zhejiang Province; you can see where Yuyao is located on Google Maps here]. At this prehistoric settlement the experts discovered remnants of plants belonging to the Theaceae family, which includes the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). The remnants, planted in obvious rows, have been dated to 6,000 years ago (4000 BC). The plants it seems were purposely being cultivated. We cannot yet say definitively that these are tea plants but it seems very likely. If so, it pushes the human cultivation of ‘tea’ back 4,000 years.

Q: Have the experts come to any conclusions as to where the original plants may have come from?

A: It is believed that they came from the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. Palaeobotanists believe many plants in use in China came from this region, including tea. A vast number of the world’s Theaceae are found in this region.

A 'tea leaf fossil' from Jingu, Puer, Estimated at 30 millions years old.

A ‘tea leaf fossil’ from Jingu, Puer. Estimated at 30 million years old.

Q: In our contemporary times we often think of tea as associated with the ‘way of tea’ (茶道). In China when was the ‘way of tea’ first mentioned?

A: This is also difficult to pinpoint and somewhat controversial. ‘The way of tea’ was first mentioned in a poem by the Tang dynasty Buddhist poet Jiao Ran (皎然) (730-799 AD?) [who incidentally also hails from Zhejiang], a contemporary and friend of the famous ‘Patron Saint of Tea’ Lu Yu (陆羽). Jiao Ran, a famous ‘monk poet’ (诗僧), was a bit older than Lu Yu and appears to have had a very strong influence over him. But his use of ‘the way of tea’ (茶道) is different from the contemporary Chinese usage of the term which these days implies something closer to ‘the art of tea’ (茶艺). This can cause some confusion because when in Japanese they talk about ‘the way of tea’ (茶道) they basically mean the same thing as ‘the art of tea’ (茶艺). When the Japanese refer to calligraphy [which in Chinese is shufa 书法] they say ‘shudao’ (书道); when they refer to ‘martial arts’ they say ‘wushidao’ (武士道) [which in Chinese is ‘wushu’ (武术)]. So we have to be careful not to impose our more contemporary notion of ‘chadao’ (茶道) [‘the way of tea’] – which in China nowadays has also become fashionable and is derivative of the Japanese meaning – onto the ‘茶道’ of Jiao Ran’s time of the Tang Dynasty. In my view Jiao Ran was talking about the benefits to the body of drinking tea and not the aesthetics of tea drinking itself [note that other Chinese historians disagree with Professor Shen’s position and regard Jiao Ran as the founder of ‘the way of tea’ itself].

So therefore we need to return to Lu Yu’s Tea Classic (茶经) which although doesn’t use the term ‘茶道’ nonetheless contains the essential elements of what we associate with that term, and of ‘茶艺’. The Tea Classic was written during the period 760 to 780 AD. Firstly, Lu Yu describes a complete collection of tea utensils and apparatus. Secondly, he provides detailed instructions on how to prepare, make and appreciate the tea, right from the selection of the tea, the use of quality water, the brewing of the tea, and so on. Thirdly, he also provides commentary on how to judge the aesthetic experience of tea consumption, including both its preparation and its consumption. And finally, he stresses that the consumption of tea also embodies certain mainstream social values of harmony and peace. So we could say that the notion of ‘the way of tea’ emerges at this time even though the Chinese characters ‘chadao’ (茶道) were not in vogue in the way they are in the present.

A statue of Kongming (also known as Zhu Geliang) (181–234). A famous general and strategist. He is an important figure in one of China's many tea dispersion myths.

A statue of Kongming (also known as Zhu Geliang) (181–234 AD). A famous general and strategist. He is an important figure in one of China’s many tea dispersion myths.

Q: In what ways is tea associated with some of the foundational theories and philosophies of Chinese culture, such as cosmology, medicine, and so on?

A: The most obvious is the relationship with Chinese medicine. Tea from the outset was classified as a herbal medicine [there are a number of ‘tea creation myths’ in both Han and non-Han cultures and I will return to examine these in a future posting]. Humans have been gathering plants for nourishment and medicine since time immemorial. In the prehistoric Hemudu (河姆渡) site [located in the vicinity of Yuyao mentioned above, but predating Yuyao by another 1,000 years, that is, about 5000 BC] they have discovered large piles of Chinese cassia leaves. These leaves are recorded in Chinese pharmacopeias’ as having the virtue of treating stomach ailments. One thousand years later in Yuyao we find a variety of the camellia – which we suspect to be tea – also long valued for its medicinal properties. To this day tea is still regarded by many Chinese people as having positive health effects and, as I mentioned above, modern science is beginning to support some of these notions.

Q: So at the time of the Tang Dynasty, when Buddhism was flourishing, tea also was reaching new heights. What is the relationship, then, between Buddhism and tea?

A: During the Tang Dynasty Buddhism was undergoing a major process of indigenisation, best captured in the development of China’s unique form of Buddhism: the Chan School (禅道) [more popularly known in English by its Japanese rendition of ‘Zen’]. One of Chan Buddhism’s important roles was to assist in the spread of tea drinking and tea culture to areas it had not yet penetrated, especially in northern China. Tea drinking was already a major part of Chan Buddhism. We know that as a rule the monks cannot take meals after midday (过午不食). Hence in order to keep alert for the rest of the day – especially when meditating – they were permitted to drink tea. Of course it should be mentioned that the finishing of the Grand Canal [completed during the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD) but which really came into full usage during the much more prosperous and long-lived Tang Dynasty which followed] dramatically reduced the costs of transport, and hence tea, which was mainly produced in the south, began to become much more affordable and therefore more widespread amongst different social classes.

This ancient tea tree (Camellia sinensis assamica) started its life during the Song Dynasty, over 1,000 years ago.

This ancient tea tree (Camellia sinensis assamica) started its life during the Song Dynasty, over 1,000 years ago.

Q: What about the development of tea culture in the Song Dynasty, the dynasty that followed the Tang?

A: The Song Dynasty was definitely one of the pinnacles of tea culture in human history, one that even in our days seems difficult to surpass. All of the basic foundations and ingredients were in place by the time of the Song. Firstly, in the time of Lu Yu [Tang Dynasty] for example, tea was still largely restricted to the social elites even though it was becoming more popular. Things were changing, but certainly by the time of the Song Dynasty tea had become a fashion across a broad spectrum of the society. The tea market had become quite mature and could cater for all tastes and budgets. Remember also that the Song Dynasty is often regarded as a peak of the Chinese economy generating wealth on a scale never seen before in human history. But of course the social elites still enjoyed the best tea and it is at this level that we have many records of the tea culture from the Song. The dynastic court also got quite involved in the tea industry by granting the status of ‘tribute teas’ [贡茶] also on an unprecedented scale. A special department was set up to supervise the production and distribution of tribute tea. At this time we thus also find an wealth of new writing about tea. It was also during this time that the Chinese dynasty began institutionalise the tea trade with the nomadic peoples of the steppe [referring to the vast grass lands of what we now refer to as Mongolia, Qinghai and Xinjiang]. It was at this point that the so-called ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ begins to emerge more prominently.

Q: There is so much more to discuss about the history of tea in China. However our time is limited and with your leave we can return to this in the future. For now I would like to redirect our attention back to the present. In the wake of the Opium War (1840-1842) China was forcibly opened to the outside world. The British and other foreign powers also acquired tea plants from China [in an act of nineteenth century industrial espionage supported by the British East India Company and carried out by the famous Scottish horticulturalist Robert Fortune] and the Chinese monopoly on tea production was broken. Since then the significance of Chinese tea in the world tea trade has diminished considerably. Some scholars and tea entrepreneurs in China are now considering how to ‘revive [China] through tea’ (茶叶复兴) in a new wave of what I call ‘tea nationalism’ [I will be interviewing the leading figures in this movement in the near future and sharing their vision on this blog]. We are in very exciting times, a new chapter in the history of tea is unfolding. In your expert opinion what role do you see for tea at a moment when China is once again regaining its place as a world economic, cultural and political power?

A: I think tea can, and will, have an important role in promoting China’s reemergence. Tea is an important part of Chinese culture. Tea has inspired and accompanied generations of Chinese artists, scholars and writers. Tea indeed is a window to Chinese culture and something that China has shared with the rest of the world. It forms a common ground upon which meaningful interaction can take place. Tea is both the crystallisation of a material substance that we drink everyday – and the science tells us it is a good thing for our health too – and, at the same time, tea is also a vessel for spiritual sustenance. I think tea has a very bright and exciting future.

There are well over 1,000 different varieties of Chinese tea (classified into at least six or more categories). How many have you tried?

There are well over 1,000 different varieties of Chinese tea (classified into at least six categories). How many have you tried?

‘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).

Fieldnotes from the ‘Kingdom of Women’: Visit to Lijiang, Lugu Lake and Yongning

Lugu Lake (泸沽湖)

It has been some time since the events and fieldwork described here took place and I was wondering whether it was worthwhile posting at all. But after requests from avid readers (thank you!) I’ve decided to dust off the cobwebs and write up my notes. Indeed, one of the very reasons I began this blog was to engage in a form of ‘thinking out loud’. I have found the process of combining fieldwork with this blog to be very rewarding. To go public means that I have to think carefully about how to write in a way that most people will find engaging (my apologies if I don’t sometimes meet this objective). It also forces me to be as accurate as possible (not that I’m usually ‘inaccurate’!) and to follow up on various points or insights in my notes by providing a broader context. And most of the time I’m learning something in the process as well. In this connection I believe it is important for scholars to communicate their work to a broader public and I have done so as much as possible through public lectures, working with schools, conducting study tours, and so forth. This blog is simply the digital age extension of that process.

Readers of will know that I have two major research projects underway. The first concerns the cultural heritage of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道) in Yunnan Province (云南省). The second, and not unrelated by any means, focuses on the emergence of China’s hiking culture (what I like to refer to as the world of the ‘donkey friends’ 驴友). At the moment the cultural heritage project is getting most of my attention as I have a few important writing deadlines and grant funded projects to complete this year. One project I’m quite excited about is sponsored by the Australia-China Council and involves linking schools in Perth and Yunnan via the Internet to share knowledge about cultural heritage, the object being to raise awareness of the importance of custodianship. Part of the project involves me traveling to visit  schools in Puer, Lijiang and Shangrila in June. More details forthcoming in the near future.

Southwest University for Nationalities (西南民族大学), Chengdu, Sichuan.

I want to report here on fieldwork conducted in Lijiang (丽江) and Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) in early January 2012. The trip actually began in Chengdu, Sichuan, where I was invited by the Tourism Studies Department at the Southwest University for Nationalities (西南民族大学) to give a paper on hiking and community-based tourism (thank you Xiao Laoshi for the arrangements). The presentation was titled ‘Small is Beautiful’ and discussed the experiences of Australian tourism authorities in developing a strategic plan for inbound backpackers linked to both popular (and cheap) attractions and the need for regional Australia to employ seasonal labour. This was compared with the challenges of developing community-based tourism in western China at a time in which the economic model seems to be dominated by mass tourism and commercial scale. This was my first real visit to Chengdu (having passed through very fleetingly a few years ago). Chengdu is the true metropolis of western China (that is, ‘western Han China’ with a real sense of the cross-over of Han and Tibetan, and other minority, cultural zones). It is also apparently the capital of the ‘donkey friends’ and has an entire shopping strip dedicated to outdoor equipment. Although I didn’t see the sun for five days (they say ‘Sichuanese dogs bark at the sun’ (蜀犬吠日) because it only makes rare appearances), and I nearly didn’t survive the traffic (no offense, but some of the most dangerous driving I’ve seen in China), I will be sure to return when the next opportunity arises.

Through the kind introductions provided by a dear friend (who would like to remain anonymous) I had the good fortune to also meet in Chengdu one of China’s master painters in the tradition of Chinese landscape painting (国画大师), Mr Li Huasheng (李华生). Master Li Huasheng is a famous painter of traditional Chinese landscape painting (国画). Now in semi-retirement he likes nothing better than to get in his van and drive out of the city to 'picnic'. Here we are 'picnicking' on a somewhat chilly and overcast day on a yet to be completed highway. Master Li has lived an extraordinary life experiencing many ups and downs in the Chinese world of art and state/party control, so he has a lot of insights. Although his work now is quite 'modern' he fits well within the tradition of the 'hermit scholar/artist'. One of China's 'living treasures'.

Accompanied by master painter (in the modern form), Mr Li Yunfei (aka ‘Chris’, also one of the world’s most distinguished art journalists specialising in China and East Asian art), I then traveled to Lijiang just in time to experience New Year’s Eve in the old town (World Heritage listed). I’ve become quite interested in Lijiang (technically the name of the old town is Dayan, but for the sake of convenience I will follow current preferences in nomenclature).  I’ve written numerous times about Lijiang and Shuhe on this blog.  For people in the field of cultural heritage management and studies, the old town of Lijiang is an example of what not to do. Some even argue that the crass commercialism of Lijiang old town contravenes the UNESCO World Heritage convention itself and it should be revoked (and indeed I believe UNESCO did come close to making such a reversal at one stage). The old town is now basically a ‘theme park, shopping mall and bar district’. I totally sympathise with these views and hope that China’s other famous ‘old towns’, such as Pingyao, Shaxi and Weishan (the latter two are both in Yunnan) can avoid becoming like ‘Lijiang’.

I took part in the Second Annual Tea Friends Tea Tasting Event in Lijiang at the Qiuyue Teahouse. The focus was black teas from Fujian (and of course some fine black tea from Yunnan). The event was also simultaneously held in nineteen other locations across China. Each location interacted with the others via a dedicated Weibo site (something like Facebook/Twitter). Awards were given to the location that ran the best event on the day. The event offered some great insights into the ongoing development of contemporary Chinese tea culture.

Having said that, however, from my perspective as a scholar of contemporary Chinese society, there is a lot going on in Lijiang that I find quite fascinating. For instance, did you know that Lijiang is regarded as the ‘one night stand capital of China’ (中国一夜情之都)? This has much to do with the rise of a youth leisure culture and the development of Lijiang as a ‘romance travel destination’ (very popular as a honeymoon destination). There is even something of an urban legend which has incorporated the love story of a local Naxi man and Korean woman into the overall image of Lijiang as a ‘city of love’. The couple set up one of Lijiang’s first backpacker (背包客) hostels and café in the early 1990s in the old town. I remember meeting them many years ago and having the backpacker staple of banana pancakes. That hostel/café has now transformed into a enormous bar and cabaret venue that can accommodate up to 300 people.  You can see from this example the dramatic transformation that Lijiang has undergone and in particular how the domestic tourism market is now the driving force (the spendthrift foreign and Chinese backpackers couldn’t even afford to step into the establishment nowadays!).

Mr Yang is a villager from Shuhe (not far from the old town of Lijiang). Given that Shuhe is rapidly developing into a major leisure/recreation centre in the style of Lijiang (thankfully not as noisy), Mr Yang and his fellow villagers are possibly the last generation of Shuhe farmers. Shuhe was an important staging post on the Ancient Tea Horse Road famous for both its cobblers/leather workers and caravans/muleteers. Here Mr Yang is pictured at his ancestral graves in the hills behind Shuhe. Some of his ancestors were well known and well educated lamas (monks in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition), one of whom was apparently a teacher to the famous Joseph Rock. Even the hills aren't safe and the villagers have been at odds with government and developers who want to move the graves to build a resort.

Yet there is still something of a ‘backpacker’ presence in Lijiang. Lijiang, and Dali down the road with a somewhat different ‘vibe’, attract a range of tourists, but in particular they have become important destinations on the ‘Chinese hippie trail’. As such Lijiang old town has more than its fair share of bars. On the periphery of the old town (where it becomes the ‘new old town’) you will find many quiet boutique style bars (in which a AUD$20 bottle of Australian wine is retailed at AUD$100). In the heart of the old town there is one strip now known as the ‘bar street’ (酒吧街) which is probably the loudest and most expensive drinking zone in China. If all goes according to plan I hope to be able to spend a bit more time in Lijiang in the latter half of this year to engage in more fieldwork and observations. In any case we spent the last night of 2011 and the first moments of 2012 in the old town observing just how far noise pollution can go in this day and age.

The real purpose for visiting Lijiang this time was to meet with the up and coming Mosuo scholar Latami Dashi (拉挞迷达史) at the Lijiang branch of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences. Latami is an outstanding scholar who hails from Yongning, a small town near the famous Lugu Lake. And as I discovered his is also something of a celebrity in his home region where he more well known for his skills as a songwriter of contemporary Mosuo folk songs (some of which you can belt out in local KTV establishments). His home is popularly known as ‘the kingdom of women’ (女儿国), the land of the Mosuo people (摩 梭人), a matrilineal community with many unique customs such as ‘walking marriage’ (走婚) (which I won’t try to explain here, suffice to say there are many common misconceptions about this particular practice). You can see where Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) and Yongning (永宁) are located on Google Maps here. You can see a selection of the images taken during this trip on my Flickr site here. Given the very unique nature of Mosuo social life they have found themselves to be frequently visited by anthropologists (the earliest recorded Westerner to visit the region was the famous botanist and amateur Naxi ethnographer, Joseph Rock). Latami told me that there were so many anthropologists and scholars passing through his house when he was a young lad that he too wanted to, ‘be a anthropologist when I grow up!’. I have had the pleasure to know Latami for several years and his have provided me with a good education into the challenges facing Mosuo culture in the age of rapid social transformation (of course any inaccuracies recorded here are completely my own fault). Latami, knowing of my keen interest in the Ancient Tea Horse Road, agreed to take me on a personal visit to Lugu Lake and Yongning, the latter being a very important trading post on the tea road network. This was just too good an opportunity to miss, so when the chance finally came we met as agreed in Lijiang to embark on our own journey to ‘the kingdom of women’. (In this connection I thoroughly recommend the autobiography (co-authored with my former colleague Christine Mathieu) by the most famous Mosuo of contemporary times, Namu, and her story that takes her from the rural environs of a once relatively isolated community to the catwalks of New York and Paris. The book is titled Leaving Mother Lake).

This Yi woman has come to the main street of Yongning to sell homemade charcoal (木炭). The charcoal is manufactured in smouldering mounds in the hills in a process which can take days and even weeks to complete. Although technically illegal (as it requires the use of protected trees) the local authorities seem to turn a blind eye as it is a valuable source of heating/cooking and income for poor families. The practice of making charcoal this way seems to be quite common in mountainous western China.

Latami was extremely generous with his time and knowledge and provided many personal insights into Mosuo culture. He also introduced us to a number of notable scholars, officials and other persons in Lugu and Yongning, thus providing a good foundation for more detailed fieldwork in the future. As with almost everywhere else in Yunnan, the road network in Lijiang (Lugu Lake and Yongning are located in Ninglang County which is part of the ‘rural city’ of Lijiang) is being upgraded. The new expressway from Lijiang to Lugu Lake is near completion. This will dramatically reduce the traveling time to a couple of hours, thereby making it possible for even greater ‘hordes’ of tourists to visit the area, possible even on ‘day trips’. Considering that my first trip to Lugu Lake from Lijiang in the early 1990s took about 17 hours, this is quite an achievement. As I’ve noted before, the increased mobility and compression of ‘time and space’ through the modernisation of transport infrastructure is bringing with it a myriad of social, economic and cultural changes.

The sacred Lion Mountain (狮子山) of Lugu Lake. Also known as Gemu Mountain (格姆山) after the Goddess Gemu (格姆女神). Every year an important circumambulation festival is held in honour of Gemu. It takes place on the 25th day of the 7th lunar month and is regarded by some as a vestige of 'nature worship' (大自然崇拜). The Lige cafe/hotel strip is in the forefront.

Yet I noticed something quite interesting from the visit to Lugu Lake and nearby Yongning, namely the concentration of tourism development in one area and the virtual lack of any form of tourism development in another. Lugu Lake is simply stunning. It is a large body of fresh water on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan, and indeed one of the cleanest bodies of fresh water anywhere in China (something that unfortunately is in quite short supply in this age of rapid industrialisation). The lake is dominated by sacred Lion Mountain (狮子山) home of  the Goddess Gemu (格姆女神). One of the legends of the origin of the mountain is as follows:

“… a beautiful female spirit by the name of Gemu had many local mountain spirits as her male friends. The young spirit was pretty and also had male friends among the male spirits from other mountain regions. During one of her intimate dalliances with a local male spirit, a mountain spirit from a distant mountain came to her house on horseback. When he found her in the company of a local male spirit, he felt humiliated and quickly turned his horse round and started going back. Gemu heard the neigh of the horse and realized that a distant mountain spirit had come on horseback to visit her. She came out of the house and started running after the visitor spirit. She could only see a large hoof print at the foot of the mountain where the male spirit had disappeared. As it was getting dark, Gemu could not proceed further and she started weeping frenziedly, which resulted in the hoofprint turning into a lake with her tears. When the male spirit heard her crying, and saw that the hoofprint had turned into a lake with her tears, he lovingly threw a few pearls and flowers into the lake. The pearls are identified now as the islands in the lake and the flowers which floated to the lake shore are said to be scented azaleas and other flowers, which bloom every year.” [Source]

Lugu Lake has developed into a popular tourist destination and mass tourism is changing the culture of the Mosuo people for better and for worse. Pictured here is a young Mosuo man who having worked in Lijiang for a number of years decided to return to Luoshui to work for his family. As this is a matrilineal society his grandmother is the one who tells him what his work duties are.

The surrounding region is still very bucolic, the only other industry being tourism, but this is mainly concentrated in a couple of small villages (some of which have become ‘towns’) around the lake. So it is all very good if your village is close to the lake, but as you move away from Lugu the presence of tourism infrastructure virtually disappears. There is one part of Lugu called Lige Island (里格岛), a small village and strip of beautiful lakeside just at the base of Lion Mountain. At Lige it seems as if someone has air freighted a piece of trendy Lijiang and dropped in right next to the beach. The strip is an assortment of very nice and upmarket cafes and hostels with Lijiang prices to match. If you can afford it, it is probably the best place to stay (although there are some quieter spots in other lakeside locations which would be my personal preference. I wouldn’t bother with the town of Luoshui (落水村) which is the site of most development).

The elongated side profile of Lion Mountain from Yongning. Does it not resemble a crouching lion?

Yet only 45 minutes drive away at the town of Yongning (永宁乡) the contrast couldn’t be starker. Yongning is situated on a small basin with the elongated side profile of Lion Mountain dominating in the east. It is a ‘one street’ town with a strong bucolic feel. As the day unfolds the main street attracts locals from far and wide. Many Mosuo, Yi and Pumi from the hills come down to sell homemade charcoal (木炭), mushrooms and other botanical (and some animal) specimens. Despite the lack of development it still is very appealing as it conveys a genuine sense of the colourful rhythms of local life. It is also home to one of the regions most important and famous lamersaries, the Zhameisi (扎美寺) Temple. The temple is a good indication of the strong influence of Tibetan culture on the Mosuo. The region has produced many famous Mosuo lamas and living buddhas who have been highly venerated in Tibetan circles. The templewas first built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is the main temple for the local Mosuo and Pumi peoples. At its peak it was home to several hundred lamas. The number today is much smaller but can grow quite large at times of certain religious festivals. It is situated about two kilometres outside of Yongning. There is a great photo taken of a lama at the temple during the 1920s (most likely taken by Joseph Rock, but source still to be confirmed).

Main hall of Zhameisi Temple (扎美寺).

Without doubt the Yongning region is rich in cultural heritage and is a prime location for the development of tourism. My concern is that with the development of the new expressway that the tourism resources will continue to be focused in and around Lugu Lake. This was also a concern of some of the local officials I spoke to during this visit, but they argued that with the increased influx of tourists it would become possible to channel resources towards other areas. Some may also argue that concentrating the ‘harmful’ effects of mass tourism in a few locations is more desirable than doing so across an entire region. In this way, they hold, local cultures can still persist reasonably undisturbed. The problem is, however, that rapid social and cultural change is happening even in the absence of mass tourism. And quite frankly, many local people outside the tourist zones also have the right and desire to improve their living standards (and gain better access to health care and education for starters). There are a few local NGOs and organisations attempting to deal with these issues, but it seems no one is really prepared for the even greater influx of tourists that is about to begin.

The Mosuo (and Yi and Pumi) are well known for the manufacture of colourful textiles (still worn by many local women). The old town of Lijiang has many shops selling a variety of textiles usually with a 'Mosuo' woman in the shop front operating a loom (more for attracting the attention of tourists than doing any actual weaving). Pictured here is the headquarters of a large intangible cultural heritage cooperative just outside Yongning that sells the textiles on behalf of the local villagers (with several hundred households participating)

From my perspective the area around Yongning would be the perfect location for a number of small-scale, community based, ecotourism projects. Yongning has a very ancient history, as the presence of the Zhameisi Temple suggests. It was also an important staging post for horse/mule caravans in the region (connecting as it does Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, including in the past the ancient neighbouring lama kingdom of Muli of which Joseph Rock wrote about a number of times). Mules and horses are still very important beasts of burden in the area and  there is a large horse and mule fair (骡马会) every year in November (which I hope to visit this year). A local Mosuo saying goes: ‘To get rich the Han rely on selling land, to get rich the Mosuo rely on raising horses and mules’ (汉人发财靠买土地,摩梭人发财靠养骡马). The caravans of the Mosuo were very famous. Traditionally it was the male members of the household who engaged in this activity (but not exclusively). It is recorded that during the 1920s and 1930s, when the caravan trade in the area was particularly active, that in addition to trading in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, many Mosuo caravans also made their way to Burma (Myanmar), Nepal and India. As you can see, a wealth of material to explore and a rich source of important work on cultural heritage and community development to be undertaken. Now it is just a matter of finding more time and resources. A final thanks to Latami for his support and encouragement.

Short distance horse and mule caravans are still a common sight around Yongning. The cultural heritage of the muleteer is still well preserved and could be an excellent resource for community-based ecotourism.

Towards a Manifesto for the Slow Tea Movement

‘Tea is blood! Tea is flesh! Tea is life!’ Tibetan saying.

China’s Second Cultural Revolution

‘Culture’ in contemporary China is undergoing a remarkable transformation. The combined forces and effects of urbanisation, industrialisation, globalisation, consumerism and myriad other social and economic transformations taking place at the level of the individual, the family, the community and the nation are creating the conditions for both the ‘invention’ and ‘reinvention’ of ‘culture’. At one end many of these cultural projects are supported and engineered by the party and government. In this sense ‘culture’ is an artifact of government, something that can be developed and guided and put to specific social and governmental uses. At the other end of the spectrum is culture at the grass-roots of society. In this sense ‘culture’ is closely tied to economic opportunities, to localised identities, subcultures and ethnicities in which it can be both a reaction to social change as an ‘economic opportunity’ or as a means of highlighting one’s ‘identity and difference’ (and other things besides). Whatever the case may be it is clear that ‘culture’ can refer to many different things and is not readily reducible (nor should it be) to one essential ‘substance’. Here I am simply reflecting on culture as a form of ‘resource’ open to interpretation, meaning and redeployment in certain contexts.

A good example of ‘culture’ as an artifact of government in contemporary China is the establishment and expansion of the Confucius Institutes. The primary reason for establishing the Confucius Institutes around the world is to help create a positive image of China. The question to be considered by the Chinese authorities and social elites is how will China be understood by a foreign audience as China’s importance and influence in world affairs continues to grow throughout the 21st century. The Confucius Institutes, through the provision of Chinese language education, attempt to work with this agenda. In so doing the question of what kind of ‘cultural representations’ of Chinese culture should be emphasised also invariably arises. The Confucius Institutes present a particular form of ‘soft’ culture that it is hoped is attractive to foreigners. And of course the Confucius Institute strategy has attracted a lot of negative publicity as well. Whether in the long term it will succeed remains to be seen. This is thus a good example of culture as an artifact of government, here in this instance in the service of ‘public relations’.

At the same time the issue of ‘Chinese culture’ and what it stands for is also being played out domestically (within China). This is just as crucial and important, if not more so, than the external projection of culture as a form of so-called ‘soft power’. Within China there is much discussion about the role of culture in the form of a common set of shared values in providing a source for stability and harmony during a period of rapid social change and growing social tensions . ‘Culture’ therefore is a key component of the ‘Harmonious Society’ campaign and was highlighted at the recent Central Committee Plenary Meeting (the Sixth Plenary Session of the Seventeenth Central Party Committee to be exact).

Both the external projection of culture and the internal deployment of culture intersect in the form of a cultural nationalism and shared discourse of ‘Chinese characteristics’. When China was relatively isolated and insular (before the period of ‘reform and openness’ launched in the late 1970s) the question of ‘Chinese characteristics’ was not a burning question of global importance. Now that China is rising the question of ‘Chinese characteristics’ has attracted the attention of many sectors within the foreign community. People all around the world are asking, ‘What values are the foundation of Chinese society’?; ‘How will these values influence the behaviour of the Chinese state?’; and ‘What will China bequeath to the world as its legacy during the 21st century’? Once again the Chinese government has responded through programs like the Confucius Institute to direct this discourse in a specific direction. Chinese society itself will also develop different responses in both ‘harmony’ and ‘tension’ with the wishes of the central authorities.

In this essay, which I hope will one day become a kind of manifesto, I would like to propose that we consider the consumption of tea as a possible resource to draw upon to project a certain set of cultural values that will appeal not only to Chinese consumers of tea but also to the hundreds of millions (if not billions) of tea drinkers around the globe. In taking inspiration from the ‘slow movement’ (which I examine in more detail below) I propose we launch a ‘slow tea movement’ as a way of highlighting the significance of tea consumption as part of everyday social life in ways that reclaim our own time at a moment of fast and superficial consumption. This will also be beneficial to the image of Chinese culture abroad as it both highlights the origins of tea and also the set of cultural values that have shaped themselves around the habitual consumption of tea in China.

Mixing business with pleasure,

Cultural Products and Cultural Values: The Origins of Tea and Historical/Cultural Memory

Through the mass media and the sophisticated manipulation of signs, consumerism has been particularly adroit at attaching values to tangible products. Consider the values of individual choice and the ‘American way’ that are associated with a syrupy beverage known as Coca-Cola. Modern consumer capitalism is built partly on the circulation of images of desire and association (that is, to associate a particular set of values or lifestyle with a particular product). Many other examples, including the importance of film as a text saturated with ‘values’, and other consumer products, could be given. These products have been important complements to state directed strategies to develop soft power and good will.

But what about China? Is there any comparable product or tangible cultural artifact that could be said to embody certain Chinese values? The answer for me is very simple. Yes. Tea, of course. Chinese civilisation has contributed much to humanity over the millennia and is well known for the ‘four great inventions’ of papermaking, the compass, gunpowder and printing (and many more besides these). Although these are in their own right revolutionary in terms of their impacts on society and on values they do not necessarily embody any specific values themselves. Tea, by contrast, is an almost universal and integral part of daily life and habitual social interaction.  Tea is not just a botanical ‘invention’ but perhaps more importantly it is a ‘cultural and social invention’. We know that tea was most likely first consumed as a ritual/medicinal plant harvested from wild tea trees. Over time people began to cultivate the tea plant and the beverage had important physiological effects on health and social effects on communities. Some have even argued that tea has had a profound social medical effect on human societies by popularising the drinking of boiled water. For example, it is argued that once tea became very affordable and widespread in late Victorian England that the drinking of tea with sanitised boiled water had a positive overall impact on the overall health of the population. Of course tea’s contribution to trade and commerce cannot be overlooked. Tea has played a major role in the economic development of many societies and in the development of global trade networks. This also has auxiliary effects on the development of navigation and maritime technology such as the ‘tea clippers’ which were the fastest sailing ships ever built.  The actual contributions of tea to human society are thus very significant. In more ways than we realise tea has shaped human history just as humans have, through selective breeding, shaped the tea tree (Camellia sinensis).

Yet although tea is such a ubiquitous part of daily life and an important part of the story of human civilisation it is often overlooked and taken for granted. In 1839, on the eve of the Opium War (which we may also call the ‘Tea War’ as the acquisition of tea was one of the driving factors for the British to open the Chinese market), the botanical scientist G. G. Sigmond,  in a lecture addressed to the Royal Botanical Society, declared that:

‘Man [sic] is so surrounded by objects calculated to arrest his attention, and to excite either his admiration or his curiousity, that he often overlooks the humble friend that ministers to his habitual comfort: and the familiarity he holds with it almost renders him incapable  of appreciating its value. Amongst the endless variety of vegetable productions which the bountenous hand of Nature has given to his use is that simple shrub, whose leaf supplies an agreeable beverage for his daily nourishment or for his solace; but little does he estimate its real importance: he scarcely knows how materially it influences his moral, his physical, and his social condition: individually and nationally we are deeply indebted to the tea-plant.’

Hence tea could be said to be one of the most valuable and far-reaching ‘inventions’ to come from China. Yet although in English there is a saying ‘Not for all the tea in China’ (which highlights the enormous value of tea compared to other objects) the actual origins of tea seem to be almost forgotten outside of China. Tea in Western societies, for example, is associated with and dominated by companies such as Lipton’s. In an ironic twist of historical fate Lipton’s is also now the tea company with the greatest market share in China itself. This now brings us to the topic of ‘product nationalism’ and the short term challenge faced by Chinese producers of tea in competing with giants like Lipton’s and Starbucks.

Wrapping puer tea cakes.

Product Nationalism: The Starbucks and Lipton’s Challenge

Starbucks, known worldwide for its coffee shops, now includes tea on its beverage list in its Chinese outlets. At the time of writing Starbucks has approximately 500 outlets in mainland China with plans to reach 1,500 by 2015 (Starbucks Newsroom, 2011). Although tea is still the most popular beverage in China, coffee has begun to make some serious inroads especially through the younger cohort of college students and office workers. Yet coffee consumption is still less than five cups per year per person, compared to 400 cups per capita per year in North America (Coonan, 2011). There is still a long way to go but the trend of drinking coffee is certainly making headway. Indeed companies like Starbucks (for which the average price for a cup of coffee is much more than ordinary Chinese folk can afford) and Nescafe (which has aggressively marketed its series of instant coffee) see their future in China. Most recently the celebrated and controversial writer Han Han has just launched an advertisement for Nescafe. (There are of course Taiwanese style coffee houses in mainland China which are somewhat different in terms of how they are marketed and used as sites of consumption, but I will leave them out of the picture for now).

A few years ago Starbucks was embroiled in a major controversy that generated a great deal of heated discussion about China’s cultural heritage. In 2006 Starbucks opened an outlet within the confines of Beijing’s Forbidden City, the centre of political power in China for much of the Ming and all of the Qing dynasties. It is a World Heritage site (one of the first such sites to be inscribed in China after the People’s Republic of China joined the United Nations in the early 1970s). The presence of Starbucks within this iconic site attracted the heated attention of online discussion. Indeed it is often regarded as the first major instance of ‘online public opinion’. Many netizens felt affronted. Rui Chenggang, a well-known TV anchor-man, called for a web campaign against the outlet that he said, ‘tramples over Chinese culture’ (cited in Watts, 2007). Rui said:

‘The Forbidden City is a symbol of China’s cultural heritage. Starbucks is a symbol of lower middle class culture in the west. We need to embrace the world, but we also need to preserve our cultural identity. There is a fine line between globalisation and contamination.’ (ibid)

In response to the controversy Starbucks soon closed the Forbidden City coffee house. The Starbucks/Forbidden City case is interesting insofar as raises the complex intersection of practices of consumption and the manifestation of ‘cultural’ values.

At the moment there are no tea house chains of any significant size that can compete with outlets such as Starbucks. There are many tea houses especially in cities like Beijing, Chengdu and Hangzhou (approximately 60,000 nationwide according to a survey from the China Tea Marketing Association), yet they are small-scale and scattered. As Xu Fuliang, a tea industry expert at Achieve Brand based in Hangzhou, said, ‘Chinese tea houses lack strategic planning and a standard production process … I know some tea house owners in Hangzhou. They run tea houses based on their personal interest and don’t want to enlarge their businesses’. (quoted in Chen 2010).  This is confirmed with my own interviews with tea house proprietors.

But coffee and the coffee house is not the only challenge facing the consumption of tea in China. Probably an even more serious challenge is the growing market share of Lipton’s in the actual tea market itself. There is a widely known saying in the Chinese tea industry, ‘Seventy-thousand Chinese tea companies are equal to one Lipton in terms of turnover.’ In 2008 Lipton’s market share in China was approximately 23 billion yuan, which is almost equal to the entire output of Chinese tea production at 30 billion yuan. Lipton’s has at its disposal over one hundred years of research marketing experience and through its parent company, Unilever, access to sales points across urban China (supermarkets, convenience stores, hotels, etc).

Lipton entered the mainland Chinese tea market in 1992 and it brought with it the humble ‘tea bag’. Tea aficionados often look down on the tea bag, and in terms of the general quality of the tea they seem justified. But by no means should we overlook the massive cultural and social impact that the tea bag represents. The tea bag personifies the ‘values’ of modern urban consumer life: standardised, convenient and fast. In the 1960s in places like the United Kingdom and Australia most people still consumed loose leaf tea. However, by 2007 tea bags made up 96 per cent of the British tea market (United Kingdom Tea Council 2011). Since 2004 Lipton’s has also introduced other teas, such as green tea, into the Chinese market indicating that it is quite capable of adapting to local conditions in order to increase market share even further. Wu Xiduan, general secretary of Chinese Tea Marketing Association, is quoted as saying, ‘The hundreds of different types of tea drunk by Chinese people mean it’s not possible to develop the Chinese tea industry into a company like Lipton’s, which is standardized with no difference in quality’.  (cite in Yue 2011)

True. Chinese tea producers cannot compete with the scale and power of the Lipton’s and Starbucks, at least not in the short term. But they having something very valuable to draw upon that Lipton’s and Starbucks have little real hope of acquiring, that is, the rich set of cultural and social values associated with the ‘traditional’ consumption of tea in China.

A welcome brew.

The Slow Tea Movement

Zheng Xin’an, professor at the Chinese Brand Research Center, Capital University of Economics and Business, is a bit more optimistic about the Starbucks challenge. He is quoted as saying, ‘Starbucks will not grab business from traditional tea houses, as they face different consumer groups … Older people like to go to tea houses to relax, because preparing and drinking tea is a piece of slow art in their eyes, while Starbucks attracts young people and office workers in busy downtown areas.’ (cited in Chen 2010)

Yes, that’s right, the consumption of tea is traditionally a form of ‘slow art’ and it is perhaps the ‘art of being slow’ that is one of Chinese tea culture’s greatest virtues.

In my experience of traveling throughout China in search of the perfect ‘cuppa’, but especially in places like Yunnan which some hold to be the very original source of tea itself, I have been struck by the importance of tea as part of daily social life. Often in Yunnan when you visit a friend, colleague or even a businesses, the first thing you are offered is a cup of tea. Many people have ‘tea stations’ set up in their homes and offices and spend much of their time interacting socially with their friends, relatives, colleagues and clients over many cups of tea. Each cup of tea is carefully brewed according to set protocol and customs and guests are invited to saviour the colour, aroma and taste. The consumption of tea is not to be rushed. There is no place for the tea bag here (although admittedly some people will still have tea bags in store for times when ‘convenience calls’, a sin for which I will also make a confession). Yunnan, long known for its slower and more relaxed pace of life, has been able to resist or control the pressures of modern life. Until now that is. With the development of the economy, especially mass tourism, and of modern infrastructure the gap between Yunnan and the rest of China is gradually closing (of course I do not mean to imply that the closing of the gap is an even process).

Thus even the tea culture in Yunnan has not been able to avoid some of the pitfalls of extreme commercialisation and the temptations of modern lifestyles. For instance, there are many small operations which produce very poor quality teas which they sell to unsuspecting and uneducated buyers, typically in the tourism market. The unscrupulous tea salespersons of this kind are cashing in on the craze for puer tea and the associated romance and nostalgia of the ‘ancient tea horse road’. However, there are also many reputable companies, large and small, which take the tea business very seriously. On my travels throughout Yunnan exploring and investigating the world of tea (and Yunnan is home to many more varieties of tea than just puer) I have often heard from those in the business the importance of incorporating ‘culture’ into the tea business. Mu Ga, a fine tea proprietor based in Lijiang (his tea is marketed under the label of Qiuyuetang 秋月堂), for example, refers to his puer tea in terms of ‘humanity puer’ (人文普洱) by which he means it is important to stress that tea is a cultural and social practice that is best consumed bearing in mind certain ethical standards and cultural practices. Proprietors like Mu Ga attempt to distance themselves from the fad for instant gratification and convenience that is often associated with the consumption of other beverages. To avoid association with dodgy tea producers, for instance, Mu Ga does not label any of his teas with the icons or references to the ‘ancient tea horse road’.

I believe in building upon the experience of efforts by Mu Ga and others that we have the embryo of a ‘slow tea movement’ in China, a movement that could grow to international standards and make its mark at a crucial time when people are beginning to increasingly question the shortcomings of modern consumer capitalism. In doing so we can take inspiration from the ‘slow movement’. The slow movement is an international movement that is a reaction to the pressures and commercialisation of modern life. Modern consumer capitalism celebrates convenience and the fast pace of life as virtues in themselves. Yet many people are finding the forces behind the expansion of a standardised form of global capitalism to be wantonly destructive and exploitative. Since the onset of the industrial revolution the pace of life has quickened. The motto of modern capitalism is ‘time is money’ and factories and workplaces have been designed to facilitate the need for efficiency and speed. These pressures have gradually found their way into all fields of working life and have even begun to extend into the private realm of individual, family and community life. The ‘slow movement’ advocates for a cultural change and a shift back towards a more balanced lifestyle in which social and familial time are valued and respected (and not just corporatist slogans of ‘life balance’).

At the heart of the ‘slow movement’ is a certain ethos that advocates for a shift to smaller scales of production that favour local communities, local produce and ethical forms of consumption (non-exploitative and environmentally sustainable, for example). It can be conceived as part of the growing concerns for all manner of ethical considerations in our contemporary period. By its nature and in keeping with its ethos the ‘slow movement’ is not a centralised organisation or political force. Rather it is as disparate and diverse as the principles it advocates for. The ‘slow movement’ now has many branches: ‘slow food’, ‘slow cities’, ‘slow design’, ‘slow travel’, and so on. I believe in building upon the experiences of the ‘slow movement’ that alongside ‘slow food’, ‘slow cities’, and ‘slow travel’ we can now also work towards including ‘slow tea’ as part of the ‘slow movement’ platform. And based on the thousands of years of rich cultural experience I believe that China, and Yunnan in particular, is well positioned to kick start this call for returning both ‘time’ and ‘tea’ to the people.

Tea consumers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your tea bags! You have a whole afternoon of tea drinking to win!

Slow Tea Ceremony.

Sources

Chen Yang (2010) ‘Role Reversal’, http://news.alibaba.com/article/detail/business-in-china/100259015-1-role-reversals.html

Coonan, Clifford (2011) ‘China’s coffee consumption: from leaves to beans’, Global Coffee Review, http://www.globalcoffeereview.com/regions/view/chinas-coffee-consumption-from-leaves-to-beans.

Fromer, Julie E. (2008) A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England, Ohio University Press.

Sigmond G. G. (1839) Tea Its Effects, Medicinal and Moral, London: Longman.

Starbucks Newsroom (2011) ‘Starbucks Celebrates Its 500th Store Opening in Mainland China’, http://news.starbucks.com/article_display.cfm?article_id=580.

United Kingdom Tea Council (2011) ‘The history of the tea bag’, http://www.tea.co.uk/the-history-of-the-tea-bag.

Watts, Jonathan (2007) ‘Starbucks faces eviction from the Forbidden City’, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jan/18/china.jonathanwatts.

Yue, Ben (2011) Investors get picky about rare, exotic teas (China Daily) http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2011-03/28/content_12235355.htm

Interview with Chan (Zen) Buddhist Master Gu Dao

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” The Buddha

The Puli Temple at Dongshan is undergoing a major AUD$10 million dollar facelift and will become a modern meditation and well being retreat. All that remains of the old temple complex at Dongshan is this 'scripture hall' that dates from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). There are a number of older heritage structures (tombs, bridges, pavillions) scattered throughout the temple land.

In December 2010 I visited the the Chan (Zen) Buddhist Puli Temple (普利庙) in Dongshan (洞山) in Jiangxi Province (江西省), one of the most important temples in the Dongshan sect of Chan Buddhism (known as ‘Soto’ in Japanese). You can read about that visit by following this link. During the visit I took the opportunity to interview Master Gu Dao (古道), the current Abbot and supervisor for the reconstruction project. Master Gu Dao is typical of many adherents who became interested in Buddhism in the 1980s as part of the first post-reform religious revival. A short biographical account is included in the interview below.

Note: The following translation is my own work and any inaccuracies or errors are my own fault and certainly not those of Master Gu Dao! Some of the discussion does tend to get a bit esoteric, as you would expect when dealing with a philosophy and corpus of knowledge as rich as Chan Buddhism (I myself have only scratched the surface and see the deep wells of thought and wisdom before me). I have done my best to simplify the discussion and make it more readable to a novice audience. Any comments from the more well informed are extremely welcome!

GS: Gary Sigley

GD: Gu Dao

GS: Master Gudao thank you very much for the invitation to visit Puli Temple and spend some time with yourself and the others. It is truly a very beautiful location. This morning as we took an early stroll I was struck by the symbolic significance of the construction site. It seemed to me that the piles of rubble are a broader metaphor for Chinese society in general. By which I mean in the process of China’s rapid modernisation we are literally surrounded by constructions sites. And even the Puli Temple is a construction site, not even a remote temple can avoid the reach of so-called ‘modernisation’. But here the metaphor takes on a new meaning, a new twist as it is not a shopping mall or flash apartment complex that is being built. Instead from the rubble a Buddhist flower is emerging. This seems to me to be very timely and significant. For just as in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), modern China is entering a golden age in which we also are witnessing a significant revival in Buddhism [GS: and other religions and belief systems]. It seems to be a very auspicious time to visit the temple what with yesterday’s lunar eclipse taking place just as we arrived and today being the birthday of the former abbot, Master Miaozong, who did so much to restore the temple in the 1980s. As Chinese people are very fond of saying it seems with ‘have yuan and have fen’ (有缘有份) [GS: that is, have a karmic connection and heavenly alignment for a ‘chance’ meeting]. Can you start by telling us something about the similarities and differences between the indigenous Chinese concept of dao (道) and the Buddhist concept of foxing (佛性)?

One of the only worship halls in operation at Puli Temple during the construction. During this time the monks, only a few in number at this stage, follow their own regimen.

GD: In China the term (character) ‘chan’ [禅, zen] came to represent a particular approach to Buddhism, chan is an abbreviated form of ‘chanding’ [禅定] which means tranquility and concentrated meditation, referring to a process of practice and training [gongfu 功夫], which is encapsulated in the concept of si chan ba ding [四禅八定, GS: dhyāna in Pāli being the language of many of the earliest Buddhist scriptures] [GS: that is, the entering of a peaceful and contemplative state in preparation for persuing aesthetic practice or what is know in Chinese as xiuxing 修行]. But when it came to China this particular practice came to represent an entire school of Buddhism [fofa 佛法], namely ‘Chan’. The reason for this is actually intimately connected to indigenous forms of Chinese thought such as those of Laozi [Lao Tse or Lao Tzu] and Zhuangzi [Chuang Tzu] [both of whom created/added to indigenous systems of religious and philosophical thought in China before the arrival of Buddhism]. According to Chinese thought ‘dao’ [道] already exists, it is not something that you bring into existence through cultivation, but rather something you ‘realise’ [wu 悟], that is ‘to be enlightened’ [juewu 觉悟], and to live a life according to the natural flows of the dao. According to Buddhism ‘foxing’ [Buddhata or the buddha nature, 佛性] is something that everyone possesses, it is not something that you develop through cultivation. Everything living thing has its own Buddha nature. So the concept of dao and foxing have, on the surface, much in common. Some say that they are the same thing, that the East has Saints [shengren 圣人] and the West has its Saints, and that they are simply finding different ways to express the same thing. Whatever it is it is intangible and has no form, you can’t see or touch it, you can only experience it [tihuidao 体会到]. When you have experienced it [that is, come to know it] your life will be very natural, free and unrestrained. It doesn’t mean you will become an immortal and live forever. Some Daoists have claimed that this is what they are striving for, but for me this is just an projection of a human desire for immortality. In Buddhism we refer to the notion of ‘transcending the cycle of life and death’ [liao sheng tuo si, 了生脱死]. The Buddha clearly said that ‘that which is born must die’. So how is it then possible to ‘transcend the cycle of life and death’? So when Buddhism came to China the Chinese practictioners interpreted foxing as dao and Chan Buddhism was created. And what’s more Chan professed to have techniques and practices which were not the same as the methods used in China up until then. It forwarded the notion of ‘sudden enlightenment’ [dangxia juewu, 当下觉悟]. Although in fact the there are very few instances of ‘sudden enlightenment’ and most practitioners have to follow a diligent regime of meditation and practice … and then one day it happens. The way to reach this state is through tranquil meditation in which all desires and thoughts are discarded. By the Song Dynasty the koan [chanhuatou禅话头] became a means of raising doubts with the self [GS: a koan, the term is Japanese, is something like a ‘thought bubble’ in the form of a story, question or statement that seeks to challenge ‘commonsense’ and encourage the practitioner to ‘think outside of the box’. A famous koan is ‘the sound of one hand clapping’]. For example a practitioner may focus on the question ‘what is the Buddha?’ not expecting an answer but using this focus on a single question to the extent that all else in the mind is removed until only the question remains … and then one day at a moment of ‘enlightenment’ even that question is removed and all there is left is the void [kong 空]. Only then can one realise the dao.

Note: Click this link to hear the monks chanting at breakfast: Dongshan Breakfast Chant 22-12-2010

GS: Can you please share with us something about your own background and how is that you came to ‘walk this road’ so to speak?

A cd jacket for the film The Shaolin Temple. How many young Chinese boys rushed off to the Shaolin Temple after watching this film? Quite a few I suspect!

GD: When I was young I didn’t know anything about Buddhism. But I did have a great fondness for kungfu [wushu, 武术, martial arts]. I didn’t know exactly what kind of kungfu I was studying, it was just kungfu! But then the movie The Shaolin Temple [1982] came out and everything clicked I knew that I was studying Shaolin kungfu [GS: the moving Shaolin was Jet Li’s great debut and a very popular film at the time, one of the first mainland kungfu films to be produced after the Mao period]. After finishing school I went off to join the army. One of my army comrades came from a village near the Shaolin Temple. Like everyone in his community he could do kungfu. So I studied with him. After I left the army I went to Shaolin to learn more. But I wasn’t so good at kungfu and ended up become a monk! [GS: not all Shaolin monks turn out to be like Bruce Lee!] I started reading and learning about Chan Buddhism and thought this was very interesting and what I wanted to pursue. There is a Buddhist sect in Zhejiang known as Tiantaishan (天台山) (Heavenly Terrace Mountain). It is a very old sect that dates back to the Sui Dynasty [581-618 AD, the short-lived dynasty which preceded the Tang]. The sect observes some of the most ancient meditative practices in Buddhism in which practitioners focus on their breathing as a foundation for self-cultivation. In my opinion out of all the Buddhist sects the Tiantaishan sect offers the clearest instructions in this regard. The thing is that ‘Chan’ can be so abstract, so difficult to comprehend. Where is your starting point for ‘getting into Chan’? The Tiantaishan practices reminded me of what I learnt in kungfu insofar as they incorporated a step by step process starting from the basic kungfu up to higher levels of practice. Its clarity of method appealed to me very much. So even though I was born into the Chan Buddhist sect I have much respect and admiration for the Tiantai Buddhist sect.

GS: I hear that you followed the path of the ancients and became a hermit [yinshi, 隐士] for some time. Can you tell us something about your experiences as a recluse?

Kongdongshan, Gansu Province, home to many temples and many hermits over the centuries.

GD: That’s correct. I closeted myself away in many remote places to practice [修行]. The longest time was for a period of one year. My most memorable moment was a six month period of reading and meditating in 1992 when I was staying on Kongdongshan [崆峒山] in Gansu [甘肃省]. My simple residence was perched atop a massive precipice and gorge. I had to fetch water once a week. Life was very simple indeed. One day about three months into my aesthetic regime, some time in the afternoon, I was medidating on my breathing following the Tiantai sect method, and suddenly I was not aware of my body anymore. For much of the preceding time given the aches and pains of sitting for long periods it was hard not to notice your body, but suddenly it was gone and my breathing was all that existed, as if it became part of heaven and earth itself. This was not ‘enlightenment’ [悟] or anything like that mind you, it was the reaching of a physical state through rigorous practice. I felt extremely peaceful and quiet. It was a very delicate and sublime feeling [微妙]. Time meant nothing and when I came out of meditation ten hours had passed without even knowing it. Then I had a simple meal of rice and beans and practiced taiqi [太极拳] on the terrace with a majestic scene of mountains and gorge in the background. I then went back to meditating and enter the same ‘zone’ again for another ten or so hours. This then became my routine for the next two months. I never felt tired or the need for sleep. It was quite incredible and one of the most cherished experiences in my life thus far. So now I know from my own experience that this state described by the Buddha and other masters that followed can be achieved. I now also hold at some hope, indeed I’m certain, that the state of enlightenment can also be achieved.

GS: Your experience is very interesting and, if I may say, a bit like the experience of spirituality in China since the onset of reform in the late 1970s. Within China it seems to me there is a spiritual awakening taking place, but it is something that is coming from behind the frantic and rapid economic development and social change that has been unfolding. The lives of many people in China have improved very much at the level of the physical. But life is also become more stressful and frantic, especially in the big cities and populous centres. People are searching for something more than materialism to give their lives meaning. And many are turning to religion to find that ‘something’.

Exercises from the Yijinjing (易筋经).

GD: If you examine Chinese history you see that at times of sustained social stability and economic prosperity, such as during the Tang but also other periods, there is also a great deal of cultural and religious activity. I feel that the current period is a bit like that. But in fact this period exceeds the other periods in terms of its scale, in terms of overall wealth and size of the population, and significance, both for China and the rest of the world. And of course at times like this people naturally turn their attention to metaphysical questions of life and existence. People are also becoming more concerned about their health, and rightly so what with all the pollution and food safety issues. You can see in the cities the growth of interest in things like yoga for example. Yoga in some circles has become quite fashionable [GS: there are now a number of good yoga retreats in and around Beijing for example servicing the local Chinese and expatriate communities]. We have a lot of respect for yoga as it is a practice from which some of our meditative exercises derive. But it also retains a great deal that we seem to have lost over time. For example the famous Shaolin practice of yijinjing] [易筋经, the muscle and tendon changing classic, for a video demonstration go to this youtube link] brought to the temple by Bodhidharma [GS: the Indian monk who travelled to China in the 5th/6th Century and is credited with transmitting Chan Buddhism and establishing the training regime for the monks as Shaolin] is based on yoga but over time changed so much that it is only now remotely related to the original core yoga practices. So in 2006 our Master [Nan Huaijin 南怀瑾] invited a famous yoga teacher from India to provide advanced instruction. Afterall the ‘sichan bading’ [四禅八定] taught to us by the Buddha has its origins in ancient Indian practices. But although yoga has become popular many people simply look upon it as a physical exercise to trim fat and get in shape. But that is not why we study yoga. We study yoga so we can soften our bodies and control our breathing, so we can obtain the physical stamina to continue our meditative practice. Yoga provides an excellent foundation for doing just that. So we firmly believe in the intimate connection between mind and body and that the body is the foundation for working on ‘the mind’ so to speak.

Construction worker at Puli Temple.

 GS: This brings us now to the topic of what is happening here at the temple, for I understand that there are plans to turn the temple into a kind of ‘mind and body retreat’. When did you first come here?

GD: I arrived at the temple in February of this year [2010]. I had been here once before in 2006 and stayed for twenty days. At that time the previous abbott, Master Miaozong, had passed away and the temple was very quiet. I couldn’t stay any longer as we had a large project on lake Taihu (Suzhou, Jiangsu Province) that needed my attention. But then I was approached by the local county government and asked if I could return to supervise the reconstruction and expansion of the temple.

Inspecting the Tang Dynasty monk graves on the temple complex. The temple has quite a bit of land for cultivation and Master Gudao hopes to get it active and productive in the years to come as part of the Chan Buddhist tradition of 'back to nature' and 'self sufficiency'.

GS: It is certainly a very large project. What is the total scale?

GD: About 60 million Chinese yuan [approximately $10 million Australian Dollars]. Most of the funds come from funds raised through our association, through the contributions of students and disciples of our Master.

GS: Did the local government contribute anything?

GD: Yes. They contributed to the costs of the design and planning, approximately one million Chinese yuan. They also contributed much ‘in kind’ such as upgrading the electricity network, providing more land and so on.

GS: What is the motivation behind the local government’s involvement in the project?

GD: Firstly it is motivated by cultural concerns. Yifeng County is one of the cradles of Chan Buddhism and therefore historically and culturally significant in terms of heritage value. Many Chan Buddhist masters and sects, such as Caodongzong which comes from this temple, have their origins in and around Yifeng. The second motivation is to promote tourism into the area. The expressway from Nanchang [the capital of Jiangxi] will pass very close by and I believe plans are on the books for a high speed rail as well. The local government has been very generous. In other places where I have resided and practiced, such as in and around Xi’an, to get anything from the local authorities such as land or financial support is extremely difficult.

A ceremonial bell amongst the rubble. We look forward to the day that the sound of the bell replaces the sound of the jackhammer!

GS: So what is the ultimate goal with the project here? How long will it take?

GD: It is all to do with the Caodongzong teachings which place great emphasis on meditational practice and respect for tradition. I hope here in the reconstructed and expanded temple to build two meditation halls in which we will combine Caodong meditation and yoga exercises. We will teach people, of all ages and backgrounds, about the benefits of meditation, yoga and a simple life which will include the growing of our vegetables and food, healthy and green. I want the temple to earn its income in this way and not in the way many temples do these days by offering outrageous ceremonies for contacting the deceased, fortune telling, burning expensive incense, and other forms of, what I regard as, hocus-pocus and superstition, not to mention waste. This is the dream I have brought to the temple. It’s a big project and is giving me a lot of headaches but I’m sure it will be worth it in the end.

GS: I’m sure it will! And I wish you all the best and hope to return when the construction is complete and see what ‘Flower of Buddha’ is blooming here.

An artists rendition of the new Puli Temple.

 

Introducing the Donkey Friends: Recreational Hiking in Contemporary China

Travel for leisure and recreation has always been an important activity in China. With mountain ranges as far as the eye can see and myriad streams and lakes the country is heavily endowed with many places of great natural beauty. Scholars and poets have been waxing lyrical for centuries about the landscape, weaving in the human presence amongst the enormity of nature (such writing is categorised as ‘travel record literature’, 游记文学).  A thousand years ago the famous Tang Dynasty (618-907) scholar/official/poet (Chinese history is littered with individuals who combined all three) Li Bai (李白) wrote in a poem titled ”Downstream to Jiangling” (《下江陵》) of a journey through the three gorges on the swiftly flowing Yangtse River. Li Bai was on his way home from a period of exile (Chinese history is also littered with such examples , even in this day and age). He wrote (I have taken the translation from here, translation by Andrew Wong and used with his kind permission):

朝辞白帝彩云间,千里江陵一日还。zhāo cí bái dì căi yún jiān, qiān lǐ jiāng líng yī rì huán.

两岸猿声啼不住,轻舟已过万重山。liăng àn yuán shēng tí bù zhù, qīng zhōu yǐ guò wàn chóng shān.

At daybreak I leave Baidi amidst clouds aglow,
A thousand miles to Jiangling is a mere day’s flow.
Whilst monkeys cry incessantly from bank to bank,
I’ve skiffed past a myriad mountains row after row.

Sampan passing through the Yangtse Gorges.

Of course the opportunity to travel presented itself in different forms, and as Li Bai’s experience suggests it was not always in pursuit of leisure. Many people no doubt spent their entire lives in their village or town and/or immediate region. Those who did travel did so for various reasons (doh!). As I have been exploring with regards to the Ancient Tea Horse Road, engaging in trade is an obvious motive. The merchants on the tea road did not just come from Yunnan of course, but from all over China (and beyond, and of course what we think of ‘China’ now was quite a different entity in times past, but I will leave this for another time). In Ninger, one of the major production centres for Puer tea, the ‘Jiangxi Clubhouse’ (江西会馆) still stands as testimony to the extensive trading networks across China (Jiangxi being a province in eastern China). Journeying to take part in examinations for entry into the bureaucracy was another obvious reason for travel. And as in the case of Li Bai, travelling as a result of imposed exile, banishment or conscription into the army was a sure way to get to see some of the more remote parts of the empire. Indeed there are many towns in the peripheries which were first established as military outposts, the town of Husa that I visited in 2010 is a good example.  Sometimes the exile was self-imposed as in the form of persons moving to remote mountainous locations to seek peace and solitude in the quest for enlightenment and immortality (whether Buddhist or Daoist or some combination thereof), as Li Bai also did for some time. Bill Porter has written a fascinating account of encounters with modern day hermits, including a brief history of the place of meditational seclusion in Chinese culture, in his book Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. At certain times of war, natural disasters and famine, and sometimes during relative peace under the auspices of dynastic government policies to open up more land to cultivation (dare we say ‘colonisaton’?), whole communities moved on epic journeys to the ‘frontiers’. One of the most famous Chinese travellers is without doubt Mr Xu Xiake (徐霞客) (1587-1641) who travelled for much of his lifetime all over the place, even to Lijiang on the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. Xu Xiake also crawled into deep caves to make geological explorations. He goes down in history as proving that the ‘Jinsha’ and ‘Yangtse’ rivers are one and the same. The list of course could go on and on. All I’m trying to point out here are the various motivations for travel and the different forms in which travel takes place. The question I would now like to pose is what, if anything, about travel has changed in the modern era?

Porters on the tea road, most likely around Ya'an in Sichuan.

 

Tens of millions on the move in the world's largest annual migration: the Spring Festival in China.

For the purposes of this entry, with the focus squarely on contemporary China, let me just highlight two aspects which I believe have fundamentally changed the nature of travel: modern modes of transport and historically unprecedented levels of participation. In the ‘old days’ to get from one end of the country to the other was quite an arduous undertaking, especially if your travel involved crossing the mountainous regions of western China (travel via the extensive river and canal networks and along the eastern seaboard was relatively speaking a much more straight-forward affair). This situation didn’t really change too much until after 1949 when, often motivated by the need to move troops quickly to the frontier, ‘roads’ began to be constructed deep into the mountains. Even so, many of these roads through the mountains were unsealed and prone to landslides and if traversing high passes could be impassable during the winter months. It was not until the 1980s, and into the 1990s and beyond, that a truly modern highway network began to be constructed, and indeed at a very rapid pace. Much the same could be said for railway travel. Add to this mix the rapid development of air travel and associated infrastructure and it is far to say that China has undergone one of the largest ‘mobility revolutions’ in human history (or we might say one of the largest ‘time-space compression’ revolutions of all time). The road network is now beginning to go ‘international’ and there are plans for high speed rail to destinations such as Singapore as well. All of this has facilitated the largest migration in human history as tens of millions of rural inhabitants move to the cities and industrial regions in search of work (and of course there is also a lot of travel within regions as well, not all of it necessarily to the large cities). Every year at the time of the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) tens of millions, perhaps more than a hundred million, take part in the world’s largest annual migration making their way back to native towns and villages. China is literally ‘on the move’. And now with the rise of the private motor vehicle car owners are taking to the roads themselves and venturing far and wide in their automobiles in search of leisure and adventure in ‘driving tourism’ (自驾旅游). In short, transport is relatively affordable and the network is ever more extensive. The once ‘remote’ and ‘inaccessible’ regions are now within reach of the average traveller, some even within reach of those possessing their own car. Scholars working in this field refer to what they do as ‘roadology’, a relatively new branch of research, so new in fact it isn’t even listed in Wikipedia! More on ‘roadology’ in another blog entry.

Chinese tourists in matching hats visiting the ancestral home of President Hu Jintao in the village of Longchuan, Anhui.

A group of Chinese car owners out and about on a driving holiday.

Secondly, more people are travelling for leisure than ever before, not just in China but worldwide. Tourism and the leisure industry have experienced a staggering expansion (it is very hard to come to terms with how fast this has all been happening). To travel for pleasure was a luxury and something that on a large scale, by which I mean something that has become relatively frequent amongst many social classes within society, has only emerged in the modern era. In China modern tourism as we know it begins to develop in the first half of the 20th Century, but it was still rather limited. After 1949 whilst the transport infrastructure began to be slowly improved the emphasis was overwhelmingly on production, not consumption, and therefore ‘tourism’ as an industry didn’t really exist. It was not until the 1980s that tourism begins to develop, firstly in terms of inbound international tourists, but overtime, especially as we get to the 1990s, the domestic tourist market begins to make a credible appearance and the ‘take off’ occurs. The Chinese government actively promoted the development of domestic tourism and the leisure economy by creating a number of official public ‘golden week’ holiday periods. The ‘golden weeks’ proved to be extremely popular. Domestic tourism is now one of the biggest industries in China and combined with the overall development of the ‘leisure economy’ will become the biggest industry outright some time in the middle of this century. You would be surprised as to who is actually counted now in the ranks of the domestic Chinese tourist. Many people seem to think it is only the ‘middle class’ in the big cities that have the disposable income to do so. Indeed they no doubt make up a large portion. However I’m surprised in my own travels to meet farmers and residents from small towns in relatively remote regions out and about on a ‘holiday’. A farmer, butcher and muleteer I know in the small town of Shaxi (an important staging post on the Ancient Tea Horse Road) has travelled many times with his family and friends to Xishuangbanna for annual holidays!

To summarise, scenic locations are increasingly accessible and the relative costs of travel are more affordable to an increasingly larger section of the population. So what are Chinese people doing with their leisure time? As I have noted, tourism is a booming industry, not just domestic tourism but also outbound international tourism as well (inbound Chinese tourists are the largest body of international tourists to Australia these days). But in addition to the packaged tours of commercial tour providers many people are now organising their own leisure and travel schedules. The tourist market is maturing and diversifying. It is in this connection that I want to introduce to you what I take to be an especially interesting and noteworthy group of travellers: the ‘donkey friends’.

Donkey Friends from Beijing just about to embark on a hiking trip in Shaxi, Yunnan.

Group photo with donkey friends at Xianju, Zhejiang.

‘Donkey Friends’ in Chinese is ‘lüyou‘ (驴友) which is a pun on the word for ‘travel/travelling’ – lüyou (旅游). ‘Donkey Friends’ are called such because they engage in outdoor hiking and in so doing invariably carry their provisions and so forth on their backs, plodding along the trail much like a donkey or mule would do (and thus also implying a sense of being able to ‘eat bitterness’ (吃苦) and overcome adversity). ‘Lü’ (绿) is also Chinese for ‘green’ which by extension implies ‘environment’ and ‘nature’. Hence the term ‘lüyou‘ also suggests ‘friend of nature’ (although in written Chinese the choice of 驴友 is overwhelming). So as outdoor activity enthusiasts (户外运动的爱好者) there is a combined sense of ‘do it yourself’ and ‘getting back to nature’ in what the donkey friends do. The ‘donkey friend’ phenomenon has really taken off in recent years. Hundreds if not thousands of outdoor hiking clubs have appeared all over the country. Outdoor fashion and equipment shops have also popped up in the cities like ‘bamboo shoots after a spring rain’. Book stores now have growing sections devoted to hiking and hiking trails. How can we account for the sudden interest in outdoor hiking and the rapid increase in the ranks of those who call themselves ‘donkey friends’?

Donkey friends like to leave their club banners at the hostels along the trail, a sign that they 'came, saw, and conquered'.

Campfires are very popular, even when not actually camping out, as was the case in this instance.

The term ‘donkey friend’ is a neologism that only appeared in Chinese sometime in the late 1990s/early 2000s. According to my preliminary research it first appeared on the Sina travel bulletin boards ( 新浪旅游论坛) (sina.com is a major Chinese web portal). The Chinese (or Sinophone) Internet is a hothouse for the production of neologisms and it is very hard to keep up with the pace of new word creation. ‘Donkey friend’ (lüyou 驴友) has spawned a whole series of associated neologism, such as, ‘donkey travel’ (lüxing 驴行) (a ‘donkey friend’ hiking trip), and ‘donkey head’ (lütou 驴头) (someone who leads a ‘donkey friend’ hiking trip). One particularly interesting term that has generated heated discussion verging on moral panic is ‘hunzhang‘ (混帐) which refers to the practice of mixed-gender tent sharing. As a practice of social networking ‘donkey friend’ culture is also a laboratory for the production of new and often innovative social networks and associational activity. In this sense ‘donkey friend’ is a self-appellation and although a homonym for ‘travel’ is clearly meant to distinguish what they do (exciting, authentic and challenging) from ordinary tourists (boring, fake and predictable). Whereas the conventional tourist on your typical package tour seeks entertainment without hardship, the donkey friend puts him/herself through a gruelling regimen, sometimes even quite dangerous or risky, in which ‘self-development’ is a key factor. Also, many conventional tour groups (旅游团) consist of persons from the same workplace (the danwei 单位 as it is known in urban China) or community (relatives and neighbours).

By contrast, most of the donkey friends are young (under 35 years), urban residents which I divide into two cohorts: the university/college students who are typically organised into university/college outdoor clubs; and the white collar workers who join one of the many ‘outdoor clubs’ (户外俱乐部). Of course there are also many gradients within the extended hiker/outdoor enthusiast community from the very amateur all the way up to the professional/semi-professional adventurer/explorer type. In terms of associational activity it is very clear to me that the donkey friends take participation in the group very seriously but do so in ways that step outside conventional Chinese relationship networks, and this is how they differ from the conventional tour group. As Zhang Ning notes in her article titled ‘Donkey Friend Communities: Harmonious Networks and Harmonious Tourism’ (published in 2008 in China Media Research Vol. 4, No. 4), the friendships formed through the ‘online’ clubs enable individuals to form relationships outside the traditional networks of kinship and workplace. And in so doing the relationships are not burdened by the traditional forms of social responsibility which in China have much to do with obligatory codes of gift giving and reciprocity. Donkey friends reported to Zhang Ning, and my own interactions confirm this, that their relations with other donkey friends are very relaxed and easy-going and provide a valuable break from both the pressures of urban life and the burdens of obligation and indebtedness of conventional relationships.

When space is short there is no choice but to pitch your tent in somewhat unconventional places.

College students from Shanghai hit the trail in Xianju, Zhejiang.

But apart from the chance to form friendships and relationships (and I have observed that the club network does seem to open up possibilities for finding partners and expanding the so-called ‘marriage market’) why do the donkey friends do what they do?  Urbanisation and modern lifestyles no doubt bring many benefits and are attractive to many people, but urban lifestyles also have serious downsides. Life is hectic and demanding. Cityscapes are crowded and polluted. Escaping to the hills for a few days offers a chance of respite, fresh air and camaraderie. And as I mentioned above with the ever expanding transport infrastructure it is now possible to get to scenic locations relatively easily. In what I regard as another very ‘modern’ twist the donkey friends, whilst definitely enjoying what they do as a group (and they spend much more time interacting on the social networking sites than actually out in the field hiking), there is the real sense of developing ‘individuality’. This might sound like nothing special but in a society which has ‘traditionally’ emphasised the status of the person in relation to other persons (that is, forming identification in relation to ones position within a familial or social network) and which during the ‘socialist’ period of Maosim (1949-1978) emphasised the interests of the collective over those of the individual, the development of a strong sense of self-orientation is indeed significant. Part of this has to do with the one child policy in which the post-1980s generations have become the focal point of familial and social investment (the development of ‘human capital’ you might say), but also more broadly with the emergence of a individual-orientated consumer economy (Yan Yunxiang (2009) has written a great book on this subject titled The Invidualization of Chinese Society). Part of what they do here is also performative and playful. For example, ‘donkey friends’ give themselves nicknames (avatars) such as ‘old bear’, ‘where the wind blows’, ‘green frog’, and ‘good mule’. Actually, this is a common practice amongst hikers around the world but the difference in China is the way these avatars/personas are carried over into use in the social networking environment.

Ah Liang, donkey friend from Jinhua, Zhejiang.

Foreign donkey friends from Western Australia on the Ancient Anhui-Hangzhou Road.

As Zhang Ning also noted, another key feature of donkey friend activities is sharing of costs (‘going dutch’ or ‘AA制’ in Chinese), which includes the hiring of transport (typically a minibus or coach), hiring of local guides and meals and accommodation. The donkey friend clubs will have a few ‘old donkeys’ (老驴) who are well versed in the ins and outs of organising hiking outings and they generally take the lead in putting together the itineraries. The proposed trip is advertised on the club website (sometimes also through other hiking portals but the donkey friends I associate with tend to keep their activities ‘in house’) and members ‘invited’ to join. Leading up to the event, and when the final number of participants is better known, the donkey friends may have a number of online group meetings where the ‘old donkeys’ discuss the itinerary, what to bring, weather situation, travel insurance, and so on. Other donkey friends in the group will be allocated various tasks, such as booking the vehicle and contacting the local guides (if required). Each outing also has an ‘accountant’. In the group I travel with the last person to turn up at the assembly point is given this task. Another person or persons will be trusted with keeping notes and writing a simple diary to be later posted along with images on the group website once the event is concluded (and this in turn generates a great deal of discussion amongst the members who did not participate). The ‘old donkeys’ also look out for the ‘new donkeys’ and are available to offer honest (that is, non-commercial) advice about purchasing equipment and so on. So as you can see there is a strong sense of community and mutual-aid, very positive features if you ask me.

Litter on the trail in Anhui. Hiking has developed so fast that local communities do not have the infrastructure to deal with the environmental impacts.

Enjoying the scenery from a mountain top in Jiangxi.

The Chinese outdoor hiking culture, dare I say ‘industry’, is still in its nascent stages. There are many ‘gaps’ in the way the hiking is organised, especially at the sites where hiking takes place. Given the risks hikers sometimes take and the nascent status of the hiking industry it is not surprising that ‘donkey friends’ are often getting themselves into trouble. In recent years there have been a number of high profile hiking trips which have ended in disaster, some with lives being lost. In April of this year (2011) 39 donkey friends, all of whom were college students, were rescued after getting trapped on a mountain outside Beijing. China Hush translated a Chinese report on the rescue which includes some comments by readers. In December 2010 18 donkey friends from Fudan University (Shanghai) had to be rescued after getting lost in bad weather on scenic Huangshan (Anhui Province). During the course of the rescue a local police officer fell of a cliff and was killed. There were a lot of news reports on this rescue (here is a link to one report in Chinese). It is no wonder that local authorities are often in two minds about ‘donkey friends’. On the one hand they are a potential source of income, especially for more remote regions, but at the same time they bring many risks and potentially negative publicity. Local officials don’t want negative publicity, it impacts adversely on their chances for promotion. In the past of course they have preferred the development of packaged tourism which can accommodate large numbers and is relatively safe. But hiking tourism is very suitable for certain areas that are inaccessible or for which the status of the environment, particularly when it comes to carrying capacity, precludes the development of mass tourism. There are also questions about the legal liability and status of ‘donkey friend’ organised trips with a number of cases reaching Chinese courts in the last year or so.

Descending Lingshan Mountain in Jiangxi.

One last issue regarding the development of hiking in China and the rise of the ‘donkey friend’. The donkey friends typically like to ‘discover’ their own trails, to visit places ‘off the beaten track’. This is understandable. The problem is that in China once a ‘trail’ becomes more popular, with the ability of the Internet to reach a mass audience very quickly, the number of incoming hikers can, in the space of a few years, expand from several dozen per year to several thousand. The local communities and ecology are often not well equipped to deal with such a sudden influx. On some of the trails I have visited you can clearly see the negative impact of large numbers of hikers in the form of litter, erosion, fires and so forth. So even though donkey friend tourism could be seen as an alternative to mass tourism it actually has the potential to be a form of ‘mass tourism’ in and of itself. Indeed in recent years we are seeing the emergence of this kind of ‘commercially’ focused hiking tourism, much to the chagrin of traditional donkey friends who feels this goes against the ethos. Of course independent hiking and commercial hiking can and do coexist perfectly well in many locations around the world. China has some way to go to sort out these very complex issues. I have spent some time over the last two years in participant observation with a ‘donkey friend’ group based in Shanghai and Zhejiang (a neighbouring province of Shanghai) (you can see some of the images from my trips here and here). Apart from providing many fascinating insights into modern Chinese society I have been very inspired by the sense of community and good will amongst the group members. There is a lot of discussion in the Chinese media about the seeming lack of ethical responsibility and moral certainty within society and the finger is often pointed at the younger generation just as often as it is pointed at officialdom. But in my dealing with my donkey friends, who I must also note include quite a few older ‘donkeys’, I have been impressed by the genuine concern shown for ecological and community support in their activities. Of course I have also heard and seen many examples of unethical practices, but overall the experience has been very positive. I will be back to discuss other aspects of China’s hiking culture in the future, stay tuned!

With donkey friends on a cold snowy day at temple in Jiangxi.