China’s new religious pilgrims
During two recent tours through western China I’ve been able to observe the immensity of domestic tourism as the country’s enriched middle classes are freed to visit the legendary sites of their culture.
On my visit to Xian, for example, it proved almost impossible to view the Terracotta Warriors due to the press of people, all with clicking cameras. And the glorious Mogao Caves at Dunhuang now have a virtual viewing infrastructure designed to substitute for actual time in the caves, which is now restricted to preserve the ancient Buddhist murals.
But it’s in the ethnic minority areas of Yunnan and Tibet where I found the most intriguing development, surprisingly being encouraged by the communist state.
It is Buddhist tourism, and particularly in the province of Yunnan, where the Bai, Dai, Tai, Naxi and Tibetan tribal peoples are encouraged to be as ethnic as they can for the delectation of Han Chinese visiting from the country’s east.
The city of Lijiang in Yunnan had the misfortune to be struck by a massive earthquake in 1996 and rebuilt museums of Dongba culture offer demonstrations by exotically caparisoned shamans of its unique pictogram calligraphy. At night, a band of ancients plays Naxi music in equally colourful outfits; and the history of the socalled Tea Horse Trade is played out on every old bridge by mounted actors to remind tourists that, historically, exchanging Chinese tea for Tibetan horses was essential to allow the Tibetan diet to be digested, while China had great need of the right horses to fight off better-mounted invaders from the Steppes.
A little further south, outside the Dai market town of Menghai, the Mother and Son Pagoda was packed for ceremonies, with women and children dressed to the nines and monks in robes of deepening shades from saffron to deep maroon. The pagoda is famed for its elegant Octagonal Pavilion, meticulously crafted in wood and reflecting the purity of the local Hinayana Buddhism. But this isn’t apparently going to be enough for the predicted invasion of pilgrims from the east.
Nearby, a vast concrete pagoda is under construction, likely to end up matching the overdecorated temple complex in the city of Dali where authorities have felt it necessary to “enhance” the beautifully simple trinity of ninth-century pagodas built when Dali was capital of the powerful Nanzhao empire. The tourists now invest in Buddhist ribbons, joss-sticks and prayers in impressive numbers to justify their journey, and perhaps gain some merit in the post-communist scheme of things.
In the far north of Yunnan, the unimpressive town of Zhongdian suddenly became Shangri-La in 2003 as all this ethnic tourism was projected. This pseudo-Chinese name comes, of course, from James Hilton’s 1930s novel Lost Horizon, in which a group from a hijacked plane find themselves in a lamasery of that name after their plane crashes. The town does actually have a fine Tibetan lamasery dating from 1679 when Tibetan Buddhism was all the fashion in Peking. It didn’t find favour, though, with the People’s Liberation Army, which damaged it extensively in 1959, causing it to remain closed through the Cultural Revolution, reopening in the 1980s.
But how religious are today’s 600 monks, and how much are they a part of the tourist infrastructure? This question also has to be asked of the many monasteries in Tibet. Most are restored after the double depradations of the 1950s Chinese invasion and the Cultural Revolution, redecorated in the extraordinary Tantric style favoured in that country.
Certainly the Tibetans, at the end of the harvest and the beginning of the autumnal pilgrimage season, show their undiminished faith in their dedication to circumnavigating the Barkhor, turning prayer-wheels, prostrating themselves the appropriate number of times, donating vats of yak butter to feed the candles, and placing money in the strangest of places, such as the folds of a sculptured Bodhisattva’s brocade or the exiled Dalai Lama’s bath.
Clearly this tidy-up of the temples and genuine local religiosity should be a winner with Buddhist tourism from the east. Already some seem to be taking it very seriously, such as the man using a Fitbit to count his prostrations and the women hiring exotic costumes to have their photos taken in front of the Jokhang Temple or the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace. • distanthorizons.co.uk
Tourists with cameras at the ready at Shangri-La in far north Yunnan